Monday, February 8, 2010

Chapter 8: The Child Who Chased Trains

We were on the midnight train from Guangzhou's East Station, bound for Hengyang Station, which left at 11pm and was due to arrive early morning at 5am. This leg of the journey totaled 521 kilometers, a length of distance that I had once traveled before. In 1987, I made my first trip to Berlin from Frankfurt. The distance from Frankfurt via car to the still-barricaded city of Berlin was 560 kilometers back then.

The moment we drove into East Germany, the so-called public road morphed into a narrow path lined with steel wire fences and and flanked by watchtowers, with searchlights vigilantly sweeping the passage. Our car was shepherded into a tunnel leading to the next inspection point -- there was no turning back. We were frozen with terror, bombarded by shrill whistle cries and surrounded by uniformed border guards that suddenly emerged into plain sight.

Was there a family reunion I didn't know about? Guangzhou's East Station was filled with at least a thousand travelers... everyone congregated in the lobby and spoke with the same familiar Hunanese accent. Most were workers, and they all carried bulging burlap sacks with the same red, white, and blue stripes and same wide opening. Travelers each had many burlap sacks strapped onto their bodies, covering them like hanging Christmas ornaments. I imagined that it was the first time in two, three years that these workers had the opportunity to go back home. These former village children would probably suddenly find themselves now changed beyond recognition.

People kept to themselves and quietly filed into the train cars. Once their luggage was stowed away, they climbed into their assigned bunks and promptly turned off the lights. The exact moment the lights went off, the entire world succumbed to the rumbling rhythm of the train tracks. Travelling on a midnight train is quite romantic... the train car transforms into an impenetrable cradle that guards your state of perfect repose and sways your tired body to sleep; the machine's steady rhythmic flow draping over you like a gentle mosquito net, tucking you into this magic rocking cradle.

Mei-jun boarded a train from Guangzhou with Li Fo-sheng (李佛生), one of the two young soldiers that accompanied her from her village of Chun'an. Mei-jun saw many families torn apart in the six months that she was in Guangzhou, and was now determined to pick up the child that she left in Hengshan. Never did Mei-jun realize that after just half a year, her son would no longer recognize her as his mother.

Fifty years later, I mirrored the same route, the same 521 kilometers, that Mei-jun traveled to fetch her son in 1949.

Mei-jun arrived at Hengyang in the early hours of the morning, but the train could not go any farther because the tracks were blasted apart. The train's panicked passengers faced a hard decision: Do we sit and wait or do we get off and walk?

During that period of time, even the most seemingly minute, most seemingly insignificant decision could barrel you towards a certain irreversible fate.

It was 5am. I stepped out of Hengyang Station and deeply inhaled the cold brisk morning air, which awakened me like a strong breath mint. We were locked in a thick borderless mist. Even though it was still dark, there were many people waiting by the platform, carefully listening to station attendants announcing the next series of destinations:

You County! You County! (攸縣)
Qiyang! Qiyang! (祁陽)
Changning! Changning! (長寧)
Yongzhou! Yongzhou! (永州)

Yongzhou? I rushed to locate the person who shouted "Yongshou", and found an old hunchbacked man amidst the thick dense fog.

I stood there in a daze, staring at him blankly -- if I went with him, then I'd find myself on my way to Yongzhou, the place quoted in the famous Tang poet Liu Zongyuan's (柳宗元) most famous works, Eight Records of Excursions to Yongzhou 《永州八記》 and Discourse of the Snake-catcher 《捕蛇者說》. Inspired by Liu Zongyuan, I followed the old man for a little while, and meditated over the "Yongzhou" sign that stood at the edge of the plaza.

Yingyang (應揚) met me at the station. We left the street-lighted town of Hengyang and drove onto pastoral roads that led us straight into an impenetrable blanket of fog. It felt like we were swallowed whole by a wet cloud as we swam blindly through, our headlights rendered completely useless. It was a miracle we didn't drive into any giant potholes.

Mei-jun made a quick decision: walk the remaining distance.

Mei-jun and Fo-sheng jumped off the train and walked north along the tracks; it was approximately 40 kilometers from Hengyang to Hengshan. They walked and walked, noting that rails were broken into shards and wooden sleepers burnt and blackened throughout the track. Fo-sheng supported Mei-jun as her feet started to blister. After the second day, the two finally got a glimpse of Hengshan station in the far distance. Mei-jun breathed a sigh of relief, and in that brief moment of ease, her legs gave way and she collapsed onto the tracks.

I never thought that in 2009, the Hengshan Station that I stood in was almost exactly like the old Hengshan Station that Mei-jun had once described. A thick layer of dust accumulated on the wooden grid windows, lending the place a slow and sleepy aura. There was even an old attendant clutching a broom and dustbin, absorbed in the task at hand. Faint winter rays beamed through the glass grids at such an angle that our shadows became very very long, so long that they brushed against the ticket counter. The ticket counter was actually just two wooden handrails, very modest indeed.

There were no trains running in any direction at this time, nobody in the waiting room aside from us. It was quiet, so quiet that I could hear the wall clock's second hand making rounds around the dial, maybe even hear the light scraping along the floor.

I pretended I was a passenger and glided through the ticket collection stand, walking towards the edge to lean over and take a peek at the train tracks. They extended towards the horizon, disappearing at a bend. This platform was where Mei-jun and Yingyang went separate ways.

I suddenly had a strange impulse.

I wanted to jump off the platform onto the train tracks and press my ear to the rails to see whether I could hear ghost trains come closer and closer...

... and pull off into the distance.

Mei-jun and Fo-sheng walked along a dirt path towards the Lung Family's mountain valley residence. Tung oil trees with unopened blossom buds covered the mountain slopes. Rice paddies lay dry and fallow with stunted half-grown stalks. Members of the Lung Family welcomed Mei-jun on a narrow upraised dirt bank that separated their rice fields. Even though Mei-jun didn't recognize them individually, they remembered her as Lung Huai-sheng's Hangzhou wife. One relative, who was hoisting a carrying pole with two water buckets on her shoulder, put her heavy haul aside to ask how brother Huai-sheng was doing, how far along the war was.

As I stood there on the same dirt bank, Yingyang introduced me to that same water carrying relative as our uncle's wife (大嬸). "This is my younger sister (mei4mei, 妹妹)," he said to her. The second mei was said with a heavy falling 4th tone such that it sounded like "This is my sister demon (mei4mei4, 妹魅)." Soon, I was encircled by curious villagers who all had the same last name Lung. Yingyang introduced them to me one by one:

This person is your older brother (哥哥).
This person is your cousin (表姊).
This person is your uncle (叔叔).

By the time Yingyang finished introducing me to each relative, we had used every kinship title possible.

[Translator's Note: The author points out Yingyang's pronunciation of "younger sister" to emphasize his local accent, which she also pointed out with Mei-jun in an earlier chapter. On another note, those familiar with Chinese family structures will find it extremely impressive that Yingyang was able to apply all these different kinship titles to everyone in the Lung village. Older cousin (表姊) means older female cousin, uncle (叔叔) means father's younger brother. This of course also connotates that this side of the family have generally stayed in their ancestral home, maintaining their traditional farming way of life.]

"I remember your mother, a Hangzhou lady with permed hair," an old woman said.

"Right, I remember, she brought a radio in from the city," an uncle said.

"We liked her because even though she wore a cheongsam, she never complained when she stayed in our shabby homes."

I stood in front of a crumbling abandoned red brick house that lacked windows and a door. Wild untamed grass invaded the dilapidated hut, sprouting freely on the roof. This was where Mei-jun came to pick up her son Yingyang in 1949.

But the terrified child hid behind his grandmother's skirt, clutching to her hand for dear life as he stared wide-eyed at this strange woman who wanted to take him away. He cried and howled, kicked and punched, refusing to come close to Mei-jun.

They set off for Hengyang Station the second day. The train tracks extended towards the horizon, disappearing at a bend. The train was completely mobbed on the south-bound platform, with people climbing and securing themselves onto the curved tin roof. People tightly grabbed onto metal poles, their bodies hanging out of the car, faces pressed against the windows. The train was practically bursting at the seams.

Distressed and uneasy, Mei-jun reached her hand out towards her son to pull him in, but her son started howling once again. But his grandmother, who could not bear to give up the child in the first place, took this opportunity to suggest, "Wouldn't... wouldn't it be better to leave him here?"

The typically steadfast Mei-jun, facing a hysterical red-faced child, faltered. She reached out her hand, and then pulled it back, then reached out, then pulled back.

The train whistle sounded and the train groaned, burdened by its terrific weight. Everything happened in a blink of an eye.

Mei-jun let go.

She turned to Fo-sheng, "Well then, let's board the train."

Then she held Grandmother's hand and promised, " We will -- come back soon."

Fo-sheng hoisted her up like a sack of goods and wedged her through the train window.

Everyone went back to work, heaving buckets of water back onto their shoulders, leaving Yingyang and me back to our conversation. I asked Yingyang, "After that day, did you have any lasting impression of Mother?"

Yingyang instantly teared up and choked down sobs, unable to speak. 60 years later, he was still overcome with emotion whenever he recalled that event.

"I only have one image, which is -- Mother in the train with curly permed hair. After I grew up, I realized that I was the only child without a mother. It was very difficult. At first, Grandmother would trick me and say that she was my mother, but of course I eventually figured out the truth."

Yingyang had bright deep-set eyes. The first time I met him in 1985, I made a special trip from the United States to Guangzhou to find my long lost brother. I picked him out easily from the middle of the crowd, identifying him the moment I saw his face. Yingyang, darkly tanned and wearing rough peasant clothes, carried himself in a modest and unassuming manner. He spent his lifetime hoisting water buckets and tilling fields, but underneath it all he had Mei-jun's bright deep-set eyes. I knew that he was, even amongst the flood of swarming people, my brother.

Yingyang paused to gather himself, and then continued, "When I was little, everytime I was picked on, for example, when the teacher accused me in front of my classmates, 'Your father is a Kuomingtang!' it would hurt so much, just as if someone had cut me down. I would always imagine how nice it would be if Mother were here so I could have someone to cry to, but then that thought would make me even more sad. Trains that left Hengshan Station always passed through our family residence very slowly. I would hear the train pulling away from Hengshan from our house, and run as fast as I could to chase that train down. I ran after trains, calling out "Mother Mother Mother Mother Mother Mother"....... begging to be heard, believing that every woman with short permed curly hair was our mother -- but my mother was always on a moving train that I could never catch..."

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