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Emotions in transit: Contemplating belonging in the aeroplane

FAIZAL BIN ABDUL AZIZ  |  15 DECEMBER 2019

The aircraft environment can be daunting and disorienting to migrant workers who encounter it for the first time. Picture by the author.

Aeroplanes evoke a certain sense of excitement and wanderlust to those fortunate enough to travel on them. Whether to go on business trips or vacation, chances are, we may have taken the aircraft for granted. It was merely a vessel to get us from our home country to our (dream) destination. Yet, for migrant workers who first encounter aeroplanes when they uproot themselves in search of labour, the aircraft cabin can be disorienting. This article concerns the experiences of male construction workers from Bangladesh and female domestic workers from Indonesia travelling on board an airline carrier to work in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Singapore.

Often, their migration is to fulfil the needs of host countries pursuing national projects as grandiose as the construction of iconic buildings to the more mundane development of transport infrastructure, or even tending to households as live-in help. These projects are intricately linked to the notion of ‘belonging’ in developed countries, ‘belonging’ to which the migrant workers contribute to while compromising their own. The aircraft is the space where this compromise first becomes apparent. Feelings of uncertainty and belonging occupy the minds of these ‘labourers-in-transit’ and manifest in their encounters in the aircraft.

 

As the passengers board, the friendly crew greets and shows them to their respective seats. It is clear that the migrant workers felt disoriented from not understanding the directions (“Sir, your seat is 2 rows down, by the window”) as well as perplexed when told to part with their luggage (“Madam, all bags have to be stowed in the overhead bin”). These instances that are experienced throughout the flight make the cabin into an alien(ating) space which provisionally renders the workers immobile. As both the English language and cabin space are not usual encounters for the migrants, they struggle to attune to their surroundings. Arguably, the aircraft is a precursor to the (initial) struggles they may face in a new environment, exacerbated by language differences. One can only wonder what is running through their minds when confronted with feelings of disorientation that may continue to surface as the migrant workers seek out what it means to belong in a particular place. 

In navigating their sense of belonging, the migrants quickly learn the ‘norms of flying’ through flight attendants who guide them through what seems instinctive to the frequent traveller. Safety compliance and commonplace practices of fastening seat belts, remaining seated during turbulence, ordering meals and even locating lavatories in-flight are foreign ideas that demand coaching. The migrant workers thus experience the cabin as an infantilising space with flight attendants constantly pointing out ‘what to do’ and ‘how to behave’. Furthermore, the aircraft bears an atmosphere of confusion whenever administrative matters relating to contracts, customs and immigration are being dealt with by the agents accompanying the migrants. Although adults, the migrants are deemed to require close supervision due to unfamiliarity and illiteracy. This confronts their identity as an adult and at the same time cements their identity as labourers-in-transit; never truly belonging or seen as able to attend to themselves.

However, amidst the struggles, the migrants find strategies to cope with (non)belonging. They take advantage of the flight to form networks amongst themselves. While most are from the same agency, employed under the same employer and housed in the same workers’ dormitory, some are not as fortunate and will be dispersed upon arrival. This is usually the case for female domestic helpers who will work and stay with different families. As such, the networking space afforded by the aircraft is a premise and a promise for belonging in a new environment. Although confronted with uncertainty, these workers are proactive in their efforts to reclaim their sense of belonging through the prospect of community. The creation of a support system when going abroad is an important condition for feeling safe in a foreign country. 

Ultimately, from the perspective of migrant workers, the aircraft cabin is not an inert space. It is where the migrants feel and experience (non)belonging for the first time. In recounting these affective dimensions that are simultaneously debilitating and hopeful for the migrants, it is clear that the aircraft and the interactions that take place within are an important part of the story of migrants. As they embark on new lives in cities that they are helping to develop, the migrant workers’ journey - which began in the aircraft - cannot be taken for granted.

Faizal Bin Abdul Aziz

Faizal is currently pursuing an MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford. Prior to that, he was working as a Flight Attendant where he was inspired to research on all things aviation; namely workplace culture/justice, socio-spatial relations, as well as sustainability.

Follow him on Instagram: @flyzalaroundtheworld

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