Written by Ellen Dowling
The day after Christmas, 2007, my husband Don and our Chinese friend “Elizabeth” (real name Xiaofang), set out from Shanghai to take a train to the city of Suzhou, where we were to meet up with friends of Elizabeth. It should have been an easy trip, but things swiftly went awry, and I suddenly knew what it meant to be a stranger in a strange land.
I was in China for the third time since 2006, when I first arrived in Beijing as a visiting professor in Beijing University’s international MBA program. My husband had visited me there the previous year, and at that time we went to Xi’an over Christmas to see the amazing Terracotta Warriors. On that trip and the Shanghai/Suzhou trip, we had been accompanied by lovely Elizabeth, a native Beijinger whom I had met through a mutual friend. Here we are toasting Christmas Eve in Shanghai.
Our transportation problems began when we took a taxi from our hotel in Shanghai to the train station and the stupid cab driver (according to Elizabeth, who was quite peeved) took us to the WRONG train station. (Seems there are two stations in Shanghai, on different sides of town.) Elizabeth assured us that it would be quicker and easier to just take the subway to the other train station, instead of a cab, even though Don and I were each carrying bags that were quite heavy.
The subway was MOBBED with people (“TOO MANY PEOPLE IN CHINA!” the constant refrain goes) and we were squashed inside with no air conditioning and poor Don was sweating and looked like he might pass out and we were reminded of why we usually preferred to take a taxi, however misguided the driver might be. But we survived the trip (“We saved two yuan by taking the subway!” Elizabeth crowed) and got on board a new (and very fast) train to Suzhou, a little less than an hour northwest of Shanghai. We relaxed, we kicked back, and I watched the scenery going by (all farmlands and shacks, green fields and vegetables, and terrible, terrible poverty on display).
When the train arrived at Suzhou, people rushed to get off. Everyone but Don and I, that is, as we assumed that there would be time to pack up our stuff and detrain in a leisurely manner, as one would do in the US. But of course we were NOT in the US and the Chinese do not go anywhere in a leisurely manner and indeed Elizabeth was already off the train, while I was struggling behind Don to get my stuff together and make my way out.
We got to the door of the train car, Don stepped off the train onto the platform, I came around the corner behind him and stepped up to the door . . .
And it closed in my face.
And I was shocked, because I assumed that it would open again if I just stepped up to it.
Nothing doing. The door stayed shut. I could see Elizabeth through the door’s window, yelling, “ELLEN!”
And then the train started to move. AHHHHH! “No! No! Stop the train! I have to get off the train!” I yelled as I frantically looked for some sort of emergency button I could push that would stop the train. Nothing to be found. AHHHHHHH! What was I going to do?
The train picked up speed and hurtled off to Changzhou, the next town.
I panicked. “DOES ANYONE HERE SPEAK ENGLISH?!?!?!?” I yelled at the top of my lungs, and lo and behold a savior appeared, in the form of a lovely young Chinese woman who said, “I can speak some English. How can I help you?”
My savior, “Sue” (as I found out later) escorted me to the official train lady, who was dressed in a sort of faux military uniform and looked very officious with her hair neatly tucked into a tidy snood. The train lady asked for my passport and ticket, and filled out some detailed form in duplicate as I chatted with Sue. (“Oh, you are a Professor at Beijing University? I am going to BeiDa myself in a week. May I contact you there?” “Well, of course!”) Then I asked Sue to call Elizabeth so that she would know I was going to try to get OFF the train in Changzhou (only 20 minutes away) and get on the next return train back to Suzhou and please wait for me at the station there.
Sue the Savior then went back to her seat as the train lady said to me, in English, “Please stay here. I will take care of you.” Yes, ma’am.
As we pulled into Changzhou, the train lady motioned me to come to the door (SO I WILL SURELY GET OFF THE TRAIN THIS TIME), and said to me as we’re waiting, “You only have two minutes to get off the train, you know.” I replied, “Well, I certainly know it NOW!”
I stepped off the train and was immediately met by a male train official (conductor? security guard? Who can tell, it was a young guy in a uniform) who took the copy of the form from the train lady, looked at me, and said, “Follow me!” which I of course did. He took me into the train station waiting room and handed me over to the train agent woman working there and somehow she communicated to me that I was to stay there till the next train back to Suzhou arrived. I sat.
I figured out that I had about a half-hour wait, and sure enough, after 30 minutes another train pulled up heading in the direction of Suzhou, and the female train agent waved to me and somehow managed to make it clear that I was to go to Platform 5 to wait for the train. When I got there I was met by yet ANOTHER young man in a uniform, who again said, “Follow me!” and led me to a place to wait for the train, which arrived, and I got on.
This time I sat in a front seat right by the door. I was determined to be the FIRST OFF the train in Suzhou!
Twenty minutes later (more green fields and decrepit shacks blurring by out the window), the train stopped in Suzhou. I got off, followed the crowd to the exit, came out of the train terminal (it was a nice sunny day), and squinted around the huge crowd, looking for Don’s big western face and Elizabeth’s long mauve coat.
No one was there to meet me. I was, apparently, still lost.
OK, maybe they had to leave to get something to eat or something, I thought, starting to panic again. Or maybe they were walking around while they waited. Surely they were able to find out when the train back from Changzhou would arrive? Surely? Where were they?
Thirty minutes went by and I was feeling very bereft and abandoned and sorry for myself and stressed and maybe I was going to start crying, and then I realized I had to do SOMETHING. So I turned to another lovely young Chinese woman and said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” “Yes, I speak a little,” she replied.
Ha! Saved again! I asked her to call Elizabeth’s cell phone, which she did, and after much back and forth in Chinese, she said to me, “They are coming for you.” Merciful heavens! Then there they were, Don’s face and Elizabeth’s coat, and I was truly saved (although I still wanted to cry). I came to find out that right after I was spirited away by the train to Changzhou, Don and Elizabeth made their way to the customer service office at the train station where (as Don told me later) Elizabeth raised holy heck with the officials, something along the lines of “How could you let this happen to a DISTINGUISHED PROFESSOR AT BEIJING UNIVERSITY?????” I also found out that the Chinese information network had indeed put out an All Points Bulletin on me and that is how all the uniformed train people knew how to get me from one station back to the other. But there was a comical break in the communication pipeline—the officials at the customer service center assured Don and Elizabeth that there would be someone official to meet me at the train when I got back from Suzhou and escort me directly to the customer service office, so Don and Elizabeth should wait there for me. Then when they saw that my train had come and gone, and no me in sight, they raised more heck with the customer service officials who told them, “She didn’t get off the train in Suzhou. She is now in Shanghai.”
Well, you can just imagine what Don and Elizabeth thought when they heard that, but just as they were trying to decide what to do next, Elizabeth’s cell phone rang and my second savior told them that I was indeed in Suzhou, waiting by the exit. (Don told me later that Elizabeth really lost it then; those customer service officials’ ears are probably still ringing.)
Since this incident, I’ve had many more adventures in the Middle Kingdom (I’ve been teaching in Beijing for a month every year since 2006), and in almost every case, I’ve been helped and supported and saved by the kindness of so many of China’s lovely people. All of my experiences have created in me a desire to be able to communicate with them in their own language (and speak enough Chinese to save myself if I ever fail to get off a train in time again). For the past one and a half years, I have been studying Chinese with a teacher who is originally from Suzhou. (What a coincidence!) It’s slow going, as I have to learn so many things at once—what the character is (my teacher insists I learn both traditional and simplified characters), what the pinyin is, and what tone to use for each. All of this is quite a challenge for my (ahem) elderly brain. But I am determined to persevere, and with the help of online resources such as Written Chinese, I know that someday I will reach my goal to be able to speak like a three-year-old Chinese child.
Even a three-year-old child should be able to say, “Stop the train!”
Written Chinese would like to thank Ellen for her wonderful story!
Ellen has been a visiting professor to BeiDa University in Beijing for the past 9 years and is continuing with her Chinese learning!