“Where are we going Lilibeth?”
“Why you call me Lillibeth? My name is Lily. I am not sure, I think maybe we go west. We can go to Sichuan, then go south. Sichuan is very beautiful. It is near Tibet.”
I am caught between wanting to get to Vietnam as quickly as possible but not alerting Lily. She knows where I am going. For the moment I’ll just go with it.
“Sounds good, can we go to Chengdu? I’ve never been there, my friends tell me it’s a good place to hangout.” On the run and making travel plans.
“Okay we can go to Chengdu. We go there first? I want to go far away from here.”
“How long will it take?”
“Maybe one day, but we should stop somewhere, I can not drive for that long. I will be too tired. Stop in Xian. It will take maybe 7 or 8 hours.”
“Whatever you think best.”
I feel better now that we are heading south, at least someone else is in control of how I’m going to get there. My new found companion seems quite excited to be going on an adventure, completely unaware of why I am heading south. I feel for her, there is an innocence about her even though she seems to have been through so much. I kind of wish this had happened under different circumstances. It’d be a lot more exciting for me.
“You think too much. You shouldn’t think too much. Tell me about yourself, I want to know the real you.”
“There isn’t much to tell. I am a teacher. I was a teacher, I didn’t like it and now I have decided to see some of China before I leave. When I lived in Beijing my life was not so good. I drank too much, smoked too much and didn’t take my job seriously.”
“Same with many foreigners. To work here is easy for you. In Shanghai I met many people that were like you. They didn’t run away though. They seemed to like it.”
“It sounds easy, and most of the time it is easy. It gets boring though. I go to work, I go home, I go out to the bar, I get drunk, sometimes I meet girls.”
“You live in a foreign country, most people don’t have that chance. You see the people in the village yesterday. Some of them have never even been to the city. You should be grateful.”
“I am grateful. The first few years I was anyway. Your country is not easy to live in. You are used to it, I am not. Even after five years I still don’t really understand this place.”
“We don’t understand it either. They say ‘the more you think you understand about China, the less you actually understand’. It’s a complicated place. So many people. What about back home? What did you do there?”
“Back home I was a loser”
“This I guessed, you look like a loser”
“Chinese girls usually tell me I am handsome but a little fat.”
“They are lying to you. A little fat, but not so handsome.”
“Thanks for ruining five years of compliments that I was living my life on.”
“It’s okay, you can find a girl no problem. Just maybe she is a little ugly.”
Fat I can take, anyone would look fat here. Not so handsome? My extremely fragile ego has been shattered. A loser? I’d said that myself. Even without my current situation there probably was no other way to describe myself. I had no direction in life, every time I had tried to leave I had stopped myself. Teaching English in Happy Giraffe wasn’t going to get me anywhere other than losing my sanity and alcoholism. As irrelevant as it could all turn out to be, at least I’m thinking about life.
I feel surprisingly comfortable in this stranger’s company. Maybe it is because she is a stranger, that’s why I am opening up. Most people know very little about me. That’s the way I would rather it stayed. I had friends here but never real friends. Just passing acquaintances. Now that I am thinking about, I am not sure I even know how to make real friends. I am not even sure if I want any. People only hurt you in the end.
“What are you thinking about?”
“What about your family?”
“What about them? My mother has retired and lives on her own and I’m not sure where my father is. I haven’t seen him for a long time.”
“You left your mother on her own?”
“She has other family and friends. It’s not like here, you’re not expected to look after them.”
“I am a waif.”
“A waif. My mother and father both died when I was young. My grandmother raised me but now she is dead. This is why I lived in the village. I thought it would be some security for me.”
“It’s better to say orphan, waif sounds like something from the a Charles Dickens book. I am sorry to hear that. Part of me understands why you went to live there, but I still don’t understand how you can give up your morals to do something like that.”
“You have a home, you have family. I don’t. If I have these then maybe I would have thought about morals. It is selfish, I know this. But I live in a country where you have to look after yourself. What you think is selfish, I think is… I don’t know the English word”
“Maybe. It is easy for you to come here and tell us what to do, but you do not know what it is like to live here. You forget that you can leave. I can not.”
“I can leave, but it doesn’t mean my life has been easy either. Circumstances are relative.”
“When I was young we had nothing to eat, my grandmother would give me a bowl and send me to our neighbour’s house to get some food. My clothes were given to me by other people. I worked hard to get to university, to go to Shanghai.”
“You didn’t tell me what you did in Shanghai that made you have to leave.”
“Another time maybe. Some things you don’t tell me either, maybe it is best we both have our secrets, when we part it will be easier.”
Her intelligence is charming. She’s unusually perceptive for a Chinese woman. She seems to be able to read me, not something many people can do. I am still not sure about the guilt trip though. Things are relative, my life hasn’t been easy. Just because another person’s life has been more difficult doesn’t make the way you feel any less significant. Being on the run is making me philosophical.
Our chat dies down. I’m glad of the break. The countryside is becoming greener. There are more fields. We seem to be taking back roads, she doesn’t explain why. We pass villages and towns that seem to be 40 years behind the rest of the country. Big propaganda posters sticking up out of the fields, characters written in big red letters. I admonish myself for not learning more Chinese.
After a few hours more buildings start to appear. We join a highway, the signs for Xian showing it is getting closer. The home of the Terracotta Warriors. Unfortunately I am not going to be able to see them. Lily hasn’t said a word for miles. I leave her in her silent contemplation. I know she has a phone but I fight the urge to ask if I can use it to check the internet. Being disconnected from the rest of the world is refreshing, it hasn’t been long enough for my mother to worry either.
Lily tells me she knows a nice hotel. As we pull into a car park I suddenly remember that I need my passport, Lily thinks I have a passport. No passport, no stay.
“I think I’ve lost my passport, when I stayed back in the village.”
“Oh, really? What will you do?”, a knowing smile on her face. Very disconcerting.
“I don’t know, maybe I can get one in Nanning, near Vietnam, I head there is a consulate there”, I lied.
“Okay, but you are going to have to sneak into this hotel, if you have no ID you won’t be able to stay.”
“You book the room and I’ll come up later.”
“Okay, give me fifteen minutes.”
I try to give her some money but she waves my hand away. She gets out of the car and disappears into the door of the hotel. This is tiring I am thinking. I sit there tapping the dashboard smoking a cigarette. At least in Xian I don’t look as out of place, there are plenty of foreigners here. After half an hour I realise that Lily has gone up to the room, she has neglected to come and tell me the room number. I get out of the car and head towards the door.
“Sir, your friend is in room 4021.”
Well that was easier than expected. I go up to the room and find the door open. Lily is lying on the bed looking at her phone.
“Who did you tell him I was?”
“I said you are a friend, don’t worry it is okay. He won’t bother us.”
I wish I could be so calm about these things. I look out the window. There is a nice view from the window. Now I’m here I have an urge to go out and have a look around. My beard has started to grow back but my hair is still shaved. I don’t think I will be recognised.
“Do you want to go and find somewhere to have something to eat? ”
“Okay, let’s go.”
Walking around the city I notice that there is a sense of history about it. Different to Beijing and its blocks of buildings, communist architecture and sense of oppression being so near the seat of power. I feel as though I am doing what I came here to do, travel and see the world. For some reason running away has lifted a weight off my shoulders, as strange as it may seem. I feel freer than I have at any point in my life.
An old man with a makeshift barbecue is standing on the corner of a street cooking lamb kebabs. He is Turkish looking, a part of the Uigher minority. We approach him and buy some of his kebabs. I am hoping it is lamb and not some other unkown animal. When they are cooked we take a seat at a small table that he has setup by his barbecue. We sit in silence watching the world go by. People on bikes, old ladies walking past clapping their hands or walking backwards doing an exercise that looks odd to my eyes.
After sitting in silence for an hour sipping beers and eating kebabs we walk back to the hotel. The man at the door doesn’t take any notice as we walk in together. Lily gets on to the bed again. I assume I am sleeping on the floor.
“How does it feel to run away?”
“I feel free, a little excited. When we are further away I will be more excited. I don’t really want to be in Xian. I know people that live here. Next time I run away I will choose someone who is not so fat, I hope more handsome too.”
“You’re planning on running away again?”
“I am joking. I want to ask you a question. Why did you come here?”
“To Xian or to China?”
“I wanted to see some of the world. Back home life was too boring. I only came for six months. I am still here.”
“One day I hope to be able to see the world too. Since I was a little girl, I have always wanted to go to London and see your Queen. Also London Bridge.”
“It’s called Tower Bridge, everyone thinks it’s London Bridge but that’s a different bridge.”
“I wish I could be free like you. You are like a cloud. Just go anywhere you want.”
“I am not that free. Right now, yes I am, before in Beijing I wasn’t.”
“I was too comfortable, my life was too easy. I told you before. I was a loser, my job was not very good but it was easy. I had no real worries.”
“Why you don’t get married?”
“I don’t like relationships. It’s too much hassle. I like to be able to what I please. If I am in a relationship that is not so easy. Why didn’t you get married before?”
“When I was younger and lived in Shanghai, I didn’t want to get married. Also I have no parents. There is no pressure for me to get married. I can make my own money. I think I will never get married. I would like to have children but now I am over 30, no one will have children with me.”
“I feel like I am responsible for taking you away…”
“Why? It was my decision. I was unhappy. You must be able to see. Here there are many people that are unhappy but they stay in the same situation because they have no choice. I had a choice, I also had the chance.”
“What will you do though?”
“I don’t know. When we get to Nanning I will decide. I wish I could go to another country. I have money, money is no problem. I don’t have a passport. If I want a passport I will have to go back to my hometown. I don’t want to go back to my hometown.” I can see a sadness in her eyes.
“Tomorrow we will go to Chengdu?”
“Yes, tomorrow but if you want to sleep late it is no problem. When we get to Chengdu we can have fun and enjoy. I don’t like Xian, I don’t really want to be here.”
“I know, you said. When we get to Chengdu we can relax.”
There is no reply. She has drifted off to sleep. Lily appears to be a complicated person who has led an odd life. I’ve only been with her for a day but I feel protective of her. Maybe it is avoidance. Avoiding my own situation. I drift of to sleep, not thinking about how to get out of the country or what I will do when I am in Vietnam, but thinking about what it would be like to someone who grew up with nothing.