Lost in Translation

The Chinatown bus network: offerring inexpensive transport between the major Chinatowns of the eastern US. The New York Times coos over the novelty; we actually take a ride on the bus and have a decidedly different take.

The New York Times loves the Chinatown bus trade—in a little over a year, the paper has run three lengthy pieces about the growing number of inexpensive, Chinese-operated shuttles that run between the numerous big-city Chinatowns dotting the Eastern Seaboard. Each of the pieces—which ran in the Travel, Metro, and City sections—is full of praise, dismissive of criticisms, and empty of new material (don’t the section heads talk to each other?). The latest, on 16 February, raved about the possibility of getting from New York to Washington for $15: ‘nonstop, often with an in-ride movie,’ reporters Michael Wilson and Al Baker write.

But in the 4,096 words that the Times has printed about the buses (not counting several stories about a fatal crash involving an Atlantic City-bound bus), it has failed to answer the one question that most anyone reading the articles would like to know: What’s the trip like? And if the writers didn’t actually venture a bus ride, doesn’t that speak volumes of doubt about the enterprise?

Such a man-on-the-scene perspective would help the Times’ Chinatown-bus beat immensely. Because not only is it true that some people are, in fact, unhappy with their Chinatown bus experience, but in fact all but the most serene, uneventful trips can get very uncomfortable very quickly. There are a few reasons:

1. The drivers typically don’t speak much English, if at all. Clearly, not a problem for Chinese speakers. On the other hand, it’s likely illegal, not to mention frustrating—for instance, when the driver gets lost or makes long, involved comments over the speaker in Chinese, followed by a blunt ‘We are making a stop’ in English.

2. The drivers aren’t very good. The Times notes in a 12 January story that ‘the Chinese drivers have a tendency to treat the New Jersey Turnpike like Germany’s high-speed Autobahn.’ While the only person the paper could find for comment was a Vassar student who approved because ‘I arrive a half-hour faster now,’ out-of-control drivers are a problem any way you cut it. Last month two people were killed when a speeding Chinatown bus flipped onto its side in central New Jersey.

3. There’s often no one else on board from the company. Which means that when you want to ask why the driver is hurtling down the highway or making unexpected stops along the way, it’s tough luck for the luckless passenger.

4. The movies. The Times seems to think that the offer of an ‘in-ride movie’ is a great deal. ‘The lines offer all the amenities travelers have come to expect from any bus ride,’ Steve Kurtz writes in the 12 January piece, ‘including views of the passing highway and a small rear bathroom. Add to that an on-board Jackie Chan movie and the potential to learn Chinese through osmosis, and it’s clear why these lines are becoming an alternative to Amtrak and Greyhound.’

Kurtz is, ironically, an editor at Details—ironic because, if he’d bothered to ride one of the buses, he would have learned such details as a) the ‘views of the passing highway’ are, in fact, the same views offered by Greyhound, not to mention every other vehicle on the road, and therefore not really an amenity; b) the idea of learning Chinese ‘through osmosis’ during a five-hour bare-knuckle trip down the Jersey Turnpike is laughable, given that you’re too busy fearing for your safety than trying to actually absorb anything; c) the bathrooms reek of something awful; and d) you will never, ever see a Jackie Chan film on a Chinatown bus. More likely is the low-production-value Hong Kong medical drama I’ve been treated to twice, Healing Hearts. (Oh, and when they say it’s translated, they mean from Cantonese to Mandarin.) The sound is tinny and often cranked high, giving the whole experience an annoying, surreal tinge.

Again, none of these things, in optimal conditions, are that big of a deal. For $20 (the actual fare to Washington), I’ve got more than enough patience to sit through five hours of ER knockoffs. But take a complicating factor—inclement weather like, say, the worst blizzard the East Coast has seen in decades—and all the above become serious issues for your well-being.

Granted, I should never have gotten on that bus to Washington. But I had to be at work the next day, and I thought that if we left New York on time we could beat the worst of the weather. I was wrong—two hours later we were crawling along the Turnpike, somewhere around New Brunswick. We couldn’t have been doing more than 25 mph, thanks to the armada of salting trucks ahead of us. But as soon as we got around them, the driver started Healing Hearts, cranked the volume, and opened up. For the next three hours we barreled down the road at something in the neighborhood of 50 mph, shooting past trucks and SUVs like they were standing still.

This is where communication becomes important. If I could have conversed with the driver, I’d have told him to drop me off at the next exit with a motel. But not only did he not speak English, no one on the bus spoke both English and Chinese—a problem when three quarters of your passengers speak only the former. As it were, we kept going, and my guts turned somersaults each time we skidded sideways as the bus passed another car.

Our trip (or rather my part of it) ended on an off-ramp on the outskirts of Baltimore. The driver had decided to stop at a travel plaza, only to find himself stuck under a bridge behind an endless line of other buses, trucks, and cars. As I learned later, Governor Ehrlich had just ordered all non-essential vehicles off the road; but when I went to ask the driver what was going on, he replied in Chinese. How long we were going to be there, what sort of gas supply we had, what he was going to do once the traffic started moving—these things we could not know. I grabbed my luggage and hiked to a hotel.

There were forty people on my bus, and I can’t imagine that the trip was the first time anyone has encountered difficulties with a Chinatown bus. I know a number of people who won’t ride again, at least as many as I know who swear by them. But to read the Times, people would be stupid not to ride—as far as Kurtz, Wilson, and Baker know, they’ve got Jackie Chan and Chinese-language lessons in full effect, word. Of course, for $35 roundtrip, the price makes a lot of things worth it—to the right person. But good reportage would give both sides, and the Times does a great disservice when, for its failure to fully investigate a story, it portrays a service meant only for the adventurous as the greatest thing since sliced spring rolls.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen