Cultural Barriers

Flight preparing to touch down at an airport

Any great adventure has to start from somewhere. But sometimes events (and stories) have a way of smacking you in the face. Right at the beginning. Well, this occurred to me as I left the United States for Europe (flying into London Heathrow). But the added irony to this starting point could not have been better planned in a screenplay. I thought I would blog my trip and provide much desired and detailed feedback on what I experienced. Well, that didn’t quite happen. It was entirely too difficult to make that a reality. But I started out on my first day flying out of the country, prompting me to think about what my first post would look like. I was already reviewing Edward Said’s Orientalism, hoping to inspire some thoughtful dialogue. Yet I did not foresee the cultural barrier that greeted me on the jumbo jet. Think about a situation where you have to interact with someone who knows basically one language, which is far from your own. And you have to sit next to him/her (her in my case) and help him/her understand that we all have to follow FAA regulations prior to and during flight departure.

After being ushered on the plane like cattle waiting for the hacking room (or whatever the meat industry calls it), we had to wait for catering services to complete the food transfers (which really wasn’t all that impressive, so I really don’t see why it took so long, but never mind that). We started boarding. I took note of a wheelchair-bound woman with a little nasal decongestant inhaler, for when you have a common cold. In any case, she was being escorted on the plane. Well, this elderly lady of Near Eastern descent (for lack of a more precise description) was my seating partner on this journey (well… ordeal).

The Lady in Question

I arrived at my seat. Apparently, she was already staking considerable claim of the row. She, in very little English and some Urdu (only could imagine what she was explaining to me), wanted to move an immovable armrest to be able to lay out across three seats. Yeah, well, economy has its limitations to that sort of luxury. I tried to help her understand in plain English that the armrests did not move. She was very insistent. I showed her that the entertainment module was housed in it and that the armrest could not move like the other one was able to do. This all, mind you, is happening while at the gate and others are still trying to board.

Because of my patience and genuine attempts to engage her and help her understand, many of the passengers immediately assumed that we were traveling together, or were related. I think that’s fairly understandable. I look like her — skin color and all — and I seem to actually try and help her, as if she was a family member. Convenience of perception is sublime! Right? Not so. That, however, did not leave me all rosy given what I have been reading in Orientalism, and what appeared to be mistaken identity. It definitely manifested those same concerns Said discussed but on a much smaller scale.

She still had not placed her seat belt on. She was attempting to try and connect two seats of seat belts together (the latch from one side all the way to the other), as if she could lay with a seat belt. Even in a perfect world, this is not possible — or remotely safe! I had to explain to her and show her in the midst of her non-verbal — okay, Urdu-laced — rejections to my advice. I had to show her that we had to sit in one of the seats and make use of the buckle. You have to remember this woman was traveling alone and was very elderly, so I went about placing on her belt buckle. Can you imagine another passenger being so conscientious? Hardly. It was becoming apparent to me that she had never flown before, but this was the calm before the storm.

Shit got real.

We were finally seated and the plane was being taxied to the runway. One of the flight attendants came down her side of the aisle and noticed her bags were not stowed above. Remember, we are seated in the front row of a section. The woman refused. It was a visceral, survivalist reaction. I summed up her resistance to lack of knowledge for basic flight or FAA protocol. It could very well be she could only feel secure with her purse and other personal items. Sadly, though, the flight attendant was insistent — very insistent — as we were being taxied to approach for takeoff. The elderly woman stood her ground (while seated, mind you), and the flight attendant hastened to a phone near the section to inform the front of the plane (possibly the head flight attendant or the cockpit).

The head attendant arrived quickly and tried to explain to the elderly woman that the plane cannot move until she placed her bags in the overhead storage area. Nope, she would not relent. In fact, she was even more possessive of the two personal items. I spoke with the head attendant and told her about what I was experiencing to help them understand the complexity of the situation. This woman may not have flown before and might be unaware of basic flight protocol. I explained how it took me over ten minutes to convince her to sit properly with a seat belt. I also told them she spoke Urdu, and that we might want to see if we can find anyone who can speak Arabic.

In any case, the head attendant had to inform the cockpit. The plane had already stopped moving. The junior pilot, I think, or maybe the head pilot, arrived and tried to speak with her. I recounted the whole ordeal to him as well. Luckily, the flight staff were able to enlist someone from first class to come and speak to her. This elderly woman appeared to understand what the gentleman was saying, but the woman was still being adamant. I use that word adamant because this was not some mere cry for attention. I thought possibly her anxiety was going high. For a woman who was so ill, she was very strong willed in her determination to not let those personal items out of her sight, speaking in broken Urdu all the while. Who knows how frightened she was. The pilot had to make a choice to take the plane back so as to not cause a backup in the queue for takeoff at Dallas.

To anyone and everyone reading this account, understand that regulations are annoying but these procedures HAVE to be followed. The pilots decided to taxi back to an open terminal and let this woman off the plane. We were directed to a terminal, but we had to wait an extra 30 mins to link up with it (as it was being used by another flight that was boarding). Once connected, the ordeal took on a whole different life, as the terminal was brimming with airport security/police, air marshals (maybe…?), paramedics, and other airport staff members boarding the plane. Our flight’s first class translator came back to offer his assistance. I spoke as much as I could to the rest of the staff that boarded, offering to move from my seat so they could gain easier access to her. As I feared, the paramedics wondered if she was either starting to have a panic attack or overwhelming bouts of anxiety.

The paramedic was trying to communicate with her. He wanted to know if she was having heart problems, if she was feeling dizzy, and if her stress level was high. He was trying to figure out what was going on with her physically prior to moving her. I kept emphasizing that we need to get her a wheelchair because she boarded with one. Understand the situation for this elderly woman: she is probably flying for the first time, speaks very little English, has all kinds of people including police surrounding her speaking a different language, and she does not understand what’s going on. She was not feeling well. Everything may seem foreign to her. At first, in the back of my mind, I saw this as an inconvenience. But then I realized that this trip is about putting myself outside my comfort zone. That became apparent as other passengers started coming up and being nosy and asking questions and looking at me, objectifying me because they thought I was with her, causing this scene and flight debacle. And that’s when it hit me.

Just a side note, passengers injecting themselves into tense moments are the worst sort. It really pissed me off. They added absolutely no value, and it seemed at times they were preventing the professionals from doing their job. These passengers came back there only to gawk and stare. It was insulting and it was annoying. To boot, they were looking at me as if I probably facilitated this inconvenience. People… Get your heads out your ass. You don’t like it when people rubberneck from car accidents, so don’t do it on a plane with less room, especially when flight staff need the aisles to do their job. And don’t come up acting as if you could help. The situation was already being addressed, but they would’ve known that if they sat where I was. Their curiosity was an inconvenience. Readers, don’t be rude and come gawk like they were doing.

This is the kind of difficulty that different cultures have to bear. It is not always pleasant. But when I told the flight staff of my concern for this woman’s well-being, I thought they started to see another angle to this other than some ornery woman. She could have had medicine in those bags that she might need but still those bags could easily go flying and seriously injure someone as we clock 200mph or more at takeoff. In the end, I move to sit with a lovely couple of German women. And these ladies were from Hamburg. We regaled on the situation, and I told them of my concerns for this woman I barely met. They were positively delightful to speak with while the ordeal unfolded before us. I told them of my connections to Germany, past and present. And I watched from this new temporary seat as the woman was finally being escorted off the plane with various flight staff, airport staff, and police thanking me for being so helpful and accommodating.

Sometimes in this life, we have to wrestle with these inconveniences and make the most of them. We have to show a little more compassion and much more patience. I work on that everyday to no avail. But when it mattered most, I was able to help in a situation that could have escalated even further. Let’s recap. For a five minute inconvenience (stowing bags/items), we were delayed by 2 hours from our original departure time. And at the moment I put this story to paper, we were roughly 800 miles out and possibly 30–45 mins late to our destination. We made up for it in flight. It was a valuable experience. It certainly made for a good story. And this was the first of many cultural barriers I encountered over the following seventeen days.

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