How this ordinary aircraft will change my life

Photograph of Thai Airways International Boeing 747-400 at Sydney Airport

This Boeing 747-400, photographed at Sydney airport last Friday, belongs to Thai Airways International. If you happen to have decent eyesight, you can confirm this by the fact that it has “Thai” painted on the side. Ownership is not about paint, however.

If you paint “Thai” on my side, I do not then become the property of Thai Airways, not even if you’re employed by Thai Airways to do so. Paint is just paint, whereas ownership of property is an abstract concept. A concept which can be supported or asserted by paint or other physical signs, but still an abstract concept which can only be agreed upon by sentient beings.

But what about another concept: nationality?

Nationality is not about paint either. Paint “Thai” on my side if you like. If you use the right brush I might even enjoy it. But I won’t become even remotely Thai. However is nationality something which is just agreed upon? Or is there something essential — in the core meaning of the word, having to do with essence — which makes someone immutably Thai or Australian or Czech or Chinese?

And how does nationality relate to similar concepts, such as ethnicity or race or culture?

I usually don’t think about these categories. The variation within them outweighs the supposed differences. People of every nationality range from amiable to arsehole. However that aircraft — that specific aircraft — has brought it all into focus.

On Friday, ’Pong sat in that aircraft. It took off, climbed through that layer of brown shit on the horizon, and flew to Bangkok. It’s his first visit to his hometown in six years. That renewed perspective has already revealed previously-unnoticed bird sounds and a 3-litre iced beer dispenser.

’Pong is essentially Thai. He’ll tell you that he was always an outsider there, always a little bit different. Nevertheless, there are papers where next to the word “nationality” it says “Thai”. Paint, y’see.

On the other hand, we have a letter from a politician called Kevin Andrews which says ’Pong is Australian — or at least he will be once he recites a magic spell and shakes the hand of the mayor. And, due to the magic of dual citizenship, he will be both Thai and Australian at the same time.

But as I say, it isn’t the paint (or ink) which makes him Thai or Australian. ’Pong is certainly Thai because he can breathe pure chilli vapour with no ill effects. But he’s equally Australian because he understands the difference between Tooheys and Reschs and Coopers.

I’ve pondered Australian values before, but I mention all this today because in just under three weeks I’ll be sitting in that same aircraft (or one very like it) and also travelling to Thailand. As it happens, it’ll be my first trip outside Australia — and I reckon that’ll change my views about what it means to be Australian, and indeed what it means to be me.

People are usually surprised to discover that I haven’t travelled overseas before. I take that as a compliment, because I think it means they find me more worldly than the usual stay-at-home. I hope I won’t be like John Howard who, according to his historian brother Bob, was remarkably unchanged by his overseas travels.

Having read what you’ve read about me, how do you think I’ll change?

16 Replies to “How this ordinary aircraft will change my life”

  1. I am watching live the draw party list election number this morning. A presenter interviews an Aussie journalist, presumably either from ABC or SBS, before it is suddenly cut off to something else. The last question is what is the different between Thai and Australian election. “The election there is very serious………” Cut.

    It does sound that Thai election is not so serious, does it? Well, look back at the death tolls at the past elections. Anyway, she must have seen the loud and colourful activities of the supporters.

  2. @’Pong: Yes, as we’ve discussed before, Australia’s democracy is rather friendly. There are no soldiers with automatic weapons at the polling places, and the opposing party members laugh and joke as they hand out their how-to-vote cards. Is that just another example of Australia’s political apathy? Are we just sheep?

  3. When will we get PC voting? I heard Soul are going to setup a political party run by 70% majority votes of it’s internet customers. Sounded very interesting.

    btw. I don’t know who actually owns that plane but there’s a good chance it is an investment bank, hedge fund or even a company with a leasing arm like GE. Could even be our own aussie IB, Babcock and Brown. Often they are embedded in structured finance deals (asset backed investments). A lot of planes these days are never bought by the airline companies but simply leased for cashflow reasons. Asset ownership is a very interesting topic. Ownership is far more convoluted and unusual than anyone ever expects these days if you dig down into it. You can even buy a music artists royalty stream these days. No-one would expect their favourite band is a superannuation company!

  4. @Marc Lehmann: Hey glad to see you’re still around!

    Actually I hope we don’t get PC voting. It opens up far, far too many new ways of hacking the vote without adding anything to the integrity of our democracy. There isn’t a problem for which it’s a solution. At least not this generation.

    And yes, as I wrote “this Boeing 747-400… belongs to Thai Airways” I was thinking it probably doesn’t. I remember that kid in the UK starting an airline by bidding for carrier licenses no-one else wanted, then just chartering an aircraft once he had ticket sales. It began as a school project but ended up as a Real Live Airline.

    Again, an airline is just an abstract concept, a brand.

  5. “There are no soldiers with automatic weapons at the polling places, and the opposing party members laugh and joke as they hand out their how-to-vote cards. Is that just another example of Australia’s political apathy? Are we just sheep?”

    Have to admit comments like that leave me somewhat confuzzled – would you be happier if there were soldiers with automatic weapons at Australian polling places?

  6. Having been one of the hand outerer’s of how-to-vote cards (and we even hand our each others’ HTVs when a loo break or gap in the roster happens), yes, I ‘d rather have a democracy of the sheeple; irritating, frustrating and head bangingly mind numbing as that can be, than a democracy which has to be defended under the gun.

    OTOH, emerging democracies need the extra security don’t they? Not every nation aspiring to democracy has had such a fortunate record as ours.

    OTOH – “freedom has a taste the protected will never know”. Those having lived through decades of “peace and prosperity”, are less inclined to recognise, let alone protest the cuts of a thousand deaths, that nibble away at the civil protections which many of our forebears have fought and died for.

    Democracy – use it or lose it!

  7. @Stilgherrian “Having read what you’ve read about me, how do you think I’ll change?”

    Yea Dogs Stil! I thought I was a home body! 😉

    How will you change? ….. hmmmm …..well, your “wordliness” probably comes from being a media junkie and all the exposure. You know what’s going on, take an active interest in it and have racked up enough years to have seen it all it before.

    What will probably change is your perceptions of what you thought, your stereotypes and predispositions, once you actually experience how it is and what the people are like. I’ll be interested to read your experiences.

    Safe journey and have fun!

  8. @Cassie ST: I think you’re right about the changes perceptions of stereotypes. While ’Pong isn’t the only example of Thai culture in my circle of friends, he is the weirdest — far from representative.

    I’m currently re-reading the book Very Thai, which attempts to decode Thai popular culture for the western visitor. Well worth a read, I reckon.

    Thanks, and I will have fun — but I don’t leave until after we’ve gotten this election out of the way.

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