Train travel is a lesson in eating away time

Updated: 2011-11-02 07:58

By Joseph Christian (China Daily)

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My wife and I boarded a train during the National Day holiday.

It was just a short ride from Zhejiang's provincial capital Hangzhou to the tourist town of Xitang. But as soon as the train started moving, passengers started to pull out snacks and instant noodles to munch on. I instinctively opened my bag and looked for a book to read.

My wife then turned to me and said, "Why is it that foreigners always read on the train? We Chinese people just eat!"

Train travel is a lesson in eating away time

I looked around. Many of the Chinese passengers were eating. As I thought longer on her comments, images of past train trips flooded my mind.

Steaming instant noodles, bags of fruit, a group of friends plowing through a bag of sunflowers seeds while playing cards, a family gathered around their compartment's small table devouring a whole chicken - I thought hard, but not many memories of people reading books came to mind.

"You know what, now that I think about it, that's really true. Chinese people really do like to eat on trains," I said to my wife.

"But why?"

"For one it is a good way to pass time," she said, as she opened a bag of sunflower seeds.

"OK ... yeah ... but so is reading," I responded.

"Yeah, but, well, I don't think a lot of Chinese have developed a habit of reading," she said, before splitting open a large seed with her front teeth.

In the background, I began to hear digital gunshots and the roaring of monsters. I turned to see two little girls playing some kind of first-person shooter on their dad's iPad. They giggled as they blew away another monster.

I watched them for a while before finally turning my attention back to finding a collection of short stories by Chinese writer Eileen Chang.

After Xitang, we had planned to go to Shanghai, and I thought one of the best ways to get in the right mood to enjoy the Shanghai of the present was to read stories about its past.

I finally found the book and pulled it out. As I fumbled through the pages searching for where I had last stopped reading I looked over at my wife. She was done with the sunflower seeds and had now turned her attention to her cell phone.

Soon, I heard the distinctive beep as she chatted with her friends on QQ.

In front of us, a young man was doing the same thing.

Reading might not be very popular on trains, but digital entertainment definitely is.

"Maybe you're right," I said.

"What?" she responded, looking up from her phone.

"Maybe Chinese people don't have such a habit of reading for fun, you know, outside of education," I said.

"Yeah, these are much easier," she said, pointing at her cell phone and bag of sunflower seeds.

A few days later, when we arrived home in Beijing, the conversation came up again.

In particular, we focused on why Chinese love to eat on trains. We were still curious if there was a better answer we hadn't considered, so my wife jumped on Baidu's forums looking for a good explanation.

I was surprised how many Chinese people were asking the same question online. Sadly, most people's comments were not really answers, most just took the time to criticize those who snack on trains.

In the end, I was left in a familiar position when it comes to explaining differences between my culture and Chinese culture - that is, with observations and a gut feeling but no true evidence.

Even so, I think it's safe to say that Chinese love eating on trains.

And thanks to my wife, it may well be a habit I am quickly developing, too.

China Daily

Train travel is a lesson in eating away time

(China Daily 11/02/2011 page20)