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July 6, 2010

By Keiko Andress

An overweight Chinese woman with her lacquered black-curls pinned carefully atop her heavily made up face was chatting animatedly in Mandarin to the quiet little man on the bottom bunk across from her and directly below mine. And then a thin, brown, tired-looking woman carrying two bags and a large suitcase stumbled into our train compartment on car five. I offered to help lift her luggage onto the overhead storage shelf but she shook her head, “I will fit it under the bunk; it’s very very heavy (berry berry heh-bee) -two sacks of rice and many cereals.” I immediately recognized her accent as a Filipina accent.

The train hadn’t begun yet and though I had half a dozen books to read, I was beginning to dread the coming 24 long hours from Beijing to Hung Hom, Hong Kong. Happy to find an English-speaker I asked, “Is the rice much cheaper in Beijing?” She said, “Not much. But they have a different kind from the ones in Hong Kong and my employers like it, and they tell me to get it when they send me to Beijing. ”

“You went to Beijing just to get rice?”

“No, no. My employers, they are artists. And they have parents in Beijing who are painters too. So they tell me to work there with their parents too sometimes. And then to get rice.” She showed me the muscles in her arms. She said her nickname was Lot; I can’t remember her real name. Lot settled into the middle bunk across from me. She noticed my incessant cough and offered me some pills from her purse. And then she offered me some of her walnuts which she carried with her in a plastic bag in her purse along with a tiny metal pick to crack the shells open. She gave me some sort of sticky nut-candy bar from her purse too.

A uniformed train attendant girl came by pushing a cart loaded with overpriced snacks, tiny bottles of water, and cans of sugary tea and San Miguel beer. I bought a box of “Pineapple Honey Crackers” and a warm can of beer. Lot pointed out that the box of “Pineapple Honey Crackers” had a picture of durian on it instead of pineapple and that my beer was from her homeland. I asked her if she wanted a beer too but she insisted her employers would be not let her drink. They were on the train too in another car; probably in one of the nicer cars. She accepted some of the crackers though and we agreed they weren’t very good and didn’t taste like pineapple or honey.

We slouched in our bunks across from each other eating walnuts and crackers, unable to sit up straight without bumping our heads on the bunks above us. I stretched out my legs and rested my bare feet on her bunk and she did the same, placing her feet on my bunk. She showed me a small picture of her with her husband who she had married four years ago at the age of 27. They hadn’t seen each other in the two years since he had thrown a big going away party for her the night before she left home. Everyone stayed up that night drinking and playing games and singing until the sun came up, she said.

Now the two could only communicate on Sundays, her day off, when she would go to an internet café to video chat with him after attending mass at some cathedral in Hong Kong. She showed me pictures on her phone of her church and of her employers and some of her employers’ artwork. And then she showed me a worn photograph of her with her husband that she kept in her wallet. The woman in the photograph with the girlish smile looked at least half a dozen years younger than the woman sitting on the bunk across from me.

“I used to be an elementary school teacher in the Philippines,” she said. “Now I am here as an amah (domestic helper) because I wanted to work outside of my country. But I am not happy here. I am too sensitive. I used to cry every night because it was my first time to leave my family and my employers do not treat me kind. It is not good for me here because I don’t have anyone here and my work is hard and my employers are always shouting to me, ‘Quickly, quickly’ and ‘What are you doing? Is that what you are supposed to be doing?’ and they teach their daughter to say those things too. You know, I am a Catholic so sometimes I just say, ‘Forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.'”

Then she wanted to know about me. I told her I was a law student and she asked me how much it cost to go to school. I said, “A lot. I already owe the government money and I’ll be in debt for a long time.” She was surprised my parents were not paying for my schooling. I told her there was no way in the world they could afford to pay for me to go to grad school and that a lot of students take out loans in the U.S. I told her I no longer depended on my parents and that my plan was to work hard as a lawyer if I made it through school and then to travel the world after I had paid off my loans. I guess my plans probably didn’t make much sense.

“Maybe I will go to the U.S. someday too,” she said. “I am not happy here. I am here because of the value of the money. I am not one to put down my country but the value of the peso is not so good. But no one can stay with my employer. The other worker left recently and I will be leaving in four months if I can get my visa to work in Canada–I have a sister in Toronto. My husband wants me to come home to Manila, and I want children, but I want to work too. My husband asks me why did I marry him if I am going to leave home? I miss my husband but I want to travel and make money and see the world. Once I go home, it will be difficult to leave again.”

When the train attendant came by in the evening pushing a cart filled with boxed meat and rice dinners, I didn’t buy any because I am vegetarian. Lot bought a dinner of rice and pork and some vegetables. She insisted on separating the her carrots and cabbage from the meat to give to me along with half her rice. “How about the chicken? You eat chicken? I brought chicken with me that I bought in McDonald’s yesterday on my day off.” I said I didn’t eat chicken either. She told me to help myself if I changed my mind.

The Chinese couple on the bunk under us were eating Peking duck. When they were finished, they left the bird’s sad little uneaten decapitated head in a clear plastic bag on the little table fitted between their bunks.

Lot went to sleep early and slept in late the next morning. When she woke up she shared one of her bread rolls with me and then generously offered me some instant coffee and grapes. Her employers had given her this food; she wanted me to have some please? I had been planning to buy her breakfast since she had shared her dinner with me but the food cart didn’t come by in the morning and all I had in my backpack was an apple and a Chinese pear.

She refused to eat my fruit explaining, “No I’m full. I cannot eat a lot these days. You see?” she pulled at the baggy waist of her jeans, “These used to be tight but I cannot eat much any more because I am so worried. My husband tells me not to worry because it is in God’s hands, but I am still so worried. I cannot help but to worry. Anyway, I don’t like to use the toilets on these trains so I better not eat much.”

After breakfast she fell asleep again explaining she wanted to get as much rest as she could before she returned to her employers. When she awoke an hour away from Kowloon, she smiled and said we should take some pictures together but she wanted to comb her hair first and put on some red lipstick – which she rubbed off immediately after the photo-session: “my employers don’t want me to wear makeup or tight pants. That’s why I am wearing these baggy ones,” she said scowling at her jeans and oversized polo shirt.

And then it was time for her to wander through the line of cars to find her employers before our train reached Hong Kong. She gave me a hug and the bag of walnuts, waved goodbye to the Chinese couple who had been sleeping under our bunks, and disappeared down the aisle.


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