Sunday, November 27, 2005

What is Beauty?

The third person I saw in China reading a novel for pleasure was a young woman on the train from Haerbin to Jiamusi. She sat at the window across the aisle from me, facing backwards, intently digesting the pages of a paperback in between naps beneath her blue and orange plaid jacket. Black leather pants clung snugly to her shapely legs and her long, black hair fell over her pink turtleneck in a soft wave. Wire-frame glasses on her petite, blemish-free face completed the image.

We exchanged no words, nor even simultaneous glances, during the 4-1/2 non-stop ride.

Ron noticed me writing about her and made inquiry.

"I think she's cute!" I said, a little embarassed.

"Yes, she is kind of cute, isn't she?" Ron said musingly. "She has that librarian look going for her."

"I think she looks very academic."

Outside the windows that she never looked out, there flashed by a brown, snow-flecked landscape of fields and small towns, enclosed ever more tightly by rolling mountains of rock cliffs and bare trees, cut through by an ice-encrusted river of rocks and rapids. Change the faces on either side of the glass, and the train could just as easily have been Amtrak's Capital and the river the Potomac, with Harpers Ferry, West Virginia just around the next bend.

"This reminds me of home," I said aloud to no one in particular. "Can there be a stronger calling?"


The stomach aches that I had been having off and on for the past two days had increased to an almost crippling pain when we stepped onto the platform at Jiamusi. It was all I could do to help Ron wrest our mountains of bags up to the 2nd floor waiting room, where I collapsed in a heap into one of the plastic chairs.

"We've found the sitting down area," I said to Ron. "Do you suppose they have a lying down area?"

"I'll ask."

A uniformed station attendant led me back down the stairs, out the door, into an adjacent door and down many more stairs. At the bottom, four middle-aged women waited on me behind a long table. They giggled and exchanged excited, smiling glances with one another at the sight
of me. I explained that I had a stomach ache and just wanted a place to lie down for an hour before my train. The woman most directly waiting on me had already began filling out a piece of paper, but at the words "stomach ache" (mei teng), the woman beside her learned over and began gingerly rubbing the first woman's stomach and looking at her with a pitiful expression. The first woman shooed her away, but she started it again. I was feeling so bad that I wished they would just cut it out and get me to a bed, but when the first woman picked up the scissors to ward off her aggresser, I had to chuckle.

I dozed briefly during my hour's rest and returned to the waiting room feeling a little better. Our train was announced and, despite the station staff's efforts to get us on board early, we were joined by the usual hordes clambering, crowding and pushing their way down the stairs, out the doors, onto the platform and into the train.

When my grandfather was in the Navy during World War II, he came home on leave from Cincinnati one time on a slow, local passenger train. He likes to say that "it stopped at every house, and where there were two houses, it stopped twice." We found ourselves on just such a train.

It was an old, dirty, slow one, made up of ancient, decrepit, green YZ22 hard-seat coaches. Chinese hard-seat class has advertised space for 118 people per car with each row being five seats wide, three on one side of the aisle and two on the other. The YZ22s are some of the oldest cars in service, among the worst for the wear and most lacking in comfort. The seats are simple, straight-backed benches with opposite rows facing each other about a small table cantilevered out from the wall. The benches opposite each other share a common back and offer only modest padding.

Ron and I squeezed onto one of the 3-seat benches along with a woman already sitting in the aisle seat. A middle-aged man and an older man sat on the bench across from us. The space between them was filled by a young woman in a purple hat and purple coat just before the train
lurched out of the station.

She turned her round face of big features to Ron and me, and said, in perfect English, "Are you busy?"

"Not at all," Ron answered.

"Good!" she remarked, settling in. "This trip is boring and I want to practice my English." This said as if she had been rehearsing it all week. Her accent was distinctly British, and it sounded very strange coming from an Asian face.

Her name was Sylvia and she was also on her way to Huanan, where she taught English lessons to elementary and middle school students on the weekends. She used the money to help pay for her studies at Jiamusi University, where she was in her third year of an English Language

"May I ask you a question, Sylvia?" Ron entreated. "How much do you make?"

"Everyone asks me that!"

"Yes, and everyone asks me how much do I make at my job in the U.S., how much does my camera cost, how much do my flashes cost, how much does my wife make." Ron retorted.

"Yes, I know, I know. I understand. I make 15 yuan per hour, and I know what you are going to say next."

"It's too small!" Ron said.

"Yes, but it is enough for me. I am lucky to have this job. It is only my second one. They are hard to find for students."

"What was your first job?"

"I helped sell air conditioners at a big store in my hometown."

"How long did you work there?" Ron asked.

"Two days. It didn't go very well."

"When did you have this job?"

"During winter break, in January."

When she was little, Sylvia had dreamed of being a fashion model. She was taller than average for a Chinese woman and attractive with well-proportioned features.

"Do you think you might ever pursue that again?" I asked.

"No. I am only 167cm tall. In China, you must be 168 to be a model."

"That's just one centimeter!"

"I know, but they are very strict. Also, all my friends say I am too fat."

"I don't think you're fat at all!" Ron and I exclaimed in unison.

The conversation returned to her English language studies and I asked her if she had read very much English or American literature.

"No, I don't read very much," she replied. "It hurts my eyes."

"Maybe you should get glasses," Ron offered. "Have you had your eyes examined?"

"Glasses?!?! Absolutely not! They would make me look ugly."

"My fiance wears glasses and I think she's beautiful," I replied.

"You're just saying that because she's your fiance!"

"I thought she was beautiful long before she was my fiance."

Sylvia told us that she taught for 8 hours on both Saturday and Sunday, plus an extra 1-1/2 hours of evening tutoring, for which she was not paid. She had gotten the job two months ago through a friend who had also taught at Huanan and they used to go there together on the weekends, but her friend had since quit. She was making the journey alone for the first time and was more than a little nervous. She seemed grateful for our company and offered to give us a ride to the hotel in the taxi that was meeting her at the train station. We, in turn, offered to take her out to dinner.

"I'll check with my boss," she said, hopefully. "Shall we go Dutch?"

"We can, but we would be happy to treat you, if you don't mind."

"No, I don't mind," she said, gratefully.

"I remember how poor I was when I was a student," Ron said, "and try to make it a point to help out students now, when I can. I wish more people had offered me a meal when I was in school."

During our conversation, the middle-aged man sitting in the window seat beside Sylvia had taken an interest in us and occasionally chimed in. He was astounded that we were willingly going to Huanan.

"Huanan is very small! Why would you want to go there?"

"Because it is very beautiful there," Ron replied.

"Huanan?" he laughed gruffly. "Huanan is not beautiful!"

"Sylvia," Ron said, switching back to English, "are you familiar with the expression we have in America 'beauty is in the eyes of the beholder'?"

"No. What does it mean?"

"It means that what one person thinks is beautiful may not be what another person thinks is beautiful."

She smiled.

"Huanan has a small railway that we think is very beautiful. It is also very rare. There are only four small railways left in China, but the people who live in Huanan have gotten used to it, so they think nothing of it. Many foreigners, however, travel great distances to see this small railway."

After getting permission from her boss, Sylvia met us in the hotel restaurant for dinner. She seemed a different person, though, very nervous and unable to relax.

"What do you want to eat?" she asked.

"What do YOU want to eat?" Ron asked her. "We want to try some new foods."

"It doesn't matter to me. I don't care what I eat."

She forced us to make all the selections, then complained when all the food was too sweet.

"This food isn't very good. They don't have fresh fruits and vegetables in Heilongjiang this time of year, so they keep these in water. They aren't very good. You shouldn't eat them. You shouldn't eat chicken, either, with the bird flu."

"What about eggs?" Ron asked.

She thought. "No, eggs come from chickens. You probably shouldn't eat them, either. Or any kind of meat, really."

"Are we just to eat rice, then?" I wondered to myself.

"I miss the food from home," she mused.

She missed more than just the food from home.

"Sylvia, you have asked us a great deal about our travels. Where would you like to travel to, if you could go anywhere?"

"Home," she said, without thinking about it for even a second. "It is the only place I think about often, that I keep wanting to return to."

She left hastily without asking for our email addresses or without giving us hers.

In the morning we found a taxi to whisk us through the crowded, bustling streets of "very small" Huanan, a city of a few hundred thousand. We found the small railway and followed it out into the "not beautiful" countryside, stopping along the road to marvel at the passage of a tiny locomotive and eight diminutive coal gondolas, their total, combined capacity equal to about one hopper car in the United States. The taxi dropped us off where the railway diverged into the
mountains, and we set off on foot into the snow-dusted hills that remind me more of home than anyplace I have been in China, where the ghosts of West Virginia coal miners and Appalachian logging railroads whisper in the birch trees and walk alongside me on the tiny rails over the mountain.

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