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Bound for Shenzhen MAG
I was sitting on a hard plastic bench in the station, waiting for my train to be announced. Normally, this would not be a problem, but this was no ordinary train station. Well, that is not true. Technically, there was nothing exceptional about it; there were no people dressed in robes pushing carts laden with owls and magic broomsticks or anything else that would distinguish this station from dozens of others. This train station was a perfectly normal one for China.
Therefore, as one might expect, I was having some difficulty understanding the blaring announcements from the tinny PA system. Just a little. The voice spoke extremely fast, so fast that I imagined he must have been a debater in high school. I couldn't make out a single word! I was just listening for the magical word “Shenzhen” and hoping I would get on the correct train. However, this plan did not work as I had hoped.
Sighing, I stood, grabbed my back pack, purse, and duffel bag, and staggered to the nearest information desk, hoping with all of my might that someone there a) spoke English, and b) could tell me when my train would leave and where to get it. After 10 minutes of heroic attempts to find someone with any knowledge of English, I hit a wall. A solid, 90-foot wall made of the unyielding stone of impossible communications.
I trudged forlornly back to where I had been sitting, only to find that my seat was now occupied by a woman who was studying a map, and a little girl, currently busy painting the bench with soy sauce. I turned back the way I had come, wondering what had possessed me to travel by train by myself in a country where I looked like I belonged but really didn't.
After I spent 10 minutes walking up and down the rows of crowded benches looking for a seat, a matronly woman took pity on me, and urged her family to squish together to make room for me. I looked at her, unsure if the space was really for me, since there were probably 200 other people looking for seats. She smiled, nodded, and gestured to me to sit.
I quickly and gratefully sank onto the bench. I leaned forward and thanked her in Mandarin. She smiled and quickly rattled off a few sentences in reply.
I mentally gathered the few phrases I had memorized. “Dui bu qi, wo shi mei guo ren. Wo sho xiao zhong guo.” Translated, I said (or think I said), “I'm sorry. I am American. I speak little Mandarin.”
The lady smiled, nodded, reached out to pat my hand, and said something more slowly, but I still didn't understand. Then she and her family rose and left. Their vacant seats were immediately filled by other weary travelers who were grateful to rest their sore feet.
I rifled through my jam-packed purse, searching for my travel dictionary and flashcards with handy phrases like “I want a hotel room with air conditioning, a shower, and a toilet” written on them in both pinyin and characters. I sifted through them, looking for any card that could possibly help me out of this nightmare of a situation. Unfortunately, I had not foreseen this, and soon realized that a card with the words “I am traveling to Shenzhen and I think my train has been delayed. When will it arrive, and at which gate will it be boarding?” was not in my stack of 100 Useful Phrases for Any Situation (except the circumstance I was in).
Sighing loudly, I stashed the cards in my purse and reached for my dictionary. I allowed myself a brief, wistful thought – I wish I was fluent in Mandarin – before I looked up the word for gate. I flipped through the pages hurriedly, not wanting to waste a second and consequently miss my train. I didn't know what I would do if that happened. Where would I go?
All of a sudden, a shadow fell over me. I apprehensively looked up, and to my great relief, I saw one of the women from the information desk in front of me.
“Dui bu qi” (I'm sorry), she said contritely, “I no want scare you.”
“Mei guan xi” (That's okay), I replied, relaxing slightly, but not totally, since adrenaline was still coursing through my veins.
“I not know shima (what) you ask then,” she said in halting, broken English. “Now I zhidao (know). Train lai (will come) soon. Gate liu (six).”
“Xiexie ni! (Thank you!)” I exclaimed, overjoyed that I now knew which gate to go to and that the train was still en route to the station.
“Mei guan xi” (You're welcome), she said, smiling widely. “Wo hen (I'm very) happy help you.”
“Wo hen gao xing ren shi ni” (I'm very happy to have met you), I said, using another of my memorized phrases and truly meaning it.
She smiled and turned to walk back to the information desk. All of a sudden, I saw something in her hand that I hadn't noticed before: a dictionary. I smiled as I collected my bulky belongings and headed to Gate Six to wait for my train.