Midair Cultural Collison
"Please don't worry about making a mistake on your custom form, you can simply cross it out and put the correction next to it. We are not in China anymore and we CAN be a little different!" The flight attendant announced to the passengers on a United Airlines flight from Beijing to Chicago.
I looked around and saw that the majority of the passengers were Chinese. The flight attendant must be thinking that she was doing them a favor by liberating them from China's autocratic control. I felt a little uneasy because I didn't expect to hear such stereotypical political commentary about China on a commercial airplane filled with Chinese nationals.
What if an Air China flight attendant were to announce, "We are about to arrive in Chicago. Please take off and hide your jewelry because people there get robbed and even shot all the time"?
The number of Chinese visitors in the U.S. has skyrocketed in recent years, yet the relationship between the two countries is by no means improving. The problem is partially rooted in the cultural differences and misperceptions on both sides. As a Chinese American who was born and grew up in China but has lived in the U.S. for many years, I have been witnessing the constant clash of cultures during my frequent trips between the two countries.
The problem of the tactless political rhetoric becomes even harder to deal with when the Chinese passengers have to face the seemingly unfriendly American flight attendants. For example, they would not help you with luggage if the overhead compartment is full. "You are on your own," I heard one flight attendant once telling a Chinese passenger who was asking for help.
One time a Chinese passenger sitting next to me didn't hear a flight attendant who was trying to serve him drinks because he was listening to his music with earphones. She seemed to be annoyed and offended because he didn't treat her with respect, and told him that he needed to take them off the next time when she talked to him.
Asian air carriers, such as Chinese and Singaporean Airlines, seem to have a different service culture. The young and non-unionized flight attendants actually help you with your luggage when the overhead compartment is full. Theydon't talk back when passengers complain. They kneel on one knee in the aisle alongside the seat when they talk to you.
When Chinese passengers, spoiled as they are by the Asian service culture, board an American airlines aircraft and when they expect the same level of service, the American crew members surely see them as rude, unreasonably demanding and condescending. Their instinct is to put up a shield to fend off being treated as second-class citizens. That's why they seem to be defensive and sometimes even unapproachable, and for that I don't blame them.
Admittedly, the Chinese are not among the most gracious travelers in the world. They are loud and most of them don't speak English. They like to show off their wealth by presenting themselves as rich and deserving to be served. They jump up and open the overhead compartment when the plane is still taxying on the runway. One time the Chinese media reported that passengers even got on to the runway and blocked other planes from taking off because their own flight was late.
Some Chinese passengers have little respect for public space. They make a total mess in the lavatory. They allow their toddlers run everywhere on the plane. My transpacific trip is almost certainly ruined if I have Chinese passengers both in front and in the back. The one in front will most likely pull back the seat, leaving me with very little leg room. The one behind will be kicking and bumping the back of my seat every time I try to fall asleep.
The rise of China has certainly made its presence more noticeable in the world. Yet its newly rich mentality and its unawareness of or unwillingness to follow the existing norms make the keepers of the existing order threatened and resentful. This clash between the new power and the old power has clearly exemplified itself in the growing tension between the U.S. and China in the recent years.
Just like the relationship between the two countries, air travel between the U.S. and China is a bumpy ride these days, especially if you are like me, stuck in the often-packed economy class for 15 hours with obnoxious passengers, aloof flight attendants, and annoying announcements.
It is a ride filled with midair cultural collision, as reflected in both sides' resentment, distrust and blaming of each other. I can't wait to have a less turbulent experience one day. That day may also bring a smoother relationship between the two countries.
Originally published in South China Morning Post 2017-4-17.
Selected reader comments:
To the writer of this article: Glad to know that you will NEVER recline your seat.
Funny that the article states we are supposedly spoilt by Asian service. Why are we "spoilt"? That's why Singapore Airlines is consistently voted one of the best airlines in the world for service. Why would you want to fly with an airline with rude attendants who won't even help with your luggage? That's basic common sense.
Cashed up bogans. Known otherwise as yellow trash
"Brash Chinese air passenger"??!!!!!
How about brash, rude airlines service employees? From flight attendants to gate agents …
Airline service employees in US treat passengers worse than dogs. Seriously, they treat dogs better than humans.
I am tired of lying US carriers, especially on domestic flights. Too bad, unlike China, we have no High Speed Rail. If you don't fly, the only option is to drive.
At the end of the day is respect and tolerate. If you respect and tolerate you will most probably be reciprocated.
In the US, there are several ways to deal with Mainlanders .. guns & hoodlums are enough to deal with them.
Clash of cultures? Total nonsense; the mainland Chinese are ignorant, spoiled, rude, racist and arrogant. The nasty incidents will only when their foul behaviour is punished with prison sentences.
'Service Culture'? Maybe everywhere in Asia EXCEPT China. China = oh, you're laowai/gewilow/etc. - 2X the price for you!
The whites always vote Asian Airlines as the best in service, and expect the dainty Asian air stewardess to serve them whites who think that they are the boss and deserving to be served. But their own service personnel also think they are more superior and do not need to serve what they think is more lowly passengers than them. This is the white man mentality, and it has never changed from the time they down trod on Asia and the world with their colonization up to today where these obnoxious whites still think they are the superior ones. I don’t like white men and never will. They are so full of crap and hypocritical beings.
Look in the mirror and yake the beam from your own eye, racist.
Yet another CCP brainwashed minioin
Unfortunately, most of the mainland Chinese have no class, whichever class they fly. They treat the cabin no differently from a subway car or restaurant table. Money can buy an education. Respect from fellow passengers and air crew have to be earned.
Chinese really do not understand this, nor will the ever. Money is everything, no exception. They beat their chest about '5000 years of history', then defecate on a hospital waiting room floor.
Unfortunately, most of the whites have no class, wherever they interact. They treat other peoples as lower than them and always, I repeat, ALWAYS, look down upon them and give their worthless advice, and expect them to listen and think they are better. Whites will not learn. This kind of behaviors is deeply ingrained in their culture, It is how they are, and their fervent evangelism of Christianity is also a very stark example of how they operate, right from centuries ago till present day.
Then why are whites so far ahead of you??? You had a 5000 year head start. Explain now.
Paul...no i will be very careful to slide my seat back and never recline completely...i do not take my seat as a bed to sleep.
......Chinese passengers both in front and in the back. The one in front will most likely recline the seat, leaving me with very little leg room. The one behind will be kicking and bumping the back of my seat every time I try to fall asleep.........
Don't blame Chinese passengers.....Blame the airlines trying to stuff so many seats with so little legroom in the economy class. I bet the author, or any person regardless of ethnicity and nationality would also like to recline his/her seat on a long flight!
The whole world don't belong to Mainlanders, please educate yourselves on basic manners and etiquettes before venturing out of Mother China. Money can't buy you class.
"Money can't buy you class."
MONEY buys them business class.
Exactly. One only has to walk around Shanghai to see how the Chinese with a little money act. Pedestrians crossing the street better be looking because the car owners ignore the Walk sign - they think since they are in the car they are better. Spitting on the sidewalk. Cutting in front of people in queues...
Also, its basic manner that when someone is talking to you, you take off your headphone....
I most of the time take off my headphones on Singapore Air, but if I don't or other passengers don't, we still get excellent service, that's why I'll buy more for Singapore Air or Cathay Pacific.
No North American airliner!
Please get your facts right...flight attendants are not supposed to help you with your luggage, it is an health and safety issue. If you manage to bring your luggage onboard you should be able to put it in the compartment yourself. If you cant, I suggest you check it in
Not that the flight attendants have to help passengers, but they still do while they are not getting paid [until the door is closed] for an orderly boarding.
Those rude, uncouth white females won’t even help a senior citizen with luggage and you excuse them as following by the book? Yeah, right, that is typical white culture for you, as narrated by a white guy like you, jmscscmp.
Tell this to guy in the wheelchair
Chinese are finally waking up to the true face of Murica. It's not like in TV and movies.
Nope, it’s the other way round; the world is waking up to the ignorance, rudeness and racial arrogance of the Chinese.
The only thing this article proves is that even people who have lived in two different cultures for a long time, can still be full of prejudice. You judge without knowing, you divide based on race, and you repeat without questioning.
I suppose you also tell Black people there's no such thing as racism in Murica cause you haven't felt it (while living white in murica)