Elevate Difference

Airborne Dreams: "Nisei" Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways

Pan American World Airways was not simply an airline in the way that we understand airlines today. It was an icon, a gateway, and enjoyed (and still enjoys) a cult-like following. In this fascinating look into the Nisei stewardesses of Pan Am, Yano explores the postwar ideology of the airline and its relation to the experience of the Nisei stewardesses.

Some might say it was risky or odd for Pan Am to hire Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) stewardesses post-World War II. Yano reveals this purposeful decision for what it was: a calculated marketing move to promote a sense of worldliness and add a dash of exoticism on their flights. The Nisei stewardesses were held to a strict standard of appearance and behavior. On top of this, they were supposed to speak Japanese, though many did not. In fact, many were not even Japanese American! Yet they still served the general purpose of Pan Am, which was to make the foreign more approachable.

Despite the sophisticated front that Pan Am provided, many of the Nisei stewardesses were from humble backgrounds. Most had never traveled far, and many had never even worked alongside Caucasians, as they were raised in ethnic enclaves. What began as a carefully cultivated image of class and refinement became reality through the stewardesses’ experiences. They learned from their first class passengers and the luxuries afforded to them during their travels.

This is not to say that working for Pan Am was always peachy. As expected, many of the stewardesses were subjected to racist stereotypes of East Asian women and objectified as exotic eye candy. Some were treated like servants, and nearly all of the women complained of the regulation girdles and the impromptu girdle checks that accompanied them.

Through the ups and downs of their Pan Am careers, the Nikei stewardesses were exposed to experiences outside of the realm of possibility back in their hometowns. This, in turn, helped shape their identities in a way that also helped Pan Am achieve its desired image. This is to say that Pan Am hired these women with hopes of demonstrating their sophistication and worldliness. The women, in turn, became more sophisticated and worldly through the opportunities that Pan Am provided.

Yano’s exploration of Pan Am’s Nisei stewardesses reveals a story of a people, a time, a dream, and the motivation that made it all come together. Airborne Dreams is a nostalgia-filled trip through the glamorous airs flown by Pan Am, and also provides an intelligent look into the corporate and sociocultural factors at play during this time.

Written by: Shana Mattson, April 6th 2011

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