Back when I was a flight attendant, we would have new hires on the plane from time to time. They were not completely finished with their eight weeks of training yet, and the flight served as an observation flight for them as well as practical experience. Sometimes, I would be coupled with a new hire and tasked with giving him or her an idea of what a “typical” flight was like.
I had been flying for about four years when Chen walked onto my flight with his temporary badge and his sticker proclaiming him a “trainee.”
“Oh, God, you don’t have to wear that,” I told him as I ripped the trainee tag right off his collar, “they’ll f***-ing eat you alive.”
Chen laughed and shook my hand. “I’m Chen,” he said, with a slight trace of a Chinese accent, “nice to meet you.” He was probably in his mid-50’s, with graying hair cut very short, and his uniform still had the creases from being fresh out of the packaging. United hired a lot of people who wanted to fly as a “second career” after serving in the military or working for the government (especially if they spoke a foreign language). At his age, this was most likely Chen’s situation. I made a mental note to ask him later when I knew him a little bit better.
We walked to the back of the Airbus and I introduced him to the other crew member, Janet. I showed Chen where the jumpseat was located and where to check for the various emergency equipment, like the passenger oxygen tank and the first aid kit. Janet went back up front to greet the passengers as they boarded. Chen and I stayed back to set up the galley.
It was going to be a short flight, only a beverage service.
“Oh, Mother of God,” I heard myself say, “are you sh**-ing me? No 7-Up again? What the h*** is going on? D*** it. That is, like, the 10th time this week! Well, Chang, I guess you might as well face reality: catering doesn’t always give you what you need.”
Chen smiled good-naturedly and helped me arrange the sugar packets in a cup and get the coffee ready to brew. He stopped to drink a small bottle of water.
After take-off, we listened to the uncertain announcements over the P.A. system of the other new hire, Denise. She was training up front in first class with Carolyn. Denise was definitely reading her booklet word for word. She even read the part where it said “Pause.”
I didn’t laugh; I was just glad it was someone else announcing it that way and not me this time.
Chen and I got right to work setting up the cart and handing out sodas and juice. Then he obediently picked up trash. He was like an eager and very helpful puppy, doing whatever I told him and basically making my life a lot easier. Too bad United couldn’t send him to work with me every day.
“So, Chang,” I said when service was over, “what do you think of your first flight so far?”
“The passengers are great. And you’re a good teacher. Great experience overall.” He smiled wide, revealing a tiny gap between his two front teeth.
I was flattered. I didn’t consider myself to be a good teacher. I just tried to do my job, and if someone could learn a thing or two from me, that was an added bonus. I knew that United didn’t purposely pair specific flight attendants with new hires, it really depended more on the timing of the flight and if it would be a quick turn-around (for example, Chicago to Washington, D.C. and then right back).
I offered Chen some crackers I had brought in my lunch bag.
“Here’s the thing, Chang,” I said, mangling his name for the 800th time in the day, “you always want to make sure you bring some food with you, in case first class doesn’t have any left over at the end of service. You could starve. I don't know about you, but I need to eat about five times a day, maybe more. Also, you never know if you could be delayed. I hate waiting around doing nothing, but with this job, you'd better get used to it. So, take my advice and bring some snacks with you. Better safe than sorry.”
I glanced down at my blouse and noticed I was covered in cracker crumbs.
“Do you always fly with the same people?” Chen asked sweetly.
“Hardly ever! In fact, thank God, Jesus, and Mary because that pilot today seems like a complete a ** h***. Ugh. I think I would just drink a bottle of bleach before ever flying with him again! Can you imagine? Did you see the way he rolled his eyes when the gate agent told him there would be trainees on his flight? So unprofessional. Plus, another thing is you’ll find out things about people, like one time I was flying with this one flight attendant Lisa and it turns out the co-pilot was her ex-husband! and they weren’t even on speaking terms, because he had totally cheated on her! Thinking about it now is, like, f ***-ing crazy, but let me tell you something: when Lisa told me, I was, like ‘Holy crap.’ Talk about a stressful flight.”
We landed in Washington’s National Airport, where we had just enough time to pick up the newspapers and other trash that the passengers had left on the seats before the new passengers boarded. The return flight was sold-out. Having trainees on board actually helped our service go a lot faster.
At the end of the flight, Chen handed me his evaluation form. I checked “Excellent” for every category. At the end, I had to write a brief summation about his performance.
“Chang was a real help to us. His positive attitude, strong work ethic, and friendly personality will be great assets for United. He will make a wonderful flight attendant.”
“Thank you, MOV,” he said without reading it. “It was a real pleasure to fly with you today.”
“Sure, you’re welcome! And, hey, Chang, you never told me what your previous job was?”
“I was a monk.”
(“Monk’s Other Vocation”)