I cut corners when I have to. I call them my little corruptions.
This weekend, I stayed in Shanghai for work reason and decided to pay a day-visit to my family in Nanjing.
To aim to catch the fast train that would leave Shanghai central at 9 am, I dragged myself out of the bed at 6:30 (I only went to bed a few hours earlier), and after a too hurried buffet breakfast at Le Meridien, I rushed to the station. By the time I made it to the ticket office, it was only 7:30. I asked the ticket man when would be the next available fast train to Nanjing. “9.14.” Came the short answer. “And it would take two hours?” “How about the 9 am train?” I asked as I knew that train would only take only one hour and added eagerly that I was willing to go up to first class or go down to the standing seat. “Meiyou – nothing!” the man said simply, as if it would cost him if he uttered any extra words. The person standing behind me explained that today was a Saturday and such a balmy day, lots of people were travelling to Nanjing for the weekend. Ruefully, I bought the ticket on offer, feeling so sorry for my shortened sleep and more importantly for the shortened time I could spend with my family. No, I must try to do something.
At the wait hall, I noticed that passengers for trains departing 14 minutes apart were congregating at the hall. Maybe I could persuade one of the luckier passengers to swap ticket with me, for a price, of course? I would offer 50 and could go up to 100 yuan. I surveyed the people lining up for the earlier train. Many were young people in couples or groups, gearing up for a fun weekend away, others looked like businessmen. Not them. My eyes finally rested on a dark-skinned woman holding onto a large snake-skin sack. She looked like a migrant worker who probably didn’t mind loosing 75 minutes of her time? “Excuse me,” I began politely. The woman listened suspiciously, withdrawing her body as I explained my situation and my request for swapping the tickets. She said no because someone was to meet her at the station in Nanjing.
I sighed and walked away. There must be a way. Yes, the ‘yellow bulls’ – the touts who buy and sell tickets in the black market. I’ve used them many times before, of which 95% turned out to be real. But there wasn’t any ‘yellow bull’ insight at the moment. I went up to a man selling newspapers in the waiting hall and asked if he knew any. Surely he did. He made a phone call but then informed me that his friend was having his breakfast and wouldn’t come to the station before 9 am.
Well, I tried. I sat down, resigned to my fate. “Going to Nanjing,” a plump woman in her fifties came up to me, holding a colorful plastic brochure. “Fancy one day or two days package tour to Nanjing?” I replied, in my thick Nanjing accent, that I didn’t need the tour but a way to get on the 9 am train instead of the one after it. “No problem, I can take you on board. 50 yaun,” she said, holding out a thick hand. “Do I have to pay again?” “No, no.” The woman shook her head but I wasn’t convinced. I racked my brain to work out the possibilities: maybe I would have to pay a fine; maybe I’d have to buy another ticket. (143 yuan) And even if granny’s scheme failed and I was kicked out of the train, I could still make the next train, loosing only this bribery fee. “Okay, I’ll go with you but 30 yuan.” I held out three fingers. “Okay, okay-la. Come with me,” granny said, waving her brochure.
It was now 8.40 am. The gate to the 9 am train wasn’t open yet. Tailing behind the woman, we came to a side entrance. She told people guarding the entrance that I was on her tour. They just opened the gate without even checking my ticket. The granny obviously knew her way around as she chatted with people along the way. On the top of the stairs that led down to the platform, she pointed at the train and said: “That’s your train. You go. Now, 30 yuan.” As simple as this? “No, please take me to the train as you promised,” I pleaded. Granny eyed at me up and down. “What do you do, reading books in foreign language?” she pointed at a novel in English I was holding, Amitav, Gosh’s Glass Palace. I had to take it out of my small back pack because it was bursting with presents I had just bought for my family. “I am a writer,” I said. “Writer! Wow, my daughter loves
literature,” a smile blossomed on her winkled face. “Come on then. I am wasting so much time here. I could have signed up more people on my tours but you are a writer,” she talked garrulously.
We got on the train where the attendants were getting things ready. Granny told one of them to keep an eye out for me. The girl suggested that I go to carriage 4 – the dinning car to wait – since the train was full. In the dining carriage, I found two tall round tables but no seats. In a few minutes, passengers burst onto the train and occupied their rightful positions; uniformed staff briskly walked past the dining area. I avoided eye contacts with them – I still wasn’t sure what would become of me. I anxiously waited for the departure of the train. Only then would I feel safe.
I was very glad to receive a phone call from a French friend. We chatted and laughed until the train started to move. Then I let out a sigh of relief. To justify my presence, I bought a cup of tea. A sweet young girl serving behind the counter smiled brightly at me: “Are you a Chinese? Your English sounds so good!” I confirmed that I am Chinese, from Nanjing. I nursed my tea, leaning against a rail by the window. There were a few others hanging out at the dining car. I wondered what their stories were. The girl kindly informed me that there was still one free seat among the seats that allocated to the dinning passengers, right behind the dinning carriage. I nodded gratefully. Just as I picked up my bag, my coat and shawl, a man in a fine suit dashed out. By the time I reached the seats, I found the man in suit sitting among the diners, his head leaning against the seat, eyes closed.
I returned to the dining car. No big deal, I told myself, as long as I could stay on the train, I could handle standing for an hour. But the sweet girl was determined to help me. She went out and returned with the news that one of diners said I could take his seat in carriage 7. Off I went, with a seat and an almost legitimate status on the train. With my own ticket, I passed the ticket checkout point at Nanjing station without a hiccup. The granny scheme worked!
I guess that’s the thing with corruption in China: everyone hates it and everyone is also willing to be part of it.