How the Chinese mind their Ps and queues

'Britain's airports would have no difficulty lining up passengers in their flying formation before boarding'
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The Independent Online

Yesterday I made some rude remarks about the standard of catering and accommodation in China. It was probably very foolish of me to do so, as one day the Chinese are going to rule the planet, and then they will go through the cuttings files to see who has been nice to them and who has been nasty, and I shall pay for it then unless I make up for it. Which I intend to do now. By saying that when I first got on to a plane in China, I discovered that the resourceful and clever Chinese have solved a problem that we Westerners have never got near to solving.

Yesterday I made some rude remarks about the standard of catering and accommodation in China. It was probably very foolish of me to do so, as one day the Chinese are going to rule the planet, and then they will go through the cuttings files to see who has been nice to them and who has been nasty, and I shall pay for it then unless I make up for it. Which I intend to do now. By saying that when I first got on to a plane in China, I discovered that the resourceful and clever Chinese have solved a problem that we Westerners have never got near to solving.

This problem is just that, the problem of getting on to aeroplanes. When we get on to a plane, we all get on in a random order and therefore we are all fighting to get past each other to our seats, carrying our hand luggage as weapons. As is well known, the aisle of a modern aircraft is not wide enough to take a refreshment trolley and a person desperate to get to the lavatory, so it is not likely to be wide enough to take two laden people trying to get past each other. The result is a scrum. When you do reach your seat, you now find that the luggage locker is already full, and occasionally you find that your seat is also full, because one in 10 passengers cannot read the number on their boarding pass. (See my essay: "Seat numbers and their doubtful value in an illiterate society".)

We in the West have vaguely tried to solve that problem by embarking people in groups. "Boarding is now available to passengers in seats one to 17..." But that merely restricts the fighting and frenzy to a smaller part of the plane or divides it into smaller areas throughout the plane. It doesn't eliminate the jostling and jousting for position. There must be a way of ensuring that we all get on to a plane without any hassle.

And there is! The Chinese have discovered it, and it is so simple that a child could have thought of it. In fact, a child may well have thought of it, because it smacks of the kindergarten. What happened to us at that provincial Chinese airport was that we were all taken out on to the tarmac and led to a place where they had painted, on the ground, a series of squares representing the seats inside the aircraft. Six squares at the end, representing seats A1-6, then six more behind, representing seats B1-6, and so on.

It was, if you like, a life-sized diagram of the inside of the plane. We were all made to stand on our own seat number, like children lining up for class. This meant that when we then filed into the plane, we all got into the plane in the right order, and the first six people went straight down to their seats at the end, followed by the next six, and so on. There was no shuffling, no fighting, no barging, no apologising.

Now, that could only happen in a society in which people are used to doing what they are told (see my small monograph: "Communism: Bad for Running Countries, Good for Getting People on to Planes"), and Britain may not be communist but it is such a society. Even if we pride ourselves on our individuality, we always get into queues and wait patiently for our turn, although nowadays we sometimes have to take numbered tickets to do it, and I don't think the airports of Britain would have any difficulty lining up British passengers into their flying formation before boarding. Could be a way of amusing the passengers during those interminable waits. And once we had cracked that, we could get down to solving the other problems that cripple British society.

Interminable supermarket check-out queues, for one.

People with tickets for the middle of theatre rows arriving last and making everyone else stand up.

Tourists walking very slowly along the pavements of historic towns, in front of busy shoppers.

People arriving on time for dinner... (I'm thinking of how the invited guests say: "What time shall we come?" and the host says: "Oh, I don't know - about 8?" which means about 8.15 or 8.30, but somebody always insists on arriving at 8 on the dot, just when the hosts are finishing dressing for dinner or at least pouring themselves a quick drink that they don't want to share with their guests...)

But see my forthcoming article: "Why Not Invite Them for 8.30 Instead and Get Two Drinks in First?"

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