Creative non-fiction / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Memoir - Please Stand Back from the Doors

by Chelsea Bainbridge-Donner

First Trains

I don't remember my first train, but my mother does, and she loves to tell the story. We were in the train station in Philadelphia, she says, but maybe not, maybe it was New York or Boston or anywhere else up or down the Eastern seaboard. It was winter or late fall; it was cold, she says, remembering. We were going to visit my grandmother, a trip that would take us from Boston to Pittsburgh: a long train ride, even without a toddler in tow.

We were stopped, as she says, somewhere along the Eastern seaboard. These kinds of details are unimportant to her. It was a layover of sorts, or the train ride equivalent, and she was settling in for a wait. She built me a playpen from our suitcases and lay a blanket down on the floor, hoping to rest a bit before the train arrived. She turned to get something from her bag when it happened.

She was only turned for a moment, but as any caretaker knows, a moment is plenty of time for chaos to strike in the form of a toddler. In an instant, I had stripped naked, climbed over the barrier meant to contain me, and was running full tilt down the platform. My mother abandoned the bags and sprinted after me.

"You never kept your clothes on," she sighs, rubbing the spot between her eyes. "You were—are—such a pain in my ass." It's said fondly, like she can't imagine her life without constant ass-pain.

"And then there was this time," she says animatedly, her face lighting up in such a way that I know this story will be embarrassing, "when I was still at the Rhode Island School of Design. I took you to school with me that day, and we went on the train. In the station there was this man, maybe a Pacific Islander, and he was playing the steel drums. You hated strangers," she grimaces, still annoyed, "and you wouldn't even talk to your father until he grew his moustache back that one time he shaved it off, but you made a beeline for him. The man with the drums, I mean. Climbed right into his lap and started playing with his dreadlocks." She blinks, far away with memories that I don't share.

She's got clear blue eyes, and I was always jealous of them. Mine are pond-water green, like an inlet after a rain, murky and brackish. Hers shine from her face with whatever she's feeling: a perfect barometer of her moods. I know now that I am jealous of her clarity, her transparency: she is all certainty where I am knotted and muddled.

When I talk about trains, I am talking about my mother and the feeling of serenity that she gives me. When I talk about trains, I am talking about childhood moments of easy happiness, watching countryside and cityscape slip by a rain-streaked window while I sit, warm and dry, inside.


I'm still riding trains, but usually with my clothes on. I am on the Tokyo metro, a sprawling system of arteries that bleed haphazardly into the city. It evolved with the city—chaotic, intricate, impenetrable. I'm a world away from my mother now, but I'm thinking of her. I do that when I'm stressed, even though I am infinitely better adapted to Asia and surviving here than she is. After all, I've lived in the region for three years now. But Japan is a whole different level of difficulty, and it is making my heart race and my mouth dry up.

I'm in Tokyo, one of the most tourist-unfriendly cities in the world, armed with approximately three Japanese words: "thank you," "green" and "dick." No permutations of these three words will glean any kind of useful interaction that I can foresee, but I must admit that I have been wrong before. However, an instinct for self-preservation keeps me from marching up to the nearest Japanese man and attempting to practise my Japanese on him.

The Japanese metro has its own smell. It's unlike anything I've ever smelled before. I can't compare it to China, and the grey-chemical smell that pervades everything, but it's not the wet-paper smell of Hong Kong, either. It's cigarettes and fruit, sweetness tinged with something heady and tart.

I'm watching a man, now. He's mentally ill or maybe under the influence of amphetamines. "No!" he yells. "Iie, iie, iie!" No, no, no! He clamps dirty hands over his mouth as the people around him good-naturedly shush him. But soon he's moving, he's climbing; he throws open the window with a flourish. He sticks his head outside, and it takes three men to pull him back to his seat. I sit there, watching passively, and I have a wildly inappropriate thought—this is why the MTR in Hong Kong has windows that are permanently closed. People's apathy would lead to death and trauma as they tried to un-see what was in front of them.

I realise my own apathy is growing.

Instead of doing something to stop the man or to help the people who are intervening, I sit and watch others struggle with him. Logically, I know that there is little I can do: I don't speak Japanese, and this is not my city. I would be a hindrance more than a help. But I can't help feeling that a younger me would have stood or spoken—acted, for good or for bad.

The train is stopped, and we are all asked to alight. The mentally ill man is causing too much ruckus, and he must be removed from the train. I sit down to look at my map, worried about where I am going, but only a little. A woman my mother's age sits next to me. She was pretty once, I think, but now her face is lined and worn like an old leather coat. Her eyes are kind when she talks to me, though; she asks me if I'm all right. I swallow my pride and tell her my concerns about navigating the Tokyo train system.

"It's so complex," she agrees genially. "It's OK. I can help you when the next train comes."

I am shocked by her English and the compliment tumbles from my mouth before I can remember that the Japanese are made uncomfortable by praise.

"Your English is excellent," I blurt out. Her embarrassed smile yanks my anxiety back to the forefront of my consciousness.

"Do you want to eat udon with me?" she asks shyly, looking like a woman half her age. I can't imagine my own mother looking this way, and it makes me homesick for her solidity and strength.

I consider for a moment, only a moment, thinking about the potential hazards of the situation before my desire for new experiences wins out. I realise I have nowhere to be.

"Thank you," I say, fumbling for the Japanese word that is lodged somewhere in my subconscious. "Hai, arigato gozaimasu."

The noodles are thick, round worms swimming in a broth that glitters with an oil-slick sheen under the lantern light. Simple food for simple friendship and easy conversation. She teaches me some basic Japanese—"excuse me," "my name is," "please." She tells me my Japanese accent is good, but she is lying to comfort me. It's not a white lie: it glows orange in the foreign light of the restaurant.

"You seem like my daughters," she tells me. "You are same age with them. Twenty-four."

"Daughters?" I ask.

"Yes," she says. "In English it is what... they are twins. This is correct?" I nod, and she continues. "If they are travelling, I hope someone is kind with them. We go now, I will help you find train." Hope for the existence of karma seems to be universal.

Another train ride.

This time, I am alone on the train, the subject of stares and whispered conversations. I am lost in a crowd of people whose language I do not share and whose culture I cannot. Being in Japan is always stressful for me because of this; it's a feeling of being completely alone. Even if I wanted to ask for help, there is no one to ask. That's why I am still surprised by the woman, and by her kindness. She reminded me of my mother in a quiet way, always stopping to help the lost and the helpless. I slip the ember of our connection into my memory and let it spread its warmth through me like hot tea.

The train in Tokyo takes me from here to there, but I don't have a clear grasp of where here is or where there was. In this city, physics could be turned around and upside-down and inside-out, and I wouldn't be able tell the difference.


An earlier day, a different train.

The train is old, faded, dying; the trip is expensive and inconvenient, but I'm twenty and I don't have a car, so I am riding the train from San Diego to Long Beach. I'm watching the palm trees tick by, like seconds on a watch, evenly spaced.

Palm trees aren't native to Southern California. I'm not native to Southern California, either. I've been transplanted here, an East Coast baby, but I thrive. Palm trees are hardy, and they can survive anywhere, through any kind of weather. They love the warmth and the sun, but they are not particularly fussy.

I am reminded of those trees nearly a year later as I walk down a main street in a small central-Chinese city. It is Christmastime and the air is bitterly cold, the wind nearly acidic. The wide sidewalk is lined by palm trees: they drip with ice-blue lights. Rather than making me feel at home, these Christmas palms remind me just how far away I've gone from the place I was raised. Walking along this street, I'm on the surface of an alien world, a place that is cold and forbidding and impossibly removed from everything I know. Those Chinese Christmas palm trees will make me feel that I am twelve again, yanked suddenly from my home in Boston to my new one in California; uprooted and wrong-footed.

On the Amtrack in California at twenty years old, I'm waiting, caught between the life I am leaving in America and my new one abroad, and I don't know what to expect for the future. I am happy to say this goodbye to California, because the future seems a vast expanse of opportunity. I am thrumming with energy, like a skin stretched taut over a drum, and the jarring of the rails is making me vibrate from the inside out. I am completely unaware of everything that is about to happen, but I can feel myself teetering on the edge of something new. I'm nudging my toes off the precipice and into the abyss with a smile on my face.

It's a little wonderful, being wildly unprepared. I am convinced the world can be changed and that I can help change it, convinced that all the problems in the world can be analysed and dismantled like a house made of brightly coloured blocks.

On the train, I'm still watching the palm trees, watching California roll by my window, but I don't recognise the irony. Not then, not right then, but later I will see it. Looking at those transplanted trees that have become such a symbol for my home, later I will see the construction of a people, of a place, of a culture: not homogeneous, not like everyone thinks it is, but built, carefully made. It's an idea that will haunt me later, while I wander, looking for home, for what it means to be American, to be American in China, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand—for what it means to be me.

Inner Mongolia

There are two types of beds on overnight Chinese trains—hard bunks and soft bunks, but they are both hard. We're foreign, lao wai, so we're in a soft sleeper, which means we've got a door (that doesn't stop everyone from peering in curiously) and a window (that doesn't help the stench of cigarettes). On this train, the soft sleeper has six bunks, and I am crammed in the top bunk, shang, up, nose against the ceiling. Up, indeed. I'm listening to my best friend breathing from the bunk below me, but she isn't sleeping, either. I can tell from the tempo of her breaths, and the occasional rustle of sheets as she moves.

We're taking this trip before the Chinese trains became famous for vacating their rails and suddenly colliding with other trains, so there's no fear, just excitement and anticipation. We are still new to the country, still enthralled by the idiosyncrasies that will come to irritate us later. We're trailing along behind our group of Chinese coworkers like little tails on a kite, quietly looking, watching, seeing.

The lights of a million lives are slipping across the window of the train. I'm lying there trying to grasp the magnitude of existence, but I'm coming up short, because I can't imagine numbers so huge. We're moving across the countryside, and every light is a house. A family. Mother-father-child-grandmother-grandfather; this is the nuclear family in China. I watch the lights dance that night and for every light I see there are probably five homes in darkness.

In the morning, sunlight through smog.

In pictures, China is always drenched in grey, but a beautiful grey, like watery ink. In reality, it's grey like mercury, thick and heavy, with a chemical bite in the back of your throat as you inhale. The air is sharp and angry; every breath has the burn of cheap alcohol. The sun struggles through the clouds in the morning, tired and wan.

Everyone is tired in China, even the sun.

Here the heatless sun drips into sand dunes, ostentatious yellow against the drab white-washed grey of the buildings. We are packed onto a bus that takes us away from the dirt and grime of the city. Outside Yinchuan, in Inner Mongolia, we witness the commodification of a people: this is Mongolia, this is Mongolian culture. This is what it looks like, smells like, tastes like.

But what I see of Mongolia is less like Mongolia, and more like Disneyland.

The buildings are designed for recreation, not for historical accuracy. Each is brightly painted with geometric shapes, round buildings, not unlike what a wigwam looks like in my imagination. I think back to palm trees as the wind whips up sand in the desert, and I think that maybe homogeneity is a myth invented by people looking for a place to belong. Far enough back in history, everyone is transplanted; every culture is manufactured. Somehow this makes me feel less American and more alone, like I have peered through a gauzy, beaded curtain and seen my own Americanism—or lack thereof—through the eyes of someone outside.

We walk through movie sets for Chinese films, all featuring the same theme: the glorious and irreproachable history of China. We ride down sand dunes on sleds made of thin metal and explore warehouses full of goods for sale. To our foreign eyes, this is strange, like walking through a ghost town full of historically inaccurate architecture. But out here, in the Gobi Desert, the air is clear and cool, and the sun shines bright in the sky, and we are content with the deception.

"Do you want to ride a camel?"

I blink at my best friend, bemused that she would even ask the question (the answer is always "yes") and smile my assent. The camels are sluggish and smelly. As we crest the top of a dune, I see wires stretched across the sky.

"Chee, how do you feel about zip-lining over the Yellow River?" She grins at me and raises an eyebrow and I'm thankful she's here.

As we strap ourselves into the harness, I try not to think about Chinese safety regulations. I jump from the platform and look into a sky so blue it could be grey and take a deep breath of open air.

This is the last blue sky I will see in China.


Another train ride, a different day.

In Shanghai, I take the metro to the American Hospital for surgery. I am twenty-two, I am pregnant, and I am alone. I have no choice, though: I will not have a baby.

I meet no Americans in the American Hospital. If I were less afraid, if I were less alone, I would find this darkly ironic, but I am afraid and alone. I have no interpreter, so I stitch together questions from scraps of language. I am lacking the medical vocabulary I need. This seems to be an oversight in my language education, but I never would have thought I would end up here. A nurse is kind, but I am so terrified that I am shaking uncontrollably.

"Where is your boyfriend?" she asks me quietly. Nan pengyou zai nali?

I have no answer, or maybe too many answers; I can only shake my head.

"It is OK," she says, and her plastic English cracks along the seams. She isn't much older than me. She's pretty and her hair is shiny and straight; it kisses her scrubs at the shoulder. "No problem. You wake up, I am here. I...I...I wait."

I can't help but wonder why she chooses to stay with me rather than any of the other women sprawled in beds around the room. I consider that it may be because I am lao wai, but I quickly abandon this notion. Maybe it's because our positions could so easily be reversed, hers and mine.

"You go now," the nurse says to me. Xianzai chu qu ba. It's a kind way of telling me, like talking to a frightened child, but I steel myself against my fear and stand up. I must walk to the operating theatre.

I slip into medicated sleep holding her hand, and when I wake up, I think I thank her as she helps me stand up.

Now I am finished, leaving, and before I can comprehend what happened I am on the street.

It's raining. Not just raining; the sky has opened up and the rain is coming down like someone has turned on a spigot, and the sky is roiling, angry; for me, it's an unusual sight in China, while I've been here the weather has always been passively grey. But I can't think about it, can't fight through the haze of grogginess that the anesthesia has pulled over my eyes like gauze over a burn.

I can tell I'm wet, dripping; I'm in pain, and I don't know where it's coming from. Somewhere deep in my chest, and somewhere less definable. The glowing red sign for the metro seems miles away. It's taunting me. I don't have an umbrella.

It wasn't on my mind that morning.

I can't go back to the hospital, it's too far. I can't continue on because the rain beats against my chest and my shoulders and my back. I'm stuck in air too viscous to be real, like someone has mixed gelatin in with the rainwater, and it's setting as I stand there and the longer I stand, the less I can move. I think there are tears on my face, but it may just be rain, or maybe there is no rain and all the water is just tears, a million people, a billion people, crying all at once.

Sometimes I can't help believing in cosmic coincidence, like an empathetic environment is something more than just a trope.

Suddenly I'm dry. Not dry, exactly, but no longer getting drenched by torrential winter rains. I look up into the kind face of a boy who has to be close to my age, and it strikes me just how young I am. I mumble my thanks in Chinese, and he smiles, nodding, mei wenti, no problem, no problem, bu yong xie, don't thank me. I am astounded by the kindness of a second stranger. I wonder if my emotions show on my face.

He offers me an arm and we walk to the metro. I want to scream at him, cry, tell him to go away because I don't deserve his help but it's so nice to be dry. It's so nice to lean on his arm because everything hurts so badly.

Another train ride.

I can't remember it; it's black and red and purple with pain, but when I wake up the next morning, there's something alive in that empty spot in my chest. It is born from my newly discovered strength and the unforeseen kindness of two strangers with no obligations to me. I have no regrets, just resignation: I did the right thing. The only thing.

The last coherent thought I have as I step onto the metro in Shanghai is: If I can survive this train ride, I can survive anything—


Another train, and I've got the spins, maybe from too much alcohol.

There are globes of colour in the air, lanterns, and reality is giving me a headache. It's Chinese New Year, and I am newly twenty-three.

The doors are singing acapella, warning me in Singaporean English (different from standard English for the uninitiated—but then, what is standard English? The answer used to be so clear, but now questions buzz my sluggish brain like mosquitoes) to beware, stand back, doors are closing, doors are closing.

The singing, cavity-sweet, rattles against my inebriation like the shining silver-gold Singaporean dollars in my pocket. Beautiful money, all gentle angles and smooth curves: just pretty enough to be extraordinary, but not Baroque enough to be comical.

I think I stumble; I know I laugh as English patters against my ears: "I see you later, hor" a boy tells his girlfriend, oblivious to the double entendre. La, lor, ah, hor, ba, ma, mei—snippets of sound to balance a sentence, to make words into music.

The doors are closing. I lean onto smooth glass to cool myself against the heat of a Singaporean night.

I am waiting for my father in Singapore. He is coming for a business trip, and I have been out for dinner and a drink with myself while I wait, happy to sit on a wide veranda and watch the heartbeat of the city. When my father arrives, he will undoubtedly marvel at my ability to move around Singapore, a city I have never been in before. But to me, it is wonderful, a chance to be alone with my thoughts.

"We flew over the North Pole and through Korea, it was very interesting. Long trip." He smiles, but suddenly turns serious. "The front desk mentioned something. The hotel didn't pick you up from the airport?" He is unhappy. He is used to being coddled and shuttled around in Asia; my self-reliance makes him nervous.

"No, but it was fine."

"How did you get to the hotel then?"

"I took the train." He shakes his head but doesn't say anything; after all, I am safe, so there is nothing to say. My father rarely speaks if there is nothing to say, and so we share a contented mutual silence.

I learn this from train rides: that I can be happily alone, content with my own company and the decisions that I have made.

Hong Kong

It's been eight days since I rode the metro in Tokyo.

The MTR in Hong Kong is easy and comfortable after Tokyo. I sail in the slipstream of a thousand other people, a hundred thousand other people. In Hong Kong, a blanket of language lies heavy in the air, draped over handrails and stainless-steel shining seats. I can hear the warble of Cantonese crooning the melody, but somewhere to my left a pair of Germans count out an even bass tempo. I hear Mandarin somewhere where the horns should be and Hindi flashes yellow-gold across the tapestry of sound, flitting like a flute from note to note. And English, all kinds of English, clashing heavy and graceless against the sounds of the other languages, like a harmony half a step ahead or a whole step behind.

I'm not even sure if I'm awake for most of this train ride, slipping in and out of consciousness. I've learned to stand and sleep on the MTR, and guard my bag and my phone and a million tiny other things that are inconvenient to lose.

I'm in a hurry, not because I have anywhere in particular to be, but because Hong Kong gives me road rage; the huge numbers of people unwilling to move out of the way make something boil up from my stomach into my throat until it threatens to spill out of me.

These people move like a school of drunken fish, bumping shoulders and hips, pressing tightly together into the tiny metal cube of the train. They stumble and fall against each other as the train gently jolts itself into motion, and the chorus begins.

Sorry la, sorry la, ng'goi jeijei, duibuqi. So sorry, sorry. Jostle and move and push and shove. Noses stuck in tablets or books or iPods or phones. I've never been around so many people and been so invisible all at once. The words and apologies spill from their mouths but receive no response. They talk to air, always wanting to be with someone who isn't here. We are forever connected, but somehow it makes us more separate. The future is here, but maybe it isn't the future we wanted. Maybe it isn't the future we expected. Not what we imagined. Too bad. Please stand back from the doors.

What's the old adage? It's not true: in this world, every man is an island.

I pull my bag closer and brace for the jolt of the train. For the first time, I'm unsure about coming home, wondering if I'm even using that word correctly—"home." A million feelings race through my thoughts but I'm thankful for it—there are too many to stop and examine each one, to feel the sting of this or the bruised pounding of that. Instead, it consolidates into a dull ache, like a cramp after a long run. If I let them stop, if I move too much, one of the feelings catches and pulls like a snag on a stocking and the intensity of it leaves me gasping for breath, half-laughing, half-crying. I don't have an answer to the question of where is home?

When I talk about trains, I am talking about looking for home. I am talking about searching for a moment of epiphany or an instant of clarity that seems more and more unlikely to come. I am now twenty-four, and suddenly my heart has gone away from Hong Kong. When I talk about trains, I am talking about unfinished journeys.

Now there's a cool female voice speaking in my ears: please stand back from the doors. We go on.

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