China, Liam

Liam Volunteered as an English Teacher in China

Liam was the winner of our 2014/2015 Blog Competition

Train car 3, seat 100. I look up from my ticket for what might be the dozenth time, half sprinting along the train tracks towards my train-car. I’m kind of late, but mostly just excited to be out of Beijing. Nice city, but I’ve always been more of a country-side kind of guy. The sharply dressed train attendant glances at my outstretched ticket then curtly waves me aboard. I struggle down the crowded corridor, my heavily over packed orange hiking pack bouncing into my fellow passengers. In any other place I’d be apologizing profusely, but this is China and a few thrown elbows mean nothing. I find my seat(which is a window seat, score!) but notice that the luggage rack is nearly full leaving no room for my colossal pack. I stare for a few moments, before I’m approached by three or four young men who offer their assistance in pretty admirable English. They proceed to tackle the situation mathematically and with a cold calculating manner, like a team of engineers. Later conversation reveals they actually are engineering students on their way home to Xi’an for summer break. I thank them and take my seat in the poorly padded chair, nesting in for the next 12 hours.

Yup, 12 hours in a hard seat, that’s what you get when you take the T train, the slowest yet cheapest train choice. I sit for a few moments looking out the window, you know, thinking real deep thoughts and such. I reflect on the last train I had been on, 8 days before. The train from Kunming, all the way down in the south up to Beijing. 33 hours cross-country in a hard seat with nothing but donuts, Chinese made Swiss rolls, and about three litres of ice tea. Really didn’t think that one through. I remember the bittersweet feel of leaving Yunnan province, the place that I had come to think of as home-base for the past few months. A mix of nerves, sadness, an excitement. It was going to be my first time on a train! 33 hours, 5 donuts and about 50 Swiss rolls later I was kind of over that initial excitement. This second time though, I was better prepared. You see, I also brought water.

I’m pulled from my reminiscing when I’m joined by a young man who takes his seat opposite of me. He looks nervously at me, as most young Chinese people do when they’re trying to work up the courage to try their English. I decide to break the ice, may as well if we’ll be stuck together for the next 20 hours or so. I greet him with a “Ni Hao Ma?”. He breaks into a grin, responding with an enthusiastic “Hao”.

“My English is not very good” he says to me.

“Better than my Chinese” I respond.

The train shudders and begins to roll. Me and my new travel buddy start to talk, and an hour later we’re pretty much best friends.  He tells me about his studies in the north of China, I tell him about life back home in Canada. He shares some “traditional Chinese sweets”, which look and taste exactly like taffy. Almost like it was Taffy. The engineering students a few seats over dish out some sunflower seeds, and I gratefully take some. I look up and down the train, taking in the scene.

China has always reminded me of a giant anthill, thousands of people scurrying around all completely set on their task ahead. Controlled chaos, and this train is no exception. The seats are all full, but no one told the ticket sellers I guess because there are dozens of people chilling out in the aisle. Food and drink is being passed around, packs of produce thrown down with burlap sacks containing possessions,  rugged looking farmers mingling with fancy dressed business folks. There’s a sign that says NO SMOKING, people have interpreted it as NO SMOKING IN YOUR SEATS and so are standing in front of the exit door by the bathroom, sharing cigarettes amongst each other and laughing at jokes. A train official is trying to push his way down the aisle with a trolley full of goods: apples, bananas, mangos, water, beer, whiskey, you know, the essentials.

My eye is drawn to an old man, who must have been pushing 200 years old. He sat casually in his seat in a blue suit, a dusty old field hat on his head, leaning slightly forward on his gold cane. He pulls a flask from his suit, sees a young lad of about 4 years of age looking at it and offers it to him. The young boy shakes his head, the old man laughs and takes a good 5-second draw from the flask before lighting a cigarette, because to hell with the rules right?

It’s complete anarchy. I love it.

As the dystopian looking outskirts of Beijing begin to fade, and are replaced by smog laden hills I can tell my travel buddy is working towards asking a question. He finally gathers the courage and says: “Can I ask you a question? I hope it will not offend you…”

I say “Sure man, go ahead.”

“I’ve seen many foreigners take this train, but I cannot remember ever seeing one sit in here. Usually they get a bed for the trip. so, why are you in here?”

I laughed a little, and responded simply: “Tài guìle”. Too expensive.

He laughed, some folks who were eavesdroppers laughed. Yeah, It was a whole lot cheaper to sit through 20 hours in a rigid chair, sleeping while sitting up and surrounded by the general noise of a hundred Chinese travelers. That’s not to say China wasn’t already cheap, but I saved every penny to get where I was, and was reluctant to spend more than was necessary. The more deals I made, the more bargains I struck, the more of this crazy country I could see.

This train ride, was one of many journeys I had in China. One of many adventures, many tales, many laughs, many trials and triumphs. Sure, I could say it was all purely financial, buying that cheap ticket on the T train. But if I were to be dropped back in that moment with a million dollars, I would have still paid for that crappy little spot on that crowded train in those rolling Chinese hills. Because the experience, the people, the stories, they’re all completely priceless.