Back to Beijing #2 (better news, Air China dept)

Twenty-plus years ago, traveling around China by air was anything but a peace-of-mind experience. The planes were mainly leftover Soviet junkers; the amenities were sparse; the general atmosphere called to mind Indiana Jones.

I've done a lot of crisscrossing of China by airlines these past few years, on carriers as big and established as Air China and as exotic as Spring Airlines and Deer. (Note for the uninitiated: never, ever get Air China and China Airlines mixed up. The first is the flag carrier of the People's Republic of China. The second is from the Republic of China, aka Taiwan.) Flights going out of either Beijing or Shanghai are usually late, but that's hardly unique to China. Overall, it's less stressful than the standard airport/airline experience in the US.

Last night, my wife and I were taking an evening flight from Shenzhen to Beijing. Departure 6pm, scheduled arrival 9:15. As we got close to Beijing, the ride became very bumpy, and then a bright light illuminated the whole cabin, simultaneous with a big BOOM. A bolt of lightning had hit the wing! Attention-getting but not necessarily dangerous: planes are designed to handle this, I explained to my wife and surrounding folk, in my most patronizing "let the pilot tell you" mode.

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Then my wife noticed on the "your plane in flight" GPS map that we seemed to be heading away from Beijing and toward Tianjin, near the coast. I was warming up for another patronizing "let's settle down" reply, when the attendant came on and said that because "weather in Beijing is bad"  (literally "天气在北京不好") we were indeed headed for Tianjin.

From an aviation point of view, what happened after that was more or less normal. The plane landed in Tianjin, maybe 75 miles from Beijing, the standard diversion site in situations like these. I had dreaded the idea of everyone being offloaded there and bused back to Beijing, along a notoriously jam-packed and dangerous road. Instead, periodically the attendants and then the captain came on the radio to say that we were going to wait things out and eventually fly back.

The interesting part was the passenger reaction.

On American planes, at the instant of the "unfortunately we are going to divert to..." announcement, the cabin would have resounded with angry sighs, "goddamit"s, "not again!"s, "I hate the airlines," and similar ventings of exasperated and entitled put-uponness. As the hours of delay went on -- we sat at on the tarmac at Tianjin for about three hours--  you could depend on a planeful of Americans to be rolling their eyes, making sarcastic comments, looking self-importantly at their watches, and generally demonstrating how inconvenienced they were.

There was none of that on this plane! People slept. They read. They chatted. They snacked. But mainly they didn't act as if they were undergoing some big ordeal. Eventually the plane took off again, we landed at Beijing around 1am, and people got home about four hours later than they expected to.

This struck me because of what it showed about "public manners" in China, an ongoing source of consternation fascination for me. On the one hand, people's treatment of others in public spaces is the thing I enjoy and admire least about China -- as initially laid out here. For instance, the purely-theoretical nature of "lines" -- at ticket counters, subway doors, or anywhere else.  (Things worked better once I realized that the proper English concept was not the "line" or "queue" but the "wedge." You join at the sides and work your way inward and ahead.) The ubiquitous spitting in public places. The Hobbesian pattern of traffic flows -- as below, in Charles Dukes' snapshot of what happened today when a taxi passenger in Beijing opened the door without stopping to wonder whether a "bread box" taxi might be shooting the gap between the stopped taxi and the curb. The absence of little social-courtesy grace notes -- I will probably have a heart attack if I ever see a young man stand up to give a subway seat to an old person or pregnant woman, or see the first person into an elevator push the "open" button to let others in rather than immediately hammering at "close." I'll stress that these are public manners, for people you don't know.  For people to whom you have some connection, no gesture of consideration is too great!

So why were the same people who would, once the plane got to Beijing, undoubtedly be climbing over each other to be first out the door, now taking everything with such calm good grace? I don't know, but my working hypothesis is this: many people in China have actually absorbed the old saw about "the serenity to accept the things I can't change." They scramble and fight when they think it will make even a tiny difference. When they know it won't, they calm down rather than pout. (Americans, by contrast, pout even when it does no good.)

I've seen something similar in traffic. If the flow is moving at all, even two miles per hour, people will be cutting each other off and driving on the sidewalk or the wrong side of the street to get some minor advantage. But if it's totally stopped -- because of an accident, a big-shot motorcade, or some other force-majeure issue -- most drivers appear serene. The gridlocked circumstances that would lead to berserk outrage on an American road are met with dignified patience by most Chinese drivers. I first noticed this last year in Beijing, where some mishap on the East Third Ring Road left traffic at an absolute standstill for more than an hour. I was going crazy. The taxi driver, who had previously been swerving between lanes like a demon, sat calmly and hummed traditional songs. (And before you wonder, he was making much less money in stalled traffic than he would have been if we were moving.) Getting angry wouldn't do any good, so he didn't bother.

I said this was a good-news post, and here is what I mean: First, the airline itself handled this with professionalism, courtesy, and aplomb, which is worth notice. Second, the nearly-full airplane whose passengers were nearly all Chinese behaved in a way their counterparts in richer countries could learn from. That's worth noticing too, and I did.
(Thanks to Charles Dukes for photo, and to friend and fellow passenger Duncan Clark for wee-hours ride home from airport.)