There are some Big People in the Midwest. On this particular evening train, most of the twin seats are occupied fully by one person to every two seats.

I eventually find a spot and settle in for a good half-hour read on my commute home.


About halfway there, I am startled by a massive snort. I look up, look around. Did that come from the man in front of me? I meet eyes with the man across the aisle; he raises an eyebrow, and I smirk. I return to my book.

Suddenly, the snort returns, but this time it is prolonged, sustained, ravenous in its growling-ness. The rumbling is certainly coming from the man in front of me, but I am so confused. Isn’t he awake? His left head is tilting towards the aisle, and isn’t that his hand fumbling for something in his pocket?

Then, a full-out snore. Awake or not, this man is snoring. The train car is filled with the thundering base notes. Only there is no melody, but instead a sort of sustained undercurrent of roar.

I give up my book as a lost cause, and peer above his right shoulder at the passengers ahead. His head swings far rightward and then suddenly shudders leftward to hang over the aisle. All around me, people are smiling.

The handsome man in front of us near the door has a delightful, open smile. He removes his large headphones to fully appreciate the slumberer’s cacophony. He smiles at me, he smiles at the man across the aisle from him. The man across the aisle smiles back and makes a comment, and behind me I hear someone repeat the comment.

I turn around, and she’s looking at me, smiling. A man stands up to get off the train, smiling and smiling.

“SNORE, ruff, ruff, snooooore”, the man howls again, and it pushes me over the edge. I am so grateful for my scarf. I pull it up to my nose, I hide in it, and laughter consumes me.

I try to contain myself, but I am shaking, I am dying, my face is becoming red, my eyes suspiciously moist. How very embarrassing!

There is tittering in surround sound, and conversation gets louder. I peek upward out of my mini scarf cave and see others also shaking with laughter.

What does one do when she’s becoming slaphappy amongst a train full of strangers!? When everyone is becoming slaphappy amongst a train full of strangers?!

Little squeaking sounds burst from me as I try to quench this hilarity straining to be unleashed. I press my lips together and hold my chest in tightly. I am losing control.

I am also missing my stop.


I hurl myself out of my seat and run for the map over the door. Oh, never mind, one more stop.

I’m next to the handsome man now, and he gives me a wide grin. The man across the aisle from him looks up at me as if we’re old friends.

I look at the snoring man. His hands are on his glasses, adjusting them, but then suddenly his head rushes to his right, and then careens forward towards the pole in front of him.

“He must be drugged,” I say, smiling uncontrollably. How can he still be asleep!?

“It’s been going for 15 minutes now, and it’s highly entertaining,” the man across the aisle says, smiling widely. “He keeps pulling his shirt up and scratching his chest,” he adds, and he’s smiling and smiling.

“I’m glad I was sitting behind him,” I reply, giggling.

And then it’s my stop. The handsome man smiles hugely. I wink, and bound out into the cold air.


It is rather inconvenient when I must meekly stop the other party’s defensive response to say, I beg your pardon, could you please repeat that last angry point more slowly? My Chinese isn’t good enough.

Kinda takes the oomph out of my fury flow.

I need to do laundry.

German roommate’s laundry is in the machine, done. British roommate’s laundry has been hanging all over the balcony for days, and she’s napping in her room.

I revel in the balcony sunshine, fold it all into a pile. Remove German laundry, hang it to dry where British roommate’s once was. Put my laundry into the machine.

German girl is done with Skype date with Arizonan. “Hope you don’t mind I hung your laundry,” I call to her, “I needed the machine.” She is lovely, smiling, happy as always.

And then she sees the lint.

All her clothes are covered in lint. Um, duh. Things don’t necessarily work the same way here in China as they do back home. Including washing machines. Exhibit A: My lint-covered body.

Her voice rises. It’s nearing a high pitch. Exhibit B: Her black, white-lint-covered underwear. Underwear.

“HOW CAN I WEAR THIS!?” “It’s underwear,” I reply, “just buy a new pair for that special occasion.” (Note: foreign women in Beijing don’t often enjoy special occasions.) She brings out her lint remover.

“DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG THIS IS GOING TO TAKE ME TO REMOVE?!” She’s observing her purple and black striped socks. Really? As in, she is hoping someone sees purple and black striped socks in pristine lint-lacking condition? Really??

“They’re socks,” I say. “You’ll be fine. Look at this red shirt. You can’t even see the lint on it.”


I am no longer allowed to wash the piles of laundry that have been sitting on my bedroom floor for two weeks waiting to be washed. My sheets have had some three friends sleep in them, and that extra set of pajamas was worn by two guests without a wash (don’t tell anyone). But no matter: her laundry needs a second wash first.

The ayis we’ve hired to scrub our bathroom have removed the washing machine hose and can’t figure out how to re-attach it. My just-finished laundry has refilled with sitting water. I must run it again, and it takes nearly an hour to run every time. And I have to leave very soon to teach English and then to have a farewell dinner. (The first expat friend I will have outstayed in China! This is only the beginning….)

German roommate hits the fan. Opens the machine, closes the machine, opens the machine, closes the machine. My forlorn sopping-wet clothes. “Please,” I beg, “you’re freaking me out. Please just leave the machine alone.”

“It doesn’t make any difference if it’s open or closed,” she says, her hand twitching up and down, the lid opening and closing incessantly.

I text the British roommate: “Culture shock attack. Don’t come out of your room.”

“We all have our days,” she texts back. “I’m hiding from the ayis, but I’ll need to pee soon.”

Two train stops from my neighborhood, and I am sitting next to a woman who gathers her bags preparing to disembark. In typical Beijing fashion, a woman hovers shamelessly, maneuvering her child into the seat the instant it is vacated. She is quite pretty, and I steal discreet glances at her as I scroll through the emails on my cell phone and wonder if she is a Westerner or wealthy. There’s just something about her confident, non-passive stance that makes her stand out on this crowded train.

I notice her eight-ish-year-old peering over my shoulder. “Can you read English?” I smile at him. He shakes his head no. “I can’t read Chinese either,” I say. He smiles. His mom smiles. Suddenly, they lock eyes, and pounce onto the backpack in his lap. “IPad,” they say, both digging furiously through the bag. “It’s in English,” they say, peeling back its nifty magnetic cover and punching in the password. “Could you switch it to Chinese!??” Their earnestness is adorable. She adds: “My little sister just sent it to him with a friend from England.”


My station was now only one stop away. I take the iPad in hand. “Let me think,” I said, a little bit stressed about fulfilling this apparently earnest wish before the train pulled into Andingmen Station, but somehow they had already figured out that the option should be under the “General” menu. I scrolled down, quickly located the language option, and tapped my finger on it. The option for simplified Chinese appeared. “It’s this one!” they pointed together. “Thank you! Thank you so much!” I was laughing, insisting it was no problem at all, heading for the opening train doors. “Thank you! Bye bye! Thank you!” they called out after me. And somehow, I felt like a rock star.

If only there were many such tiny problems to bring strangers into friendly contact.