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  • Gustavo Fiorello

Memories by the bus stop

Image courtesy of Jordan K. Mandujano

A cold breeze blows as I leave my compound to the street. Despite the weather, it’s not so bad; it’s the end of winter, and I’m glad only to be wearing two light jackets this time. I close them tight and put my hands in my pockets, knowing it will still take a few more weeks before spring comes. I rush to the end of the street, cross the light, and take the chance to stop by the corner shop for a couple of beers as I walk to the metro. After all, it’s Friday night, and once again, the night calls.

However, as I arrive at the metro, it is already closed. The only way to go now is by cab. Not what I wanted; the way to downtown is expensive, and the club is already pricey. Well, if there’s one expression I learned in China, it is meibanfa 没办法: nothing that I can do now. Just need to find a good place for the cab to stop.

I make my way back to the street and take another sip. Although only one can is halfway done, I can feel the dizziness already. I look ahead and see the bus stop I just passed by, the perfect spot to wait for the cab. I call one on the app and see the time to arrival: 5 minutes. I decide to chug the whole can and pull my hood over my head. The cold is still creeping, after all.

As I’m standing under the bus stop, I light a cigarette and start to notice: I’ve been here before. A long time ago, actually. It was the same bus stop that I got off, coming from Hongqiao airport almost three years ago. Yes, how can I forget? When I looked through the window for the first time, I was mesmerized by the neon lights of Wujiaochang 五角场. How I stepped out of the bus and had no idea where I was or where to go. No usable cellphone, no Baidu Map, no Didi taxi. Only two heavy luggage, two backpacks, a rough map of where my hotel was located, and absolutely no practice in speaking Chinese. Half an hour later after taking a wrong turn, my arms started to cramp from the tiredness of the trip and carrying all that weight around. Zhege 这个, zhege 这个 (this one, this one) I pointed at the map while asking for directions from a girl with a blue helmet on a scooter.

As I begin to feel slightly drunk, I remember my second day when I decided to finally take a stroll around the city. Woke up in the morning, went to the metro, and headed downtown: to Renmin Guangchang 人民广场 (People’s Square), the heart of Shanghai. I saw the Shanghai Museum and felt the urge to visit, but knowing myself, I knew I would spend the whole day there. “No, leave it for another time; I just want to walk around.” And so I did; from there to North Nanjing Road, all the way to the North Bund. By the time I reached the tip of the South Bund, my legs were shaking, and I could barely stand. But I sat for an hour, and there it was: the lights of Pudong! The facade of Shanghai in all its shining glory.

Skyline of Shanghai Pudong at sunset. Provided by Skatelescope.15/04/2022

After I was done with the show, it was time to go back. I dragged myself to the metro and made my way to the closest station to the hotel. It was a hard sleep that night. Not because of any thrill of emotions; but because my feet were exploding in pain after 12 hours of walking. I even had to take a painkiller.

Those were my first misadventures in China. Many more started coming to my head as I opened another can. All the missed appointments, because I went to the wrong address. All the mimicry used to communicate and to buy things, since I didn’t know the Chinese words. Even a little bit of crying in the bathroom, after a Chinese exam that was way over my level.

I also started remembering all the amazing people I met, from countries like Peru, Turkey, Bangladesh, India, and Uruguay. Although I was just another passport, I felt like my presence could add to the richness of that environment. After all, to show myself was, at the same time, to show where I came from. And perhaps what startled me the most was realizing that, although I was literally on the other side of the world, home was closer than ever.

This shared reality brought me closer to amazing people, and I thought we would stay together and live many more adventures in China. We all shared two things in common: a secret passport from a country I jokingly called “Fuckstan,” the land where, for most people, life is not easy; and most importantly, the feeling that China was the opportunity to change our life for the better.

When the pandemic started, another shock of reality came: things do not always go as you want, and there’s nothing you can do. Most of my friends decided to leave with a naive farewell: “See you in a couple of months!” But I decided to stay, and for good or bad, I paid the price for my decision. The isolation, the fear of the unknown. An unexplained feeling of interruption, which to this day I still catch myself grieving for. Every day I tried to cheer my friends. “Maybe next month things will get better.” But after some time, we all had to realize it was false hope.

The most difficult part was perhaps having to struggle with what I called “linguistic solitude.” You want someone to talk to, but not just anyone: someone who also speaks your language. Because perhaps only then you can speak with your heart, and the other can really understand you.

As those bittersweet thoughts are rambling in my head, I turn my eyes to the very end of the street. There’s a bus coming, the one that comes from the airport. I stand quietly, looking as it slowly approaches, and wonders: Is it going to stop here? Who might get off? Perhaps someone like me, new to the big city, having no idea where is the end or the beginning, but with a heart full of hope and eagerness for a new step in life. With this thought in mind, I pause and question: if I from today was here on this very spot, almost three years ago on that fateful night, and saw myself coming, would I offer help? If I came down from that bus asking where to go or what awaits me, would I have the nerve to tell everything, all the joy and sorrow that awaits on the way ahead? Or would I keep a noble silence and not even point a direction, leaving the path of things to remain unchanged?

Nihao nihao san ba ling jiu ma 你好,你好,三八零九吗?” I turn my head in a jump scare and see a driver right by my side, asking for my phone number. The Didi is here! Did he even call? I check my phone and notice it was on silent mode all along. So absorbed in my thoughts I didn’t even feel it in my pocket. Right, the party, the night. Can’t forget I am in the present and have to keep moving. I hastily apologize in a sluggish voice, put my mask on, and open the door. I take a glance at the bus and it is almost at the stop. I sit and close the door without looking back.


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