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The bus to Shangri-La

February 2006

For the last couple of months, I’ve been tutoring a little Japanese girl named Marin.  She lives with her parents in the Shangri-La Residences, adjacent to the ritzy Shangri-La Hotel.  Marin’s father is working in China for a few years, so Marin attends 4th grade at the Canadian international school here in Dalian. With the current schedule, I go to her home four nights a week. 

This means that four times a week, I go from my American apartment to their Japanese flat, a journey that entails traveling through China for forty minutes on a bus. This journey is a literal immersion into China, as entering the bus results in continual close contact with real Chinese people for the next 40 minutes.  Personal space and politeness are left back in my apartment, as I’m crowded into a rickety box on wheels piloted by a maniac.  To survive the bus, I’ve been forced to adapt my behavior and I now push my way on and off with the best of them. 

Although it’s perfectly acceptable to squeeze in front of people to get on the bus, with a little pushing thrown in for good measure, once on the bus it’s a different story.  There is a certain etiquette that revolves around the coveted seats on the bus. If a seat opens up directly in front of you and another person, you should gesture to the other person to take it, and they will likewise gesture for you to take it.  This should go on for several rounds, until one person gives in.  Young children, pregnant women, and old people should always be given a seat, even if you were already occupying it when they got on.  The extent to which you follow these rules reflects deeply upon your character.

I should confess though, sometimes after a particularly vigorous fight to get on the bus, I’ll be rather annoyed with all these pushing and shoving people who seem incapable of making a queue.  Thus angered, when a seat in front of me opens up, I avert my eyes and squeeze in.  Once in a seat, I will sometimes stare out the window for the whole forty minutes, because if I don’t see the people who deserve the seat more than me, then I won’t feel guilty for sitting in it.  I am not alone in this selfishness, and most other people give in to their base desire for a seat rather than looking out for the needier riders. But most of the time, I accept the pushing and shoving without feeling too embittered towards my host country inhabitants.  If a seat opens up, I’ll usually glance around for a more deserving individual to occupy it, and give them the seat with a grand chivalric gesture. 

So while riding the bus with so many people can be frustrating, it can also be an opportunity to exercise random acts of kindness to strangers.  On the ride home one night, a person vacated the seat right in front of me.  I didn’t see any elderly people around, so I slipped into it.  From the lower vantage point, I noticed a little girl bundled up in a fluffy pink coat.  My heart was softened by her resemblance to a marshmallow, so I stood back up and gestured for the mother to let her daughter sit there.  She gratefully accepted, and pulled her child over to the seat.  At that moment, the bus lurched forward and the small girl completely missed the seat.  She wasn’t hurt at all, due to all her cushioning, and I laughed as I reached an arm out to pick up the bewildered little marshmallow.  Her mom also reached out an arm, met my eye with a smile, and together we hoisted the pink marshmallow onto the seat.

Unfortunately, most trips lack such heartwarming encounters.  Usually, it’s just a dull grind up Huanghe Lu while I try to transcend my surroundings by focusing on the NPR podcasts from my iPod.  The first time I traveled to Marin’s, the bus windows were completely iced over and I couldn’t see anything.  The busses aren’t heated, so in winter it’s a shivery trip.  I’m actually happy when the bus is so crowded that I am nestled snuggly in amongst my fellow passengers.  The few times when the bus isn’t packed, it is like riding across town in a freezer.

The 31 flows up one of Dalian’s main arteries to the heart of the city.   When the windows aren’t iced over, I mark my progress with the now-familiar landmarks.  First, there’s the “Japan-China creation dish” restaurant with two giant fish statues outside.  Soon, we pass Zhongshan (“middle mountain”) Park, where the Spring Festival lights still adorn the bushes.  A minute later we pass the “Coffee of Original Bean Lmpirted Westorn Beafsteak” restaurant that is adjacent to “Ming Tien Coffef Language.”  These classic signs are followed by others: “Caesar Gent Lemens Fashion Club”, “International Celebrities Beauty Salon”, and the “Professional Rejuvenation Center”.

The 31 bus heaves its way through sections of town that are being torn down and sections that are being built up.  We pass the migrant worker barracks near the construction sites, and the old houses still barely standing on the borders of the destruction zones.  Every bus stop is punctuated with glowing advertisements.  The current set of illuminated signs promote cell phones and canned peaches.  In the peach ad, the model is wearing bright pink lipstick reminiscent of the 80’s and is biting into a dripping canned peach, trying to look sensuous.  It’s disgusting. 

The Holiland Bakery shop and “California Beef Noodle King U.S.A.” foreshadow our arrival at the Victory Square mayhem.  We pass in front of the train station and inch our way through the traffic jam that is always waiting there.  It’s only two more stops to Marin’s now.  The bus bounces past the “Blndman Massage” and soon enters the bar district.  Most of the drinking establishments bear girls’ names like “Amy Bar” and “Alice Bar” although the “Tin Whistle Pub” does add a nice Irish touch.  I alight at Zhigong street and walk up to the Shangri-La.

Tutoring Marin is an easy and enjoyable job—the mother plans out what I should teach that evening and Marin is an apt pupil.  Her English is quite good and she is bright and inquisitive. At nine years old, she’s in an interesting stage where she’s half slumbering in the innocence of childhood and half awaking to the realities of the world.  In the same day, she can jump out from behind the door when I arrive to scare me, and then ask a billion “why” questions regarding pollution.  She’s quite opinionated about the unfairness and cruelty of war, but she can spend just as long telling me about sliding around on some ice at the playground.

But the best part is reading books with her.  After plodding our way through history texts, spelling words, or grammar exercises, our reward is a few chapters from a book. At the beginning, we read photocopied chapters of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets that were assigned by her school.  During the winter holiday, we read other books like Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Judy Bloom’s Freckle Juice.  She was always full of questions, the main one being, “Why?”  The funny thing is that for an hour and a half of sitting with Marin, helping her do homework and read, I get paid Y150 ($18). It’s at least twice what I make at my normal miserable job, which shows how lucrative the tutoring business is.   

Earlier this week, I had spent the whole day interviewing potential Chinese teachers at work and I was exhausted from the mind-numbing experience.  I’d worked later than normal, so I called Marin to tell her I wouldn’t be there until 6:45.  “That’s OK,” she said.  Then, changing to more important matters, “It’s Harry Potter today!  Three chapters!”  A few minutes later, I boarded the 31 and began rumbling across town to Marin’s.  The bus wasn’t too crowded so I actually got a seat.   I sat back, turned up my mp3 player, and let NPR podcasts of intelligent discourse flow smoothly into my brain.  I gazed out the window as the bus carried me towards Harry Potter and Marin at the Shangri-La.

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