A familiar face sticks his head in the door. At first, I try to place him and then I remember, Blake. I stand up and shake his hand. I say hello. He says hello. We make small talk, nothing memorable. He stands there in front of me a few minutes after our conversation has run its course. He tells me he hopes he sees me again. I tell him I hope to see him too. I sit down. He goes back to his desk and sits down.
Occasionally I look up and watch him at his desk. His desk is right in front of the travel agency. Funny, I did not notice him sitting there when I walked in. Now I wonder if he was sitting there the whole time and I walked right past him when the porter escorted me back to the travel agency waiting area.
A strange sadness overtakes me which has something to do with seeing him sit at his desk. Knowing that tomorrow he will sit at that same desk and the next day and the next day. This drudgery, this sameness makes me sad. I do not know why. He looks as if he is a little boy playing at being a grown up but then I suppose all men are.
Until I saw him sit at the desk, I did not realize that he must be the concierge. I hope that the guests at the hotel are nice to him. He has a fragile innocence that is what I like about the people here in China. They are not jaded, hard, callous. They are sweet and tender to each other and to visitors. So far, that is what I have seen.
As I am pondering this, the porter briskly walks in to the travel agency to tell me that the car is ready to take me to the station. I quickly get up and head to the door. Blake sees me as I am leaving. I walk over to him to shake his hand and thank him. He grabs both of my hands and shakes them and tells me how nice it was to meet me. He has hold of my hands all the way across the lobby.
In the movies, ‘Wild Horses’ or ‘The Rover’ would play at the climax of this moment, as I am walking to the car and Blake is watching and I look back one more time to wave as I get into a late model Buick. The porter opens the back door for me. I get in. The driver puts my bag and guitar in the trunk. He and the porter get in the front. We drive to the station. I am sad but happy to be leaving Yuyao a suburb of Ningbo.
In the car, I ask the porter if he bought me a first class ticket. Since it was so cheap, I thought he may have forgotten. He points to the 2 on the ticket which means once again I am in car 2. Yes, he is a professional. They are paid to do this sort of thing the right way. I thank him.
The driver pulls into the station. The porter grabs my bag and guitar and leads me to the waiting room. We actually walk past the very crowded waiting room into the VIP waiting room. In this waiting room, there are only four other future passengers waiting. The seats are leather three person benches with carved wooden arms.
The porter tells me to sit. He is going to talk to the ticket lady at the door. He comes back. He tells me she will tell me when my train has arrived. I tell him thank you and shake his hand. I ask his name. He tells me his name is Ben. He pulls a card out of his breast pocket and hands it to me. We say our goodbyes and he leaves. The train does not come for another twenty minutes. I take the paper that I have been reading all weekend out of my bag and look over it once more. Bored, I finally stare off into space until the train arrives.
The other future passengers head toward the door. I look at the ticket lady. She motions for me to leave. I get up. There are trains stationed on both sides of the platform. I am not sure which one I am to board. I assume the one closest because I had to walk under the tracks in the tunnel when I arrived yesterday. The way the ticket lady is pointing, this could mean either train. She looks as if she is pointing to the tunnel entrance.
Then out of nowhere, a young woman appears. She speaks to me in broken English. She tells me the train that is pulling into the station on the side that I am standing is the train that I need. I tell her thank you. She says “See you later.” She then starts to walk away. She then turns around and comes back to correct herself.
“I mean, I hope to….see….you…again.”
I tell her I hope I see her again.
I get on the train. Car Two on this train is one level. The glamour of the Car Two last night has not attached itself to the Car Two of today. This Car Two has kids crying and running and screaming. The whole car has seemed to run amok. Bushels of waxberries fill the car. I search for my seat - 29. As I get closer, the din increases. The din is at its potential when I locate my seat. I sit at an empty bench a few rows back from where I am to sit. Where I am to sit is currently occupied by what equals a family of hyenas. The stench of urine permeates the air.
Granted, the train is fuller than last night but still there are vacant rows. I settle in. I put my guitar above me on a rack that runs the length of the train. I stare out the window as we are leaving the city.
Along train tracks here, residents grow gardens. Anywhere there is soil, someone will start a vegetable garden. I look out at all the leafy green vegetables that line the tracks. The city quickly becomes country. The ramshackle urban buildings give way to rice fields with roads running between the fields. These fields are a deep green. Shacks are scattered about the countryside.
The train pulls into the next station. I hope no one gets on the train. A few people board the train. I watch them as they look at the numbers above the seats. I hope they do not make me move. If I have to move, I spot some seats closer to the door. They park themselves in front of my seat. I move closer to the door. I grab my guitar overhead and lug it with me. They sit in the seat that I am vacating.
A middle aged couple who are sitting across the aisle from me see this and smile and then laugh when I look at them. I smile back. Now I am sitting facing the middle aged couple one set of seats back from them. Opposite them are two other women. The women all talk amongst themselves. I notice the man is in his own world. Occasionally, he may interject something if someone asks but for the most part, he stays silent.
Approximately twenty minutes later, the train stops at another station. Another group of people board the train. I try to gauge their demeanor to see whether I need to move again. I see them eyeing the numbers looking for their seats and yes once again, I have to move. At this point, the vacant benches are quickly disappearing. I have to share a bench with another man who does not look too pleased. Once again, I grab my guitar from overhead and move it with me. The middle aged couple, again, is watching and this time they think my whole charade is marvelously funny. They talk to their companions sitting across from them. The companions turn around and give me a look which I am not sure if it is mocking or sympathetic. I assume sympathetic.
Again, I settle in and I hope that the train will start emptying out soon. These are not long distance trains from what I understand. They, for the most part, are day trip trains. At some point, passengers must disembark. That is what I assume. I assume wrong. The train stops again. A group of very talkative young couples board. There are eight of them. I know I, for sure, am in one of their seats. At this point, because they are having a hard time finding their seats, a young male porter appears to come seat everyone.
I pull out my ticket so that I do not accidentally get bumped down into coach which would of course be the ultimate humiliation. I show him my ticket and he looks at me in a very unpleasant manner and he – metaphysically – drags me by the collar to my proper seat which upsets the balance there. The little bees that had stationed themselves in that section were upset like a nest when a rock is thrown at it. They then buzzed all over the train wreaking havoc on all the other passengers.
The woman sitting opposite of my assigned seat looks at me as if I have done her a grave injustice. In front of me, on the table - where I would like to eat my train snacks - a table full of crap awaits- half empty juice bottles, lychee peels, apple cores, discarded plastic grocery bags. Fortunately, and surprisingly, there are no dirty diapers on the table. That would put me over the edge. The trip back is not shaping to be as tranquil and luxurious as the trip to Ningbo.
The couple that laughed at my musical chair impression, moved as well. Now, they are sitting across the aisle from me. I assume they are a large extended family traveling. The man is sitting on the outside seat. He looks as if he wants to hang himself. The ladies talk amongst themselves. Anytime, he says something one of the women appears to say something which would imply he does not know what he is talking about. I stare out the window. The woman across from me is sucking on fruit making sounds that resemble a famished baboon. Her children seem to show some embarrassment. I hide myself in the Shanghai Daily which I have read from cover to cover at this point. The train stops at another station.
At long last passengers disembark. I look up and notice that the famished baboon has moved to the seat behind where she was. She is sitting with a friend and her children. I assume they have all landed in on a vacant booth because I notice that the table where they are now sitting is spotless. She left all of her trash at the table where I am sitting. I would like to eat the snacks that I brought but I have no table to put them thanks to the dearly departed thoughtless famished baboon. Eventually the porter comes by and scoops the pile of debris into a bucket. At this point, I pull out my Oreos and the Lipton tea product that I bought at the post apocalyptic food market. I am very excited about the Oreos. I quickly and savagely open the pack and eat two in record time. They are so good, so perfect, and so American. I then open the tea and take a gulp. I get the surprise of my life. The ice on the label signified the flavor with a picture. I am sure in Chinese characters somewhere was the flavor Eucalyptus. The tea tastes like a Hall’s lozenge in a bottle. I am surprised but not shocked. The Chinese eat Hall’s lozenges as mints. I have witnessed this first hand. To be a good sport, I have had a lozenge or two socially. I am saddened that the snack I was so excited about has been tainted by lozenge flavored tea.
I eat nearly half of the pack of cookies with no problem. Occasionally, I take a sip of the tea just to whet my throat. At this point, the man across the aisle has become bored with the women. He sits across from me. I offer him a cookie. He waves his hand to give me the universal no thanks wave.
However, offering him the cookie brought forth the invitation for conversation. None of which interests me because each sentence takes five minutes for him to construct which I admire that he would want to talk to me with the few English words he could muster. Nevertheless, I do not want to talk. But, I do not want to be rude. As I have said before, I am an ambassador to some extent and that means even when I do not feel like it, it is my responsibility to feel like it. That is almost part of my job as an American. So as he talks to me, I smile and stare at the spot where a tooth should be front and center in his mouth. Fortunately, the trip was almost over. This conversation only lasts an hour.
When we pull into the station at Songjiang, I recognize it as my home. I grab my gear and quickly disembark from the train. I walk to the exit and to the area where the cabs are waiting. This is the first time that I have had to say my address. Before I had a card with my address, I took it out of my wallet and forgot to put it back.
I walk up to the first cabbie and recite the address. He does not understand me. He shakes his head no. I do the same to another cabbie and then another and then another and then, I start getting the feeling that I might be walking the three or four miles home at night in the industrial area with my bag and guitar. This is grim.
I stop and think for a minute. I am not giving up. There must be someway. How do I do this? I look through my wallet. I find the receipt from when I subscribed to the paper. Somewhere my address must be on it. It is not like there is anything on this receipt except for Chinese characters. I go to the first cabbie that shook his head no and I point to where I think the address must be on the receipt and he recites what I am pointing at. I shake my head yes. I get in his cab.
We pull out of the station into what looks like state fair gridlock. However, we are moving within a minute. Asians get a bad rap for their driving. However, they drive in a symbiotic way where they all seem to know what the other drivers are doing. It is almost like a cartoon when the road moves with the vehicle. They resort to nothing as rudimentary as lanes.
The taxi drops me at school. I realize I have not eaten a proper meal since lunch (if KFC is a proper meal). The Muslim noodle shop next to the school is where I decide to go. However, the noodle dish I like is no longer pictured on the menu board because they changed the pictures on the board. I call the Sofa Negotiator to ask her if she can tell them in Chinese what I want. She knows what I like. She tells me she will meet me in 10 minutes. She is at the laundry by the dorms. I wait. I am hungry. Ten minutes later, I see her walking down the driveway of the school. I am waiting at the front gate.
I ask her why she is at school on a Saturday. She tells me she was helping the American students prepare to take off tomorrow for their tour of China. Today, the students went running around in Shanghai. Maureen went with them. I ask the Negotiator if she is hungry, she is not. She orders me the noodle dish I like with the homemade noodles (for which the shop is known).
I buy bottled tea from the market next door to the shop, the real Chinese tea to wash the memory of the Lipton Eucalyptus out of my mind. In the distance, I see a figure walking who I recognize. I tell the Negotiator, Maureen is coming. The Negotiator calls to Maureen.
Bird Flu walks up in that ‘Chicken Run’ hen manner of hers and starts speaking in that proper Queensland hen speak.
“I heard you got a job in Ningbo,” she says coldly.
“I interviewed for a job which I do not know if I am interested in taking,” I reply and then add in a sardonic manner “Interviewing for a job and accepting a job are actually two different things.” Boo Flu flutters on back to her nest. I tell myself she is an idiot. My noodles then arrive.
Outside of the Muslim noodle shop, we sit outside at a picnic table. I eat my noodles and drink my bottled tea. The Negotiator watched me eat my noodles and drink my bottled tea. A breeze lightly blows. The heat has not yet absorbed the night. I still cannot believe I bought a set of coasters. Oh, and I cannot believe I live in China.