Friday, June 13, 2008

Row 65

It wasn't what I would have asked for when I told the gate agent we wanted to sit together, Jeri and I. But it was what we got. There are 67 rows in the poor old airplane (movie watching was no temptation, as the screen reminded me of using a pin-hole camera to view an eclipse of the sun so as to prevent damage to my young eyes) and we were in row 65.

We had passed by our fellow country-men. It had taken a while, as they were trying to stow their treasures from the orient into the overhead compartments or "under the seat in front of you". We had passed the Japanese tourists who one can identify easily by the expensive cut of their cotton garments. There were all kinds of people that we had passed and now we were sitting in row 65. Around us were many dark-faced people, unsmiling and tattered. Finding a place for our abundance of carry-on bags was simple. None of the overhead compartments held anything. The flight attendant was in the midst of a struggle of some sort. She held boarding passes and was making an angry speech to them about sitting in their assigned seats. They looked at her, more curious than comprehending. She asked if there was no one there who spoke English. I thought it a strange question. She spoke English, and that wasn't helping much.

Then she began to choose wrongly-seated persons and would guide them by hand to the correct seat, but that didn't work either, because the correct seat would be occupied by another. They were cooperative, as cooperative as they could be under her barrage of instructions and frustration, and their lack of understanding any of it.

She began moving people to seats that they were not assigned to, and then back again to where they weren't assigned to. It was Northwest's worst. Finally she gave up. She really did. When the plane took off, all around us were seats reclined and tray tables down. Some stood up to look out the windows and watch this marvel, the ground disappearing beneath us, others were looking at the in-flight magazine and showing it excitedly to those behind or in front of them.. She said nothing, but chose to sit in her back corner of the plane looking anywhere other than at those for whom she was responsible.

I asked the young fellow across the aisle where he was from. He answered in very clear English, "we are refugees from Thailand. We are going to America. We are going to New York." Thailand is third base to lots of refugees heading for the rest of the world. But Thailand is not their home. So I asked again where his home country was. His answer, "we are refugees from Thailand. We are going to America. We are going to New York." I kept asking in different ways, trying to find out their origin, not really sure why, but trying none the less. And then he broke from his memorized script that he had been answering with each time. We are Karen people. His answer was excited and int he affirmative when I asked if they were from Burma.

They were all dressed warmly, these refugees from Thailand. The guy across the aisle, who sat with a very very short woman, who had trouble looking over the seat backs even when she stood up, wore a hooded sweat-shirt. Several others did as well. They were quiet all night as we flew, these refugees from Thailand, Even the two children who were in the group of about 20. made no sound during the flight. The flight attendant was not so. She came through and began to speak loudly to the mother of the one young girl. The girl was looking at a plastic utensil that had come on the meal tray. The Northwest employee seemed not to know that because these were deemed safe, they had replaced the usable cutlery. "Child, you are going to poke your eye out with that." The child understood no more than the adults around her of what had been said, so the flight attendant made a jabbing motion at her own eye to show the potential danger. I saw this as an interesting way to communicate, and hoped that the child could perceive this as a warning rather than instruction on how to use the object of the woman's illustration.

Another young fellow wore a woman's Christmas hat. It was white with holly and candy canes on it. He kept it on during the flight o keep his shorn head warm. His shoes were cheap canvas shoes. A tag, not with a price or famous brand name, but that simply said "size 7" was still attached to the left shoe. They gagged and retched during the long and very turbulent flight, these fellow travelers. And then about breakfast time, the fellow with the size 7 canvas shoes, took them off to have a look at his feet. They had perspired all night, maybe the only outlet for the heat that he had captured in his body by wearing a sweatshirt and christmas hat. I had wondered how long he would wear his christmas hat in New York. I had wondered a lot of things about these hill people from the jungles of Burma, going to live in New York. And now he was looking at his feet. They had perspired to the point that his callouses had become rather damp and white. This concerned him, his white feet. He showed those around him. The short woman found it quite enjoyable, his worry.

I turned and looked out the window. Landfall. I saw what I supposed to be the mountains of Northern California. I told the refugee who had memorized their places of origin and destination. He stood up and looked out the window. Then he sat down and began to rub his head and cry. He pulled the hood of his sweat shirt over his face and held his head in his hands. Those around him were looking out the window and tears reddened their eyes as well. When I asked for a picture of him and the short woman beside him, he told me they were one family. His mother beside him, and his brother sitting before him festooned with the candy canes sitting beside a man with round-framed glasses who was their father. I took their picture. They enjoyed looking at the results and thanked me. I was sorry that I couldn't give them a copy, just a look. And we landed.

We left the aircraft together, the Martins and the refugees. We got to the escalator together, and I saw for the first time such a large group of people who had never before been on moving stairs. They braced their feet like cats riding on a speed boat. We were in the middle of the group, and saw them cling to one another and then broad jump to safety when the stairs leveled out at the bottom before going into the floor. A woman from the INS was there. She smiled and welcomed them to the United States and they all walked behind her into a room whose signage suggested health screening.

We were in China last week, and Hong Kong. We landed in Tokyo today. We could live in China twenty years, or Japan or Indonesia, But we could never be Chinese, Japanese or Indonesians. But these people will be Americans. And I was proud of them and of the country that welcomed them.