Can I Help You With Anything, Sir?
Before I boarded a Northwest flight destined for Los Angels, California over a decade ago, I’d never taken a flight in my whole life. Prior to that day, I always thought only stewardess, foreigner, or government official were allowed to fly. When a stewardess—a tall blond—greeted me “Welcome onboard” at the gate, I quickly glanced at my back to see if anyone dressed like a party cadre behind me. There were four.
Once onboard, I did my best to act like a veteran traveler: opening the overhead cabin, throwing the carryon bag in, sitting down and buckling the belt on—all done by a quick study of other passengers doing it. I was satisfied with my composure of handling seatbelt, which was tricky to tighten properly.
Once settled, I heard a flight attendant announcing one thing and another in a quick succession. Her voice was pleasant. But it had little soothing effect on me; I barely understood what she said. Hearing “Los Angels” a few times was a big relief to me. I made sure it’s not Laos.
The Boeing 747 climbed to the clouds all right.
My maiden flight had been uneventful, until the flight attendant handed me an earphone. It took me a while to figure out what it was for, but I tried hard not to show. I soon became fond of an array of buttons on the seat’s armrest, surfing music channels with the earphone on.
While I settled in the “light rock”, my hand, however, was busy of exploring other buttons. I was about half sleep when the blond stewardess, who greeted me at boarding, approached me. She bent over and said: “Sir, can I help you with anything?” I took off the earphone and stared at her. She repeated with the widest smile I’d ever seen.
“No, nothing.” I told her, ending my first in flight English dialogue. She kept her smile and walked away. I was back to the light rock. Two songs later, the blond remerged on my side. I snapped off the earphone, hearing the same “Sir, may I help you on anything?” from her. I was trying to figure out what’s the difference between Can I and May I. My grammar failed me. So I answered: “No, nothing. Thanks.”
Her smile froze a little bit. Bending her head over near my face, she whispered to me: “If not, sir, please don’t push that button again. It would turn on the Attention Needed light.”
As she turned off the light overhead, I knew I could no longer pretend to be a veteran traveler anymore for the rest of my flight.