I was pretty excited to do an overnight “hard sleeper” train- we each got our own bed, stacked three stories high, ALMOST as tight as in a submarine with a comforter, pillow, sheet. You went to sleep when you got on the train in the western part of China, and woke up the next morning in the middle of the country.
We had managed to move all our heavy backpacks and luggage across town to the train station, I had my two Dramamine in me and was ready to wake up in the historic old capital of Xi’an, to see the famous terra-cotta warrior army the next day. Cool.
One of our 5 slots was located in next cubicle with strangers so Dad got elected to sleep there, as he habitually falls asleep in 5 seconds upon hitting the horizontal position. He was forced to climb down the ladder, however and wake me up in the middle of the night, requesting a set of ear plugs as his bed mate was snoring fabulously.
At 8 am, we were awoken as we only had a few short hours until arrival. The train ride had gone nearly completely pain-free, until we heard the screaming.
The young female ticket taker was backed against the window of the train car and two middle-aged women and a man were in her face yelling. Spit was flying, they were grabbing her arms and bullying her around. This went on for over 20 minutes while the Chinese emerged from their beds and just stood around watching and listening but doing nothing.
As you would imagine, the poor crying girl grew increasingly upset. She looked down at the floor and tried to cower away from the vicious people. When she tried to walk away, they grabbed her. NOTHING she could have done warranted such emotional abuse. I looked at my daughter, whose big brown eyes had grown enormous and filled with liquid. I knew what she was thinking.
I had enough. Although no one could understand my language, I spoke anyway and used body language to push them off her and back off and bring it down and leave it alone. I stood there rubbing her back while she tried to compose herself.
A little while later, I was speaking with a young student who could speak English and when I asked what was going on, he said the train attendant accidentally walked into the woman in the bathroom, who had not latched the door properly. They viewed the train attendant as a low-life and their rage justified. Saving face is very important to the Chinese, he told me. oh my god.
The last few remaining hours of the ride, the girl got another attendant to work our car and scurried through it as fast as she could when she had to. The two women and man who delivered the fierce abuse, went about their time smiling and talking as if they were the nicest Chinese folks.
Fortunately for us, the 25-year-old grad student whom we had made prior arrangements with to meet us at the train station and be our guide for the next two days in Xi’an was just the opposite. Eric was an absolute love. We spent every minute together of the two days. He carried our luggage- like our 50 lb suitcase up the narrow crowded steps of a two-decker city bus and back down again, swiped his bus pass for our tickets. He studied up on the terra cotta warriors so he could teach us more. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to make our time in Xi’an more enjoyable. When it was time to say good-bye, he did not want us to leave. He embraced us all, got teary-eyed and stood at the roped-off area at the train station, following us through security, waving and throwing kisses. He restored our faith in the Chinese people.
Over a meal during those two days together, we shared the train incident story with him and asked for some insight. He became visibly upset. He said he did not know what was wrong with his people. They are so often rude. His parents did not teach him to be like that but to treat all people with kindness and respect. “I don’t understand why my people can’t be more polite and kind like Americas.” (Eric went to grad school in Wisconsin).
I was surprised to hear this about MY peeps, as I believe we Americans often behave as though we were entitled and are often outspoken when we travel in foreign countries. The whole thing made me sad, for the train stewardess, for Eric, for my daughter, Sierra, who was struggling as it is in China to embrace it and the people and their ways. The train episode may have pushed her over the edge.
This experience is the result of doing the independent travel that my family does, as opposed to the insulated, tour group/tourism babysitting that many experience (including myself when a country’s tourism hosts me). But this is the real deal. This is vulnerable travel. Seeing a people’s warts but also their light, like Eric, who did not HAVE to help and host us but simply wanted to. I look forward to the day when young Eric comes to America to visit our family so I can repay his kindness.
Anytime you have the opportunity to accomplish something for someone else and you don’t do it, you are wasting your time on earth.” – Roberto Clemente