"When you hear the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone." Well, we’re not really concerned about being known to have gone. I really wanted to take pictures inside the return train ride back to Shenyang but it would have been impolite. It was in the middle of the night, and the aisle was packed like Portuguese sardines. Had I surreptitiously pretended to type on the iPad and took pictures in the process I might have gotten some photos, but I might also have caught the attention of the tech-savvy among the crowd, and be deservingly chastised.
Besides, I think I saw China’s hoi polloi live and in color, and might even have glimpsed at an invisible but seething discomfort of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
OK, once more with the Atlas. We began a 21-hour train ride from Shenyang, Lioning to Manzhouli, Hulunbeier in Inner Mongolia, at the height of the tourist season. Train seats are at a premium. Luckily, the mother of one of my students offered to call someone, and sure enough, we got a third-tier sleeping berth. It was comfortable, though the rickety bones and the sagging muscles had to pull-up all of our 80-some kilograms two yards off the floor to a foot-and-a-half just below the ceiling.
Fast forward to the return. We added a few miles north of Manzhouli by train to Gen He and mostly, by bus thereafter, to get to Mo He. With a final thrust into the North Pole village of China, we returned to Mo He where a train can take us back to Shenyang for 34 hours, if we could get a ticket. Well, this time, we did not have a student’s mother with connections.
So, we broke the trip into two, with the first leg to Harbin, a 19-hour train ride from evening to mid-afternoon. We wrote this piece while on this ride. Shorter in terms of riding time, this return, however, is longer in actual time. It entailed an overnight stay in Harbin. But it is a stopover in the city of lights and ice (in the winter), known as the Moscow of the Far East, so we have no complaints.
It is the train ride itself that might tell us of the common folks, and if a revolution is imminent or not, from the reality gap we already noted in previous accounts on China’s new universe of citizens’ expectations.
When we left Mo He, there were vacant seats so I did not have to sit in my assigned sandwiched place on the three-seater. A deluge appeared at the next stop. It turned out that some of those already seated did not hold reserved seats but had paid for a full ticket, so the seats they were occupying were taken over by the incoming passengers, a common practice. This was repeated three times more, and before I knew it, the whole caboose was packed like a countryside bus in Kenya in the 80s. Too many tickets without reserved seats were sold!
When the conductor asked where I was getting off, I gave my normal "ting bu dong" (I do not understand) and a HK guy immediately butted in to translate what the conductor was asking. He turned out to be from the New Territories in the Sai Kung district where we spent some time in a village called Nam Wai. I found my translator for the trip.
Into two hours after midnight, and the mixture in the riding public of the well-attired LV set talking into iPhones and hobo looking stragglers lugging plastic grain bags for their belongings, are sharing every inch of the train space. Now I understand why some passengers brought their own folding stools. I had not seen more people sleep while leaning against the wall, seating upright on Spartan seats, or propped up over their luggage on the floor.
It took me federal effort to get to the WC. The train is so fully occupied that one guy actually locked himself inside the WC so that he could have enough space for himself!
It is a sign of the resiliency of the common folks that they seem to be taking the situation lightly. In fact, a passenger who is evidently short of marbles upstairs, kept walking up and down three of the caboose aisles, either talking out loud, or singing to entertain. The packed crowd was amused.
It would be a mistake to read the situation as a case of a docile people. It is rather a case of a mode of social behavior that takes crowding as a given, nay, even a desired reality, for struggle loves company, and critically melding into a whole is where the social life force is situated.
Take the price bargaining in the public market, for instance. It would be much easier to just mark out the price and leave the haggling to the elders to acknowledge an ingrained habit. In fact, the adrenalin flow is in the process of haggling itself where the seller feels he got his due, and the buyer is satisfied with the discount she received.
"Talk does not cook the rice," is a Chinese saying. The crowd was not cooking rice tonight but the banter was lively and spirited. It’s the folks’ way of whiling the time away on a long haul to a destination.
Call this communal virtue socialism with a Chinese face.
Reared in the ways of democratic rugged individualism, with an accent on rights rather than response-ability, a situation like tonight would not play well in Peoria. To the Clinton and Panetta, I am sorry to say that I do not see an imminent revolution in sight!
"When you see the train I’m on, you will know . . ."