Gusts of wind whipped around the platform, a welcome appearance for the impatient passengers dripping with sweat on this sweltering Beijing summer afternoon. Off in the distance, two whistles blew, piercing the air with their tremulous shrill, ushering in a series of booming clang clang clangs.
Eagerly, I gripped my blue suitcase ever so tightly. Sweat in my palms practically melted into the silver luggage handle. Just a few moments before we would board the train… a couple of seconds now… a mere split-second…
CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! Puffs of smoke from the train funnel rose and drifted in the breeze, and the locomotive stopped still on the tracks, its red hue dimming in its countless journeys. The crimson gleam remained though. A train attendant clad in a dark navy-blue suit and beaming pearly whites unlocked the train entrance. A cluster of voices suddenly bubbled up as everyone clamored to board the train, yearning to escape the burning heat. Only one young woman stayed behind to wave tearfully at her family, yelling a last minute I promise to write! and I’ll miss you! Her parents nodded, ready to let her go as the young woman vanished within the clamoring crowd.
I had heard that boarding a train was like entering a whole new world. That it would be an exciting, thrilling adventure. That sometimes you met all kinds of people who could change your life, or become a lifelong friend. It seemed that the world inside this train was bursting with people to be met, things to be seen… People also said that riding trains was the best way to immerse yourself in Chinese culture, as Chinese people routinely traveled by train, and that was just my goal as my family and I boarded the train that would take us on a cross-country route, leading from northern Beijing to the southern China harbors.
We were bound for the final stop on the train route: Shenzhen, a mega-metropolis in China famed for being the Silicon Valley of China, for its contemporary architecture and modern, youthful culture. We’d come to visit my uncle who lived there. I had heard amazing tales of Shenzhen from my parents, and I dreamed of the urban adventures I would get to experience.
Inside the train, I leaped across the passenger corridors, bursting with curiosity at the unfamiliar newness of it all. I paused to stop and inspect the cogs of an enticing gadget. Or how the window curtains were royal blue and fringed with golden yellow, with phoenix figures imprinted on the fabric… I was so thrilled to be on a real-life train, on a world away from home!
Suddenly, my mom called me over.
Instantly, I rushed—no, skipped—over to our compartment. This would be our home for the next twenty-two hours. Triple bunk beds were built on either side. Mom and I snagged the bottom bunks—rejoice!—while my cousin got the middle bunk above. Bottom bunk was almost always the best spot, because beside it was an oval-shaped window that gave a view of outside. Underneath was a sterile white table ideal for eating. And the best part was that I could freely amble in and out of the compartment. No having to climb down and fret about accidentally squashing someone’s toes!
As we furnished our surroundings, I took out my travel satchel and a pink-and-purple dog-shaped pillow. Our bunkmates soon came in and settled down. They promptly began to doze off. The train would start off shortly.
Suddenly, a flurry of voices began to rise. Poking my head out to see the commotion, I heard some people having a heated debate. A woman with high heels sharp enough to stab someone chatted in animated Chinese with her friend, a carefree spirit in her smile. A frail, elderly man with a head full of gray hair, dashed with specks of white, persevered to keep his balance as he walked and took out a pocket-sized leather-bound photo album and lovingly stared at a tiny, grainy, sepia photograph before placing it back. A pair of parents warned their child QUIT climbing on the suitcases or else… A teenager crunched on some chips as she listened to the blasting music in her earphones. She swayed to a rhythm I couldn’t make out, completely immune to the activity rushing around her. An auburn-haired man glued to his cellphone muttered to himself in a foreign tongue, urgently tapping the screen for a response, a ghostly halo framing his features. A young mother with a tied-up bun nestled in her arms a whining and wailing infant. Trailing behind her was her daughter, pulling her mom’s orange blouse, craving attention. Not far behind was the children’s dad, huffing and puffing as he heaved the massive luggage. They settled in the compartment next to us, the baby screaming louder. I wondered about the tales of these people, what sort of lives they had to tell.
TWEEEEEEEET! The shrill whistle abruptly sounded, and off the train lurched, giving a violent jolt and leading me to hop into the safe covers of my bed. Grabbing a book, I began to read.
Suddenly, nearly three chapters in, I felt someone staring at me. Intently. And for a long time. Maybe it was my sixth sense creeping in. I could hear a pitter patter of footsteps. Then a pause.
Who could it be?
Looking up, I found a pair of deep black eyes staring at me!
Oh! Those eyes belonged to that little girl with the wailing infant sibling! They were thoughtful, glassy eyes, like marbles, rolling around the small room and studying the compartment, my dozing bunkmates, and, most importantly, me.
Then she hid behind the wall separating the train compartments. She peeked again. And again! This game of peek-a-boo went on for several minutes, with each stolen glance becoming increasingly longer and more confident. Black bangs framing her chubby face, radiating total innocence and utter angelicness, her thoughts seemed to echo loud and clear. I want someone to play with.
At last, the little girl evidently concluded that I was a qualified playmate and invited herself in, plopping down on my bed with me.
She grinned infectiously and showed me a toy she had dragged along.
“This,” she announced, holding up a small red monkey, “is my toy monkey. His name is Monkey.” The little girl hugged the well-loved Monkey, then, with an air of a commander, tilted her head and inquired of me, “Where’s your toy?”
I laughed and replied I was too old for toys.
A hint of frustration flared in her chubby cheeks.“Then that is your toy!” She pointed at something lying beside me.
What toy? I whipped my head around until my eyes lay on my dog-shaped pillow cuddled next to me. It looked slightly neglected.
“That’s. . . a pillow,” I explained. “Not a toy,” I added for further clarification.
“It’s your toy puppy,” declared the little girl decisively, as if it had been set in stone. She promptly pleaded for me to play with her.
We then engaged in a game of pretend, of Puppy vs. Monkey. Turns out that the little girl was three years old and was named Yang Han. It seems to be a universal truth that all children love the power of pretend, wherever, whenever. Who doesn’t?
As the game progressed, the sun began its descent towards the horizon, and the train stopped at various places, jolting and dismantling the clump of blankets Yang Han had designated to be a school in this game of pretend. After a stop to a nearby town, my fellow bunkmates rose and smiled at Yang Han, furiously reconstructing a yet again demolished school.
I patted her back as she wailed in frustration at the imperfect school. “But now Puppy and Monkey can’t go to school,” she lamented, sucking on the little red monkey for comfort. Seconds later, her parents called her for dinner.
With a satisfied stomach and drowsy eyes, I gazed at the sun, now fading into flaming orange, yellow, and aqua hues. Soon, glittering stars dotted the night sky, lighting up the blanket of darkness. Closing my eyes, I drifted into a deep slumber…
Today was destination day!
Yang Han seemed set on spending the whole day with me. As she zipped over to play, I asked her, “Where’s your train stop?”
She shrugged, then her eyes lit up, radiating innocence once more. “My daddy said we were going to a fun place!”
Chuckling, we engaged into another game when suddenly Yang Han leaped up and excitedly told me, “Follow me,” dragging my hand along.
She led me to another compartment. Apparently, it seemed that Yang Han had made some other friends as well, as I found myself being swarmed by a group of equally chubby and adorable little kids.
One little boy cried in discomfort. Even his wispy tufts of hair seemed to droop as he complained about his beloved stuffed tiger he’d left at home. “All alone…” he moaned, dissolving into another bout of tears.
Yang Han shushed him and patted his back as I’d done to her yesterday. “It’s gonna be OK,” she said. She even offered to share half of a swirly butternut cookie that appeared out of nowhere to comfort him. When another little girl commented about needing to use the restroom, Yang Hang enthusiastically offered, “I’ll take you there!” These simple acts of kindness demonstrated how profoundly sweet she was, despite—or, maybe because of—her young age.
Soon, Yang Han left her little troop of baby-faced friends and hurried back over to my compartment.
Plopping down on my mattress again, she pointed at my travel satchel and asked, “What’s inside?”
I unzipped the bag, shrugging. “Just some bubblegum wrappers, sunglasses, and some sketch paper…”
Peeking inside the bag too, Yang Han looked up and asked, “What’s the sketch paper for?”
I looked at the paper, creamy and bright in the morning light. “For drawing, of course!” Suddenly, an idea sprang to my head. “I’m going to sketch you, OK?”
Yang Han didn’t know what sketching was, but she grinned anyways.
Feeling around the travel satchel, I found a pencil. Using my book as a prop stand, I etched out the facial structure of my subject, round and baby-faced. I had to work fast. Three-year-olds are impatient human beings, and they can’t pose for long stretches of time. I tapped my pencil against the paper. What was Yang Han’s most distinct feature? Her black marble eyes, I decided. As I traced the eye outlines, Yang Han took a close look at the portrait-to-be and rushed off to call some of her adorable friends to come over.
Once again, a huddle of small children plopped down on my mattress and swarmed around, observing me as I drew Yang Han’s hair china-doll style. When I filled in Yang Han’s nose, the little boy Yang Han had comforted with the swirly butternut cookie had become deeply interested in my drawing, inching in and leaning over to get a better look at it, to the point where he accidentally spilled a couple drops of his orange juice, leaving a patch of stains on my pale-white mattress.
Upon completion, I showed the sketch to Yang Han and smiled.“Done! You like it?”
Abruptly abandoning her dear red monkey, she grabbed the drawing and ogled it, rapt with wonder. Jaw dropping in awe, she pressed it against her face and squealed in delight.
Immediately, she rushed to display her latest treasure to everyone in my compartment, much to the oohs and ahs of her little troop, and when that task was completed, she galloped across the passenger corridors, showing it for all the people on board to admire.
“See!” she shouted, bursting with pride, “It’s me!” much to the nodding and awwwws of the bemused audience. And if there was no reaction, Yang Han would simply thrust the picture in their faces and repeat “SEE!” more forcefully.
I genuinely loved seeing her joy and the response of our fellow passengers. A tiny surge of pride rose within me as I thought about how I had indeed captured her features in the portrait quite accurately. Yang Han reminded me of myself when I had ridden on my very first train. I had been but three too. From my family’s fond memories of that event, I had wandered around the corridor a lot like Yang Han, minus the adorable troops. At home, I had been a rather withdrawn child, doubtful, suspicious of the world. Always in the shadow of my mom. And I saw that happiness that I had felt all those years ago, reflected in this jubilant three-year-old Yang Han, though her friendly openness had been the polar opposite of my three-year-old personality.
At this thought, I felt a pang of wistfulness, knowing that when Yang Han would grow up to be my age, she’d probably barely have any memories about the moment happening before my eyes now.
Later, after her “exhibition” was over, Yang Han showed the sketch over to her dad, who came to my compartment to thank me. He was as pleased as her. From him, I learned that their train stop was Ganzhou, which was the very next destination on our train route.
Too soon, the train pulled up next to Ganzhou, an industrial city. Before she and her family headed there, Yang Han clung to my jeans leg. She didn’t want to let go. Nor did I.
After the Ganzhou stop, the train chugged closer and closer to Shenzhen. I gazed outside through the oval-shaped window, marveling at the the views. How a sparkling, crystal-clear stream twisted through a picturesque fishing village, flanked with wooden docks, breathing life into the well-worn town. How the rolling farmland with its endless rice fields created tall grassy hills, with cows grazing upon the abundant clover, munching away the blazing hot summer. How the hills gave way to towering mountains, these grand, majestic formations, with forests so dense,lush, and thick they could rival the sprawling acres back home in Alabama! Wisps of fog enveloped the sweeping green mountain range, creating an ethereal feel.
I sighed in amazement, proud that the land of my heritage held so many captivating wonders and sights to see… I spent the entire afternoon staring, eyes pressed against the window, imagining what other natural scenery I would witness…
In due time though, scores of skyscrapers began to spiral out, luminous against the backdrop of a vibrantly colored sunset, dropping the curtain upon yet another day. The remaining passengers began to crowd around the windows to catch the first glimpse of our final destination, Shenzhen. As the train curved beyond a ridge, blocky buildings jammed the city, as if edging in for a role in this urban spectacle. Their glassy surfaces glowed like fire as the setting sun reflected on it. Far off in the distance, fiery fireworks exploded, a cluster of dancing flames. We could hear the cascading POW! POW! POW!s going off. Before us, neon lights blinked nonstop.
Our train swerved towards the Shenzhen train station, and everyone descended down to the platform. Excitement grew in me as my family and I seized our suitcases and took our tentative first steps in the city. Next to me, I saw the gray-haired man glow with happiness as he embraced his young grandchildren, their parents looking on, radiant with joy. The tearful young woman who had bade goodbye to her family in Beijing now took in Shenzhen with a confident gaze and started off towards the distance, ready for her journey of independence. Many other passengers huddled together and reunited with waiting passersby. Seeing the vast sea of people bustling around us, I was a traveler blurred within the crowds of humanity, of people with dreams, hopes, challenges they had conquered, difficulties yet to be defeated… I looked out towards a world just waiting to be explored…