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April 02, 2007

Lost...Then Found in China's Multitudes

My Beijing-bound train

Day 25: We aren't more than a few minutes out of Hong Kong's Hong Hum train station when the music starts. Hey, it's that Billy Joel song, I think to myself and begin to hum along to "My Life," which is being sung in Mandarin. At the chorus, however, the song takes a turn towards the uplifting and majestic, as though it was written to inspire brigades of fresh troops, and I'm left wondering if someone should tell Billy Joel, but then imagine how a phone call between Billy Joel and the Chinese train authority would go. Plus, it's unwise to make assumptions of guilt. This is a culture that's 5,000 years old. They invented gun powder, they invented paper, they invented the compass, and, I presume, chop sticks. They've come up with a melody or two in that time.

Home for the next 24 hours

The music plays, then stops, then plays again, as though a married couple is disagreeing over whether the stereo should be off or on. The selection sounds like Chinese equivalent of easy listening. I am grateful that it's not Chinese equivalent of smooth jazz, because the train doesn't arrive in Beijing for another 24 hours. My compartment is a little dirty--it would be deeply satisfying to run a vacuum cleaner over such a dusty carpet--and the linen thrown over the little table is stained and covered in crumbs. Someone has put a little plant next to the window, though, and there's a thermos of hot water, too, but I have no tea bags.

Almost immediately, we are in Mainland China and the view out the train oscillates between the gargantuan industrial and yet-more gargantuan residential. Factories here are menacing and cold. Buildings crop up in swaths of sky-scraping forest. Some are made out of glass and look as though they still have that new building smell.  Some have a black banner draped down the side with a phone number in gold writing. Others are ratty with stained, decaying stucco and air conditioning units bolted up the side and balconies crowded with hanging laundry. As buildings go, they look like they haven't had a good meal in weeks.

Apartment blocks exist in rows sometimes ten long and ten deep. Cluster after cluster of buildings, filled with units, filled with people. For hours, it is like passing through one nameless stretch of dense suburb.

Working on the railroad

There are workers repairing to the railroad tracks. They wear the wide-brimmed straw hats that in the West are associated with Vietnamese rice paddies. The workers move in teams. You will see a group of four--every one of them lean, their clothes draping off them--carrying concrete railway ties that look impossibly heavy. They use bamboo poles with ropes strung between them like yokes and stand two to a side, looping the rope underneath the tie, spaning the bamboo across two pairs of shoulders and then hoisting. Other workers are hacking at the earth with pick axes. Some of them look old enough to be grandfathers.

This is work that machines would do at home, machines operated by men who make $40/hour and time their coffee breaks to the minute. The cheapness of the labor here is palpable.
We pass a field of rice paddies. It appears even more sodden and fertile in real life than rice paddies do on TV. Then a golf course, where a man in blue pants is teeing off. The roads are crowded with trucks, SUVs, and cars, buses, and the odd bicycle. There is a three-wheeled pickup truck pulling out of a gas station with a load of rubbish cartoonishly tall and rickety. Later, we pass a graveyard, with monuments so ornate that as to make death seem not so much depressing as in poor taste. After the graveyard, a huge oil refinery--pipelines, drums, stacks that belch live flame--surrounded by the small city that runs it.
A pleasant factory

Finally, after three hours, the land transitions to what you might call pastoral-industrial. There are fields of crops, though much smaller than the fields on I-80, and in unsymmetrical shapes. It is not combines that tend these fields but men and women carrying hoes and shovels. The crops are interrupted by factories of various sorts. You see big heaps of coal, one next to another. And then it's back to crops. At no point do we pass anything resembling wilderness.

The humanity does not stop. Factories. Apartment blocks. Sheds. Refineries. Apartment blocks. Junk heaps. Roads. Apartment blocks. There is never nothing.

This is the new cliche of China. Big China. And it scares people, the inhumanity of all that humanity. The people here exist in numbers that can barely be comprehended, even in the abstract. One-point-three- billion. They seem like specks. We feed ourselves stories about the bigness of China, the land where the largest city has 30 million inhabitants and a small out-of-the-way place that no one pays much attention to has six million, where the economy is doubling itself like bacteria in warm water, and where the lives of men, women and children are swept up and transformed by the behemoth that is its industrial complex.

Going by appearances, it all looks to be true. The railroad work is so menial that I wonder if the men hoisting ties and swinging pick axes are convicts. We pass yet another apartment block and I fix my stare on a balcony with sheets hanging on a clothes line. For an instant, it is my home. And during that instant, I am gripped by fear and a kind loneliness. The thought of being a face in this endless crowd scares me. 

Building tomorrow

Then night falls and the land finally starts to look like land. The fields get bigger. We pass dirt roads and green rivers with old men fishing on the bank. There are houses now, in clusters of three of four, sitting next to the fields. The lights are on. I look in a window and see a bare wall, a chest of drawers. As the scene zooms by, it turns into a story: It is past dinner. The children are in bed, the adults are talking about the week that was. The houses pass by, like blinking faces in the night.

I'm struck by a thought. The continent I live on has more than 300 million people. Less than half the number of Chinese, true, but every bit as inconceivable as 1.3 billion. And yet I am perfectly secure on my continent; I don't get seized by ennui every time I pass by apartment buildings. My world, I realize, is a little world, filled with a few thousand people, at most--the people I know, and the people on TV, who I think I know. The Chinese, it occurs to me, are not lost in their own multitudes. I am.

Later on, I get up and walk to the dining car for a bite to eat. There is a family next to me. A boy, about 11-years-old--one of millions of 11-year-old Chinese boys--is thrusting a piece of paper in his mother's face and saying something over and over again, trying to get her attention. She waves him away, mildly annoyed, and continues talking to the woman across from her. The boy glances over at me, bored. I wink at him. For a second, I am in his word, and he is in mine. This time, it doesn't feel scary at all.


I really enjoy reading your blog and keeping track of where you're going and your wonderful adventure with your family! I have two children and know how you felt when your wife and Greta left (she's an adorable bunny!). Small correction and historical footnote for your Editor: They're rice paddies, not patties and the hats were known in the West as "coolie" hats because the Chinese working on the railroads from CA to the East wore them in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was a perjorative that morphed into common usage. End of "lecture!" Can't wait to read more - your blog has become my favorite vice at work! :-)

Wow - this is your best post in a while. Thanks for taking the time to describe the lay of the land and the culture you're seeing - that's a lot more interesting than what you're eating.

Absolutely can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip! Good luck!


I have been reading your blog since the beginning, and enjoy the dry, sardonic wit. A tip for your travels: in Beijing, you must find the best Duck restaruant in the City, called Li Qun. I was there in 2005, and it is in a shanty town merely blocks from Tiananmen Square, and it will be, without a doubt, the best Duck you will have in your life! Don't be too afraid in the twists and turns to find the restaurant, it will be well worth it, I promise you.

Bon Voyage!

This post is your best so far; keep it coming. Also, nice pics.

The hot water thermos thing is all over China. You bring your own tea leaves or drink it straight. You don't see Chinese people drinking cold water a lot of carrying water around with them. It's usually hot tea or just hot water. Maybe they do it because their water sanitation sytem is not that great.

Anyways, good piece today. I hate to say it but a little bit of sadness from leaving your family does add depth to your writing.

Thanks for the great description of China. Too bad your bag wasn't big enough to pack your Dyson for the train.

Very interesting article. I'd love to travel to China some day and go sightseeing again. It's been more than 20 years since I was there as an exchange student. Perhaps next year! Keeneng woo kee.yii shuo: "...ming.nian tzay Jong.gwo." (Of course, I do know that plenty of people right now must also be saying, "...ming.nian tzay Meei.gwo.")

I'm glad you're keeping an open mind, that's the key in China. I've been here 16 months, travelled to many places. Wait until you get off the mainline and head out to the country!

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