There were no more cars. That was how the station attendant announced that the subway had stopped running for the night. It was already 11:00 and I knew, even before I rounded the platform to transfer lines, that my fear of missing the last train would quickly be realized.
I was on my way to Beijing’s central train station for a 10-hour overnight trip to Taigu, the small rural town in Shanxi province where I spent my two most formative years after graduating from Oberlin. For months after I knew I would be returning to China, I went about planning a reunion—contacting about a dozen foreign teachers who had all lived and taught at the university over the past four years. I thought of no better way to visit Taigu again than with the people with whom I had shared so many of my past experiences and for whom, of all the people I knew in the world, those experiences truly made sense.
At first it seemed like there would be a critical mass, as former Fellows living both in Asia and America were intent on making the reunion a reality. But in the end, as final preparations edged nearer, all but one had dropped out. And then, at the last minute, even James, my former roommate and lone hold-out, was called in for work. And so it seemed oddly fitting that I, the compulsive social organizer, would be journeying alone back to the place that first sealed my reputation as an architect of overly ambitious and often failed plans.
Standing on the subway station platform, I had just about 40 minutes before my train would leave. “It’ll take 30 minutes to walk there,” the station attendant said, of the train station that was two stops away. In an unusual show of geniality, she patted me on the shoulder. “If you go now, you can make it.”
Up until that point, I had never seen an empty subway station in Beijing. In four days in the city I had yet to secure a seat on a train, let alone bear witness to an entire platform devoid of people. In America, subway riders shudder at even the slightest brush from a stranger, but there is so much pushing and shoving on a Chinese train that any attempt at cordiality feels almost disingenuous.
Outside, it had started to rain—light and cool and perfect for washing away pollution. It was the first over 300 ppm (parts per million) day since I’d been in Beijing, well above the minimum recommended EPA guideline for outdoor activity. Though, to be fair, if it weren’t for the exceptionally gray skies, I scarcely would have noticed. I was still new to the city, a transplant as yet unfamiliar with the particularly obstinate whims of the pollution gods.
I hadn’t taken more than three steps on the street before I was approached by a man in a bengbengche, a three-wheeled motorcycle rickshaw that is roughly China’s equivalent of a tuk-tuk. The driver offered me a ride to the train station for 30 kuai, but it was only after I walked away and he began riding after me down the street that we agreed to do it for 20. Time was tight, and I didn’t want to chance missing my train.
The driver looked no older than me. He was wearing a t-shirt with an image of a cartoon woman brandishing her left breast and kissing a slightly dumbstruck extraterrestrial next to a caption that read, “Take Me, Alien!” His bengbengche was in exceptionally bad shape—it clanged and sputtered along the slick road only slightly faster than I could walk.
“Where are you from?” the driver asked me. I recoiled slightly, as it had been years since I’d gotten that question. To call foreigners a rarity in Taigu would be an understatement. For two years, there was only the six of us, and I never met a foreigner there that I didn’t know.
“America,” I told him reluctantly, the way some New Yorkers admit that they’re actually from Long Island. According to my watch, I still had twenty minutes before my train would leave.
“Americans are so rich,” he replied, as if he had personally gone to the states to conduct a census. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. If not rich, he may have simply meant that Americans in China are well-off, or at least that they could afford the exhortative price he was charging to go ten blocks. Bartering for 20 kuai may have been a small victory, but it was still more expensive than a taxi; at over three dollars, it was the price of a good lunch—one with dumplings in addition to a main course.
The rain was coming down harder and I decided that it probably wasn’t worth the effort to push the issue. I learned years ago that it’s important to pick your battles in China. Perhaps taking my silence as discomfort, the driver changed the subject. “So, where are you going?” he asked, turning his head sideways so he could peer at me through the rearview mirror.
“Taigu,” I told him. “It’s a small town in Shanxi Province.”
“Ah, I know it,” he said, though I suspected he was just trying to save face. The driver was from Henan, which is further from Taigu than it is from Beijing. Most of the Chinese people I talk to about Taigu have no idea that it exists. The train ticket agents always first naïvely assume that I’m going to Thailand, which in Mandarin has nearly the same pronunciation.
“Are you going for work or play?” the driver asked me. I let the question reverberate in my head for so long that he had to repeat it. I could see the massive red characters for the Beijing train station ahead glowing neon against the dark sky. It had been nearly three years to the day since I’d left Taigu. For the entire time I'd lived there, the small town was my entire world.
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I told him. “Taigu is sort of my home."