A 14 hour flight from Chicago to Seoul. I’ve been up all night, no sleep. This is my habit prior to international flights. How to beat jet lag? Force yourself to stay awake long enough to allow your body no choice but to collapse in exhaustion at your destination’s appropriate sleepy time. 24-36 hours at least. It works. It also makes for interesting travel. Doubly interesting in my case, because it is winter in Minnesota, and winter in Minnesota plays unkind tricks on my psyche.
Step back a few months: Since deciding to fly to SE Asia, I am increasingly filled with panic whenever I think about being strapped into a cramped seat in a claustrophobic cabin, tens of thousands of feet in the air, thousands of miles away from shore, with hours to go before there will be any chance of making the safe emergency landing that will be required once I completely freak out and reality starts to cave in all around me. The flight is now looming as my singular fear, growing in anticipation of the date like it does when I know I have to speak publicly, far more daunting than any uncertainty I might have about visiting a new place, not knowing the language, worrying about money, about safety.
I take measures. Whenever the panic starts to rise in my chest at the thought of the flight, I immediately switch my attention from my brain to my breath and wiggle my toes. This will also be my first line of defense at the onset of in-flight freakout. Then I suddenly remember: aisle seat! I need an aisle seat so that I will have an immediate escape route when the uncontrollable urge to leave the unleavable room sets in. Did I even pick a seat when I booked the flight? I check online. Damn. Middle seat! I will be stuck between two undoubtedly large, immobile, talkative, stinky (perfume, BO, dog breath), TV-watching, cocktail-swilling somewhat-sentient beings for the duration of the flight. I can feel my personal space being invaded just thinking about it. I call the nice Asiana Airlines rep, who listens politely as I mumble something about claustrophobia and can something please be done, and in half-broken English she replies, I’m sorry but it cannot.
In spite of myself I tell myself, “You will have to face your death bravely some day. Let this be practice.”
I take further measures. There will be no caffeine or sugar 24 hours prior to departure. No… make that 2 weeks prior to departure. Withdrawal could be as psychically disruptive as ingestion for an addict like myself.
As the day draws closer I progressively strengthen my resolve… Make that no caffeine/sugar for, uh, one week prior. That should be enough to get over the worst of it! OK… 3 days. One day? Right: There will be no caffeine (or sugar) on the morning of my flight. Period.
But probably, contra my usual strategy, I should at least get a good night’s rest before flying? Give the ol’ psyche a fighting chance? Doesn’t matter. By the time I’ve packed, cleaned the apartment, gone over each checklist five times, and filled out my health care directive and living will, the sun is rising and it is time to go. Bravely, deliriously, without the benefit of caffeine or sugar, I set out to face my fate.
But you know, as always, the flight turns out to be fine. In fact, it’s more than fine, it’s pleasant.
This pleasantness is not an accident. This pleasantness is courtesy of Asiana Airlines, who have clearly made the engineering of pleasantness their value-added strategy for a competitive edge in a cut-throat market. Or maybe the engineering and the pleasantness are simply expressions of national character–the aesthetic ethos and production values of contemporary South Korea. Or maybe the pleasantness is a safety measure– a mild ambient sedative to help mitigate in-flight freakouts. It seemed to work on me. Whatever the case, to fly from Chicago to Seoul on Asiana Airlines is to be immersed in a precisely engineered and perfectly choreographed performance of the pleasant.
It begins and ends with the stewardesses. You may have noticed in the US that the once platonic ideal of the airline stewardess has, shall we say, loosened somewhat. The perfectly-formed sexual stereotype of the young, plunging-neckline, short-skirted “coffee, tea, or me” American stewardess of the 50s and 60s has transmogrified into, basically, anything goes. Not so in the East. It is most decidedly not “anything goes” at Asiana Airlines.
I don’t know the official rules, but from what I can decipher, to qualify as an Asiana Airlines stewardess you must be exactly 5′ 3″ tall, weigh 105lbs, be asian, be cute, have hair amenable to being twisted into a bun, have skin color light enough to be further lightened via cosmetics without looking like your face is painted on, have a smile that sort of puckers your lips while curling up the edges of your mouth, and be free of any blemish of the derma. The rest, and perhaps some of the previous, will be provided by the company upon qualification for hire.
The rest includes what must be the result of some proprietary hybrid of exhaustive olympic training and old fashioned finishing school. When they have finished with you, your posture will be erect, your motions contained, graceful, and fluid. Your smile and the brightness of your expression will not waiver. Your vocal tone, pitch, and volume will not vary beyond a prescribed range, and your delivery will be bird-like, sing-song, fluttering. You will have learned to apply make-up with subtle perfection. You will be made imperturbable. You will treat every cranky, incoherent demand as a reasonable request. You will apologize profusely for any perceived inconvenience, regardless of whether the passenger also perceives the inconvenience. You will exude a restrained sexuality; attractive, pleasant, even inviting, but strictly hands-off. Your performance will be impeccable. You will offer no clue as to what you might be like when you are not floating around in the sky.
Asiana Airlines is a factory producing perfectly programmed, socially engineered, pleasant, clean, and cute stewardesses. Human robot servants without the burden of personality, frictionless and adept.
It reminds me of nothing so much as the gyrating robo-fuckme-female bands in Robert Palmer’s 80s music videos; except without the gyrating, and with a pasted pleasant smile where the blank expression would normally go.
The stewardesses are the stars, but they are merely players in a highly choreographed theater of the pleasant. Everything is coordinated to ensure the captive audience remains immersed (and mostly seated) for the duration of the play. Meals are relatively palatable and promptly served. Drinks and snacks appear just as you are beginning to think a drink or a snack might be nice. Some algorithm is employed to determine when exactly night should be declared, and at that moment the stewardesses appear en masse, having swapped their cheery red daytime outfits for subdued brown hats, skirts, and blazers. All passengers are required to close their window shades against the bright sun outside, and all the lights in the cabin are dimmed. Some hours later, morning is similarly initiated, cheery red outfits on and window shades up.
I am surviving this. There are only maybe a half dozen moments during the flight when I feel the walls closing in, the tunnel vision, the panic rising. But I switch my attention from my brain to my breath and wiggle my toes. I gently knock my head on the seat in front of me and hum. The stewardess appears magically with fresh orange juice and sesame snacks, radiating synthetic goodwill. I read The Economist and listen to Brahms. The guy next to me wants more wine, but he’s pleasant enough.
The captain’s deep mellow voice comes over the speakers to announce our decent into Seoul. He asks us all to return to our seats and fasten our buckles. Once everyone is seated, the screen in front of me pops on and the smiling owners of Asiana Airlines appear in a slickly produced pitch for UNICEF. The owners are standing in front of a clean stylish modern building, presumably Asiana Airlines headquarters. They toss a coin into the air. The coin travels across the ocean, landing in Africa. Images of starving black children turn to images of those same children being fed just as the stewardesses start floating down the aisles in pairs, gently shaking cardboard donation boxes and whisper-singing, UNICEF, spare change for UNICEF?
Funds gathered, the airline owners bow to the viewer, and the commercial ends. A cute young woman appears on the screen, looking directly at us and smiling. She is dressed entirely in white, seated on a white chair in a white room. She is sitting with her hands on her knees, immobile, her legs and feet arranged to symmetrical perfection. She is wearing the same pouty-curly smile as the stewardesses. Her skin is almost Caucasian, her face smooth as porcelain. She looks more like an avatar or a cyborg than a human, but she is clearly the latter. Clean bouncy computer graphics fill the negative space around her. It is time for some simple exercises to help ease weary passengers from the stress and tension built up during long hours of flight! Slowly and methodically, without moving any other part of her body in the slightest, the girl raises her hands to her forehead and places her thumbs on two pressure points near her eyes. A cheerful voice describes the motions to be made while the graphics present an animated lateral view. Most of the passengers in the cabin follow along, eyes fixed on the screen, thumbs pressed into eyebrows. Voice and graphics count off one-two-three and the first exercise is over. The girl is magically replaced by a young man, also dressed in white, cute, smiling, perfectly poised, unmoving. Another exercise and we all follow along. Boy and girl. Two living examples of bright, clean, trim, white, cute, pleasant, engineered perfection, leading us all into deeper relaxation.