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China Girl on a Chinese train

I’d spotted her from the corner of my eye. A page of English in carriage full of Chinese.  She surely needed help with her English and in any case I’d been on the train 11 hours at that stage and finally found someone who spoke English to talk to so we were going to talk and that was that. “Do you need some help with your English?”   

I don’t know how she answered, not because I don’t remember but because I didn’t hear.  I never seem pay attention at the start of conversations.  Trivial answers to stupid questions are sincerely given but usually ignored, what’s your name, where do you come from, where are you going.   I’m always forgetting people’s names, they are just not important.  I liked her voice though.  It was soft and clear, her words fell on my ears like soft rain.  She said she was going to Shanghai to get a visa to study in Australia so I sat opposite her and the small talk ebbed and flowed, like the tides always new, always the same just different waves on different beaches and no, I didn’t ask if she was going for the surf.

She was 22, the same as me and was going to Adelaide to study for a Masters in Education.  She’d already gotten her degree and like me, graduated last year.  She was living on the East coast now and was returning from where she grew up in the South Western China.  She had gone home for the Spring Festival and it would be her last visit for maybe two years, she said.  Her mother was a teacher’s assistant, her father an administrator in local government.  They regretted that their dreams had been stifled by the Cultural Revolution but they had long since determined that their daughter’s would not. 

She was pretty, it’s true but her looks are of no importance in this story for reasons which will soon become apparent.  It’s a love story but not ours.  This is a story about love.  It can be told through this girls experiences but it’s indicative of the movement of a greater force, the liberation of a generation.  She had long black hair, you could almost see your reflection in, kind eyes and a soft voice but her mind was strong and very much her own.  

It was bedtime on the train, people were walking up and down the corridors bearing toothbrushes, pyjamas and some of the more warrior-like passengers had mud on their faces. The dimensions of the train, were tight but comfortable, every inch cleverly utilised to ensure that everyone had a bed while fold-up seats and half tables lined the aisle.  It was chugging its way slowly across the Chinese countryside, being willed it seemed, more than driven to its destination. 

We talked for a while about where we were coming from and where she was going.  She recommended some books I should read about China (she had studied Chinese Literature at University) and I told what I know about the commonwealth university system unsure if that’s even the system in Australia.  The conversation was going well and I was asking all the usual questions, even the brutally obvious ones. 

“So were you sad to say goodbye to your family then?”  It was a stupid question I know, still is a stupid question but one which I thought would open the door to how she felt as she set off on her great adventure.  It was her answer however which surprised me. 

I’m used to hearing the Chinese speak in awe of their parents, their Government and anyone else who might bear some influence over them.  Tendencies towards rebellion and revolution are not so much taboo, in so far as they are more non-existent.  I was surprised then to hear a definite hesitation, a silence even, before the inevitable, “of course”.  She nodded her head losing eye contact as though it were a confession.  I was curious now so I probed a little deeper by which I mean I raised my eyebrows a little and said “ooh”. 

Then the lights shut off and we were plunged into near total darkness.  The sound of our voices immediately plummeted in proportion to the darkness as though it is a convention of train travel that voices must remain as low as the lights or it could have been because of what she said next that she spoke in whispers.  “They were angry with me over my boyfriend”.

There is a perception out there, shared by myself that China is this ultra-conservative country still reeling from a time when public displays of affection could have landed you in the altogether more unromantic surroundings like a prison camp in Outer Mongolia.  Most parents in today’s China grew up in those times and often their idea’s of who their child should be seeing is at odds with the more common understandings of true love.  For any prospective spouse, family background, education and even where they come from are often more important than the nature of the person themselves. 

Leanne had been with her boyfriend for three years, something that would please most parents but Leanne’s were unhappy because he wanted to become a composer.  He played piano and for further training he went to what her parents described as “a lower college”.  Leanne had spent four years studying for her bachelors and was now going to do a Masters in Australia; they had been hoping she would do a bit better than that.  Such tales are common in China and in many ways Leanne is lucky that all she has to deal with are disappointed parents for it’s not at all unusual for parents to play a much more direct role in marrying off their child.  Surely such things don’t happen in our part of the world but it’s probably more common than we like to acknowledge.      

Her parents didn’t want her to marry him but at least choosing between them wasn’t something she would have to face in the next two years.  I told her she has to follow her heart.  That she had to be an example for couples, a symbol of true love, breaking down the taboos and making life easier for generations to come.  Then I climbed off my high horse returned to my comfortable seat on the fence.  

I could see that she was getting a little upset talking about this, she had only just said goodbye to family and the wounds were still fresh, still bleeding emotions.  I tried then to turn the conversation down a happier alley and asked her how they met.  I was expecting the usual “through friends at college” line but once again I was guilty of underestimating the Chinese. 

Everybody was in bed now but there was still some people coming and going along the aisle.  The train would stop every once in a while, then chug its way along to the next station.  At one stage I jumped out bought a can of coke from a vendor on the platform, hopped back on and the train grudgingly pushed on again.  There was no one else around, it was like the only reason we had stopped was in case people were thirsty.  It was pouring rain and I had absolutely no idea where I was.  The journey was taking forever but at least it was more interesting now.       

They’d met on the internet almost four years ago.  When I hear of the internet in the context of dating, the picture I get is more Pretty Woman than Gone with the Wind and to think, she seemed like such a nice girl.  The Chinese like to chat however.  He found her one day, asked her if she liked music.  

It’s hard to be sure what effect the internet has had on the lives of Chinese.  There has been so much change in china these last years; the internet seems no more remarkable than a girl living with her boyfriend.  Though the fact that the government regularly raid and shut down internet café’s suggests Beijing is less than comfortable with people finding their own truths. 

They talked like this for a time, then numbers were exchanged, pictures and two years later they met for the first time.  She wasn’t interested at first she told me, not interested at all.  He’d warned her she wouldn’t be, he didn’t think he looked the part. He didn’t force the issue though and his patience was rewarded.  Shame it doesn’t work out like that all the time.   
They live in his parent’s house now, much to her parent’s disgust.  They sleep together and except that she was embarrassed by what his parents might hear, I was beginning to think she wasn’t very Chinese at all.  She said she never discussed these things with her friends.  It’s just not done.  Nobody talks about it.  She says her friends have sex with their boyfriends too but it’s not something they wish to discuss.  She wasn’t taking the contraceptive pill and to be honest she told me, she wasn’t even all that sure about what it was. 

I had wondered about how this worked in china, what with the whole one child thing and all.  Turns out that after the only child is born, the women have their tubes tied and that’s that.  No need for any of this messy contraception business and thankfully, no need to explain it to anyone either.  I asked Leanne how she felt about the one child policy; she said that for her perhaps it wasn’t such a big issue because parents who have a master’s degree can have two children.  Generally the Chinese support this law but there are two many people they say or else they simply refuse to discuss it beyond the fact that “it’s just China’s policy”. 

I talked to Leanne for a long time that night, quietly so as not to wake anybody up.  She has had to earn everything she has and one feels that her struggle is only beginning but she was happy, satisfied to be living the life she wanted.  The more I see of China the more I think of it like a prism, every time you look at it, you see it in a different light and I hardly know what to think anymore.  It’s so full of progressive and courageous young people, yet they seem cocooned inside a veil of conservatism stifling attempts to spread their wings and fly fearlessly ever closer to the sun.

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