On the flight to Tokyo, I was rereading a favorite and important book to me, Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. At its core is the story of Babel, and how humans lost their universal tongue — forevermore to be separated from each other by all the languages of the world.

Toward the end of this flight, the elderly Chinese couple next to me became concerned they wouldn’t make their connecting flight and sought help from the attendants — not one of which spoke Mandarin. This seemed odd for a Japanese airline with so many Chinese travelers, and I’d heard them speak a variety of European languages. The attendants solicited help, in English, from a Korean couple near us who knew enough English and Mandarin to be useful. I listened and also helped by writing helpful numerals on the Chinese travelers’ boarding passes. At the peak of this, I was surrounded by a circle of flight attendants and passengers gesturing and babbling and looking confused, frantically trying to communicate simple matters in a multitude of languages.

And then I went back to my book.

Jill Corral