Travel and Transport

“I am so convinced of the advantages of looking at mankind instead of reading about them, and of the bitter effects of staying at home with all the narrow prejudices of an Islander, that I think there should be a law amongst us to set our young men abroad for a term among the few allies our wars have left us.”

Lord Byron

A friend asked me how I get around Harbin. Well, I take the bus mostly…

My roommate came home. He came through the door the way a bull charges a toreador. Spock-like, I raised an eyebrow.

“I am sick of these mother-fucking people!” Eyebrow still raised.

“I’m standing on the sidewalk waiting for the bus. The bus comes and I move forward. This Chinese guy just comes in and—BOOM—just barrels into me from behind. No apologies. Nothing. I am tired of everyone shoving and pushing and not waiting in line!”

“Well,” I sigh, “it’s not that they are rude. Their behavior is a consequence of having to share the infrastructure—”

“Fuck their infrastructure!”

“—with 1.3 billion other Chinese citizens. And you. And me. Etcetera. I agree that it would be nice if everyone queued up like civilized cattle, but you’ve seen people get left behind if there isn’t enough room. They’ve got to get to work on time. If they don’t fight for their place on the bus—literally—they will get left behind. Their boss isn’t going to give a shit about excuses.”

“That’s it. I’m pushing back. Fuck’em.” He storms off into his room where I hear him light a cigarette and angrily puff out a stream of smoke. I withdraw back into my room.

I too get pushed around—by large heavy-set Chinese men with red scrubbed faces and swollen hands; by little old gray-haired women toting immense bundles; by sleek young men sporting posh hairstyles and perpetually wired into their cell phones; by sturdy blank-faced women in their work clothes smelling like garlic and oil and spice; even the children push me around.

Ever swim in the ocean? I’m not talking about plashing about on the shore. I mean taking a long swim beyond the breakers, far enough that the people on the shore have shrunk to less than the size of Lego-sized characters. Far enough that your heart pounds as much from fear as from the exertion of the swim. Of course if you are an accomplished swimmer, then there is much less fear. But for the average person who can swim well enough, but for whom swimming is hardly a daily routine, then the experience can be transformative.

The ocean horizon stretches in front of you in a wide eternal line; the shore behind you equally infinite, but far enough away that you know it will tax you sorely to return. And you are in fluid limbo—only thin air above and phantom blue-green water below. What can you do in such a moment? What was that? What just touched my ankle? You slap the water and feel a scream forming in your mind. Seaweed. Just seaweed. You really have gone a far way out. Damn. The strength in your limbs flags and cold fear shoots through you like a blast of electricity. What can you do?

Float.

Roll your head back. Arch your back. And dream. Listen to the music of the waves rolling under you, swelling beneath you like a giant hand lifting you up lazily and then setting you gently back down again.

Float.

Let the world turn under you. The waves may submerge you momentarily, covering your face, but then you pop back up and…

Float. Up and down. Ever closer to the shore. So slight is the movement that you don’t even notice it until suddenly a wave lifts you and carries you with a furious rush towards the shore and tumbles you head over heels, salt water burning your eyes, filling your mouth, everywhere is nowhere, gravity has been replaced with a directionless roiling maelstrom, until…

You hit the sandy bottom and you stand. The undertow rips at your feet, snatching at your balance, and you stumble a few steps. You press forward and this time another wave catches you and sends you hurtling once again head over heels. But you catch the earth and hook your toes in stronger. You surge forward, back to the shore. Finally Poseidon relinquishes his grip on you, but, playful deadly force that he is, he slaps you on the ass one last time. You look back with some irritation, but immensely grateful that you have returned to Gaia’s firm bosom.

I do this every time I go to the beach. I am a slow swimmer and not very strong. I know the basic crawl, that much I can say. But I haven’t the time or the means to visit a swimming pool regularly. And who gets to go to the beach nowadays with such frequency that s/he is on intimate terms with Nereids and the other merpeople in Neptune’s dominion? So after I have struck out far away from shore, I must float.

It’s the same on the bus in Harbin. I float. I let the rushing wave of humanity carry me into the belly of the gray metal beast and I pick my thighs up as quickly as I can, slipping through the mass of flesh like an eel. I catch a steel rib and pull myself hand over hand into a small eddy and hold on for dear life until my stop. And I smile. I smile and I smile. I smile at everyone around me because taking a bus is never this much fun in America! I am a foreigner so most likely my idiotic, shit-eating grin will not be taken for mental derangement. Sometimes I get stony looks in return. Most of the time however, I get quick little smiles from the other passengers like hungry little children gobbling down a treat. Because it’s a treat to share a smile with a stranger. Because it’s hard to see someone smiling so openly and plainly and not smile back.

Then, too, there is usually some fetching woman squeezed next to me whose thick rope of hair falls against my nose and whose perfume suffuses my body, penetrates me, colors me like ink drops in a glass of clear water. I force myself to draw back, but it’s hard, and then the bus throws her back against me. I close my eyes and…

Float. On the rising falling tide of humanity.

Every so often I get to play Captain Ahab. The bus is already packed and I am the last one on. I get pinioned next to the bus driver, holding onto the crossbar as if it were the helm of a whaling ship. Ahrr! Avast ye maties! The bus lurches over the uneven streets like the Pequod advancing over the briny blue and as I look through the window, the frost becomes sea spray, the broken roads become the rough sea, and somewhere up ahead I see him! A Mass of White Grey—but then the bus screeches to a stop, I am almost hurled through the windshield, and a fresh wave of Chinese flushes into the corridor of the bus. I must release my grip on the steering wheel and I disappear into the hold, pressed against my fellow sailors willy-nilly. Now my wonderful schooner becomes more of a slave ship, bodies packed in with frightening immodesty. I try to find a suitable place where I will not be too impolitely pressed against someone…

Sometimes I listen to music on my iPhone. Sometimes I just pretend to listen to music and sing out loud to the people around me. Since I am a relatively unique sight in Harbin I can get away with it. I offer an innocuous mercurial picture of a foreigner in China. I cannot intimidate anyone like the tall, stout, scowling Russians whose eyes shoot out laser beams of ill will, or the baby-faced Americans with their voluminous bellies and booming arrogant voices. No, I am a tiny smiling sprite in their midst. Only the hardest of hearts fails to return my smile, and even then I keep smiling.

Smiling and floating.

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