When the Sheldon Cooper of Beijing Invaded the Bookworm

Posted by on May 15, 2018 in Beijing, Public Speaking, Trains | No Comments

22:47 (UTC+08:00), 15 MAY 2018 | CHN CHAOYANGMEN, BEIJING

In 2009, when I was headed for (a blogger event that later got censored; nobody knew that going in!), someone on the bus tweeted I was like Sheldon Cooper. I think if I had the onboard microphone, I would make announcements in Tianjinhua, since I would travel on the world’s fastest trains to Tianjin almost monthly. Sheldon Cooper doesn’t do Tianjinhua — this guy has no idea what he’d be tweeting about!

But eventually I validated my Sheldon-ness with my PhD graduation in 2012 (in media, not in trains), so this became an academically-and-transport-wise awkward moment. At TEDx last year, I made clear mention of my Sheldonness, something I’ve become semi-sorta-proud of. (Or as Sheldon might say it, psychologically copacetic to extents equatable with actual, genuine, and verifiable contentment.)

You all knew that I did the Everyday Rail English books in late 2017 so to clean up on China Railway’s epic mistranslations (they run great trains, but some translations are just totally random). It was bilingual for the sole fact that they had to have something to read in English, but all the descriptive text and others remaining in Mandarin Chinese. Like my Chinglish book, it found itself an unexpected international audience. There is hearsay this book made it big in the Belgian community in Beijing, both civilian and diplomatic (!??). As a result, this book began an unexpected second life as a book semi-primed for expats as well (supposedly so they could probably use pre-canned phrases to navigate their way around the rail network).

The Bookworm’s probably the most well-read, literally, of all expat hangout places in the Jing, so I decided to talk about the book, but also my documentary, and other untold stories of the Chinese railways, at the Bookworm for the 14 May 2018 event. The topic was so Sheldonesque I thought I’d get maybe just a few coming along for the ferrovial brainwashing. Except that I had underestimated interest in this…

Not only did I take a look at the raison d’être for the book — but I also went ahead with a few unknown facts (and hopefully less factoids) of the railways in China… such as the rather complex way they managed the stations on the Beijing-Shanghai HSR (11 different entities or bodies manage the 24 stations!), or how Muping has this Tottenham Court Road-like echo hall at the departures hall.

Quite a few stations have something even I myself, as a rail veteran, did not expect to come up with. This in particular included Minquan North station, which is one of the very few stations where the station building and the platforms and tracks aren’t exactly in front of them (or at right angles) — but a 30° tilt! I had to use my mic and book to come to any likelihood of making a comprehensible visual presentation…

The talk went on for about 45 minutes (as promised), with an extra 15-20 minutes thrown in for Q&A. I was quizzed, of course, about how many railway stations there actually was. At one time a few weeks back, I was sat in the dining car with the gentleman at China Railway who actually manages passenger transport matters! The “official” answer was as much an unanswer as it was an answer: We simply don’t know! Every other day, it seems, one station closes, or another one opens, or yet another one is built, then gets suspended, as there are no-one near the station. There were a smorgasbord of potentially correct answers — 2,200, 2,306, 2,600, or even 5,000 or 8,000 (if you count halts, halts for ticketing purposes, or cargo stations) — but the “correct-ish” one is “around 2,200”. We are not kidding you!

Books sold at the event were on slightly special offer — ¥25.— (instead of ¥28.—) — and quite a number of us did pick one up, pay, then pocket it for home or for the next train journey. My end, it’s just another night in Beijing before an early train ride out to Qingdao! See you there and then. Oh, and thanks for coming last night!