The flights were always the most boring part of any event our family had to attend. It wasn’t the waiting. No, it was the flight attendants and their cardboard hair over vinyl faces with paint on their eyelids and cheeks and crayon on their lips - their perpetually pursed, frowning lips. It was the Play-Doh food served on thin plastic beds that cost two cents and made you wonder where your thousand dollars had gone. Or was it the sardine effect, where I was a numbered body among 300 others - where everyone was a toothache who made their periodontal populace more agitated by the minute. There are so many minutes in an hour, and so many hours in a plane ride. Then it was the way the robotic clown-faced attendants served the plastic food wrapped in resentment to each flopping, helpless fish in the tightly closed can.
Whatever anyone says, the misery and painful nature of life can be summed up in the coach section of a Boeing 747. It’s where I’ve spent many, many hours of my life, and where I will probably spend many more. Usually the fact that an airplane uses recycled air to fuel the lungs of its passengers makes the flight uncomfortable, but this was much more; it was a flight that, of the hundreds I have taken, I will never forget.
It must have been eight hours into a 12-hour flight from Asia to America. We took the trip twice (sometimes even four times) a year to see our (due to events out of our control) estranged family in the U.S. The flight was always the least of our worries, as we knew that at its end would be the awkwardness of cousins and grandparents we hadn’t seen in months trying to renew the frayed ties that blood just couldn’t preserve.
I remember the wooziness of waking from a deep REM cycle like it was yesterday. It was 3 a.m. my time, who knows what time in the sky, and dark as a dead willow. The seat was scratching my bare, freezing shoulders as I shifted to one, then the other side of my increasingly numb bottom. In the back, I heard a baby crying the way a wildebeest moans when it’s shot on a savannah. I remember thinking about the different sounds, and how depressing each was, they’re either sad, mellow, ignorable or regular. Together they were a symphony of misery resounding off the plastic interior of this whale in the sky, this giant handful of metal carved into a paper plane, so out of its element, scaring the poor birds from the clouds. The sounds made me feel like I was still dreaming.
As I started drifting into a creeping sleep, everything shifted into slow-motion. First I noticed a change in the sounds: there was a loud thud, and a male voice yelling “Stop” as a small Asian man suddenly fell on my seat and slapped me across the face with both hands in a fast, stinging motion that elevated me into a delusional state of consciousness, as though I were dreaming a terrible nightmare - but I wasn’t. I moved away slowly, though the whole event took 15 seconds. His nails grazed my face in a harsh, uneven manner that left stains on my jacket and a mark across my cheek.
As I began the momentary burst into consciousness, I realized that I was buckled into my seat and couldn’t get away. It became immediately clear that I was being violently attacked by a grown man, and I had nothing with which to protect myself. My mother yelled, “Get off my daughter! Get off her! Stop this, please! Please!” My brother struggled to get out of his seat to help, his fumbling 14-year-old hands on the thick seatbelt. I screamed something indiscernible and put my hands over my face as he got in one last hit - one that left a permanent scar. Then a man from a few rows back stood up and hauled him off of me.
I sat there stunned. I had been beat up on a 300-passenger aircraft. I had no escape. There would be no emergency landing, no special treatment for me, the victim (they actually put the man who assaulted me in the front of the plane - yes, into business class) and there was no apology from the little man. I was frozen with a fear I’d never known before. In a movie when there’s a fight and the hero is getting pushed around you think, Hit him! Hit him! In real life, you never know what you’ll do.
I didn’t do anything. I came out of a sleep to find my face being battered by a mad man, then I proceeded to scream and tried to push him away, but no, I definitely didn’t even think to punch him. My brother helped me to the bathroom, where I looked at my criss-cross scrapes and my grey-green eyelid and wondered if I were dreaming.
When we landed, the police escorted me off the plane. As I walked past everyone, they looked at me with sympathetic fear, and that alone made me want to cry. It wasn’t the burning of my face or the tingling sensation around my eye, or even the weak stomach I developed. It was the people I walked past: they pushed each other aside to get a look at me, and put their kids on their shoulders for a better view.
In years to come they will talk about that “girl who got beat up” and probably develop a fear of airplanes that no one could possibly understand. I knew what had happened, and it was surreal and devastating, like all of their greasy faces. I rushed off the plane to find the offender in handcuffs, and after a few questions the FBI was called. They spoke with me for a number of hours, took pictures of the abrasions, and called it a day. The man was kept in jail until he pleaded temporary insanity due to drugs he had gotten in Korea.
To tell the truth, I could have cared less that he was on drugs. I wouldn’t have had any more pity if he were truly mentally imbalanced. I couldn’t get over the fact that this was random and violent, not to mention cruel and unusual. They also told us that since we were over Canadian air space when the incident occurred, America couldn’t press charges. It was basically a “We’ve got bigger problems, hand it to Canada” routine. That hardly amused me.
There was no strangeness in my response to the attack, the questioning, the sounds leading up to it, or even the feeling that I couldn’t escape him, but there was the eerie feeling that this was all so possible. I thought I was invincible. Most people do until their resilience is tested.
It became clear that fear is a real feeling, not the kind you feel in a horror flick, or when your mother screams at you or when you hear things in the dark. I felt a fear for my life, and that I will never really escape. The scar on my cheek is something I can’t hide and something I can’t escape, like fear. It reminds me what being afraid means; it separates real from surreal, tough from hopeless, fact from fiction.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the February 2006 Teen Ink Travel Contest.