The line starts here

I’m at Hobart airport, lining up at gate 4 (Jetstar) to board a flight back to Melbourne. I am the first person in the right-hand queue. We haven’t actually started boarding yet. After a few minutes, something makes me turn around to look at what’s going on behind me. I discover that I am alone in my own line: no one has lined up behind me. The other line stretches out of sight around a food island.

Does no one else realise that there is a boarding pass scanner on the right as well as on the left, and that when boarding passengers, the airline staff always operate both at once? Or does everyone who has lined up behind the first person in the left-hand queue think I am with someone, and not standing in line, as it were, on my own behalf? Or what, exactly? Why would people line up behind the person to my left, and not line up behind me? People usually form two lines at this gate. I can see no external clues to help me answer this mystery. There was no announcement, that I heard, directing us to line up on the left. Is the answer, therefore, something to do with me?

Here are a few ideas that enter my head.

I’m small.

I’m wearing a backpack.

I’m female.

I’m ­­_? (Other?)

I’m small.

Yes, I’m small, very small, teeny tiny Vietnamese lady small, so it is easy for strangers to think I’m younger than I am, especially at a glance, and especially if they are seeing me from behind. Beyond that first instant, people usually see and hear enough of me to rapidly add a few decades to their first estimate (I see the years clicking away in their eyes like a toy cash register), and to reassess how they should be interacting with me.

The people who’re in line, they haven’t seen my face. They might well think I’m standing there next to someone in the first line; that perhaps I’m someone’s child.

Still, it beats me why not one of them figures out they can form a second line themselves, behind me – and get on the plane sooner!

I’m wearing a backpack.

The wearing, by adults, of backpacks, like hoodies, can create distrust. In the case of the hoodie (sweatshirt with hood), the suspicion usually starts when the hood is worn over the head. Is the wearer hiding something? Deliberately, and rather irritatingly, trying to look ‘badass’? But even simply the wearing of casual clothes like hoodies and trackpants, especially by adults, can create unease in certain settings, such as shops and, yes, the airport, unless the clothing is clearly upmarket and in style.

Likewise, backpacks, unless they can clearly be linked to an undertaking like study or backpacking around the world – on second thoughts, often because they can be linked to such undertakings – create unease in a way that handbags, manbags, and pretty much all the other bags that people carry or roll on board with them, don’t. In reality, backpacks can’t be classified that easily, and hence they suggest … unpredictability.

In my case, I find a backpack is the best way to transport my laptop and personal and important papers. I like to leave my hands free, and find it more comfortable to have the weight on my back than on either side of my body.

The people in the left-hand line – do they see the backpack and think, without even realising they’re doing it – ‘Not sure how to read this person. Not sure what she’s up to’ – ?

I’m female.

An older female.

Been trampled on recently? I have.

It wasn’t serious. I was on a train, in a crowd, in the process of getting off. The young woman with the earphones, as far as it was possible to do to a person who was vertical, walked over me, right through my space, brushing hard against me as if I was not there. I’m pretty sure it was deliberate, that I had somehow got up her nose, but I can’t be sure.

I received this recently in a letter from a friend who lives in Massachusetts:

… I’ve reached the age where women become invisible in our American culture. It’s not just sexually invisible, it’s actually invisible. It’s really weird. People walk into me on the sidewalk, people cut me off with their grocery carts, with their cars. (I swear, I’m not making this up!)

My friend and I are the same age.

I know that suggesting that age could have anything to do with what happened at the airport seems to be completely counter to my idea that my small size makes many people, at first glance, mistake me for a child.

But could both things be happening? You look at me, for a moment you see child; you look at me again (something makes you look a bit more closely), you see greying hair and a few creases around the eyes, a sober expression, you see ageing woman. Perhaps there’s that weird feeling of having been tricked by appearances?

But that kind of experience could only happen to someone who is standing close to me, so this – being an older female – can’t be the explanation for why no one has lined up behind me.

I’m ­­_? (Other?)

But what if I were a really glamorous-looking female, or even just a normal-looking woman – that is, someone you could (you felt) categorise – a woman with two children – a woman with flowing, bright clothes who looked as though she ran her own retail business – an older woman standing beside a man who appeared to be her husband, and both retired –?

What do I look like to others? Do we ever know that? I don’t, I feel, quite fit into any particular category. And without a person accompanying me to tell you where I fit in a family or a partner relationship, without wearing clothing that clearly shouts out what I do or at least what I want you to believe that I do – without those sorts of signs, and without knowing me at all, you might see me either as an interesting enigma or as an unsettling riddle. If you were to give me any thought at all, that is.


Perhaps it’s something else, that relates to all of these, but isn’t precisely to do with any of them: something to do with authority.

Perhaps, at first glance, people feel I lack the authority that indicates ‘The line starts here’. I mean, if I were Idris Elba … there’s a physical presence if ever there was one … would there be no line on the right? People would have flocked to the right.

For most of us, seeing authority invested in the wrong person can be as offensive as it would be to see, say, our ordinary-looking next-door neighbours cast as the leads in the next big blockbuster romance. It would probably feel not just weird, but wrong. We might feel disgust and even contempt. (Imagine the sex! No, yikes, don’t imagine it!) Damn it, we don’t want to have to look at it. We won’t go to that movie. We won’t participate.

And by this I don’t mean that that wrong person necessarily has to look different in any way, although looks play their part – often quite a big part, as most of us have realised. It might simply be that we feel they are not deserving of, or not suited to, the authority invested in them. I feel this way about certain politicians.

My chagrin at encountering situations where I am not granted the authority I feel entitled to, in my person, based on my conception of my self worth and life experience, and the way I conduct myself, is very real. I’m not talking about job promotions here. I’m talking about day-to-day interactions. Being fully visible to others. Being listened to and taken seriously. That kind of authority. I expect to have it, and am really taken aback when I discover I don’t.

I think that’s why this experience at the airport has stuck with me, even though at the time I just raised my eyebrows and emitted a small puff of incredulity.

But of course, I make these kinds of mistakes, too; I judge and misjudge others in an instant. We all do. Giving every single person we encounter our time and most careful consideration is just not something any of us can do, unless we encounter very few people indeed.

Still – I would have lined up behind me. So that’s something.

© From the desk of a tiny person 2015

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