The Friendly Skies

Airplane Aisle

The flight felt brutally long. Unlike the last time I flew overseas, when Continental Airlines had been kind to stock their planes with in-flight time-wasters such as movies, video games, and friendly flight attendants, their codeshare partner Northwest Airlines had skimped on such amenities, ensuring that they would continue living up to the nickname of “Northworst“.

Normally I sleep on international flights.  But this being a flight of firsts for me — first westbound overseas trip and most timezones jumped at once (ten, including a penetration across the international date line) — I was too unsettled to doze away the hours.  I had nearly completed one of the two novels I had brought for my entire two week vacation and there were still hours to go before we land. I began to worry how I’d kill time when I was on terra firma, as finding things to read in English is not a trivial task where I was heading. I worried even more about my return flight in two weeks, as I would once again be blessed to fly the same airline.  With my current and future flights, a full 24 hours of my life will have been wasted flying such unfriendly skies. Despite my upcoming destination, I craved entertainment now lest I die of boredom. Sitting in my aisle seat, I returned to my book and tried not to think about the endless amount of flight time remaining.

After an hour more of reading, I paused to rub my dry eyes. My will to read further was waning, so it seemed like a good time for a break. I put down my book and took a moment to survey the cabin. All shades were drawn tight, as it was still daylight outside. The actual time of day was lost on me, thanks to a combination of no wristwatch, no cell phone, and the fact that I would have been half-a-dozen time zones off were I to guess. Everyone but me was alseep, the lucky bastards. I planted my elbow on the armrest, buried my chin deep into my palm, and sighed.

An elderly Japanese lady walked down the aisle past my seat. Right as she passed me, she halted and slowly turned around. I took notice and looked at her face. She seemed slightly bewildered, reaching a hand up to her forehead as if she was starting to feel queasy. She used her other hand to grip the headrest of the seat in front of me. Then her leg quivered and she tumbled over, falling to her side.  She bounced off my lap, flipped back the opposite direction, and landed on the floor with a dull thump, coming to rest in the aisle next to me.

Pings echoed across the cabin, as I and several others quickly jabbed our “call attendant” buttons.  The ceiling was a constellation of blue call lights. Two flight attendants rushed to the lady’s side. Even more followed, carrying oxygen canisters and a defibrillator. Passengers nearby stood up in order to get a better view.

I was not one of them. Inches away from me was a comatose woman, being poked and prodded into consciousness by highly-trained professionals. As I seriously pondered the possibility of someone dying next to me, I curled my body towards the left, putting the spectacle to my back, and did my best to bury myself in my book.

Tokyo couldn’t get here fast enough.

Image credit: Oleg Dunin on Flickr

Small World, Part V: Laura

Back in early college, I was a bit of a Japanphile, absorbing all sorts of manga, anime, and history books about the Land of the Rising Sun. One of my more serious pursuits was learning Japanese during a four-semester course load. As is necessary with any foreign language study, I had native speakers with whom I would practice — also an excuse to hang around cute Japanese chicks! Towards the beginning of the 1994 spring semester, I bumped into my friend Suko and asked about her winter vacation (she had returned to Japan to stay with her family). And I am treated to one of the more-remarkable stories I’ve heard.

Suko’s father was a tour guide and met all sorts of foreigners while working — including a woman from America right around the time Suko was returning home. This woman/s name was Laura, and he came to find out that she was from Southlake, my hometown, a city near the University of North Texas where both Suko and I went. Suko’s father invited Laura to dinner, knowing that his daughter would love to meet someone from the same area of Texas.

So the three of them have dinner, and afterwards Suko shows Laura pictures of her campus and friends. Laura is very interested in seeing these, as her older brother went to North Texas. While flipping through these photos, one produces a strong reaction from Laura — she jumps up and exclaims, “Holy shit! That’s Matthew!” It was a photograph of Suko and I having lunch at Bruce Hall. Suko, with perfect Japanese deadpan, replies, “Ahh…you know him?” Boy, does she!

Laura and I went to high school together; I was one grade ahead of her, and the last time I had seen her was years beforehand during my senior year.

Much like Laura was blown away by seeing my photo halfway across the world in a chance encounter with a stranger, I was blown away to be reminded of her after so long. I always thought highly of Laura and would have liked to have gotten to know her better or even date her — we soon began a correspondence and later met after her return to America. To have been a part of such a complicated chain of both circumstance and time is what made me first start believing in things like fate.

It Pays To Pay Attention In Class

Last summer, I was in Korea and Japan for World Cup 2002. I spent my two weeks there travelling with my best friend Jim, and a majority of our time was spent in Korea. But early in our trip, we found the time to take a short trip to Japan. There, we met up with Yuko, whom we met years ago in England at the Shakespeare Institute. So for four days, we stayed with her and her parents (unfortunately their names escape me).

Yuko’s father was nice. He was a huge Yankees fan, and I recall catching him early in the mornings drinking Kirin Ichiban and watching live MLB broadcasts.

Yuko’s mother was silly. Very sweet woman who spoke some English. But when she overheard me talking to Yuko in Japanese…I was sure that if she wasn’t married already that she would have dated me then eaten me up with a spoon! See, in college I took Japanese as a foreign language, and did quite well. And had retained a good amount of the grammar knowledge although my reading recognition sucks nowadays.

On our last night in Japan, the three of us went to a sushi bar — Yuko’s parents were going to treat us to dinner. It was a small place, and the two of them were waiting for us at the bar itself, with the open seats all to the left of Yuko’s mother. Jim goes to sit down next to Yuko’s mother and she shoos him away: “No! No! Matt! Sits here!” Jim was a little surprised at this and capitulated to her demands. I sit down in my rightful place.

During dinner, we learned alot about proper sushi-eating technique. For example, the Japanese rarely use their chopsticks when eating sushi — instead they will finger-dip by turning the piece upside down and touching just the meat to the soy sauce. This is also repeated for rolls, and chopsticks are reserved for capturing pickled ginger slices.

Also during dinner, I tested the true power of celebrity. Like usual, Yuko’s mother was showing me things so that I might read out the Japanese associated with them. Menus, picture books, etc. The sushi chefs overheard me, inquired with Yuko and her parents, and Yuko informed me that they wished to hear me speak more Japanese. So I straighten up and boom out, “Watashi wa nihongo de hanasu koto ga dekimasu yo!”

Translation: “I can speak Japanese very well!”

Result: Sushi chefs raise their knives high and boom out a cheer. Patrons at the surrounding tables raise their sake cups and join in. I turn left and right to greet my adoring audience. Jim shakes his head in disbelief.

Flashing back to 1993, when I was taking four semesters of Japanese in college, my teacher Randell-sensei asked everyone why they were learning the language. Reece and I told her, “Because we want to be on Japanese soap operas!” She was confused at this.

Would she be confused if she saw me at that sushi bar?