Wednesday, August 13, 2008

5 Centimeters short

As we traversed the southern part of China, going east to west from Hong Kong by plane, trains and buses, I was struck by how many young people approached us (on their own) and tried out their English.

We met Winnie, who is in her third year in college on the train from Guilin to Kunming. It was an overnight train, and it was the morning after when she came over, sat across from us, smiled at Rupal and myself and started talking. We were not very far from Kunming.
She wanted to know where we were headed. We told her our itinerary. She was going with her boyfriend (who didn’t speak English) and a small group of other travelers to the same places. Her mother had to work, and couldn’t join them. To me it seemed that more and more of the Chinese middleclass, with their new-found money thanks to the booming economy, were taking vacations.

Winnie, who said she was majoring in “English translation” hadn’t traveled too far beyond Guilin. I was trying to downplay our travels, afraid that it would seem boastful in comparison, but she was very curious and asked us a lot of questions about the places we had visited.
We also told her how much we liked China and how friendly we found its people. And then she surprised us with a tough question.
“Which country has the most un-helpful people?” Both Rupal and I looked at each other, struggling to answer that one.
Cop out responses like ‘They are all friendly people,’ or ‘It depends on who we end up running into,’ didn’t satisfy her at all.
“But who is least friendly?” she persisted.
We still wouldn’t name any country. None came to mind, really.
“What about the Japanese people?” Winnie asked us. She was leading us. We were less than a day’s journey away from Nanjing, and I knew that the two nations had had a turbulent past.
“The Japanese people we met while traveling there were very reserved,” I conceded. She smiled and nodded, satisfied.

“Once you have a job, which places will you visit?” Rupal asked Winnie.
Hong Kong! I will go to Hong Kong for shopping!” I thought it a little ironic that a girl who lived in the hinterlands of China (“the manufacturer for the whole world”) wanted to go elsewhere to buy things.
“And I will go to America, maybe.”

In the morning light, the most striking feature of the landscape we were rolling past was the greenness of the countryside. Mile after unremitting mile of paddy and corn fields. The fields had been cut and leveled right up the small hills, all to feed the huge population. Our talk then turned to the Summer Olympics, which were less than a week away.
“You are not going to Beijing?” Rupal asked her.
“No. I have never been to Beijing. Very expensive.” She paused and then added, “Many girls from my college were selected for the Beijing Olympics.”
“You didn’t want to go with them?”
“Yes, I wanted.” Winnie passed her hand in front of her face, making a circle around it. “But you must be very beautiful.” To me, she looked attractive, but I guess the officials who were selecting girls from all across China had exacting standards.
“Also, you have to be 1.65 meters tall. I am only 1.6meters.” She smiled ruefully.

Before we got off the train, Winnie wanted to have her picture taken with us. She called her boyfriend over to take the photo. The shy guy didn’t speak English, but he too wanted his picture taken with us. In a short while we all arrived in Kunming. At the station, we asked her to write ‘Dali, tomorrow, lower berth’ in Chinese on a piece of paper. We used that to buy our onward ticket.

No comments:

Post a Comment