Late one night, on a train departing Kunming, I staggered into a dinning car. It had been a rough day. There had been problems with the bill where I’d been staying. I’d also lost some money, and on top of all that I’d had a terrible experience at the local zoo the day before. People had been throwing cans and bottles at monkeys and I’d yelled at them to stop. Things hadn’t gone smoothly after that. Well, I was tired, but unable to sleep. The dining car was closed. A young porter saw me lurking about and let me in. I sat at a small table inside the dining area. I had a beer with me, which I cracked open. Then I ate some cashews bought earlier in the day.
While watching the countryside pass by, and counting the number of times the train stopped in small villages, I passed the time. Still unable to sleep, I pulled out my English/Chinese dictionary, a pen and some writing paper. I also opened another beer. Slowly, and with care, I began writing a few letters to some of my Chinese friends. This was a good way to kill time, and improve my writing skills (which I’ve subsequently neglected) in Mandarin Chinese. My written Chinese wasn’t very good, but I was trying my best, only using the dictionary for words I had no idea of how to write. Chinese is a pictographic language. The characters are made up of small parts called ‘radicals.’ I’d already mastered enough basic characters to write a simple letter.
After writing three letters I set my pen down and examined my scrawl. I have terrible handwriting, no matter what language I’m writing in. I rested for a while then took out some more paper and recopied the letters, correcting my mistakes and writing as neatly as possible. When finished, I cleared the table of debris and fanned the letters out. The writing wasn’t too bad, which was quite an achievement for me. My mind then began to drift, my gaze returning to the window. Some time later, after the train had stopped, the man who had conducted me to the dinning car came in for a rest. He sat at a table on the opposite isle, for a smoke and a cup of tea. He looked like he was in his early twenties or late teens. His uniform was too big for his frame. We chatted a little. He asked me where I lived, and I asked him how long he’d been working on trains. He’d only been doing it for a couple of years, he explained. He offered me some tea and I accepted. The man got up to fetch another cup and then came back and sat at my table, handing me the tea. Immediately his eyes fell on my letters. Embarrassed by my poor Chinese and my sloppy handwriting, I tried to hide them, but it was too late. Planting his hand on top of the first letter, he spun it around, nodding his head in approval. I apologized for the messy strokes of my pen, and my bad grammar.
After slurping down some tea, he turned one of the letters toward me and asked for the meaning of the first few characters I’d written. I told him. Then he asked for the meaning of several more. Again, I apologized for my bad writing, thinking he couldn’t read the squiggles I’d made. He asked me how I could write Chinese. I told him that I’d studied it in school, but that I was still learning.
‘I can only write my name and the name of my parents,’ he told me. How was it that I could write Chinese? Realizing that he must have been from the country, without much education, I tried to explain to him that I’d learned Chinese in school. ‘But you’re not Chinese,’ he protested. There was gulf between us that I didn’t know how to bridge. What was he getting at? I kept talking about study and school, and he kept nodding his head and pointing out that I wasn’t Chinese, a fact I was well aware off. He must have thought the ability to write Chinese (even my ugly characters) was in the blood. I tried to explain to him that anyone could learn to write any language, if they worked and studied at it. After a while he started to come around, but I could still see some suspicion in his eyes. I felt like a parent breaking the news of the truth of Santa Clause to a child. At last I dropped the subject, and so did he. I asked him about his family. He told me that he had been raised without parents. Some relative had raised him, but that was all he said. He seemed uncomfortable by the question. I didn’t probe further. We drank some more tea.
When the tea was finished he checked his watch, and then made a sour face. I swept some crumbs from the table. He took one of my letters in his hand and studied it, then pointed out a character and identified it correctly. ‘You can read!’ I said. ‘No,’ he informed me, ‘I can recognize a few characters, that’s all. Characters related to my job.’ The character he’d just identified was ‘train.’ Then he asked me if I had any Chinese ancestry. I assured him that I did not. My blood was European through and through. He seemed disappointed by this. ‘If I did,’ I said to him, ‘would that make you feel better about my ability to write Chinese?’ He smiled and moved his head around in a circle. I couldn’t tell if that was an affirmative or negative answer. ‘Perhaps if I had a great grandmother who was Chinese?’ I went on. The young man studied my face. ‘Yes, that would explain it,’ he said. ‘I can see it in your eyes. One of your ancestors must have been Chinese.’ And then he left the dining car.