Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Train Talk

During the 3-day Dragon Boat Festival, I meandered down to sunny Xiamen. I got sunburned, I got tattooed, I had beer spilled on me on the train, and I partied with football-crazed Swedes. Everything necessary for a great holiday weekend. I'll be moving to Xiamen permanently in a few weeks to begin teaching at a university there. 'Twill be sweet.

Call me crazy, but I prefer seats to beds on train trips. The beds are boring if you're traveling alone and even though the seats are less comfortable, it at least lets you watch people. Of course the seating cars are more messy and more noisy but I can sleep anywhere anytime, so even if I'm not tired, I just doze off for half an hour at a time.

However, the most annoying aspect of the seating cars are the migrant workers who spot the foreigner and their eyes light up like a kid's on Christmas. Here's some entertainment to relieve the monotony of Chinese train travel.

No disrespect, but the migrant workers are usually from the countryside and their public manners can be a bit lacking. When they see you, they will loudly point out that you're a foreigner (happens virtually everywhere in China) but they will continue talking about you, wondering where you're from, what you're doing in China, etc. The other passengers around them will join in the gawking and speculation, which can sometimes be quite comical. This weekend a group of men surrounding me were debating if I'm from Xinjiang or Russia (Xingjiang? For real?).

Now when this town hall meeting is going on, they will constantly be looking up at you. Unless you want to get tossed to the lions, do not make eye contact with them while they are talking about you. If you do, their faces will light up and one will call out excitedly, “听懂吗?“ You now have two choices: you can say yes and be subjected to an intense grilling with all of the questions that foreigners are exhausted with answering- "Where are you from?" "Do you like Chinese food?" "How long are you in China?" If your Chinese is good, the conversation will snowball and you will get bombarded by eager passengers who want to marvel at the speaking foreigner with increasingly complex and often personal questions- "How would you compare China and *your country*?" "How much money do you make?" "How many Chinese girls have you slept with?" If your Chinese is not too good, you will feel like you're taking a Chinese exam and the pressure to answer their questions can become aggravating.

Or you can lie and say that you don't understand and proceed to flip through songs on your MP3 player, and they will quickly lose interest. Of course, you lose an opportunity to make yourself and foreigners in general look good, but for me, it's usually not worth it. I enjoy speaking Chinese to people on the train who want to have a genuine conversation, and they are usually families and students. But if it's amusement they're looking for, I'm happy to be disappointing entertainment.

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