The journey took a little longer than expected.
First of all, getting out the Greater Chengdu proved a small battle. Every time I went back to visit the Sichuan Capital, there were more and more cars and traffic jams – a city used to be famous for millions of bicycles, now boasting more car owners than many other metropolis.
“Look, check that sign out…” I burst out laughing and could not finish my sentence when I spotted a sign in Chinese and English on the motorway – the Chinese said “Don’t Drink and Drive” while the English declared exactly the opposite – are they trying to get English-speaking drivers killed?
Apart from stopping ever so often to pay for the extortionate toll charges, time flew by as we chatted, joked, catching up and swapping life-stories, filled with a deep sense of nostalgia.
The easy part of the journey was over before we knew it, and three hours later, we approached the border of Chongqing, one of the largest Municipalities in China, with a population of 30 million, steadily increasing over time. It showed, as Big Liu manoeuvred our way through the heaving crowds, cars of different descriptions, buses, trams, taxis, bicycles, rickshaws, not to mention men and women, old and young, all hurrying to places. Despite the closed windows, the noise level had multiplied tenfolds, as the mid-day sun beat down, piercing through the thick layers of pollution, all the way to burn my tender skin, spoilt by the mild English weather.
“Shit,” I heard a mutter from our driver, and the car jerked to a sudden stop, the emergency brake on with a huge squelch sound. It was a good thing that I insisted everyone in the car with their safety belts on, another habit credited to living in the UK, and married to a stickler for the rules especially where driving was concerned.
Right in front of us, a taxi had turned into flames, nasty fumes quickly permeating through the already polluted air. What the hell was that? Before I could work out what had happened but managed a quick shot with my camera, Big Liu had managed to smooth his way round the piling traffic and the crazy maze of Chongqing, edging closer to our destination. Scenes like that were hardly a rare occurrence in a city like Chongqing and road accidents many drivers’ regular ‘diet’, perhaps as normal as having noodles or Hotpots.
My singing stomach indicated that lunch was needed, quite urgently. We had been on the road for over four hours, double to that of the optimistic prediction of Gary’s.
I let out a huge sigh of relief on eventually arriving at our designated meeting place, a three-story modern building where the new College of Foreign Language was based, we were greeted by many smiling faces, both familiar and strange. Over twenty former classmates were there, together with a number of teachers who used to teach us, some had long retired and looking frail, others were now in charge of the ever-expanding college, formerly only a small unit in a department. Time had marched on, that much was for sure.
Of the seven girls in our class, Yongqun was in the USA and busy with her work as a successful artist, although she had generously donated to the organising of the reunion. Lili was the only other girl missing. “We tried but we could not locate her,” Ying announced.
Who was the last one who’d seen her face to face? Moi.
“I bumped into Lili in Loughborough in 1991, when I participated in a Chinese Students’ Sports Meet. We kept in touch for a while. The last I heard was that she went to Hong Kong with her husband and gave birth to at least three kids.”
“Who would have thought?” Someone commented. Indeed, Lili was the most studious and ambitious among us girls, and nobody could detect a grain of housewife material in her back then.
“Who are you? I don’t remember you.” I turned to face a small, skinny man. Oh yes, I remember you. You once encouraged me to join the Communist party and singled me out for a ‘heart-to-heart’ chat once or twice. I turned you down, don’t you remember?
He was not alone in not ‘remembering’ me. An elderly teacher who sat next to me at the dinner table had trouble to place me as well, but at least she had genuine reasons. “Oh, you were once so pretty and slim. Look at you now.” She clapped her hands and beamed when I reminded her who I was.
She was right. 30 years had gone by and I was the heaviest I had ever been – I must have put on at least ten kilos since my university days, when I was a fresh-faced, athletic and hard-working student, even though a bit shy and reticent.
The next two days were hectic with a full programme: formal meetings with former teachers, departmental heads and even a retired vice president of the university; a boat trip on a lake within a modern leisure compound with spa treatment – such a pity that we were too busy having meetings to enjoy its facilities; visiting new campus being built for the university expansion; punctuated by hugely enticing feasts: a wide range of hot and spicy Sichuan cuisine, with local specialities such as Chongqing HotPots; followed by a must-viewing of Chongqing’s new skyline at night, one of her unique selling points.
Official pictures were taken in front of our old base, a 1920s stone building, still standing. Unofficial photo shoots and videos clips recorded these precious moments at various nostalgic locations.
On the 4thof May, our final day in Chongqing, after a banquet lunch at one of the top local restaurants in Shapingba District and attended by my relatives in Chongqing and a few classmates, we exchanged emotional goodbyes. Time to go and back into the solid, dependable VW.
As I hugged Ying and she ‘instructed’ me to go visit more often, a sudden sadness gripped me, slamming open my fragile emotions – who could tell when we would meet again?
“It’s a shame that we didn’t have more time,” Gary spoke behind me on the back seat, as I wiped the tears away from my face. “It’s such a long way for you to come and so little time, right?” His words found its way straight to my heart, an understanding soul.
Moments later, when I was beside myself, I asked my travel companions: “So, what do you guys think of the reunion?”
“I think it could have been more fun, more light-hearted.” Gary answered, speaking my mind.
Indeed, what’s the point of those long-winded meetings?
“It could have been more casual, less formal, a bit of music and dancing would have been more fun.” Still the voice of reason.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t have minded a session of Karaoke.” My voice betrayed more than a hint of regret and disappointment. Someone had suggested it but didn’t get far enough to insist on it.
“The food was first class though.” My tongue tingled with the spices as I recalled the hundreds of dishes we had sampled during our never-ending feasts. Another couple of pounds, if not more. I just hope that my family in Chengdu will not tell me that I am too fat to be recognised, I could not help smiling at the thought.
Perhaps less indulgence in eating and more exercise in the coming days, I reminded myself, not as sternly as I should have.
If you want to learn more about my student days in China, you’ll be well-informed by reading The Same Moon.