Behind the Glamorous Façade

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Behind the Glamorous Façade

Fung C, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Step on board, if you dare, this article’s flight to truth.


Behind the Glamorous Façade

Welcome on board this flight of truth.

By Fung C.


“Coffee, tea or me?”  

During flight SQ494, I walk up and down the narrow lines of the Boeing 777 looking at the expectant eyes of the business class passengers, of which more than a few are looking up and down the narrow lines of my stewardess uniform. Like always, I pretend not to notice until…until I see him. Him I notice.

I squat down next to his aisle seat being mindful of my disturbingly tight skirt and ask this disturbingly handsome man what he needs.  

With a confident smirk under bold emerald eyes, he requests a hot latte.  

I hesitate as I process his words. I reflexively flash the corporate smile that veils and protects all my real emotions in all situations and wonder if he said, ‘hot latte’ or ‘hot lady.’

Regardless, I offer this alluring stranger – one part distinguished and one part dangerous – the only thing I can at this slow-motion moment; I hand the drink over.  His strong fingers gently brush against mine and linger just a moment past the point of politeness, creating a hint of surprise and promise of intrigue.   

And intrigued I am.  

That simple brushing of flesh instantaneously paints a fanciful collage of images in my mind. I’m lying on a warm caramel latte-coloured beach in front of our house. This stranger-no-more and I are snuggled together as he holds a book in one hand and me in the other. Our two perfect children laugh as they play along the foamy surf.  Everything is glowing with the warmth of tranquillity.  

Though it might seem like this scenario could be the start of a fairy-tale romance at 35,000 feet, not everyone can be Jamie Chua, the former Singapore Airlines flight stewardess who met her multimillionaire husband inflight. For most of us, such “Officer and a Gentleman” love stories remain as rare as a hen’s teeth.

The reality is, rather, that as we stewardesses soar through the diamond-dotted night skies, our lives aren’t as starry-eyed and glamorous as one might imagine. They are, rather, a series of challenges that test our mettle. We deal with the intricacies of seniority, combat the perpetual onslaught of occupational hazards, and cope with the heartache of being away from our families and loved ones. These are the real, down-to-earth parts of our job that are often hidden by flashy misconceptions.

It is a misunderstanding deeply rooted in the public’s mind. It’s not uncommon for us to be seen as pursuing a career tailored exclusively for materialistic, non-academic individuals. Yet behind the stereotypes and assumptions lies a different story; one that speaks of dedication and commitment to delivering an exceptional in-flight experience. We ensure safety and security and provide the best experience for those travelling with us. While our days are filled with rigorous training and adherence to strict protocols, there are also countless behind-the-curtain challenges, known only to the high-flying insiders.


Cabin Crew Culture

If you know anyone from the airlines, you might’ve heard tales of the notorious in-flight boot camp that newbies must endure. Boot camp, as the name suggests, is helmed by sergeant-like seniors who won’t bat an eyelid before chewing a newbie’s head off, should any of them screw up.

Up in the sky, seniority is king, and it’s all about the colour of our uniforms. What about the same rank? Numerical hierarchy matters. Each of us is ‘tagged’ with a staff number, which determines the respect we receive from our peers, as it indicates when each flight attendant joined the airline. It’s not uncommon to hear one whisper to another, “Eh, what’s her staff number? Such a yaya (arrogant) papaya!” Why “papaya” is used you ask. It just rhymes so perfectly, doesn’t it?

A few years back, I embarked on my first airline job, and my heart filled with a potent mix of nervous excitement and enthusiasm. But soon enough, the thrill of flying the skies was tempered by the challenges I knew I’d face. Seniors ate, and juniors checked the toilets. I recalled a flight where the chief stewardess and I did not seem to gel. After service, I was digging into my lukewarm casserole of grilled chicken to pacify my hunger pangs. Barely two mouthfuls in, I sensed a looming presence behind me.

“Walao eh, so slow ah…you think this is fine dining? Eating like a princess,” came a voice that startled me.

I quickly dropped my fork.

 “Continue lah, I’m not asking you to stop,” the red-uniform woman instructed as she stood next to me with arms tightly folded across her chest and utter disdain on her face.  

For the next five minutes, she wrapped me in her dark cloak of disapproval, hatred even. The once delicious piece of breast lost its appeal. I carefully placed my fork alongside the casserole and bid farewell to the fowl that had died in vain.

During those unforgettable flights, the lavatory became my secret hideout for emotional breakdowns. I shed tears in private, unwilling to grant others the pleasure of snickering at my Rudolph-red nose.


The Concealed Cost of Elegance

Beyond tears, we face countless hardships hidden beneath the spotless uniforms and radiant smiles. Jet lag transforms us into shuffling, sleep-starved zombies, and dehydration etches fine lines onto our decaying skin.   

Our poor scalps suffer, too. To combat the relentless shedding of hair, abrasive hairpins and excessive hairspray are pressed into service in vain attempts to retain that perfect look.  My friends even resort to desperate measures, chopping their once-gorgeous tresses short to make the hair loss less obvious.   

Another source of turbulence for flight attendants is maintaining connections with family and friends, which can be a Herculean task. Time differences, impromptu street roaming after meals, and frequent gatherings in crew rooms mean you’re the one who decides when to be reachable. Sound fantastic? For those with more dubious intentions, such as wild late-night parties or flirtatious escapades, it can be a dream come true.

For the homebodies, however, are you ready to spend days away from the comforts of home and the company of loved ones? Can you bear the family dog’s confusion as it barks at the ‘stranger’ returning after an eleven-day trip? Can you tolerate the pangs of longing for your mother’s home-cooked meals?

I remember a gentle, soft-spoken manager I once worked with on a flight to Zurich. His amiable chatter with passengers concealed the heartache gnawing at his soul – he had recently lost his life partner. It was only in the seclusion of the galley that he allowed his tears to flow. But even amidst the pain, he kept the passengers shielded from his grief. As soon as he re-entered the cabin, the façade of a warm, comforting smile rose like a stage curtain.  


Angels Among Clouds

Despite the job’s challenges, there’s an upside that makes it all seem worthwhile. As a flight attendant, I’ve tasted life’s delights across the globe: slurping creamy clam chowder in San Francisco, hurling snowballs on the pristine slopes of Switzerland’s Mount Titlis, becoming entranced by the vibrant charm of Cinque Terre, and strolling through the whimsical Hobbit village in New Zealand – the list goes on. These silver linings make a tough job very rewarding at times. But make no mistake, it is a job.  

And now that I’ve disabused you of some of the far-fetched myths surrounding international flight attendants, you may receive your next airborne service in a more thoughtful way. Even as you are charmed by the alluring uniforms and smiles of the flight attendants, you shouldn’t forget the hard work and sacrifices that lay hidden beneath them.

The next time you sip your coffee, or tea, or perhaps even indulge in a mid-flight flirtation with someone like me, remember that there’s more to the cabin crew than meets the lovely eye.  

Fung C
Fung C

About the Author
Fung C is a first year student majoring in surveying at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. With an ever-curious mind, she became involved in the university’s Undergraduate Research and Innovation Scheme (URIS). Like all good writers, she enjoys reading, especially fantasy and Sci-fi. A love of these two adventure-filled genres may shed light on her bold decision to become a flight attendant, who then travelled the globe before entering her undergraduate studies. And it is this worldly experience combined with an affinity for cultural exploration that places Fung in good stead to achieve her goal of becoming a building surveyor who brings a positive impact to communities.

Author’s Reflection
When I started working on my feature article for ELC2011, I was drawn to an under-explored topic: the glamorous façade of a flight attendant. I picked this subject matter because it connected with my own cherished memories as a stewardess and gave me a chance to show readers a part of our professional life they otherwise might not get to see.

The real challenge came when I realised that I had many stories to share on this literary journey but only a limited space in which to display them. It was a struggle to decide what to pack and what to leave behind. My former PolyU teacher and Inscribe student editors played a big part in this literary triage. Their insightful guidance helped me refine my work, turning it from a class assignment into a polished piece suitable for publication with Inscribe. This process was both rewarding and enlightening.

Through the stories of a flight attendant, I was able to preserve my treasured experiences, good and bad, and offer readers what I hope is an intriguing look behind the glittering façade.

Take a peek behind the curtain.