I had been told there was no reason to spend Chinese New Year in China. “Everybody stays at home with their families.” The subtext was that everybody goes home to be with their families and I had seen enough mainland movies to know that train stations were crowded to the point of nightmare at this time of year.
What I didn’t know was that this migration lasts for forty days and in 2017 was estimated to consist of 2.98 billion travelers. An online English language newspaper said it would finally be over by February 21 and I was leaving exactly one week after that.
I like crowds but the idea of almost three billion people taking to the road, rails, and sky was daunting. Within less than two weeks, my rides on the Shenzhen metro had changed. At first I was traveling with commuters and shoppers who never left a child, a pregnant woman, or an elderly person standing. The trains were pleasantly full and riders were relaxed and friendly. “Shenzhen, “ I told myself more than once, “is a claustrophobe’s dream.”
And that it was. Streets were wide, coffee shops had outdoor seating, public parks were gigantic, and even the shopping malls were civilized places with spacious hallways flooded with daylight and blessed with public seating. In this city of 792 square miles, space was easy to come by and it seemed to have been the guiding principle of Shenzhen’s urban planners. After a week there, I crossed the border into Hong Kong, got as far as Kowloon, and came back shaking; the number of people on the MTR felt unbearable after seven days of being uncrushed in this other city.
But then the suitcases, cartons, and bundles appeared on the Shenzhen metro and a whole other way of traveling began. My hotel was near a bus station and the streets of my neighborhood were studded with clumps of travelers and their baggage, sitting near the sidewalks, waiting for their trip to begin. I thought of how crowded the terminal must be, shuddered, and kept walking.
People left Shenzhen; people came to Shenzhen. After the holiday began, the metro demographic became quite obviously rural. Passengers had loud conversations, their clothing was utilitarian rather than stylish, and even the women had developed the most impressive techniques of manspread that I had ever seen. While the people leaving Shenzhen always left the metro in an almost empty state when it reached a railway station, the new travelers seemed to have more tenuous destinations. They sprawled and chatted and watched their children enjoy the ride, looking at those unfortunates who remained standing with the unmistakable silent message, “I’ve got my seat. Sucks to be you.”
One unforgettable morning when the migration was in its first week, I changed trains at a railway station to save time on a trip to the border. Few people got off the car closest to me and caught in a river of people, I was squeezed on board. And more and more passengers shoehorned themselves on before the doors finally closed so that we were a solid mass of bodies, pushed together with no millimeter between us. This was beyond MTR crowds in Hong Kong. This was the stuff that disaster movies were made of and the pressure per square inch on my body was almost bone-breaking. A mother next to me made a protective barrier of both arms around her small daughter; it took her minutes to get that position in place.
And then little by little, the car emptied out with nobody fainting or being trampled to death and my thoughts of traveling outside of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen area ebbed with those departing passengers. Small matter that a train trip from Shenzhen to Guanzhou took a mere sixty minutes if those minutes were spent on a high-speed sardine can.
As transit became more populated, my neighborhood grew emptier. The convenience stores where I bought large bottles of drinking water slammed down their gates over locked doors. Restaurants turned off their lights in a slow procession of closures. Traffic was sparse on streets where I had feared for my life on first arrival and often I was one of perhaps three pedestrians. Granville Whale’s Cafe, where I drank charcoal coffee in the morning and chatted with the UK-educated manager, went dark. The flaky little pastries filled with bean curd that were sold from street stalls were all gone. In fact everything that I had loved about my neighborhood was gone.
I began to appreciate the virtues of the local shopping mall. Starbucks still sold its lackluster coffee, the Buy It supermarket provided large bottles of water, and a Hunan restaurant on one of the upper floors kept me well fed with its food that was more incendiary than most Thai food is. On Saturday mornings I would have breakfast at a Hong Kong import, Cafe de Coral, and watch families stroll past in the hallway, all beautifully dressed, Shenzhen boulevardiers out to regard their world. The Haiya Mega Mall was my neighborhood’s community center and I learned to respect its function and to use it without my usual disdain for shopping palaces. It was keeping me alive.
When my neighborhood first began to darken, I took my customary Monday morning bag of laundry to be sent out into the world at large. Every week I did that and every week it returned within a day, every last item ironed dry and in sealed cellophane bags. Laundry is my indulgence as a traveler. I don’t do it myself because the end result usually smells like a mushroom farm and it is always wrinkled. Shenzhen was the apex of any laundry I had ever encountered and my clothes had never looked so good.
But that Monday night I came back to that same bag of dirty clothes, still unwashed. “No,” the girl at the desk explained, “New Year.”
I found that the mall's branch of Uniqlo had underwear that fit me, and H&M had cheap socks in packs of six, but after I had spent forty dollars in that first week without laundry, my homestead upbringing took over. As I turned the low wattage hair dryer that was attached to the bathroom wall upon sink-laundered underwear and dresses that had previously been wrapped in a micro-fiber towel to absorb moisture, I felt a tiny surge of self-sufficiency that came with a healthy dose of self-ridicule. “Let it never be said,” I told myself, “that I don’t know how to properly celebrate Chinese New Year.”