China Diary – Arrival Games


I crossed the yellow line and took my mark. “Spy” is a game I often play at immigration counters. It’s the only real entertainment that one can draw during exhausting journeys. So after careful deliberation during the long wait in the serpentine queue at the terminal, I had settled on the perfect balance of behaviour.

A gentle nod of the head was all that I would offer while I’d slip my passport through that narrow cavity in the glass that divided me from the officer. His stern gaze caught mine before it slipped back into the pages. As rehearsed, I put into practice my best act of nonchalance.

Right toe tapping slowly and deliberately; hands steady and dry, where they could be seen; eyes glazed and squinted mapping the space; jaw moving with rhythmic purpose, munching on an imaginary chewing gum; and tongue clucking occasionally to express displeasure at the time that was being taken.

It worked like a charm (I know how deluded that sounds) and seconds later I was stamped into the country, running through a maze of tunnels. For a moment, lost in the mass of humanity, bumping bodies and over-zealous salespeople grabbing at me and calling out in a language that I couldn’t understand, I stood paralyzed.

That was until I decided to engage in another one of my games. This one’s called “Treasure of the Catacombs.”

In an instant, the music began to take shape. Pinching the dry air before me, I adjusted my imaginary hat. The plethora of pens – exchanged for business cards from cheerful volunteers – that dangled around my neck now acted as the coils of the trademark whip.

Stepping on to the escalator, I looked into the distance – a vast network of caves teeming with people who barely realize that treasure that surrounds them.

As my father wondered aloud at the size of the crowd despite it being the May Day holiday, I quipped with a slow head-bob – “That’s why they call it a jungle, sweetheart.” He stood there unmoved, uninterested as I held the smug pose. I know my Harrison Ford impression isn’t the best, but throw me a bone here, I pleaded in vain.

A few steps on and we now stood at the mystical gates that open only when the voice of the unseen sorceress speaketh the right words.

A bell tolled and magic words were heard. We braced ourselves, as the crowd gathered around, hoping to be the first ones to hop into the train. On second thought we were never even in the race. Like an ocean struggling to flow through a narrow crevice, people squeezed through continually, until another bell tolled.

This time the sorceress uttered another command and the gates began to cave in, dividing those trapped in from those outside.

Frustrated at missing out, I slapped my hand at the glass, while catching the eye of a young lady who stood staring at me from the other side. “Hold on baby; I will come for you; I swear, we’ll get those bastards,” I cried. She looked dazed, amused and finally broke into giggles, at the sight of a stranger blowing kisses.

Right then, a loud alarm called for an intermission in the movie I was making.

To my left, an unfortunate woman had been caught between the train’s gates. As in case of most underground networks, the doors have a sensor system and complain but give way in case anyone’s caught in between. But here the lady seemed to be wedged in, struggling to squeeze through.

Announcements continued; I couldn’t understand them. Everyone around watched helplessly, as she tugged and pulled, squirmed and screamed for what seemed like eternity. The doors, however, would just not yield. Finally, much to everyone’s relief, she managed to drag her foot and handbag through, as the train began to move.

 Perhaps it’s my prejudice; but all I could think at that moment was – “Welcome to China; there’s no give here; you must always do as the unseen voice of the law asks you to…”


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