“Hello, today’s flight ____ to ____ has been delayed because of ____.”
It’s 8:40 pm on a Friday. We’re lined up at the China Eastern Airlines counter a full ninety minutes before takeoff, and I have everything I need for a great, just-quit-work weekend: passport, check; cleats, check; Frisbee, check; baijiu-Fanta mix, check. But just then, China decides to remind me where I am. Ahead of us in line, an argument begins to stew, froth, and bubble. The verbal combatants are an elderly couple, possibly from the countryside, and two overdressed, overly made-up, and apparently overconfident young women.
The initial dispute is over whether a luggage cart bumped into an ankle, but it gets ugly fast: one of the girls taunts the old man’s ability to speak standard Mandarin Chinese. Airline employees break up the verbal sparring as quickly as they can, but the tone for the evening has been set. At the counter, a friendly but frazzled attendant tells me my flight doesn’t yet have a gate, and I already have an idea of what I’m in for.
“Does that mean the flight is going to be delayed?”
“There’s no way to know right now. Just head through security, take a seat and wait.”
By 10 pm I’ve slumped into chairs around the corner from the China Eastern counter along with 30-plus fellow travelers to Ningbo. There’s a collective nervousness about the total lack of information, but a sense of safety in the knowledge that they wouldn’t leave without all of us. As the minutes tick by, most people have their eyes on the flight monitor, but mine keep wandering to the company whiteboard that sits upside down and untouched in the corner:
“Hello, today’s flight ____ to ____ has been delayed because of ____. We are very sorry for all inconveniences. This sign will be updated every five minutes.”
At 10:50 the television monitor makes its opening play: 32登机口. Gate 32. The news travels via murmur through our group, and we show detectable optimism as we head down the causeway. What greets us on arrival at Gate 32, however, kills that flicker of hope. The expansive gate is populated by a few men in cheap suits who are slumped creatively around the arms of airport benches.
Our group hasn’t sat for more than ten minutes when the flight monitor makes its second play: Gate 19. The number flashes for a minute before settling into a steady neon blue. Our fellow travelers, with their luggage and their discontent, now make their way back down to the far end of the terminal. Gate 19 forms a cul de sac at this end, and the geography matches the mood. As we sink into our seats, people begin fearing the worst and getting ready for the long haul. Instant noodles are purchased, playing cards come out, pillows are unpacked, and you get a moment to appreciate how good Chinese travelers are at settling in wherever they find themselves.
My frame doesn’t fit well on airport benches, so I abandon any expectation of rest and concentrate on worrying. A delayed flight is expected in China, but there’s something eerie about the ever-changing gates and the fact that they’re still advertising a 10:40 pm take-off at 11:45. The airport is fast emptying of staff, and our group hasn’t had contact with China Eastern employees since they were last seen two hours ago.
A few members of the group are dialing airport help lines when the television monitor makes another bold change. At 12:15 am, the monitor informs us that our flight will be departing from Gate 32… at 10:40 pm. Several passengers rise to the bait, but while we’re gathering bags, our collective angst turns into action. The group quickly coalesces behind some very vocal middle-aged women who have had enough. As they spout off, the loose gaggle of passengers transforms into a posse out for blood.
With the China Eastern desk long-since abandoned, the mob rounds a corner to find a break room where employees of another airline are eating Ramen. At this point, anyone wearing a uniform is deemed guilty by association. On the defensive, the workers deny any connection with our airline. Asked where the China Eastern people are, they reply, “They already clocked out.”
“LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN SCREEN BEHIND YOU!”
Fresh blood on a shark snout, that comment. The middle-aged women — we’ll call them the Aunties — are beside themselves and immediately pull out the big guns. “Everybody send out Weibos! Everybody send out Weibos!” Nervous anger and microblog posts begin to emanate out from our group. We demand that our two hostages contact China Eastern people, and we only leave when reports trickle in that our airline’s people are back at the counter.
Marching down the concourse for the third time, our posse is riling itself up for confrontation. As voices grow shriller, distinct sub-groups begin to emerge. At the front the Aunties are feisty and feeble at the same time. They’re dressed and hair-dyed in a way to showcase their (or their husband’s) moderate financial success. Creeping through their 50s, the three women appear to have channeled decades of quiet emotional suffering into indignation over the 800 meters they’ve been forced to walk tonight.
On the other hand, one of the words you keep hearing bounce around their conversation is “rights,” e.g., “consumer rights.” Now that’s something that’s rarely brought up in China (outside of CCTV’s exposes of “malicious” foreign firms), and it’s one that could use a little more play. Consumer rights in China are abysmal, with a company generally considered socially conscious if it doesn’t poison or outright defraud you. These Aunties’ tone may be shrill, but there’s a kernel of a legitimate complaint in there.
Behind them is a loosely assembled group of half a dozen young men. Nearly all wearing black jackets and tacky shirts, the guys look like the kind of people who hang out on street corners and try to sell you receipts or stolen Motorola Razrs. A Chinese person with strong regional prejudices might guess that the men were from Henan. We’ll call them the Goodfellas.
The rest of us are tag-alongs, sharing in the ire but unsure what to make of it. As we approach the China Eastern counter, now populated by three female employees, the Aunties’ wrath finds a target.
“Where the hell have you guys been? We’ve been marching back and forth for hours with no sign of what’s going on!”
“We’ve been here the whole time.” (Lie.) “And why have you been marching back and forth? The flight is delayed and departing from Gate 40.” (Infuriating, but interesting tact.)
As the employees persist with a combination of bald-faced lies and potential half-truths, the outline of our conflict takes shape. China Eastern’s position is that after a brief delay in information, the flight has consistently been set to depart from Gate 40 once the plane arrives. Our claim that monitors have been displaying a revolving stream of gates is met with absolute denial from the employees: the monitors have always displayed Gate 40.
This unfortunate employee has wandered in past her depth here, and she realizes she’s in trouble when the Aunties, Goodfellas, and tag-alongs cry out: “TURN AROUND!” “LOOK AT THE GOD DAMN SCREEN BEHIND YOU!” “READ ME WHAT IT SAYS ON THE MONITOR!” Oohhh. That’s going to be a tough one to wriggle out of, so the woman takes a bold stand: she will not turn around and look at the screen.
Cue: Frenzy Feed.
“You know what, respect goes both ways”
Everyone gets in on the action, with even the most reserved members of the posse spewing venom across the counter. Company policies are being cited, compensation is being demanded, and someone’s character is being called into question. Camera-phones are snapping pictures of faces, name tags, and television monitors. Cornered and argumentatively crippled, the woman calls for reinforcements in the form of a mid-level manager.
When back-up arrives, it is calmer, friendlier and about 125 pounds heavier. The man appears to be in his early 30s, and has probably sat through a few graduate classes on customer service. His hair is dyed and styled to appear slightly more Western, and his healthy potbelly also takes after certain aspects of Americana.
A fresh perspective and some diplomacy buy the man time, but in the end he’s fighting a losing battle. The Aunties quickly work themselves into a frenzy, citing a litany of health issues aggravated by tonight’s regimen of waiting and walking. One with dyed red hair and a complexion to match begins pounding the counter and lecturing Mr. Middle-Manager on her high blood pressure.
The Goodfellas have taken up positions safely behind the Aunties, contributing nothing except a periodic “Yea! She said it!” and the occasional slander of someone’s mother. One member of the gang makes his first real foray into the debate by wadding up a newspaper and throwing it at the manager’s head. It’s a bullseye, granted one without a whole lot of force.
This is where our pudgy middle manager truly shines, if just for a moment. He bows his head, takes a deep breath and says, “You know what, respect goes both ways,” before plodding ahead with his analysis. Unfortunately his position in the argument isn’t proving quite so flexible.
“The flight has always been scheduled for Gate 40… No, I won’t turn around and look at the screen… No, there won’t be any compensation for you passengers. OK?”
The last rhetorical “OK” is uttered in English over his shoulder as he turns to walk away from the counter. The man doesn’t make it two steps before a half-full plastic water bottle sails out of the crowd, over my shoulder and directly into the left cheek of Mr. Middle-Manager.
The man turns on a dime and lunges at the counter as the Aunties retreat. His pudgy fingers grasp at the culprit, a darker man in a grey jacket who is smirking from a safe distance. Slowly awaking to the public relations disaster on their hands, two male employees grab Mr. Middle-Manager by the arms as their female co-workers whip out camera phones and snap pictures of the culprit. The better restrained the big man becomes, the bolder our water-bottle thrower grows. He steps up to the counter and wags fingers accompanied by curses in Mr. Middle-Manager’s face.
“Everybody send out Weibos!”
By this point there are enough camera-phone angles on the scene to accommodate a Matrix-style freeze-frame 360. Each side is hoping to gather evidence for the coming trial to be waged on Chinese social media.
Unfortunately, our manager isn’t doing his side any favors. His initial composure has given way to an elephant seal battle for male supremacy. In struggling to free himself for the offensive, the man exposes his ample belly. Pushed up against a wall he grabs for the only large projectile on hand: a metal stool. Cursing the stench of his assailants’ mothers’ reproductive organs, Mr. Middle-Manager lifts the stool for launch. Lucky for him, one of his co-workers manages to get a hand on it, deflecting the missile onto the counter. The China Eastern staffers hold tight as the aggrieved manager rages and wriggles. Weaponry and energy deprived, Mr. Middle-Manager contents himself with a purely verbal assault as he’s ushered away.
As China Eastern’s lone combatant is dragged off to a back office, some female employees have managed to get around the counter and directly photograph the water bottle thrower’s face. Soon the argument re-centers around the bottle thrower, the Aunties and a gaggle of female employees. By constantly upping the ante and baiting the employees, one cunning Auntie manages to get a woman to swear at her. They all immediately seize on the lone curse word, wagging their fingers in the face of the embarrassed woman who knows she’s slipped up.
The chaos has finally garnered the attention of a higher-up who comes down to fill the role of our fallen middle-manager. He takes a similar tack, apologizing and even bowing. But our impassioned defenders of customer rights are not to be so easily placated. Despite inciting the scuffle, both the Goodfellas and the Aunties are now demanding financial compensation and a direct apology from Mr. Middle-Manager.
As it becomes increasingly clear that neither of these will be forthcoming, most of the tag-alongs begin the slow walk down to Gate 40. Some time between 1 and 2 am, our 10:40 pm flight finally begins boarding. We take our assigned seats along with around a hundred other customers who somehow did get the memo on Gate 40. In the end, the final delay comes from the Aunties and the Goodfellas who defended their honor until the bitter end. They trickle onto the plane after half an hour, empty-handed but determined to give off the mien of victory. The Aunties’ conversations are dialed up four notches as they give a blow-by-blow retelling of the most exciting thing that’s happened to them in a decade. When the emotional hollowness of the conversation really starts to grind my gears I pipe up with a simple, “That’s enough, thanks.” It earns a stink face from an Auntie, but voices are lowered.
Four hours after our scheduled takeoff, China Eastern Airlines MU5177 gains speed down the runway and finally takes off into the black Beijing night.