With A Banjo On My Knee

January 7, 2005


It’s really never a dull moment around here. After a relaxing flight on a half-empty plane (the advantages, I guess, of traveling on New Year’s Day – I had three seats to myself to stretch out across and when I asked for a Bloody Mary at the beginning of the flight, the kindly flight attendant replied, “Here, honey, have two”), I got back to China Sunday night and found myself settled into my Shanghai hotel ahead of schedule. The next morning I got up and took off for the train station to head back to Nanjing, pretty satisfied with my nice, smooth trip. And that’s where the trouble started.

I didn’t realize it, but the Monday after New Year’s Day was a holiday in China. Normally, it is wise to keep very close tabs on Chinese holidays when traveling, because the sheer size of the Chinese population means that any when day half or more of the workers are off work, the domestic transportation system is in danger of being overwhelmed. Monday was a bank holiday in much of the world, so I really have no excuse for not checking this more carefully. When I arrived at the train station, it was packed. (See notes on “packed” in the Chinese context in previous messages.) (here are a few helpful hints: college fraternity-get-on-the-news-and-in-the-Guiness-Book-of-Records-phone-booth-cramming-packed, Beatles concert in 1964 packed; OK, on with the narrative). After fighting my way through a solid wall of people, running my suitcase over countless toes in the process (and having my own toes trampled in return), I got into a long line for a ticket. Just as I finally got up to the window, the announcement came: all tickets to Nanjing and a half dozen other cities were sold out for the rest of the day.

It seemed like the perfect opportunity to test out a theory of mine: whenever down on your luck in China, just find a public place, assume a Lost Foreigner pose, and some enterprising capitalist will show up momentarily to make a little money off of helping you out. Either that or they’ll try to sell you a fake designer bag. Needless to say, I was hoping for the former.

I stumbled out of the ticket office and stopped dead outside the train station with my luggage, assumed what I hoped was a properly pathetic expression, and started to count to myself. “1…2…3…4…” “You go Suzhou? Wuhan?” Bingo. “Nanjing,” I answered. “Oh, Nanjing,” he replied, “Just a minute.” He called a friend over, and told her that I wanted to go to Nanjing. She looked me up and down, and then suggested in English, “Bus. You take bus, I show you.” She then took off at breakneck speed, with me struggling to keep up behind her with my assorted bags and 53-pound suitcase (Christmas cheer is heavy).

When we had cleared the crowd at the train station, I saw an opportunity to ask a few vital questions, like whether there were buses today, how long they take to get to Nanjing, etc. I wanted to establish a good dialogue in Chinese before I asked the price, because that way if she tried to buy my ticket for me at the bus station, she knew I’d know if she overcharged me. This worked like a charm, because when we got there she did indeed buy my ticket for me, but was completely up front about the real, posted price, and her hopes that I would give her an additional 10 yuan (about $1.25) for helping out. This I was more than happy to do: I would have never found the bus station myself. She hauled my suitcase up the steps herself (embarrassing, as she was a foot shorter than me and half my size), shoved me forward into a crowded waiting room with my ticket in hand, and told me the bus would leave in an hour and that they’d call me. She must have talked to the bus station manager about me, because a half an hour later he shouted through the waiting room in Chinese, “Hey, anybody remember where the foreigner is going?”

When he called the Nanjing bus, I stood up quickly. This shocked everyone in the waiting room. (Really, though, even if I didn’t speak Chinese, I should at least recognize the name of the city I was traveling to.) Out back he loaded me and, I kid you not, 20 other people into a van (a van!), along with our luggage, which was wedged in to the ceiling everywhere but around the driver’s head. 3 and ½ hours to Nanjing like this? But I had no way off, either, as there were 10 people and about 12 large suitcases blocking my access to the doors. Pressed into the girl next to me with my face buried in a large tote bag and my arms glued in unnatural positions (one across my chest, as if I wanted to be prepared in case the national anthem should suddenly start up, and the other smashed between my thigh and my backpack), there was not much choice in the matter.

Imagine my relief when, ten minutes later, we pulled into a larger bus station. Someone outside opened the side doors of the van, and a few suitcases and people sprung out like a jack-in-the-box gone mad. The rest of us un-wedged ourselves from our neighbors and followed our Liberator to Gate 11, where the real bus was waiting. We stowed our luggage in the undercarriage and boarded a coach bus with other Nanjing-bound passengers. The bus was full – a person in every seat – but comfortable. Then, of course, the bus drove off to yet another bus station and picked up more passengers. I’m still not exactly sure about the details of the argument that followed, but it seemed there was some kind of rule that everyone must be sitting in some way, shape or form – but not actually in the aisle – before the bus could move. With all the seats already full, however, some creativity was required.

When we finally hit the highway a half an hour later, there were three people crouched on the steps leading down to the side door, a woman in the (non-operational) toilet sitting on a shoe box, and others balancing on seat arms, including one women who was half on the arm of my seat and half on my right thigh. I did what anyone would do in that situation: I whipped out a crocheting project and addressed the women on my lap, “Bit chilly today, isn’t it?” I had a long, pleasant chat with the people around me (including a few arm-sitters from neighboring seats), mostly about how it was that I could speak Chinese and where I learned to crochet (which the teenaged girl next to me pronounced “so cool,” which I assume was because I am young and a westerner – when the elderly Chinese women knit on the side of the street and sell their wares for spending money, it is not nearly so cool).

By the time I was back in Nanjing hauling my suitcase up the three flights to my apartment (hands down the worst part of the trip), it had been more than eight hours since I had left my hotel in Shanghai. (The train from Shanghai to Nanjing takes only two. Hours, that is.) Back in my apartment, I soon discovered that the one thing I will miss the most about the US this winter is central heating. It wasn’t cold outside – in the 40s, which is nice, outside. Inside it felt like a meat locker. I have a wall combo heat-cool unit in my bedroom, which I turned on to its highest setting and soon discovered that while it made the bedroom warmer than the rest of the apartment, it wasn’t really what you’d call cozy. And, of course, every time I left my room it was a mad dash for whatever I needed, then quick back into my room, where I’d shiver for about five minutes while wrapping myself in blankets. The thing to get, I thought, was a space heater.

I journeyed to CE Mart and purchased a small plastic heater with an unrecognizable Shanghai brand name and brought it home. I got it out of the box and set it up, plugged it in and turned it on. The force of the fan on the heater caused the whole thing to move and shake, but I could feel it: heat, sweet heat. Happy to the core of my very being, I went out to the kitchen to make a cup of hot tea. Then I heard a ‘thunk’ from my room and quickly walked back in. In its shaking and shimmying, the heater had knocked itself over. I walked closer and discovered that what the space heater lacked in quality, it more than made up for in dramatic flair: it had burst into flames. Fortunately for me, having set my toaster oven on fire a few years back in an unfortunate krumkake-toasting experiment gone awry, I knew exactly what to do. I got it unplugged and before I could move it or smother the fire, the plastic casing had choked the fire out. Crisis averted.

Proving that I am either remarkably stupid or hell-bent on destruction, I went out and bought a new space heater the very next day. This time, however, I went to Wal-Mart and had a long discussion with the salesperson about what I look for in a space heater. (“I want one that will not spontaneously combust. Got any like that?”) I finally bought a Singfung brand “Taiwanese style” space heater. I chose to ignore the dubious wisdom of trusting the expertise of a sub-tropical island in heater design, and went instead with the logic that I had had a space heater in Taiwan (only necessary for a few weeks out of the winter, but in those few weeks, very necessary), and it did not once emit flames of any size, which is really all I ask. My, but my standards have fallen.

So I’m in Nanjing, my heater works, no problems right? Well… in my enthusiasm over the wall heater, the space heater, and the hot water heater yesterday, I blew a fuse. As it turns out, every outlet in the entire apartment is on a single circuit. After a quick search, I found the fuse box and saw the flashing red light: yup, blown all right. I’ve never actually changed a fuse before, but pulling out the old fuse it was obvious what to do. But where does one buy a fuse in Nanjing at 8 pm? The big CE Mart and Wal-mart stores are quite far away; the grocery stores stock lightbulbs, underwear, and electric lint removers, but not fuses. The thing to do was to ask someone, so I wandered into a electronics repair shop. I had checked my dictionary for “fuse,” but didn’t find the definition I was looking for: they were all about the thing you light to set off fireworks or a bomb. No problem, I thought. I’ll just describe it. Yeah. Go right now, go to someone next to you and, without using the word fuse or circuit (which I didn’t know in Chinese), try to get them guess “fuse.”

My explanation went something like this: “The electricity in my apartment is divided in two: one for the lights, one for the outlets. I had too many things going at once, used too much electricity at one time, and now the outlets don’t work. I need to replace the thing in the box on the wall to make them work again.” I must have gotten a little off and given the man in the shop the wrong idea, though, because it ended with him rather urgently telling me to get an electrician, right now, and do I want him to help me call? He kept looking nervously in the direction of my apartment complex, like he was expecting to see an explosion from that direction at any minute. I swore to him this wasn’t necessary, apologized for bothering him, and left.

After a few other false starts, I went to the handy security guards at the entrance to my apartment complex. When I moved in they told me that if I ever needed anything, I shouldn’t hesitate to ask. I’ve only taken them up on this once before, when I needed help opening a particularly stubborn jar of fruit (hey, they said anything). My reason for stopping there was simple: there was a visible fuse box on the wall of the guardhouse, so if I ran into trouble I could point to it before they panicked and called the fire department. I needn’t have worried, though, because they caught on right away and brought me to a handy stand about 10 feet from the apartment driveway that sells 10 kilo bags of rice, cigarettes, batteries, and, apparently, fuses. I’m proud to say I only shocked myself once getting the new fuse in. And most importantly, my heat was restored (the real reason I was determined to get the fuse changed that night). Oh – and the Chinese for fuse (in case it ever comes up) is baoxiansi.

One more and then I’m done, I promise. With Chinese New Year just around the corner (February 9), the New Year decorations are in the stores and the songs blaring over the loudspeakers. In the grocery store the other day, I heard a song that wished everyone prosperity and happiness (gongxi ni, zhufu ni) to the tune of “Oh! Susanna.” Mention Susanna, banjoes, or Alabama to anyone here, though, and they’ll give you a blank look: it’s an old traditional Chinese song. I’ve been told in the past that there is also a traditional Korean song that is sung to the same tune (I wondered why it was the ring tone on a soap opera character’s cell phone and was told that what I was hearing is not “Oh! Susanna” at all, but a Korean folk song. Coulda fooled me).

This has got me thinking: is this the common thread for all humanity? The one thing that ties it all together? Could it be that every culture on earth has its own “Oh! Susanna”? So this is what I ask of all of you: ask around. You all travel or know people from far away, or both. Let’s see how many world cultures have adopted this melody.

Copyright 2005 by Meredith Oyen