A Train Station Story
A Foreign Expert's Adventure in Zhengzhou
Across the vast expansive landscape of China, railway tracks crisscross and zigzag from one city to another, moving the population to and from their destinations. Each pit stop along the way has a story to tell, and a history connected to the development of the railway industry. As more and more train stations grow and services become faster and faster, rail continues to keep up with the pace of modern day living carrying passengers as well as cargo...
I was on some sort of break from my teaching duties but had to get back. The weather was fine, and all had gone very smoothly, as it usually does when you travel alone.
“You can pull over anywhere.” “Na’er dou xing.” Reaching in my pants, I pulled out some money and found the amount shown on the meter but, handing it to the driver, heard him say, with a little grin, “Bu yong, bu yong. Mei guanxi,” meaning there was no need and it didn’t matter. I made another lame effort to give it to him, but knew it was pointless. He’d decided that we were now friends and didn’t want to be paid. This had happened before, more times than I could remember. A cynical companion might think I did this on purpose to avoid the fee, sharing personal information and talking to the driver like a human, but I think it’s just a reflex from my old hitch-hiking days, back in nicer times when the world allowed such things. Or maybe I just talk too much.
Anyway, it reminded me of an earlier time and place, even deeper toward my love for China and its people. I’d been traveling south of Beijing a day’s travel or so, to the ancient capital of Luoyang and then to Bai Ma Si (White Horse Temple). I was on some sort of break from my teaching duties but had to get back. The weather was fine, and all had gone very smoothly, as it usually does when you travel alone. But now I was in the Zhengzhou train station in need of a ticket for the last leg of the trip home. In those days, “foreign experts” got “preferential treatment cards” (You Dai Zheng) that allowed them to use the common currency instead of the Foreign Exchange Certificates that most foreigners had to use and could only get by turning over their hard cash from abroad. The cards were becoming unpopular though, and store clerks cringed when I pulled mine out, disappointed that this foreigner was going to pay in plain old Renminbi. Institutions like train stations were still pretty reliable but, even there, obstacles were starting to appear. At the Zhengzhou train station, this came in the form of a special office for purchasing tickets with the card, and it was only open at very odd times.
After a considerable wait, killing time by alternately sitting on the floor to read and taking little walks around the station, but always keeping my eye on the office door, it suddenly opened and four figures emerged, one of them obviously the boss, with that unquestionable bearing and a Mao jacket (actually called Sun Yat-sen jacket in Chinese) made with much finer material than those of his underlings. I rushed over, proffering my work permit, You Dai Zheng and passport, smiling broadly and stating quickly that I was a teacher at the Second Foreign Language Institute in Beijing, and had to get back for classes in the morning. The boss grabbed hold of all my documents but, without thinking, I held on to my passport and a little tug-of-war ensued. Before I could grasp the need to act differently, he released all of them with a loud sigh of disgust. He was finished with this uncooperative and disrespectful foreigner. I made some vain attempts to restore his “face” and gain his sympathy, but quickly realized that my awkward groveling was not working and what this meant: I would have to join the endless lines of green and blue clad people, waiting and hoping for tickets, stretching interminably like a scene from some Orwellian nightmare. My continuing appeals and apologies were utterly ignored, and I seemed to decide at some point that I might as well have a little vicious fun for revenge, suddenly hearing myself say
nd “Ni zenme le? Ni shi long ya ba ma?” (What’s with you? Are you deaf and dumb?). I enjoyed the boss’s little squirm and, even more so, the failed attempt of his underlings to conceal their amusement. And then I joined the line. In 1986, train stations in the bigger cities were rough, with pushy crowds of people competing to get on trains, some with carrying poles, bales of various materials, boxes of bottles filled with mysterious liquids, farm implements and construction supplies, while others had large families with babies in tow, and often assorted livestock and not-so-fresh food. In smaller cities like Zhengzhou, the stations could be even more hectic and disorienting. People waited in clumps and made the best of it, hunkered down with belongings piled high and carefully guarded.
Others desperately tried to buy tickets from those fortunate enough to have them, and ticket scalpers circled like birds of prey. But the lines were the most depressing part. One could wait for hours, only to have the window suddenly close just as you were about to have your chance at making your request heard above the din and strain to obtain that blessed ticket. Other times, you would be curtly informed that you had been in the wrong line all along or, God forbid, hear those horrible words, frequently delivered with a slight twist of the knife, “Mei you!” No tickets left.
Trying to settle into my place in this mixture of commotion, jangled nerves, family scenes and quiet, age-old endurance, I was becoming increasingly frantic, as the long line barely moved. What would they think if I didn’t show up in class the next day? Lost in the provinces? Off on a bender? I had to do something, and found myself walking toward the front of the line, off to the side a bit so I could see as many of my fellow ticket-seekers as possible. “Comrades,” I said as loudly and clearly as I could muster. I got some looks, but people seemed unsure what was happening and hesitant to commit their gaze to the strange foreigner. “I’m a teacher from Beijing and have to get back to my work-unit, but your leaders have let me down!” It was the last part that got their attention. Two people came forward, took me by the elbows and walked me to the window, the masses parting like bamboo in a high wind. I had my ticket to Beijing two minutes later and lots of good wishes as I walked toward the tunnels leading to the platform. I wish I could say that the crowd waved and cheered as the train chugged away but, after rescuing me, they had all returned to the drudgery of their own problems. I prefer to remember them all on that platform anyway, smiling, waving and wishing me along to the rest of my life.
I wish I could say that the crowd waved and cheered as the train chugged away but, after rescuing me, they had all returned to the drudgery of their own problems. I prefer to remember them all on that platform anyway, smiling, waving and wishing me along to the rest of my life.
An old picture of Zhengzhou Train Station