Around five-thirty, I heard the familiar voice of the attendants, making their way through the car telling everyone that it was time to get up. I still don't know why they do this. There are no stops before Beijing and we don't arrive there until almost nine-thirty. They don't tell you when a particular stop is approaching, just when it's time, their pre-programmed time, for everyone to wake up.
Wang Ping had fallen asleep on top of me and now she moved to towards the wall and after smiling at me in her groggy half-awake eyes. She was soon still and back asleep. I got up and went to the bathroom and then stretched and laid back down. I knew she didn't care about getting up for breakfast in the dining and neither did I. I turned to face her and closed my eyes.
There was another knock on the door at about seven o'clock. I got up and quickly put something on. I made sure she was covered as she continued to sleep. I opened the cabin door. The attendant was here to collect the occupancy cards and return our ID's. I found them on the table and handed them to her. She thanked me and left.
I was up now and light shown through the edges of the drawn lavender curtains. I peeked outside and saw various buildings and factories. We must be getting nearer. I thought. I poured some water and sat on the sofa. I cupped the mug in my hands to warm them and looked at Wang Ping, sleeping peacefully. I turned on the television and sipped the water.
Wang Ping woke up about thirty minutes later and had a mischievous look on her face. She looked like a child that had stolen a cookie.
The train was moving at a slower speed which told me we were getting into more urban areas closer to Beijing. We got dressed and put everything away to be ready for our departure. I opened the curtain so we could see out and tried to see any landmarks that indicated where we were.
When the train pulled into Beijing station, it felt good. I knew home was only a few blocks away. We pushed and shoved our way off the train. The station was busy with people going to work, school and wherever else they needed to go. Wang Ping hugged me and then took a taxi to her home and I just walked to bus stop and took the bus to the stop next to my alley.
It is one thing I do find odd about her. Whenever we travel, we usually part at the station. She goes her way and I go mine. I've always asked to drop her off and then go home, but she always goes back home alone. She says it's just easier and I guess she's right, I live closer to the Beijing Station than she does and neither of our places are one the way to the other.
I savored the walk from the bus stop as it was sunny and much warmer than Harbin at a balmy four degrees Celsius. I looked around to see if anything had changed, knowing that in the couple of weeks I had been gone, what could have changed.
When I got home, Xiao Wang was there and was happy to see me. She told me she had come back last week and that it had been lonely there alone. I asked her about her holiday and she said it was the same as it always was since she could remember.
Her relatives asked her what it was like to live with a waiguoren and she told them all about how kind I was to her and that I was too polite to people. She said they were concerned that it was just her and I living there, but that I was very respectful of her and her marriage. I asked her if she told them about Wang Ping and she said that she told them I had a girlfriend. One of her cousins knew who Wang Ping was and asked her if she could get a photo of her. I told Xiao Wang that I would ask, but I was sure she would give her one.
She made me something to eat while I sat in the kitchen to keep her company. I asked her to join me for lunch and while we ate and for most of the afternoon, I told her of the things we had done. She listened with interest, like a child listening to an elder tell stories about ancient times. I knew she really had nothing else to do. She had been here for a week and no one to clean up after. I was thinking about telling her that I missed her, but then she said it. It wasn't awkward, but I knew what she meant. I told her then about when Wang Ping had mentioned Beijing, that I realized that I missed her too, in a friendly way.
She asked me if I wanted anything in particular for dinner. I could tell she was wanting to do something and had been somewhat bored.
"Can you make la zi ji ding (Spicy Chicken)?" I asked. I had a wanting for something very spicy and I knew her being from Hunan, it would be authentic. A smile appeared on her face and she nodded in delight.
"Of course! I would be happy to make it for you, Da Long!" She said. "You rest from your trip and I will go and get everything."
"I can go for you, since you're cooking." I said.
"No, they will charge you higher price. I go." She said, getting her coat.
"Here is some money to buy what you need." I said, handing her 300 yuan.
"I will be back soon, Da Long." She said, taking the money and putting it in her bag. She left.
I put my things away and sat on the sofa. I looked around and even though this place is very old and needs some work here and there, it felt good to be home.
I had a miserable time trying to sleep on Tuesday. I know it was because I had become accustomed to having Wang Ping next to me. I called her the next morning and she said she missed me too and couldn't sleep either. I asked if I could see her before next week. She suggested Friday night. We could have dinner. I agreed.
I spent most of the morning on Wednesday visiting friends and neighbors. It felt good to be back in my own familiar neighborhood again, I'm sure I walked around with a smile on my face.
After a breakfast zhou (rice congee) and a hard boiled egg that Xiao Wang had prepared, I walked a few doors down to see Lao Fan and Niang Ye. I announced myself as I entered their courtyard.
Lao Fan was sitting on the sofa sipping some tea while Niang Ye sitting next to him, peeling an orange. They smiled and waved when they saw me and wanted to know all about my trip. I had brought my laptop to show them all the photos I had taken. Lao Fan picked up his pack of Double Happiness cigarettes and offered me one.
I asked how their holiday had been and Lao Fan told me they had watched the Gala on CCTV and Lu Desheng invited them for dinner on New Year's Eve. I felt a little guilty to leave them alone, but then knew that they had been this way for years and it didn't bother them much.
"Did you partake in any adventures this time, Da Long?" He said.
"I stood inside of North Korea. But only for a moment. I got too scared." I said.
"Eh?! Too dangerous for waiguoren. You must be careful." He said shaking his head at the foolishness of it.
"I know, BoBo. I didn't know at the time." I said, feeling a bit ashamed.
"Did you enjoy spending time with your Lao po's family?" Niang Ye said.
"They are very good people. I had a wonderful time, GuMa. It's just too cold up there." I said.
She smiled and blushed a bit. It was the first time I had referred to her as Aunt. They couldn't be parents in reality and it was common to refer to elders in this way. Xiao Rui called me Shu Shu (Uncle) probably because I was about his father's age.
"I have never understood why people live there. It's just too cold." He said.
"It's their home, BoBo. It's like you living in the pollution of Beijing. It's bad, but it's also your home." I said.
"I suppose you're right. It's hard to pickup and start fresh in a new place. Hard to leave family and friends behind." He said, pulling another cigarette from the pack and lighting it.
"Would you like some tea, Da Long?" She said.
"I can get it, GuMa. You sit there and rest." I said getting up and going to the kitchen.
I didn't care much for tea, but poured a cup of hot water and returned to the living room. I began showing them the photos I had taken.
"She looks familiar. What is her name?" Niang Ye said pointing to a photo of Wang Ping.
"That's Wang Ping." I said.
"Wang Ping, the singer?" She said with a look of surprise.
"Who's Wang Ping?" Lao Fan said.
"She's that singer that sings the songs on that movie we like, hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber)." She said.
"I don't remember." He said waving his hand.
"Did you meet her there?" She said.
"That's my nv peng you (girlfriend), GuMa." I said.
"That's her! You are a lucky dragon, Da Long. She is very beautiful and has the loveliest voice. Very traditional Chinese singer." She said. She was very happy that I had found someone so wonderful. I could tell she was a big fan.
"I will bring her to meet you. We are having dinner on Friday." I said.
"Is that the woman in the movie? She looks too young for you, Da Long." Lao Fan said.
"She isn't an actress, she sings the songs for the actors and they pretend to sing." She said.
"Why can't the actors sing the songs?" He said. "Why can't she be in the movie?"
"She's almost my age, BoBo. The actors are young girls." I said.
"I would like to meet her, Da Long. Please bring her here." She said.
I showed them the rest of the photos and then took my leave. I wanted to visit Lu Desheng and his family.
I found that no one was home when I passed by so I went inside my courtyard. Xiao Wang was washing my clothes from and hanging them in the sun across a dried bamboo pole.
She asked me if I was hungry and told me there was some fish and rice on the stove if I wanted some as she reached up and draped another pair of my shorts across the pole.
I went in and set down my laptop bag and kicked off my shoes and put on my house sandals. The fish smelled good and I sat on a chair in the kitchen and ate. Xiao Wang came in and served me a small bowl of rice and a cup of hot water. I don't know what type of fish it was but I have learned that Xiao Wang can make anything taste delicious.
After I ate, I cleaned off my dishes, threw the collection of bones in the trash and went to lie down for a little nap.
The house had warmed up from the sunshine coming through the windows. I asked Xiao Wang to wake me if she heard Lu Desheng come home. She was singing to herself while she did laundry and simply nodded her head in acknowledgement.
It was almost sunset when I woke up. I asked Xiao Wang if he had come home yet and she said that his gate was still locked from the outside.
Lu Desheng came home while I was lighting a cigarette in the courtyard. He came over and thanked me for using my place for his relatives. He had hoped they didn't break anything. I told them I hadn't noticed anything and showed him the lanterns I had bought. He said he would help me string them up this weekend and then said he needed to get something for dinner as Weiwei was working late at the hospital that night.
I bid him farewell and watched him disappear into his courtyard.
I asked Xiao Wang if she wanted to go out with me for some nui rou mian (beef noodles). She said that she could cook something for me and I told her to take the night off from cooking. She said I eat too many noodles. I told her that I really liked them and they were cheap. She said she would come with me.
We went to the place I have become a regular, mian dui mian (Facing Each Other) restaurant. It's just a couple of blocks south of my place so we walked.
It felt a little weird going here with Xiao Wang. She had put on some jeans and a red pullover sweater and tortoise frame glasses. She looked pretty and I chuckled to myself when I wondered what Lao Hong, the owner, would think when he saw me with a different girl.
He called out to me when we went in and then smiled and greeted Xiao Wang as if she was family. I made the motion of two bowls of noodles since I always ordered the same thing.
After we sat down, Lao Hong came over and asked me where I had been the past few weeks. I told him I had gone to Harbin and Yanji with Wang Ping for the Spring Festival.
He looked at me as if I violated the great taboo of all single men or women for that matter - discussing other women in front of other women. At first I was a little confused and then I started laughing and told him that Xiao Wang was just a friend, not a girlfriend like Wang Ping. He put his hand on his chest as if to settle his heart and laughed at his assumptions about her.
Xiao Wang blushed and then laughed too. I guess she felt like she was the secret lover in Lao Hong's eyes. I told her he jokes like that all the time.
Lao Hong is about sixty-five and started this noodle shop about ten years ago. His wife and sister also work there. His daughters are grown and married with families of their own. He is a good natured, hard working man and isn't out to get rich, just enjoy life and bring happy stomaches to his patrons. He said he likes foreigners coming to his place, but he is not in the best location and off the main boulevard. Sometimes when it's slow in mid afternoon when I have come by, he will sit with me and talk about this and that. He has a strange accent that I haven't quite placed yet.
Xiao Wang told me that none of her lao ban (boss) ever asked her to dinner before. She didn't know what to do at first. I told her to just be herself and that I might be lao ban, I was also a friend. She relaxed a bit more after that.
By the time we were finished I had her laughing at my tales of making stupid tone mistakes learning Chinese. She was a good woman and I felt a closeness to her. Not that I was a wolf like that ski instructor but more like an older brother.
We walked back home and she thanked me for dinner. I told her I would tell her whenever I go and that she was always welcome to come along. She smiled and went into the kitchen and brought me a cup of hot water before retiring to her room for the night.
I heard her singing in her room and could tell she had a good time tonight. I went out into the courtyard and lit a smoke. I sat on the stone step and stretched out my legs. The night air was getting chilly. The full moon was visible and whenever I see it, I wonder about the people I care about around the world. I finished my smoke and threw the butt in the old planter I keep near the door and went inside.
The singing had stopped and I could hear the water running in the shower. I went to my kang, added a couple of lumps of coal and lit it. I didn't want it to get too hot tonight as it wasn't supposed to get below freezing.
Xiao Wang came out of the bathroom in a robe and a towel wrapped around her head. She seemed a bit embarrassed that I had seen her like that and apologized, said good night and retreated to her room.
I just smiled and waved at her as she slipped through the door and closed it.
I had begun to make a life here. I was comfortable and looked forward to sitting with Lao Fan and Niang Ye, sharing in the stories that Lao Hong told on the afternoons I went there or appreciating the help Lu Desheng would provide by helping me hang my lanterns in the courtyard.
I felt pretty fortunate to have so many shanliang de ren (good, kind-hearted people) around me.
I slept a lot better that night even though I still missed Wang Ping's presence.