How do we learn the concept of personal space? I’m sitting next to an elderly Chinese woman on United flight 869 who might as well be in my seat. As she eats, she props her elbows out so widely that they practically rest on my chest. I shift, trying to avoid her contact, to no avail. I would have to be not in my seat in order to not be touching her. And if I stand my ground? Doesn’t matter. She doesn’t appear uncomfortable rubbing elbows. So why does this make me uncomfortable? We’re in a small, confined space, an airplane. I realize, intellectually, that there’s limited real estate here. I’m not a particularly territorial person. Yet I don’t like her touching me. I sit here, trying to be okay with it. I’m not.
And yet. There’s something both endearing and incredibly irritating about her at the same time. Irritating because she waits until I am either asleep or deeply engrossed in work on my laptop to poke me and let me know she wants to go to the bathroom. I slowly rise from my aisle seat and let her out. And each time she comes back from the bathroom she pokes me, smiles, and then salutes me. That makes me smile. Until she starts rubbing elbows again.