This will be one of those interminable flights, I think as I look around at a full plane. With no in-flight entertainment, I resort to spying on my hapless seatmates.
The man in front of me in 37J, has his laptop open, he is going through work emails. From my spy’s vantage point, I could see his screen so clearly as to read each word as he scrolls past them. The ones in Chinese I see as a picture, as one might view a postcard. The ones in English, I scroll through as he pages down on them, outpacing the owner as only those that are uninvested in their contents can. From what I surreptitiously perused, I learn this man is grappling with organizational changes, an incident involving lost cargo, a petulant superior.
After a single pass through all the unread emails, he opens a blank page and begins to tap tap tap slowly, filling the screen with words. I read along, wishing he would type faster. He begins with an apology, a deliberate set of taps, the words formal and phrased with care. Apologies for my absence, he writes, sorry for having run out of time. I read, unable to stifle the desire to edit. You could be more concise, I think. A lengthy apology consumes time you say you don’t have.
He finishes the email, signing off with a habitually typed “Kind regards,” then he reviews the content line by line, careful to edit for typos. He revises a line or two, but on the whole, seems satisfied with what he wrote — a meticulous and polite man. I appreciate all this from my secret vantage point. He hits send, waits for the email to fly off, and then shuts the laptop, plunging us both into darkness.
Some days you sit outside and just look.
The sky can be so blue as to seem elementary. There is snow on the mountains now, but you knew that without having to see it, the sting of cold on the soles of your feet tells you as much when you jump out of bed each morning.
You watch people pass by, walking with their hands jammed into pockets, their bodies bent forward in that curved slouch the spine takes on during winter. You think, my tropical bones will never get used to that shape. You think that, but when you stand up to walk, the curvature reveals itself — how the bones arc inwards, trying to form a shell around the lungs, the ribs about to clutch your heart. The body shields itself, even when one is not aware of it.
Some days though, you see beyond the snow that blankets the rooftops, beneath the thin panes of ice on the ground.
Today, some guy turns in his resignation because he thinks everyone ignores him. He feels unseen. One guy confesses he feels betrayed by the locals, he says they pray several times a day and then send out a truck of explosives to try and blow up a gas station, a guard outpost, a camp full of people. He is tired of saving everybody. Some guys just want to move on to the next high-paying gig, go somewhere warm, where one can earn a decent living and be able to drink Jack-and-Cokes. One guy just paid off the last year of his kid’s college and it’s hasta la vista, see ya. Another left because he’d had enough of the crazy running into the bunkers, all hours of the day. And some guys leave because they want better quality toilet paper.
Five years of doing this, and some days when you sit outside you think you’ve seen it all. Some days.
There are days when I do get to turn the tables on these guys, and then it’s pay back time!
We were outside the office, grouped in noisy clumps, trying our hand at socializing. One guy keeps interrupting me, teasing and making what he must think to be funny comments. Now, I can take more than my share of ribbing, and I do take a lot of abuse from these guys, but I also like to dish it out. I decide this is just too good an opportunity to pass up.
So I compose my face into a quiet, somewhat pained expression and interrupt him in the middle of a joke.
Using my formal, I-mean-business voice, I say “You know what, you shouldn’t say those things to me. I’m Asian, and you know we take loss of face very seriously.”
He is taken aback, and begins sputtering and stammering out a string of profuse apologies. I let him stew for a while, and then I was laughing so hard, I could hardly say, “I’m just messing with you, big guy.”
The look on his face was priceless–shock, disbelief, a momentary feeling of faintness, I think.
He blurts out,”Oh my god, you’re a mean, mean woman!”
I smile and get the last word in: “You’d do well to remember that.”
I almost died today. Almost, but not quite. This job is an all day occupational hazard.
Our No. 2 boss, a stately old gentleman, came into the office at around 1500 hours as was his custom, to sign documents. We discussed the paperwork, he asked a few questions, signed all the papers with a flourish. Done with the day’s approvals, he stood up and walked out the door, to go back to his office, I thought.
Apparently not. What he actually did was walk down the hallway, double back quietly and then come back to stand by my door. He made sure I was busy at my desk. I must have been staring intently at the monitor, because I didn’t see him standing there.
All of a sudden, he dashes into the doorway, eyes wide, arms flailing, shouting what sounded like, “Wha-daaah!
I felt my heart stop for a full three seconds. He was red in the face from laughing so hard.
The blonde IT girl at the scanner table chastised him, “Hey, don’t scare the poor girl to death!”
“Sir, I had three mugs of coffee today, please don’t do that to me!” I manage to say as I will my heartbeat to return to normal.
“Just keeping you on your toes, young lady.” He grins at me and walks back, chuckling, to his office. For real this time, I made sure of that.
In yet another one of those politically incorrect, sexual harassment-fraught episodes that make my little life here so interesting, one of our gung ho guys comes into my office asking for help. After some Q & A and a bit of explaining, it turns out he wants me to do a creative interpretation of the rules so that he could buck the system, so to speak.
Me: No, Muscled Guy, you know I can’t do that. Against the rules. You’ll get me into trouble.
MG: Oh no, I wouldn’t get you into trouble, no Ma’am. I won’t mess with your work [pause]. But… let’s say I take you out on a date, then that’s when I’ll certainly get you into a whole lotta trouble [big grin].
Me: [Roll eyes. Shake head.] You should be so lucky.
MG: Oh, I wish [Shit-eating grin, all the way out the door].
All in a day’s work, my friends. All in a day’s work.
When I arrived here, a place I have never been, the mountains still had snow. Capped in white, they rose like a jagged wall above a horizon that unfolded into rough, monotonous terrain; a land of dust and dryness. Everything seemed beige, brown, gray. It was a world in camouflage, a place that was in perpetual hiding.
It drizzled the afternoon that I arrived; something, they said, that has not happened for weeks. I was walked by Security down a concrete path that connected several rectangular buildings. Every one of them looked exactly the same from the outside. We went into one building, and I was given a room there. A box within a box.
In one of the scant briefings for this gig, I was told to pack for a week, to bring sturdy hiking shoes, the bare minimum of luxuries. I packed just two books. I should have brought more.
I was issued army-style clothes, shoes, a flashlight, a vest, and a helmet. The helmet was a heavy thing. When turned over, it looked like a turtle—all quiet and unmoving—blending right in. Me thinks I should do the same.