Friday, February 13, 2009

On the road to Kunming...

Sitting in the Beijing Capital airport last night, waiting for our flight to Kunming, it was a really different scene in the domestic terminal than my more typical international experience. I think we were the only foreigners, and many of the Chinese people that waited there lacked the polish of the up and coming Beijing urbanite. You got the sense that this was a provincial crowd waiting to go home.

I kept watching one family, a little boy, maybe four years old, his parents and an older man in PLA green whom I assumed was his grandfather. There was something just a bit disturbing about the tableaux. The mother was young, attempting fashion with cigarette leg jeans, stiletto heels and short jacket with faux fur collar, but it was all a bit worn and cheap. She had the remains of a black eye. The father, big, stocky, a slightly puffy round face, had knock-off basketball shoes in the strangest shade of tomato orange. His clothes needed a wash. Meanwhile the little boy was gleefully hitting his grandfather with an empty plastic water bottle. The grandfather played back; obviously he doted on the kid, but finally gathered up the boy and hugged him close, as a way to stop his hitting. It was the boy's playing at violence that disturbed me, when I considered his mother's black eye.

I was really tired so I just sat and watched and thought about nothing much, mostly the odd commercials for "Great Wall Red Wine" running on the airport video screen - attempts at sophistication that didn't come off - this plonk ain't fine Bordeaux, people, but of course the intended audience wouldn't know the difference - and the running crawl from China Aviation Authority warning passengers to watch their bags and "not take other peoples' stuff."

I happened to glance at the family across the way. The little boy's pants were down around his ankles, and the father held the empty water bottle so he could pee into it.

It's not like this kid was an infant, and the bathrooms in some other far away terminal - they were right there behind them, a few short yards away.

We got onto the plane - buses, rather, to take us to the plane - through a series of rails that looked like a line at a bus station. Richard and I were the only laowai on the flight. As we waited for everyone to get seated, a teenage girl came over and asked if she could take her picture with me. Now, this sort of thing often happens when you encounter Chinese people who aren't much used to Westerners, but I was a little surprised to find it on a flight from Beijing to Kunming.

She was sweet, and so was her friend, and it made them very excited and giggly, so what the heck?

"Maybe they think you're famous," Richard said.

It seemed to take forever for passengers to settle in. In fact, as the plane pulled away from the terminal, there were at least 10 passengers up and around, all the flight attendants too, and as we taxied towards the runway, they showed no signs of sitting down; a half dozen of them were arguing with each other and several of the flight attendants, and as for the other standing passengers, occasionally a flight attendant would pass by and say in desultory fashion, "Mashang zuoqilai."

I would not have been too surprised if they'd stayed in the aisles for the whole flight, but finally, just before we gathered speed for takeoff, everyone sat down.

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