This week a friend of a friend, whom I had never met (the friend of the friend), came to visit me from a huge city (Guangzhou) several hundred miles west of here where she also teaches English.
The trip was a little slapdash. She had a few days off and took the sleeper bus here from Guangzhou, arriving on Monday morning, and had about two and a half days to stay here and see Fujian.
The idea, before she arrived, was to travel down to Xiamen, about five hours away by bus, to spend some time there and see the sights. But when I realized she wouldn’t get here until 6 a.m. Monday morning I backed off that plan a little, thinking it would be too rushed to cram in a trip to another city in Fujian if she wanted to see any of my base city.
It turned out that we managed to get to Xiamen and see my city at the same time, a feat which involved hiking around here for one day and taking a cruise around on the backs of some motorcycle taxis, and then the next day rising fairly early and deciding to go to Xiamen anyway, even though we couldn’t stay in a hotel there because neither of us had our passports with us.
It was fun, if tiring. Monday was tomb-sweeping day in China, a holiday for honoring the dead by visiting their tombs in the mountains and lighting small fires by them and burning incense with family. So we swung out of town and started up a country road that my professor, when he was still here last month, had shown me, and walked a few miles into the country. We saw lots of tombs untouched, and then a few with families milling around, burning incense and I think eating. We climbed up a hill and saw a tomb up close and, next to it, another under construction.
The tombs are sort of scattered around the evergreen-and-bamboo forested mountains of Fujian, oval shaped, made of gray and red stone and brick, resembling a female oraface or a bisected papaya. The mountains in Fujian are pretty and misty and lush-looking, resembling in shape and size the Green Mountains in Vermont where I lived for five years in college. They look prime for skiing to my native Northerner’s eye, but as far as I know snow falls here only once a decade or less. Once you put the city behind you walking on those roads, it would be easy to forget about the large, clogged city you left behind if not for the smog that still lingers in the air even miles away.
We came back to town after an afternoon in the hills, walking on the way back past the enormous steel mill in this city that has essentially swallowed whatever town was there before. There are small residential streets where people still make a life as the ten-foot-wide blue dump trucks from the steel mill rumble by all day, leaving behind trails of exhaust and dust, and whatever industry churns inside the blue steel walls of the factory that stands above the small houses.
Then we ate and considered watching a movie and then went home instead. We were both tired from the walk and planned to go to Golden Lake the next day. But when I woke up rain was dumping down and I realized that anything we did would have to be indoors. There being nothing to do indoors in my city, I proposed that we catch a bus to Xiamen and see what we could in an afternoon. If we had to be sitting around inside all day, at least we would be moving.
This made me feel better after waking up and seeing the rain. We went downtown and bought tickets for a bus leaving ten minutes later and hopped on board. That was at 11 a.m., and I figured that at least we would be there by four and would be able to see some of the city, no matter how early we had to come back. I was exicted. I’ve lived close to Xiamen for more than five months now and haven’t really seen any of it except the bus station, and I knew I would be satisfied to get just a taste of it.
I felt that way for the first three hours of the trip, buzzed because of hopping on a bus with no set plan for return, and then I started looking out the window. Long stretches of tumbling, slanting mountains drifted by at first, interrupted only by 30-second stretches of darkness as we passed under mountains. Then the mountains began to flatten and the air thickened. It looked almost like twilight, even though it was only two o’clock. The air was thick with smog and occasional rain, and we began to see factories, but not just factories — huge industrial compounds of factories, whole towns made into factories or factories made into towns. Many seemed to be oriented towards stone mining or refining and furniture manufacture. It was one of those moments when you don’t willingly step back, but feel shoved back to marvel at the vastness of production that our world requires, and the system that allows it to exist thusly — the size of those factories that produce towels, desks, chairs, stone steps, whatever, that no doubt find themselves post-production scattered all across the world, used by every kind of person, all manufactured in this little vein of mountainous land between here and there.
Once, around three in the afternoon, I looked out the window and saw a town going by — smoke rising from the factories, the factories seeming to be all there was of the town, the air thick and twilightish, a long row of maybe 1,000 middle-school students walking along the side of the main road in front of a factory in their nylon school uniforms, returning home, probably, from school, in the middle of all this.
Then it started to rain harder and the traffic on the highway stopped for maybe an hour. Just stopped, no explanation, no idea of what was ahead of us. People got off the bus to socialize and smoke cigarettes on the road. Somebody lit one on the bus. It seemed to be getting later more quickly. I wondered if going all this way had been a good idea, and thought about my classes the next morning.
Eventually the traffic cleared up and we passed by the scene of the accident. Most of the debris and all of the victims appeared to have been cleared away. What was left were five or six cars piled together inside a tunnel and pushed to the side of the road to let traffic through. The bus picked up speed and a half hour later we were inside Xiamen and it was raining hard and 5:30 p.m. We hailed a cab to the bus station and got train tickets back for 10:30. This gave us about four hours to explore, and we went to Gulangyu (a small island just across from the city that was British-settled a century-or-so ago) and walked around for a while, ate, bought a souvenir, and went back to the train station.
We had hard sleepers, which turned out to be comfortable enough, but for some reason I couldn’t sleep. My visitor-traveling companion spent an hour on the phone with her boyfriend and I put on my headphones and turned the music all the way up. I started thinking about things I didn’t want to think about, feeling lonely and worried about being awake to get off the train when it arrived back home. An old man, who I had been a little rude to when we got on the train (he had told us we had the wrong bunks and I had insisted he was wrong, until, of course, I realized he was right — I still can’t really read Chinese) had told me that we would arrive around 6 a.m. but I didn’t know how we would know.
It turned out to be not a problem. The train steward woke us up at six and swapped out our tickets and fifteen minutes later, as I stood on the smoker train looking out the window, I saw the first signs of my home town out the window; I knew we’d be there in about five minutes.
I felt fine after we got off the train. That had been my first real trip in China where my Chinese skills had been sufficient enough to handle all the stuff involved with booking tickets, finding sightseeing stuff, buying food and other necessities, talking to cab drivers. But it wasn’t just that. The morning had one of those feelings that you get when you have been moving for a while, when you’re dead tired but not ready to sleep. There were a few people riding by on bicycles this early, dressed in ponchos and boots for the rain, but still not many people on the street. We hailed a cab and went home and I showered and spent a couple hours preparing for class and then slept for ten minutes.
For my afternoon class my friend came and actually taught the class a tongue twister, and they were amazed to meet another foreigner and, as always, incredibly warm and excited and eager to learn. It was really fun, and it was really nice to see someone else’s teaching stlye, to get some new ideas and to get some tips and constructive critiques of my teaching. I got off class and my friend packed her bags and got ready to go. We caught the bus to the bus station, grabbed some Lanzhou noodles to go and I saw her off on the train platform.
Before she left, we sat in the waiting room and watched Chinese Informercials for skin whitening creams and laughed and made fun of the T.V. It was fun, and I learned a lot just in three days about what it is like to be a foreigner in a major city (Guangzhou, where she teaches, is huge, and there are a ton of foreigners there — it was interesting to hear about her experience and how different it has been from mine; she makes more than twice the money, for instance, is not nearly such a spectacle to the locals and has a lot of foreigner friends and, as previously mentioned, a foreigner beau), but as we waited for the train I didn’t really feel like eating and I couldn’t stop feeling surprised at how much I felt I was going to miss this person who I hadn’t even known three days before.
This was a repeat of the experience I had a month previously, when a professor and friend from my undergrad college stayed here for a month and I spent some time with him almost every day. Seeing this place through both of their eyes definitely changed it for me, and also made me realize that in the day-to-day, when I am here, even if I am not actively missing home or the people I know and love back there, there is a lot I am missing.
So, I walked out of the train station after she left and headed back outside. It was getting darker again and the rain was settling down now; the streets were wet but it was barely drizzling on my neck. I sat on a bench for a while and thought about it, about what it means to go somewhere and then come back, to do things that you do just because you want to, not because you know how they will end up or what they will mean.
Then I got on the bus and came back home, one foot after the other, happy and surprised like always, but also sad again to see someone go.