I am the last one on the plane. There is an empty seat between the guy at the window and me. He scans me over as I sit down, noticing the folded China Daily that the stewardess just handed me. He asks me in English where I am from. I say New York and ask him, already feeling combative, the same question in return. My tone, while steady and polite, is tinged with hostile sarcasm as if transmitting the inanity of the question. I don’t want to make small talk, a fact he has not considered and seems unable or unwilling to observe, so he has already crossed a line.
He asks me if I am going to Beijing, and I tell him Shenyang. And he asks me if I learned Chinese, and I pretend not to understand. He repeats the question, and I again feign perplexity. This childish trick makes him abandon further attempts at practicing his English and instead proceed, now deflated, in his common mother tongue. We are now on the same field. If he wants to trivialize me he will have to play the game he has started. And he senses this. And I ask him question upon question, now relishing in practicing my Mandarin: what he does, why he is in Kyrgyzstan, and so on. And he soon loses interest and faces the window and closes his eyes. It is a long-winded way of saying it I know, but somehow more satisfying, and far more civil, than simply barking ‘fuck off.’