Friday, September 28, had me scambling aboard a smallish bus headed from Luzhou to Chengdu for my National Day holidays. I honestly didn’t expect to find myself shoved clear in the back of the vehicle. I had purchased my ticket the day before, thinking there would be crowds heading out for the holidays. Instead, I discovered Saturday (not Friday) was going to be when the masses hit the travel scene. I could have saved myself a trip to the station and just bought my ticket right before I left.
But I still ended up crammed in the last row for some reason, the only seats available.
I positioned myself at the back and pulled out my 210 1st and 3rd year introductory essays to read. The assignment had been for my students to write something memorable that would help me with their names and getting to know them a bit better. They had a choice of My Family, An Exciting Day or A Lesson in Life I Learned to write about. Most choose family, which can get a bit tedious as they say the same thing, but some do have stories to tell which make the reading worthwhile.
We were just heading out of the city when the young woman sitting next to me started out with, “Do you speak English? Where are you from?”
Usually, I am not too keen on spending 3 1/2 hours on a bus stuck with someone who wants to practice their English. Some can only say a few words and struggle to get out sentences that make sense. After spending an entire morning with such learners in the classroom, plus during the week, the last thing a foreign teacher wants is to start up in a conversation with a second language learner on the bus.
But she was friendly enough, and her English pronunciation was quite good, so I was nice. We started talking and, within the next 2 hours, I had a fascinating new friend whose stories were quite unique.
All About Sky
Her name was Tian Yingfeng, or Sky as she liked to be called. She was actually from Hubei Province, only 3 hours’ busride from Beijing, but she came to Sichuan as a college student to study in an Yibin college. (Yibin is a city 1 1/2 hours from Luzhou.)
I knew she wasn’t a Sichuan gal when I saw her. Her facial features were very different from those in our area. She had a northerner’s high nose (not flat), high cheekbones and was very slender with long, beautiful arms and legs. Sichuan girls, on the other hand, tend to be a little on the plump, fleshy side. She was 28 years old, unemployed at the moment and on her way to the army base in Chengdu where she would spend the holidays with her boyfriend, a soldier. He was on duty but she could stay in the visitors’ guesthouse. When he had time, he’d join her.
Sky hadn’t majored in English, although that surprised me because her English was so good. She proved that quite early on in our talk. Instead of me priming the conversation with questions to get her to speak, which is usually what happens on such first-time meetings, she was full of stories, personal thoughts and unique experiences which she openly shared.
A Soldier as a Boyfriend
Her boyfriend, Xiao Quan, was also 28 and his parents lived in a tiny village near Luzhou. In fact, she was living with them now while waiting for Xiao Quan to finish his army contract. He’d been in the army for 12 years and was about ready to leave that life in order to marry Sky.
I asked how he came into the army and she told me a story very similar to my father’s when he joined the Marine Corp. Her boyfriend was a very poor student who didn’t study well and didn’t get high grades in school. When he was 17, his father suggested he join the army, which is what his dad had done when he was young. Thus Xiao Quan dropped out of high school and joined the exam to become a soldier. He went to Chengdu, was accepted, went through basic training, and later finished his high school study criteria. The army sent him to study in a military college for 3 years in Hunan Province to specialize in some such thing. Later, he was posted in Tibet for 2 years and then returned to his placement in Chengdu.
I told Sky that my father also was a very poor student in high school. He had learning difficulties and no focus in life. His dad had been a soldier as well during the world war. My dad barely obtained his high school diploma due to his grades but the moment he did, he signed up for the Marines. He often told his own students, when he was a history and social studies teacher in high school, that joining the military was the turning point in his life. He learned self-worth and pride in himself. He was also able to later study in college to receive his BA degree, all due to the GI Bill after he finished his time in the military.
Of course, the military life isn’t for everyone but it seems that for Sky’s boyfriend, and my father, this was an excellent way for them to feel better about themselves, become more educated and be productive citizens for their countries.
It was Fate . . . Twice
“Do you want to know how we met?” Sky plunged ahead in our conversation. I didn’t even have time to respond before she went ahead excitedly.
“Everyone says it’s very interesting. I will tell you.”
All I can say is, what a story!
Sky was traveling on a train from Chengdu to Beijing, a 27-hour trip, with her classmate. This was the holiday break and she was going home for the summer. The train’s air-conditioning was on so high that her friend was extremely cold. Sky went to find someone to help out and ran into this soldier (Xiao Quan) in the next compartment over. She said her friend was freezing and he loaned his jacket to her. After that, the two of them began talking for the rest of the trip, enjoying an energetic conversation together.
When the train arrived in Beijing, Xiao Quan asked for her telephone number. Sky, however, didn’t want to give it to him. She’d only know him for a short time and he wasn’t anyone particularly special she wanted to keep in contact with. But since she didn’t want to give a flat-out “no,” she gave him her dormitory telephone number at her college.
After the summer holidays, she returned to find out that the dorm telephone wasn’t working. It had been like that all summer and continued partly into the new semester. Finally, when it did get fixed some 5 months later, there was a call for her: Xiao Quan! He had tried numerous times to contact her ever since meeting on the train with no luck. Yet he persistently, and faithfully, kept trying again and again and again until . . . success!
Five months is a long time for someone to have such a strong desire to reconnect. This time, Sky gave him her cellphone number and the romance began. Phone calls, emails, online chats ensued but still no second meeting yet. Sky was in Yibin, at school; Xiao Quan was in Chengdu, busy with his military duties. There just wasn’t another opportunity to get together.
What truly synched it, though, and was the deciding factor which proved fate was definitely at play here, occurred, once again, on the train.
Sky was on the train in January, heading off to Beijing yet again on her winter holidays home in her Hubei Province. She called Xiao Quan to tell him she was on her way home when he said he was on his way to the north, too. Where was she at the moment?
“I’m on the train to Beijing,” she replied.
There was silence on the other end.
“But I’m also on the train to Beijing,” Xiao Quan said. “What’s your compartment number?”
“I’m 4,” Sky announced.
“I’m 6! Just 2 away from you!” he replied.
Sure enough, they both stepped out into the corridor and saw one another. After that, it was only a matter of asking one of her compartment passengers to exchange bunks with Xiao Quan so they could be together for the rest of the journey.
And after that, the relationship solidified as boyfriend and girlfriend.
Sky said that marriage was definitely in the future but they’d have to wait. At present, she said it was a little difficult living with his parents. She is a modern girl yet her boyfiend’s mom and dad are traditional Chinese. I can imagine, while everyone is polite and tries to be kind, annoyances from both sides will often appear and cause problems.
I told her it’s difficult living with anyone’s parents, but especially those of your future husband.
Then she had an argument with Xiao Quan on the phone right before getting on the bus. She was feeling rather down and upset until she started the conversation with me.
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk,” she said. “I know some foreigners don’t want to talk to strangers, and I worried maybe I couldn’t understand what you were saying. Now I see I was wrong. You are a very kind person. You made my day a happy one. I can’t wait to tell my boyfriend all about you. It’s a very special start to my holiday. Thank you so much!”
A Gentle Reminder about New Friendships
Sky’s words made me wonder what would have happened had my mood been a different one. There are many times when we, as foreign teachers in China, are tired and shut ourselves off from those around us who are excited and eager to talk to us. We pretend not to understand or turn our attentions in another direction so we don’t have to make the effort.
During my time in China, I’m sure I’ve been guilty of doing just that, more than once.
Opportunities to meet fascinating people and establish new friendships are at every turn in China. It’s wise not to forget to snatch them up at every chance, no matter what mood you’re in.
Thanks, Sky, for that gentle reminder!
Until more holiday stories arrive, here’s Ping An (Peace) for your weekend.