A small matter of cultural differences.

Travel, and especially airports, brings out the worst in people..  The queues to check in; the queues at the  baggage drop off; the negotiations at the ticketing desk about overweight suitcases and hand luggage;  the liquids through security; the gauntlet of passport control – do you really still look like that person in the photograph… ? A journey fraught with stress and anxiety, long before anyone has even boarded a plane.

On the whole, I have been lucky.  Most of my air travel has been pretty uneventful and gone smoothly, disregarding the inevitable turbulence which is out of human control anyway.  This was until my flight back to Hangzhou from Thailand, courtesy of AirAsia, which as a popular budget airline has caught the attention of the novice travellers from China…

Although Thailand gets a fair amount of Chinese tourists, we hardly crossed paths during my ten day stay.  Mostly they kept to themselves, avoiding eye contact  and conversations with Westerners as the mastery of English has not yet trickled down to the proletariat.  Knowledge of world languages is not really necessary as Chinese visitors move en mass, shepherded from one attraction to the next by the umbrella wielding leader of the flock.

I may have anticipated sharing the flight to Hangzhou with mainly Chinese people, however I was not prepared for being submerged in Chinese culture as soon as I hit passport control.  My suitcase had changed hands flawlessly; its weight hardly raising an eyebrow…  I headed for the door emblazoned ‘International Departures’ and immediately joined a throng of Chinese bodies trying to force themselves through the narrow entrance.  No orderly line to be seen; every man for himself.  And if anyone was not quick enough to fill the minute space in front of them, Chinese beady eyes kept themselves peeled ready to make a move.  If looks alone could kill, the floor would have been carpeted with my victims…  I used my elbows, I learnt from the best: the experts in India…  I am not proud of it, but I too had a plane to catch….

Finally through the door, more chaos awaited.  The next room was seething with people, like wildebeest intent on launching an immediate stampede.  But the only danger they wanted to escape, was the poor attendant who desperately tried to contain everyone  between the futile barriers.  No matter her vigilance, she was no match for the persistent Chinese.  Barriers were lifted and moved and small  sections of the herd surged forward, unseen, swallowed by the other Chinese who meekly watched them forge their way to the officers in charge of passport control.  My heckles rose and I had to remind myself of the pointlessness of any retort: I was only going to experience more of the same in China, much, much more…

Passport control sorted and electronic gadgetry x-rayed, we were guided to the AirAsia departure lounge, deep in the bowels of the airport, carefully separated from all the domestic flight passengers.  Of course, my flight was delayed.  It is par for the course…  Taking into account that I was heading for Hangzhou, just a few days before the G20 summit meeting and rumours about additional security abound, this came hardly as a surprise…

When boarding time was announced, the Chinese travellers moved in unison, all aiming to get on the plane first.   However, our aircraft was some distance from the departure lounge, so we were ‘treated’  to a leisurely bus journey around the airport first.  And then we arrived at the steps…  The Chinese who would have trampled their fellow travellers to be first in line???  This rush suddenly vanished as they all whisked out their mobiles to take selfies next to the plane, on the steps up to the plane, in front of the door of the plane…  It was clearly more important to ensure that the world was aware of their whereabouts and could relish in their international travel..  and our flight was late already…  Did another ten minutes of immortalising oneself on camera really matter???

Eventually, all passengers were ushered onto the plane to find their allocated seats … and a  game of musical chairs ensued.  I always make use of online check-in to ensure I have my preferred seat, near the aisle, ready for a quick get-away after landing.   I know the ropes: the advantage of being a seasoned air traveller.  Maybe the Chinese have not yet cottoned on to this and wait until they get to the ticketing desk to find out whether they will be admiring a view through the window, being squashed in the middle, or having easy access to the toilets and exits courtesy of an aisle seat, or indeed are sitting next to friends or family…

A father pleaded with the girl next to him to swap seats with his young son.  A reasonable request, I thought.  So the girl took the middle seat next to mine, leaving just the window seat unoccupied.  She had barely sat down when two obnoxious chewing-gum chewing twenty-something Chinese girls turned up,  clutching McDonalds bags, looking ready for the kill and clearly joined at the hip.  There was just this small matter of them being assigned seats at opposite ends of the plane, one of them the window seat near me.  Clearly, me moving was out of the question, so they preyed on the girl next to me.  Unfortunately, she buckled under the intimidation and quietly retreated to the tail end of the aircraft.  The McDonalds twins sunk into the spaces next to me…

In the meantime, passengers busied themselves with sending last minute messages to the rest of the world, entirely oblivious to the stewardesses preparing  the plane for take off.   Permanently glued to their mobiles, safety announcements fell on deaf ears and as soon as the stewardesses turned their back, WeChat conversations continued.  I really have no problem with the Chinese travellers disregarding their own safety on a flight. Let’s face it, there is a bottomless pool of replacements..  But I would prefer them not to do it when I am on board.  I still have quite a few more boxes to tick on my bucket list before MY plane is downed….

And if I was expecting peace and quiet after we were finally in the air, I had not reckoned on the most disturbing Chinese habit of all…  Window girl gulped down her McDonalds purchases and settled in her seat, removing the ‘vomiting’ bag from the seat pocket.  Maybe McDonalds upset her stomach, I wondered.   But no, she just needed a receptacle for her spit.. She made a horrible retching noise, as if trying to haul stubborn phlegm from the pit of her belly, and deposited it  into the bag with great gusto…. every few minutes.  I covered my ears, I closed my eyes.  It was going to be long, long flight…

And the thing I had been dreading before my departure???  My arrival in Hangzhou marred by extra security measures?  I breezed through the airport:  getting off the plane,  clearing passport control and even collecting my luggage… all done and dusted within 20 minutes of touching down.  I have no idea what all the fuss on the expat websites was all about… scaremongering maybe… Or could it have been that my plane landed around midnight when most security personnel had long since clocked off???

1 thought on “A small matter of cultural differences.

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