I glanced at my watch. 12:52. Fuck. I hadn’t planned on staying out so late.
Normally, being out until the small hours of the morning on a weekend wouldn’t bother me. Unfortunately, this wasn’t your everyday situation.
Since arriving in Beijing, all of us foreigners have been ridiculously busy with class. Getting adjusted to intensive level Chinese isn’t easy and we had all been shut in our rooms, studying furiously to keep up. But now it was the weekend and all bets were off.
All the other American students had wanted to go to Sanlitun to drink and dance. For those unfamiliar with the Beijing area, Sanlitun is Beijing’s party palace. Clubs, bars, and anything else young adults could get into on a Saturday night cluster here, with their blinking neon lights and rave music. Here was perhaps the highest concentration of foreigners in all of China, and it was somewhat comforting to be among a crowd of your own, no longer whispered about and pointed at by the rampant Beijingers. What a change, to go from this anonymous, seedy environment to the cold harsh glare of the subway.
That was the problem I was facing as I rushed down the streets of Sanlitun, practically bolting towards the Tuanjiehu subway station.
Instead of opting to live in the foreign student dorms, like most of my classmates, I just had to “challenge myself” by living with a host family. Not that I don’t like them, don’t get me wrong. They’re lovely and living with them has definitely improved my Chinese. The only problem is that they live in Changping, an hour and a half away from Peking U, Sanlitun, Wudaokou, and all the other places that actually matter to a college student like myself.
Normally, I didn’t mind the commute – it allowed me a little time to study or listen to music on my way to school, providing I didn’t arrive at the hell that is rush hour. But at night, it was much more problematic.
Let’s put it in financial terms. The subway ride from my house to Peking U, or Sanlitun, for that matter, is about 5 kuai. Not so bad, right? But my host family had informed me that the subway closes at 11 pm (seriously?). So, if I wanted to get home, I’d have to hop into a cab, which would definitely be at least 100 kuai. That’s maybe around $16 in American money, which isn’t so bad for a cab ride that promised to be 45 minutes at best, but I still wasn’t willing to fork out money like that every weekend when I wanted to go out. It adds up, you know?
I know what you’re thinking. If the subway closes at 11 pm, why was I rushing for it at 1 in the morning?
I should mention that I am in high level Chinese, but my Chinese is still far from fluent. I was sure that my host family had said 11 pm, but what if they were wrong? If there was even the slightest chance the subway was still open, I’d go and take it. If not, hopefully I would be in a good spot to catch a cab.
As I approached the subway station, I saw promising fluorescent lights glowing from its depths. Oh, thank God, I thought to myself. No more worrying about being ripped off, dropped off at the wrong place, or murdered (I’ve always been a bit paranoid).
I bounded down the stairs, my footsteps echoing and bouncing off the tiled walls. It was pretty empty, but that’s what I’d expect so late at night. I walked brusquely to the security check, my spirits lifting immensely. I couldn’t wait to get home and shower.
I looked at the guards and stopped in my tracks.
A serious looking Chinese man stared back at me. Rather than the black military-esque uniform that I was accustomed to seeing, he was attired in a long cloak with a high collar, very classical Chinese. A strange red and black hat adorned his thick, braided hair. The most troubling aspect of his dress, however, was a thick, yellowing scroll of paper that seemed pasted on to his chest with thick, black Chinese characters scrawled down the front. I tried half-heartedly to read the characters, but they swirled across my line of vision in a confusion of strokes that led me to believe that they must be ancient Chinese.
His piercing eyes ripped through me, freezing my heart into a dead stop.
He continued to stare at me with no answer.
I tried again, in Chinese this time. “Hey, is the subway open? When does it close?”
He stared at me again, his lips set in a straight line. Wow. So helpful.
I was beginning to get extremely uncomfortable. Should I… leave?
I was about to turn around and hightail it out of there when his lips parted slightly. His eyes remained fixed and rigid while his mouth squirmed against his pale skin like a twisting worm. But, wait though I did, no sound issued forth.
Once he had finished… speaking?… He looked at me expectantly.
If I had been in America, I would have taken him for a lunatic and turned tail. But the thing is, I was in Beijing. Maybe this was just a part of the culture I didn’t understand. Maybe something weird was happening and I didn’t quite get it. Maybe it was only weird to me but not to your average Beijinger.
So, stupid as I was, I didn’t let it end there.
Maintaining strong eye contact, I pointed to myself, then pointed to the stairs that led into the subway.
He gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod and I passed through without further issue.
Next came the turnstiles. I tried to swipe my handy-dandy subway card, but nothing registered. They were open, anyway, and the guard wasn’t paying me any attention, so I stepped through with a shrug. Well, whatever, free ride for me.
As I descended into the fluorescent tunnel, I began berating myself for making this journey. Why didn’t I just stay in the dorm with my friends? Well, actually, the answer to that question was pretty simple. Who wanted to sleep on a rock-hard bed with a bunch of drunks? No, thanks, I’ll take my chances with Creepy Subway Guard.
To my surprise, a plethora of people awaited me when I arrived at my platform. At least, I think it was my platform. It was situated where my platform was supposed to be, but the signs had… changed? Instead of the chic plastic that slicked the walls in the morning, there were heavy wood signs with carved squiggles that I couldn’t decipher.
I began to grow colder as I wondered what the hell I had gotten myself into.
However, I managed to stay calm due to the crowd. If there were this many people waiting for the train, then it had to arrive and go somewhere, right? I needed to remain calm. Just… think of this as an adventure. Like I’m Bilbo Baggins or something.
It took me a moment to realize that something else was wrong. Everyone was silent.
Usually the subway was a cacophony of laughter, idle chatter, and angry voices pushing their way through the crowds. On this occasion, however, the silent was so palpable I could taste it, like sawdust on my tongue.
And when I looked around, their mouths were all moving. Just as the guard before, their lips blossomed and closed like dragonsnaps, but no sound came forth.
I’ll admit it, I was just about to walk back up those stairs and leave when the subway pulled up to the platform.
All of a sudden, the still passengers burst to life and filled the thus-far empty train. I was swept along with them, practically carried into the train car by a mob of businessmen, old women, and children.
I looked down and saw a six-year-old girl at my feet, her eyes solemn and her hair pulled back into pigtails. She appeared to be accompanied by no one and none of the other passengers paid attention to her.
I knelt down to her eye level. “Hey, there. Do you know where your mommy and daddy are?”
I should have kept my mouth shut. Curse my American meddling.
Without blinking, her eyes as cold and blank as chalk, her mouth shuddered and twisted.
Fuck fuck FUCK.
Suddenly, I was approached by another passenger.
By this point, all eyes were on me. I was used to being stared at because my porcelain skin so clearly marks me as a foreigner, but this was somehow different. The stares were intense rather than curious. For the first time I really felt like I didn’t belong.
The passenger who approached me was a man perhaps in his late 50s, with graying hair and a scraggly mustache to match. He kept his mouth pressed in a firm line as he handed me a block of chocolate.
He placed it in my hand, stared right at my gaping jaw, and waited patiently. The other passengers continued staring. The stares got more intense, if that’s even possible. But the mouths, they continued their hell-dance uninterrupted. I shuddered.
I don’t know why I did what I did next. It was stupid and horrible and it probably saved my life.
I bit into the brick of chocolate. Immediately an awful taste filled my mouth and I began to choke, spitting the mush out onto the ground without hesitation. One thought surfaced through the murky confusion in my mind: mud.
“What the fuck is this? Is this some kind of a jo-“
And then, all of a sudden, a roar of noise filled the air. I could hear hundreds of conversations issuing from those grimy lips, accompanied by appropriate laughter, snorts, scoffs, and coughs. All eyes were still on me, but for all intents and purposes it sounded like a regular Beijing subway.
The shock must have registered on my face because the man who had approached me laughed. “I think you’re lost.”
I stared at him. “N… No. I’m going to Haidian Huangzhuang station.”
A chorus of laughter rang out around him.
“Do you know where this train goes?”
Now I was getting frustrated. “Haidian Huangzhuang! I ride it every morning!”
He nodded sagely. “Yes, and I’m sure in the morning it DOES go to Haidian. But at night, at night it serves a different purpose.” I struggled to keep up with his muddled Beijing accent. What was he saying?
Obediently, I tuned into the conversation next to me. It was between a young man, no more than 20 years old, and a middle-aged woman wearing a red scarf.
“What happened to you?” asked the man.
“Car accident. You?”
He blushed. “Suicide.”
She hit his shoulder with a scoff of disgust. “You should have valued your life more! Now what will happen when you are judged, hm?”
The man looked agitated and preoccupied with his thoughts. In the mean time, I had turned ashen.
I looked back at the man.
“Where… does this train go?”
“Where? I think you already know.”
I began to panic as the train ground to a halt.
“And this is your stop.”
My panic grew. “No… no, I don’t want to go!”
He smiled at me kindly. “Trust me, you’ll be fine.”
As the doors slid open, he shoved me out.
I found myself alone, standing in the bright fluorescent lights of a subway platform identical to the Tuanjiehu station. For one moment only I looked around, waiting breathlessly for a sign of life. Then I bolted up the stairs.
As I ran past the security guard, I heard his laughter call after me. It bounced sickeningly off the walls and wormed its way into my skull. I shrieked and bolted out of the station, desperate to escape that sound.
Suddenly, I was standing on Sanlitun again, as though I had never left. The street was congested with people who seemed completely indifferent to the fact that I had almost been sent to the underworld. They chattered by while I whirled back around.
The subway was dark, deserted, and locked.
I trembled quietly as I stared into that abyss. Now I knew what the inside of that darkness looked like.
A young Chinese couple approached me. The man stuttered out in broken English, “Are you ok? You look sick.”
I stared at him, thinking vaguely of the young suicide victim, on his way to judgment. “I want to go home,” I muttered in Chinese, casting a sidelong glance back at the subway.
As they hailed a taxi for me and spoke to each other in hushed voices, I stared up at the sky, the brick of mud still clutched tightly in my hand.