I shift uncomfortably in my seat. He’s looking at me, his eyes slowly moving up towards my face, then back down to the passport laid open in front of him. Looking for some sign of recognition. He’s stern, forbidding. I smile, try to look hopeful…..my hope gently fading. The woman beside him has an identical expression. Neutral, non-committed…interrogating me.
They slowly hand back the passports, one by one, to each person in the carriage, till, at last, they are left, just holding mine. They beckon me, the hand a substitute for the lack of a shared, common language. But enough meaning in that hand signal to know that this isn’t looking good.
I pick up my bag and follow them through the carriages, the floral chintz curtains swinging on the windows as I walk past. I follow the officials down the narrow train carriage, the train tilting to one side as the bogies on the wheel are changed, ready for the changeover from Mongolia into China.
Walking down the steps slowly, there to see a small, white, waiting car, thick with desert sand. I’m stowed into the back, bundled in with my rucksack, before speeding off through the dusty roads of Erlianhot, this, my first time in China.
The maze of streets begin to open up my thought, the memories of Asia flooding back. Oh look! There, an old man, wizened by the years, pushing the pedals on a bike laden with porcelain; a fruitseller on the street over there, offering torn off slices of pomelo to passersby; the cry of the knife-sharpener, selling his metal wares.
They take me to a small room, a sort of guards out-post at the gate to a large, government-looking building. I speak no Chinese then, and I’m left to wait, my passport taken away from me by the long-line of officials behind the big wooden tables in the customs house, the pronouncement of my return to Mongolia necessitated by a careless embassy official writing the wrong date on my visa.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of”. “I was born in Hong Kong! I’m just so happy to be back here in China. This is my home!” I don’t speak Chinese. I don’t even know how to say ‘Hong Kong’ in Mandarin. I’m just another foreigner to them. They don’t see me as I myself. They don’t see that this is where I belong.
[Look around small room]. The minutes tick by. They turn into an hour. Then another. I wait. And wait. I am now to be sent back to Mongolia, from where I had come. So much for my ceremonial, much-anticipated return to China after a twelve year absence. I am alone and powerless.
Suddenly, a small, bird-like woman, rushes into my room. She looks like a cleaning lady, no trace of officialdom. She picks up my huge rucksack, leveraging it onto her back, and runs out of the room. The rucksack is bigger than her. She starts to run, a profusion of Chinese tumbling out of her mouth as she motions for me to follow her.
She start running through the streets, this tiny woman, turtle-like, as she carries my belongings on her back, racing through the noisy streets, pointing, animatedly, at a large building straight ahead of her. I have no idea where I am going. But she is ever insistant that I hurry, urging me on with the sense that I have no time to lose. But I have no choice. She has taken my bag. She picks up speed as the bicycles, cars, taxis, hoot their horns and whiz past me.
She points to the door, straight in front of me, she runs into the door, and I realize it is, in fact, the train station. She runs straight through the marbled hallway, onto the platform and I see a train, standing imperiously, motionless, gently shifting into gear and tooting it’s horn. She’s pointing at the train, urging me towards it, the rucksack still precariously balanced on her tiny frame.
I see my friends emerge at the door of the train. It is the train headed for Beijing! They will let me go after all!
The woman starts loading my backpack onto the train. But – I can’t go without my passport. Suddenly something snaps. No longer the polite, quiet visitor. I get angry. I tug the rucksack off the train, as an official standing on the platform lurches forward to catch it. I pull it away from him, my eyes burning with tears as I breakdown in a sob, my powerlessness and frustration mounting up, as I tussle with my opponents, shouting ‘I’ve had enough!’. Everything breaks down, embarrassment, anger, faded hopes and broken expectations, crowding out the insistence of my friends to get on the train! I can’t go anywhere without my passport!
Then, suddenly, I see out of the corner of my eye, two officials, running from the train station, holding something in their hand. The train wheels start to grind against the tracks, the engines revving, wanting to go. There is a moment of slow motion, when everything seems frozen in time and I’m paralyzed with coming or going. Reality leaps back, the officials hare up to me, my bag lady heaves the rucksack one last time on to the train, my passport is stamped under my nose, handed to me – and I jump on the train bound for Beijing.