The Farce and the Flights: Moments in Racism

Recently Maura Kelly, a writer for Australian Marie Claire magazine, was roundly lambasted for her article basically saying people don’t want to watch fatties on TV. Sometimes I also speak derogatively about fatties. Unlike Maura Kelly, who used to be an anorexic, I am currently almost the biggest I’ve been in my life (barring pregnancy), so I have a bit more cred. And I can also do better than Maura Kelly because I’m about to vilify a fatty with a bonus element of racism! I have credibility there too because for the first time in my life, I’m experiencing life as a minority. We are constantly either stared at or ignored here. People push in front of us at the supermarket and joke about us in Cantonese right in front of us. Oh sure our propensity to use a tissue instead of hoiking up on the footpath is LAUGHABLE (See what I just did there? Reverse racism!). Nonetheless we are really making an effort to integrate here (see living in a local village instead of a Western estate; making genuine attempts to speak the language; eating rice every night), which I guess is why I get so jacked off at other Westerners (and I include my own countrymen in that) who don’t seem to notice they are living in “someone else’s” country and still live exactly the way they did at home, regardless of how contextually inappropriate that might be. It’s embarrassing for the rest of us.*

*Note the Westerners I speak of are probably the ones who complain about “foreign enclaves” in their own homeland and “migrants who refuse to assimilate or learn the language”. In Australia, it’s very common to hear aggressive condemnation of a migrant who doesn’t speak English well enough, let alone any English at all. It seems that doesn’t apply the other way around. Apart from my dad, I have yet to run into a single Westerner here who speaks much more Chinese beyond what’s needed to command a taxi or order a beer.

Last week Rufus and I were in a cafe/bakery in Sai Kung. There was a hugely obese woman blocking the way to the part of the store I wanted to get to. Ironically, since this is a tirade against a fatty, I’m pretty sure we were trying to get to the pie section, but let’s let that slide. This lady was so large she was using a walking stick. I’m aware she could have had myriad other medical complaints necessitating the walking stick but for the generalised purposes of this sensationally unbalanced post, let’s assume she needed the stick to haul her lard around. As soon as we stepped in the door we could hear her remonstrating with the serving lady. “You got any strudel? Strudel. STRUDEL!” echoed nasally around the store. The serving lady misunderstood and said “Stew? We have beef stew…”, only to be cut off by another droning volley. “STRU-DEL. You know strudel? You had it last week. I want some strudel.” Another server came along and said that unfortunately there was no strudel available that day. The disgruntled customer then proceeded to have what can only be described as an adult-onset tantrum. She was asked what she wanted and she replied, “Well, I wanted STRUDEL. I don’t know what I want now. How do I know? Don’t ask me what I want, I wanted strudel! You don’t have strudel! You had strudel last week! I want strudel.” Eventually I guess she got sick of standing there leaning unadvisedly against the glass cabinet and panting breathlessly as her pointless ejaculations maxed out her very tiny aerobic capacity. She decided to order something else. And this is how she ordered it. “Let me get a whatever. I want to have this and that, and let me get a something too.” In an incredibly loud voice so we could all be impressed by her mastery of the situation. 14 Aussie/Brit/Chinese heads turned to stare at her. She didn’t notice because I think to her, “let me get” and “I want to have” are just regular American terms of speech. But they’re SO F’ING RUDE AND GRATING! And why do we all have to know about it? Where’s the discretion? WHERE’S THE CIVILITY?

I admit that I was already feeling a little anti-American at the time, having taken a deposition that week for some American counsel whose questioning technique can only be described as limited by a total inability to comprehend the politics/lifestyles/habits of someone from another country: basically an inability to not be completely inward-facing. I can’t say any more about that for confidentiality reasons, but it was incredibly galling to witness. I should point out that while I also can’t profess to knowing much about the politics/lifestyles/habits of the nationality in question, I try to learn, particularly when I have a looming professional interaction with one; and I don’t advertise my shortfalls in understanding to everyone in the room like one-upmanship in ignorance is a big fucking joke.

Because of these two sour incidents, it was karmically inevitable that on a work trip to Singapore last weekend, for the first time in my life, I flew an American airline – United. I don’t feel my forthcoming contemptuous assessment of said airline’s operations is particularly racist because of my admirably equitable past history of derided airlines from nearly every continent. British Air were, up to this point, the worst I’ve ever flown; Qantas aren’t much better. Singapore Air used to be the target for my possibly jetlag-skewed opprobrium, though they’ve greatly improved in recent years. I can’t talk lowly enough of Air Kenya after experiencing a flight on one of their alleged commercial jets which was surely made out of balsa wood and old hub cabs, and was more alarming than any experience in the preceding three weeks (which had included camping among lions and 5-foot-tall wild pigs, being chased by an enraged elephant, having my camera stolen by a pack of artful chimpanzees, and being locked down in the embassy during wild rioting in South Africa). Name any nationality, I’m more than prepared to direct some invective at their national airline.

I was excited to board the United flight because it was one of those big double-decker planes and it would be my first time flying in one. As I made my way down the extremely long belly of the plane, the captain’s “welcome” announcement issued from the speakers. Because I find it hard to accept that I am not the official taker of the record IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, upon taking my seat I immediately took out my trusty notepad and transcribed what he’d said. It went like this. “This is the captain. Welcome to United Airlines flight whatev. Society has changed. In every group, there are leaders; and on this flight, your leaders are the cabin crew. Obey them, and I’ll get on with the business of flying.” It doesn’t read as alarmist and frankly rude as it sounded in the cabin. I’m more used to captains on Asian airlines making smooth and soothing announcements featuring a kindly yet reassuring welcome and maybe a joke about the weather. People visibly relax in their seats as they hear the voice of the guy who will have their lives in his hand for the next little while; he is authoritative yet comfortable. He is in control of the whole situation and there’s no cause for alarm. The United “welcome” engendered a spirit of low-level tension in the cabin and I admit to feeling a touch of panic on take-off, which is unusual for me.

The mild panic could also have been due to the “broken fuel tank” which caused a 30-minute delay. I’m pretty sure if I were an airline, I would not sanction an announcement to the entire passenger body that the tin vehicle in which they were about to hurtle upwards in an anti-gravitational fashion was appended with a malfunctioning fuel tank. And while I’m here, guess what? It was a big new fuck-off plane, but it didn’t have individual TVs. I was minded to break ranks and ask where the AV leaders were, but when it came down to it I didn’t want to be kicked off the flight for insubordination. Despondent with the lack of Ben Stiller/Steve Carell stock movies available in my seatback, I looked forward to dinner as a diversion instead. But despite it being a four-hour flight taking off at 7pm, you had to be in first or business class to get a meal. The rest of us enjoyed a filling packet of chipscrisps. Hey did you guys hear that? I’m pretty sure I just said “Let me get some strudel”! πŸ˜‰

I was also angry because they still confiscate sealed drinks on United. Oh sure, you can take knitting needles on again, but no drinks! Don’t think you can wet your whistle while you finagle that fair isle! As I reached covertly into my handbag to update Joel on all these goings-on, my hand brushed past my incredibly sharp yet completely undetected screwdriver for my steno machine. USA 0, Jade 1. (I still wanted my Coke back though.) From inside my handbag I typed conspiratorially to my husband, basically summing up this post in a paragraph couched in far more offensive terms via the Gmail chat facility. Shortly after I hit send, the flight crew – our leaders – started marching up and down the aisles opening up overhead compartments. Then came the announcement about the broken fuel tank. Joel suggested our Gmail chat had been flagged, and there was no broken fuel tank; they were now hunting for my carry-on luggage to find the steno screwdriver. It says a lot for the tone set by the captain’s regrettable “welcome” message – to say nothing of my naivete – that I believed him. For the rest of the flight I dared only read my book inconspicuously, too nervous to ask for a glass of water, which worked out well since I would have been too nervous to get up for a wee.

America, you have given me two of the cornerstones of my very existence: Coca Cola, and hip hop. I love you for that. And I think I’ve done enough general States-bashing. But, keeping it specific, I address the lady seen in Ali Oli bakery last week, those deposition attorneys, and the entire operation of United Airlines: get down off your 50-foot high horses and take a look around.

I never thought my journal would become a safe corner for nationalistic pillorying, but have at it. I offer carte blanche to go anti-Antipodean in the comments. Or any other race or region. I might be racist, but not in my racism.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Veronica says:

    I can’t add much, but I loved this post. (We’ll ignore the fact it’s taken me 2 hours to read it, but never mind)

    1. jadeluxe says:

      πŸ™‚ Thanks! Sometimes I get so distracted/busy I read people’s posts over a few days. I nearly cry when I see particular blogs on my feedreader up to 8 or 10 unread posts…

      Hey, are you hosting the AMB carnival this month? I keep looking around for info about it but I can’t really find any…beyond that you’re hosting it (I think). Is it too late to submit this month?

  2. Toni says:

    Hubby would entirely agree with you. He’s making a massive effort to learn Tagalog and fit in with the local people and is astounded and embarrassed by Aussie and Americans who simply don’t give a rats.
    I think there are one or two things he could do without (the local penchant for 24/7 karaoke for example).
    Also — he would nearly kill for a good bakery.

  3. Cindy says:

    I must say I am surprised that it has taken you so long to rant about ‘the ugly american’. If you were living in Canada you would have done so long ago. My trips to canada (via United Airlines and transiting through US airports) and our proximity to all that is American has opened my eyes and unfortunately my ears, to the brash, loud, arrogant, ignorant and downright rude dispositions of those lovely folk from the US of A. It’s their sense of entitlement, air of unfounded superiority and hypocrisy that bugs me the most. Not to mention the crazies in the bible belt. Of course, there are always exceptions….and when you meet one, you feel compelled to ask them “how can such an intelligent, polite and normal person like you identify as an american?” You may be interested to read my post on ‘The Rally to Restore Sanity”. Cheers.

    1. jadeluxe says:

      To be honest that “ugly American” isn’t that prevalent here. We’ve lived here 10 months now and these are the only three incidents that really stand out. There are other nationalities that consistently rate higher on the “ugly expat” scale here.
      But while we’re talking about the Americans, the general unfounded superiority is the biggest mystery to me. And linked to it, the defensiveness. It must take so much effort to constantly be in that state! It’s not natural!
      I am definitely interested in reading your Rally to Restore Sanity post – and all the others I haven’t caught up on lately! When work gets completely overwhelming and I only just make it home in time to see the kids before bed, I prioritise down my blogreeder and wait until I have four or five unread posts for each person; then I go through them one by one on the weekend and do a big read. That’s why I disappear sometimes for a week or two. Looking forward to catching up on your stuff!

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