Stranded in Xi'an
I lived in China for over a year and had many overwhelming experiences. My trip to Xi'an in the summer of 2010 is a dramatic excerpt of the overwhelming. Here's the trip in my words right after leaving, from my journal.
Have this feeling our last minute decision to come to Xi'an was a terrible idea. The Terra-cotta warriors were pretty cool, but I don't know about the rest of the hassle of this place. The food's been pretty terrible, which I haven't said about any Chinese city since I got here. And what's the deal with the Xi'an locals pointing and staring when I try to get directions? You mean to tell me, in the last 12 months I've been able to ask for directions in Mandarin and all of the sudden I'm speaking gibberish? Everyone else in your country seems to understand me or at least try to, and now I'm in this tourism cluster fuck and suddenly making no sense to people. This has happened to me in this city on several occasions in very ordinary circumstances, asking for the menu, buying bus tickets, things I've done a hundred times in the past year and had few problems...and that was when I could barely count. Here we land in this bustling tourist metropolis and no one can understand me? Bullshit!
Yesterday we tried to get the hell out of here. We ended up at the train station for 10 hours! There were a ridiculous number of people crowding the train lobby when we arrived, and I thought, "well, this can't be good." Listening to the intercom announcements, I realized they were reading yesterdays train times. In true China fashion, no one could give us any information, so people just waited. We know now that there was flooding in Eastern Shanxxi which had blocked the line between Xi'an and Beijing, basically putting all travel to a stop.
The train station looked more refugee camp then major travel hub. Families spread out on top of newspaper on the floor. The ubiquitous half empty instant noodle bowl and sun flower seed shells in every other empty crevasse. Once a train departed, a floor sweeper would come by creating mountains of food wrappings left by boarding passengers.
We planted ourselves in empty seats when they became available. I made a friend whose name I forget but know he was from Fujian. I really suck at remembering Chinese names. He then gave me his opinion on a wide range of topics, everything from donkey meat to his thoughts on Jesus. I understood about 30%, NOT BAD! I think it matters more that he could see I was earnestly trying to understand him, and he would later become my great alley. He was a good alley to have, one of those all business, no non-sense, loud, and friendly Chinese middle aged men.
We also met two university students with decent English. They appeared at about the same time as the line formed for Chongqing. In that line there were about 40 laborers carrying all their tools and gear heading from or too constructing China's future. When they saw me speaking Chinese with my friend from Fujian and saw the students speaking English they saw their opportunity to share a moment with an American. One man in particular really wanted to make my acquittance. He had large calloused hands and weathered features. Austerity and pride in his language and small muscular frame matched by that typical brand of Chinese curiosity. I am guessing he was 50, but could have in fact been 40 based on his line of work.
He wondered if I hoped America and China could be friend forever, whether I would prefer a wall or a bridge between our countries. He finally declared me an angel. He asked for my father's name, which of course does not translate into Mandarin. The students sounded it out and he made them write it in his notebook.
I wished I could have asked him some real questions. What the hell have you seen? What kind of work do you do? What is your life like? Do you ever feel cheated?
After 10 hours, we gave up and exchanged our tickets. Another ridiculous exchange. The line was China long times 2. I let Patrick relaxed and took my place in line. After 20 minutes, I had been cut in line 3 times. There was pushing, shoving, shouting amongst the impatient travelers. I thought of what my Chinese teacher who told me before heading out to my rural Chinese placement town where I was the only foreigner. Her advice, "You are American, you can do what needs to be done." "Cut the line," I thought. That's what needs to be done. I am going to cut this whole fucking line.
Up until that point, I had never knowingly played the foreigner card. Sure, sometimes it had been played for me, but right in that moment, I pulled that bitch out and slapped it in the face of all those people waiting in line. I had had about enough of Xi'an. I found it unhelpful, impolite, and after all that bullshit of people pretending not to understand me, I had had enough.
I stepped to the nearest empty kiosk and yelled, "Help me, now." Of course, my alley from Fujian had spotted me cut the line and came by my side. He handed me his ticket to exchange too. Someone came over right away! I told him, "I am a foreigner. I must exchange these tickets. The people in this line are very rude and I will no longer wait. You must exchange my tickets now." And then my Chinese alley said some other things I only caught pieces of like China's pride and blah, blah, and it worked!
After the bullshit of the last few days, I didn't feel guilty, I felt great! I was up to my eyeballs in China, wishing I could magically transport myself out of it all, when I realized, "I am not Chinese!" Sure, I suppose it's sort of racist white people American privilege, but I did not care. I am American, I can do what needs to be done. Take that China! I believe the score now stands, China=1,124 Me=1