Again, I shall attempt to tell a story of strange situations, humiliation that I am not ashamed to share, and the remarkable relationships that develop after all the laughs are extinguished. This account will take you through an adventure while traveling by train in The People’s Republic of China…. (A bit longer than I expected…but I hope you enjoy my tale)
Flustered and besieged about my third journey to Hong Kong and the work that needed to be done there, my head was about to explode. I kept running off the list of things I had with me, trying to reassure and comfort myself that I have not left any paperwork behind. Pausing every twenty paces or so, I franticly search my bag to confirm again and again the things that I had checked a dozen times before. I was not looking forward to the twenty-six hour train ride that taunted me as memories of the horror of previous of travels in the Chinese transportation systems.
I round the corner of the busy street and now see Zhengzhou train station up ahead of me. A large and unattractive building, that is in serious need of renovation. A stone court yard the size of a football field lays in front holding travelers who wait to enter and board their train. I make my way forward through the busy street darting out of the way of speeding taxi cabs and coming to a sudden halts in the middle of the road to let a huge double-decker buses pass in front of me, as a stream of cars flash behind me. One step to the front or the back would certainly be the end of me, so I wait as the noisy traffic passes rapidly feeling the hot air on my face from the buses as they sputter exhaust from their huge bubbling engines.
I reach the court yard and stop looking out across the dense swarm of Chinese people, a sea of black hair moving like waves swelling and in the water. I take a deep breath, closing my eyes in attempt to find my “happy” place, before entering the heap of five thousand or so Chinese men, women and children. My patients are about to be tested, and when it comes to me and my “personal space” I have LITTLE no NO tolerance to strangers touching me. I cautiously avoid things like shopping malls and other crowded events, and stick to the small street markets and I have done well thus far. However, on days like this it is unavoidable. So I enter the mob of people focusing on the entrance of the train station.
Stressed and bitter about the lack of personal space, I weaved and pushed my way through the crowd of curious Chinese citizens turning their heads and stretching their necks to get a better look of the foreigner. They sit upon their belongings slurping and sucking at their bowls of instant noodles looking up at me as I pass. Their luggage, plastic sacks (made from the same blue tarp materials as we are familiar with in the USA) or garbage bags stuffed so full they had to secure the bundles with thick yellow packaging tape. Infuriated when pushed, frustrated when someone stops walking and blocks my rhythm and flow through the crowd, and paranoid about my pockets and bag being picked, I spent a lot of time rolling my eyes. Only to follow next with a fake smile and cheerful voice asking for travelers to make way for me to pass. Inside I want to scream, but I know the entrance is just a few yards away, so I keep my cool.
Passing through security (which is a complete JOKE), and winding my way through the packed corridors of the smelly train station, I finally reach the gate for my train which is already boarding passengers. I entered the station platform, and walked the length of the train and found the door indicated on my ticket by a number. I entered the train, feeling somewhat relieved. But still agitated by the lack of organization, forgetting the fact that the Chinese do the best they can considering their enormous population.
I located my first class sleeper bunk and pushed the sliding door open. I was taken aback when I saw the man sitting on the bottom left bunk. He was looking to be about thirty-five years of age, and his head was completely shaved, it was shiny and glaring from the light over head. A bright orange robe that seemed to be glowing was draped marvelously around his body exposing half of his hairless chest and shoulder. He was sitting legs crossed, back strait and stiff as a board, with hands resting on his knees and in his right hand he held a long series of black “prayer beads”. Eyes closed; there was an expression on his face that he was in a different world, only his world was tranquil and calm. (Completely opposite from my current frame of mind) I would be sharing my journey with none other than a Buddhist Monk!
I cannot express my excitement or fascination I was feeling as I stood there for many minutes staring at him. Internally I was having an intense argument with myself on rather I should enter the sleeper car and settle myself, or to wait until he was finished with his, uhh, meditation (??). Though, my decision was soon made for me when the train stewardess approached me asking to see my ticket. Thinking I was a confused foreigner, she checked the number on the ticket and then the number hanging above the door of the exact place I stood and then forcefully sputtered “YES, HERE,GO” in English…and she pushed me forward into the tiny room. Still uncertain if I should go about straightening out myself and my belongings, I sat quietly on my bunk. Watching and waiting... However, he did not open his eyes to acknowledge the entrance of a new person. The only movement he made was his right thumb shifting the prayer beads to the next bead every couple of minutes. Even twenty minutes later as the train hissed, moaned and shook as it started to move along the tracks, still the Monk didn’t budge.
Now free to move about the train, I chose to leave the sleeper bunk still uncertain about stirring around and making noises. I stood watching as the train left the city and entered the countryside. After an hour passed, the inner dispute I was having with myself ended. The conclusion? I was tired and wanted to sleep, certainly that couldn’t bother his serene contemplation. So I turned and slid the door of the sleeper bunk open, and this time to my relief, the Monk was now lounging back on the bed reading a novel. Instantly, and almost frenzied, he rose to his feet standing in the narrow foot path of the bunk, bowing and smiling. Startled by his sudden swift movement I stood there stunned for a brief moment, then mimicked his gesture and bowed back at him, he bowed again, I followed again imitating… and again he bowed… and at this time I am thinking… “Ok, how do Buddhist end this greeting cycle?” which was seemingly going to continue. I motioned for my bunk, trying to make him understand that I wanted to proceed. (Though, I couldn’t continue with him standing in my way.) He returned to his lounging position and buried his face in his book, still silent and unspoken. I lay down in the sleeping position, and was quickly put to seep by the humming and clicking of the train on the tracks.
It was only two hours later when I was suddenly woken by sounds coming from the Monk. I rose in my bed and looked over to where he lay and discovered that the odd sound was the Monk SNORING. Long inhales through his nose caused thunderous vibrations, and then exhales squealing out from his lips. “I guess his vow of silence has been broken.” I think to myself chucking at the ironic situation. (For this is the FIRST sounds I have heard come from his mouth) I laid back down pondering the life he must live and why was he on THIS train?
While sleeping, a new arrival had come into our sleeper bunk. He was now sleeping in the bunk over my head and he had moved my bag and placed it on the bunk above the Monk’s bed where all three passengers’ extra luggage lay nicely in order. It was now mid afternoon and nap time was over. I sat upright and watched the landscape pass in a blur of grays, browns and greens. The Monk also sat across from me gazing out the window. Still nothing was spoken between us. Though he rose and bowed every time I got up to walk the corridor or go to the bathroom, and upon my return I was also greeted with him rising and bowing, grinning from ear to ear. I felt it was completely unnecessary. Nevertheless, it was completely adorable; I was tickled by this gesture from him.
Promptly at four o’clock, the Monk sat upright and resumed the position I had first seen him in. Legs crossed, and back strait, he closed his eyes and again was thumbing through the prayer beads ever few minutes. Watching him again for several moments, finally I come to the idea of getting a picture of this happening…but…. My camera was in my bag which lay on the bunk directly above his head. I contemplated the plan of snatching my bag swiftly and quietly, for I didn’t want to disturb his peaceful meditation. I gathered the courage, and I stood to retrieve my bag.
At that very moment the train gave a thunderous JOLT and I was knocked violently off my feet and fell clumsily into the lab of the young Buddhist Monk. His face was now planted deeply in between my boobs. Stunned by the sudden loss of balance, I try hysterically to get to my feet struggling against the forces of the train as it continued to wiggle and joggle, causing me to stumble repeatedly, each time his face getting trapped, hit, smothered by my womanly curves. Finally the train came to a stop with one last jerk. Completely mortified, I rise and start sputtering out all the Chinese vocabulary I can think of to express my DEEP humiliation and apologies for this unfortunate situation. Mixing in English words in places I couldn’t manage the Chinese. I notice his shiny bald head and face are completely red from his own embarrassment; he nods his head and tries to assure me he is not offended by smiling, bowing his head and placing palms together, a common Buddhist greeting/goodbye/thank you we are all familiar with, and in this case I am hoping it means “no problem”. Still he is silent, and I can see from his expression and posture that he has returned to his place of meditation and serenity.
I promptly exit the sleeper bunk, standing in the long corridor staring out the window, completely horrified about interrupting his meditation. Replaying the scene and situation in my head I am internally kicking myself for getting up from my seat at that very moment! I made my way to the dining car and sat down at a table too humiliated to return. The train had stopped and unloaded passengers at small stations along the way. I watched as the night fell upon the land, and I was feeling sleepy again. I hoped the Monk was sleeping when I returned to my sleeper bunk, he was not. I entered the sleeper bunk again and he was again relaxed and reading his book. Our third companion must have exited the train in one of the stops because he and his bags were gone. I sat and busied myself by digging into my purse and organizing my coins, and then he spoke.
“That has got to be the most extraordinary thing that has ever happened to me...” he said in very clear English. Stunned by these first words coming from his mouth, and bewildered that he was in fact speaking English so clearly.
“You speak…. Uhh.. English!?!” I stuttered. He gave a nod and smiled. I my befuddled expression now turned into an amused grin. At this moment we began to have a conversation, me asking so many questions about his life and he humbly telling stories of where he grew up, how he became a monk, where he was coming from, and where he was going. I learned that he grew up in British Hong Kong, learning English from his British owned school. He became a monk because he was completely devoted to Buddha and the roots of Buddhism. He had just come from a Tibetan monastery after two years of study, and was heading home to visit his parents who still lived in Hong Kong.
I sat there transfixed by his stories and attitude towards Chinese society, life, and the world. He asked about my expeditions in China, and what led me to be on the train. Feeling so comfortable I spilled all things out, rambling on and trailing off tropic. Sharing my guilt of losing my father while I journeyed to China, guilt from issues with in my family that split us long ago that I still hold the heavy burden of feeling responsible, I laughed and cried. He sat there offering his insight and awareness of Buddhism and the wisdom that has built and managed his “inner peace”. I considered his advice and felt calm for the rest of my journey. Even though he shared all his enlightened speeches, I was surprised to learn that he was kind of a normal guy. He liked movies, and music, and reading. He seemed to have normal hobbies like sports, art, and cultural awareness.
We reached Hong Kong by mid afternoon the next day, and before leaving the train he invited me to join him at his parents’ home for lunch. Certainly I was feeling an overwhelming sensation of honor and gratitude from receiving such a rare invitation. So I accepted and followed him through the city.
He led me through the city on foot. Which I hadn’t anticipated to be so difficult. He was in fact, wearing flip flops, so I felt that with my sneakers I could manage to keep up with him. However he weaved his way through the crowded streets without any issues, as I trailed along behind him huffing and puffing with my bags. He stopped several times insisting on helping with carrying my load, a common Chinese courtesy I have taken advantage in other situations. This situation I felt it was not appropriate to have a monk carrying my bags, in fact I tried many times to take his bundle from him, but he only laughed as his eyes looked up at my sweaty brow.
We continued, walking the streets of Hong Kong, he lead me through alley ways with big trucks parked at loading docks were being emptied by hard working young men. Then back on to main roads, with store front windows glowing with high fashion mannequins. Then we would suddenly veer right down a narrow one meter wide opening between two high-rise buildings. Then it would open up to another alley way full of fish markets. At last, he stops and with no words he points up indicating his home.
It was a smaller building compared with the neighboring skyscrapers. We were standing on the alleyway looking up at twenty floors of hanging laundry strung out every window. I gasped; it was the kind of place I love to see in China. I thought it was beautiful. So many colors flapping in the gusts of wind that funnel through the towering structures surrounding the city. People come to China and Hong Kong, to catch a glimpse of the commercialized tourist attractions. Personally, I detest typical touring, the places that I love to see and in fact prefer, are the real places. The ones like this, hidden in an alleyway away from the main streets that mask such a beautiful sight. He nudged me to break my gaze and started walking up the narrow staircase. After climbing (for me crawling) to the twelfth floor, we had arrived at his parents’ humble home.
His parents’ joyous faces changed to shock and confusion when they spotted a white female standing in the corridor with their son. Nevertheless, after a brief explanation in Cantonese, (which I don’t understand, my Chinese language skills are only in Mandarin) they welcomed me into their home. It was a tiny one room apartment, where we sat upon their bed and they unfolded a small table and set it in front of me. I felt guilty, for I had not thought the plan through and didn’t consider the unexpected burden I placed on his family. His mother hurried around the room tidying and obviously worried about their living conditions and what judgments I may be making. His father sat on a short stool across from me, smiling and eying my red hair.
Lunch began and I was again shocked when his mother and father spoke to me. They also spoke superb English, so there were no awkward translations needed. We all laughed and enjoyed the company. When they learned the story of how their son and I met, giggles and laughter filled the table as the Monk told the story with good humor. I sat with my face in my hands DYING from embarrassment! The Monk patted me on the back and said…
“It was a first for me to be so close to a woman…. I will never forget you my friend.” His parents again belted out with laughter… and I took a moment to enjoy these people who were so fantastic and welcoming.
They settled me in to a nearby hotel, and the Monk made plans to take me to the famous landmark of the GIANT Buddha the following afternoon. After completing my work in the visa office, I met him in the lobby of the hotel, and we spent the day roaming around the Po Lin Monastery. I learned more about his experiences as a monk in mainland China, and he reminded me to let go of the burdens of guilt that weigh on my heart. I was not feeling as though he was “PREACHING” at me… it was more like opening the mind and heart to peaceful resolutions, and he encouraged me to seek out my “Christian God” (as he put it). All in all the experience was MIND BLOWING. This is certainly one of the highlights of my life here in China. I never asked his name, and I have never seen him again, but I will be certain to visit his parents the next time I travel to Hong Kong.
And I will end this narrative with this: Expect the unexpected when traveling in The People’s Republic of China!
Please stay tuned for more stories about my life in the People's Republic of China.