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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Buttering the Salad

There are only two of us, in the very back of the plane. She is Chinese. It’s dinner time, and she is concentrating on the little square dish holding the salad. She looks puzzled. After several moments, she picks up the pad of butter and begins buttering the salad.

It’s time to come back to the US and finish packing. Real work has barely started and already I’m coming back to (not quite) home. I wish I wasn’t leaving now. There are meetings for me to attend in the US, client meetings. That’s something new, I’ve never had clients before. The flight is very very long, flying over the arctic. The snow capped mountains and valleys are breathtaking on a clear day. Fourteen hours is a lot of time to fill. I have books, food and my computer and naps to keep me occupied. Those things you can control. You cannot control who your neighbor will be for the duration.

I’m so far back in the plane that the tail section narrows to allow only two seats on the side. My neighbor comes on the plane late in the boarding process. She has a carry-on and cannot reach the overhead compartment. I help her put the bag away and she says ‘thank-you’. She says it the way I speak chinese… tentatively, quietly, full of uncertainty. I ask her in my limited mandarin if she speaks English? Ni hui bu hui shuo yingwen? Bu hui. She does not, that is our entire conversation for the next 14hrs.

I would guess she has not flown before. She clutches her large purse on her lap as if unsure what to do with it, holding it for security. They come early with in the flight with the customs declaration cards and she hurriedly fills it out and tries to give it back to the flight attendant. She does not watch the movie or read. The drink cart comes, she points. The dinner comes and she looks at the salad.

I empathize with her situation completely. I see myself in her. To be in totally unfamiliar surroundings and not know the expected behavior/response/action. I say ‘excuse me’ in mandarin. I pick up the little container of salad dressing on my tray and pantomine applying it my salad. “Oh!” is the look on her face. I’m sure I am buttering the salad everyday in China.

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