Before I moved to the U.S in 2002, I received a call from Korean Air. Yup, I was applying for a job as a flight attendant, once upon a summer back in 1997. At the time I was still living in Indonesia. When the phone rang, I was quite worried, traumatized by my failed attempt at getting a similar position in Singapore Airlines. Why? It was pretty confusing. They were looking for people with a “clear and excellent complexion”, according to one of the requirements in the ads. I couldn’t really grasp that as a part of their expectations; however, I tried my luck. I sat for the interview answering questions. The interview progressed to their polite request to show my arms. They approached me quite closely to inspect not only arms but also my face, neck, hands, legs. Holding my breath, I prayed that their exposure to my freckles wouldn’t disqualify me. But they let me go. Luckily, my job interview with Korean Air turned up fine. Yes, there were questions to answer, standing posture, turning around. The phone call that day brought me a great news: I got the job!
The only thing that made travelling around the world possible for me was to be a flight attendant. I could imagine myself landing in such a scenic view of Alaska, touching the snow for the first time. Looking upon the flickering lights of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. And later in spring, sipping a glass of vino and shopping a pair of boots in Rome before making a quick stop at Fontana di Trevi. I’d also consider taking a surfing lesson in Waikiki with a gorgeous brawny, local Hawaiian and having a Luau dinner — or perhaps hopping on a red decker around the Buckingham Palace. Everyone dreamed to see the world and the door to that opportunity just opened widely, at least for me and the other 23 applicants from Indonesia that year.
“You’re so lucky,” My family said, and I totally agreed. It was thrilling to imagine working in such a different setting: environment, culture, food, language. But I wanted to make my parents proud. After a month of training in Jakarta and Seoul, I officially became a flight attendant. I couldn’t sleep the night before my first flight. The first day would be a 6-hour and 50-minutes’ flight from Indonesia to South Korea.
I wanted to look perfect; so, three generous handfuls of the extra strong L’Oréal styling mousse on my hair, blow-dried. Red lipstick, I mean — as red as Aleppo chili papers – a statement of confidence, passion and heat. I carefully put on a pair of brand new, skin-colored nylon pantyhose, then a white, perfectly ironed uniform blouse unto which I tied a silk scarf (that had Korean Air logos all over it) into a perfect bow tie. The blouse was topped with a dark, navy-blue vest. Then I wore a set of dark blue corporate suit jacket and a pencil-skirt. Both the vest and jacket had two types of pins: A wing pin and my nametag pin, which display an Indonesian flag next to my name written in capital letters. I also had a pair of 3-inched- heels which were uncomfortable, as heels were not my favorite. But we’d put on our cabin shoes, those dark blue flats — comfier to walk around with, securely snuggling inside the shoe pouch kept in my flight bag.
My dad insisted he’d give me a ride to the airport, which usually took about 2 hours from Bogor, my hometown. We didn’t talk much during our trip. Talking had always been the hardest part and I didn’t know where to start. But my dad seemed proud of my new job — I’d be working on a plane, doing trips across the Pacific, an independent daughter who’d make above the average salary. Basically, the stuff he’d share with his colleagues, friends at church and the neighbors. These things would somehow elevate our family name – in the society we lived in. I chose to forget my actual dream to be an English teacher since I figured my English tutoring job would never contribute too much for my family. And today, it hit me even more seeing a sunshine in his eyes when he picked up my luggage. At the same time a hollow part inside me quenched for a conversation with him. He had given so much and sacrificed everything to raise me and my other siblings. A sudden fear attacked me. There’s so much more at stake if I failed and there’s a feeling that if I failed, I wasn’t only failing myself, but my family, especially him who’d gone through so much. But just as though he read my mind, his gentleness broke our silence, “Don’t be afraid, God is with you and you’re going to be just fine.” From then on, I’ve had troubles saying goodbyes to him. I thanked him and hugged him when we arrived at the airport. Walking away from him with gloom and hesitance, I looked back. He was gone. We should’ve talked and listened to each other more. The moment when I realized it was too late for everything.
The airport was full of all kinds of people and colorful luggage rumbling toward different directions. I passed by a group of people commonly known as Hajj pilgrimage group traveling to Saudi Arabia. This was a common sight inside the airport. Then in a corner, a seemingly young college student was saying goodbye to her parents. Some kids were fortunate enough to have parents that send them to foreign schools. But what attracted me the most was a group of Indonesian men and women wearing corporate training jackets and pants, sitting on the floor. They were attentively listening to a briefing yelled by someone over a megaphone. Like me, I was guessing they might have found a great opportunity to work abroad for a new adventure and a better life. A glimpse of naivety showed in their faces but seeing their bright eyes sort of motivated me to keep walking. The loud megaphone called out; they got up quickly and got ready.
A group of women wearing hijab were also getting ready for a trip to Saudi Arabia. They were not going to perform Hajj pilgrimage. Usually coming from the country sides, they’d seek a better life for their families by getting employed as housekeepers and maids. The news about what usually happened to these women really bothered me. Many would come back with a lot of fortune. But at times, many would come back with traumatic experiences. The worst thing I heard about them was the women’s disappearance for many years in Qatar. At first, they managed to transfer their first salary to their families in Indonesia, but later their whereabouts were unknown until their tragic death appeared at news. I sighed. The hijabs they were wearing, neatly and snuggly covered their hair which only accentuated the ingenuous eyes. They smiled blissfully at me, without any words between us, like we understood each other. We’re not the only ones leaving the family behind.
Toward Gate E5 my flight bag’s cartwheels spun a little faster as I was trying to recite my task drill. There’s a lot to memorize. What if I forgot all these? My ‘What-ifs’ developed into a deadly self-pity scenario. I am a slow poke, could I be fast enough? What if I made a stupid mistake? What if we must do an emergency landing, like water landing. What if we crashed? I don’t want to die tonight. I haven’t got married. Out of the blue, my dad’s last words came back and soothed me. I breathed deeply and continued to walk by the art galleries, restaurants, and duty-free shops, where I spotted a group of Korean crews. Shoot, they saw me. I reduced my speed and bowed. I said, “Annyeonghashimnikka.”
One crew lady slightly nodded and smiled, and the other two didn’t seem to care if I existed. I took a quick glance at their make-up and hair buns. The compulsory makeup class at the training center introduced us to certain protocol on how we’re supposed to look: Clean, elegant, and professional. I instantly saw something in these women: A representation of how Korean women beautified themselves. Like clean and smooth canvasses, their faces were painted with almost the same color shades. The hair buns were not messy buns, no single strand of hair rebelliously stuck out; instead tightly secured and clipped by a dark blue and brown ribbons. Their resemblance to each other was staggering— my inability to distinguish one from the others made my first day a perfect excuse. But here’s the great news: we’re allowed to address the Korean crew ladies who owned higher seniority level with “Onnie”, meaning: the older sister. Onnie was a crucial word that can powerfully maintain peace on earth. Onnie neutralized any presumption and prejudice that could take place between two different countries (from Korea and somewhere else) or two co-workers (from Korea and somewhere else). So, knowing that they’d be my Korean older sisters on board was awesome, though I was still wondering if I’d ever catch up with their perfect looks. I sneakily checked on my nails. They were cut short and coated transparent, too bland and inexperienced.
At Gate E5, I finally merged with the rest of the crews and proceeded toward a jetway, the tunnel that connected us to the aircraft. My heart beat faster. What do I do first? We arrived at the aircraft door. No one else welcomed us except a high-pitched buzzing noise, a weird smell (odorous garlic, bread and musty iron) and a cold temperature. Catering carts were in and out by the loaders, there was also a security guy supervising, it seemed to be a preboarding dynamic since I saw the crew acted normal and parted toward each working zone, preparing things. I pulled my bag along the aisle all the way to the very end of the aircraft where I met other Indonesian crews. Their presence somewhat relieved me. After changing my high heels to flats, I contemplated the next. I watched and followed others, mostly. The senior co-worker reminded us to first introduce ourselves and greet the pursers, if possible, asking for their guidance during the flight.
The crews must also check and report all emergency equipment on their assigned door and jump seat via public announcement. I’d rather someone else did this, but it would be stupid if I refused or if I suddenly fainted. Trembling, I picked up the phone. I began to speak on the phone, listing all the equipment I could find around me. For the first time my croaky voice was ‘broadcasted’ in a commercial airline without passengers. I supposed that was something.
The bright blue seats with a white fabric attached on each headrest were quite appealing. On each seat was a small white pillow accompanied by a brown plaid blanket inside a plastic wrap. Seatbelts were nicely set and crisscrossed. Everything looked ready around here. Magazines and newspapers were set. The ground staff workers were leaving one by one.
An important thing was different levels of bowing on training days. We practiced bowing in the classroom, elevator, briefing room, hallways, entrance, even the bus. I concluded the more ‘offense’ or regret we did or felt, the lower my bows should be, that made sense. It’s crucial to bow really low in expressing a deep regret for not providing enough chicken or beef or for reminding a passenger that he’s had too much liquor. We also had to sort of bringing our standing posture down to at least level with the passenger if possible. Bowing became a culture I embraced. I learned that bowing in general would imply “I am aware of your existence near me so I must highly respect you and I’d be blessed by your guidance, advice, blessings, excuses, and mercy.” This is crucial in treating the elderly or those with a higher seniority.
Now it’s time for boarding. I was so excited to greet my passengers. But something mystified me when a violin orchestra was played out of the blue. That moment when a classical music just transferred me into such realms of tastefulness to everything. Suddenly, everyone appeared graceful, charming, and brilliant. No one was yelling or screaming. Suddenly, everyone spoke politely, and their coats somehow smelt like genuine leather. Hats and shoes turned fancier and more polished under the governance of a refined piece of Rachmaninoff’s. Such grandeur also made a big difference to me when standing and bowing politely to each of my passengers. I think I gave them a dazzling smile and eye contact while pointing to their seats because my passengers looked even more dazzling tonight. Classical music turned some passengers into socialites who just came on board, took their coats off, and just watched us the cabin crews assisting with the lifting of their heavy kabangs into overhead compartments with the strength and dignity of statuesque women.
The cabin doors were finally closed. The purser announced the upcoming safety demonstration and when I heard it a sudden memory loss attacked me. There’s no way I’d do safety demonstration because again, I was new, right. I expected to watch or do a different task. But a crew member suddenly handed me a bunch of equipment including that yellow vest with red tubes and seatbelt. She hissed, “Just listen to the instruction and do it!” and she took off. I stood trembling by the door like a cornered little mouse facing rows of alley cats. Since I felt the necessity to do it correctly, I must follow the movement of the crew that was performing the demo behind me; thus, I kept turning my head mimicking her. An ajuma (or older lady) chuckled in front of me. When would this be over? I could only smile and move awkwardly. At least I could amuse her with my six- minute stupid entertainment. When it was over, there’s no time to hide my face. We all had to check each passenger’s seatbelt before taking off. I finally went to my jump seat and listening to the Captain’s order for the crews to sit. And that was that. I was flying!
The first three hour of service went so fast. I first put on my apron and help set up the cart to distribute earphones. Then we set up the Arirang cart, which was the drink and snack service cart. Then we start offering all types of drinks with snacks and napkins from the first row to the end. We also refilled the drinks and collecting dirty cups. Meanwhile, the other crews were busy in the galley filling up each meal tray with the oven-heated entrée. Serving meals with class seemed to be what we aimed for and everything had to properly conducted. During the meal service, I offered wine using clean and white linens. Then I served tea, while the Onnies poured the coffee. When we’re done with meal service, I had to collect the trays. It was tricky for me to balance between inserting each tray smoothly back into the cart —and keeping up with my Onnie‘s pace. Though we collected using the same cart face to face, we hardly spoke to each other. She pushed the cart pronto while I was still maintaining a sweet talk with a passenger, asking if she’s done with her meal… And if I could put her tray away. Onnie suddenly said, “Pali juseyo!” and she mumbled something to herself. I was sweating from all the dynamics of just collecting trays with her until reaching the last row. Pleasing my passengers is a must, but I had to please the team even more.
My throat was parched, longing for a glass of coke spritzed with lemon juice. But too bad, no drinking allowed. I started losing my focus when cleaning the aisle until someone finally called us to eat. We took turns eating while standing inside the galleys by the counters, curtain closed. My ears, though, had to stay alert for all types of “ding” sound in the cabin; because if that occurred, we must immediately leave our food and attend to the passengers’ demand first (what’s the use of taking turn, then?) I’ve been a slow eater all my life but that day, I didn’t have to work on my speed. I’ve transformed into a hangry horse who forgot to maintain her old cute and delicate eating manner. I munched and gulped that piece of chicken and vegetables while facing the hot ovens in front of me. I’d take everything that’s eatable on my tray, forgetting the world all the way to the last drop of gravy and crumbs. I felt so grateful that I could eat. I celebrated the “Crew meal” written on the aluminum foil that wrapped our entrees. Food and drinks were free, and I finally fixed myself a glass of coke and spritzed some lemon on it.
Distributing the immigration and custom declaration cards would be my next duty. While the senior crews went on with their duty-free sale carts. Two junior crews had to stand behind them with shopping bags handy or go back and forth the galley to fetch the requested item and handed it to Onnie. After everyone’s content and happy, the whole cabin light was dimmed and darkened for movie time— back in the days when there’s only a big screen on the wall played two movies in a row for cabin entertainment, when more people requested for playing cards, pens and notes.
A sudden high-pitched voice startled me, “RS!” An Onnie called. I was confused. I pointed to myself confirming if she did call me. She nodded impatiently and pointed to the nearby restroom. “Do lavatory check. Now.” I didn’t want to make such a big deal about my new name, but she could have easily read my nametag attached to my vest. It was written in capital letters, proudly next to the Indonesian flag. I eventually learned that “RS”, or “Regional Stewardess” was an alternative calling when an Onnie saw us differently from her own people and that all regional stewardesses were all just the same. But I needed this job. I bowed with obedience, “Ye, Algesseumnida.” Yet I caught a slight smirk on her face. At least she spoke to me, in English.
I found a pair of gloves on a wall compartment and came to the assigned lavatory. As I opened it, and a sickly stench penetrated my nose. Water was all over the floor, wall, and mirror too. God. Did someone just have a shower? I held my breath, unable to tolerate such a smell that came from that Lilliputian sink. That sink! It’s filled up with brown, yellowish vomit. Where’s that classical realm when I needed it again? My head popped out to steal some cabin air and I looked to see if I could find that Onnie, I didn’t know why. I just wanted to scream for everything. It wasn’t necessarily for the puke, though. Perhaps it started from the tray collecting and the new name calling. The smirk. But for a good reason I spotted nobody except a short line of passengers in front of the lavatory. I screamed in silence.
Isolated in the wet and dirty little room, I looked at my face at the mirror— a face of a twenty-two-year-old woman whose lips were red. And she didn’t even like the color, at all. The redness faded away and to compensate she tried to smile those lips. A face of someone dreaming to taste a glass of vino in Rome and a Luau dinner in Hawaii. There’s always a cost to every extravagance under the sun, capturing every perfect sunset across the continents offering us beauty. To some, it was a high-priced airline tickets plus accommodation and all, but to me it’s just a metallic bowl of puke. More like a one-slight hiccup. What a silly face! Such a mirroring, though, helped reconstruct my first “ruin”. And so, with occasional gagging and gasping, I started pressing down the drain button to dispense the accursed liquid. Slowly it went down until the sink made a weird sucking sound. I wiped and sanitized everything. I dried the mirror upon which I made my first reflection on board. All were sparkly and squeaky clean. I exited the lavatory— enlightened.
A bunch of older people were flocking on the aisle and some stood by the door, trying to peek through the bigger window to look outside. An ajoshi was doing arm- stretching and knee- bending. He looked much older than my dad. The rest were engaged in a humorous discussion as they burst to laugh together. There’s something peculiar about the way Korean elderly people laughed, their eyes were also laughing. They radiated a genuine laughter and kindred spirit that reminded me of my grandma. With that said, my tensed back and burning toes felt better. With a smile I bowed and greeted them on my way to the galley. I eventually realized that I smiled not just because of the job. I brought my Indonesian culture with me: The culture in which people smile in all occasions. People are friendly and they’d also smile when they’re in trouble, like making peace to themselves — a self-remedy.
I sought to find the Onnie that told me to check the lavatory. She was busy writing something in the galley when I found her. With a friendly tone I said, “Onnie, lavatory check kheunaseyo!” And she responded, “Ne.” She never looked at me. But the raising tone from such a short word sounded like an endorsement. I bowed and left the galley. I looked for my little cosmetic bag and fixed my red lipstick in the bathroom, where I started to count how many hours ‘til we’d be landing in Seoul.
Edna P. Chiclana is a poet and a student who grew up in Indonesia. Her poems explore cultures, nature, the conditions of the human heart, and God. She traveled overseas as a flight attendant of Korean Air. She’s currently living in the U.S and completing her degree in English. Her work has appeared in Nota Bene of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society and Inspired of the University of Minnesota, USA. She also enjoys cooking, singing, and spending time with her family.