Friday, January 16, 2009

Homeward Bound

Homeward bound I am … and so, it seems, is everyone else in China. Because the Chinese academic semester is pegged to the Chinese New Year, my commitment to the Fulbright Program extended until mid-January. My classes finished a couple of weeks earlier than others, so I was able to spend some time in Beijing. But now, everyone is finished with exams and papers. And, with the Chinese New Year (January 26, this year) fast approaching, students across the country are heading home. Everyone, it seems, is on the move.

I chose to take the train for this next to last leg – that is from Beijing to Shanghai. When I realized that the Chinese government has extended travel holidays to ease the density of the vast flow of millions, I admit I was a little nervous. A week ahead, when I purchased my ticket, first class soft seats were already sold out. My ticket was for the second class, hard seat coach. As it turns out I was seated in car 15; the train made up with 16 cars!

Anticipating the hard wooden slatted seats of trains in Central America, I bought a pillow-cased size bag and filled it with soft clothing. Ten hours on a hard seat – I had visions of writing the next Paul Theroux travel novel! The train was thoroughly modern; the seats were as comfortable as any airplane seat; my home-made sit upon wasn’t necessary at all.

The train left from Beijing’s new South Station, so we were out of the city in minutes. The train ride was pleasant; crowded at times; open seats for other segments of the journey. Only a handful of passengers stayed aboard to the end point at Shanghai. Many people of all ages were clearly eager to be home with family to celebrate the Spring Festival.

Enroute, we passed smaller cities, towns, villages and an occasional isolate house in the fields. The countryside was peaceful but, for sure, there were many places along the route that looked like they had been forgotten by China’s leaders. Three and four story buildings of weathered cement; two unfinished spanning bridges with vertical supports but no horizontal surfaces; a few too many trees planted along the tracks perhaps attempting to shield the still present rural poverty from the passengers passing on the latest bullet train.

It was also interesting to me to watch the people who got off at each stop. Men in pin stripped pants and ties exited at a small town. They carried gifts in bright red boxes A young couple, maybe even a brother and a sister, carried with them a cardboard box filled with dates, nuts and other treats more readily available in urban centers than in rural areas. As I watched urban people going home to small towns and villages, I was drawn again to reflecting on the astonishing strides that China has made in the past 3 decades. I also found myself hoping that efforts to extend this new prosperity out from the cities to rural areas will happen soon – for everyone’s benefit. I share the concerns of many who worry for the restiveness of the rural populace who have been left behind.

On Monday, January 19, I pack clothes, gifts, toothbrush and many memories into my bags for the last time and board American Airlines #288 for the flight home. Good-byes are not my expertise, even though I’ve had lots of practice this time. It will also be good to be home, to visit, to talk to you and hear your stories. In different ways, I’ve missed each of you. Until soon!