Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Breaking the airplane bubble

I've been doing a lot of flying lately. As I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Connecticut, having given a university talk the day before. I'll be flying back down south later today and I've thankfully been seated next to folks who do minimal to no chit-chatting with me, which I'm grateful for.

[of course, having said that, I'm sure I'll be sitting next to that guy who can't stop talking or the woman who wants to talk about why her daughter doesn't call her anymore--UGH]

Anyway, I'm mentioning this because being in airports and being on airplanes make me anxious and slightly racially paranoid. I suppose this requires clarification because for someone who doesn't know me, they may think that I've succumbed to the war on terror and am clutching my shoulder bag around any middle-eastern looking person. This is not what I mean.

I am anxious because I hate flying. I mean, partly it's the hassle of it all, but really it's the smell of the airplane, the fact that I suffer from motion sickness, and the unreality of hurtling my body through the air in a big metal tube. I wouldn't call it a fear of flying...yet, but I am aware that I am making myself do something that defies the law of gravity and common sense. Yet I do it regularly (along with billions of other people). And lets not talk about my sense of guilt over the carbon footprint I've been leaving lately. And I'm not being sent weekly to meetings like some of my friends, so in the scheme of things I know I'm not solely responsible for killing our planet. But I don't think I'm helping either.

But the racial paranoia? Well, airports in the U.S. (where I do almost all my flying to and from), aside from the TSA screeers on the west coast (predominantly Filipino) and the South (largely black), are almost all white spaces. And that kicks in my racial paranoia--my sense of being a non-white person in this tension filled atmosphere and just being hyper-aware of my difference and the way I am perceived and the way I perceive others.

Which I one reason I don't want to break the bubble of silence--that natural silence that exists in airport waiting rooms and among many passengers on board a flight. You sit next to a stranger and you might smile or say good morning, but you both stay contained within your own bubbles, maybe putting on a head set if there's a movie or your iPod when it's safe to open your portable electronic devices. You don't make eye contact. You keep your legs and arms inside the prescribed area of your assigned seat.

I guess I'm thinking of this because the last trip I took--flying home from Austin, TX after my conference--I overheard this older white, retired couple talking to a woman directly across the aisle from me. I was honestly not trying to eavesdrop. But it's hard when the plane is about to take off and you're just waiting on the tarmac and the people across the aisle are talking really loudly. This guy, a Korean war veteran who spent time in Japan, was describing his various travels in and out of Asia and describing life in Japan. He didn't say anything terrible, but I felt myself unusually tense because I was just WAITING. Waiting for him to say the really racist horrible thing that would force me to decide whether this is a moment in which I want to say something while trapped in my seat across from him for a 3 hour flight.

I suppose one could ask who died and made me Captain Righteous (which, by the way, if I had a superhero name would probably suit me to a "T"--not that I'm necessarily proud but I'm definitely aware of how I can get), but I decided, long ago, that I hated having that feeling in the pit of my stomach whenever I was around someone who said something really terribly offensive--esp. about Asian Americans or Asians--because I feel like Asians are such an invisible presence in public discourse.

But like I said, it never happened (although he did make some very disparaging anti-Obama comments to the young woman who said she was from DC and a Mount Holyoke alum (GO MHC!), which I though was particularly rude because the woman, when asked by the veteran, said that she really liked Obama and voted for him and campaigned for him. And then he huffed a bit and said that he didn't like him one bit and proceeded to tell her why! ACK! The woman got very quiet and it was at that point that I broke my own rule and told her that I had once taught at Mount Holyoke and we had a nice brief chat and the vet's wife poked him and I think made him see that he had been rude and so when I retreated back to my bubble, the wife began to talk to her about something totally different and at that point it was safe to use our portable electronic devices, so I turned on my iShuffle and went back inside my bubble.

Lets hope for safe travels for me today and no one making any anti-Obama/tea party comments (that was the vein of the guy's remarks) or any anti-Asian comments that will require me to get righteous and then feel awkward during my two hour-long legs of my trip.


The CLAMShack: said...

i despise airports and the TSA. The tension in my gut starts as soon as I walk up to the first TSA agent and I hand them my drivers license. Just thinking about them and their little blue gloves & special little flashlight is enough to give me a stomach ache right now. I cannot help but feel as though they single me out every time. Especially when I and the boys are pulled aside for additional screening, and my caucasian husband is sent through without a second look!

Anonymous said...

I'm with @Colby family on this one - I absolutely loathe airports, the TSA, and the whole hullabaloo and rigamarole of having the audacity to travel by plane. It's made worse by the fact that I now travel with my son, who's only a toddler, and wrangling him and our carry-ons (because checked bag fees are the devil) is just a nightmare. I can't imagine that it'll get any easier when the second comes along.

Which reminds me - my bubble? Has been practically nonexistent since I started showing. It's amazing how many people will take the sight of my pregnant belly as a cue to begin talking to me. Usually I'm happy to engage, but sometimes I really, really don't want to be bothered ("I just wanted a gallon of milk! IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK?!"). And of course having a toddler is pretty much the same thing, because everyone wants to talk to me about their kids, my kid(s), family stuff, the terrible twos, etc. etc. etc. And like you, if I'm one of a very few poc in an area, I sit there with a weird tension in my shoulders and my stomach, just waiting to see whether Schrodinger's Racist will prove him/herself either way, and hoping that I'll come away from the encounter unscathed.

You know it's bad when I can't even go to my community pool without some weird white dude sitting on the lounge chair next to me having his own not-quite-private tea party on the phone with a friend of his about how much he hates Obama and then trying to get all friendly with me, asking me to try calling his ex-wife because their call got disconnected (um, wth, no) and otherwise trying to make small talk about my pregnancy (no no gtfo please already).

From which I've basically concluded that hell really is other people. Ugh.

skim666 said...

hmm...sometimes i'm really grateful for my obliviousness to other people & ability to tune them out. :\

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for sharing my aversion to airline travel. The flight from CT was relatively harmless. Got through airport security no problem, made my connection, and sat next to business folks who also didn't want to break the bubble.

Here's to not traveling for a while!