This spring we had a chance to take two short trips around China. The first trip went into our past, the second into our future (but more on that later!)
The university gave us a few days off in April for Qing Ming Jie, or Tomb Sweeping Festival. This is a time of remembrance for those departed, when families meet at the graveyards to remember their ancestors, sweep their tombs, and sometimes have a picnic. Since so many return to their hometowns during this time, it seemed appropriate for us to return to what we consider our hometown in China: Tai’an.
We traveled by China’s new high-speed rail, the G-train. This was our first experience, and we were quite impressed. The G-train uses its own elevated rail lines, as well as its own new train stations. Therefore, it doesn’t need to slow down to wait for other slower trains, nor slow down to enter cities. Traveling at up to 300 km per hour, we reached Tai’an from Beijing in about two hours—a trip that takes approximately five-to-six hours by regular train–an unbelievable speed!
While on the train I had sent a text message to the parents of Tian Tian, one of Grace and Katherine’s old friends. Tian Tian’s grandmother is an old cadre of the university, and quite well-connected on the old campus. As we were speeding through the countryside toward Tai’an, news of our arrival was speeding through the old campus communication network: Everyone knew we were coming.
We spent most of the next three days doing not much of anything but hanging out at the old campus where we used to live. Our kids fell back immediately into their old circle of friends, and ran around happily playing in Chinese. We visited their old kindergarten and they hugged their old teachers. Tian Tian’s parents took us out for an extended lunch. So many people on the street—the elderly, the shopkeepers, the guards at the gate, our former colleagues—said to us, “You’re back!”
At one point a large group of us sat talking in the courtyard in front of our old apartment. Pointing to the apartment, one of our former colleagues asked us which foreigners we had come to see. I looked at her strangely. “Well, we did see some of the other foreign teachers. But that’s not why we came,” I said. “We came here to see all of you.” She was visibly moved.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was dinner at Mr. Jia’s house on our last evening. During our four years of living in Tai’an, Mr. Jia, our minder, had never invited us to his home. But something was different this time. We no longer had a professional relationship requiring a certain amount of distance. We had come back, though we had no contractual obligations. Mr. Jia and his wife got out all of their old photo albums, and we had a grand time seeing pictures of Mr. Jia during his army days. Over dinner—dumplings, crickets, eggplant, watermelon—we were able to talk about things at a much deeper level than we ever did while we still lived there.
As we got ready to leave, Mr. Jia said, “This is your house. Don’t ever stay in a hotel again. Next time you come back, you must stay here with us.” We promised him we would be back—next Qing Ming Jie.