By Taigu standards, it was golden summer; three days in the upper 70s, with the kind of blue skies that I thought had ceased to exist in China. I was staying in Amelea’s room, though of course I had known it better as Ray’s room, and before hers, Nick’s. Even still, it seemed something of a misnomer – Amelea had already left, and in a few weeks’ time, the room would be newly appropriated by one of the first-year transplants to Taigu. The house they had each inhabited was adjacent to the identical red brick flat No. 11 where I used to live. For the entire duration of my visit, it was hard to reconcile the reality that I was sleeping, not in my own bed in my own house, but in a room that I had, for two years, scarcely ever entered.
In spite of a three-year hiatus, the memories came rushing back. On campus, where we routinely spotted a new food stall in North Yard before it had even had its first customer, it was easy to notice the changes. The gaudy school library had been christened the “Culture and Information Center.” The fake Starbucks where we had shot part of a short film had been closed and put up for rent. The price of the conspicuously dairy-free ice cream had tripled. But the biggest change of all was the people. All of my old students had long since graduated. Two generations of new Fellows had already passed through my old room. People were transient, I had to remind myself, to say nothing of me.
And yet, there was still something of the familiar. I could see my former students’ faces in the curious new visages that followed me around campus. The underground supermarket still sold overpriced yogurt and students still alternated between playing cards and taking naps on its long tables. The one and only sex shop on campus, only open at nights, was still located next to a long strip of rent-by-the-hour hotels. Most of my favorite restaurants were still there, though in some cases the ownership had changed, and almost none of the original wait staff remained. The food stalls that lined North Yard were still numerous, always full, and almost surely still used illegal cooking oil.
On my first night, we went out to eat chuanr—skewered meat on sticks—at a restaurant mid-way between Shanxi Agricultural University and the Information College, a third-tier feeder school that was still in the process of being built by the time I left. The new teachers were welcoming and open, and we stayed out late carousing, long past the time the food was finished. Rick started throwing bottle caps in people’s beers the way Nick did when he got drunk. With no bathrooms, I still found myself going down the length of the road to periodically relieve myself in the bushes. I had a great time, but still, things felt different. It was like taking a snapshot of a younger me, the way my life used to be. And I realized at that moment that, for all my nostalgic pining, had I never left Taigu, not much about my former self would have changed.
After lunch the next day, I decided to go for a walk. I didn’t bother asking V to come with me, figuring that she would probably have her own ritual when it came time for her to leave Taigu. Besides, I was particularly attached to my own – how on my last night as a teacher I did a big loop around campus, stopping every few feet to recount such-and-such a memory and how I might never experience anything quite like it again. I still remembered the way the dormitory windows were lit up, and the fact that to practically everyone else but me, that night was just as ordinary as the nights that came before it and those that would follow. Just like with the room I was staying in, it was hard to constantly compare every new experience to the way things used to be.
The road to North Yard had since been paved from the time I lived in Taigu, but when it rained mud still gathered along the banks, and cars still came screeching down the center lane, forcing pedestrians to queue on one or the other of the narrow sides. As I rounded the first bend, a man caught my eye. He was operating a large grill out in front of the restaurant we used to most frequent for draft beer and chuanr. It was the site of many large gatherings, most often on Friday nights to celebrate the end of the workweek. The man had gotten slightly rounder in the face and his hairline had receded a bit, but he still looked youthful and sincere, and I recognized him immediately.
“Do you still remember me?” I asked him, approaching the front of the restaurant. “I used to live here three years ago.”
“Has it been that long already?” he asked, though looking not the least bit surprised. He had a shaker full of lajiao—red pepper flakes—that he periodically dusted on the meat on the grill.
“We used to come here to eat dinner,” I recalled, as if there were other reasons one might go to a restaurant.
“I remember,” he replied. “My only foreign customers would be hard to forget.”
“My friends, I mean, the other foreign teachers, they’re not going to believe me. Can I take a picture of you to show them, to show them that I saw you?” I held my camera out in the least threatening way I knew. He paused a moment before replying.
“Sure,” he said, and went about his work. He wore the same helpless grin that he used to use at our inadequacies with the language, and when we made unreasonable requests.
We were quiet for a time, and I tried to think of something else I could tell him, perhaps a particular conversation we had had or an anecdote I could recount. But I couldn’t. It was then that I realized that we had exhausted everything there was to say. I didn’t know anything else about him, save that he lived in Taigu, that he ran a restaurant in North Yard, and that five years ago, his dark draft beer was the only game in town. It was upsetting to me, somehow, to recognize that this was the extent of our relationship, that after three years, he was part of only a small handful of people who still knew me here. And yet, of all the experiences I had in Taigu, the times I spent eating at his restaurant would be among the ones I remembered best.
“Well, come back again and visit,” he said, turning over the shanks of lamb on the grill. I thought about when I first left Taigu, how each memory was laced with a yearning for a bygone time I might never recapture. And then I thought again about the next time I might be back; that in spite of all the changes, he would still be out there with his grill full of meat skewers, and that maybe that was comfort enough.
“OK,” I told him, really meaning it. “I will."