I tried to get off the train in a town called Zhoumoutou. When people say town, you might think of a quiet community of twenty thousand. I don’t know if the same definition applies in China but if Zhoumoutou was home to only twenty thousand people, they were all on the same train I was trying to disembark from. A man behind me was pushing with great effort to propel me forward, not unlike what a half-back would do when playing for 4th and inches.
“I can’t move forward” I snarled “There are people pushing in!”
He gave a hearty grunt and pushed hard into the small of my back. I lost my balance and fell forward off the train, knocking over a skinny man with short bristly hair.
“Ah. Dui bu chi (Sorry)” I apologized. “Wo bei ta tau liu (I was pushed by a guy)”
The man with the bristly hair got to his feet and ignored me as if getting knocked on his ass was a regular occurrence and was to be expected. He had the look of ‘People are getting off while people simultaneously are getting on. This is to be expected.’ A woman carrying a child of about two months was lugging a giant red, white and blue flannel bag filled with clothing and vegetables. She had my most sincere respect when she transferred the baby to her teeth to free a hand for the railing.
As I entered the station, I noticed a blue ‘Please queue’ sign on what was a metal post. It had been trampled and left for dead.
There was a giant baggage scanner at the door leading out of the station. People pushed forward all at once to heave their bags on the wide conveyor belt. Bags were literally thrown through the scanner. Through all this, the official dutifully ignored his monitor while sipping some hot liquid from a huge stainless steel thermos. The guy in front of me, if such a distinction even mattered in a random mass of people, put something on top of the monitor beside the scanner. He walked through the metal detector and retrieved it off the top of the monitor. The official saw this and made absolutely no attempt to stop the man.
I followed him.
“Ting ba! (Stop)” the official yelled at me. “Bu yau chun tsin (Do not step forward)”. He called another official over. Both men looked carefully at the monitor and motioned a third gentleman over.
“Tsai si sum more dong si? (what is this object?), he barked.
“Dui bu tsi, wo di gwo yu hun bu hao” (Sorry – my mandarin is awful.)
“Eh? Si ma? (eh – what?)
“Wo di gwo yu is …er….eee din din (my Mandarin…er…sucks)” I made the universal “so-so” hand gesture while shrugging my shoulder sheepishly.
“Da ka! Da Ka! (open, open)
At this moment, I felt my stomach tightening and my bowels loosening. Few things will terrify you more than being stopped at a train station in China because there was something suspicious in your bag. To make matters worse, I looked Chinese, but didn’t speak Mandarin – provoking significant insult to the patriotism of these three scary looking men. A second ago, I thought were incompetent. Now they seemed like seasoned Mossad interrogators. My mind raced to remember what I put in my bag. Nothing out of the ordinary. There were no sharps, firearms or explosives. I’m certain I didn’t pack any livestock. Suddenly I remembered the movie Broke Down Palace where two girls are thrown in a Thai prison because someone planted something in their bag. I never actually watched the movie but I assume by the trailers that’s what happened.
I opened the bag. The mass of people behind me were suddenly quiet and pushed back away from me, expecting me to pull out a vial of anthrax. I pulled out a metal can of hairspray.
“Tsai si gum mut. Ni bu ko yee dai sui something something…”. (This is a restricted item. You’re not allowed to bring liquid items on board.” I didn’t want to point out that the danger, had there been one, is past as I have already taken the train ride and am now wanting to leave the premises. But I kept my mouth shut because I didn’t know how to say it in Mandarin. Even more so because I didn’t want a cavity search.
The original official walked around his desk and looked hard at me. Practically sniffing me.
“Ni bu si zhongguoren” (You’re not Chinese) he sneered quietly and threw my hairspray in the garbage can. “Zhoa” (Go.)