Real China on the Rail: Spit and be Merry

From Kunming to Chengdu, September 15-16th 2010

Actually Mom told me, more than once, not to tell this part of story to anyone, in my office. The first time she told me so was over the phone when I was still in China. "We don't tell bad things about our own people," she said. But, she didn't tell me not to write about this part of story in my blog. (Fortunately, she doesn't know I have a blog.) So, this is the story. Still on a K114 train ride from Kunming to Chengdu.

Just like any train in several countries I've known, this train also had signs above the wall. There were 3 signs above the wall on top of the doorway. I found 1 sign was unusual. It was a picture of a man bowing down and something like a little drop on the floor. There was a dotted line connected from his mouth to that little drop. Even if there was any explanation of that sign, I wouldn't have understood anyway.

I watched the sweet plump lady sitting across me but right next to the window wiped the little table in front of her with a tissue paper. And then she replaced a tin tray on it, opened her plastic bag, took out a pear, opened her handbag, took out a knife, peeled off the pear, sliced, munched, looked out through the window, and munched again. She kept all the pear skin on the tin tray. At first I thought she had brought that tin tray with her by purpose. I began to wonder whether she was a local Chinese. How clean. Not like most of the local Chinese I've seen during my 2 days in this country. But after the incident of #$%&$%&'()'!! which I've written about here, I was more than convinced that she was, Chinese. A real Chinese. Not like me.

Minutes later I realized that there was a tin tray on every table. This is, unique, I thought to myself. It's the first time I know a train that provides so.

Sitting upright on this ninety-degrees-upright seat wasn't a comfortable position to enjoy a book or sleep and not to mention taking pictures. Why not take pictures? That's again, another story to tell. So, I started to examine the other passengers and the train.

Why are Chinese people so fond of munching pumpkin seeds? Dad used to also. One evening, at our dinner table, when I was a 5-year-old kid, I felt challenged to break the pumpkin seed shell between my teeth, evenly and neatly, like Dad did. I practiced and practiced until the middle of my upper and lower lip wrinkled like after eating too much salted fish. While doing the practice, Dad told me that Chinese people used to eat pumpkin seeds during a funeral ceremony. I started to shiver. What? So this is the food of the dead? The seed shells that were starting to crack evenly from under my teeth now cracked into four -- unevenly.

"Why should there be a special kind of food during a funeral ceremony?"

"To kill the time," Dad answered.

"Why do you have to kill a time?" I asked back.

"Because a traditional Chinese funeral ceremony used to last for nights and that's boring. So you kill the time by eating pumpkin seeds," explained Dad which did not exactly answer my question.

"Do the people take as long as me to crack a pumpkin seed?" I asked back again, because to me it would only make sense if those people attending the funeral had to practice like me. Otherwise, if they were an expert like Dad, a pumpkin seed can be cracked only with a lick of the tip of the tongue, which takes less than a second.

"Some might be not so good in cracking a pumpkin seed," Dad explained patiently (and proudly?).

Ignoring my wrinkled lips, I practiced harder in order not to have to munch pumpkin seeds during a funeral ceremony. Pumpkin seeds are tasty. But munching them during a funeral ceremony? That's scary! Since that evening conversation with Dad at our dinner table, I had always pitied the people I saw munching pumpkin seeds at a funeral. "Poor them", I would say to myself, "their Dad must have not taught them to crack a pumpkin seed properly -- and in no time!"

Now, these people on K114, are munching pumpkin seeds. If I were still a kid, I surely would have freaked out at the sight for I would have thought that someone was dead. No, these people are just munching and being merry. Some spitted out the shells on the tin tray, but most dropped everything on the floor. I literally mean "everything".

During this more than 19 hours ride from Kunming to Chengdu, around every 4 to 5 hours, a train attendant in a full uniform like a stewardess would appear with rubber hand-gloves holding a broom and a dust pan. She would sweep out "everything" on the floor. I can't imagine how a woman in a fine outfit like her could get in contact with "everything" from the train floor. Once when she came passed by my seat with a dust pan fully loaded, I spotted out a used -- yes, used -- baby diaper inside it, widely-spread-open-up.

Almost by midnight, I suddenly heard a loud #$%&$%&'()'!! from the back side of my seat. I turned my head. This stewardess-looking attendant was sweeping a stack of pumpkin seed shells from under the table into the dust pan. From her mimic, I judged she was grumbling. Then I fantasized that she was telling the passengers at that side, "We have a foreigner here! Behave, please! Don't put our own people to shame!"

After midnight, apparently her shift was over. A young-good-looking man had taken her place. He too, wore a similar uniform which to my Indonesian eyes doesn't at all fit into a job description of sweeping the floor, not to mention Chinese train floors.This young man, too, wore on hand gloves when he did the floor-sweeping-everything job. I noticed his hair was modestly cut and tinted brownish red. His bang was brushed up and obviously hair-sprayed. If I were him, I would never dare to fix my hair after doing the floor-sweeping-everything job, no matter how many times I wash my hands afterward. I would be worried that the slightest touch on my bang would change the color of it.

Our train stopped at a rather gloomy railway station. From the window I could see a pack of anxious-looking people. They all looked up towards us and for a second I felt like a celebrity passing by. The next thing I knew was that they were swarming into my train almost like bandits. At that time I didn't know that in a hard-seat class on a train like K114, anyone is allowed to sit anywhere on account the seat is not taken. No wonder these people acted like bandits. Bandits after any empty seat.

In my next post I'll describe how the local Chinese people were friendly, generous, and tolerant. I noticed that there were 4 people sitting on the backside of my seat. It was supposed only for 3 people. So apparently the 3 original passengers had squeezed themselves in order to give some space for this 1 unfortunate-seat-bandit. I have mentioned in previous post how the seat was like. You can imagine what a sacrifice it is to squeeze in.

The "4th passenger" sitting behind me was a young guy. He had his thighs half blocking the alley for even though his fellow countrymen had squeezed in, the only space could be made was only for him to rest his butts. And then I heard a "kroookkk, kroookkk" sound. I turned my head again. He was spitting on the floor between his separated bended knees. Instinctively I watched out for my camera backpack under my knees. That "liquid" should not flow down my backpack. Eeewww! I didn't dare to put it on the rack on top of me because of fear of theft, but I couldn't hug it on my lap either if I still wanted to breathe with ease. I had no other choice. Luckily still, he wiped away his spittle with his feed.

I was just about to fall asleep when I heard another "kroookkk, kroookkk" sound again. Oh! My National-Geographic-labeled hat had just slipped off my bag but luckily still, it did not fall on the floor. If it did, I would never pick it up again. Even the thought of placing on my head something from the floor where "everything" laid on is disgusting already.

The third time I heard that "kroookkk, kroookkk" sound, soon after his spittle fell on the floor, I could not stand it any longer. I gave him a clear disgusting look which is a universal language, looked at his spittle, turned my head to towards the sign of a man bowing down with a dotted line from his mouth to the floor, and then back to his spittle. I mimicked my face and mouth as if pronouncing the word "ew" but long like "eeewww". Until I arrived in Chengdu, he never spitted on the floor again.

I am a Chinese and am proud to be one. I am writing this not to reveal the bad of my own people, but to prepare everyone who is looking forward to, let's say, adore the exotic landscapes of China. Being proud of my own people, to me, doesn't mean to close my eyes to the bad sides. Come on, various travelers have called various places "paradise" and yet, as a matter of fact, we are leaving on "earth". Who is perfect? If anyone despises China because of the spitting habit, I will turn to him or her straightly and ask, "Doesn't your country have any fault?"

If, you still try to argue with my by saying, "My people never spit on the floor," this is my response: If so, your country should have achieved more than China had through all history!

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