Snap Judgments

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Earlier this week, I made an offhand remark in the comments section about something which happened to me at the airport. I thought I’d share it more thoroughly here, accompanied by some thoughts on the topic. So, first, the story.

My family was already in Phuket, Thailand, but I needed to take one of my children back up to Bangkok in order for her to join an elephant conservation program to be held in the rural north. Thus, we had a car take the two of us to the Phuket International Airport for the 70 minute flight to Bangkok. The flight was at 10 a.m.

We had no luggage to check, so we deliberately showed up not-particularly-early, at 9 a.m. I was the most minuscule bit nervous, since I wanted no chance of her missing the fight, but since it was a domestic flight with no baggage, I figured we’d be fine. After going through security, I noticed a rather long line at the Thai Airways counter, and a large sign that declared passengers must be checked in 40 minutes before the flight to get on board.

Given the situation, I figured we would be totally OK, although cutting it a touch close. There were several people working the counter, and people were stepping forward bit by bit, so I figured it wouldn’t be but a few minutes until we were getting our boarding passes.

At this point, a trio of people were ducking under the ropes and making their way up to this fat fellow ahead of us in line. He was beckoning them to come over. Immediately, a woman in front of me and I started verbally protesting what they were doing. I would guess the offenders didn’t speak English, but our animated gestures and stern words probably got the point across. I was pissed.

My daughter, who is at an age where a dad doing such things causes embarrassment, told me to knock it off. She is a terribly decent person, and she reminded me we were guests in the country and not to be “a typical ugly American” (yeah, you can tell she’s my kid). I kept muttering this and that about the line-cutters, and the woman in front of me muttered back in agreement.

Then, to my horror, fatso again beckoned, this time to about eight more people to come pushing through the ropes and joining them. I’ll mention at this point they all had luggage too. Then two more young women followed behind them. At this point, as the Reverend Billy Graham was so fond of saying, I flipped the fuck out.

I suspect the entire terminal could hear me. I think I probably actually invented some new obscenities along the way. A few of them just kind of stared at me blankly. One of the young ladies sheepishly said, in broken English, that she was sorry, as if she had no choice in the matter. But I was furious, and I let the world know it. You can imagine my daughter’s reaction to all this.

No one did anything. I got the attention of one of the Thai Air representatives, and he said he didn’t see it. But I spent the balance of my time in line staring into the eyes of any of the offenders who dared look at me and taught them all the exciting vulgarities in English with which I am so well acquainted.

It was all for naught, as we made it to the counter in plenty of time, and we were on our way. My daughter was kind of ticked at me for causing a scene, but I tried to explain to her that the members of a society have rules of decency, and it is up to the individual to make clear to violators when those rules are broken. There was no nuance here. What they did was wrong.

Now I’ll interrupt myself right now and tell you my character is chock full of flaws. I am no saint. At one extreme, I am a sexist, racist, elitist bigot. On the other extreme, my closest friend in my youth was Jewish, my wife is Asian, and I was raised as a child by a black woman. So I have my shortcomings when it comes to groups, whereas when it comes to the individual, I am blind to color, wealth, or belief system.

Since this was a group, however, my racist brain kicked in, and I immediately assumed they were Chinese, merely because I have heard countless anecdotes about how mainland Chinese are the pushiest, rudest, will-poo-in-your-park group you’d never want to encounter. They out-ugly the ugliest of Americans.

Yet I was wrong. The aforementioned woman in line with me told me, unprompted, that she was shocked a group of Japanese would behave so badly. And, bless her heart, she said to me, “I am so sorry that members of our Asian culture have given you this impression.” I told her that I was married into a Chinese family and knew this was not the norm, and that I, too, was surprised at their behavior, since the anecdotes about Japanese behavior tend to be about their decent behavior and, in particular, their obedience to line protocol.

I have thought upon this, and honestly, their behavior has little to do with race. It has to do with how they were taught and what they accept as civilized behavior, particularly among strangers.

I think there are two distinct classes of assholery such as this: one, from the bottom, is driven by a fear of scarcity. In other words, when I read about how a Chinese group on a tour went into a buffet and literally emptied all the platters from the buffet onto their own dinner plates, leaving nothing for anyone else, this comes from fear. They’re worried there won’t be enough for them, even though (according to the anecdote) they didn’t eat most of it. Something about their upbringing or cultural experiences tells them to Get While The Getting’s Good, and screw everyone else.

From above, the driving force is privilege. This disease is particularly common among the newly wealthy. If you saw some young hotshot pull up in a new Ferrari and not give a tip to the valet, it’s obviously not because he lacks the cash. It’s because he “deserves” the car, and the underlings of society don’t have the smarts/looks/skills that he does, so screw ’em.

Fear from the bottom. A sense of entitlement from the top. Different classes of people, but the same ugly result. Selfishness. Lack of concern for others. Waste. A indecent exhibition of behavior for all observers. I seek to behave in neither of these ways. My temper got the better of me.

Helpfully, it just so happens that in our villa was a book about Buddhism title Without and Within. I have had a lifelong fascination with religion. I was raised a Protestant, and I went to a Jesuit college, but I have studied just about any religion I stumbled upon, everything from Islam to Satanism. I think there are many paths to God, and I want to learn and explore as much as I can.

With Buddhism, however, I’ve always had trouble, because the books I’ve read on the subject have been impenetrable. It’s as if they were deliberately constructed to obfuscate or confuse. They have been jam-packed with peculiar words like “suchness”, explaining that it was necessary to use terms like that to accurately convey the message. I found the entire exploration to be opaque, and I figured the cultural difference was too great for me to grasp it.

This book left on the nightstand, however, was different. It was plainly written, beautifully illustrated, and fascinating. I literally couldn’t put it down, reading the entire volume cover to cover and recognizing many truths within it. I’m not ready to become a forest monk, but I am definitely taking this book home (it is intended as such) for repeated reading.

My behavior at the airport, as understandable as I might make it seem, definitely didn’t fall within the precepts offered inside this book. I committed an act of violence by behaving that way, and even though I’ve dipped my little toe in the Buddhist waters by way of this brief read, I probably am so flawed I might do it exactly the same way given those circumstances.

Yet I at least wanted to share what a delight the book was, and how it helped illuminate my behavior upon reflection. When I return home, the Buddha statue I have in the middle of my fish pond will mean a little more to me.

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