I arrived in mainland China after a three hour bus ride from Hong Kong to Huizhou City in the Guangdong Province. My window was like a vintage television playing a PBS documentary. I was glued to it the whole drive. We passed yellow and green farms, dilapidated tin shacks rose out of the fields, and grey smokestacks loomed before lush hills and small mountains. The further we drove inland, the more excitement I felt. My jaw dropped several times, especially when the bus nearly took out several fellow motorists blaring their horns and dodging out-of-the-way. Going through the border, I was a little nervous knowing I was about to enter a self-proclaimed communist country for the first time. I just didn’t know what to expect.
It was fitting that I was always the last person to get through the different border checkpoints, seeing as I was the only westerner on the bus. I hadn’t seen another white person, let alone another foreigner since I departed the bustle of Hong Kong. When I arrived in downtown Huizhou, the bus driver was supposed to stop at the Noble Jasper Hotel where I was to be met by some of my university students, but he just kept his lead foot going.
I got off at the next stop, which also happened to be a hotel. It was a little chillier than Hong Kong so I unzipped my suitcase to put on a sport coat. A bell boy dressed in brown and gold was standing nearby sort of eyeballing me as I put it on. I was going to ask him about a taxi while I was lifting my suitcase back up, only to have him point as all of my clothes spilled out on the sidewalk in front of the busy street. In my confused and hasty state, I’d forgotten to zip it back up. My first of what I’m sure will be many embarrassing moments in China to come. He helped me scoop it all back into the suitcase and hailed a nearby cab to send me on my way back to the first hotel stop. Not a word was exchanged by the cabbie and I as he honked and swerved our way through the darting traffic, occasionally missing a head-on motorbike going the wrong way, my white knuckles gripping the front headrest.
Finally, I arrived at the rendezvous and was met by two teenage-looking boys who asked, “Are you Smith?” I replied, “Well, yes I am.” Their faces lit up with smiles. “Nice to meet you,” they both said like a welcoming chorus. They hailed a cab, which happened to be the exact same one I’d just paid and left. They called themselves Jason and Richard (English nicknames of course). “You don’t look like the picture in your passport,” commented Richard in a more-Chinese-than-British accent. We laughed. “I know,” I said. “That’s probably the worst photo I’ve ever taken.” The cab driver chuckled with us, even though I’m sure he had no idea what we were talking about.
We arrived at Huizhou University and the two showed me my apartment where I will be living for the next ten months: a big (by Asian standards) three bedroom space complete with an old living room set of a couch, coffee table, and two large chairs (all wood no cushions), the biggest shower drain I’ve ever seen (my squatter toilet), some red and gold Chinese poster decor on the walls, a kitchen with one stove burner that is fed by what looks like a military issue propane tank, and a small sink with a plastic spicket that only dispenses cold water. Perfect. I knew communism had plenty of character.
While sitting on my hardly comfortable furniture, my two students/tour guides and I chatted about music, the plastic beauty of Korean women, Avatar, the government ban on Facebook, and Jack London (communist?) while waiting for a guy to come and replace a burnt-out bulb in my bathroom. After he fixed the light, we headed out for a stroll through the campus and to go to the university supermarket so I could grab some shampoo.
The layout of the campus is beautiful, reminding me of some lost Soviet University with perfectly squared hedges, students riding side-saddle on the back of bicycles, statues of famous Chinese intellectuals, and the red and gold flag flying high in the center courtyard. Most of the students passing by smiled, stared, said hello, or an awkward combination of all three.
The university market was a hodgepodge of electronics, cell phones, housewares, and small groups of students browsing through the aisles. I wasn’t sure exactly how much yuan I’d brought along so I picked out the cheapest shampoo (almond scent), body wash, a bottle of mineral water, and two small juice boxes of milk (neatly stacked in a pyramid without refrigeration). At the checkout I ended up being 3 yuan short of the total 35 yuan (roughly $5 USDs). I scrounged through all my pockets as a line of students waited, all eyes on me. A girl behind me threw down a 5 yuan bill and smiled. I said, “No, no thank you. It’s OK!” but before I could do anything, the cashier scooped up the bill and threw it in the register. Embarrassing moment #2. Even though 5 yuan is only about 70 or so cents, I was in awe for the hospitality given to me.
Jason and Richard said they had to go back to their dorms, so we parted ways and I was alone for the first time in a new land as I walked back to my apartment across campus. There was a pickup basketball game going on between about six male students on what looked like a street court out of 1970’s Queens. They stopped the game as I passed and gave a chorus of hellos. I smiled and waved and as I looked over near the building where I would be starting classes in a few days, I saw the bright red and gold flag waving too. Somehow, I felt at home.