Sunday, June 27, 2010

Migrant Beats: Observations on a Slow Train

There are four classes on a typical train in China – the soft bed (ruanwo), the hard bed (yingwo), the soft seat (ruanzuo), and the hard seat (yingzuo). The soft isn’t as soft it could be, and the hard isn’t as dreary as its lower price suggests. The Lonely Planet quotes most of its train prices by hardbed prices because the soft beds and seats have to be reserved sometimes several months in advance, preparation that most intrepid travelers do not want to do. Not that I’m brave or think very far into the future. I

did buy my train ticket to Suzhou as soon as I got to Beijing, and found two yingzuo tickets, one on a slow train (manche) for 88 RMB and the other for 700 RMB taking a seemingly aerial time of less than 12 hours. I wasn’t in any hurry to arrive in Suzhou, so I bought the former.

I passed through railway station security and found my seat with time to spare. The night before, a friend in Beijing kept on warning me I should lie that I lived in Liaoning or some northeastern province should any fellow passenger curiously ask my origins. “It’s for your safety – those yingzuo can be full of sketchy people,” he said. I was pleasantly surprised to find seating in my booth instead three old ladies on their way home to Jinan, a high school teacher, and just one teenager who carried a punkish air of rebellion that I was instructed to watch out for. After a few greetings, everyone slowly settled into states of hibernation seen only on long train rides in China.

Some immediately broke out their snacks of apples, cucumbers, sausages, breads, ramen noodles and sunflower seeds. Some fiddled with their cell phones or handheld Playstation players. Some just looked outside at passing trees, factories and railroad tracks. Some struck up conversations – parents on their children’s education, elders on gifts of medicine and sweet delicacies for their family back home, students on their summer plans, migrant workers on the increasingly stifling summer heat. Electric fans hanging overhead buzzed forth pockets of cool air. The sun eventually rendered all eyes droopy, and heads rested on small booth tables and strangers’ shoulders. Besides the occasional click of some cell phone or whimper of a hidden baby, the train fell silent.

An hour later, the hibernation resumed. Aromas of salty noodle soups filled the cramped train car, sliced by frequent slurps and burps. A few returned to sleep, content from the warmth of the soup in their bellies and of the sun on their skin. The man next to me sighed while enviously observing a couple of kids playing card games. “Xiaomo shiguang,” he said, “why is it so hard to burn time on a train…” The elderly grandmother trio in my booth chuckled.

The man turned his attention to me. “Where are you going?” he asked.

Suzhou,” I replied.

“Ooh, that sucks. Are you going back home?”

“No, just to see a few people and take in the sights.”

“I see. Where are you from?”

“Um,” I paused. “The northeast.”

“Really? Which province?”

Liaoning.”

“Interesting. What were you doing in Beijing?”

“I’m in college.”

“Which one?”

“Tsinghua.” (Well, this was true, when I was still attending IUP.)

“Whoa, one of our national geniuses. What are you studying?”

“English.”

“Whoa! That’s a good major. I have a kid in high school who…”

I’ll end this pointless dialogue of lies here.

There is another class that I forgot to mention. The cheap standing ticket offers some sort of spot on the train, whether in the smoking sections between the train cars, a crouched space on the ground, or a lucky seat departed by a passenger. I woke up sometime around nine in the evening to find new personalities all around me, including a corpulent teenager to tired middle-aged man searching for a comfortable sleeping position on the way down south. In other booths and on the car floor, unfamiliar faces sat munching on ramen noodles. Many took off their shirts and rolled up their pant legs to allow more of their sweat to catch some sort of breeze.

We’re still twelve hours away from Suzhou.

We are now at Nanjing. Changjiang swirls below.

Agh, almost got off at Wuxi in my drowsy hurriedness!

Never again.


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2 Comments:

Kelly McLaughlin said...

So amazing that your Chinese is that good...

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