One drag. Exhale. Another drag. Exhale.
I lowered my head slightly as I examined him
“When I was growing up I never thought this would be my job,” he said in Mandarin aloud as he took another drag of his cigarette, “To usher people into taxis, you know.”
“This is not even a real job,” the other man replied.
”I know, but I have to eat.”
I was next in line. He waved for a taxi cab to pull over and kindly lifted my excessively heavy luggage into the trunk. I extended him a 20 RMB note for his help, which he pocketed immediately and then took a final lengthy drag of his cigarette before flicking it to the ground and putting it out with his right foot.
I sat in the backseat and mumbled the address in Mandarin to the driver. It was my third time in Shenzhen. The previous times were brief stops of just two days; this time would be a two-year stop.
I had been awake for more than forty-eight hours and I kept drifting off. The driver quickly reminded me I was in the cab as he asked me to fasten my seat belt. When I lived in China previously, you would not be asked to fasten your seat belt in the front seat, let alone the backseat. I followed his instructions and he thanked me in return. He was friendly and wanted to start a conversation, but I refused and told him in basic Mandarin that I did not understand.
It had been nearly ten years since I first set foot in China. That time, I had gotten in a taxi with minimal luggage and zero Chinese skills. As the taxi sped from the airport to Xiamen’s city center, about three palm trees flashed past my window every second. It was summer in southern China–humid and hot. Not only did everything look different, it felt different. It made me feel different. I was more cautious with my movements, even with my choice of words. I second-guessed myself constantly. It all made me ponder the same question again and again, why am I here? After some time in the car, the driver stopped and pointed to a building complex. I got out of the taxi to meet my new home for what I thought would be six months. But in the end, I stayed for over four years. By the second year, it had truly become home.
Back in Shenzhen, I was on my way to start graduate student life and I realized how different this time felt from my first. Although it was a new city, I did not feel like a stranger. The climate, the background chatter, and even the automated voice that welcomes each taxi passenger brought back memories and an inexplicable comfort to me.
As the car grew closer to our destination, I caught my first glimpse of the PHBS building in the distance. Its windows shimmered and reflected the sunlight. I know it sounds like a line in a cheesy descriptive book, but it really did.
I paid 75 RMB to the driver and asked him to help me with the luggage and stepped on to Peking University grounds for the first time. The brutal heat was winning its war against me. I focused on one step at a time. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.
I was told to report to Mirror Lake, but I did not find a lake. I guess the ceramic tiles soaked up the water and left what looked like a skating rink. I kept walking. And then I heard her shout: “International student?” I spun my head to the left and saw her standing on her toes. Her skin was naturally tanned and glowing. Her hair wavy and her smile welcoming. I was a fan until she said I had to walk fifteen minutes under the sun to go to the bank. That’s when my face went stern.
Written by Seimar Solano
Edited by Megan Mancenido