Reading on Planes, Confrontations with White Men

Lately I’ve come to appreciate the calm joy of reading aboard a flight. More-so when I realize that until July of last year I had hardly even stepped inside a plane in my life (technically a lie, as my mother has told me I’d flown before, though that was at an age early enough for me to have no recollection of the experience whatsoever, and could just as easily have never happened). Now if there’s one thing I look forward to when flying to a new country, or to some far-flung corner of the archipelago, it’s cracking open the spine of a new book, an open can of coke on the folding table in front of me, and savoring the words while outside my window, beneath us, various cloud formations, different puffs and hazes, cruise along a vanilla sky.

Reading Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters on a flight back from Romblon.

I was on a flight just this last week to Tablas, Romblon, and back, and each of the way I was going through two books: Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere (translation in Filipino by the great Virgilio Almario), and Paula Fox’s much-lauded Desperate Characters. It seems that the subject or genre of reading material doesn’t affect much the pleasure of the experience. On my first flight last year, to Nagoya, I remember starting and finishing Ryu Murakami’s Piercing (and a disturbingly peaceful, or peacefully disturbing, experience it ended up being), while on the flight to and back from Kaohsiung, I finished Charles Rosen’s insightful Piano Notes.

A short tangent on choosing airline seats: as much as possible check-in early and request the staff for a window seat if you’re intending to read during the flight. Especially on long-haul flights they’re apt to turn off the cabin lights during takeoff and until they begin serving refreshments. Unless you’re the type who has a weak bladder, in which case do go for an aisle seat and just use the reading lights overhead. Even then, nothing beats the warm, natural sunlight hitting the cream-colored pages. It’s almost as if the window seat was made for bibliophiles.

The view out my window .

Once, on a four-hour flight from Manila to Singapore, I had the misfortune of sharing a row with an obnoxious white passenger. Often I avoid having to mention a person’s race in my writings, but there’s simply no better adjective, no more appropriate term by which to summarize the entitled arrogance, the impatient condescension in his manner. He sat at the aisle. He was tall, had long legs that hardly fit in the space between the seats. He was wearing khakis and an orange button-down with long sleeves. While we waited for takeoff, he was poring through some pages of what appeared to be an academic manuscript, probably a pre-print of somebody’s paper – maybe his, maybe somebody else’s. I imagined him as a professor-in-residence at a little-known Asian university (Singapore? Philippines? Elsewhere in the southeast?). The cabin crew had already demonstrated the safety procedures and we’d taxied as far as a few hundred meters away from the takeoff station, and yet we weren’t moving. The pilot went on the PA to announce that air traffic control had put us on hold to manage a current build-up on the landing queue.

A few more minutes of this, and the Professor grew restless. He put down the manuscript he was reading and started staring at the cabin crew in agitation. He was shaking his legs. Then, when he obviously couldn’t take the wait any longer, he called out loud to the crew: “Any moment now!” As if all this time they’d simply been deferring the takeoff to piss him off.

But he was obnoxious in general, and normally I wouldn’t care for any of the multiple scenes he would cause throughout the flight, if only he hadn’t gone in direct conflict with me. Normally my bladder is in top shape during long-haul trips, be it on land, sea, or air, but I’d had too much coffee before boarding and had forgotten to use the loo back at the gate, so I politely excused myself from my window seat. He expressly – and I mean, expressly, emphatically – denied me passage, as if on principle, as if to let a young Filipino man through the already inadequate leg space he occupied was an insult to his very being, and told me, “It’s not a very long flight, boy, okay? If you wanted an aisle seat you should have paid for one.” He went back to his manuscript.

And it infuriated me to the point that I no longer cared for urinating, for the book I was reading (Kyung-Sook Shin’s Please Look After Mom, the mother of literary tearjerkers), or for good manners in general, and was suddenly hell-bent on one and only one thing: getting back at this white man. As it happens the gods of circumstance have a playful sense of humor, and almost immediately the cabin crew announced that they would be turning off the lights. Before the announcement was even halfway through, the cabin went dark, and the only light came from the golden trickle of late-afternoon sunlight through the windows. That was when the devil whispered in my ear.

I put away my book and immediately pulled down the shade. Right away, our entire row was engulfed in darkness. Not pitch-black darkness, but definitely not the kind that permitted reading, either. He looked again at me with his privileged exasperation, as if to say, oh give me a break, at which I calmly responded: “Sir, if you wanted a window seat, you should have paid for one.”

The bulky, under-dressed Korean sitting between us failed to suppress his laughter.

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