There are some things you don’t feel as they happen – you remember them later, in bits and pieces, like something from a dream.
The moment comes slow; sound starts to fade, the heavy rumble of rushing traffic, shifting cars and bikes and motorcycles, bustling crowds and screeching horns dulling into a low buzz, thrumming deep in your bones like a pulse. This life, part of you yet entirely not your own – you stare at your bare arm, awash in the brilliant glow of neon lights, hoping to see it shift beneath your skin.
You are scared.
You don’t know this – you have to keep reminding yourself, ignoring the comforting throb of your pulse between your fingertips, steady and slow. It’s too easy to sink into silence, to hide in between the subtle peace of millions of people carving lives from the cobbled sidewalks, making a place for their own. Anonymity is hard to find in a city so aggressively foreign to you – in the dark, you are finally able to feel yourself disappear.
The Chinese words 迷 and 路 can have two meanings, depending on which way they’re read. The second meaning, and the one you like best, is 路迷, someone who is deeply passionate about roads. The first one, of course, was the one you were looking for, the obvious one, but you find the change in meaning much more interesting than what you wanted to say in the first place. Of course you like roads – you’re walking one now, aren’t you? 迷路的路迷 – a Chinese palindrome.
There are different words in Chinese to express the same idea. 迷路 is the verb – what you’re doing right now, alone on an unfamiliar street in a foreign city, stringing together shattered phrases in your mind to pass the time.
Do you know how to get to换成南禄？
丢 is the adjective, the thing you use to express something that’s already gone. The rain jacket you brought on the bus to Chengdu – 丢了. The rubber band you use to keep your character flash cards organized – 丢了. The baozi you left on the table this morning, snapped up the minute you took your eyes off it -丢了.
And somewhere in between this is the verb for what you are – 走失, like 丢, but for people. You take in the meaning with a hint of irony; 走 means to walk, to get away. You wonder if there’s a Chinese word for escape.
You slip your pocket dictionary back into your backpack, feel the weight of it settle comfortably between your shoulders. It’s quieter now, in the dark; when you weren’t paying attention, night has fallen. The road you’re trying to follow curves away from the busier streets, into an area almost like a suburb. The noise of the city fades away, from distance and buildings rather than your own adrenaline. You settle for a minute, allow yourself to breathe. The twilight air is cool against your skin.
You follow the sidewalk down a creek, listen to the water rustling gently through the earth. As you step across two rusted metal beams, the remnants of an old train track, you see her, crouching beneath the trees. Fire blooms beneath her hands, the light of it spreading wild across her face – you can’t see from here how old she is, but you see the patches on her jeans, the worn and tattered edges on the collar of her coat. The night isn’t cold, but for a moment, you envy her warmth; you want to come closer, to say something, but when she sees you, she turns away, curling into herself like a bug. You move on in silence, not knowing what to say; it’s hard to connect the feeling with the words that taste so foreign in your mouth. You wonder about her family, whether they know where she is, where she’s been. You hope she has someone, somewhere – you hope she isn’t like you. 走了.
The trees grow thicker here, crowding you. You pass a large fluffy dog, wandering cheerfully down the road. Behind him, an old man smiles at you, apologetic. You wonder if he’ll give the other woman the same greeting.
The distant sound of music breaks your second of silence, and you’re drawn towards it as much by your own curiosity as by the winding form of the path you’ve chosen. There’s a small stone square, tucked away between thick-packed trees – in it, dozens of women move in unison, tracing a coordinated circle around a whining boombox, swinging arms and stomping feet with practiced precision. The music is cheerful if you don’t know what it means. You think of these women, their histories (历史), the constant loop of the music only drawing out the closing of their lives. You think about Claudia’s research, why they dance the way they do – the same word, in English, for why you walk. 年轻, 爱情, 时间. Youth, love, time. 机会, opportunity. All 丢了 – already gone.
The road turns back again, towards civilization, the brilliant neon lights that wash like watercolor over your hair, your skin. You want to keep going, towards the parts of this city you remember. You want to turn back, look again, to make sure you don’t forget.
There’s a moment of silence, pure and cold. You think of roads, the ones less travelled and the ones trampled flat, the worn cobblestones that lie damp and frozen beneath your feet. You think of music, a better expression of the feeling you can’t quite describe; somewhere close, a葫芦丝flute is playing. You think of a phrase – a song, half-remembered, like something from a dream.
Consider the cost
What have you gained?
What have you lost?
You turn the corner, feel one hand close around the bus card in your pocket. A neon sign shines ten feet in front of you, a beacon, a destination.
It’s late in the City of Eternal Spring, and it’s time for you to go home.