Sunday, July 30, 2017

Bound for Jinan

I’d planned to visit Jinan last weekend, but less than a week before my scheduled departure, my friend Ping sent an email saying it was not possible.  She teaches at what we would call a junior college, Shandong Institute of Commerce and Technology. The honchos had suddenly scheduled a weekend long meeting. Precipitous changes in plans occur all the time in China. I never get used to it.
I was days away from departure for the US, I’d have to go right away if I was to see my friend. Zhang Dianyu (Daniel), my friend, host and colleague had held off purchasing tickets.  I would have bought them several weeks earlier and might not have gotten a refund when I had to change dates.  Daniel’s a full professor with a US doctoral degree and very well traveled. Daniel knows know China.
For short trips like this one, I get by with a purse and a backpack.  I also carried a shopping bag full of provisions—peaches, tiny tomatoes, water and liquid yogurt. Railroad food is expensive and not very .
I live at the Jinjang Inn, perhaps a mile from the Weihai North Station. My train would leave at 10:20. At 9:20, Daniel arrived. 
“Plenty of time,” said my friend. The station is not very far.”
To me, this sounded like cutting it close, but Daniel would know.
The Chinese rail stations don’t use E-tickets yet, and the ticket lobby was crowded. It’s vacation season. Normally, Daniel uses ticket machines, but an agent had to look at my passport.  Daniel  told me to rest at the back of the room. The Chinese are constantly telling older people to rest.  People crowded before a glass window and T-shirted children ran in and out of line, playing with pinwheels and plastic swords. After ten minutes, Daniel got to the front.
 My friend returned and said we would have to wait in a different line as my situation was considered a problem.  There was no record of Daniel’s purchase of tickets which had been done on computer. We joined a slow parade of disgruntled passengers. The official settled some issues quickly. But other people spent five minutes at the window shuffling papers and shouting, while the agent shouted at them.   Then two women, who may have been running a business, tied up the line buying multiple tickets. In China, records are kept about where people go. For each ticket purchased, these buyers completed a form, then presented a government ID. The agent scrutinized these items and a little machine spat out a ticket. Then the process began again. By now, it was nearly ten, and I was becoming frantic.
A woman in golden flipflops and a T-shirt studded with rhinestones now shoved in front of us. In Chinese, Daniel shouted she could not do this, and I, a native New Yorker, tried to assist him by shouting at her as well.

“Don’t you dare cut in line! We’re all in a hurry.”  
The woman tried to move past me and put her hand on my shoulder. I found infuriating--

 I don’t like for strangers to touch me.
“And take your hands off me!”
 I was embarrassing Daniel, so I stopped talking. But I turned my head to the side and glared at the woman as I had unruly students when I taught Junior high school. The woman backed off, though it was clear she would spring in front of anybody who’d let her.
It was three past ten when we got to the window.  Only seventeen minutes before I boarded my train.  Daniel produced our transaction number, the agent looked at my passport, and the tiny machine spat round trip tickets for me. My hands were shaking as they often do when I’m stressed. I hoped my friend did not see.
We made for the waiting room where passengers were lining up for the bullet train. Still shaking,  I showed an attendant my passport; dropped my backpack, my purse, and the shopping bag full of provisions on the conveyer belt; and mounted a platform  to be frisked by security. Perhaps because I am old, white and speak very little Chinese, an officer let Daniel into the waiting room with me. We found my line and I slid my ticket into the kiosk. Since I was at the back of the line, no one was pushing me as sometime happens, and it was easy to get down the escalator.
The train wasn’t in yet, but people were lining up for the various cars. I’d been assigned to Car 2. I asked an agent where the line for my car was: “Qing wen, er che zai nar”? 
When he pointed to the right, I walked a short distance down the platform. Soon, the pointy nosed bullet train was speeding past me.  I’d been directed to the end of the train.  Had the agent not understood me.  Or did he dislike Americans?
Neither.  The Chinese number their trains from the rear. 
Shortly after I boarded, Daniel texted me, asking if I was all right.  Maybe he noticed how I’d been shaking. He worries about my ability to navigate China. Truth is, I don’t negotiate China as he does.  Like many Chinese, Daniel does things precisely and quickly, his habitual attentiveness to detail enabling him to speed up if need be. If problems occur, he confers, bargains and afterwards moves on decisively. In this country, things change quickly, sometimes with little notice.
I, on the other hand, constantly plan. I never like working too close to deadlines. I get to airports two hours early, allowing even more time for international flights. I don’t mind the wait—I read. Usually, I’m at school an hour before I teach.  I ignore it when people say I’m obsessive-compulsive.
“Well, you got on the train,” Daniel said later on.  “I did not think there would be any problem.  There was still time.”
Daniel knows China.       

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