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Yang-Yang Dispatch

All Aboard for the Orient Express! Next Stop... Canton
July 1, 2000

"33 hours! Are you sure that the book says 33 hours?" I asked Jasmine in disbelief.

"That's right. Our guidebook says the train ride to Guangzhou will take us 33 hours."

As excited as I was about my first long-distance train ride in China, I just couldn't imagine being confined to a small space on a train for more than an entire day. What in the world were we going to do for 33 hours? Look out the window? That would probably get boring after just a few hours! Maybe we would make new friends, but everyone had warned me about talking to strangers on Chinese trains. Maybe I would just sleep a lot and that would kill most of the time, but there was no way I could sleep for 33 hours straight. The longest I had ever been on a train before was no more than 3 hours. This trip would be 11 times what I was used to! At least Jasmine will be with me, I thought, trying to comfort myself.

As I was still mentally preparing myself for the trip, Jasmine and I set about the monumental task of buying our train tickets. I had heard so many horror stories about how difficult it can be to book train tickets in China and how poor conditions are once on the trains. Stories about long, chaotic lines at the train station, pushing and shoving as you got closer to the ticket window, and honest-looking people all over the train station trying to sell you tickets for cheaper -- some tickets were real, others, fake. I had also been warned so many times about the horrors waiting on the train -- thieves in the middle of the night, dirty compartments with uncomfortable beds and unbearable bathrooms... All sorts of nightmarish visions rushed through my head as we walked towards the train station to buy our tickets. On our way, however, we passed by street vendors selling all kinds of tasty and exotic foods. I was slightly distracted and the fear started to fade as I excitedly planned each of our meals on the train.

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Jasmine looks pensively out the window from her bed
All the horror stories I had heard about China's trains could not have been more wrong. We were able to easily buy tickets to Guangzhou for the very next day and bought what are called "hard sleeper seats." I had visions of sleeping on a bare, hard, wooden board in cramped quarters with barely any room above our heads. Instead, we got on the train to find soft, comfortable mattresses in rows of three up and down covered with Chinese-style bedding. It can get so hot here in the summertime that at night, people just cover themselves with an oversized towel. The train was extremely clean, and an attendant even came by to help me hang up my washcloth!

With our bags securely chained underneath the bunks, Jasmine settled into the bottom bunk, and I took the middle bunk, right above her head. There was plenty of room for us to sit up on her bed. We could look out the window at either side of the train, and there were even seats right in front of the window for those who wanted a better view.

In Chinese society, there are specific terms that all children must use to refer to their elders. It is considered very rude for children to call adults directly by their names. For example, a Chinese child would call an adult female a yi, which means "auntie," and an adult male shu shu, which means "uncle." Nainai and yeye are generic names used to refer to senior citizens. Even within the same generation, there are proper terms assigned for everyone. An older girl would be called jie jie or "older sister," and an older boy would be called ge ge, or "older brother." Likewise, jie jie and ge ge would call a younger girl mei mei, or "younger sister," and a younger boy di di, or "little brother." So, now that you've been fed a mouthful of new Chinese words, what would a 10-year-old boy call a 70-year-old woman's 6-year-old granddaughter?

[Meimei - because the 10-yr-old boy is older than the 6-yr-old girl.]

Sitting on the bed across from us was an elderly Chinese couple, who I was later to learn were on their way home to Guangzhou after spending a week of vacation in Kunming. Even though they weren't my real grandparents, I still called them nainai ("grandma") and yeye ("grandpa") out of respect.

Nainai was busy eating sunflower seeds and yeye was starting to doze off. Nainai had packed an assortment of yummy foods for the long train ride: brown eggs soaked in soy sauce, ramen noodles, tea in a jar, almond cookies, spiced tofu, bite-size fruit jellos, and my favorite -- lychees. As nainai reached over to offer us some snacks, her arm brushed by Jasmine's and nainai commented how her tanned Chinese skin was almost the same color as Jasmine's.

All around us on the train, there were people chatting, napping, eating, and playing cards. Chinese people love to play games on long train rides to pass the time, and card games are everyone's favorite. I was very eager to join in on the fun, so our neighbors offered to show me how to play. We piled up a couple of suitcases in between the beds and covered the top with newspapers to make a table. They showed me a popular Chinese card game with different sets of rules depending on where you're from, so we played the Guangzhou version. Even though most people on the train were from Guangzhou, where the dialect Cantonese is spoken, we all spoke in Mandarin -- the official dialect that all Chinese children learn in school -- so that everyone could understand. Everyone got so involved in the card game that in no time we were all laughing and yelling, bragging about our wins and scolding each other for playing the wrong cards. Different people took turns pairing up with me to show me how to play until I got the hang of things. Once I was on my own, everyone was impressed with my beginner's luck.

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Yang-Yang learns to play a Chinese card game on a table made out of suitcases
Every once in a while, a train attendant walked by to sweep the floor and to make sure that no one was smoking, as we were in a no smoking compartment.

As I looked out the window, I was amazed to discover how beautiful the Chinese countryside is. There was so much green everywhere, and the landscape was constantly changing. Most of the land looked like it was being used for agriculture. The majority of the Chinese population still lives in the countryside and depends on farming as their livelihood.

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View from our train window of the Chinese countryside
Midway through the train ride, someone noticed the braids in Jasmine's hair. No one could figure out quite how they had gotten there. Someone said she must have been born with hair like that, but then no one knew exactly how that was possible. I explained that Jasmine braids her own hair but they couldn't believe she had the time to do so many braids. What if she had to take a shower and wash her hair? How often did she have to re-braid her hair? How long did it take each time? How did Jasmine manage to do the braids in the back of her head? So many questions were being thrown out all at once. Jasmine undid one of her braids to show everyone the true length and texture of her hair then braided it right back up again. That's when the fascination grew. Everyone was impressed with how quickly and how beautifully Jasmine had braided those strands of hair. Nainai was the most interested of all and asked to have her hair braided by Jasmine. By now, quite a crowd of admirers had gathered. No one believed it could be done, but Jasmine was determined to prove them wrong.

Just fifteen minutes later, Jasmine had finished three braids on the top of nainai's head. Nainai kept checking herself out and admiring her new hairdo in the mirror. The braids looked so cute that someone suggested a couple more on the side!

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Jasmine sets off to braid nainai's hair
That night, Jasmine made friends with a group of young tourists from Yunnan province, where Kunming is located. They taught Jasmine how to count to ten in Cantonese, and took turns asking her questions about herself and about America. There was a young college student among them who spoke English pretty well and who acted as translator. When that failed, they used my dictionary to help them do the talking.

In the morning, I was sad that our 33 hours on the train had passed by so quickly. We said good-bye to all the new friends we had made on the train and took one last look at our bunk beds. Nainai, still with her hair in Jazzy's superbly styled braids, reminded us to call her once we were settled into our hotel room so that her son could show us around Guangzhou.


confined - kept or enclosed in
monumental - huge
livelihood - means of supporting oneself financially
transcend - go beyond
linguistic - having to do with language

So all the horror stories I heard about trains in China weren't true, after all. I was really surprised to discover how nice everyone was to us, what an effort they made to keep the train clean, and how healthy the Chinese countryside looks. The people on the train were especially warm towards Jasmine. It didn't seem to make any difference that she was of a totally different skin color or that she could barely speak a few words of their language. What everyone saw instead was her warm smile and her willingness to learn about their culture. People do find ways to transcend cultural, age, and linguistic gaps once they put their fears and their prejudices of the unfamiliar aside. Now Jasmine has a page in her journal signed by all her new Chinese friends to bring back the memories of our first train ride in China together.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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Kavitha - Meet China's Bai Minority
Team - Making a Difference - Do As I Say, Not As I Do, And No, You Can't Have Any of My Weapons: Getting MAD About Nuclear Proliferation

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