A Train Sta­tion Story

A For­eign Ex­pert's Ad­ven­ture in Zhengzhou

That's China - - Contents - Text by / David P. Pur­nell

1986年,我在郑州火车站

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

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