Travel Journals - China - 1985

excerpt from China Pennywalk

Hard Seat

Passengers in Hard Seat thumbnail

August 8.

Right now I'm in the hard-seat coach of the train from Xian to Chengdu, a fourteen hour trip, 7 A. M. to 9 P. M. We're just beginning to move, and I can see already that hard means harder than I thought. I could see it when we first boarded. The train was crowded, and everyone wanted as much space as possible. Josh and I found seats in this car, Adolph, Eli, and Sarah in the next.

Benches for three face each other on my side of the aisle, and there's a small table-top near the window. Only two people are sitting opposite me, a man and a woman, with a six-inch gap between them. The gap is small because a thick black purse is squeezed between the woman and the window. Miming, I asked these two if Sarah could sit there. They nodded yes, put one finger up to indicate room for one more, but they didn't move. Nor did they move their bags, carelessly thrown on the overhead racks, to make room for ours. And now they are staring at me as I sit here and write. In fact everyone within sight of me is staring.

Almost everyone also is smoking, and the floor is covered with ashes and butts, apple cores, almost certainly with spit, for this is a country of spitters, despite a national anti-spitting campaign. Even the soprano at an opera rehearsal, a famous singer, gargled and spit as the orchestra played. One of the reasons, this is a country of dust, in the city and in the countryside. Women with straw brooms, sometimes wearing masks, constantly sweep the sidewalks and streets, sprinkle the walks with watering cans. The dust is out of control. Perhaps it's the type of soil, the lack of grass, or insufficient rain.

I'm sitting in the aisle seat, and my seatmates keep getting up, returning with cups of boiling water for tea or with food, just missing my broken toe as they squeeze past. The man sitting next to me wants to talk, though we have no common language; the man and woman facing me are a different story. Sarah finally sat between them on the edge of the seat, the woman still wouldn't move her purse.

I took a look at the toilet; I hope I won't have to use it. Well, this is how the average person has to travel, if he can travel at all. If I want to begin to know what life is like here, I should travel in the jammed buses and trains the way everyone else does, though I'm damned if I'd spit on the floors. In fact it makes me gag. Now a woman is coming along with a straw broom and sweeping up the garbage, no litter baskets that I can see. When Sarah asked where to throw away her pear peels, she was told to toss them out the window.

The old man across the aisle keeps spitting onto the floor, otherwise I'd enjoy watching him. His face reflects at least eighty years of living, sad and sensitive with high cheek-bones, big ears, baggy eyes, almost no brows, and about two days growth of grey beard. He's wearing a loose white nightcap on his head, a large blue cotton jacket over his untucked grey shirt, an undershirt, and brown plastic sandals. His pants are ripped instead of hemmed; he's smoking a small cigar.

Now a woman came along and mopped, gruffly ordering everyone but me to lift his feet. Then she came back and mopped again; she even mopped the old man's feet.

Train Window thumbnail

People have their heads down on the tables. I'd do the same if our table was within reach of my head.

We're stopped at a station. Nobody got off, except to buy roast chickens, or beer, but a lot of people boarded here. The aisles are crowded with peasants carrying packs that knock into the seated passengers as they pass us by. The people facing me thought no one would sit down if they made the space small enough, but somebody did. Sarah gave up that seat about two hours ago.

Straw bags, cloth bags, one fell on my feet, leather bags, quilts tied up with cord, fans, umbrellas. The man who squeezed in across from me is fat and has a watermelon. There's been a bumper crop of small ones, thank goodness, they've been our staple for eating and drinking.

A woman is lying down across two seats, a straw fan over her face, a small bag under her head. She seems to have no intention of getting up although people are standing or sitting on their luggage in the aisles.

A young man is devouring a whole chicken. Chinese chickens are tough and scrawny, and tastier than our hormone-grown birds.

Music and words are a constant on the train's loudspeaker, sometimes Oriental music, at the moment an instrumental version of LA CUCARACHA. The landscape is spectacular. After miles of corn fields and haystacks, we're in the mountains. The fat man with the watermelon is chatting with the people facing me as if they're all old friends.

The woman lying across two seats and a man with no seat were screaming at each other for about twenty minutes. Then he yanked the bag from under her head, grabbed her arm, and forced her to sit up. She fought back, tried to lie down again. Everyone in the car crowded into the aisles to watch, and laugh.

We're high in the mountains; intense green mountains, then long dark tunnels, then mountains, then tunnels. Josh said we just passed the August 1st train from Xian to Chengdu; the derailed cars are still here where they fell into a ditch.

It's 11:15 A. M. and everyone's eating, apples, pears, hard-boiled eggs. I paid one yuan for a lunch of unknown content. It should arrive soon. Here it is, chicken and peanuts on rice. It sounds good. But the chicken is chicken bones, tiny ones at that, and skin, no meat at all; the peanuts are so overcooked they taste like beans. I don't dare eat for fear of choking. It's very hot in here, I wish they'd turn on the fans. In this heat our damp clothes feel like strait jackets. Now at last the fans are on. The floors have been swept then mopped three or four times. An attendant rearranged the baggage on the racks and made sure all the hand towels hanging over the seats were folded properly. Though my back aches, I love travelling this way.

I exchanged seats with Josh. His view is better, and my head can reach the table. He was sitting with three peasants, all wearing loose pants, bright undershirts, and sandals. Their feet are filthy, as are mine. The man across from me has a rash on his legs. My new seatmate is slopped over the bench as if someone had dropped him there, jaw hanging loose, forehead and chin receding. When I first got here, he ignored me and left his feet on my side of the seat as if he didn't know I wanted to sit down. Now he sporadically shouts, seemingly to no one. The man opposite me keeps his legs stretched under my seat so I have to put my legs in the aisle.

The Chinese bury raw eggs, then dig them up and eat them. The man facing me peeled one, I could tell by the layer of dirt on the outside. On the inside the white had turned into a bright yellow gel and the yolk was moldy green. He treated it gently, a delicacy.

I get a little nervous each time the attendant makes the rounds of the seats with his kettle of boiling water for tea drinkers. I shove my feet backwards under my seat, and he fills cups right over the spot my feet had been.

One of the peasants opened a bag of sunflower seeds and they all ate. They spit out the shells with no thought to where they landed, even on me. They gargled and spit out gobs, one blew his nose onto the floor, another into the curtains. This is a country with no tissues.

I just left Josh's seat. One of the peasants lit a cigarette and the head of the match flew off and burned my foot.

I'm back in my own seat, and the man next to me really wants to communicate. I took out my Berlitz book, he looked through it, then pointed to a line which read, "Do you learn Chinese?"

Another stop, lots of people boarding, very few seats. The fat man with the watermelon left, and the woman next to the window immediately put her black bag in his place to make sure no one else would sit there. This woman is a character, selfish, amusing all the same. She's around forty, short and very pudgy, belly unusually round, face round too, nostrils flared, hair in two thin black braids hanging over her ears, grey pants rolled way above her knees, very swollen ankles, and high-heeled sandals.

A scrawny peddler of about fifty boarded with a large basket and a burlap bag. He stuffed the bag under the seat across from me; his basket would fit only in the aisle. Then he asked if there was space on the seat. They indicated no one was sitting there, but the woman refused to move her bag.

We're in the train twelve and a half hours now, three to go. They gave me the wrong arrival time when I bought the tickets.

The peddler picked up the woman's black bag and sat on the edge where the bag had been. There was no room for him to lean back. He said something to the pudgy woman, she answered with a smile, soon they were chattering like old friends. He's a slight man, and full of life. After awhile he carefully removed his burlap bag from under the seat, untied it as if it contained gold, felt around inside, then pulled out a plastic bag containing a live turtle and handed it to the woman. She was delighted, animated, they looked like two children about to play a practical joke. Then he put the turtle back. A while later, he opened his bag again; it was filled with turtles ranging in size from six inches to a foot. He stuck his hand in, pulled it back quickly, stuck it in again. Finally he found the one he was looking for, carefully retied his bag, then put the turtle into another burlap bag.

From a tiny pocket at the waist of her trousers, the woman removed a cloth pouch, took out a wad of bills, and the two of them chatted, argued, smiled. Finally she gave him twelve yuan, a lot of money for a Chinese peasant. The man stuffed a second wriggling turtle into her bag, quickly, so she couldn't see it was much smaller than the first, and tied it closed for her.

She emptied the black purse onto the table. It contained about a dozen green apples. As she shoved the bag of turtles into the purse, the peddler snatched an apple and ate it. Then the woman and the turtle-peddler sat there silently, both grinning.

Still later the peddler took a bag from his basket in the aisle, pulled out a dead turtle, head hanging limply, and passed it around for everyone to inspect. She bought that one, too, for six yuan, adding it to the collection in her purse. Then the scrawny man and pudgy woman sat quietly once again, still grinning.

The man next to me is incredibly sweet. He asked for my Berlitz book and looked through it till he found, Where do you come from? On a map of China he showed me that he lived not far from Hangzhou. He pointed to Japan and looked at me. I pointed to America. He asked what the plane fare was. Expensive, I replied. There was no phrase in Berlitz to tell him it would take the average Chinese worker two and a half years to pay for the ticket if he used every cent he earned. He asked if I'm a writer. I asked him what he does. From the list of professions, he pointed to salesman. From What's it made of? he pointed to platinum and gold. From What is it? he pointed to necklace and bracelet and ring. All this took time and patience, but he was thrilled at being able to communicate that way. So was I.

Thirteen and a half hours. It's exciting to write on the spot like this. I'm soaked with sweat, I haven't eaten. The one-yuan dinner was more chopped chicken-bones, this time with chunks of ginger on rice. I tossed the whole thing out the window, afraid it might be an insult to offer it to the peddler, who had gobbled the one green apple and eaten nothing else. I probably would have tossed an edible dinner, there's too much spit. The peddler keeps spitting near my feet, then flattening it with the sole of his shoe.

Fifteen and a half hours in hard seat, I'm glad we travelled that way. It showed me a crude side and a gentle side of China, the crude side most apparent, the gentle most meaningful. The crude: the spitting, the nose-blowing onto floor and curtains, someone wiping his snot onto Sarah's shoes, a child peeing on the floor near Adolph's feet, garbage flying out the window or landing on the floor.

The gentle side: the man sitting next to me. I'm sure he'd never before met a foreigner. When we weren't using Berlitz, he'd smile at me, wanting to say something, not knowing how. He was young, attractive, warm, when he smiled he glowed. In the end he looked through my book and pointed to "goodnight," and I suddenly felt sad that I'd never know more of his thoughts.

The gentle side: the relationship between the old man sitting across the aisle and the man sitting opposite me. When I noticed the younger man picking the shells off hard-boiled eggs, then handing them to the old man, I realized they were father and son. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, the son supplied him with two or three eggs per meal, and peeled pears and apples. Towards the end, the old man looked so exhausted I wondered if he'd survive the trip. His son helped him put his jacket on and buttoned it up. Then he placed a bag on the seat, covered it with a towel, and had the old man lie down, using the bag as a pillow. He hovered over him, closing the curtains to block the cool evening air. I watched the old man's hands, long-fingered, knobby-knuckled. They reminded me of my own hands. No, not mine, my father's, they looked just like my father's hands.

[previous] [top] [next]

[Rosenblatt Gallery] [Suzanne home page] [Writing portfolio] [Travel journals] [China]
[Visual Art portfolio] [Feedback]

Copyright © 2002 Suzanne Rosenblatt. All rights reserved.

( No pathinfo hits since 10 June 2002)