Friday, April 27, 2007

Southern Comfort

Out the window there’s nothing but the green drooping shadow of the hills that surround the college – no neon signs, screeching horns, or artillery-style fireworks. Most mornings, there’s just the sound of birds twittering in among the green. This morning the kindergarten behind the building is blasting happy music. Even at its insane volume, there’s something comforting about it: the fact that its main purpose is to entertain four-year olds seems to give it a pass on the annoyance chart.

It’s good to be back at my Chinese laojia, my hometown: Shantou University, just outside the city of Shantou, which lies near the top of the southernmost Chinese province, Guangdong.

As a city and a place, it’s an unusual one. It’s one of China’s five special economic zones, the cities opened up in the 1970s to foreign-style trade and investment. But it’s never been anything but dead last among the five cities: local corruption abounds. Another obstacle to development is language: the people here speak what essentially is the Basque language of China. Even Chinese people who are not familiar with the region don’t recognize Chaoshanhua as a Chinese dialect, thinking that its speakers must be from some other Asian country. There’s a kind of sleepy slowness to the city, the area, and the university itself. The kind that make you think that rapid development might just never catch on here.

There have been encouraging signs, however. A few days ago, a massive event for development was held at the Shantou port. The Same Song tour, featuring mainly Hong Kong and Taiwanese stars of the highest level, got packed in with the event, and Shantou was suddenly beamed into millions of Chinese homes. The concert was followed a day later by a fireworks show that reportedly cost in the millions of US dollars.

And the university is making the kind of progress that makes you believe in big quick evolutionary jumps. For much of the time I was here – three years in all – little seemed to happen. Now, in the space of six months, we have facilities heretofore unimaginable: a Mac lab, 40 new computers, an entire expanded wing.

But the best kind of progress comes in the form of human development. Even though I’ve only been gone for five or six months, running into the students I taught sort of makes me feel like Gene Simmons at a Kiss reunion concert; I am that adored rock star. I can understand the best moments of what it might be like to be a parent at these times. One guy, a senior I’d had since he was freshmen, simply came up to me and wrapped his arms around me in the most natural of bear hugs; the only thing odd about it was that it’s not something people really do here. “We’re lucky to have had you for so long,” he said.

In this humid southern climate that reminds me so much of my other home, Florida, on the far side of the world, there creeps in the inevitable sense of change,of it being time to go. I may end up back here for one more school year, but that will surely be my last. And then I’ll drive out the school gates for the last time, four or five years from the day I drove in, and my green-draped southern Chinese university will fold itself up in my mind into the hazy dream-like quality of memory.

Photo by Liang Qing

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Night Train

It's a sea of people. Black-haired heads bob. A shuffling mass. We move a step every ten seconds. Literally. Enormous and oddly-configured luggage bumps along and pushes against us, and I push back; my rucksack is nearly as big a person. When we finally make it through the narrow iron guantlet where human swell bottlenecks and the guards take the ticket, I tell her: "Well, however bad it is, it'll be better than that." She just smiles that sweet smile.

Hard sleeper, Beijing to Guangzhou, six bunks, 21 hours, and four provinces. The distance of New York to Florida for 450 kuai, about 50 US dollars.

It's an auspicious beginning. We've got the bottom bunks, best seats in the room. The room is clean. Our neighbors arrive as the train readies to pull out; it's hard to tell how many there are, as they seem to occupy the surrounding rooms as well. It seems to be a thirty-something daughter, and several aged, stooped men. There's also an older woman, who's every statement is at the pitch and tone of someone who's undergoing real-time robbery. They all wear the matching red baseball caps of a package tour.

We're lying on our bunks and smile and say hello and nod as they arrive. One of the older men goes for his bunk, the middle one across from me. Two metal footholds jut out from the wall, and the old man hoists himself up on one, then extends the other foot across slowly to the other, so that he's spread-eagled in front of the open door...and then he freezes. I'm watching with alarm. He remains there for what seems an interminable length of time as his wife and daughter shout at him. He creaks his way back down.

I make eye contact with the daughter. "It doesn't seem very convenient. Maybe I can switch with him?" I say. Nearly as soon as I say it, I realize I'll probably regret it, and Moon, my girlfriend, starts to raise a note of protest. But the family is already profusely grateful and I'm already moving. The old man settles down into an unrelaxed-looking crunch on the clean matress.

They are from Hunan province, on their way home. They speak a Hunanese dialect that for all itents and purposes is a new and undiscovered language; every time they say something, I mouth to Moon whether she understands and she shakes her head. When they switch to Mandarin, it isn't much better; the influence of their first tongue on the lingua franca of this nation is so great that it's nearly unintelligible. Nearly everything they say, I have to get a translation into standard Chinese from Moon.

I learn something fascinating from their bad Chinese; one of the old men is grilling me later on, and keeps saying "Bay-Ging" "Bay-Ging". Even though it's wrong, I get it immediately: Beijing. And I find out the origin of the old Westernized spelling: Peking.

It's a sleepless night. The second old man, who has the black flat-top haircut of an old school Chinese leader, snores mightly. The old woman begins a discussion with the husband on the bottom bunk, who is sharing the bunk with the daughter. The discussion goes on and off intermittently from 5 am, at ear-shattering volume. Every time they start to speak, I go "Shhhhshshhhhh!" It has no effect. Sometime well after dawn, I drift off.

Groggy awakenings to the thrum of the cars on the rails. The Hunanese family is shouting over a breakfast of peanuts and fruit. As soon as I leave the bunk, it apparently means I'm ready for conversation. My salary in Beijing? My job? Am I Chinese citizen? I'm confused by this one - I've already told the old man that I'm American. Yes, but you've been here so long. Will you live here yi beizi, your whole life? Of course, I say, looking at Moon, my girlfriend is Chinese. Moon scoffs. I extricate myself from the interrogation and head for the toilet. It's too early for these questions.

Around mid-morning the family disembarks at Chenzhou. They are profusely grateful and charming. We exchange warm goodbyes. The car becomes silent as more and more people leave. Out the window, rolling landscapes of old brick and mud houses unfold, shrouded in low-lying clouds and wet air. Strange pinnacle-shaped mountains dot the views. We sit by the window and watch for a while, then eat instant noodles and fall asleep again.

The train arrives in Guangzhou at three pm. Suddenly we are thrust into the madding crowd again. Thousands of people are following an underground corridor for connections. We finally come up into a massive city square. It starts to rain, a wet hot rain. I have far too much to carry and Moon and I get irritated with each other. We make it into the bus station, nearly soaked. The bus is leaving immediately. We rush for the right door, and a bored middle-aged female guard calls us back to x-ray our luggage. We throw it through the machine, and finally find the right bus.

Moments later, we're on it and it pulls out nearly as soon as we sit down. We still have seven hours to go.