The old man and old woman sitting next to me were having a fight.
Or so I surmised. I was on a flight from Shenzhen to Beijing. I was in the aisle seat and the old Chinese couple, in neat but well-worn clothing, occupied center and window.
It was generalized pandemonium upon boarding, with the flight attendants running to and fro, and business men talking simultaneously into three or four cell phones, and what seemed like a lot of unnecessary shouting. The flight attendants were uncommonly short – I saw one giving another a boost in order to shut the overheads.
Soon after take-off, the couple started speaking to one another in harsh tones. Although I understand no Chinese, this did not seem a case of one scolding the other – judging from the self-righteous tone they both employed, they equally believed they were in the right.
However, when the food arrived, the fight was abandoned. They tucked into the food, including something glutinous and fluorescent pink which I tentatively poked at with my fork for a while. When they were done, the woman rummaged in the seat pocket, pulled out the barf bag and neatly packaged up the leftovers. She opened her newspaper with satisfaction, her left elbow hovering in the space about three inches from my seat belt, and although I squirmed and coughed pointedly, none of my subtle hints encouraged her to retreat to her own space. I lived with her elbow until she finished the paper and handed it to her husband.
Later, I realized that they weren’t having a fight at all.
Chinese is a tonal language, and Cantonese in particular can sound quite harsh to the Western ear. It can sound like fighting even when someone’s actually saying, hey, what did you hear about the weather in Beijing? I was ready to categorize what I heard from my seatmates as fighting, though, because I needed to put things into categories that I understood at that particular moment.
I’d spent a number of days in Hong Kong, but had taken the ferry to Shenzhen to fly to Beijing since the fare was cheaper. Although Hong Kong is now officially part of the People’s Republic, I did not feel like I was actually in China until I disembarked in Shenzhen, and headed for the quite modern airport that was certainly not international. There were aquariums filled with beautiful tropical fish, but I could not find a western style toilet seat, nor could I buy a snack, since I only had Hong Kong dollars and not People’s Republic RMB, and the vendors did not take credit cards and I could not find an ATM.
Anyway, as that China Southern flight took off for Beijing, I thought to myself something that I often think when I’m entering into a place that feels hard to parse: “You’re really in it now.”
What I really should tell myself in such instances: treat any conclusion you draw right now as highly suspect.
A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the ground at JFK airport, in the first row of economy seats on a Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. We were delayed for some time, and the in-flight crew were non-communicative as to what was causing the delay. Royal Air Maroc essentially operates without a functioning website, so there were no updates I could call up on my BlackBerry. But I was sufficiently distracted by watching some of the hubbub as my fellow passengers tried to find their seats.
What I was hearing, I realized, was an accent that sounded…Jamaican. Huh, Jamaican, I thought, how weird. Then I noticed that some of the passengers had dreadlocks, and certainly seemed to plausibly be from Jamaica.
What was happening here?
I considered the possibility that Moroccan simply sounded Jamaican to my ears, but that didn’t seem right. Or could there be some heretofore unknown connection between Morocco and Jamaica? I imagined writing about that, breaking the story, with some delight. Then, I noticed that there were a number of teenagers rushing forward into First Class and then back again, all a-giggle and waving iPhones triumphantly. I peeked forward, and saw the flight crew posing for pictures with one of the First Class passengers. One of the teenagers settled herself into the seat across the aisle from me, so I tapped her on the shoulder and asked who it was that was causing such a fuss. “Sean Paul,” she said, with a blushing smile. “Excuse me?” “Sean Paul,” she said firmly. I thanked her and used my BlackBerry to ascertain who this person was. A big whoop Jamaican reggae star, in case you also don’t know.
That explained a lot.
I often imagine what would happen if I didn’t find out that Sean Paul was aboard that flight, if I had decided to simply believe that I’d uncovered a new era of Jamaicans taking their holidays in Morocco…I could have told that story over drinks in Marrakesh, regaled people with “…and you’ll never believe!” when I returned to New York.
Also, it would have tempting, had I been writing a story about the Shenzhen airport from the airport, to advise ladies who would prefer not to deal with a squatter to hold it in until they boarded the plane – but I happened to spot a western-style toilet seat lurking behind an ajar door on a bathroom flagged with a handicapped sign and so I overwrote my first observation, that there were no toilet seats to be found in Shenzhen airport, with better information.
The problem with traveling in a place that’s unfamiliar is that we’re so often entirely clueless about what’s actually happening – but we don’t realize how lost we are.
Of course, it’s a human tendency to interpret our observations of the current moment through the lens of our past experience, a lens whose glass was milled through experiences formed by our own culture. I don’t think this is a problem, necessarily, I think it’s something we have to do in order to function. The problem only comes when we cling to our initial interpretations tightly, when we’re unaware that we’re squinting through a distorting lens.
I think of that old Chinese couple often — in fact, that’s one of the stories when I’m describing my confusion during what was my first trip to China – isn’t it funny that they were just having a conversation, and I thought they were having a spat?
But here’s the thing I realize now: they could have been fighting. After all, I don’t speak Chinese.
I really have no idea.