The Train Station
My mother skipped alongside her parents, waiting to arrive at the big building she had been dreaming of taking a close look at. Her father thrust the door open to the train station and my mom instantly perceived people hollering and smelled cigarette smoke advancing her way. She peeked through her tiny eyes and caught sight of people swarming around like ants on a hot pot, as her mother always claimed. My grandmother squeezed my mother's hand reassuringly when the little girl slid her tiny hand into her mother's. Her parents guided her to a corner of the train station where there was a tall man, probably in his mid-20s. Even my mother realized that the badges on the man's green military uniform and the way he politely saluted when they arrived showed that he was a respected man in the military. Maybe even a chief commander of some kind.
On this nice summer day, my four-year-old mother embarked on a journey that she never forgot. Even today, almost forty years after her journey, my mother still relates this story to me often.
My aunt, two years older than my mother, had had the privilege of dwelling with my great-aunt in Xinjiang, People's Republic of China for a year when my mother was three. My grandparents had decided that it would be a good experience for my aunt. Without knowing what the place was really like, my mother had envied her and jealousy overwhelmed her little mind. Her common sense had told her that living in a faraway place for a long time and riding on a train for three days would be really fun and different from what she was used to. Also, she had had the impression that she would be able to learn a lot of different and new things from her older cousin in Xinjiang. So, when her sister came back, my mother had insisted that it was her turn to enjoy the thrill. Her parents had agreed, so, here she was.
The military commander called, Mr. Zhang, was her guardian on this trip. As a good friend of my great-aunt, he granted my mother's family a favor and accompanied my mother on her way to Xinjiang.
"Listen to Mr. Zhang and take good care, sweetheart!" shouted my grandmother with some longing and sadness in her voice.
"I will, mommy! Bye bye!" yelled back my mother.
Mr. Zhang and my mother gave my grandparents one last wave and they set off. Mr. Zhang got hold of my mother's suitcase full of clothes and grasped my mother's left hand gently. Once they strolled deeper inside the train station, my mother started stopping everywhere and just couldn't withdraw her eyes from the curious things around her. Passengers squeezed past each other to reach their waiting rooms, vendors called out all the goods their products had, staff pointed directions for passengers, people smoked in corners without a care in the world; some young kids even, like my mother, stopped and gaped at everything until their parents or guardians hastily dragged them away. My mother and another cute little girl her age even stared at each other for a while until their guardians hurriedly pulled them away.
Finally, Mr. Zhang realized that at this rate of speed, they were never going to get to their waiting room on time. So he immediately scooped my mother up with one hand and laid her gently on his soldiers so that her back faced the front where they were heading. My mother felt frightened for a second but then she instantly relaxed after spotting that soothing smile Mr. Zhang gave her as she turned her head and faced Mr. Zhang with a confused expression. From this fair height, my mother could spy behind every crack and corner: the graffiti on every single wall, signs that showed the direction of where certain waiting rooms were located, and even things such as a cockroach resting on a pipe, a tiny bird's nest in a corner and an old man picking through the garbage and finding a piece of bread that someone threw away.
After a while, my mother got fed up with whirling her tiny head around and around so she focused on things closer to her. Her little eyelids floated around the right shoulder of Mr. Zhang's uniform and landed on three gold buttons. She started entertaining herself with them and surprisingly, Mr. Zhang didn't scold her at all. My mother twisted them backward and forward, backward and forward until she got dizzy just looking at them.
After about 1 minute of silence (if you call everyone streaming around and howling at each other silence), Mr. Zhang glanced at his watch and whispered into my mother's ears, "Darling, we have to start walking faster to catch our train, so grab my shoulders tightly, OK?" Mr. Zhang started walking with long and quick strides while my mother's fountain styled hair swished left to right, right to left like a broom wiping the floor. For this special day, her mother had tied her hair up like a fountain on the top of her head and now the fountain on my mother's head became real. Some other passengers walking by the twosome actually stopped and commented on how cute my mother was with her hair swaying like that.
Suddenly, my mother noticed a dog just outside the bathroom door and exclaimed loud enough to cause some turning heads, "Mr. Zhang, can we go look at the cute dog over there? Please!"
"Sorry honey but we don't have much time left. I know you're curious but we really have to board this train," replied Mr. Zhang. My mother sadly draped her head over Mr. Zhang's shoulders and closed her eyes. She might've fallen asleep but she wasn't sure.
When she finally opened her tiny eyelids, Mr. Zhang was already standing on the platform where their train was supposed to arrive, carrying her. I fell asleep, thought my mother. Oh no I didn't, I didn't fall asleep. I did. No, I didn't. Yes I did, I did fall asleep. No, I didn't. Oh, I'm so confused. I did. I didn't. My mother felt puzzled so she dropped her thoughts uncompleted. She then My mother looked around, jerked her head away from Mr. Zhang's shoulder and looked at her guardian with an unreadable expression. So, Mr. Zhang lowered her down tenderly. He gave her a broad smile and started recounting interesting stories about his military experiences. Mr. Zhang started describing how on one cold night in winter when he just started his training, he had to use the bathroom so he had snuck out of his dorm. Unfortunately, he had forgotten to carry his flashlight with him so he had ended up tripping over plants, targets, cardboard boxes and other equipment every five seconds. When he finished off with him accidently finding the wrong way and banging on the nurses' door, my mother started laughing so loud that an old crew member employed in the train station approached her and ordered her to stop. That didn't help at all because my mother just giggled even more. So the crew just shook her head, smiled and wandered away.
Luckily, after a short minute, their train arrived and people started rushing to get on and find their seats. However, Mr. Zhang seemed to have very good manners as he waited for everyone to get up, saluted to the ticket checker and went in. There, Mr. Zhang greeted a lot of the passengers like old friends and they all looked up at him in respect and admiration. My mother did not seem to understand this so she just hopped along examining everything with obvious curiosity. Finally, Mr. Zhang halted in front of a door and pulled my mother in after him. Immediately, my mother noticed a very nice smell filling the tiny room. A second later, my mother recognized it as the delicious aroma of instant noodles.
"Ah, here you are Mr. Zhang, we've been waiting for you," said a young man with a short beard.
"And I see you have brought a girl with you," exclaimed another man in a low but friendly voice.
"Yes I have indeed, Liu," replied Mr. Zhang in a bored monotone.
My mother suddenly stepped forward and declared in a loud but sweet voice, "Hello officers, my name is Wei. Mr. Zhang is my guardian on my trip to Xinjiang. I will be sleeping with you all for the next three days on this train. Thank you. Oh, and I'll be taking the top bunk here."
Abruptly, the men, including Mr. Zhang started clutching their stomachs with uncontrollable laughter. My mother stared wide-eyed until the man Liu spoke. "OK, kid, you get the top bunk. You really have some kind of knack for speaking, eh? Anyone told you that you should become a public speaker when you grow up?"
My mother blushed while the men continued to laugh some more. She decided that these men would not be bad travel companions.