On a short trip to China – I was gone just a week – the proportion of time on a plane is great, but it is as revealing a place to find cultural differences as anywhere. There are no boarding announcements for our flight from Hong Kong to Nanjing; Chinese line quietly at the gate well before boarding time and advance when allowed. I am sitting in a chair, nose in a magazine, when the only announcement, final call, echoes in the background. I scramble to get on board, one of only two Westerners trekking to this provincial city.
On board, announcements are made in Mandarin and that florid, exaggerated English distinct to Asia. Please be so kind as to fasten your seat belt as we would not like you to be distressed in event of unfortunate turbulence. The plane is late leaving the gate due to air traffic control. It is 6:00 pm on a busy weeknight in Hong Kong. No worry to me, although the announcer spins so many variations of sorry she is comical.
Flight attendants hand out Hagen Daz ice cream cups. I like this delay. People get up and open the overhead bins, visit with their friends a few rows back. The plane starts to move, just like that. No announcement. Ice cream distribution continues as we taxi out the runway.
I sit next to a middle aged woman in a trench coat. When I indicate that I have the window seat next to hers she looks at me in dazed surprised, as if sitting next to a Westerner is like winning the lottery. I suspect this may be her first flight; she’s wearing a Turbojet badge on her lapel, just like a five year old that visits the cockpit and gets a pair of wings. Her husband, in the aisle seat, wears workingman’s clothes and a baseball hat. The plane is still climbing when he gets up, shuffles through the overhead and brings out a technical manual full of graphs. He studies the entire trip. They do not say a word to each other.
My return flight from Shanghai to New York is on China Eastern, a low, low budget airline. There are no individual screens, no in-flight menus, not even Diet Coke. The central video monitors show nature films, bears and pelicans frolicking in the wild. People stand through much of the flight, the aisles are packed. The flight attendants enforce uniform group behavior. We must close our window shades at a specific time and raise them exactly eight hours later. They bristle at my brash suggestion that I will shut my shade if any of my neighbors object to the light. No, all shades are to be closed.
Around hour thirteen, just before we pass into US airspace, the monitors run a short film in which flight attendants demonstrate stretches that passengers can do in their seats to reinvigorate their extremities. All around me people extend their arms overhead, extend them at 45 degree angles, bend their elbows and tap their opposite hand at several locations up and down their arms. I do not follow along. I am dumbfounded by the docile way the group follow whatever is directed. After my week in China I am amazed at the power of the Chinese to move and act in a singular direction. When these folks land in the U.S., I wonder what they think of our determined individualism.