I’ve been staring out the oval window of my Korean Air jet for the past three hours. We’ve boarded, watched the safety video, had our first meal, coffee served. But despite my earlier view of the grey clouds hanging low, rain drops sliding down the pane in varied designs, the greyness has lifted, the water dried up, and I can still see the pavement below, the buildings over yonder and, to my utter dismay, several planes reaching into the polluted abyss.
I failed to take a picture, but here’s the pollution in Guangzhou, China.
But not mine.
The control tower waited until we were settled and ready for take off before informing our pilot that we could not. “I think it’s bad weather,” says the clear-skinned Korean beauty with her best sympathetic smile. “I’m so sorry.”
I watch three more planes ascend in sequenced procession. Why not mine?
It’s not her fault, I know, so I’m trying not to be angry. The Chinese man in front of me, however, is clearly voicing his disapproval. The patient woman is on her knees in the isle, hands clasped together in her greatest apologies for something that’s obviously out of her control.
Two years ago, I was almost in her shoes. Back when I was still trying to make my dreams of travel a reality, I flew to St. Louis, Missouri for an interview to be a stewardess. It was a two-day luxury on the company’s dime that eventually cost me my current job (due to a mixture of my not wanting my boss to know I was applying for new jobs and her being a paranoid control freak), but the company offered me a position. I had what I thought I wanted – my ticket around the world.
And then I turned it down.
I saw myself in this Korean woman’s position, and I knew from my customer service experience at Starbucks that it would essentially be a high-flying barista position, with much higher stakes. The customers’ schedules and even their lives are in the hands of airport staff, the pilot and the airline, but the only person they have to express their frustration, anger and fear to is you.
You’re the one who has to listen to stories of missed meetings and not making it home to families for important holidays. You have to dutifully refill their wine cup with a smile, pick up their dirty dishes and fetch blankets when they’re cold.
Even if you wake up in a bad mood, or you couldn’t get the day off to be with your own family, or you’re missing your child’s first birthday, you have to pretend to care about their problems – they’ll probably never ask about yours.
You have to kiss your crying kid goodbye, grab your always-ready bag and uniform, and make sure your tears are dried, your face aglow by the time you greet the passengers who slowly board the plane. You wish they would hurry up and go faster, “go, go, get on already!” you think, because your paycheck doesn’t start until the cabin door is closed and the airplane is ready to go.
But you say nothing. That could cost you your job.
All you can do is smile.
When I peel off the glamorous layers of the flight attendant job, it becomes anything but. I knew it wouldn’t make me happy, and in the same way many creative people seek careers in a different field for fear of losing interest in their art, I feared I might lose my desire to see the world.
So I returned to Oregon and went back to my less glamorous barista position at Starbucks until I could figure out a better plan. I felt lost. I felt stuck. I knew I didn’t want to make a career out of Starbucks, not because it’s a bad company (it’s not), but because I wanted more.
I wanted an escape.
I began researching teaching abroad opportunities just days after I told the airline no. I would sit in my bed with my computer on my lap until the wee hours of the morning, already getting excited about my future life in South Africa, or Peru, or Korea, or Thailand.
I didn’t really care where I went – it was all equally intriguing. A life abroad: I could picture myself there. I saw myself immersed in a foreign culture, and loving every minute of it.
Fast forward to now, at the end of a six-month experiment that morphed into nearly a year and a half, and I was right. I loved it. My adventures took me places I never could have imagined and bred in me an even stronger desire to see more – to see the world. I’m not finished traveling, and I never want to be.
Already three and a half hours into a plane ride that has yet to start, I’m beginning to see the irony in the fact that I’m stuck in China. It’s another pivotal moment in my life, much like where I was at Starbucks, a time when I have many decisions to make about the direction of my future.
I’ve decided to conquer my fear of commitment by overwhelming it with excitement. I’m moving to Colorado (!), and even though I’m enrolled in graduate school and my life will take a vastly different, more structured form than it has before, I’m choosing to look at this plane ride not as the end of one adventure, but the beginning of the next.
The flight attendants just announced we’re going to be yet another hour on the tarmac – despite the ten planes I’ve watched take off in the distance – and people are getting angrier. Two are standing with their luggage, threatening to disembark, and four uniformed Koreans are doing their best to keep them here.
Korean flight attendants. Photo courtesy of Sarah in China on cohpchina.wordpress.com.
The Chinese man in front of me is again reading a woman her rights, explaining he has a connecting flight to catch. I want to tell him I’ve already missed both of mine, and I’m sure there are others on this plane in the same situation. It sucks, but there’s nothing the poor woman can do about it. She’s low on the totem pole, just a few notches above the guys who tossed our luggage onto the loading ramp, but she’s smiling still. Listening to his concerns.
“Why can all those other planes take off and we cannot?” I ask, genuinely curious.
“The weather is bad,” she says. “That is China Air.” She’s talking about the airline, but I can’t help but laugh at the irony of it.
“Why can China Air take off and we cannot?” I ask, hoping for an honest answer but expecting nothing more than what I get: a look that says, “What can I say?”
I glance back out the window into the greyness that engulfs China every day, and wonder what she really wanted to say. Clearly, the problem is not the weather. I will find out later, when I land in Korea, that our delay is due to a Chinese military drill on the runway – an unannounced drill that closed down all airlines except China’s own, for four and a half hours.
I look back at her, giggle through my frustration as I point at the eleventh plane to ascend and say with a smile to match hers, “It’s weird, right?”
“Yes,” she nods agreeably, and walks away to join the team of women who are politely preventing the angry Chinese men from their desperate attempts to escape.
Stuck on a Plane in China