At 4 pm, I decide to call Miko back. If she does not answer, I will decide how to proceed. Earlier, I asked the Sofa Negotiator if she would go with me to the office next door to the school to buy train tickets if I cannot find Miko. The Negotiator tells me she has never bought train tickets at this place and does not know where it is. I tell her I believe it is next to the school. We should have no problem finding it. I know that Jennifer buys her train tickets there for her frequent visits to Suzhou. The Negotiator tells me she will go. The hesitation is not because I am putting her out. The hesitation is because the people I have met here do not like to assist with something they have not done before. If they fail, they would lose face. I finally convince the Negotiator the ticket office will be easy to find. She agrees to go. She smiles.
Not wanting to drag the Negotiator on a mission to find a mythical train ticket office, I dial Miko. The phone rings. The phone rings repeatedly. The phone rings and keeps ringing. Finally I hear the click. I am sure this is the operator telling me ‘Call back later.’
“I have been trying to call you.”
“I was sleep.”
“Have you bought your train ticket already?”
“Have you bought your train ticket? Do you have your train ticket? Should I buy mine?”
“At 6’o’clock we will leave.”
“We will get the train tickets then?”
“Yes.” When talking to the Shanghai90210 – Miko is no exception – conversations can be a bit like playing a game of Clue.
“When will we leave for the train station?’
“When will we go to the train station?”
“At 6 o’clock.”
“That means we will miss the train if the train leaves at 6 o’clock.”
“If we go to the station at 6 o’clock, we will miss the train.”
“Train leaves 7 o’clock.”
“Oh, okay,” I say and then add “Will you come to my apartment and get me on the way to the taxi?”
“You stay in your home and I will come and we can go to train station.”
“Okay, I will see you at 6 o’clock. I will be in my home.”
I get off the phone and breathe a sigh of relief. The thought of taking the train by myself was a bit overwhelming. Baby steps, I need to take baby steps. If the train leaves at 7 that means we will get there close to midnight. I decide to not call the hotel until I am on the train so that if there is any hesitation to come pick me up at that late hour it will not be voiced, I will already be on my way there.
I think about eating supper. Here the students eat at 4 pm so I have grown accustomed to eating early as well. I will be ready for bingo and checkers with the droolers soon. Back in my rock days at early supper was at midnight.
I walk over to the cafeteria. I have not had a Chinese pizza in awhile. That sounds good and light. It is just dough and strange spices. The campus is deserted, peaceful. I walk by the garden, the garden where I had thought I would spend so much time here during my tenure but I have not. I vow to myself that I will devote more time to the garden as I pass it on my way to the cafeteria. The front doors are open when I approach the building which is a good sign. The bakery on the first floor, however, is closed tight. I reassess the situation.
I settle on a TV dinner from All Days. This is the only western style TV dinner I have seen anywhere in the vicinity. The one available TV dinner available, that I have found, in Songjiang is linguine with bacon and mushrooms. It is surprisingly good and a good deal at $1.
At 5:40, I happen to go out into the foyer and I look out the window. I see Miko slowly walking toward my apartment. Miko is the quintessential universal teenager. She has her bags. She has her mall punk 80s Madonna/ new century Avril look. She is listening to her MP3. She is oblivious to me waving.
She finally sees me. She removes her earpiece. I yell to her I have to change my clothes. She does not understand. I shut my door and I change my clothes fast. I rush down with my guitar and my bag. She is still oblivious. She is looking at the welcome sign / bulletin board by my apartment building which I suppose welcomes students and parents and prospective students to the campus.
I tell her, her hair looks cute. She tells me she hates it. I say it is cute. She was getting a haircut last night when we thought she was missing. A few of the American students went with her. We walk to the front gate and hail a taxi which takes no time to get at all.
We put my guitar and bag in the trunk. Miko hops in the back seat. I hop in the front seat. As soon as we are in the cab, Miko says:
“Tyson, I love the American students.”
“You do?” I ask as if Jessie has told me nothing. I do not want to spoil this for Miko.
“Yes, and they like me.”
She tells me they called her ‘cool and sexy.’ They taught her how to use the word ‘hot.’
“Miko, that makes me so happy,” I tell her genuinely pleased.
“They taught me this.” She demonstrates the ‘loser’ sign on her forehead. I laugh. I show her the ‘winner’ sign. She does not understand. I try to explain ‘winner.’
“A winner is a real loser,” I say, but sarcasm does not translate. She looks at me blankly.
She tells me that the Chinese do not have language with their hands other than signs like ‘good luck’ and such. I tell her this is because in America we do a lot of driving and we need to flip people off when we get angry at them for driving like idiots. This she somewhat understands. I somewhat explain the bird. The students have taught her the middle finger. The students have actually taught her a few things I do not know. I suddenly feel old and out of touch.
The taxi lets us off at the train station. I try to pay. Miko says “No, no, no, I pay.” She pays the driver. He then gets out and gets my guitar and bag out of the trunk. We then go wait in the long line to buy our tickets to Yuyao which is actually one stop before Ningbo. This is where Miko lives and where the hotel is located. The line crawls.
Miko tells me the students cried when she had to leave to come home. She is going back home because she has to take an exam in Ningbo. She did not want to leave the students. She tells me that they do not like Avril. I told her that Avril appeals to younger people than high schoolers. I was not sure how to explain this to her. These kids from San Diego would be too cool to listen to Avril. I did not know how to tell her this politely. She liked the music they played her. I had noticed when I met the American students that one student had a Franz Ferdinand bag which is definitely an improvement over Avril. I am glad that she likes the music they played her.
After we get our ticket, we go into the crowding waiting room. I think of the song by Joni Mitchell ‘This Train.’ I see old men sleeping on bags but no women with that ‘teased up kind of hair.’ Instead of Cokes and chocolate bars, the kids have milk drinks and fish snacks, not as appealing.
The only seats available are by the trashcan. The man next to me smells of alcohol and rotting teeth. He watches me write in my Moleskin as he knocks his knees. On the other side of me, people seem to wait in line to hawk phlegm into the trashcan, Big Jesus Trashcan – Oil well rock. This must be some Chinese game of which I have not heard.
Miko points to the sign that shows our boarding time. The boarding time is the only thing I can read. It says 18:51.
Across from me, Miko is looking through the keepsake book that the American students gave to her. This book is one of those sorts of books with hearts all over the cover. Each page a different student has written something to her and has written down his or her contact information. She showed me the book in the cab. I thought it was a very touching thing. It means the world to Miko. She smiles as she reads it. She listens to her MP3 at the same time. She is a world away. In her mind, she is having a goodtime with the American students.
In the cab, I asked her where the students were going to college. None of them knew where they would go. I had thought she might try to go to the same college. This would be a connection. She then told me she would like to go to California to high school. I told her that sounds like a good idea. I do not know how to tell her, she has finished high school. Maybe she could start again in an American school. Why not? She has fallen in love with America. As she talks about it I realize I am still in love with America – the cars, beaches, hamburgers, Hollywood, music, theme parks, the Strokes, Willie Nelson, the Supremes.
Five minutes before the train is to board, the whole waiting room seems to gravitate to the boarding area. This starts calmly but then as the clock ticks bringing us closer to the time to board, the future train passengers become almost frantic. People collide into me with their parcels of oversized laundry bags stuffed beyond capacity. I stay close to Miko. She is a professional at Chinese boarding. The ticket taker punches our tickets.
Influenced by the crowd – people bumping into me continuously – I start to rush to the train. Miko tells me we can walk. She is in no hurry. She knows the train will not leave without us. I am confidant I am in good hands. We walk down stairs into a tunnel under the tracks to reach our platform. Miko tells me we have no seat assignment and we will have to pay 20 more quai. T.I.C. (This is china.) I don’t argue.
We crowd into car 10. Miko immediately spots the woman doling out the seat assignments with her portable electronic ticket dispenser. Miko tells me I actually need to get out 25 kuai which I do. I am thinking of my five star hotel luxury evening as I am being mauled by the throng of people who are trying to get by me. I continuously get poked, prodded and shoved. In America, I would be angry but, again, T,I.C. The crowd around the ticket lady is like people betting the last minute at a race track. Eight people are simultaneously trying to get her attention. When she appeases one and he moves on, another one pops up in his place.
After an excruciating five minutes that seemed like an hour, we have our tickets. Our seats are in car two. We have to walk through six crowded cars to get there. At this point, I feel as if I am that man –who is often fat – who boards the plane at the last minute and bumbles his way to the back. The cars, as I mentioned are all crowded. The seats are set up like restaurant booths with the aisle in the middle. There are three seats on each side, so each booth sits six people.
Some of the people are sprawled on each other. Some people, the lucky ones, are sprawled across a whole bench. Some people are tightly packed three to a seat. This is China at its most Chinese. While we are walking, I am trying to imagine what we have in store in car two. I hope we are spillovers and that car two will not be crowded. I know this is too much to ask. We are now in car four and the car is as crowded as car ten. I resign myself to the fact that we may have a somewhat uncomfortable 4 and a half hour trip.