Where’s the Beef November 2002

I used to be a white-knuckled flyer, but I am not anymore. Hundreds of flights on airlines that no longer exist, not to mention airplanes that probably should not have existed in the first place, have had a numbing effect. So now, I am usually fast asleep before the plane pushes back from the gate.

China Eastern Flight No. 5318 from Guangzhou to Shanghai last month was no exception. It was about 8:00 in the evening and I woke up just as dinner was being served. Well…I didn’t just wake up; the flight attendant gave me a karate chop on the shoulder and as I jolted upward, a magnificent oblong container was placed before me. It was plastic, clear plastic and it was quite large, much too large for its contents.

Sitting triumphantly in the center was a bun that was about the size of a White Castle hamburger. I gazed at it for some moments, as if it was the Hope Diamond and then pried open the container. It was not a White Castle burger; in fact it was not a burger at all. This bun had been slashed vertically instead of horizontally. In that slot a misguided student of Julia Child’s had carefully inserted ten kernels of corn! Anyone who has traveled recently knows that the airlines have cut back on amenities, but I quickly realized that a new benchmark was being established and so did my fellow passengers!

Domestic air travel in China has only recently become fairly commonplace with the local passengers making up for their lack of experience with a high level of enthusiasm. They usually do not complain but this time was to be different.

A flight attendant call-light lit ominously above a passenger a few rows in front of me. A few minutes later a cheerful stewardess appeared and a discussion began with the passenger. Chinese is a percussive language and talk about the weather can often sound like the weigh-in at a Mike Tyson fight. But we weren’t talking about the weather here. It was about food…about sustenance!

The passenger was pointing at the bun, then at his ticket. As his voice went into a falsetto, other passengers joined the fray. The stewardess wisely retreated. A few minutes later she re-emerged with a peace offering for the leader of the mob. It was a small packet of soda crackers, which brought howls of derision from starving passengers.

For another 90 minutes it was the flight from hell. Every time a flight attendant appeared, there was scolding, scorn, and finally mocking laughter.

If you take China Eastern, don’t forget to bring lunch -and a sense of humor!

Richard Keldsen

San Francisco

November 2002