On a Train in China,
a Cultural Awakening
Few Tuesdays stick in your mind for more than a decade and a half.
I’m guessing even fewer involve the juxtaposition of a slow train inching into the world’s fastest growing region. And yet this is where I found myself in my early 20s (the very early part of them, in every way).
I was due to start teaching English as a second language at the Utahloy International School in Guangdong Province, the People’s Republic of China the following morning and thus begin my short career as an international school teacher. The day before I had landed in Hong Kong after spending a month in Taiwan, two months living in a tent in New Zealand and years finishing up my B.A. in Philosophy (five healthy years to be exact) at the University of Georgia—a very long driveway to a strange new home.
Hong Kong was luminous; every skyscraper winked at the next. While I waited for my VISA the school put me up in a modest hotel and even sent an employee to buy me dinner and some teaching accessories to get ready for the year, which seemed the lap of luxury for a recent grad.
I was impressed with Hong Kong, with its modern feel, its particular organization and efficient littleness the likes of which you see in the suburbs of London: cute little road signs, perfectly sized taxis, trains that ran on time. When I boarded the train on the old route from Hong Kong to Canton (now Guangzhou), I quickly fell asleep.
The weeks prior to this train ride hadn’t completely prepared me for the transition I was about to face. I had landed in Taiwan four weeks beforehand and was loosely trying to get work teaching English, mainly to fuel ambitious (read: unrealistic) surfing dreams and the impossibly late nights we all have in our 20s. At some point, I had posted my resumé on the website of Dave’s ESL Café; a site famed for being a central website supplying teachers with schools and vice versa.
Utahloy was a promising new school in mainland China, but far from the island life of Taiwan. (At the time though I only registered that one was by the water, the other, not). The school appealed to me as it was just starting up, having opened that same year with a total of three students who were taking classes at the local Holiday Inn while the school was being built.
Now that the actual school structure was complete, enrolment was explosive and the need for teachers was high. And so, a week prior to my train ride I was offered the job and given an hour to make a decision (Dave’s ESL Café was bursting with other eager foreigners to choose from, after all). In the same green, sometimes foolish and overly confident vein that had guided me most of my young life, I thought about it for 10 minutes and then gave the principal an emphatic “Yes!” With that I initiated the events that would lead me to mainland China in 2002, knowing absolutely nothing about the place.
When I awoke on the train from Hong Kong it was with the gentle feeling of the train’s velocity shifting; we were slowing to a crawl to allow for the transition from British rails to Chinese ones. With the fanfare of some loud creaking we were officially leaving the Hong Kong Territory and entering the People’s Republic of China.
This was a very particular crossing at the time; similar to drawing back a curtain on what I imagine East and West Germany felt like post-war: I felt both the politics and wealth change. We were crossing the short breadth of the Sham Chun River into Shenzhen, a place that was developing faster than any other region the world had ever seen due to its tax exemption as a Special Economic Zone, thanks to Deng Xiaoping. (The drastic nature of this change is now lost to time; in fact, if anything it is reversed: now mainland China is the wealthier side.)
At that moment though, crossing the river, waking up after the haze of the past few weeks, I felt the cold sweat of fear. I saw the barbed wire, rubble and construction and I was terrified that I had made a mistake in taking this job and impulsively jumping into a place I knew nothing about. I suddenly saw my ignorance for what it was: I could not speak Mandarin nor read it, I didn’t know the culture or history, I couldn’t even tell you where I was on the map. And yet here I was at the centre of one of the fastest and largest construction zones and economic shifts that the world has known to date, China rising rapidly around me.
That day on the train I ventured into a work in progress that was to become one of the most fascinating, mystical, simultaneously ancient and modern places to travel. I would go on to spend seven years living in China and more than a decade working there. I would discover an entire world that I had not known was there, one filled with unimaginable variety. Here, both figuratively and literally, I encountered a history written in different ink.
During those years I traversed as much of the country as possible and immersed myself in Mandarin so that I could appreciate the diverse provinces and cities: Yunnan and Tibet, highlighted by the majestic Himalaya; Yangzhou, where you feel like you were dipped in a Tang Dynasty painting; Dunhuang, where the world’s oldest book was found and religious art from around the globe first gathered together, and still does, in the caves of 1000 Buddhas (the starting mark of the Silk Road); Xian, the ancient capital that once housed the world in microcosm as the beginning of the Silk Road; and, of course, Beijing the new.
Living for a time in Shanghai, I watched it transform before my eyes from rubble to a city of the future in just 10 years. While the great cranes still dot the city, most construction has moved westward towards the mountains and the less developed world, and now through the lens of Shanghai places like New York and L.A. feel antiquated to me.
And that moment on the train, crossing that bridge, remains an image embedded in my memory, stored like a talisman. The fear I felt had everything to do with it: I was jumping into a place that was unknown to me, but also exciting and galvanizing, an analogy for travel itself—that same feeling we chase each time we head to the airport or train station.
Even after living there for a decade, travelling in China continues to amaze me.
After the Beijing Olympics I had the impression that people were intimidated by China; I heard lots of talk about how big it was and how powerful—the visuals of the opening ceremonies certainly reinforced that idea and pushed people to acknowledge China beyond the abstract.
What better reason to go there than to experience this awe and disbelief for yourself, to break down your preconceptions. It is a place of fantastic contradiction, as is so often the case when you linger long enough to give a place more than a cursory glance. Just hold this in your mind for a second—30 million people still live in caves there, and the average age of a Ferrari owner in Shanghai is 28! Even after living there for a decade, travelling there continues to amaze me.
When the beaches and resorts of the world start to bore you, and you want to dig a little deeper into the global world we live in, let me know. This is a place to see in person.