Beijing X: ‘Till the Train Comes

I remember it was a hot and humid day, sweat was dripping down my back, as I saw my mother waving at every taxi that passed along the Suzhou road. We had just come to this city by train from Shanghai, as Suzhou is well-known for its beautiful gardens. It was somewhere in 1999. Indeed, the gardens were lovely, but now we had been standing by this road for over an hour, my father’s face red from the fierce bright sun. My mum held a small note in her hand. In it was the name, in Chinese characters, of the station we were supposed to go to in order to catch our train back to Shanghai. Some Chinese people at a nearby store had scribbled it down for us, as we gratefully thanked them. Every taxi driver who had pulled over to examine the note had pulled up the car again without a word. There we were, standing by the sizzling hot asphalt, helplessly lost in China.

Helplessly lost in China. The feeling hits me with a pang as I have just arrived for the first time in the city of Nanjing and find my money and passport gone. I had hopped on a crowded bus downtown, and was actually paying attention to my bag, when a friendly-looking lady started talking to me. After I had squeezed through some people to leave the bus, I now stand in the middle of the street and find my bag ripped open. Immediately struck by panic, I frantically search my bag. Gone. Really gone.

I arrived in Nanjing by train, from Beijing through Shanghai via Suzhou. This summer, again, I am amazed by the many faces of China. After all these years, Beijing has become like my second home; I know its face very well. I like the pace of daily life there, where people do not rush to get to work or return home, but somehow seem to linger around town, staring at the shiny new skyscrapers that pop up like mushrooms all over the city. By now, even the beggars at downtown Sanlitun area seem to know me, and many people greet me with a friendly “hao jiu bu jian” (long time no see), probably not even realizing I had returned to my own country over the last nine months. As a street sweeper in front of the Yashow Clothing Market waves at me, telling his friend that I am the Dutch girl who used to study at Beijing University, I decide it is time for me to leave town for a while and head down south, before I am tempted to dawdle around the Beijing streets for the entire summer.

The night train brings me to Shanghai, where I am immediately reminded of all the mixed feelings I had about this city in previous years. Coming from Beijing, it is almost hard not to experience culture shock in this cosmopolitan city, where the taxi drivers do not greet you and drive like madmen as if they were chasing down a bag of gold.

I came to Shanghai to visit my longtime friend S., who settled down to live and work in the city for a while. S. lives in the middle of the centre, the French Concession, where the city, literally, never sleeps. Cars honk all night, and when dawn comes, rowdy foreigners walk the streets, singing or laughing after their visit to an all-you-can-drink Teppanyaki place or Karaoke bar. It is my mistake that I always try and look for friendliness in Shanghai. I smile at the neighbor, the waiter or shopkeeper – but smiles are rarely reciprocated. When you do, suddenly, come across a friendly face, it almost surprises you and makes you suspicious of what is behind it. All of these factors combined turn Shanghai into a city that makes me feel drained, somehow, longing for relaxation and a kind “manzou” (“take it easy”).

The other side of Shanghai is that it is a place where people do not take time to linger around, because they are achieving many things and working hard. Throughout the days, I meet up with old friends or new acquaintances to talk about everyday life. Many foreigners have come to this city to kick-off their career or set up exciting new companies. They tell me that Shanghai offers opportunities at every street corner, and I believe them. I therefore understand that whilst meeting all these brave people there is hardly time to sit down and relax with a bottle of beer- the phone keeps ringing with new business deals, signing of contracts, and important appointments every five minutes. It is crystal clear: Shanghai is the road to success in China. In the meantime, it is key to find the next place-to-be, as restaurants, clubs and bars keep opening up and compete to be the next it-spot of the city.

As S. and I sit down for a drink on a rainy afternoon in a bar downtown, photographers and camera’s hang around, expecting a short visit to the area from Canadian singer Avril Lavigne. We silently sit together, surrounded by chatter. S. sighs while she sips her wine and then lights up a cigarette. “I feel like I am waiting for a train to come,” she suddenly says, staring out the window. I smile. In Shanghai, the honking, ringing and buzzing never stops. It is as if you are continuously waiting for the next thing to come. But by always anticipating the next thing, you never find yourself in the moment. I appreciate the thrill and rush of Shanghai. But, nevertheless, I decide to take another actual train and look for more peaceful surroundings.

The train arrives at the same city I visited with my parents over ten years ago. Suzhou, the so-called ‘Venice’ of China, is only a forty-minute ride from Shanghai, but due to its tranquil atmosphere, it feels like they are worlds apart. This ancient city is not only famous for its gardens or small canals, but also for its beautiful women. As I wander around the streets, indeed, lovely girls dressed in polka-dot blouses or stylish little black dresses smile as I pass them by. I sit down for a beer by a wooden pavilion alongside the water, the last rays of sun warming my face and I finally feel completely at ease. My next train will come- but not for the coming days. As I glance at the street before me, huge green willows protectively bowing over it, I suddenly realize this is the exact same spot where my parents and me were standing all this time ago- when I did not understand one word of Chinese, and when even the calm surroundings of Suzhou completely freaked us out since we were not able to get away.

This time, I felt like I could have stayed in Suzhou for weeks. But my booked train ticket made me catch the next train to Nanjing- former capital of China, now inhabited by 5,5 million people.

Throughout the weeks, I have gathered so many books and things in China that my luggage has become heavy as stone. Nanjing station, lacking proper elevators, has made me drag my luggage up and down the stairs, and I find myself bruised and tired when I finally reach my hotel. After a change of clothes, I decide to walk around and see what the city has to offer. I am a complete newcomer to Nanjing, and it probably reads on my face. I feel a bit worn-out after the trains, hotels and different faces of the past weeks. And then it happens: a short bus ride, people pushing, and there I am on the streets, my small purse gone. I am not only robbed of my money and train ticket, but also of my most important document, the proof of my identity that is required for me to buy any train tickets , travel, stay in hotels, and get me home. Alone in a strange city, I panic.

The girls at the small hotel lobby look at me with worry as I tell them my passport has been stolen. My Chinese seems to have degraded to baby-level: “Passport….stolen…..bus”. The hotel doorkeeper, a somewhat goofy-looking fellow with a gap in between his teeth, offers to get me to the local police station by bike. Five minutes later I am following him on a small bicycle, taxi’s and motorcycles passing us by like racecars whilst dusk is falling over the smoggy city of Nanjing. I curse myself- no matter where I go in China, I always make sure I have money and passport on me, so that I am free to leave whenever I want. By losing my passport, having no Dutch consulate in Nanjing, and not knowing anyone in this city, I feel trapped. First thing I need is a police report on my stolen passport, I repeat to myself, one that will allow me to travel to Beijing in order to get to the Dutch embassy. As long as I can get on a train, I will be fine, I tell myself.

An older long-faced Chinese woman sits behind a desk at the local police station. As the doorkeeper and I walk in, she stares at me if I were an alien. For a moment, we just stand there, me looking at the gap-toothed doorman, him looking at the long-faced woman, and she staring back at me. She breaks the awkward silence with a monotonous “what?”. I explain to her that my passport has been stolen. She pinches her eyes at me as if I was the thief, and does not seem eager to help. I want to sit down in one of the chairs before the desk, but her eyes tell me not to. Suddenly a fat policeman enters, his belt too tight for his belly, slobbering and slurping noodles out of a plastic box. He seems even less willing to help me out. He puts his noodles on the desk and takes place in his big red chair, acting very official. I do not know how to behave in a Chinese police station, and I feel so out of place that I almost feel like crying. My cellphone rings- and with severe authority in his voice the man tells me “do not pick up!” In the meantime, the doorman uncomfortably stares at the ceiling. Mrs. Long Face and Mr. Belly Belt look at each other and seem to agree that they want me out of their office. He takes out a small note, scribbles down a phone number and address, and tells the doorman that I should go there. I feel ousted of the office like a dirty pig. Before I know it, I am off in a taxi by myself, not knowing where. The doorkeeper has told the taxi driver the address, and when we drive away, the driver scolds me for not telling him the destination personally: “Why would you let that man take care of your business, you can speak for yourself! You understand Chinese, don’t you?!” he angrily tells me. I feel like the entire city has decided to hate on me, and I hate them right back. I feel far, far away from home as we drive further and further away from the city centre. Some thirty minutes later we arrive at an isolated little police station. As the taxi pulls away, I dread to go in, afraid of more angry voices and stern faces. I pluck up my courage, and walk into the dark hall where an officer sits behind a computer. I tell him my story, and he smiles at me. “It’s ok, sit down, please sit down”, he tells me. I am surprised by his kind voice. “Hey, Old Wang, look what came in!” he yells towards a big black door. My hands tremble, waiting for the next thing. And there, in comes Wang, a strong-looking bald policeman, wearing a black t-shirt that reads ‘POLICE’ in bright white English letters. To me, it seems like Wang comes straight out of a good cop/bad cop movie, acting as the virtuous one. He approaches me with a big smile, and quickly takes a drag of his cigarette as he shakes my hand. “Hello!”, he says in broken English: “I am Wang!” I introduce myself with my Chinese name, Xiaoman. “Xiaoman!” he laughs: “What’s up, Xiaoman!”. Again, I explain my story. They need to know where I took the bus, which line it was, and where I got out. I stammer as I try and reproduce the details of the evening. Wang looks at me, looks at his colleague, and picks up the phone. Apparently, there are some regulations on cases concerning foreigners- for one, a translator needs to be appointed, which could take days. But, I understand, as Wang makes some phone calls, he thinks I am clever enough to settle this case without an official interpreter. “Let’s not make it too difficult for her,” I hear him say: “She’s nice.” Wang offers me a cigarette whilst talking on the phone. I gratefully accept, and slowly but surely ease down as my panic transforms into a strange kind of amusement about the situation I am in. It is getting late, and the night brings in a warm breeze through the open gate of the police station. As Wang hangs up the phone, he tells me I have to go to yet another police station. “You need to go to central,” he says: “My colleague will take care of you.” He lights another cigarette and smiles at me: “Go on, Xiaoman! You’ll be okay!”. He exits through the big black door.

I am being driven through the Nanjing night in the back of the police car, the blue and red lights of its flashlights reflecting on my face through the window. I do not know whether to feel like a VIP or a criminal when people stare at me from their cars. About thirty minutes later, I sit in the central office, where an unusually small man with unusually big hands and a cleft lip is seated behind a computer that seems gigantic compared to him. As the officer who drove me over takes off, he shakes my hand, and I feel moved by the kindness in his eyes. The new officer, seated next to the small man, lights up as I tell him I am from Holland. “Ah, yes, wonderful! Van Gogh! Tulips! Windmills!”, he says, and elaborates on about every detail he knows of my country. “Ah yes, wonderful,” he then mumbles, his eyes dreamingly drifting off: “But oh boy, you guys, you really did suck during the last World Cup, didn’t you, oh my, such losers, really!”

It is very late by the time the police report is finished. Every detail, from the shoulder I was carrying the bag on to the description of the zipper, needs to be processed. I finally receive a copy of the report with the holy red official stamps: a piece of paper I will need to treasure, as it will be the key to somehow get to the embassy in Beijing, over 1000 kilometers far. The policeman lets me go after taking my fingerprints.“I am sorry your first experience in Nanjing was a bad one,” he says earnestly.

The next day I am jittery, calling and emailing the Dutch embassy. The girls from reception help me get scanned copies of my police report in the local copy shop. I anxiously sit around my hotel, realizing I have also been robbed of the key to my room- it would be easy for anyone to get in. This time I really feel like I am waiting for the train the come, stuck in the moment.

Evening has already set in as the phone rings in my room. It is the lady from reception, telling me my “passport has been found”. Dumbstruck, I run down to the lobby where two doormen, three staff girls and two cleaning ladies all wait for me, unable to hide their excitement. Rose of reception tells me they just got a phone call from a public cleaner, who apparently found my small purse with passport and hotel key in a waste bin at downtown Nanjing. He would come by to drop off my belongings. I flutter around the lobby. One of the doormen, a cheerful chubby man, keeps on bringing me water and telling me not to worry. I want to call back home and tell my family the good news, when I suddenly see Rose talking on the phone in a distressed way. “No! Sir! No! Please do not do that! Please come here! We can come to you, as well!” I soon understand that the ‘public cleaner’ has changed his mind about bringing my passport. I desperately whisper at Rose that I can give him money, that I can come to him, but apparently, he is not interested. He has decided to leave things as they are and tells the reception he is old and scared. Rose almost seems like crying as she starts shouting at the man through the phone. Eventually, she finds out on which street he is standing. He agrees to give the purse to the nearest newspaper-stand. Upon hearing this, the chubby doorman tells me we should go immediately, before my passport falls into the wrong hands. Rose gives me her public transport card and the doorman and me run for the subway. As we arrive at city centre, he hurriedly asks random people around the station where newspapers are being sold. Running across the street, adrenaline pumps through my veins; I fear my passport is  lost once again. We reach a newspaper stand where a thin man sullenly sits in a plastic chair. “Did someone leave a passport here?”, the doorman asks, out of breath. The man blankly stares at us. My hearts skips a beat. “You mean this?” he says. Out of his pocket comes my small purse- I cannot believe my eyes. “That’s it! That’s it!”, I cry out. My passport, hotel key, receipts- it’s all there. My money and train ticket are gone, but it’s all fine- I pat the doorman on the shoulder. We laugh, both relieved.

Back in the hotel lobby, the doorman and me are received as champions- Rose and all the girls cheering, while even the cleaning lady lets go of her mop to clap her hands. I stand around, overwhelmed, thanking everyone, clutching the passport in my hands. The doorman turns to me: “From now on, take better care of your bag,” he says in a fatherly way, “and now get some rest!” As I almost bang against the glass lobby door on my way out, the entire staff looks at me and ushers me to go to sleep.

The next day, I tell the boss of a small hotpot place my story, since I am the only customer enjoying this spicy meal at 11 in the morning. “In every place, you will have good people, and bad people,” he says: “It’s simple, just meet the good people and try to avoid the bad ones.” That, indeed, sounds very simple.

The reason why my parents and me were left at a Suzhou street years ago, turned out to be very simple as well. A lovely Suzhou lady had noticed our distress. She  came up to ask us where we needed to go, and what the problem was. “We need to catch our train at the station, but nobody is willing to take us!”, my mother said, desperately showing her the Chinese note. “But..,” the lady hesitantly said as she studied the piece of paper: “This paper only says ‘xie xie’ – Chinese for ‘thank you’. No wonder no one will take you.” We suddenly realized that my father had repeatedly asked those shopkeepers to “write down the word for ‘station’, please, thank you! Write it down, thank you!” Apparently, they had assumed us funny laowai (foreigners) just wanted to know the word for ‘thanks’. We got what we asked for- xie xie on a note. That explained the puzzled expression on the taxi drivers’ faces as they just read “thank you” and drove on.

We eventually did get to the station, and were able to catch our train. Since then, we all remember very well how to say ‘thank you’ in Chinese.

My next train is coming again soon. I have realized there always is another train coming; there always is another thing waiting to happen. No matter what situation presents itself, it is key to try and live the moment, before we perpetually feel as if we’re waiting for the next train to come. In fact, we’re already on that journey. There is no point in waiting around.

Before I leave this place, I’ll be sure to thank all those kind faces who helped me along the way as I felt helplessly lost.

Thank you, Nanjing, xie xie.

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