In 2008 I took a 42 hour train ride from Shenyang, in China’s northeast to Chengdu in Sichuan province. I had been living in Shenyang for two months at that point, spending most of my time either in a classroom full of Koreans and Russians, or wandering around the streets listening to music in my headphones. Shenyang was quite a shock to me – at that time, it was one of the most polluted cities in the world, I would leave the house with a white shirt and come back home with a light grayish shirt. There weren’t many foreigners and the ones living there were usually from countries that most people I know wouldn’t be able to point out on a map. I couldn’t communicate because my Chinese language skills were lacking, and although I was quickly improving, the culture seemed difficult to penetrate, I always felt like an outsider. I was stared at when I ate and when I walked, large groups would stop their conversations and watch me walk by in silence. The elderly would come up to me and rub the hair on my arm; sometimes they smiled, but a lot of times they just kept looking at it, and then looked up at me with a curious expression on their faces. I didn’t have someone who knew or cared for me in 7,000 miles.
Even then, there was something so intriguing about China, it’s mystery and the millennia of history and culture bubbling underneath it’s surface, but for a 20 year old kid from suburban Pennsylvania, I didn’t feel a strong connection to where I was.
I exited the train in Chengdu with no real plan of action, but when I walked out of the train station I remember being stopped dead in my tracks by the unbelievable amount of people that I saw; there were over 11 million people living in Chengdu at that time and it seemed to me that they all were planning on taking a train ride that day. I picked up my bag and started moving through the crowds when I heard someone crying. I looked over and saw a woman, in her early 20s, sobbing in the arms of her father. I’ve been an actor for a few years now, so I see fake crying all the time, but this was the real thing. This was the kind of non inhibited crying that shakes your body. This was the kind of crying that you hold in for so long that you barely realize it’s there but then the touch of someone you love shatters any wall holding it in. There was other family gathered around, and her father was running his hands over her head, whispering in her ear in an effort to console her, but she kept on crying. I don’t know why she was crying, or if she was leaving Chengdu or returning, but it really doesn’t matter, that emotion bridged any cultural difference. It was then, staring directly at this family after a 42 hour train ride, unshaven and desperately in need of a shower, that I first truly felt connected to China. This is what I love so much about traveling here, the fact that it seems so different: we eat different foods, it’s a tonal language, we dress different, and we live on complete opposite sides of the world, but although it’s all so foreign on the surface, you look deeper and realize all the similarities.
With 320 million people in the USA and over 1.3 billion in China, it’s very easy to generalize that Americans are like this and Chinese are like that, both countries are guilty of these stereotypes and it can be hard to bridge that gap. But a father comforting his daughter while she cries in his arms – I get that, I feel that, I understand that.