VI: Over the Great Firewall and Into a Bullet

Guilin, May 10thThe Great Firewall is bedeviling yet restorative. No longer am I yanking my phone from my pocket every minute or two to check for notifications. That was my habit, and as my habit wanes my senses sharpen in the way blindness accentuates hearing. The new realm is not just auditory, but the world itself.

But balls to you, censorship. The one VPN I downloaded has been blacklisted and, as such, is useless. What does happen, however, is pages load for a tantalizing second before the Firewall swoops in and swaps my Facebook for an error message. I didn’t realize the extent to which I’ve twisted my life up with Google. Saying nothing of emails, messages, using it as the access point for news, Google is my habit, my anodyne for sociability. Frustration doubles as I attempt to purchase train tickets to take us to Chengdu. I’m relegated to using Bing, an ersatz Google that has me wanting to toss some rope over a banister. And while there is this—a reprieve from social media and wanderlust hashtags—I feel demeaned and infantilized by such a blatant barrier. I prefer America’s way, in which control is consented to, packaged, and sold off for S-corporation benefit.

We break from our laziness with a grateful stroll, brush aside humidity as if it were a curtain, and watch gardeners weed paddocks and blindly toss the herbage into bamboo baskets strapped to their backs.

The gardens that I see here and elsewhere in China bear no relation to the cities they’re a part of. Tended and clean, the gardens elaborate on the landscape, accentuating contours and colors. There are no purposeful, enlivening flowers, as I’d expect to see in a British garden, nor the pompous grids and patterns of a French one. Nor a rambling American one, matching with a hazard plot of squash and fence of beans, the spirit that tills it, as knotted and frustrating as Boston roads. Chinese gardens are complimentary aesthetics to the verdant nature they emulate. Dry mud retaining walls mimic the tidal-like edges of the ponds they border, stalks grow in swarthy humus free of weeds. The cities look like the impositions that they are. I heard China used more concrete between 2011 and 2013 than America did in the 20th century. Architects, it seems, make no provision for aesthetics, and the apartments they’ve designed are admirably purposeful: straight-lined, flat-roofed, copy and pasted a hundred or even thousand times across a city’s vast skyline. At first, I think of these buildings as vanguards, they and the hundreds of cranes that accompany them standing as the most current delineation of a city that pours into the country like a loose batter. They are not. They cluster as tight in suburbs, if that word is even appropriate here, as they do in a city’s center. And I wonder if they are occupied, for quite often they are without windows, and I can gaze straight through and see the boxed capsules of sky on the other end. What type of divorce proceeding led to this awful schism, the one between the gardener and his architect comrade?

May 11thThis morning we departed on account of bad weather. This necessitated checking out a day earlier than scheduled, and you’d have thought we insulted the entire lineage of the front desk staff. Their poor, aggrieved faces. I wanted to renege on our decision, apologize for the inconvenience, swear that we’d misspoke and that we’d brought down our bags just as a form of exercise, and marching them back upstairs, back to our room, for one more day, would complete the set. We confounded them and then had to coo them, bringing them out of their confusion with profuse compliments and assurances as to the excellent quality of the services they rendered; I half-thought we’d need to sign a covenant to show the owner confirming as much.

Chengdu lay opposite. Between: a day of seven hours on a bullet train. What I hear about this train that reaches 220mph, is that it is quiet. The train is. The train is quiet. As in the physical railroad cars, the locomotive, the wheels on the track. To a person sitting inside—this is what I’m told—those things, literally the train, are quiet.

Technically, technically, this is true. Literally, literally, it is true too. But what I hear—what I heard—when I’m told “the train is quiet” is this: the train, the abstract, general notion of the train, which includes all its aggregate parts, its chattel, its passengers—a.k.a. the concept of train travel in China—promises low decibel levels of sound.  It is travel, in the train, that is quiet. That is my expectation.

Disappointment is the gap between expectation and reality.

This railway is relatively new. Engineers bored into mountains rather than skirting them. Four hours we spend zipping through this excavation. Alternating between in the earth and out of it, shuffling between black tunnels and tapered valleys hairy with bamboo and wet conifer, I feel like I’m being challenged to interpret a luminescent Morse Code message: long dash of dark, short dot of light, long dark, long light, long dark, short light. When our car is positioned under the sun, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region becomes a diorama vignette, something at once pastoral and modern. In every valley there is a stream, aside every stream is a village. Broken clouds, ones not adhering to their altitude, usurp the peaks of these low-grade mountains and fall upon the tin roof gables of the old, village homes. When there is space, there are buildings to fill it. Major factories with their own rail yards come up against the tracks, and behind them, appurtenant, are their company towns, replete with new wealth. Kids play on soccer fields, traffic idles, German cars wait to turn left. Often, it is the concave cement tube of a nuclear power plant cooling tower that is a town’s highest structure.

The above is pleasant, and I’m glad we opted for this route instead of one thirty-thousand feet higher. But. But. I’ve been robbed of the notion that train travel in China is romantic. Or even pleasurable. This has everything to do with the nature of the passengers, their proclivities, and the manner in which they pass time. No electronic gadget, phone widget, app-ding, key-tap, ringtone, music-score, pop-song, laugh-track, spoken or shrieked word has ever existed that these passengers would mute or listen to through headphones. The very concept of silence is an allergen. Sitting in this train car is like sitting in a room filled with a thousand poorly tuned slot-machines malfunctioning at once, it is a fireworks explosion inside a fireworks factory but instead of a factory it is a sound magnification tube you’re belted into and instead of fireworks you have every top 10 song, TV show, phone ring, and smartphone game. White Americans, academics note, love public silence. Chinese do not. A conflagrant crash between these stereotypes is inevitable My mom, a veteran flight attendant with the patience you’d expect from someone who has had to sit through trainings on how to use a seatbelt, feels moved to pettiness. She plays a Frank Sinatra album through her phone. She sits with eyes closed, the phone on her lap crooning “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” People look over, check the source of this foreign sound, and snuggle back into their arm rests. The message is not received. My mom gives up.

I am more direct and splash the verbal equivalent of a teacup onto a California forest fire. First my nemesis is a family of three: two children and their mother. The children watch a show on their tablet at a high volume and express their enthusiasm with hearty kicks on my chair. The mom, who I can only assume thinks of her kids’ TV show as a distraction, has turned the volume of her TV show to its highest level. I calmly pantomime the suggestion that they put in headphones and perhaps use alternative kicking platforms. They just as gently ignore me. I have better success with my arm-rest companion, a young woman with fake, jewel encrusted fingers who juggles messages dinging through two iPhones. She is more surprised than horrified when I reach for one of these and indicate where it is she can switch off the text message sound.

These are minor and trivial annoyances. And my disdain for the routine failure to adhere to my own country’s technology punctilios has a fast half-life. Yet there is one occurrence of monumental annoyance: a corpulent man in a rose, button-up poplin shirt is exerting an incredible amount of stress on his larynx over the course of a legendary five-hour nap. I hesitate to call the sound “snoring,” on account of the National Geographic “Death on the Serengeti” documentaries I’ve seen that have animal grunts and screams of less desperation. What he is doing is atmospheric excavation. He is attempting nothing less than shattering the sound barrier with sound. With each exhale, his body twitches. His face bears a look of agony. I get up and stand over him, gazing down. His breaths straighten out his uvula like a paper tail tied to a fan. I wish I had this man’s boldness. It is this sort of shamelessness that speedos thank for their existence, that gave us open-toed sandals and Las Vegas and Alex Jones. When the man wakes, he reaches for his cell phone to answer a call. When he talks, his voice fogs up the car. “This man is a one-man show,” I think. He is our entertainment until Chengdu.


Cover photo credit: Wikipedia 

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