The Sadness of Sun Chi
Jining, Inner Mongolia, China.
The pace of modern China can stifle. Sometimes, people break.
19:00. Jining South Station.
I arrived in Jining, a small Inner Mongolian city, after dark on my way to Erlian, the border town on the Chinese/Mongolian frontier.
It was cold that night, and I had 7 hours to wait in a barren, open, empty station until the midnight whistle blew and I could board the sleeper.
It was becoming a tradition, my train-station snacking. Even in the most remote Chinese convenience store, Oreos are well-stocked. I’d become an addict. During those long, lonely hours waiting on platforms or suffering through over-crowded trains, there is comfort in the familiarity of over-processed, western junk.
So I sat, typically alone, in the station, opened my packet and my kindle and began to wait.
Soon, a man sat opposite me. We exchanged smiles, and he returned to his phone. Before we even spoke, there was something different about him. Usually, the looks I received in China were not communicative - they were stares. Rude, careless stares that never seemed to cease. But this man smiled.
An hour or so passed. I was on my third biscuit, and about 15 pages into a history of Albania by one of my all-time heroes, Edith Durham, a twenty-something adventurer who chronicled Albanian life in the decade prior to the First World War. Sometimes when you’re alone in a dark and cold place - such as a desolate inner-Mongolian train station - the escapism of a well-written travel-log from a time long gone provides as much comfort as even the freshest chocolate and cream cookie.
It got colder. I was already wearing one down jacket, and I layered another coat over the top. This, it seems, caught his attention.
‘You’re cold!?” the man exclaimed, incredulously, and in perfect English. He laughed at my incapacity to deal with the mild chill: he was just wearing a shirt.
I murmured some immemorable reply. I offered him a precious Oreo, and he came over to join me.
21:00. “Hi, I’m Sun Chi”
Sun Chi introduced himself. We riffed on well-trodden subjects to break the ice. “I’m Australian”; “4 months - I haven’t shaved in 4 months”; “I’ve been to xyz, but China is my favourite”.
I showed him my travel blogs and a recent video I’d proudly shot over the Great Wall of China.
On seeing the clip, he was dismissive:
“That is really boring”, he said. “You need to be more descriptive - tell the audience what it feels like, what is smells like on top of the wall”.
It turned into a mini-diatribe about the inadequacy of my video, before he realised I might be more confronted by criticism than some, and began profusely apologising. I assured him I wasn’t sensitive to criticism - that I welcomed it and appreciated his candor. The rant continued, and I took mental notes.
Sun Chi was right: the video was bland. Plus, I hate being on camera, it shows - and he noted as much. I respected his honesty. The rant was funny. I liked him.
An eloquent 30-something English speaker, Sun Chi typified the millennial Chinese professional. Worldly, well-dressed, and highly-educated, Sun Chi found himself in Jining en route to a major work project right near the Mongolian border, which he was overseeing.
I asked what he did for work.
“I’m a construction engineer”, he said, deflated, while adjusting his thick glasses.
I sensed his frustration with the work immediately. So I dug a little deeper.
“You don’t seem so enthusiastic?”, I cautiously asked.
Sun Chi sighed. “I hate my job. I’ve been on a train for 30 hours. I have to be at work at 6am tomorrow” [the train arrived at 5:50am] “and work all week”.
He was down, but I assumed just from exhaustion. So I offered the shallow comfort that makes sense back home.
“You can always do something else. Perhaps go back to study or change career?”.
“No”, re replied. “I can’t do that. It is not possible in China. This is the path that has been set for me and I can’t get off it”.
Sun Chi grew angry. His frustrations, I assumed, were brewing from somewhere deep within. It wasn’t just his job, but his life and lack of agency over it that was eating away at him.
I asked about his family - do you have a wife, kids?
“I have a wife I do not love”, he brazenly confessed. “We were encouraged to marry. We aren’t friends. I don’t feel like I have a home”.
Parents? Friends? I kept prying. But no. He had no one. No one to talk to about his life. No one in his orbit who he loved. No sense of place. No pride in his work. And no way to change a thing.
It went back and forth like this for a while. I tried to offer comfort but his grievances only grew. I soon realised I was uniquely placed to be his sounding board. Here I was, a completely transient figure - a character from a foreign world whom he will never see again - who he could open his soul to. The conversation got darker, and I had no way to reign it in.
He paused after an extended purge. And then he said it.
“Often, I just want to kill myself”. This wasn’t hyperbole: the life he described sounded like one barely worth living. I felt he had laid the groundwork throughout our conversation, preparing me for this morbid confession. But I still physically felt every syllable of those seven crushing words.
I wasn’t sure where to go from here. But the conversion returned to my travels. I felt awkward: here I was, on a journey only possible because I have complete control over my own destiny. Entirely liberated, my life is only constrained by the limits of my imagination. Sun Chi, in contrast, was imprisoned in a cage with no key.
I mentioned that I’d be visiting Urumqi, a city in China’s far-west.
He sparked back to life.
“I want you to pass on a message. A message to a very special person”, he told me.
I pressed for details.
Sun Chi’s ex lived in Urumqi. His ex-boyfriend.
Gay and closeted, Sun Chi had succumbed to his instincts over a decade ago and fallen in love. Now, him and his ex had lost touch, and lived a country away from one another - at least one of them suffering in a sham, loveless marriage. I sensed that they feared even communicating on Weibo or other Chinese communication networks: why else would he want me to pass on a message personally?
I agreed, of course. We exchanged details.
We walked to the train together. Two carriages ahead of me, Sun Chi continued down the platform as I boarded. We shook hands. I said I’d email him.
I didn’t sleep much that night. I spent much of the train ride frantically jotting down notes to recall the conversation.
Then I arrived in Erlian. I navigated the Mongolian border. I spent another couple of days on a train. I got sick. I got a commission, and was thrust into paid work. Time passed.
It was several days later that I emailed Sun Chi from Ulaanbaatar:
Hi Sun Chi,
Sorry for not writing sooner - had a busy start in Mongolia followed by a few days of illness!
Just thought I'd drop you a line to say hello, and good to meet you in Jining. Hope the rest of your week was tolerable.
I remember you mentioning something about passing on a message in Urumqi. I'll be passing through there in around 2 weeks time, so let me know.
He never wrote back.