No man is a species. Nick wishes he knew how to express the thought in Mandarin. If he could only clear the language chasm, perhaps the expressions on the faces of his fellow passengers would soften. Maybe then, the X-ray stares would stop.
He can feel the gaze of every passenger in the train lock on him; follow him down the aisle like a searchlight.
“Mei guo ren,” a woman says sagely to her neighbor, not bothering to whisper. American. Nick is never sure how, but everyone who sees him here, always seems to intuit his nationality immediately, as if he’s striding down the aisle in full Captain America regalia, complete with shield and helmet. No individual should have to stand in for his entire country, his entire race. Nick considers asking Jeffrey to translate the phrase, but he’d probably have to explain what he means to Jeffrey too, and anyway, this is hardly the time to make a grand appeal.
Just find your seat, hunker down, and try to sleep. In eighteen hours, he’d be in Shanghai, where they have tall buildings, real beer, and signs in English, air-conditioning, and cheese.
Jeffrey, several rows ahead of Nick, gestures to say he’s found their seats. Nick abandons the attempt to roll his suitcase down the aisle, picks the bag up, and uses it to part the reluctant human sea.
When Nick draws even with Jeffrey, his friend is standing in front of a group of six seats, all occupied, speaking forcefully and fast. The compartment is divided into these little pods: two rows of three seats face each other across a low plastic table bolted to the floor. In the farthest row, a family of migrant laborers—father, mother, toddler, grandma— have squeezed themselves and what look like all their worldly possessions into two seats by the window, and it’s them Jeffrey seems to be berating.
“What’s the problem?” Nick asks.
“Mei shi.” It’s nothing. He switches to English. “No problem. These are our seats.”
Nick checks the stub in his hand. He’s right: 24A. His is the seat nearest to the window, the one occupied by the grandmother and the baby. An open flap in the front of the youngster’s pants shows that he’s a boy. Nick tries to smile at the old woman—there’s been some mix-up, clearly—but her expression is designed to deflect his sympathy.
“These people are here, though. Are there duplicate tickets?” Should have known, nothing’s ever simple or straightforward here.
Jeffrey dismisses this with a languid wave of his hand.
“These people? No seats. Standing tickets. They will leave.”
He snaps what is unmistakably an order, and grabs Nick’s bag to pass it toward the luggage rack.
“Wait, wait, wait.” There’s a loose end somewhere, but Nick’s reasoning is slow and wooly. What’s wrong with him today? “Where are they gonna go? They’re just gonna stand?”
Jeffrey gives a not-my-problem shrug. Nick persists.
“For how long? Where are they going? Ask them where they’re going.”
Reluctantly, Jeffrey puts the question to the father. The answer doesn’t need translation: “Shanghai.”
“But, that’s where we’re going. It’s an eighteen-hour trip. We calculated it, remember? They’re just gonna stand for eighteen hours straight? All through the night?”
He thinks of the milling crowd he had to fight through in the aisles and belatedly understands. They’re not just finding their seats or stretching their legs. Oh. Something like a quarter of his fellow passengers must be traveling this way.
“What will you do, then?” asks Jeffrey. “You want to stand instead?”
“Of course I don’t want to. But…why should they have to either?” His glance lingers on the grandmother. The baby. He frowns. There is something odd about the way the old woman is sitting, and the way she holds her grandson, but he can’t quite place it.
“They are Chinese,” Jeffrey says, as if this explains it all. “You are foreign Friend.”
“So what? So because they’re Chinese they’re second-class citizens? In their own country? As a Westerner I have a right to sit but they don’t?”
Even as he’s saying it, though, Nick is unsure what he is really fighting for. In the end, he doesn’t want to stand for eighteen hours. He can’t stand for eighteen hours. He can barely conceive of the possibility, much less do it. The truth is, he’s hot, he’s grumpy, and this whole scene is starting to feel more and more unreal. He would love to sit right now. For a cool drink and a soft pillow, he would happily forget all about this family and their problems. But, of course, this realization incites an equal and opposite wave of guilt, which makes him want to stick up for them with added vehemence.
“We are used to it. You are not.”
Nick is surprised to hear Jeffrey’s voice so weary and impatient. All at once, he finally understands something. This “foreign friend” treatment isn’t actually about respect or deference at all.
“You couldn’t put up with what we put up with” is what Jeffrey’s really saying. They think we’re coddled, fragile, soft. People like Jeffrey who volunteer to translate and run interference for Western visitors are like the people who baby-proof apartments. They run around trying to cushion the sharp edges and hard surfaces, all so the spoiled child can have his fun and not get hurt.
“Anyway,” Jeffrey knows he’s won. He’s trying to soothe Nick now, “You pay this ticket. You pay more; you have more rights.”
His tone is relieved, like he’s finally put it into terms an American would understand.
The family, even the little boy, has been watching this whole exchange intently, eyes bouncing back and forth from Nick to Jeffrey, like spectators at a tennis match. Now they start collecting their belongings. Unable to understand a word of the English conversation, they nonetheless seem to grasp the end result. The rules of conversation, thinks Nick, must be fairly universal; whoever fails to return the serve is the loser.
The father and mother shuffle by Nick with heads down and eyes averted, but the old woman says something to Jeffrey as she passes. A short, sharp hiss like she’s telling Jeffrey to be quiet and a gesture at the child in her arms. Her waxen face cracks briefly, in a gap-toothed smile. The word sounds familiar. A memory niggles in Nick’s brain from months ago, in his teacher’s orientation group, in Yangshu. They were told not to make the “Shhh” noise in class. Because, he thinks, because it sounds like the Chinese word for…he can’t remember.
Nick turns his back on the whole scene and settles into his window seat. He frowns. The seat is damp. Everything, belatedly, clicks into place. The little kid, with the peep-show flap cut out of his trousers. The awkward way his grandmother was holding him, the look of dawning horror on Jeffrey’s face, as he turns—too late, to warn Nick to not sit. The unmistakable sweet and sour smell of…
Pee. The word he couldn’t remember. It’s Chinese for pee. The little kid must have…right on the seat… Nick is sitting in now.
“Good afternoon, and welcome aboard China-Star Railways.”
Trying to tune out Jeffrey’s apologies, Nick has been listening absently to the message wafting through the loudspeaker for almost half a minute before he realizes he can understand it. The announcement is in English. The message is standard boiler-plate—“We will be making the following stops. This is a non-smoking train,”—but it is being read, in English, by a brisk, businesslike female voice with an unmistakable American accent. Is this just a pre-recorded message, Nick wonders suddenly, that they play back every time they leave a station? Or could there possibly be another American somewhere on this train?
“On behalf of China-Star Railways,” the mysterious woman’s voice concludes, “we wish you have a pleasant journey.”
He wants to ask Jeffrey about it. But several minutes after the incident, Urine Gate is still the sole topic of his conversation. Several layers of plastic bags and napkins from his backpack are now insulating Nick from the stain. The flood of abject apologies from Jeffrey has thinned to a steady trickle, but the look of horror and embarrassment seems permanently grafted onto his friend’s face. The three men sitting across from them, on the other hand, look delighted.
Jeffrey has offered, twice now, to swap seats with Nick. Part of Nick badly wants to do it. Despite the padding, he can practically feel the liquid seeping into the thirsty fabric of his pants; into the skin of his leg; into his bloodstream, he wouldn’t doubt. What’s stopping him is the knowledge that Jeffrey’s offer is entirely sincere. He would take the wet seat in a second, sit there for the whole interminable journey, and never complain once. And the whole incident would become just another entry in the “foreigners are delicate; Chinese are resilient” file.
Jeffrey begins another apology. “Let me assure you…”
He handles the phrase, no doubt plucked whole from some textbook or sample dialogue, as if he’s borrowed it from a friend and promised to return it in pristine condition. Nick heads him off, with a question that’s been irking him for a while.
“Tell me again why you guys don’t like diapers?”
Jeffrey blinks. “Family like that? Very poor. Can’t afford diapers. Too expensive.”
Nick nods grudgingly. It makes some sense.
“Besides,” Jeffrey adds, “we think diapers are no good for baby. Very… unhealthy.”
Nick has some choice things to say about Chinese ideas of health and hygiene, but he jams them down. He reminds himself that Jeffrey is his only ally on this train.
Nick lapses into moody silence. He looks out the window at fields of brilliant yellow rapeseed, rushing past. The whole scene seems to shimmer and dance. The colors all seem bolder somehow. He feels, and has felt since he got on this train, fully charged, like he’s been plugged into some giant electric socket.
“You know,” Jeffrey probes the silence delicately, “your British friend teached me a sentence…”
“Taught.” Nick, still in teacher-mode, corrects automatically. “You mean Gordon?”
Jeffrey nods. “He taught me a sentence: ‘take the piss.’ So, just now”—he indicates the seat—“you ‘take the piss.’ Is that right?”
For a second, Nick can only stare at him. The irony is practically thick enough to choke on, but one look at Jeffrey’s grave, expectant face and it’s clear that he’s in earnest. One look at Jeffrey’s face and Nick doesn’t have the heart to correct him.
“Yeah,” Nick says in a funeral tone. “That’s right. You used it right.”
On the trip back down the aisle, towards the toilet, the stares resume. Since “Didn’t anyone teach you that it’s rude to stare?” is not in his Chinese vocabulary, Nick says nothing. He sighs. You should be used to this by now, he thinks.
The kids are ok. They stare at him with an innocent, unselfconscious curiosity. Their eyes are simply sponges soaking up their world, and Nick just happens, at this moment, to be a part of it. The adults are different. Why? Their faces ask. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you in your own place? Nick has never had to justify his presence anywhere before, and even six months in-country hasn’t made him any better at it.
He hadn’t been prepared for any of this before he came to China. For the last six months, he and a colleague—Gordon—have been working in the town of Lixian, in rural Hunan Province. The company that sent them there had promised them a glimpse of “The Real China”: the great, gray, middle ground between bustling metropolis and postcard-pretty natural vista. The part most tourists never get to see. It had seemed like a fair trade at the time: give up a little comfort and familiarity in exchange for cultural authenticity.
Cultural authenticity, though, turned out to mean forty-plus students per class, all jammed into classrooms with no air-conditioning or heat. It meant there was not a single Western restaurant in town (and Chinese food that was nothing like the Chinese food at home.) It meant the last real bar had converted to a karaoke joint a month before. It meant that no one considered it rude to point at him and shout “lao wai” (foreigner) everywhere he went. It meant that teenage girls would snap surreptitious photos and dash away like paparazzi. It meant that he became the de-facto American ambassador every time he stepped out in public. Even now, he can almost see his fellow riders tallying up every gesture, every quirk, every feature—his giant feet; his Listerine and Old Spice smell; his five-day-stubble—and chalking them all up to national, rather than individual, identity.
Well, he can almost hear them say, “I guess that’s how they do it in America.”
The train bathroom is about as grim as Nick expected: a standard Chinese squat toilet—not much more than a triangular metal trough cut into the floor—no soap dispenser, and, over everything, the sharp, ammoniac reek of piss; though, Nick concedes, that could very well be me. He crouches over the sinister hole in the floor and, trying to distract himself, he softly recites his familiar bathroom incantation.
“Toilet Paper. Toilet Paper. I miss Toilet Paper.” He chants it to himself like a mantra. “Toilet Paper. Toilet Paper. Soap and Toilet Paper.”
Neither materializes, but Nick has managed to cushion the whole situation in a protective layer of absurdity and feels marginally better.
Groping in his bag, for the bottle of hand sanitizer (specially shipped over by his parents, in a care package that also included deodorant and a box of Mac-N-Cheese), Nick’s hand brushes the little plastic bag with Gordon’s pills. The one he took back in the station doesn’t seem to be doing the job. Hands clean now, he pops another, then one more. Why not? An extra aspirin or two never hurt anyone.
Back in his seat, Nick is feeling a little better about the whole excursion. The pills have reminded him of Gordon, and he decides to give his now-ex-colleague a call.
Gordon answers on the third ring. “Ahh…all right, then, Nick-o?”
Nick swallows his annoyance. Every single time Gordon calls him that, he involuntarily pictures the Teutonic blonde who sang with the Velvet Underground. It never fails to throw him, and he suspects that Gordon knows it.
“Yeah, I’m ok. I just wanted to say…”
“Yeah…listen, mate, do me a favor and don’t swing by right now, yeah? Be happy to grab a pijiu with you later, but now’s not really the best time.”
Instead of reminding Gordon he’s just left town for good and won’t be swinging by anytime soon, Nick finds himself asking “Why?”
Gordon’s voice takes on a slow and martyred tone, like he’s talking to an idiot.
“Because, I’m about to have a visitor, aren’t I? To—how shall I put it? —properly celebrate the end of term.”
Oh. Right. One of Gordon’s girls. Over the months, Nick has seen the parades troop past his apartment, on their way to Gordon’s place next door. They usually exchange a few polite and awkward words, and he’s even been out to group dinners or to karaoke with a couple, if they lasted long enough. They are all lithe, all young, all of them, giggly. Their English names make them all sound either like strippers (Candy, Cherry) or stuffy Victorians (Doris, Lily). Gordon never seems to bother with their Chinese names.
“That’s fine,” Nick says, a bit curtly. “Whatever. But we won’t be grabbing a beer later in any case. Today was my last day, remember? I’m off.”
“Oh? Like ‘off’ off?”
“I’m on the train right now.”
“Ahh. Right, then…” Gordon seems to take this in stride. “And you’ve got a job in…where was it? Your friend from uni was going to join you…”
“Two friends.” Can’t forget Lauren, he thinks. Then he thinks, that’s the problem, isn’t it? “It’s called…” God, how is he suddenly blanking on the name?
“Hangzhou!” He is so relieved to have recovered the name he practically shouts it. Jeffrey is staring at him. And not just Jeffrey. All the other passengers who had gotten bored with Channel Lao Wai, who had shifted their attention, have started to tune back in.
“But I’m spending a week in Shanghai first.” A new thought occurs to Nick. “You know, I tried to come next door before and say good-bye…”
“Must have been out. Listen, mate, I’d love to chat and all, but…”
“Your door was unlocked, so I poked my head inside. I left a little note….”
“Did you? Cheers. I’ll look for that later, then, shall I? But for now…” Gordon’s speaking faster now, like if he gathers enough momentum he’ll be able to shake Nick off.
Nick doggedly clings on. He should just mention the pills. Just for politeness’ sake. “Oh, and also? There was a tube of aspirin, lying there on the table, and I’d just run out, so I borrowed a couple pills, just for the train ride. Figured you wouldn’t mind.”
“Yeah, yeah, no problem. Look, I’d better shove off, so…” There’s a pause, and Gordon’s voice goes cold and steely. “Wait. On the table, you said?”
“Yeah,” his brain is going all wooly again. Why is simple conversation so difficult? “Aspirin,” Nick repeats, when he can’t think of anything else to say, “had a headache. Still do, sorta. Or, well, now it’s more of a…something else.”
“You utter prat! You idiot!” Gordon’s voice clangs and grates on his ears, “I’ll give you ‘something else’! Those aren’t aspirin!”
“What? What are they?”
Nick thinks, incongruously, of fighters in a caged arena, pummeling each other with fists and feet. No, he decides, that’s not right. That’s something else.
“Ecstasy, to you! How many did you take?”
Shoot. “I grabbed a handful. Like five.”
“Shoot!” In Gordon’s mouth, the word is guttural; half-swallowed; it sounds like “shut.” Gordon’s mother is Scottish and his accent tends to veer toward the Highlands whenever he’s upset or agitated. It functions as a handy anger-gauge. And, at this moment, Gordon sounds Scottish enough to be an extra in Braveheart.
“Are you…Tell me…tell me you didn’t pop all five!”
“Uhhh…Three? One at the station, right before we left: say…ten, fifteen minutes ago? And, another two, just now, in the bathroom.”
Gordon lets out a tight huff of relief. “All right. All right. Well, you’re not gonna die or anything. Not from three pills. You are going to be well and truly off your tree for a while. How long you on that train for, then?”
“Eighteen hours.” Right now, the number feels like a weight pressing on his chest.
Gordon whistles. “Well, buckle up, boyo. You’re in for quite a ride.”
“Gordon?” His voice, as he hears it, is fragile. “How long is it gonna…?”
“…Last? Depends. Several hours, at the least,” Gordon replied.
He’s vaguely aware of the essential facts. He’s stratospherically high and stranded on a train, in the heart of rural China. That it will be nearly a full day before Shanghai, and any possibility of medical attention, should the trip go bad. That he only knows Jeffrey on this train. That only Jeffrey (with the possible exception of the girl on the loudspeaker) is even capable of understanding English. He’s vaguely aware, too, that the normal Nick would be panicking right now. His mind scratches itself raw as it ran over and over all the disastrous possibilities. But the drug must be insulating and buoying him up, somehow, because the anxiety simply slides off him, like water off an oil-slicked coat.
“Gordon? I want you to know…”
“What?” he snaps.
“It’s ok. I don’t blame you. It’s not your fault.”
“Blame me?” Gordon has exploded again. Nick pictures the anger spouting up from a blowhole in the top of Gordon’s head, like a whale, and suddenly wants to laugh.
“Blame me?” Gordon is yelling. “Blame me? You bloody robbed me! Aren’t Americans the ones always banging on about the Ten Commandments? ‘Thou shalt not steal’ ring a bell? You somehow miss that one, growing up in that militarized bible-school you call a country? You have any idea what people pay for those pills? You think I’m running a charity here?”
Gordon finally lets Nick go, though Nick can’t tell whether it’s because his rage has blown over. Or, because his tryst showed up and he didn’t want to scare her off by yelling. He signs off with a none-too-reassuring “Don’t die now, moron. Really bad for business, that.”
Jeffrey knows something is wrong, but he’s only heard one side of the conversation. Even some of that, Nick hopes, will have gone over his head; his idiomatic English is far from perfect. Still, he cocks his head toward Nick, in concern.
“You are ok?”
“I’m fine. Gordon’s a…” A what, exactly? Small-time drug-dealer? Callous mercenary?
“Nothing…Don’t worry about it. I’m fine,” he repeats. Jeffrey doesn’t look at all convinced, but then, Nick doesn’t sound at all convincing.
Nick tries to distract himself by looking out the window, but the scenery outside seems to be stuck on an endless loop. Hills give way to fields, fields give way to roads, roads give way to villages, and villages give way to hills again. Not until the next station is there any variation in the pattern, and by then, Nick is practically in orbit.
The loudspeaker begins to squawk at them in Mandarin. Nick catches almost nothing, apart from a “Xie Xie” (thank you), towards the end. They’re already squealing to a stop at the platform, by the time the English announcement starts up.
“Good afternoon. We are now arriving in Yiyang.” It’s the same voice as before. This time Nick is sure of it; this woman, whoever she is, is American. Her calm, reassuring voice, with its vaguely Midwestern accent, laps over him. Now, Nick can feel the knot of tension he’s been carrying this whole trip begin to come undone. He is not entirely alone; there is another American on this train.
“If this is your stop, please be careful when exiting the train. Please, make sure to collect all personal belongings. If this is not your stop, please do not leave the train, as we will be departing shortly.”
The crowd on the platform surges and eddies, as passengers get on, others get off, and platform hawkers try to sell indiscriminately, to either. Old women shove and elbow for position. Parents and grandparents anxiously orbit a stumpy-legged child, like fussy satellites around a dwarf star. Young peasants tote bags of rice or lychee nuts that seem to weigh more than them. Nick is mesmerized. He wonders what this intricate and complex dance might look like from above. He imagines patterns being formed, some secret message being written out, and wishes he could read Chinese characters.
“Thank you for traveling with China-Star Railways,” the voice over the loudspeaker finishes.
Language is important, thinks Nick, as the engine shudders into life again, and the train lurches forward. Having a shared frame of reference is important. He wishes he could talk to the owner of that mysterious voice. He would ask her where she’s from, and how long she’s been in China. He would ask whether she thought it was possible for a foreigner to live here long enough, and learn the language well enough, that he assimilate into the local life. Or will the Chinese always see him as at best, a curiosity or at worst. an interloper? He would admit his many fears—that he’ll never master Mandarin; that he might not be as open-minded and adventurous as he’d always thought he was; that there’s no way he, Lauren, and Charlie in the same city will end well, and that he’s an idiot to even try. He would confess how lonely these last six months have been.
The rhythm of the engine and the sleepy, golden light of late afternoon lull Nick into a pleasant languor. His daydream steadily expands, like a gas bubble, until it fills the whole compartment. And he can think of nothing else. He wonders how old this American girl might be. He wonders what she looks like.
He needs to find her, he suddenly decides. She’s the only one on this train who could possibly understand. He’ll scour the whole train, if he has to. Yes. He’ll go now. Yes.
Nick turns, to ask Jeffrey to let him out. He must have moved too fast, because the world gives an almighty lurch and his vision shatters into kaleidoscopic shards of color and light. He swoons and slumps back down, against the window; pressing his throbbing eyes shut. Ok. He’ll just rest a minute. And then he’ll go.
After a moment, he opens his eyes again. The scene outside the window shimmers. It bends like a mirage. That’s ok. He knows the pattern, after all. It goes hills, then fields, then roads, then villages. Hills and then fields. Then…
The roof pops off of their compartment and the sky pours in.