On Monday the number of people stuck in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou trying to catch a train was roughly equivalent to the population of Cleveland. By the time I got there yesterday the numbers were down from 500,000 to 150,000, closer to Chattanooga. I spent a few hours talking with people about what it’s like waiting in the rain and possibly not making it home for the Spring Festival holiday because of the terrible storms. While Guangzhou wasn’t snowy or icy it was unpleasant. Temperatures were in the mid-40s F and a steady rain fell. And still people came, trying to get home.
This morning I met a reporter from the Yangcheng Evening News, a well-known Guangzhou paper. She had spotted me talking with two guys who were were sitting on a patch of ground eating boiled eggs and sipping baijiu. The reporter asked me what I thought of the scene outside the station, and after hours of asking other people the same question I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. My overriding impression was that I was impressed. I was impressed by what people were willing to put up with just for the possibility of getting a seat or even a spot on the floor of a train for a 20+ hour trip home. It was a grand display of enduring hardship, or what in Chinese is vividly known as “eating bitterness” (吃苦).
Of course, that is what many of these people’s lives are about, a willingness to endure hardship to get ahead. The thousands waiting outside the Guangzhou station were largely migrant workers, people who traveled to Guangdong province from China’s interior seeking a better life for themselves and their families. So when I spoke with the Chinese reporter, my final thought was that I couldn’t imagine many Americans going through this. I left feeling a little guilty for complaining about transpacific flights in economy class.
I’ve posted a short clip from the station gate on Wednesday afternoon. I’m no videographer so the quality is poor but it at least gives you a feel for the crowds.
In a random note, the reporting gods smiled on my briefly yesterday. After standing in icy puddles for a few hours Tuesday night my feet were soaked and my shoes ruined. I thought I was in trouble because buying shoes in China is a joke for me. When I tell shop clerks here that I need size 45 (11 1/2 US), they usually laugh at the notion that anyone would have such freakishly large feet. I’ve never been able to convince them it’s a pretty normal size in many other countries. Luckily not far from the train station is one of the few places in this nation of 1.3 billion where I know I can find shoes that fit, a neighborhood filed with stores catering to African and Middle Eastern traders. Twelve bucks later, I had a pair of waterproof shoes that look something like a cross between Timberlands and moon boots.