Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The Bus Stop
[Beijing China, 1981]
We stand on the narrow curb waiting for the bus to arrive. I am bundled in layers of sweaters and a coat with a hood wrapped tightly around my face, making me look like an over stuffed, rigid but blinking, toy doll. The cold air bites my hands and lips, cutting deeper welts into the already dry and cracking skins. The frozen concrete below seep frost into my feet through layers of socks and plastic bottomed cotton shoes.
There is a small crowd around us, a cloud of gray pants and blue cotton jackets with hands crossing into the opposite sleeves. My brother Luo left the ear covers up on his aviator hat so his ears are as red as the sugared cherry pops on display at the snack cart behind us. Mom takes out the bus fare, and we watch three icy coins transfer from her hand into Luo's, an occasional sparkle escapes when the edge catches the weak but rising glow of the winter morning sun.
It is only six o'clock. But the commuting cyclists streaming through the Anding Street bus stop pronounces a busy and definite beginning. A beginning of the day, of the week; or if you are Luo, the first day of school, with classes starting at seven. He stands there hands in his pockets and a canvas school bag crossing over his shoulders, chest so full of purpose it rises even above layers of winter coats.
The bus lets out a heavy sigh upon pulling into the stop. The crowd doubles in size as soon as the bus appears. The door opens, as much a mechanical effort as a result of the neatly packed riders pushing through, and hardly anyone can move in or out. The few who step off seem to punch a hole through the human wall blocking the door and stumble out, nearly falling at the last step but manage to stand, to my great relief.
Luo shuffles towards the opening but I lose sight of him immediately. The crowd gathers at the door and swells to cover the entrance, reminding me of the time when I saw the pouring of a bucket of tar smoothing and covering any openings in its tracks. I shut my eyes for a minute, counting to sixty, as Luo has taught me to spare me the worry of seeing him squished. He is the "fat" one in the family, with cheeks unusually chubby for having our daily diet of rice and salted cabbages. But at six year old, he hardly weighs nor measures half the size of the other commuters, waxy and ill fed they might seem judging by the necks and limbs sticking out of the bulge of their jackets.
When I open my eyes, I see Luo standing on the highest step by the outer edge of the bus with his face peeking through the elbows of two other commuters. A big, round and ruddy smile emerges to show us the space where he lost a tooth last week. He shifts and twists until one of his arm is free, waving and shouting:
"See ya later, be good for mom!"
Mom takes a step up, and places her foot in the jam to block the bus door from closing. As she grabs Luo's waving hands, she gives it a few gentle squeezes. She is smiling and whispering something I can't hear. So I smile too, and waving back at Luo. Luo shakes himself free, chiding her:
The commuters standing near the edges, teetering on precious little floor space with nary of a whole foot each, looking for the solidity of the door on which to lean, join in mumbles and looks of disapproval towards her.
She nods apologies and steps off, grabbing a hold of me and wrapping her arms so tight I can hardly breathe, watching as the bus pull away from the stop. Luo's face red as a candle lit lantern, seems to stay before my eyes long after the bus has made the turn around the corner. I turn to ask mom:
"When I grow up, do I get to ride the bus by myself like Luo?"
"Call him Big Brother, not Luo like us. And no, you will not need to go to the Korean school like him. Your father can take you to the neighborhood Chinese school when you are five."
"Why don't I need to go to the Korean school?" I am as relieved as I am curious.
"Because you are a girl, so you don't need to carry on the family tradition. Luo's the first son, so he has responsibilities to marry a Korean girl when he grows up, and carry on our family's custom and heritage. Now, let's go home."
I can already read "Little Horse Crossing The River" by myself, even retelling it to other children in the courtyard like a proper scholar. But I can't make sense of what mom just said. I don't know what heritage means, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the way mom and dad pickle cabbages for all the days of winter when there is nothing else to eat. But the wind is picking up speed and ferocity, threatening to topple me over and blocking me from further scholarly reasoning. All I can think then, is the lucky bus and its riders, who will have the pleasure of Luo's company for the next forty five minutes.