China has great fruit. Lychees, papayas, waxberries, pomelos, you name it. Right now, watermelon (西瓜) is in season. A couple of nights ago, at the end of my first day as a resident of Nanjing, I ordered a tall glass of watermelon juice. It was pulpy, refreshing, and not too sweet, as if they had literally smushed a watermelon into a glass, picked out the seeds, and added a straw.


All I could think, as I sipped my juice, was I’ve earned this. After my last trip to Nanjing, I had returned to Shanghai for a few more days in the office. Now I had come back to Nanjing, this time to stay.

I had arrived at the train station in Shanghai that morning with about eighty pounds of luggage and a piece of paper with my train ticket order confirmation number. I had to go to the ticket office to pick up my pre-ordered ticket. It was raining out, and the office was all the way down by the other side of the enormous train station, across a busy street. The only way to cross the street was to go through a pedestrian underpass. While Chinese overpasses, underpasses, and metro stations might have escalators going up, they almost never have escalators going down. This meant I had to drag my fifty-pound rolling suitcase behind me down the stairs, my other bags slamming against my body with each step, ka-CHUNK ka-CHUNK ka-CHUNK. Heads turned. Nothing new. When I arrived at the ticket office, I was directed to the long line of people waiting in front of Window #10, where a small sign proclaimed the presence of English-speaking staff. I also noticed a larger sign at the top of the window, right below the big number 10: 残疾人—disabled people. Great, I thought, so I was waiting in line for the Foreigners-and-Disabled-People Window.

The signs adorning the window, by the way, said nothing whatsoever about the actual service capabilities of the train station staff sitting behind the glass. For one thing, if you have a severe physical disability, good luck getting down the stairs in that underpass. For another thing, as far as I could tell, the staff spoke not a word of English. A group of Europeans stood clustered around the window for almost half an hour, clearly unable to get their message across. When my turn finally came (with about fifteen minutes to spare before my train), I realized that the holdup was not entirely due to language barriers. The dead-eyed staff person took my confirmation number, took my passport, and then disappeared into a back room without a word. A good five minutes later, she suddenly returned with my ticket and passport, and sent me on my way with a scowl. Another mystery of China.

I dragged my luggage back down through the underpass and raced through the rain to the train station entrance. When I reached the correct waiting room for my train, I was surprised by the departures board. There was my train at the top of the list, about three minutes before departure. But instead of listing the status as “boarding,” it simply said “waiting,” exactly the same as every other train listed, all of which left much later in the day. Maybe they were running late, I thought. But before I could puzzle out when my train was actually going to leave, a guy sitting next to me happened to spot the ticket in my hand. “Your train is leaving!” He said, “Go quickly!” I ran through the gate, where the security guard looked at my ticket worriedly and waved me through. I was clearly late. The escalator leading down to the train platform had already stopped—a bad sign—so I dragged my bag down the long flight of stairs—ka-CHUNK ka-CHUNK—and I saw the train leave. My train. I glanced back up at the waiting room, shifted the duffle bag on my shoulder, heaved up my enormous suitcase, and climbed back up those stairs, fueled by adrenaline.

The security guard was still watching me from the top. He smiled consolingly, and I asked him what I should do next. Although out of breath, I felt strangely calm and clear-headed. I was already picturing myself wheeling my bag back to the ticket office, less rushed now, and waiting in line again. I would call the Nanjing office and tell them I may not make it today. It would be fine. But the security guard was delighted that I could speak Chinese, and he directed me to the next platform with a grin. I could see passengers spilling down the escalator and swarming onto the waiting train. “That train goes to Nanjing too,” the security guard said. “You can take that one—get on car #9!” I thanked him and joined the swarm of people, eternally grateful both to the kindly security guard, and to the smoothly running escalator. When I got to the train, however, there was no #9. The train only had eight cars. Oh well. I got on the eighth car, which was full, and decided to stand in the aisle. I wasn’t the only one. In fact, the group of Europeans I had seen waiting in line at Window #10 were there too, standing awkwardly in the aisle with their overstuffed rucksacks. They didn’t seem to speak very much English, but the guy said that they were from Germany, and that unlike me, they were on the right train. Maybe the train was just overbooked. I’m sure this happens in China.

In any case, after about thirty minutes of standing in the aisle and playing Sudoku on my iPhone, the passengers began to thin out. Lots of them got off in Suzhou, and even more in Wuxi. Eventually I had not only a seat, but a whole row of seats to myself. I fell asleep, and woke up a few minutes before we arrived in Nanjing.

I schlepped my luggage to the long line of people waiting for taxis, ignoring the persistent offers for unlicensed taxi rides from passersby. Finally, I was sitting in the back of a taxi, zooming along the highway towards my hotel. Suddenly I looked behind me, and realized that the trunk had popped open. The trunk that contained my fifty-pound rolling suitcase. I told the driver. His response? “没事.” Not a problem.

Not a problem?! I kept my eyes glued to that popped-up trunk for the rest of the ride. The driver was right, in the end—no damage was done. But as you can imagine, I was exhausted.

After a long and unsuccessful afternoon of apartment hunting, and a delicious take-out dinner of shrimp wonton soup, I caught up with my Middlebury friends Kate and Dan in a Hunan restaurant. As I sipped my glass of pulpy, refreshing watermelon juice, I finally began to relax.