The woman at the airline counter looked pissed off when I argued with her to be reassigned a window seat. I felt bad about being so fussy, but I really hate sitting along the aisle.
When I boarded the plane, my heart sank. I could see from a distance that there was someone occupying the seat I had fought for. I hadn't been in China long, but I had already experienced firsthand how the Chinese are not afraid of public confrontations. I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable argument.
When I got to my seat, I could see there would be no fight. It was an old woman, with her husband next to her, and she gave me an embarassed but hopeful smile.
"Am I in your seat? Do you mind if I sit here? I want to look out the window."
Lifang and Bawen were both natives of Guangdong province. They asked if I could help fill in their immigration forms. "No one from our generation studied English."
From their dates of birth in the passports, I did the math. She was 69, and he was 75.
"How long have the two of you been married?"
"Two years shy of our 50th anniversary," he replied, with unmistakable pride. They reached for the other's hands. It was unbearably sweet.
They used to do business in the region, but had retired long ago and were now heading for a week-long holiday in Phnom Penh. They tried to explain the type of work they used to do, but my Mandarin lacked the vocabulary to comprehend. I did, however, understand that it was large-scale, profitable work which required them to travel to different countries.
"Is Singapore still as beautiful as it was?"
"That depends on whether you think buildings are beautiful."
"Ah well, all in the name of progress. Guangzhou is also too big now. It's such a waste."
They told me to come back to China. I should find a job here, there are plenty of opportunities for someone who could speak English. I should travel and see the rest of the country. China is the most beautiful country in the world, and I had to see it all.
Just minutes before the plane began its descent into Phnom Penh, I found out Lifang was Teochew - the first I had met during my trip.
"I have a traditionally Teochew face."
She was delighted to have found another Teochew speaker, and didn't seem to care that my dialect was worse than my Mandarin. She grabbed my arm and whispered conspiratorially into my ear. It was wonderful.
The pilot didn't do a very good job during the landing - the plane shook a lot more than what I was used to. Lifang saw the look on my face, and she patted my arm as she leaned back in her chair, utterly relaxed.
"I don't have the same fears as you do. I'm not scared. Once you hear the wheels being released, you have nothing to worry about. Trust me."
She gave me a wink.
"We are old and experienced. We know these things."