After more than 24 hours of traveling by plane, I could not have guessed that the four-hour drive that would take me to my new Chinese home town would extend the trip by almost another 24 hours.
It might have helped if my supervisor had listened to the radio. But perhaps he’d been in China so long that any sense of logic had worn off. For not he nor his Chinese wife who calls him every 28 minutes considers consulting any public communications outlet to discover that all highway traffic would absolutely cease. And with each call she tells him about snow in a province far enough away that he says it won’t effect our drive from Beijing to Huludao. Meanwhile, without a nagging wife around, he’s luxuriating in repeating a Guns N’ Roses cassette.
We’ve just left the ring of circles that define Beijing’s highway system. The highway is a vacuum of black, save the occasional headlights from cars in opposing lanes. We’re passing overloaded trucks that I come to see as Mt. Saint Helens on wheels. The closer we get to these behemoths, who are, if not pulled over by a cop, wheezing precariously along the slower lanes. I consciously feel myself inching to the left in the passenger seat, imagining their contents spilling out, tipping over what seem like Barbie-sized trucks, toppling their load and themselves over our Matchbox-sized car.
“What’s the deal with these trucks? What are they carrying?” I ask my supervisor, Neil. We pass another truck covered in tarp as effectively as a condom on a football. If it hits a large enough pebble, or if it’s forced to swerve for unruly drivers sharing the road, centrifugal force alone would knock it off course. It’d hurl in a sprawling disaster across multiple lanes.
‘The truck drivers know they’re gonna get pulled over. They come prepared with a wad of RMB to pay off the cops because they’ve got to spread this stuff around the country,’ Neil elucidates. He explains that when the trucks are pulled over they simply hand the cops a stack of cash and continue plowing down the highways. No one complains or tries to change it. ‘Chinese cops are corrupt are hell. I think part of the reason they become cops is for the extra earnings they make this way. This is a good job for them.’
‘So it’s of no concern that their weight severely damages all these newly paved highways, that they’re gonna have to repave them every other year?’
‘Nope. That just gives more people jobs. In a country of one and a half billion people, you gotta supply some kind of jobs, right?’
I think about this circuitous logic as we pass under a sign bearing a drunken smiley face with x’s for eyes and a tongue protruding from its mouth: Don’t Drive Drunk. I’m afraid to ask how often Neil’s seen drunken drivers this far into the hinterlands. I’m afraid to ask how the hell he could even tell if a driver’s drunk considering the Chinese already drive like drunken Dale Ernhardt Seniors. Like other stereotypes you finally understand with age, my mind drifts to understand the US stereotype that Chinese are horrific drivers.
The phone rings again.
‘I know it’s late. It took a while longer than I thought at Wal-Mart, but we’re making good time,’ Neil lies to his wife. What’s true is that we had gone to Wal-Mart. There isn’t one anywhere near Huludao, which, despite a population of one million, is considered a village to the Chinese. Neil had optimized his trip to Beijing to pick me up by visiting friends and buying towels and other sundries at a Beijing Wal-Mart. ‘Wal-Mart is considered good quality here. It’s actually better quality than you’re gonna get elsewhere, and they generally carry big towels, which is pretty hard for a guy like me to find.’
Of course in the US we like everything big, I think. Then it dawns on me that Neil’s a Sasquatch compared to the average Chinese man. At six foot and some 200 pounds it’s not like he can stop at a Bed Bath & Beyond on a whim and buy supersized luxury towels. Regarding quality of towels, I’ll get to that later. Suffice it for now to say that the same respect the Chinese have for their costly new highways— willfully beating them to a quick pulp— is the same care they have for everything else.
It hadn’t taken us long at Wal-Mart; he just didn’t want to admit to his wife that he’s not Magellan when it comes to navigating Beijing’s circular highway system. He also didn’t want to admit that he had a hard time deciphering which way to go when directed by signs in Chinese symbols, not pinyin or English.
The conversation shifts to writing. Sharing the bond of being writers we discuss writers we like.
‘Anything by Hemingway or Steinbeck. What about you? You said you like Graham Greene, right?’
‘I’ve never read him. What’s he write ab−?’ Again he’s interrupted by a call from the little woman back home. Neil’s side of the conversation and the sing-song quality his voice takes on during each of his wife’s calls, indicate Brenda’s getting really worried. ‘No, honey. There’s no snow here. It’s perfectly clear. Cold as hell but it’s not snowing.’
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