Your grandmother is Chinese, I said to myself. You should have known better.
Quincy Carroll is one of those rare WorldTeach volunteers that has stayed connected with us both regularly and in spirit. He remains active in our social media feeds, participates in our alumni media contests, and has even published a novel that he claims is loosely based on his experience in Hunan, China via WorldTeach. As an honest and articulate alumni with plenty of stories to tell, we asked him to write for us. WorldTeach presents, Quincy in rare form.
One of the primary reasons I decided to move to China was to improve my Chinese. I had devoted a lot of time and energy toward studying the language in school, so it felt like the hours would have been wasted unless I attained at least a passable level of fluency. When I first arrived, I could shop, ask/give directions and make small talk without encountering too many problems. In my mind, however, one challenge remained: traveling on my own. About a week into my placement, I was able to do just that. Two friends, Sean and Taryn, called looking to meet up at Hengshan, one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains. (The word for “pilgrimage” in Mandarin literally means “to pay one’s respects at a holy mountain.”) As far as I was concerned, there was no need to think it over—the opportunity had finally presented itself.
There was no train station in Ningyuan, only a modest bus depot that offered a handful of departures each day. After hitching a ride over on the back of a motorcycle taxi, I learned that there was no direct route to Nanyue; I would have to take a shuttle to Yongzhou, then catch a train from there. The only problem was that no one seemed to know when the last train departed. At this point, a decision had to be made: I could either turn back and call it a weekend, or pray I didn’t get stranded. In the end, wanderlust trumped my concern.
The ride out of Ningyuan was spectacular. I finally had a chance to catch a glimpse of the surrounding countryside, which had eluded us in the darkness upon our initial arrival into town. Vast, cloud-shadowed mountains lined the horizon, engendering a noticeably warm sense of security, a key component to the region’s rural charm. Their jagged brows paling into the distance went from green to blue to white—truly awesome, and unlike anything I had ever seen.
The man beside me started asking the usual questions: Where are you from? Why are you here? How long do you plan to stay? What do you think of “our” China? I told him it was big, and this caused him to laugh. When I explained where I was going, he offered to take me there himself, until it was discovered that the women in front of us were headed there, too. I decided to tag along with them instead.
Arrival in Yongzhou about an hour before nightfall, that gaudy star burning molten red in the polluted skies overhead. I got off with the two women and transferred onto a crowded local bus. I attempted conversation, but their accents were too difficult to understand. We sat through the rest of the ride in silence, staring out into the streets.
At that time, there were no such things as lines in Hunan. Certain places, such as banks or government offices, had ticket queues, similar to those at supermarket delicatessens in the States. The train station was every-man-for-himself. Travelers thronged the windows like refugees, cutting and reaching, shouting at the tops of their lungs. Fortunately, my escorts knew where I was going and braved the mob in my stead. Unfortunately, by the time they reached the window, all of the tickets were sold out.
Dejected, I thanked them, then found a place along the wall and watched as they went off in search of a bus to Changsha. It started raining outside. A security guard wandered over and asked me if I needed any help. Several minutes into our conversation, the two women returned, waving their arms and pulling my own amidst a fusillade of shouts, ushering me out of the station and down the steps, into the rain. We got onto another city bus and rode back into Yongzhou, eventually pulling up in front of an enormous, yellow coach, parked aside the main road.
The bus was headed to Changsha, and it was scheduled to depart in one hour. The women insisted that I sit in front, directly behind the driver, even though those seats were already occupied, and doing so would require one of the other passengers to move. I informed the driver, as well as the women, that I didn’t want to go to Changsha. They sat me down and laughed dismissively.
After a while, I was able to piece together their plan. The bus was going to be passing by Nanyue, and the driver had agreed to let me off along the way. I sat back and exhaled, chewing a pear offered to me by my neighbor. The driver took my money and issued a receipt, then returned to texting on his phone. At this point, I made a rookie mistake. In thanking the man beside me for the fruit, I explained that I was hungry and had yet to eat. Aghast, he pulled out a wad of purple bills, then told the bursar to go and buy a meal for his “new foreign friend.” Your grandmother is Chinese, I said to myself. You should have known better.
The ride was long and dark, the cabin illuminated by the driver’s cellphone. He continued to text while driving, one hand propped casually atop the wheel. My neighbor and the girl behind us were both eager to hear about life in America, and after exchanging numbers, a promise was made to visit them in Changsha.
After a couple of hours, the driver turned on the lights and shouted at me to get ready. He stopped in the middle of the highway, not even bothering to pull off onto the shoulder. He pointed down the road. The exit to Nanyue. The door opened with a pneumatic hiss, and I thanked everyone for their help, climbing down into the darkness. As the bus pulled away and gave a honk, I wandered down the ramp, toward the lights of a toll.
Before I got there, however, I stumbled across two men, sitting on motorcycles, togged in faded, pinstriped suits. Their faces barely visible behind the orange glow of cigarettes. On one, a smile that resembled a leer.
Where are you going? he asked.
The heart of Nanyue, I answered, for Sean and Taryn knew neither the name of the hostel in which they were staying, nor that of the road upon which it was set.
He asked for eighty kuai, which seemed exhorbitant. Eventually, I got him down to sixty. After mounting up, however, I realized that I was in no position to bargain. The town was more than half an hour away, and the bus had dropped me off in the middle of nowhere.
We dodged the toll and sped down a hill, sand grinding beneath the tires. It was midnight, or if not, close. Driving down a dark, single-laned road, we passed rice paddies and farms on either side, the smell of garbage still fresh on the air after the evening fires. In Nanyue, I had no trouble finding Sean and Taryn, for the town was lifeless at that hour. The driver sat there, watching us say hello. Even though I thanked him and assured him that we were fine, he did not drive away. He seemed intent on making sure that we found our lodgings. Once we did, I raised one arm to say goodbye, and, finishing his cigarette, he nodded and spat, kick-starting the bike’s engine. We watched him pass beneath the town’s entrance—an enormous archway set with eaves—back the way he had come. Sean and Taryn looked me up and down.
How was the ride? they asked.