Monday, March 29, 2010

Gweilo Road Trip, prt. IV

Getting There

But I left out the part about how hard it was for a bunch of dumb white people to get to Suzhou at all. 

Never mind getting to the Shanghai train station.  We thought we’d be clever and have the clerks at our hotel write “train station” in Chinese characters on a piece of paper, only to learn that most of the taxi drivers in Shanghai can’t actually read—which is fair enough, I guess—I mean, where were you during the cultural revolution?—though I can’t imagine what May is going to be like when the Shanghai expo begins and 5 million people who don’t speak Chinese descend on the city. 

Anyhow, all of that is nothing compared to the Shanghai train station, which is part madhouse, part performance art, part battle-zone, part social experiment.  It is, simply put, everything—chaotic, pushy, energetic, and unpredictable—that those who hate China hate about China, and everything—chaotic, pushy, energetic, and unpredictable—that people who love China love about China.

We spend the first 20 minutes there scanning the station for ticket counters.  We see plenty of automated ticket kiosks, sure, but where are the flesh-and-blood, face-to-face booths where you can receive personal verbal assurances that you haven’t just bought 54 tickets to outer Mongolia?  Eventually I get in line at one of the kiosks while Ellen takes the kids out for further reconnaissance, certain that, somewhere, there’s a smiling face just waiting to sell us tickets to Suzhou.

I’m two bodies from front of the line when Will comes running up.  “Mommy found the ticket counters!” he says, and we both sprint through the crowds to where Ellen’s standing in the doorway to an adjacent building, looking grim.

“False alarm,” she says.  Then she points at more of the electronic kiosks, each with a bristling line of people waiting for their turn.  “But at least these ones have English.”

And sure enough, there’s an LED sign over this bank with the legend, “English Users Tickets Machines.”

I get in line.  And to hedge our bets, so does Ellen at the opposite end of the room.  For a long while, we stand there watching our respective lines not move.  Occasionally we signal each other:  “Five people left in this line.”  “Five left here as well.”  “No one’s moving here.  I wonder why?”  “I don’t know.”  “This guy’s having a hard time.  Must be stupid.”  “Probably a Vikings’ fan.” 

It’s true, actually:  there’s one guy in my line who stands at the kiosk for what seems like ten minutes, shoulders hunched, head down.  What the hell is he doing, I wonder, ordering fries? 

“Come on,” I say out loud.  The man behind me, a business-looking dude in a suit and pink shirt, grunts in affirmation. 

Eventually, Mr. Randall gives up, taking his money and rolling his eyes as he strolls back down the line and out the door.  My queue picks up speed after that, and eventually, one couple left in front of me, I signal to Ellen that she should leave her pokey little line and come over here, where the big boys play.

At which point, of course, the couple in front of me decides the best way to buy their 6,000 RMB worth of tickets is by feeding wrinkled twenties into the machine, one after another, looking startled every time the machine spits the bills out.

Finally, though, it’s my turn. 

I step up, confident in my abilities to read English and push buttons.  Sure enough, in a matter of seconds I’ve booked five tickets for Suzhou, plus five more returns for Monday morning.  Pushing the “Approve Purchase” button, I haul out my wallet and feed a 100 RMB bill into the appropriate slot. 

Only . . .

It won’t take it.

I glance at the bill, then glance at the guide that shows the correct orientation for feeding the machine:  Mao facing up, his back to the machine. 

No problem:  I snap my bill once, just to remove any wayward wrinkles, and feed Mr. Mao into the money-grubbing machine again, thinking this an appropriate metaphor for the rather commercial state of communism in twenty-first-Century China. 

Out it comes. 

“Bugger,” I mutter.  I stuff the bill back into my wallet, pull out another.  Again I check the orientation, then slide the paper into the slot. 

There’s a beat of a full five seconds—then it reappears. 

“Bugger bugger,” I say.  I can feel the room beginning to warm.  Pink shirt man is still behind me, I know, and probably rolling his eyes in commiseration with those around him. 

I try again.  And again.  And again.  I’m not using bugger, anymore either, having moved on from words that will offend only the English to words that would make residents of San Quentin blush. 

Giving up on that bill, I stuff it into one pocket and grab another.  And then another.  And another.  And another. 

None of them works. 

“What’s wrong?” A young man with spiky hair and glasses has appeared at my right side. 

“It won’t take my money.”

“Try another bill.”

“It won’t take any of them.”

“You put it in like this.” He points to the orientation indicator below the slot. 

“I know,” I say.  “I’ve tried that.”

Pink shirt is on my left now, looking no-nonsense in his sharp black suit.  Without saying a word to me, he feeds one of his own bills into the slot. 

There’s an unbelievably long pause, during which all three of us hold our breath—then the bill slides out again.

“They’re too new,” the spiky-haired guy says. 

I thumb through my wallet, looking for anything pink and wrinkly.  Every bill is sharp enough to cut. 

Spike-hair and I both look at pink shirt to see if he has any ideas.  He’s standing, bill still in his hand, thumb on his chin, gazing at the machine.  Then, suddenly, he leans forward, flips the bill over, and feeds it in.

There’s a pause, a count of one . . . two . . . three.  Then a beep, and the machine takes it. 

The three of us sigh, grinning.  I hand pink shirt a replacement bill, then slide one, two, three, four more of my own into the machine, smiling each time I hear a beep.  Eventually all that’s left is to wait for my tickets and change.  These come in short order, and I step back from the machine, my hands in front of me, clasped, bowing to the two of them, my head down, thanking them, thanking them, thanking them. 


Still Getting There

Tickets in hand, we make our way to the entrance of the station where we flash them to the guard and go through security.  At the top of the stairs, we follow signs to a pair of waiting rooms.  The one on the left has the numbers for four trains, including ours, and the words, “Cars 1-8.”  The one on the right has a similar sign, with the words, “Cars 9-16.” 

I look at Ellen, who looks at me.  Then I take out the tickets and finger through them, looking for the car. 

“Guess what?” I say.

“We’re in two different cars,” Ellen says. 

I hand her three tickets.  “See you in Suzhou.”

She takes Will and Jamie, figuring the two of them put together are half-as-much trouble as the other one, and I lead mini-me in pink monkey pants and a purple T-shirt that says, Why? Why?  Why? across the hall.

“Where’s mommy and Will going?” Lucy asks. 

“We’re on two different cars.”


“Yeah,” I say.  “Great.  Do you need to pee?”

Lucy shakes her head.  I pick her up, and the two of us survey the room.  It’s roughly the size of a basketball court, maybe a little bigger, and divided by vertical rows of seats into four long sections, each leading to doorway over which is posted a train number.  Ours is on the right-hand side, bordered by a huge plywood wall behind which men on scaffolding are welding, orange sparks arching into the late afternoon gloom. 

“Okay,” I say, and put Lucy down.  “We go this way.  Be sure to stick close, okay?

She takes my hand and we lace our way through the crowd, angling toward the front, right-hand side of the room.  Eventually we make our way two-thirds of the way to our gate, at which point Lucy tugs my hand and says, “Daddy?”

I look down at her.  Her lower lip is up, as though considering.

“Let me guess,” I say.  “You have to pee?”

She nods. 

We make our way back through the crowd to the rear corner where the bathrooms/smoking rooms are located, trade our urine for lung cancer, and then weave back to a spot along the plywood sheets, where we can hear the hiss of the arc-welders and the occasional shouts of the waiting train passengers as sparks flutter over the wall and into the crowd.  It’s gray in there, and crowded, and about as gloomy as any story by Poe. 

“You hungry?” I say to Lucy.

She nods.  I dig through my backpack and come up with an unopened bag of pistachios.  Setting my sack on top of the suitcase, I make a table of sorts and lay some nuts on top.  We take turns taking one, cracking it open, then tossing the shells into a nearby garbage can. 

“You want to play mini-mysteries?” I ask.  This is something we started in Vietnam, during those dull moments at restaurants between ordering and the arrival of the food:  one sentence riddles that can be solved only by asking Yes or No questions:  a man is dead in a room, nothing but a glass of water beside him— what happened?  “Was he poisoned?”  No.  “Did he vote for the health-care bill?”  Yes, etc.  Right now we’re on one about a man who takes the elevator down from the 25th floor on his way to work, then, on the way back, takes the elevator all the way up if he’s with someone but gets out on the 12th floor and walks if he’s alone. 

Lucy shakes her head, then spits a shell into the garbage.

“What about 21-Questions?” I ask.

“What’s that?”

“It’s like mini-mysteries, only instead of trying to solve a murder or something, I think of an object and you try to figure out what it is, asking yes or no questions.”

She considers for a minute.  Then she says, “Can I go first?”

“Sure,” I say. 

She grins.

“You have to think of something,” I say.  “An object or a person.  Or maybe a place.  And you can’t change it once you’ve decided it, okay?”

She nods. 

“You have something?”

Again she nods. 

“Okay,” I say.  “Is it alive?”

“Yes,” she says. 

“Valerie’s cats?”


I expect her to be upset—it’s late afternoon, after all, and both of us are prone to low blood sugar and arsenic attitudes.  And in recent weeks, she’s been acting up more and more, showing increasing surliness.  At first it was just around Ellen, with me only hearing about it second hand, but this weekend, at least, I’d gotten more than a fair dose of Lucy’s brand of vitriol. 

But she’s unfazed.  “Okay,” she says, “your turn.”

I pick something easy for starters, not wanting to scare her off.  She gets it—the pistachios— in maybe 12 questions and we move onto more difficult topics.  Pretty soon we’ve fallen into a rhythm, going back and forth as quick as a couple of ping-pongers.  The first question is always, “Is it alive?” always followed by, “Is it ours?” if the answer is negative, and “Is he or she in our family?” if the answer is yes.  All around us, the Chinese stand and watch, staring unabashedly at this big white guy and his blonde-haired daughter eating pistachios and engaging in a rapid-fire dialogue they don’t understand, and probably wouldn’t, even if they knew English. 

In twenty minutes, the guards will open the gate—the wrong one, two rows over—and the crowd of people around us will climb over the benches to get there, rising and falling like waves on the sea.  In an hour we’ll be in Suzhou, rejoined by Ellen and Will and Jamie, hearing their story about not having seats and being escorted up to first class.  In two hours we’ll be with our friends the Gringortens having dinner in a warm restaurant by a man-made lake.  We’ll spend the next day wandering through wonderful Suzhou and eating wonderful dried fruit and playing mini-mysteries and 21 Questions over dumplings for lunch and Korean food for dinner.  In 36 hours we’ll be back on the train heading into Shanghai, where we’ll grab baguettes and brioche in the French Quarter before heading—finally—to the aquarium we should have visited on Saturday.  Later that day we’ll take a magnetic train that goes 180 miles per hour out to the airport, where we’ll board a plane (before everyone else, of course) and fly back to Hong Kong.  There, we’ll rise the next morning, sending the kids, bleary-eyed once again, off to school.  I’ll grab a workout, then head into my office to find a raft of nasty e-mails from people who’s courses were rejected in the recent round of GE submissions; I’ll also discover that I’ve had basically the largest publication of my life occur while I was away, and find a raft of nasty comments from scholars around the world about that piece.  Later that week I’ll learn that what we’d thought was minor bullying in Will’s class is perhaps something more major, and I’ll wonder again about what happens to a ten-year-old boy when the only woman he’s ever loved is taken from him by cancer.  By Friday, I’ll be sitting on a train down to Central with Jamie, going to visit a tailor and have noodles with friends, crying quietly into my sleeve, it’s just been that bad of a week. 

But none of that matters right now, right then, right at that moment.  At that moment, all that matters is that I’m standing in that gloaming rail station, orange sparks floating through the thick air, the eyes of a dozen people I’ll never see again fixed on me and my daughter, my 1.4 meters high Lucy, my Lucy eating pistachios and spitting them into a garbage as she asks, “Is it Jamie?”  No.  “Is it Will?”  No.  “Uncle Brian?” No.  “But someone we know?”  Yes.  “Someone we love?”  Yes.  

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