Falling snow greeted me as I boarded the train for Xi’an, (pronounced she an).
Loaded with the history of emperors, poets, monks along with the start and ending point of the Silk Road, Xi’an is China.
It was a 12-hour train ride. The Chinese cram more people into a compartment than any other train I’ve ever been on, or at least it felt that way. The walls feel closer.
My bed was one of the top bunks. As I struggled through the narrow hallway, I bumped into people while attempting to squeeze by until I came to a doorway that would be home for the next half day.
I stuffed my large pack into a cubby-hole designed to hold bags and plopped my heavy daypack on my sleeping space above.
My compartment mates were Chinese university students heading home for the Chinese New Year. I have read reports that up to half of the country goes home to visit family for New Years. That’s a boatload or trainload in our case, considering China has more than 1 billion people. It stretches public transportation and people’s nerves to the maximum.
Halfway through the ride I slipped down from above to visit with my companions, Allie, Jack and Jade. I asked them: “Is this your Chinese name?”
“No,” they replied in unison.
“We all have English names because western people can never pronounce our names correctly,” Jack said.
“Can you tell me your Chinese names?” I asked.
They each took a turn telling me what they are, and what they mean.
“I’ll stick to your English names,” I concluded after a feeble attempt to pronounce them.
“Good idea,” said Allie with a shy smile.
“There is much misunderstanding between our two cultures,” Jack said. “Your TV tells you things that are different than the truth.”
“Maybe our media tells us things that are different than what your media says,” he paused, “and the media explains things poorly.”
“I think both countries could use some help in this area,” I said.
“China is not what you think,” Allie said. “We feel this is our 1950s. (Referring to the economic boom of that decade in U.S. history.)
“We are very optimistic about our future,” she concluded.
“Our system has big pressure on students,” Jack said. “You can’t show your own personality on education, and the talents of music and art are considered less valuable because they don’t help you make money.”
“What about Taiwan and Tibet?” I asked.
“Why does the West insist on meddling in Chinese affairs? These two places are part of the China body. You need your right hand correct? You wouldn’t just cut off your right hand would you? You need all of the parts of your body to live a good life, correct? Taiwan and Tibet are parts of the body that we are mending to become whole,” Jack said.
Without the proper knowledge or desire to debate the issue, I let him have his say as thoughts in my head float with of how effective the propaganda machine has been in China.
Xi’an arrives and for two days I explored the ancient city and walked through corridors of Terracotta Stone Warriors buried to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang 2,000 years ago.
Walking through the impressive complex I am struck with the magnitude of accomplishments the Chinese have had over long stretches of time. And the impact it has had on the world. My mind drifts back to the last words Allie shared with me on the train before arriving in Xi’an.
“I have hope in my heart that China will move forward with wisdom and strength to create peace,” said Allie.