Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sitting in an airplane

Sitting in a crowded airplane is like being huddled in a community. We’re in this together, whether we like it or not, whether we like each other or not. You may look different from me, hail from a different part of the world from me, behave differently; you may take up more space than I’m comfortable making room for you for, but then I’ll watch a couple of movies, slip into a quick nap at the boring bits, then slowly fall into a slumber, and by the time I’m awaken by the discomfort of sleeping in a semi-upright seat, I would have forgotten the discomfort at the start of the flight. Now, I just want to catch some reasonable rest, because I’m so very deprived of a solid one.

I see a red jacketed elderly woman walking up and down the aisle the couple of times my eyes open involuntarily, my arm brushed briefly by passengers or cabin crew squeezing along the narrow aisle. I try to avoid looking into my watch because whenever I do, I’m aghast to find that what seemed like a four-hour deep sleep turns out to be only an hour of flight time! Well, after a time or two of checking my watch, I grow accustom to this unnerving truth.

I walk to the lavatory and spot the red-jacked woman. She is working out her sore legs from the inundating hours of sitting.

“Good to stretch a little, isn’t it?” I quip.

She smiles and nods. And we get a conversation in Mandarin going.

Originating from Guangdong in southeastern China, she moved to San Francisco with her husband and four young children over 30 years ago. Her children are grown up now, she’s a grandmother of two, and babysits her own grandchildren as well as that of others for a small fee. I noticed how pleasant her breath smells – she was chewing gum! At over 60! Gracefully, she offered me one, which I gratefully took one in view of my bad breath from the hours of flight and incapable oral hygiene.

Back in my seat, I'm thinking - sitting in a filled-to-capacity airplane is like paying (big bucks!) and voluntarily surrendering to physical confinement, albeit in supposed style and luxury. But really, what luxury is there strapped in a 0.5 x 1m seat?

The issue I realize is space. Confinement to a small space limits, frustrates and retards any living being.

Take nature for example. I remember my dad, an ardent gardener by pure interest, used to tell me that we can grow a square watermelon, instead of a regular round one, simply by planting the seed and soil in a small square crate.

The Japanese koi, I was told, grows as large as the pond in which it is put in.

The coastal redwood trees in western California (the tallest living things on our planet) grow to an astounding 100m because they have so much land space horizontally and hey, the sky’s the limit, that’s why they grow so tall!

Humans, confined, either retard; or get creative - retard to immobility; or creative to break the limitation.

It’s easy to travel around the world these days; it’s hard not to do so for global expansion. Concord planes at the speed of lightning are not yet possible for regional and global commute, in view of its devastating destruction to the eco-system every time if zaps into the sky, thus we have to content to fly the planes we do today, flight times as short as an hour or as long as over 23 hours.

What do we do onboard a constrained space for over 10 hours averagely, when the freedom to move out of the 0.5 x 1m seat is further restricted by the reluctance to disturb the passenger next to us when we need to move out of our seat to get to the washroom or simply to walk down the aisle for a quick stretch for the legs?     

I realized that I enjoy multi tasking, especially when watching a movie. I experience a deep sense of joy when I’m not just sitting immobile in my seat and being sucked in the melodrama of whatever I’m watching, but to be actively engaging myself, either physically on an indoor bike trainer or mentally, writing in an airplane as I am now. I must be doing something right – at this very instant, a lady in her mid forties, from Guangzhou, sitting next to me in the middle section, who speaks very little English but extremely fluent in Cantonese, who keeps to herself, was marathon-watching movies on the in-flight entertainment and on her iPad, suddenly concluded her movies and started typing on her iPad. I take a quick glance. She’s typing some notes or journal of sorts. I smile. I’m glad to inspire you to turn the entertainment off and start writing, madam.

The sense of joy arises from the fact that I am being a good steward of the time entrusted to me, to make good and be fruitful, for the day is near.


For you movie buffs, here are 3 movies and a documentary I watched onboard Cathay Pacific Airways from Singapore to San Francisco:

Larry Crowne - starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, about a man's quest for self progress after being laid off from his job - he enrolled in college, increased his knowledge and confidence, made good friends, and with his relentlessly good attitude, turned his life around.

Everything must go - starring funny man Will Ferrell as an down and out guy who lost his job and wife in one single day, stubbornly stuck to his guts, only to give in to his dead lock circumstances, learned to clean up his act (alcohol addiction) and move on.

Oranges and Sunshine - starring Emily Watson, who played the real life character of Margaret Humphreys, a a social worker in Great Britain who dug into the nationally covered-up child migrant scheme from Great Britain to Australia in the 1940s (over 140,000 children were deported to Australia in that period) and devoted her time to reuniting the children involved, now adults in Australia, to their parents still alive and living in Great Britain. My take from this true account is not to be afraid to dig for and confront the truth; and in doing so, you may be doing more for others than you ever think you could.

Page One: Inside the New York Times – a documentary that accesses The New York Times newsroom and exposes the inner workings of the media desk

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