The unforgettable UM service

The unforgettable UM service

This summer I joined an English-learning summer program in the USA. Because the school hosting the program was located in a small town, I had to transfer flights in to reach my destination.

It was my first time travelling alone internationally, so my mum worried about my flight, my luggage, my safety, the school staff who should pick me up at the airport … basically everything. Just before leaving home for the airport, my mum was still fretting hysterically. She was so nervous that she even applied for the UM service to make sure I was safe throughout the whole journey. I am sure many of you have heard of the term UM, or “unaccompanied minor”. It is a service for little kids in case they got lost in the airplane, in other words, a service not meant for mature 15-year-olds. At first, I refused. But after my mum’s persistent cajoles, I relented. I rolled my eyes and let her pay the airline staff. If you ask me, this was just flushing money down the drain.

After checking in, a member of the ground crew gave me a small messenger bag of bright yellow with a cartoon image of a boy and a smiling stewardess. She asked for my boarding passes and passport and tucked the documents in. Thank god she didn’t ask me to hang it around my neck or I could never show my face again. She led me to the boarding gate, and instructed me to sit on the staff chair behind the counter. I instantly felt like a misbehaved child. The other waiting passengers stared at me. I could practically see a bubble on top of their heads, thinking, “Why is she sitting there? Who is she? Is she some billionaire’s daughter or a juvenile delinquent?”

20 minutes before the boarding time, and the stewardess was ready to chaperone me into the plane. Other passengers were still relaxing peacefully. I stood up and followed her into the corridor towards the airplane. As we were walking, she muttered discreetly into a walkie-talkie, “UM coming through.” I nearly burst out in laughter at the way she acted like I was a highly unstable terrorist that might plant a bomb in their plane.

The whole crew who were waiting by the plane entrance beamed eagerly at me when I stepped in. Two to three flight attendants quickly ushered me to my seat. They hurriedly stowed my backpack in the overhead cabinet and buckled my seatbelt. One explained in detail the functions of the armrest buttons and also asked if I needed an extra blanket or pillow. I was momentarily confused by the flurry of activities, but I settled down quickly.

After a three-hour flight, I landed in Seoul for transferring to Washington DC. A flight attendant walked me through immigration and into a room decorated especially for unaccompanied minors. Childish wallpaper was plastered on the walls. A flat screen TV was hung on one of the walls. A drinking machine sat in a corner. Several couches formed a half circle. A boy who looked about ten years old glanced up at me from his iPad for a fraction of a second before returning to his car-racing game. I immediately sank into one of the couches and made myself comfortable. From here, I could see a bookshelf filled with colorful storybooks, not quite for my age group but I could have a look. I sighed contentedly. This was not bad at all. In fact by now, I am quite glad my mum insisted on the UM service. I could relax, read or watch some television. That would definitely not be possible if I was sitting on a stiff chair by the boarding gate.

Three hours of waiting passed quickly with various forms of entertainment. I once again boarded the flight under the supervision of a flight attendant. One irritating thing on the 14-hour flight was my burning thirst. Each time I asked for water, they gave me a tiny cup that was half-filled. I swallowed the water in one gulp and had to ask for another in ten minutes.

After I got off the plane, I had to wait with a bunch of kids for a flight attendant to take us through immigration. This time, she demanded that I wear the bright yellow bag. I waited until she switched her attention to another kid, slipped off the bag quickly and looped the straps on my arm, hoping she would not notice. Unfortunately she did and this time she hung it around my neck herself. I made a disgusted face and she caught me. She didn’t like me very much afterwards.

I caused even more trouble when she had to bring me to the school staff. My mum wrote about ten contacts on the UM application form and the one with accurate information is right at the bottom. While other kids bounded over to their delighted parents, I was helplessly standing there in the middle of the airport, an annoyed flight attendant by my side, trying out all the contacts on the paper. Eventually the school staff found us herself, and the flight attendant handed me over to her with all the weight off her shoulders.



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