Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill. A pile of rubbish has accumulated over the overheard comments of three Cathay Pacific flight attendants, which included some satirical remarks about mainland Chinese and their problems with English and Cantonese.
China Daily, who else, thought this reflected a company culture which worshipped foreigners and looked down on those from mainland China. Chief Executive John Lee said “The words and deeds of the flight attendants hurt the feelings of compatriots in Hong Kong and the mainland and destroyed Hong Kong’s traditional culture and values of respect and courtesy,”
The Standard devoted a whole editorial to the micro-scandal, raising the possibility of a boycott by aggrieved mainlanders. Had Cathay Pacific grovelled with sufficient ardour and humility to “resolve the crisis”, the newspaper wondered.
Can we all try to grow up? I realise that Chinese feelings are incredibly delicate but there is really nothing to see here. People in service industries seldom gather, as Adam Smith might have put it, even for merriment or diversion, but the conversation turns to complaints about their customers and employers.
After all, adopting a servile attitude to complete strangers is an effort. One does it as part of the job but a certain subconscious resentment inevitably builds up. And some customers are, to put it gently, nicer than others.
When I worked in bars, the eccentricities of customers were a routine subject for comment and discussion after work, some of it quite critical. I once had the onerous task of writing a feature about the Crazy Paris Show, a theatrical offering in Macau carefully described as “not a strip tease, but an artistic nude show”.
In the hotel where the artistically nude women stayed, I interviewed the only Brit, and was then offered a ride to the theatre with the cast on a coach. All the other cast members were French and assumed erroneously that I did not speak their language. So during the trip I overheard and enjoyed a distinctly scathing discussion in French of the customers and management. I did not report this.
This sort of thing has undoubtably been going on for a long time. Bertolt Brecht wrote a song about it for the Threepenny Opera which has survived as a single — Pirate Jenny in English – with versions by Nina Simone, Judy Collins, Steeleye Span and others. Original in German by the incomparable Lotte Lenya here.
Griping about the customers is inevitable and probably universal. It is, though, an essential part of this popular hobby that it should be done out of earshot of those being discussed. This seems to be where our flight attendants went wrong: the complaining passenger, according to The Standard, “sat near the crew’s resting area [and] heard them complaining about customers”.
There is no reason to suppose that such complaints are particularly directed at mainland Chinese. As this was a flight from Chengdu, most of the linguistically challenged passengers would presumably have been those from mainland China. No doubt a flight from Japan would have produced different, but similar, confusions over such things as the difference between “blanket” and “carpet”.
I dare say on flights from Europe, notes and tips are exchanged on the important topic of which customers are getting totally wasted on the free plonk. So it goes.
The important lesson here is that airline passengers get bored with nothing to do, and they’ve all got phones. So if you are a flight attendant who wants to cut loose with some well-chosen words about the daft bat in seat 55C, save them for later, when you are safely out of earshot of the nosy parker in 77D.
It says in the Bible that God is always listening. These days He is rarely the only one.
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