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The tangled web of cultural niceties

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2014-04-19 13:55

The tangled web of cultural niceties

Now "stewardess" is considered politically incorrect and has been replaced. In Chinese, the equivalent kongjie (air sister or sister in the air) is actually more sexist. So, when Chinese gripe about their flying experiences on Western airlines, they often change the term to "air matron" and, in my case, probably "air granny".

Perhaps it's just me, but I feel a crucial distinction between being served by a 45-year-old and by a 65-year-old. In Asia, the pervasive Confucian value system ordains that the young obey the old. When you reach the age of 60, you are by age master of the household and elder of the village. You wait to be served by those younger than you.

After that UA episode, I did some soul-searching. I can debate with my compatriots about the rights of the 45-year-old in this line of job, so why not the 65-year-old if he or she can perform the task? If looks should not be a factor in such a judgment, then the age difference should not matter.

If you examine it from another perspective, the woman who served me could have had all kinds of practical reasons for continuing to work. Shouldn't she be applauded for being a contributing member of society?

Maybe it was the slight shaking of her hand that triggered my sentiments. But no, even if she had been steady, I still would have been uncomfortable. The notion that someone old enough to be a grandfather or grandmother walking down an aircraft aisle, which could be caught in sudden turbulence, and serving younger passengers would utterly overturn the Confucian respect for senior citizens.

Since UA is not a Chinese airline and most of its customers are non-Chinese, my culture-specific angst had to be kept to myself in case it created trouble for her. During the flight, I ordered as little as possible and cleaned up my table before she came. I wanted to minimize her workload the best way I could.

I knew it was ludicrous, but I couldn't help it. I was not brought up in a very traditional family, but still that situation unsettled me, to say the least.

The issue is often compounded with sexism. Were the UA flight attendant a man, would I have thought differently? Fundamentally, no. During my first trip overseas, back in 1986, I was placed in a similar but smaller dilemma. Our Canadian host took us, a group of Chinese, to a restaurant and the teenage girls in my group helped serve the food. The host asked me, the translator, whether China followed the "women first" etiquette. I said no, we have the "elders first" Confucian rule.