Strangers on a Train

While studying abroad, there was actually a lot of time for us to go out and explore Shanghai on our own. We didn’t have classes on Mondays, field trips were scheduled for Fridays, and lectures and discussions took place during the mornings in between. There was one Friday though in which a field trip was not scheduled, so that gave us a long weekend that effectively started Thursday afternoon and ended Tuesday morning.


Most of us decided that this was an opportune time to make a trip to Beijing and since taking a plane there and back would be pretty expensive, we chose to do so by train. I actually can’t remember the last time I rode a train prior to this trip so I was excited and didn’t know too much about what I was getting myself into. It was definitely not what I expected.

The trip from Shanghai to Beijing was ridiculous. There were already people sitting in our seats when we boarded the overstuffed train, though they did eventually move for us once we arrived. The ride was 13 hours long, but because it ran overnight, I spent most of those hours sleeping and waiting for us to finally reach our destination. From there, we traveled to our hostels and had a great time in China’s capital city.

Once it was time to head back, only two of us wanted to take another chance on the train while the rest opted for taking the shorter and much more comfortable plane. I was one of the two who decided to brave the rails once more. This time, the trip from Beijing to Shanghai took 22 hours (!!) because of the many stops that it made on the way. Rather than the finding the seats we had during the first trip, we were surprised to discover sleepers, and I made use of them by claiming my territory on the top bunk, where I spent a couple hours reading and observing what was going on around me.

One of the people that stood out to me was a little girl who liked to interact with the other people in our section. She was pretty adorable and busied herself at times folding paper into different shapes. I decided to put some of my incredibly basic origami skills to use by making her a boat, and in turn, she folded up a plane with messages written on it. I made her a hat and she gave me a plum. I gave her a lollipop and she gave me even more paper planes.

Even though the trip from Beijing to Shanghai was almost twice as long as the trip from Shanghai to Beijing, this experience made it much more enjoyable. The interaction between the little girl and the people in my section forced us to be a somewhat less detached from each other. Honestly, it’s hard for me to start up a conversation with a stranger. I am an incredibly shy person and it can be intimidating getting those first words out. But when people start communicating with each other, whether through dialogue, song, or, in my case, origami planes, you find out what it means to live in a global community where our similarities shine while still embracing our differences.

I hope to keep working towards moving beyond my bashfulness and talking to people about their experiences more. It’s going to be a long journey, but if I can remind myself how such a tedious train experience became so memorable for me, then maybe it won’t be as hard. Strangers are only strangers when you don’t know each other’s name. Let’s change that.

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