It had been a rough day, but that’s no excuse. And though it is no excuse, it had still been a rough day.
It started the day before, in Xi’an, checking out of my hotel at noon and dilling around for six hours, too uninspired to be productive. Then I went to the train station for my overnight train.
On the train, the bed is surprisingly comfortable, which isn’t to say actually comfortable, just less uncomfortable than expected. There are four beds in my berth, but only one other is occupied. My roommate is a plump Chinese woman who leaves the strobe-like TV on, but not too-too late. So I get some sleep, in tiny stages.
We pull into Beijing at dawn. I have to get across town to catch my next train. This is a big town, four times the size of L.A. Twice the population of New York. My schedule is tight; there’s no time to spare.
There is some confusion at the taxi stand, I can’t get my words recognized. There is a lot of noise. My Mandarin is poor, and no one is making the effort to understand me. Finally, one man tries: he digs through my bad accent and my mispronunciations. He uncovers where I want to go and tells my driver. This hasn’t been an exceptional effort, comparatively, but after two months in China, I’m sick of the confusion.
My connection is missed by minutes. This was the morning train. The next will be mid-afternoon. And it’s the slow one, taking almost twice as long, arriving after dark. There’s some confusion buying the ticket, but it gets bought. There’s some confusion storing my luggage, but it gets stored. I dill around Beijing for five hours, too woozy to be productive.
As I dill, I consider my train ticket. It seems too cheap, but I can’t be sure. Everything is too cheap in this country. It’s like playing with monopoly money. But I get worried, nervous. I’ve heard stories of the hard-seat class.
Back at the train station, I grab every railway uniform I meet, ask them about my ticket and seat class. Much confusion, no results.
I calm myself. It’s my tendency to worry, often when there’s no reason to. I see my train number displayed over a glass double-door. There’s a bike lock between the two door handles, holding them shut. Through the glass, I can see the track, thirty feet down, at the bottom of steep stairs. My train is right there, waiting. It’s big, thirteen cars. There are only about twenty people standing with me. There are only thirty minutes before departure. So it isn’t going to be so bad: I’m going somewhere remote, and the train will be nearly empty.
I hear my train being announced. I move to the doors, but no one comes to unlock them. People around me get anxious. We wait. Then I see it: A stream of people, a bubbling mass flows across a raised walkway on the other end of the platform. They pour down the steps.
The guy next to me curses, takes off down the hallway. I stare through the door. I watch in horror as the dingy crowd floods onto the platform, spilling out like paint, covering it completely. I can’t believe how many people there are, how small the train; it’s only thirteen cars. My eyes fall on the bike lock, holding the doors closed.
“Shit,” I say, and follow the guy who just left.
Across the station is the entry hall, the way down to my platform. People from the next train have spread out to block those of us trying to get to this one. They don’t move, rather they laugh at our efforts to get past them. Everyone is pushing, so I push. Everyone shoves, so I shove. I drag a chunky roller-bag stuffed with fifty pounds of junk. It’s wider than I am. It bounces and jounces behind me, rolling across shoes and bare feet.
Finally, I break through the crowd.
I’m on the raised walkway, heading to the stairs. Thirty feet below me, the platform is empty but for a trickle of people, an ant line of stragglers. Whatever happened is over. Only the shouting is left.
The train is old and green, like something out of a war movie. Black smoke wafts from rusted chimneys that jut from the roof of every car, coal fires for heat. I look at my ticket. My assigned car has a high number; it’s toward the back. I stroll down the platform, trying to convince myself there’s nothing to worry about. I brave quick glances into the cars I pass. They are full, overfull. The last car is the worst. The last car is my car.
My car is so full that people are sitting in the doorway. They don’t offer to stand or try to get out of the way; they might lose their seat. I haven’t even stepped on board and I consider aborting: the train, my destination, everything. But I press on, push myself forward. All or nothing. No giving up means no regrets.
I hop my roller bag over the guy sitting in the doorway. I get two steps into the car, turn into the main cabin, and stop. This car is the car for everyone else. Everyone who can’t get afford a seat. Or just doesn’t care. For a measly twenty yuan—two dollars and fifty cents—you can cram in here for the seven hour train ride. The seat number my ticket is useless. People and baggage overflow the wooden benches, the aisle, the tables. People are probably hanging from the ceiling, but I can’t tell because up there the cigarette smoke is too thick.
I stand frozen as four hundred people grow quiet, turn to me. They stare, watching, anticipating. They know something is coming. The joke has been set up, nothing left but the punch-line.
The mega bitch takes over with a flash of white. I am outside the train in a few swift jerks, leaving behind laughter and a couple complaints.
I am outside of me, watching myself tear across the platform, dragging my large roller-bag, as large as the American ego.
A conductor stands outside everycar: alert, attentive, blue uniforms as sharp as the military in dress. The mega bitch demands of each if they speak English. She does this twice: first in English, then in Mandarin. Further down the platform, only Mandarin; she’s seen the futility of the other way. At the center of the train is the top guy, the Train General. He’s older, his uniform is decked out. He doesn’t speak English, he is no help. But inside the train, the seats are getting better, and the cars less crowded. Forward is where we wants to be, so forward she goes. The car numbers count down.
She asks the next conductor if she speaks English. The answer comes in English: “no.” The mega bitch is confused, the conductor laughs. It’s a good laugh, not making fun of me, but sharing the joke. I am back, no longer outside watching myself behave. The mega bitch is gone. Diffused, I think at the time, but I am wrong.
After some confusion, the conductor gets me on the train. A decent car, low number. There is no seat yet, so I stand in the corner. The train pulls out. I stand for another half-hour, leaning against the window. The General arrives, tells me to give him money. I do and I’m led further forward still, all the way to car number one. The best class, with a bed to boot.
I relax. I nap. My three roommates are curious about me, friendly. We cannot talk beyond a few broken sentences, but we try and have a good time trying. The scenery becomes beautiful, I can see why I came this way.
It’s a long journey. I phone my hotel to let them know I’ll be checking in late. They speak some English. This is a good sign, a lot of them don’t. But they only speak some English, and there is confusion. I am quoted a price two and a half times what is on my reservation, and the hotel wasn’t cheap to start with. I worry I’m being ripped off. The mega bitch rises inside me, but she finds no outlet: the phone is too limited, the connection isn’t good. I shove her aside and say we’ll figure it out when I get there. I tell myself this will be easy to work out in person, but myself is a cynical one, and remains unconvinced.
The train chugs on. The sun sets. My destination is reached. I disembark meekly, wary of those who saw my earlier performance. I know I am easy to spot here, white and tall. I don’t need more pointing and laughing. China has provided plenty of that already. I escape into a taxi, and to my hotel.
It turns out there has been a little confusion at the hotel. Just a little. They’ve not yet matched my name with my reservation, so they are insisting I pay more, the walk-in rate. It could have been all worked out politely, but it’s been a rough day. I know that’s no excuse. It could have been worked out politely, but the mega bitch is on a hair trigger: she comes out shooting.
I watch it all happen. I watch the screaming, the disgusted looks, pent-up anger released like a tornado. I watch the innocent, frustrated hotel clerk lay her head on the counter over and over again. I watch all of this, but I’ll never repeat the details. Trust me, they are bad.
I think anyone who has traveled a long time, perhaps longer than they should have, has been here, where I am, watching myself make an ass of myself. I think I’ve probably been here before, but I’ve blocked it out, neither caring to nor seeing the reason to dwell on my own failures.
Somehow I end up in a room. A nice room in a nice hotel full of nice people. I don’t deserve to be here, but deserving has nothing to do with success. Sometimes this works in my favor.
This undeserved reward only punctuates that I have committed a crime. I should have known the Chinese staff would be nothing but helpful. I did know. I have been here long enough to learn that.
I am unable to atone. In my rage, I didn’t see my victim. And now I can’t distinguish her from the rest of the helpful staff. I glance over every time I pass the reception, hoping for a look of scorn or a scowl. Something to mark the one I must apologize to.
But the hate I merit is masked beneath rigid politeness. I can do nothing but add the burden of my guilt to my already overstuffed roller bag.