我抵达广州火车东站（the Guangzhou East Train Station）的时候，天空阴云密布如铁板一块，冰冷的雨滴不断地拍打在身上。
乘火车回香港有点怀旧的意味，仿佛时光流转，又回到早年参加广交会（Canton Trade Fair）的原点。
The Fifth Modernization?
“Thousands of people are forcing themselves across a narrow footbridge”
After an enlightening and enjoyable return to Guangzhou for the first time in awhile, I was headed back to Hong Kong.
As I arrived at the Guangzhou East Train Station, the skies above were solidly committed to grayness, steadily pelting us with chilly raindrops.
Taking the train back to Hong Kong was partly a nostalgia thing, returning to the roots of my early Canton Trade Fair visits.
Queuing up at the gate upstairs from the train platform, I was reminded of the old Chinese saying ” Thousands of people are forcing themselves across a narrow footbridge.” I’d forgotten that the crowds in Chinese train stations are, shall we say, generally less orderly than the typical airport crowd when it comes to forming and remaining in lines.
Back in the era of The Four Modernizations (science and technology, national defense, agriculture and industry), one friend suggested a Fifth one: queuing
What begins like a narrow mountain stream gradually opens up into a wide seagoing estuary, criss-crossed by multiple tributaries, and then bursts into an out-of-control, surging flood tide. If you are unprepared for that surge, you risk becoming flotsam, jetsam, or wounded.
So, having body-surfed my way onto train carriage Number Three, I made my way to seat Number Two, and settled in.
Out the window of the car, I saw a uniformed male railway employee out on the station platform. He glanced east and then west before lighting up a cigarette, leaning on a concrete column, right beneath a large “No Smoking” sign.
In the current era of volatile and unpredictable change, there is small comfort in seeing the repetition of familiar scenes – even obnoxious ones.
A young, late 20s-ish Chinese couple walked in and sat opposite me, in the seats across the aisle. They were speaking to each other non-stop in heavily accented Australian English.
Both were short and a bit on the porky side. He was wearing a black baseball cap. The accent was unmistakable: they were overseas Chinese from Australia, and judging by their conversation, English was their dominant language.
From the other direction came a mainland Chinese man of similar age, wearing a black T-shirt, clutching his green ticket. He looked curiously at the couple opposite me, then back at his ticket, and then up at the seat numbers overhead. Finally, he asked them in Putonghua:
“Are your seat numbers Three and Four?”
The chap in the Baseball Cap responded in English, in a deep Aussie accent:
“I don’t understand.”
Mr. T-Shirt did not understand Mr. Baseball Cap’s Aussie-accented “I don’t understand”, so he repeated his question once again, in Putonghua:
“Are your seat numbers Three and Four?”.
Mr. Baseball Cap repeated the same response:
“I don’t understand.”
Not only did Mr. T-Shirt still not understand this statement, he did not recognize that Mr. Baseball Cap was speaking English.
Continuing in the vein of ‘chickens talking with ducks’, he tried a different question, still in Putonghua:
“May I see your tickets?”
Mr. Baseball Cap responded yet again, in Oz-flavored English:
“I don’t understand.”
Mr. T-Shirt finally realized Mr. Baseball Cap was not a Putonghua speaker, so his next step was an attempt in halting English:
“You! MY seat!”
This produced a breakthrough at last, a moment of enlightenment.
On realizing his mistake, Mr. Baseball Cap displayed an instant look of embarrassment, and promptly apologized:
“Oh, I’m very sorry! We’re in the wrong seats.”
He and his partner grabbed their bag and moved to the next car. (The car and seat numbers on the train tickets are in Chinese characters only.)
I felt sorry for their awkward embarrassment at being, but not speaking, Chinese.
A few minutes later, Mr. T-Shirt was joined by three associates, who sat in front of and across from me. After they got settled, he announced to them, in Putonghua:
“There was a Japanese couple occupying your seats by mistake a few minutes ago. They didn’t speak Chinese. I chased them away.”
At that moment, the train began to roll down the tracks toward Hong Kong. I was relieved to be on the way home after a long trip.
It struck me that China is not a very welcoming place for ethnic Chinese from overseas who don’t speak the language.
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