We arrived in Qiqiha’er, across the Xing’an mountains in Heilongjiang Province, on the overnight train from Manzhouli. Covering this distance on train and at night, we slept away across the dark Hulunbei’er Grasslands, which in daytime are supposed to be Inner Mongolia’s most impressive patch of empty space. But as our remaining travel time this summer winds down, we’ve got to cross all those miles somehow, and quickly.
And with a little luck, China’s overnight trains are a fantastic way to do just that. They whisk you into the night, lulling you to sleep with gentle swaying and soft click-clacking, and deliver you to a bright new morning in a brand new place. Ideally, anyway. Some luck is needed to get the best tickets, or sometimes to get any tickets at all. And more luck is necessary if, for whatever reason, you want your night to be quiet, like when travelling with a toddler. That part comes down to which co-riders are in the neighboring bunks. Sometimes fate is kind, and delivers a quiet family, or a small group of soft-spoken college students, to occupy the berths around you. Other times, though, you get a group of middle-aged or older men. This demographic – a large one, including seemingly all professions and economic backgrounds – is notable on Chinese trains simply for the amount of noise they produce.
To begin with, they observe a completely different set of rules for digital-age etiquette. Cell phones, movies, “personal” music players – all electronic devices are turned to maximum volume, and left that way. And these devices themselves only account for a fraction of the overall noise. Most of the noise is just a result of all their yelling. Into their phones, in conversation with each other, at you to ask a question – most often, “IS CHINA GOOD OR AMERICA GOOD?” And “WHAT’S YOUR SALARY?” Verbal communication is conducted in ‘outside’ voices. Way outside, like from a distant mountaintop in the midst of a tornado. And often, as we finally get our over-tired toddler to grudgingly nod off, it’s not uncommon for a nearby onlooker, having watched the whole process intently, to pipe up: “HEY, IS THAT A BOY OR A GIRL? A BOY? VERY GOOD! DO YOU FOREIGNERS LIKE BOYS BETTER OR GIRLS BETTER? HMM. WE CHINESE THINK BOYS ARE BEST. OH HEY, HE WOKE UP!”
I could speculate as to why Chinese men are almost uniformly unconcerned about making too much noise – perhaps positing that a lifetime of individual subordination to the group tends to result, particularly among males, in different sorts of passive-aggressive behavior meant to upend that hierarchy. To their credit, I have never seen a Chinese man complain to someone else about their noise, even when woken up by it. Another aspect to the social culture here is that it’s rather unseemly to be annoyed by, or even notice, the racket and commotion made by others. But like the prissy foreigner stereotype that I am, I often find myself getting annoyed and trying to quiet things down. In doing so, I play into another stereotype, which is how we foreigners spoil our child rotten – in this case, by lowering our voices and keeping the lights dim while they sleep. This kind of sleeping arrangement isn’t possible when the whole extended family lives in one room with the TV always on, so most Chinese kids just learn to sleep wherever and whenever they can. And in this context, Owen’s 8PM bedtime and our entreaties to lower the volume around him are about as imposing, snobby, and selfish as you can get.
And yet women, I should mention, by and large, are just as willing as we are to spoil our sleeping kid by conscientiously hushing their voices. Perhaps because they’re the ones in every culture who tend to bear the brunt of the effects of over-tired children. Whatever the case, our problem is mostly with the men.
So, our boarding the train last night began typically enough. We got to our berths and found them already occupied–—by a group of four men. Three of them were young, perhaps in the early twenties, and the fourth was old enough to be their father. They were in the middle of an argument, a loud one, because one of the younger guys had fallen behind in drinking shots of baijiu. When we arrived, they looked up: man, woman, baby. Foreigners. With big backpacks. Man, what a buzz-kill.
“Russians.” Said one of the younger men to the others, as we started stowing our bags.
Me: “We’re not Russians.”
They all looked up. “Oh, you speak Chinese! Well, what country are you, then?”
Me, now annoyed that nobody was making room for Bayley and Owen: “Why don’t you guess.”
They accepted the challenge. “Hmm… Canada.”
Surprised: “Uh… that’s actually pretty close! By why Canada?”
“Well, because you speak not-bad Chinese.”
“But I’ve hardly spoken. And anyway, do all Canadians really speak good Chinese?”
“They sure do. Canadians speak very good Chinese. So you must be Canadian.”
“But how many Canadians do you know?”
“Da Shan is Canadian. And I once had a foreigner I knew, he was Canadian. And his Chinese was really good.”
“Hmm. Well, but we’re not Canadians, we’re Americans.”
“America?” One of the younger men made a high-pitched mimicking voice: “Oh, ‘USA, USA!’”
“Ha, yeah. USA.”
“Oooh, your America won the Olympics. But America still said China cheated! Why does American always criticize?”
“Well, that was one person, one coach. And America and China both have very good athletes.”
“Hmmph. Chinese athletes are not good.”
Not wanting to argue, I stowed our bags and started getting out Owen’s pajamas. A minute or two later, the three young men decided to get up and go for a smoke. The train still hadn’t left the station, so they went outside on the platform, standing next to the window near our bunks. We got Owen set up for bed, and turned to the old man still seated next to us. “Would you mind if we turned off the overhead light? It’s a little too bright for our small child to sleep. We can all just use our bedside lights.”
The old man nodded. I got up and flipped the switch, and Bayley started putting Owen down for bed.
Then suddenly, we heard a loud banging from somewhere. It was one of the young men outside, pounding on the window. He shouted: “Lights! Turn the lights on!” I looked at the old man.
“Maybe we can turn the lights on,” said the old man. “Just until we get moving.”
What was wrong with these people? “Well, we’re already ten minutes late, and we haven’t left yet.” I said. “There’s no telling how long we’ll be waiting. Why don’t we just use our small lights now? Then the small child can go to sleep. It’s already late, and if he doesn’t sleep now, he might have a hard time all night.”
The old man nodded, but then his cell phone rang. He let it ring a few times, then held it up. He studied the incoming number. Finally he answered. “Wei?” It was the young man outside. Loudly, through the speakerphone, we heard him: “TELL THE AMERICANS TO TURN THE LIGHTS BACK ON!” Then he started banging the window again, with more force.
At this point, Owen’s bed time was not going well. “This shouldn’t be a problem for him!” I said to the old man. “He’s not in here, he’s out there! And the small child is very tired. If we keep the bright lights on, the small child will be unable to sleep, and then it’s very possible that he’ll cry all night. None of us will sleep!”
“No problem, no problem.” Said the old man. “But let’s just keep the lights on until we get going.”
“I’m telling you,” I said, now considering the old man unreasonable, “that if we keep the small child from sleeping now, then none of us will sleep all night.” Perhaps he just didn’t understand: when this small child Owen can’t sleep, his crying is anything but small.
A train conductor walked past outside. The young man got his attention, then pointed at us and shouted: “TELL THESE AMERICANS THAT THIS ISN’T AMERICA! THIS IS OUR CHINA, AND THEY CAN’T JUST DO WHATEVER THEY WANT!”
Moments later, the conductor appeared at our berth. With a flip of the switch, the bright lights went back on. Owen started squirming. “Just until we get going,” the conductor said. “Then you can turn them off.”
“Well how long will that be?” I asked.
The judge had made his ruling: it was I who was being unreasonable.
With the noise and lights, Owen started wailing. I still had the train conductor, so I tried a different tactic. Pointing at the young man outside, who was watching closely through the window, I said: “Why is that man outside so angry? We just want to let our small child sleep, but that young man got very angry about the light. Did he actually state the problem?” ; By calling attention to the fact that the other man had lost his cool before even discussing the matter, I was making a last-ditch attempt to re-cast him as the troublemaker. In China, visibly displaying one’s anger is generally seen as a breakdown in self-control, a selfish act. If I could portray myself as calm and willing to discuss, perhaps my wish to dim the lights would seem more acceptable.
But I’d have no such luck. My appeal was overturned, and the final judgment even harsher: “The light stays on until everyone wants to sleep.” The conductor then strode away.
So now I had bright lights, a crying Owen, an old man looking at me like I just ruined his day, Bayley yelling at me to screw these people and just turn the lights back off myself, and a young man standing outside, looking in at me and my situation and grinning. Great – within fifteen minutes I’d made enemies out of everyone around me. This, I was sure, was going to be the train ride from hell.
But with Owen now kindly demonstrating the crying wails I’d warned everyone about, I tried one last time. Talking to the old man was no use. I leaned toward the window, pointing at Owen in his bunk, and was about to make my final plea to the young guy for a new consensus. But he cut me off: “THAT’S MY DAD!” He was pointing at the old man next to me. “HE’S GOING BACK HOME! I’M SEEING HIM OFF!”
Over the last year, I’ve gotten used to these kinds of non sequiturs. Great, I thought. Whatever. I want this light off. But just then the train started moving. And now one thing was clear: the young guys outside weren’t riding with us. As they waved and jogged alongside, it dawned on me that they’d only come to say goodbye to the one man’s father, to share a few shots of liquor before his train left. It was the son who’d been so angry when we tried to turn off the lights. Because he’d been standing outside the window, he could only see his father if it was bright inside our compartment. And now, as we slowly picked up speed, he ran along the platform, his face a foot from the window, looking in at his dad. And he was crying.
The old man looked out at his son. Keeping his composure, he gave a soft wave. We sped up. The young man dropped his pace, held his arm out, gave a final wave. We rolled out of the station and into the night.
“Okay.” Said the old man. “Let’s turn off the light.”
An hour or so later, Owen was sleeping and Bayley and I were reading. The old man’s cellphone went off. He let it ring a bunch of times, then picked it up and studied the incoming number. After a few more rings, he answered.
Through the speakerphone: “DAD! IS THE SMALL CHILD SLEEPING?”
“YES, he’s sleeping. It was NO PROBLEM.” He replied.
“GOOD. I was worried he wouldn’t be able to sleep.”
“NO PROBLEM! Don’t worry, RIGHT NOW THE SMALL CHILD IS SLEEPING WELL… AND IF HE WAKES UP, I HAVE SOME CANDY.”
“GOOD. Well, you should get some sleep, too.”
Then they said goodbye again and hung up.
The next morning, we woke up with the sunrise. The old man was gone, having gotten off at some small stop along the way in the dark, early morning hours. We made ourselves some instant coffee and watched the scenery – fields, wetlands, little country roads, all stretching across an endlessly flat landscape – roll past. Having come from the deserts and mountains of western China, this featureless Northeast scenery had a certain novelty for us. Being back in a more “Chinese” part of China also felt novel: the people around us were looking and acting Chinese again, with last night’s display of Confucian filial piety one incredible example.
Interestingly, here on the border of the Mongolian plateau and the Manchurian plain, we were still outside the historical geographic core of Chinese culture. Up to a hundred years ago, this was the ancestral domain of the Manchu, a non-Han ethnic group that actually ruled over China as the last imperial dynasty. Back then, they forced their Han subjects to wear the queue as a sign of obedience, and forbade them from setting foot in these lands. But what a difference the last century or so has made. The Japanese conquered this area, made it an industrial center, and in doing so provided a great boost to the manufacturing base of the independent China that eventually emerged. China’s new Communist leaders moved larger numbers of Han workers to this area, and now Manchu has almost completely died-out as a language and identity. There is little to distinguish the people here – many the mixed-blood descendants of those Han migrants, others still full-blooded Manchu, itself an amalgamation of different tribes – as a separate ethnic group. Only the place names, Chinese approximations of the old Manchu, Daur, and Oroqen pronunciations, remain obviously distinct: Yakeshi, Jiagedashi, Qiqiha’er.
So we arrived in Qiqiha’er, a railroad town with one of those funny-sounding names. The town center featured an impressive array of crumbling, Stalinist-style old buildings, all circling the central square, which covered an enormous bomb shelter. Underneath, the wide tunnels were now filled with food and shoe vendors. Not much else here. But we’d gotten off here in order to switch trains for our next destination, and we had a few hours to kill. We’d heard there was a nature reserve for red-crowned cranes.
And with Owen well-rested from his quiet night on the train, we were ready to explore.