“Australia is a country only for old people,” says Celine, a 22-year-old Indonesian student sitting next to me in a Qantas flight to Sydney. Celine lives in a suburb of Melbourne, and has been there for four years majoring food technology. “After 5 pm all shops are closed and the towns are deserted. There is absolutely no fun.”
I am on my way to Gold Coast, to attend Byron Bay Writers Festival tomorrow; while Celine is heading to Melbourne and she will have some hours of transit in Sydney. Celine grumbles as she has no choice but to take this Qantas flight. She usually takes the Indonesian carrier, Garuda, which offers the only direct flight from Jakarta to Melbourne. But Garuda tickets are sold out, and only Qantas is available for her.
But as I am a first timer to Qantas, I am very excited with this flight. In fact, I am first timer to any Western airlines. And I have to admit, I am shocked to see that all passengers were greeted by an overweight stewardess with thick lips wearing glossy lipsticks, whose age I bet around half a century. “Welcome, Sir,” she says with a friendly smile.
In our country, as well as in many other Asian countries, flight attendant is kind of a job only reserved for good looking creatures. Asian air hostess generally is a tall, slender, photo modelish young girl with attractive face and qualified smiles. For the male Asian air hostess, even though some countries may apply lower standard than the others, but generally is filled by young, tall, slender men. But the male attendants in this very Qantas flight are middle aged bald men at least in their forties and you hardly can call them slim.
Now I am wondering, what kind of discrimination we have done in our culture to the people who does not belong to our standard of physical beauty? And whether we, the passengers with this discrimination in mind, are also responsible in nurturing this discrimination, not only in air service but also in other sectors of service industry, which then judged their workers based on their age and physical looks? In Indonesia, where you have about a hundred million young population who are eager to fill in the limited job opportunities, the competition is harsh. But for the recruiting companies, they never run out of “good looking” stock queueing for the limited job available. You are getting old? You are getting ugly? Fine, millions of others are ready to replace you. The air industry in Indonesia is extremely fierce, most of the female attendants are already “grounded” when they reach thirties. Everything is done just for our sake of some minutes of our visual pleasure of looking the face and body shape of young and attractive attendants.
When the plane takes off, the flight attendants demonstrate safety instructions followed by a lengthy explanations in English and Malaysian Malay from the loudspeaker. I don’t remember I have ever heard such a long and never ending explanation on how to wear seatbelt, and I believe that Indonesian passengers—who are the majority in this flight—would care so much as well. The recorded voice announces and reminds us that “you get a different seat in every flight, so your emergency exit location in every flight is also different. Please notice the location of the nearest door and sign indicating the emergency exit….” After that, the passengers were still given a lengthy lectures on a disease named DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis)—that is when your blood clot in the veins during the long journey. But thankfully, we can prevent this disease by having a lot of drinking water and a bit of physical exercise without leaving our seats (of which procedures are also explained in detail by the lady in the loudspeaker).
Finally, our planes reach its stable flying position. Passengers are given good news by the lady in the loudspeaker, that the flight attendants will distribute our dinner. But, before that, another reminder: “All passengers are not allowed to sleep on the floor. Including children.”
Celine cracks to laughter. “Seriously? They need to remind that and people need the reminder? After DVT, they already explained on how we should have our meal and how we should turn on our entertainment screen, now they also need to teach us how we should sleep?”
Australia has come to my mind as a “country of regulation” since I met its visa form. I had to fill an application form of 21 pages, with seemingly never ending columns of questions, some resemble a psychology test (“If YES, please proceed to Section F, if not proceed to the following question”). Before lodging visa application, one need to learn the complete rules of Australian visa and immigration, with every type of visa explained in a very detailed explanation. I missed one line, and I applied for the wrong visa—said the embassy staff by a phone call when they were to decide whether to approve or to decline my visa application. As I applied for a business visa, instead of working visa, I am not allowed to receive any fee from the Festival I am attending. I told them that it was merely an appearance fee of A$175 per session, and I am going to have just two sessions. She said, rule is rule, it’s no matter the amount of the money; I am not to receive the fee or I would have to restart my application to get a working visa (which is A$160 not including the service charge). I opted to the first option, and I secured my Australian visa immediately. It’s an electronic visa though, with no signs at all in my passport, or if I want a visa sticker I would have to pay another A$ 160.
Then the immigration rules. Australia requires you to read and to understand their world renowned strict customs regulation on what you may and may not bring to the country—explained in full details of 10 pages. I was asked by an Indonesian friend in Melbourne to send him some little bottles of Indonesian aromatic oil (Telon Oil) as this Indonesian unique remedy is not available in Australia, but before deciding I have to read 4 pages information from the Australian Post on what types of liquids can be sent and how to pack them safely.
We, coming from undisciplined Asian countries (who need to be reminded not to sleep on a plane’s floor), may be shocked and need time to understand the logic behind all of the strict rules. I remember a Chinese friend of mine, who studied in Australia had hard time when the country faced water crisis some years ago, and the local government issued regulation to forbid people washing cars with water pipe (the police did patrol!) and no shower is allowed for more than four minutes (his host did really use a stopwatch to control the Asian students staying in the house).
Dinner time. The flight attendants first distribute a piece of glossy paper listing the detail of what we are going to have for dinner and breakfast. The menu itself is two pages, written in English accompanied by a translation in Malay. The translation is so detailed that I even find it difficult to understand the Malay, and it takes me moments to get the meaning of “nasi kukus” before seeing its English “steamed rice” (we simply say that as “nasi”—rice).
T.M.I. Celine uses this phrase to describe Australia. Sometimes, the information is indeed just too much. As a member of Qantas mileage program, some months ago she received an email from the airline explaining its financial hardship, that now they have to reduce the number of the employees but they wish the customers to keep their confidence on the company as they are committed to deliver the best service despite the hardship. “Why should they tell me this?” asks Celine, “As if they had not, I would not know about them being broke, and I would be even more confident flying with them.”
Qantas emphasizes its punctuality as its highly-respected quality of ethic. My connecting flight from Sydney to Gold Coast was delayed 30 minutes, and I hear some passengers complain loudly. (In Indonesia, our tolerance of delay-without-grumble is 1 hour.) Sitting next to me is Katrina, a middle aged woman who teaches leadership in the University of Wollongong. She asks me about my first impression on Australia.
“This country is highly disciplined. It is full of notices, announcements, information, rules,” I say.
She laugh out loud. “Some say, Australia is an over-regulated country. Indeed, too many rules.”
But maybe I have to see it from different perspective. Katrina recounts his first and only trip to Bali fifteen years ago. Her strongest memory was about the horns, the traffic jams, the scattered slums, beggars, cheaters trying their best to rip off tourist money, even crossing the hopeless traffic was a near-death adventure. But she was also overwhelmed by rules, a totally different sets of rules and tradition, many of which she just simply could not understand (how about not to use your left hand at all except for the toilet purpose?).
In fact, Indonesia is also a country of rules—with most of them are unwritten, and those which are written does not necessarily mean as what is written. See on how our airlines restrict on young and physically attractive attendants, and burden them with a complete set of rules on how to walk, how to greet passengers, how to smile, how to deal with difficult passengers in elegant manners. Our national carrier Garuda once required their attendants to kneel down when responding a traveler who ask more than one question, as a sign of respect to its passengers, and call this special service as “Garuda Experience”.
By this time, a middle aged and bald male attendant comes to offer us some drinks. “So you want something to drink? Juice or soft drink?”
“Apple juice, please?” I replied.
“What juice do you have?”
“Orange juice, and…” he said while shaking a box of orange juice in his left hand, and his right hand grabs another box of juice in the stroller and shows it to me, “Orange juice.”
Katrina, again, laughs it loud. “Do people have this sense of humor in Indonesia? Would this kind of joke offend Indonesians?”
If this was on an Indonesian airplane, I bet it would.
Yap, Katrina has heard that Indonesian national carrier Garuda has gained reputation as a five star airlines, which is better than Qantas, but she was not sure whether Australians would appreciate the Garuda-style service here. For her, the way the Qantas attendant joked to me is a memorable service, something I would never forget.
It’s true. And the reason is, the joke is personal.
In Thailand or Indonesia, both are known as the lands of smiles, any people in service industry would smile the very same beautiful smile in any occasion and to anybody. Yes, it is nice. But you hardly remember who he or she was, and you don’t remember the smile as well. It’s just a generic smile, for all, and you do not feel being treated in a special way.
A minibus prepared by the Festival organizer carries me and some other authors from the Gold Coast airport to the beach town of Byron Bay, where the Festival is to be held. The minibus drives over smoothly paved roads (what an excellent experience after you get used with potholed Indonesian roads), passing through meadows and woods on the left and right side of the road. I see almost no human beings. Australia, four times bigger than Indonesia in terms of land area, has only a population of 23 million, less than one-tenth of Indonesian population. Gold Coast is fairly considered a large city in Australia (ranked number sixth), but the population is less than 600 thousand, even smaller than a district in Java. Australia may built such smooth high quality roads even in uninhabited places like this, while in Indonesia we have plenty of people but never have enough roads.
Byron Bay is a quiet little town, one of Australian main tourist destinations renowned for its beautiful beaches. Here there is no tall buildings, everything is still maintained traditionally. Maybe it’s due to winter, the town is just too quiet and I can not feel the young energy like the one in Balinese beachtowns, which are crowded by young people and enveloped by never ending loud disco music.
I see the scattering the town are signs and advertisements of various organizations that provide care services for the elderly, or health care services, or vacation homes. I remember my fellow Indonesian writer who attended Byron Bay Writer Festival last year, who reminded me to have some mental preparation as I might be shocked by the age of the audience, which offers a different spectrum of energy. Compared to its sister Festival in Bali, the Byron Bay Writer Festival would be dominated by the elderly readers. The proportion of people aged 65+ in Australia keeps increasing, while the percentage of young people and workforce continues to decline. This is due to the growing economy (compared to the 1970s when young people were still dominant), the low fertility rate, good health service and security measures so the population live longer. With a huge number of older population, I start to understand about Australian commitment to respect and protect the rights of elder people (in contrast with Indonesian discrimination to elder people working in service industry).
In Asia, children have huge responsibility on taking care their parents, and many parents wish that their children would be their safety net in their old ages. But it seems it’s very different in Australia on how people here don’t really rely on their parent-children relation for their security. Maybe it’s also the reason behind all of its perfect regulations, its no-surprise and no-shocking daily life, its quietness and its wisdom of appreciation on every little detail of life. Everything here is supposed to bring you comfort and peace of mind. No adventures, please.
Huge villas with green lawns and shady trees are lined along the quiet road of Byron Bay. All section has its own regulation. “No dogs, no alcohol, no glass, no horses, no goats, no pigs, no nudity” says one signpost. “No camping in tents in vehicles on ground ANY TIME” says another one. “No honking, offenders will be fined 1000 dollars,” says the other.