Short Fiction: On a Chinese Train
“Train journeys are the best way to learn a language, the language of love…” The song blast out loudly from a radio an old man held closely to his ears; Sara hummed along to the tune, true, so true she thought, wondering if the young woman opposite her with a baby would indulge her on this slow, clattering Chinese train packed with agricultural workers.
The train chugged merrily, heading south towards Nanjing, the ancient capital of China, seven hours away. The woman seemed interested by her foreign neighbor, and so Sara began practicing. “I like your baby. What is her name? What is your name? Where do you live?” Her unwitting language victim smiled and handed her an orange. Before they reached the first stop Sara knew their names: Mi Lee and Moli. Mi Lee was twenty-three, she lived with her grandfather and father in Qufu, the home town of Confucius, three hours away. Her mother was dead, and her husband, Wei, worked in Harbin on the Russian border. Mi Lee had been to a special hospital in Qingdao because Moli had been ill. “But,” she said with a big smile, “she is okay now.”
Mi Lee did not mind that Sara spoke Chinese badly. She gossiped away, explaining that she worked on the family vegetable plot. Sometimes Mi Lee would help Sara with a word, or could guess what she was trying to say. Sara loved these moments when she could string more sentences together and her self-confidence grew. She explained she was from Montreal, Canada, had four brothers, one sister, and worked at a film school in Huangdao, Quingdao district.
Mi Lee knew about Canada, she had seen it on the TV, the snow, the deep, long snowy winters. She said she liked snow, and was it cold, really cold? She did not understand what the -35- 40 cold was actually like, so Sara mimed being caught in the Montreal winter with the wind factor blowing. Mi Lee laughed and said something that Sara did not understand. Mi Lee wrote it in Chinese script and in Pinyin, but Sara still could not understand. Mi Lee mouthed it over and over and over as they passed fields strewn with ancestral burial grounds, some still smoking from a recent prayer fire, past watercress and pylons plying poisonous smoke thickly into the sky - Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu - the words merging with the noise of the train and the chatter from the passengers. Mi Lee seemed disappointed and looked through the window. Then, exasperated, she pointed her finger to Sara: “Come to my home and meet my grandfather, he will tell you about Bái Qiúēn Dàfu. You can take another train to Nanjing later.”
So, at the town of Qufu where the great Confucius was born, died and buried, Sara followed Mi Lee down the station steps and along a lane lined with plane trees. A raggle taggle band of dogs followed them, but even the greatness of the small town could not keep out the pollution and dust that left a yellow layer over the dogs’ coats and the leaves of once elegant trees. At the end of the lane, a small messy animated market sprawled with vendors shouting above recordings which blared the same monotonous selling lines from makeshift loud-speakers: “Come and buy my wares, cheaper here than next door . . . come and buy my wares, cheaper here than next door.” Mi Lee bought ginger and walnuts for her grandfather and thick woolen socks for her father, who sat not far off selling potatoes, eggs and speckled hens. He waved languidly at them. He was truly handsome and rough and rugged and strong and manly. Sara had a fleeting moment where she saw herself in his arms, being held, being protected.
“You will taste how delicious my grandfather’s food is. Look! I brought him fish from Qingdao. It is famous you know, you know, for fish.” She pulled out a huge bag of dried fish and waved it under Sara’s nose. Sara turned once again to watch the father. How can he, she thought, as he rubbed his eyes into life as a customer came by, how can he be content? Thirteen hours of work a day, sometimes more. Seven days a week, day in, day out, to keep his family fed and happy. Happy ?
Their house was a stone’s throw from the mighty Sage’s family home. A single fig tree stood at the entrance of the courtyard, its tender branches stripped of leaves. It was a small, homely, low-built, brick house, with smoke creeping from the chimney. It was also orderly: wood chips were piled by the door, fat healthy hens ran around prattling, a cat lay in the midday sun and Grandfather Zhu Hai Hai pulled water from the well, and upon their entrance, rushed Moli up into his arms.
Sara sat on a large stone slab. It was one of those tender moments of life when the unexpected happened and you just went with the flow. How could one promote the unexpected and put it in a package? You couldn’t. That was the secret of the unexpected, or as Penny her eighty-year-old buddy from Montreal would say as she purred into her glass of wine, “daaarling, life has a way of just getting in the way of life.”
Mi Lee came out with red tea and oranges, Moli ran after the hens which fluffed their feathers in annoyance, and Grandfather stirred a pot on a low oven, the air filling with a sweet, sticky smell. Then, Mi Lee and her grandfather bantered, the young woman full of hospital stories. As she spoke, she undid the parcels brought from her journey, each parcel another story. The little girl was boisterous and rowdy, chasing the hens again, then finding an egg laid, broke it in her excitement while the cat lifted a lazy eye over its environment. Has life really changed, thought Sara, since the great Confucius walked these streets?
Grandfather came out holding some corn and sweet potato. He looked at Sara with curiosity and began to chant Mi Lee’s refrain Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, which matched the cluck of the chickens, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, like an operatic rondo. Sara listened helplessly; she handed over her dictionary, but Grandfather shrugged it off and wandered away coming back with some paper and, as Mi Lee had done, carefully wrote the text. Sara shook her head in frustration. Grandfather Zhu Hai Hai whispered something to his granddaughter who looked slowly at Sara, and announced that after lunch they would all go for a walk to show her Bái Qiúēn Dàfu.
The table sagged on it’s little legs under the weight of pots and dishes, rice and soup. The dried fish had sprung to life. No longer listless and flat, it now puffed with layers of garlic and garlic flowers which nestled between shining walnuts dipped in orange peel paste. Baby shrimps were glued together with honey and tofu shreds, like Moli’s little sticky fingers which chopped with the chop sticks and not one grain of rice did the child let fall onto the table. And on and on they ate, as with most Chinese mighty meals made for guests, till Sara could eat no more, nor drink the rice firewater that Grandfather knocked back, one two three, Gumbei, cheers, chin-chin, at 62%.
After they had finished Sara turned to the grandfather: “I am so sorry, I do not understand what you want to tell me, and I feel…” Pausing, then finding the word in her dictionary, “foolish,” wondan. Grandfather did not seem in the slightest bit bothered, nor agitated, nor worried. He laughed loudly, and repeated the word, wondan, wondan, over and over, while he put on his old metal-toed boots. Mi Lee filled up tea flasks and Moli pulled the cat’s tail, which ran off to sulk. The child was lifted and bound tightly to Mi Lee and slept the moment her fat cheeks touched her mother’s back. They all set off at a slow pace, almost ceremoniously, out of the gate and the small community compound.
They passed the cemetery where Confucius lay buried. A friend of Grandfather Zhu Hai Hai stood outside smoking. They shook hands and his friend tagged along with them. Mi Lee explained that they had to show the foreigner Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, because she did not understand Chinese. The friend laughed and lit another cigarette.
They walked back to the market which was now in full swing. “I’ve sold all the eggs.” The father shouted. They didn’t stop. “Where you going?” “ To show the foreigner Bái Qiúēn Dàfu.” Then the same refrain, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, merging with the noise of the market, the children’s shouts, and the cries of the vendors. A large-hipped lady with bad eyes, pushing a rickety bike, followed behind, and every now and then the lady would ring her bell, while the clank of her rusty bike joined in with the sounds of Grandfather’s metal-toed boots and his friend’s loud laughter to become a symphony. Sara knew that this was one of those turning points in her life. These moments of unexpected simplicity touched her soul, were gold as they said in film terms - what documentary filmmakers were constantly seeking.
They walked slowly up a hill, where a few workers broke enormous stones into smaller stones and dust flew everywhere. The old lady pulled out a cloth to shade Moli, who stirred on Mi Lee’s back.“Nihao ma? How are you, where are you off to then?” “We’re going to see Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu, Bái Qiúēn Dàfu. Yes, she’s Canadian, yes, yes,” Mi Lee shouted. “My friend is Canadian, Jianataren.”
Up over the hill, which peered down on the small town, and out beyond the fields full of watercress, spinach and wheat, wheat, wheat, as far as the eye could see. “Down there, there.” Mi Lee pointed to a small white building, at the edge of town. “There.” They walked more quickly, going downhill and along the dusty road till they reached a metal gate where a sleepy gatekeeper held fort and waved them on into a deserted hospital courtyard, towards a side door.
Zhu Hai Hai slackened his step as they got around a corner and stopped in front of a flowerbed full of extraordinary pink and red winter roses with an overwhelming profusion of scent - it could have been a perfume shop - and there, in the middle, partially hidden by these unexpected flowers, mysteriously rose a tall, slender marble-white statue of a man looking out to the hills.
“This man,” Grandfather Zhu Hai Hai spoke proudly, “is our great Chinese Bái Qiúēn Dàfu. Here.” The small entourage were suddenly quiet and respectful. Sara still had no idea what was happening and read the inscription, engraved in Chinese and underneath in English.
Dr. Henry Norman Bethune - Canadian Physician
China’s National Hero and model for every Chinese Doctor
Honored for your selfless commitment to the Chinese people
March 4, 1890 – November 12, 1939
Zhu Hai Hai watched Sara carefully studying her as she looked up into Bethune’s face. “You didn’t know this, did you?” Sara nodded slowly, no she didn’t, she didn’t know this, and she knew that most Canadians didn’t know this either. They stood, in silence, warmed by the winter sun in front of the man honored by Mao Zedong and the People’s Republic of China, who lost his life helping the wounded and dying during the Sino-Japanese war, enshrined at the portal of thousands of Chinese hospitals, and known throughout China, from the North to the South, from the East to the West.