Monday, November 30, 2009

Hard Sleeper

My first Chinese train ride - such romance! such bohemian squalor! Stepping aboard the general admission car, I was swatted in the face by the fetid stink of latex and feces. I slugged my way to seat number 87 and sat. Avoiding the stares of the people around me, I took in the crowd. This was an exotic bunch: Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs, and other Chinese minorities I could not readily identify. Some of them looked as though they had been living in trains for weeks. It was 2:30 AM and many of the passengers were asleep, but those who weren't sat forward in their seats with duffel bags stowed between their legs, gawking at me. This wasn't the usual big-city curiosity I've learned to ignore: this was genuine astonishment. I must have been the first white devil these peasants had ever lain eyes upon.

With six hours 'til Wanzhou, I cracked open my writing notebook. "NOTEBOOK," it says on the front cover. "Progress is the activity of today and the assurance of tomorrow." For a long time, I thought those words were just gratuitous Chinglish wisdom, until I discovered they were a direct quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. I started writing. My neighbors craned their necks to watch.

"His handwriting is too messy," said the man across from me. "I can't read it."
"Many foreigners have bad penmanship," said another. "Even in English."
"Do you think he understands us?"
"No. I don't think so."
"But maybe he does. Sometimes they do."

Before long, my scribbling had drawn a crowd, which wasn't helping my writer's block one bit. I put my notebook away, tucked my head into my lap, and pretended to sleep until I fell asleep. I was jolted awake some hours later by a man barking into a megaphone. Had we arrived already? No. I saw that the man was carrying a basket full of boxes. He was hawking something. I checked my phone. It was 5 AM. The peddler strode up and down the aisle, barking and squawking until the passengers groaned into wakefulness. My stomach reminded me that I hadn't eaten in twelve hours: was this breakfast? No. The peddler opened a box and pulled out a Super Happy Fun Color-Change LED Spinning Top. He flipped a switch and set the thing loose. It whirled down the aisle and coasted under my seat, where it bleeped and tooted and screeched at a maddening volume.

"It's fun! It's high-tech! It will make your life colorful! It even sings a song!" As he passed, the peddler slowed to aim the cone of his megaphone into the inner ear canals of what few passengers remained sleeping. "Only fifty kuai to bring hours of happy playtime to your child's life!"

As the peddler stooped to fetch the runaway gizmo from under my seat, a tense American frequency was buzzing in my brain. Someone was going to do something. I could sense it. Someone was going to get up from their seat, march right down the aisle, snatch the megaphone from the peddler's hand and stomp it to bits. This is what would happen in America. But as your students will constantly remind you, T.I.C.: This Is China. The crowd drank in the peddler's rap. They were intrigued by the gizmo. They wanted personal demonstrations. What else can it do? Does it play any other songs? What kind of batteries does it use? Thirty kuai is all I've got; will you take thirty kuai? After twenty minutes of lo-fi squawking, the peddler had completely sold out of gizmos. He switched off his megaphone. I was drifting off into a befuddled slumber when I noticed a brownish-yellow pool oozing towards my sneakers. The man next to me pointed at it.

"Is that poop or pee?" he asked.
"It looks like pee," said his companion, "but it smells like poop."
The peddler stepped over the spreading puddle as he passed, riffling the bills in his hand. The stench multiplied. A stewardess stepped in the puddle - splash! - and let out a noise of mild disgust, but did not return to clean it up. I picked my bag up off the floor and sat with my nose tucked into my armpit to ward off the stench. I napped that way for fifteen minutes until the peddler returned, this time with hand-powered flashlights, which sold like mooncakes. And he came back a half hour later, flogging what looked to be imitation Nickelodeon Gak. The purgatory of public transportation had turned very quickly to hell. I pulled my hood over my head and curled up on the bench, and for two hours, amidst all the stinking and squawking, I pretended to sleep.

When I removed my hood, the first thing I saw was a boot. My eyes followed the boot upward to find that it was connected to a stockinged calf, which was connected to an unusually luscious thigh: a woman's leg. I blinked and shook my head. This was a woman's leg! Who was this woman, and what was she doing in China? Then I glanced up to see a very pretty face watching me sleep. She smiled. I squinted. Then, like a startled turtle, I pulled my hood back over my head and rolled over on my side.

A few stops later, two new guys took the seats across from me and started placing bets as to whether I could understand them.

"I bet he can't."
"I bet he can."
"I bet he can't."
"He can," said the woman. "I know he can. I heard him speaking earlier."
One of the guys leaned forward and slapped my thigh.
"Hey. If I speak Chinese, can you understand me?"
I sat up and de-hooded.
"More or less," I said.
He crowed triumphantly and collected a couple cigarettes from the peasant next to him.

A few days ago, I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity, and since then I have been able to understand and produce much more Chinese than I could a week ago. This Is Chinese: weeks of frustration and regression, moments of insight and comprehension. So I cleared one conversational hurdle after another with the man across from me - a clean-shaven sleazeball in a shiny silk suit - and eventually, with the unbelievably voluptuous woman across the aisle. She was sitting with a much older man: her father? her grandpa? her husband? The train passed through a tunnel. I gazed out the window into the darkness and saw that the woman was smiling at my reflection. My eyes shot down towards the floor and lingered on the dried poop-pee puddle under my feet. I have not been in China long enough to understand what constitutes normal Chinese behavior, but the woman across the aisle was behaving mighty unorthodoxically, indeed.

We chatted. The sleaze in the suit, at one point, turned to the woman across the aisle and said, "You should make a foreigner friend." He paused for emphasis. "I mean - make a foreigner friend." He grinned. She smiled.

We arrived. The Mongol hordes wrestled their way down the aisle and off the train. I waited until the car was empty and stepped out onto the platform. The woman was reverse following me, trailing behind her uncle, or coworker, or husband, or whoever he was. When I'd caught up to her, she drew me close and whispered in my ear, "Do you have a phone?"
"Yes," I said, "but it's dead at the moment."
"Then I'll give you my number."
She wrote it on the back of her ticket and slipped it into my hand. No mention of English lessons and no "foreigner friend" spiel. Just a phone number. Call me sometime. There was something indescribably sexy about the gesture, something very un-Chinese. The old man caught her by the arm and they melted into the crowd together. I put her number in my wallet. But I don't think I'll call. My marital status is confusing enough without steamy train station affairs thrown into the mix.

Two days later, I was back at the Wanzhou Train Station. The moment I stepped out of the cab, I was assailed by barkers and floggers and hecklers: do you want to eat? do you want to relax? do you want to go to Nanchong? I take you to Nanchong!

"Bu yao, bu yao, dou bu yao!" I shouted those magic words with my newly acquired Chinese gravitas and the sea of urchins parted before me. "I don't want, I don't want, I don't want any of it!"

I fished out my wallet. According to my fuzzy calculations, after the bus and the cab ride to the station, I should have had 50 kuai left over for a hard sleeper bunk. But my wallet served up 34 kuai and two mao. I'd have to ride coach again. I paced back and forth, racking my mind for the exact moment the swindle had taken place. In China, your pockets seem to hemorrhage money, a phenomenon that will often drive you into a sweaty rage, before you realize that you've been gypped the equivalent of three U.S. dollars. I bought a ticket.
"34 kuai," said the clerk.
I slid my last 34 kuai across the counter, and stared at the two mao in my palm as though there were an ominous portent therein.

Boarding the train to Wanzhou had been a surprisingly civilized affair, but boarding the train back to Nanchong was like being thrown into the throes a Gwar show. The instant the gates opened, the hordes forearm shivered their way out onto the platform. I stood on the outskirts for a few minutes to catch my breath, then I surged into the pit. We were so much cattle; we were turn-of-the-century mobs rioting in the wake of a Stravinsky concert; we were 500 human beings eroding each other to a polished sheen. For a moment, western rationality strained against the bars of my skull: isn't there a better, a smoother way to go about this? Must we cross-check grandmothers into plexiglas walls so we can get to our assigned seats first? Well, shit, I shrugged: as far as excitement goes, this beats the hell out of waiting in line for half an hour. I headbutted someone in the chest and Rodmanned my way through the turnstile.

China will shake you and rattle you sometimes. Other times, it will grin mischievously while you sit and wait for chaos to strike. Nothing happened on the train ride back to Nanchong. It was six hours of purgatory. I reread Brave New World. I wrote. Nobody seemed to notice me. I snuck out to the smoking car for a cigarette. The train ride was uncomfortable, smelly, and cramped. The peddler swept through at midnight to flog bottles of nerve tonic. But it wasn't as maddening or as tedious as I had anticipated. We coasted into Nanchong thirty minutes early. For the first time, I felt like I was coming home. I was relieved to be back in Nanchong, with its familiar peculiarities, its incomprehensible dialect, its distinctly drab architecture; the twiggy girls at the shishkebab joint asking me for English lessons; back to my sterile modern campus, the cold squareness of my apartment, and finally, after a meditative cigarette or two, to the Keithish musk of my hard, well-slept-in bed.


Anonymous said...

if the unbelievably voluptuous woman across the aisle had lived in your town, would you talk with her?

is it hard to maintain a relationship with a chinese girl as someone in your position?

Keith Petit said...

These are hard-hitting questions, Anonymous!

If the unbelievably voluptuous woman were a Nanchonger, I would've been even more hesitant to get in touch with her, because in doing so I would have expressed interest in a long-term relationship. And if we were to become involved, she would know the same people that I know, coworkers and students and neighbors and what have you. In short, if I dated her, everyone in Nanchong would hear about it within a very short time, and would gossip accordingly. And because, as a foreigner, I am infinitely visible, it would be incredibly easy for me to screw everything up and ruin my good standing with a lot of people I depend on.

Relationships are serious business in China. I'm not an expert on the matter, but I don't think Chinese people "date" in the western sense of the word, at least not in my neck of the woods. The young couples I know are on the fast track towards marriage. As a spry young lad of 26, I'm not game for that. Not yet, anyway.

For foreigners, a Chinese love life can be impossibly complicated. I am a cultural outsider, so I imagine there would be a lot of pressure on me to play roles I'm not familiar with. On top of that, Chinese girls are distinctly, well, Chinese. Considering my interests, which are weird even by western standards, I'm not sure that I could find much in common with a Chinese girl. Granted, I haven't really explored my options, but after a year and a half in Asia, I've come to realize that my most meaningful conversations relate to western music, film, philosophy, and literature - and the Chinese people who have a grasp on those sorts of things are few and far between. This isn't a critique; the Chinese don't need to take an interest in western culture, any more than your average American should be familiar with the classic texts of Daoism. But in the long run, I am a westerner with western interests, and the ability to discuss things in a western way is a big part of any meaningful long-term relationship I happen to get into. And long-term relationships are the standard out here, so I'm not really willing to trap myself in a situation unless I'm absolutely smitten, or I am sure of a painless and relatively benign way out.

If that makes any sense!