March 2014, Hankou train station and my wife’s had enough.
“Tamen dou mei suzi de ren.”
The crowds rushing past us, the unhelpful train station workers, four suitcases and a fussy one-year old. First day here and she’s already hit a China Breaking Point.
Tamen dou mei suzi de ren. One of the rushing passengers bumps into our suitcase.
It falls over.
How do you convey this to the people back home? How do you make them understand what it’s like to haul your four suitcases up the stairs after the guard tells you the elevator’s out, and then watch that same guard open the elevator for someone else, quickly locking it again?
How do you do it?
How do you explain what it’s like to get on the train and find people in your seats? Then these people argue with you and you have to get a stewardess to make them move and they argue with her too.
How do you do it?
If you can explain all that, then you can understand what it’s like to stand there atop the stairs as the crowd surges around us. As not one person bothers to stop and help, as the guards just watch us and the train whistle blows again. Hurry up.
If you can, you’ll understand why my wife said “Tamen dou mei suzi de ren.” When it comes to a China Breaking Point, it’s actually rather tame.
It was my first time in China in three years. Going in, I tried to be realistic. I tried, because three years does funny things to the brain. It makes the brain think that the every man for himself mentality is not a big deal. Hell, it’s part of the culture, it’s a quirk. It makes you romanticize the days when you had no money, weighed over 200 pounds and subsisted on a diet of beer and hot dry noodles. It makes you long for the taste of baijiu — fucking baijiu! And not the well-brewed kind but the tiny 5 RMB bottles, one of the many perks of your “high” ESL salary. It doesn’t make you realistic. So I prepared myself.
But preparation only takes you so far.
We make it to my wife’s hometown. We’re heading out of the train station. As we close in on the exit, a guy behind us starts to speed up. He and my wife hit the door at the same time, and he goes faster. While there’s plenty of room on the right, he has the warrior’s instinct: he knows the slit between my wife’s shoulder and the wall will be quicker.
He squeezes through. The checkered flag drops.
Still, I’d say I’m better equipped than most. Check out the airplanes. Taxi’ing in, seatbelt sign on? What seatbelt sign? One guy actually made it all the way to the front with his luggage before we’d come to a complete stop. That’s more than skill — that’s an inbuilt instinct, the difference between waiting at the front or waiting close to the front.
The difference between life or death.
Not everyone sees it my way. When we landed in Chicago,, a man cut off this old lady, nearly whacking her with his suitcase. She glared at him.
Then she gave me this look. The look of someone who’s on her first (and only) trip to China. The man didn’t react. I could tell her he can’t understand “Excuse you”, but I don’t think she knows how to say it in Chinese.
And besides, she’s nowhere near a “mei suzi” moment.