One sweltering hot day in a rural pocket of northern China, Anrong took our team of American volunteer researchers on a fieldtrip from his tiny hometown peasant village, where we’d been documenting village traditions, to the county’s capital city, Jia Xian. He hired a driver to taxi us in a boxy minivan which did not possess air conditioning. Therefore, we had to ride with all of the windows rolled down completely. This could have been refreshing on a paved highway. The road between Dang Jia Shan village and Jia Xian City, however, was a vague channel worn into the centuries of windblown silt, occasionally becoming a pit of mud, with informal boundaries and incessant inconsistencies in quality ranging from decent, passenger-vehicle-grade to borderline 4-wheeling-grade. The dirt was silky fine and billowy, perpetually infiltrating the van, swirling and engulfing us like a desert sand storm. When we arrived at Jia Xian, our hair and bodies were frosted with dirt an eighth-inch deep.
Passing through a sleepy township along the way, we stopped in the road next to a vendor’s stall to buy a case of bottled water. The van idled while Anrong got out and purchased the goods. A crowd of men came up to our minivan and looked in through the open window. Upon seeing two rows of foreign women seated inside, they leaned their elbows on the window sill and thrust their shocked and curious heads into the car’s interior. One of them beamed a wide, tobacco-stained smile and another looked stern and contemplative. They said nothing to us, merely swept their heads back and forth inside the vehicle and eventually relinquished their front-row seats to the men behind peering over their shoulders.
With gritty dust coating our lips and teeth, we had grown silent in the minivan—it was too unpleasant to open our mouths. Now on display, we mumbled meagerly to each other about how humorous the current situation was. Jiang, one of our Chinese-born principal investigators, opted to speak with us foreigners in English rather than speak to the men in Mandarin. It seemed easier to separate herself completely than to try bridging the strange, rubber-capped gap that held the recessed window.
After the purchase was completed, we started down the road again. As we left the edge of the township, a public bus was pulling away from a bus-stop. Our minivan zoomed past it. A moment later, the public bus had pulled up alongside us and began to pass. Our driver stepped on his accelerator. The bus driver stepped on his. Neck and neck we went racing down the dirt road, no minding the bumps and pot holes. Consistent with the lack of air conditioning, the minivan possessed no seat belts and no perceivable shocks. Without seatbelts, our heads hit the roof repeatedly. Jiang kept crying out, “Ow!” “Oooo!” “Oh!” She cradled her head in her hands for much of the way. The rest of us endured rather stoically, but by the time we hit the paved road at the outskirts of Jia Xian, I was convinced I had internal hemorrhaging.
The public bus driver was occasionally obliged to make random stops along his route to accommodate his boarding and exiting passengers. Then our minivan would pull out into the lead and I’d think, Oh thank god, the race is over.
Far from. Soon enough the public bus would come roaring up behind us, then beside us, and inevitably would pass us as our minivan would get mired down in some mud hole or have to circumvent some particularly cavernous pit in the road, while the bus tore through these unfazed. Humiliated, our driver would then floor it to catch up. Side by side we traveled the road to Jia Xian City, eating the dust of the public bus, oncoming traffic be damned.
I returned to Dang Jia Shan the following year, and again we drove from the village to Jia Xian, but in the interim the road had been paved by men in blue pantsuits and women in flowered blouses. It was smooth as glass. We were making such good time we didn’t stop for water.
“Isn’t it a nice highway? Much better than last year,” Anrong said to me with satisfaction as our car glided effortlessly around other cars in blind corners with liberating speed.
“Yes,” I said or sighed; I don’t remember which.