Tuesday, February 2, 2010

An Overworked Train Story

An un-crowded train station. It’s a rare sight in China, and apparently you need to travel to the middle of nowhere to find one. After an eight hour bus ride north from Xining, over a ridge of wind-swept, yak dotted plateau, and a rough descent down mountain roads into a desert with town names like ‘Happy People,’ my wife and I arrived in the self-proclaimed ‘tourism capital’ of nowhere, Zhangye. Zhangye can apparently rightfully claim the title of ‘tourism capital’ because in the middle of the city is a statue of Marco Polo, who was like us, on his way somewhere and stuck nowhere, and a 25-meter long reclining Buddha. As far as Chinese cities go, it’s a nice place. The air is clean, there are a few spots of historical interest, and the shops don’t blast techno music. Despite its niceness, four hours in the city were sufficient. Tickets in hand, we waited in the empty train station for the 8PM train to Turpan, raisin capital of China, home of the deadly Uighur.

Unlike the train station, the train was crowded. We arrived in our car to discover middle-aged men in sweat-stained muscle shirts and dirty underwear, the air choked with the stench of three days of MSG enriched instant noodle, spittle soaked sunflower seeds, and the collected morning breath of fifty seven chain-smoking Chinese men. They eyed us cautiously. Foreigners, especially ones boarding in the middle of nowhere, were trouble. It’s not because we’re dishonest, or dangerous, but because we have a higher probability than the average Chinese of doing something dumb. Unfortunately, I did my best to warrant their cautious, unwelcoming stares.

Tiptoeing our way through the settled masses of bleary-eyed passengers, we managed to make our way to the center of the car where our bunks, the middle tiers of rows 15 and 16, waited vacantly. No one moved to avoid our swinging backpack straps. Countless bystanders were slapped in the face as we shifted our bags off and heaved them onto our bunks. The slaps only elicited sighs of laowai, foreigner, and more skepticism. We were hungry, the train arrived late, so after a brief, disenfranchised conference we decided to go to the dining car and force down some oil-soaked train food. We checked our tickets, and I dug my wallet from my backpack.

The dining car was four cars away, and each car was as welcoming and friendly as ours. The train vibrated, jumped, and whirred as we avoided stepping on discarded beer bottles and slippered feet. People noted our passing, but their commentary was reserved for low whispers and mumbles.[1] The dining car was blessedly empty. It was already 9PM; so most people had eaten their cup-o-ramen and dried duck’s neck. The kitchen had already started to close, so our options were limited to pork fat, vegetables and pork fat, and twice baked pork fat. Personally, I’m a fan of pork fat, but my wife is a little more ‘American’ than I, so we opted for vegetables and pork fat. Although it’s common for visitors to rhapsodize over the virtues of Chinese food, this meal deserved an elegy. Slimy, snotty, and mysterious are all viable adjectives, arrange them as you please.

After eating, we begged a Styrofoam cup from the kitchen for our nightly instant coffee and went back to our car. Taking the two folding isle seats at the foot of our bunks, we mixed our sad Nescafe, and drank it in remembrance of real coffees past. After we finished the cup, my wife clambered into her middle bunk and gave me one of those loving ‘only for you would I put up with this crap’ looks. I shifted my bulky backpack, took my sweater off, and reached into my back pocket for my wallet. I dug my hand into empty space. No wallet. I checked my other pockets to discover only flashing neon vacancy. My bag was next. I emptied it on the floor. It was 10:45, so lights would go out at 11:00. My time was limited. My wife looked at me, I said nothing, but my furrowed uni-brow betrayed me. Gone was my: Massachusetts Driver’s License; miniature New Hampshire Birth Certificate; miniature High School Diploma; State Department Issued Insurance Card; Student I.D.; Credit Card; Debit Card; and, worst of all, my Stop N’ Shop Card, with its years of accumulated shopper’s points. In place of my beloved cards was monstrous shame, pointing and laughing.

My bag was a pile of tangled wires, poorly folded clothing, and Tibetan dictionaries. I woke up the man and woman in the two bunks below us, and they helped me scour the floor, pulling all of their belongings from beneath their beds so that I could be assured of the absence of my wallet. The man, an average looking, overfriendly Chinese in his mid-20s helped me search the car. The lights flicked off. I told the man to forget about it. He’d done enough already. “No, really. Go to bed, it’s my problem not yours.” I thanked him, and decided to make my search more official.

I went to the woman in charge of our train car and, in my most polite and deferential Chinese said, “Excuse me, I’m really sorry to disturb you, but it seems that my wallet is missing. Is there anything you can do to help?” She gave me an irritated look. I smiled pleasantly. “That was stupid of you. Try to look again. If you can’t find it, then come and get me.” “But, I alread…” She walked away. I steeled myself for more hopeless searching. I dug my flashlight out of my bag, and rechecked everyplace I had already looked. In a flash of creativity, I looked in the toilets, in garbage cans, and in the aisles of all the cars between our car and the dining car. Still, there was nothing.

By the time I found the woman again, it was 12:30 AM. Despite my scurrying and frantic light shining, snores filled the train. When I found her I was desperate. “Please, aunty, I’m begging you, what should I do?” Her perm snaked and she gave me a look of shriveling disdain. “Get the police, they’ll help solve the case. They’re in the dining car. I just don’t understand why you can’t remember where you put it. Why did you do something so stupid? ” Her words hurt. My weak American ego, coddled by years of positive reinforcement, hated the booming truth of sha, sha, stupid, stupid.

Slamming his cigarette butt into the faux Murano glass ashtray, the police officer said to me, “How could you be so stupid?” I winced. “Try to remember harder. Where is your wallet?” “If I could remember, I would. Maybe it was stolen?” He lit another cigarette. “No,” he said confidently, “in three years there hasn't been a single incidence of theft on this train.” His lackey, a train police officer, nodded behind him. Still, these guys were bored. For three years they’d seen no action, and now a helpless foreigner was asking for their aid. The Urumqi Police Officer told the train police officer to go to my car and wait for us. The Urumqi Officer squinted at me as his took a final long draw on his ashy cigarette. Finally, he stood up, put his hat on, and walked with me to my car.

We turned the lights on in every car, rechecked the toilets and garbage cans, and they watched me empty my bag on the floor. The result, despite their fine police work, was the same. No wallet and a confused foreigner. We ended our search in the dining car where we sat dejectedly around a table. Then began the interrogation. It started benignly. “Did anyone help you or see you look for your wallet?” “Yeah.” He looked at the train officer and barked, “Go get them for questioning!” Shit. I knew that there was a reason why no one helps anyone else in China. “Who helped you?” “Ummm… No one?” “But you just said that you were helped.” “Well yeah… But only by the guy in the bunk below me.” Before I finished speaking the train officer vanished. He reappeared a few minutes later dragging my foggy-eyed acquaintance behind him.

Lacking car batteries, sleep deprivation served just as well. Our dual interrogations began at 2:00AM, and with each passing minute I cursed my wallet more and more. The questions were endless. “Tell us everything you did from when you boarded the train until you discovered your wallet missing.” The story line rapidly became confused. Tired and dejected, my narrative Chinese was spotty. The guy who helped me search was forced to answer the same questions, but he was afraid. He kept saying, “I didn’t do anything!” to which I would shout, “All he did was help me look! Let him go to bed!” He detailed watching my wife and I drink coffee, or maybe he heard me say that, and then claimed to have witnessed it. As far as I could recall, he was asleep most of the time, but the police fed him a story, the cliff notes to my longer tale. The Urumqi Officer kept passing me cigarettes, which I repeatedly failed to turn down. My head hurt, I was dizzy from the nicotine and burnt aftertaste, and I was exhausted. My shame increased as the officer kept inserting my carelessness into every part of my story, until finally, we had an acceptable narrative of the event. Then, after all of this, came the written confession.

Typing Chinese isn’t a problem for me. I know the characters; I can dash off grammatically incorrect emails or thoughts without much effort. But when sleep deprived and frustrated on a moving train, Chinese milk and honey floweth not from my pen. The Urumqi Officer handed me his fountain pen, the bane of all left-handed foreign sinophones, and I tore the cheap paper while writing the first stroke. The now assembled train staff gawked at my left-handedness and my awkward strokes, all the while they were assured of the difficulty and inherent superiority of Chinese. Finally I convinced the officer to give me a ballpoint pen, and then I began to write my ‘Confession’ as the officer dictated to me.

“I, Devin, am so grateful to the warmhearted kindness of the Urumqi Police and the train police. [Insert narrative of events here]. After all of this, I stupidly and carelessly lost my wallet. The caring and warmhearted police helped me, their foreign friend, attempt to find my foolishly misplaced wallet. Despite their valiant and very, very, helpful help, my wallet was not to be found. Signed: DEVIN XXXXXX”

Before I finished writing my confession, my acquaintance completed his verifying account. He refused to go to bed until the police wrote him a note guaranteeing that he would not be falsely prosecuted, which, after much discussion, they agreed to do. By 4:00AM I finished writing. The police took our confessions, glued the twelve handwritten pages together, and thanked me for my help. I shamefully walked the four cars to my bunk and collapsed in a frustrated heap.

No one on the train found my wallet. In the morning they announced its disappearance over the PA system. I just wanted to be in Turpan, to nurse my bruised and sleep deprived ego. After excruciating hours of avoiding eye contact with the man in the bunk below me, we finally arrived. As we left the train station, in one last vain attempt I searched my bag. I opened the top pocket: my wallet. All I heard was sha, sha, stupid, stupid.

[1]People say some wonderfully candid things about laowai, who, as a species, generally cannot understand Chinese. Once, while hiking outside of Beijing, I rounded a mountain path to come face to face with a grandmotherly Chinese woman and her daughter. The old woman looked at her daughter and said, “Every time I see a laowai, it scares the shit out of me.”

1 comment:

  1. ...hahahaha...

    Sha, sha- indeed.

    Totally something I would have done.