Jennifer A. Chin (cswallow) wrote,
Jennifer A. Chin

Beijing, China: Week 8, Part 1 (How I Got Here)

t. I’m crazy because I like it. I’ll run around in it. I tolerate it much, much better than cold. California girl I am. Despite the smog that today has left my throat feeling sandpapered and phlegm-filled, and despite the enormity of the city (how can a block possibly be so long, and subway stops so far apart?), I am thrilled to be here.

But first, a glimpse of how I got here. I have little record of it, actually. There were good-byes to be had, and a heap of bus stations and train stations. There was a very long train ride.

The train station at Tumen

The people with me were not wealthy – these were the cheap seats if you will..though they were actually quite nice. Cream-colored seat covers, tablecloths, and a man who came by every hour to sweep under our seats and empty the metal dish that served as a trash can. Two bench rows face a table on either side – on the right is a set of 4, and on the left a set of 6. I luckily had a window seat in a set of six. The two men next to me, aged 27 and 43, were part of a four-person group that paints new homes and exterior walls with traditional designs. The three men across from me, ages 25 to 29, were returning home from Tumen where they had been laying high speed rail. All came from farming families, and as we rode through the countryside, they analyzed the crops – their height, type and lifecycle. Across from us was two older women and their husbands. They came from Yanji, Liaoning, Henan. So, I didn’t pull out my camera, or my journal. I wanted to be, for a little while, closer to them.

Close we got. After 10 pm, exhaustion set in and the two next to me toppled like slow, soft dominos, the closest one’s heavy head resting on my bony shoulder. And around 2am, as I finally fell asleep myself, I shared the table with two others – our faces resting in our forearms. At 6am, the conductor flung open the curtains and we were treated to a mist-drenched sunrise, farmers crouching like secrets amongst their crops, and mountains like paper marching flat and purple into the distance.

I think I could have looked fondly on this trip, except that two hours before Beijing the tablecloths were whisked away and the train was flooded with students heading into Beijing. They oversell the hard seat cars, so people are jammed in the aisles. Of course, every one made space. 4 people to the seats, another leaning against the table. I think they were used to the press of bodies against them, but I’d been too long in Hunchun and North Carolina and by the time we pulled into Beijing Station, I was screaming (silently in my own head) to be let out.

But finally, assisted by my new Henan friends, I hauled my pack down from the rack, shouldered it to chuckles and cries of “What do you have in there?!” and we parted ways.

I stood in line for some time, waiting for a taxi. It turns out that there’s some racketeering happening here, too. You can pay a little extra, and someone will grab a taxi out of the normal line for you. Of course, those people win, and the rest of us ”honest” folk standing in line are forced to wait twice as long. A large American man about 10 people behind me found this completely absurd, and started yelling loudly about how they were “cheating the system” and “screwing up the process.” When a guy made the mistake of approaching HIM, the American started dropping the F-bomb at him. I sighed. I wanted to tell him that actually, this was part of the system. But he was too many people away, and anyway, I was still trying to blend in. I wondered if he’d have a difficult vacation here, and what kind of stories about China he was going to bring back to the States. I wondered if he would ever be able to see.

People on these long distance buses and trains sometimes ask me if China is better or America is better. How can you compare? I say back to them. They are each good in different ways. America to them is the land of wealth, a strange fantasy world. Sometimes I want to tell them, They’re afraid of China, and what China can do. Some people feel angry because they think China is stealing their jobs. But they would just laugh at me – these are farmers and merchants. They could never fathom that an American would want their job, working rows of corn by hand, chasing away wild pigs with dogs, sitting on a spine-jarring bus ride for 12 hours to bring Chinese herbs from one side of the province to the other. Nor can they fathom that in America, some people can’t pay their rent and feed their children and have to sleep on the streets. When I tell them, the only thing I hear in their voices is doubt. For now, we’re still faceless to each other – all Americans have money, and all Chinese can't be trusted.

There is much happening though, with this government. The 100,000 Strong initiative, forums like the Strategic & Economic Development partnership, companies sending workers back and forth on exchange, and some of the most enthusiastic gov't-to-gov't partnerships in the last decade. Chances for understanding – if we are willing to look.

All us interns with our friends from the baozi restaurant (we went there almost every other day). I bet they never thought they'd be on the internets. Although in another year they'll probably be on Weibo...
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