THE MILE HI! CLUB: MEMOIRS OF A STEWARDESS BY JANET CHEW
103rd Meridian East brings you the true accounts and personal experiences of Janet Chew, a former stewardess, whose memoirs expose many littleknown facts about the not-so-glamorous world of cabin crews. With the permission of the author, we publish excerpts from her book.
"Coffee, tea or me?"
Indeed, the general perception of the cabin crew is limited to this derogatory line. We are often labeled as nothing more than high class waiters or waitresses and in a career that only materialistic, non-academic
individuals will pursue. I wrote this book for the purpose of transforming your perception of my often misunderstood and undermined colleagues. I want the world to know that behind every smile, a story awaits to unfold.
Before we were to become full-fledged flight attendants, the trainees had to undergo SNY (supernumerary) flights on both types on aircraft the crew were trained in. <…> I was mentally prepared that it was to be a tiring flight, but the word 'tiring' held little meaning until I experienced it myself. Granted, the passengers were friendly and understanding, but the rate at which they ate and drank was alarming. Some downed each drink faster than one could fix during the drink cart service! My mentor Jessie tactfully offered extra packets of nuts to slow them down and I poured glasses of water for those waiting patiently.
"This is the flight where your knowledge of drink concoctions comes into full use," she said as she placed my 5-by-5 laminated list atop the cart. She was right. I had plenty of orders ranging from simple fruit juices to complicated cocktails. Pretty soon, I was juggling cans of minerals alongside bottles of gin, vodka and scotch. Every now and then, I sneaked a peek at the concoction list.
"Hold the cup by the base, not the top." She reminded me as I picked up the plastic container hastily by the rim. "And place it with the logo facing the passenger. And the ice, try to put it in before the minerals so that you'll not cause the drink to splutter out."
I learnt a lot during the service – the pouring of beer at a slant to create a perfect layer of froth, the method to balance several drinks on the cart top without knocking them down, a gentle twist of the wine bottle to catch the last stray drop, which brand of orange juice needed shaking in order to distribute the pulp and that diet coke had more fizz than regular coke.
We took turns to wolf down the remaining meals languishing in the ovens before prepping up for service two. The girls went around the cabin collecting used items before the distribution of hot towels. The tray of towels was heavier than expected due to the water absorbed in all fifty wet, steaming towels. I gingerly balanced one on my right arm and held a towel tong with the other.
After a few rows, the weight caused my arm to tremble slightly. I held on and reangled the tray at ninety degrees closer to my body.
Some passengers took forever to acknowledge my offer of the towel while I stood there with a shaking arm and an outstretched tong. The tightness of the uniform cut into my underarms. By the time I made it back to the galley to get another tong for retrieval of used towels, my arm muscles were aching and the right side of my uniform soaked a hue darker, no thanks to the towels.
"You'll get used to it. The drinks are the same, if not heavier," the steward said when he noticed my sorry sight. Well, one thing's for sure. There is a lot more to get used to around here. Grit my teeth. Time to grow up.
That pretty much summed up how I survived through my earlier flights.
Before the company dare set us upon the passengers, clueless trainees are given the lowdown on make-up magic. The transformation is amazing. Small beady eyes open up with a deft application of eye shadow and line that creates depth; false eyelashes and cosmetic glue completes the illusion. Proper shading on the apple of one's cheeks helps bring out non-existing contours. Red on our lips gives the effect that our pearlies are whiter than they really are. Indeed, the right colour combination can make or break a look. To discourage deviant make up experiments, the company conducts frequent random checks on the girls who each carry a color chart depicting her color scheme.
Guidelines state that painted nails are compulsory and only in shades of red as indicated in one's color scheme. Painted toe nails are exempted in lieu of stockings; that said, many choose to flaunt fresh pedicures in a matching shade. Raven Red is deemed too dark but the girls love and stick to it anyway. Eye make-up has to be visible from two aircraft doors away, which makes newbies look like wayang (Chinese opera) performers. Gradually, one learns to achieve optimal results with minimal make-up. After all, when it comes to accentuating youthful looks, less is more.
Doctor, I Need an M. C. Please!
As months flew by, I started to get the hang of things. I began to realize that certain sectors were easier to operate and some stations not worth the trip at all.
Soon, I was calling in sick whenever I had Hong Kong turnarounds and the other undesirable patterns.
I lived in the East and soon became a regular at t h e clinic at Terminal Two. The young male doctor was a friendly chap who had patients breezing in and out of his room all day. I often wondered if he could detect that I was perfectly fine even though I was clutching my stomach in pain. I hope that was not too dramatic an act. I figured a woman's stomach cramps would be hard to debate. If he did see through my lousy attempt, the be-spectacled man revealed nothing.
Still, I tried to vary my "ailment" from time to time. Experienced crew member rub cigarette ash into their eyes to create their own version of conjunctivitis. Very clever indeed, except for the smoking gun – one was questioned by the doctor when she found traces of the grey matter on the eyelids. Migraines topped the list of excuses too. Once, a friend lent me a neck brace to avoid a Manila turnaround.
The heavy plastic collar around my neck constricted my head movement. For a while there, it felt as though I was really injured. I looked the part. Confidently, I strode into his consultation room.
The man looked up from the pile of files on his table, took one look at me and went "You are very overthe-top. Can't you find a smaller prop?" The rush of blush to my face gave me away instantly. From then on, I stuck to stomach cramps.
Though the company advises those genuinely sick employees to take due rest instead of running the risk of infecting the others onboard, not all take heed. A chief attendant complained of a nagging pain in the back. He popped two muscle relaxants in a bid to relax those tightly clenched muscles and off he left for the flight.
The reason is rather apparent. With all things held constant, it is a no-brainer as to which candidate management would promote. Besides, the 2003 SARS crisis had clearly shown that those with a flawless disciplinary and medical record held the trump card when the axe falls. The third reason is monetary – stay clean for a year and be rewarded with S$350. Meager but hey, it helps with the rent.
To be continued
About the author:
Singaporean Janet Chew spent 13 years working in one of the world's best airlines, where she held the position of senior crew leader. In her spare time, she dabbles in beaded jewelry – a craft she learnt from a passenger en route a long flight to New York. Janet has a seven-yearold son and loves books by Neil Humphreys.
Translation into Russian Natalia Makarova