We arrived in Fengyang, Anhui, around 1 am on the morning of the 9th, a cool thirty hours after our departure from southern Sichuan, which had been delayed two days because of rain and waiting for the two other trucks in our caravan to load. Zhang said he didn’t have a room for me in his house, so he helped me to a room at a motel next door. The space was a blessing after the intensity of the ride.
I woke up at 7:30 the following morning to an industrial sounding clamor outside the window of my motel. Rumbling, honking, whirring, and groaning motors; it was as if I was sleeping between a traffic jam and a steel plant. Just outside my window, the cyclical whimpering of a miserable dog was the sole reminder that I was actually in the Chinese countryside.
Around 9 am, three of Zhang’s family members came to pick me up at my room: his wife, his niece, and his son. His wife quickly peeled away, and left the kids to take me on a tour of town featuring an old building known as “Old Building”, from the reign of the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty who was seated in Fengyang. On the way, Zhang’s son pointed out various Ming dynasty trappings around the city.
Fengyang was astoundingly active. A county that was once one of the most cruelly devastated victims of the Mao’s man-made famine during the Great Leap Forward, which killed literally millions of its residents, its small central district is now bloated with retail stores and food stands. The industrial sound track of that morning had come from the incredible traffic that the town has amassed on its mess of unlined streets – bikes, cars, and a disproportionate number of large trucks, driving as if they were walking in a pushy crowd, and honking as if they were continuously passing political campaigners holding signs for their candidate. Zhang’s son told me that Fengyang’s development isn’t good “because it has bad traffic”. I reminded him that Beijing also has terrible traffic – but I had to admit he was right; the Fengyang traffic contained a more primal energy than that of the big cities. There town also had a notable number of vehicle maintenance shops, and empty trucks of all sizes pulled were up on the sides of the road. It seems that this town exports truck drivers.
Driver Zhang’s son is named Zhang Wei. He’s a skinny boy about my height who speaks clear, standard Mandarin and loves the NBA. Having just finished the Gaokao two days ago, China’s SAT on steroids which is the sole deciding factor in college admissions, Zhang Wei was done with school and free from obligation.
“It’s kind of boring”, he told me. “I’d like to get a job…for the experience. Get some life experience.”
Driver Zhang’s niece, who Zhang Wei, in a typical Chinese fashion, introduced to me as “older sister”, is my same age and works as an accountant. When she arrived at my door at nine in the morning on this chilly drizzly day, she was dressed to attract, carefully outfitted in the cheap glitz popular among modern young Chinese women of certain class. She wore pink four-inch platform sandals showing off shiny pink toenails, a jean miniskirt which hugged her thin waist and had a long suggestive red sipper placed horizontally across her lower hips, and a tightly fitted, slightly midriff bearing red button down shirt with chipao style Chinese buttons. On her wrist she wore a bracelet of fake crystal beads, which rattled as she continually brushed her side-swept bangs out of her eyes. As we walked down the buzzing streets of Fengyang, she oddly fit in very well.
After a quick tour of the Old Building and a stop at the supermarket, we went back to the Zhangs’ apartment. The apartment complex is enclosed and guarded by a sliding metal gate and a guard. The buildings are new, and set in rows with small dark entrances. As we walked up the concrete stairs to the third floor, Zhang Wei told me that some of the apartments aren’t finished yet and the construction is pretty loud and annoying. The Zhangs moved in six months ago; I remember when I met Driver Zhang he told me he had just bought a new place.
Upon first glance, the apartment was spacious and clean, a pleasant surprise in the midst of the dusty town. The large living room was decorated with flowery and glittery things and organized to a tee, a combination of tacky and clinical in the manner typical of new Chinese residences. A wide couch with flat, square cushions too deep and stiff to sit on comfortably faced a large flat screen TV. The TV was mounted on a giant oddly shaped gold plaque, in turn mounted on a wall, which was sponge painted in iridescent blue and purple prints. The couch was covered in flowery mats, which matched the tissue box holder on the glass coffee table, also decorated in large frilly lace roses. The wall trim above the couch was a uniform wave, squiggling across the room over a few pots of fake glittery flowers and a vase of bamboo placed on the mod curvy shelves built into the walls. The remotes for both the TV and the fan which sat in the corner were meticulously covered in plastic wrap. All the blankets in the place were folded, and the few visible belongings each had a particular place in the room. The living room was sparse of stuff that usually piles up in a home, but at the same time cluttered with glittery and flowery decorations. Not that house I would expect of a truck driver, even the ever meticulous Driver Zhang.
The place was extremely well cared for. Ms. Zhang cooked both lunch and dinner in the spotless kitchen, and did a full cleanup afterwards, complete with sponging the surfaces and mopping the floor. She doesn’t work and never has, at least since the kids were born, which means that Driver Zhang is supporting a family of four and about to send his son to college all from his income as a driver.
Driver Li, Zhang’s driving partner, joined us for lunch, and he and Driver Zhang each drank a tall glass of strong Chinese rice alcohol. Zhang Wei commented that he doesn’t drink and doesn’t smoke, and hates both activities. When Zhang offered me the chicken foot and I declined, saying I’m not used to eating chicken feet, Zhang Wei, his sister, and his cousin all agreed that it was gross. They also denounced the dish Ms. Zhang had made using Thousand Year Old Egg, a type of aged egg that, to many foreigners, just tastes like a rotten egg. The kids, especially Zhang Wei, seemed to have departed from their parents’ behaviors along many axes. The lunch conversation was dominated by the Gaokao – what was the essay question? When will the scores come out? There was no trace of distance between the family members, and I never would have guessed that this was one of the two times per month that Driver Zhang is at home.
Driver Zhang left to unload his truck at a site about five kilometers away. Much of the rest of the day was passed watching a series of Survivor-esq goofy athletic competitions on TV and a long afternoon nap. That night after dinner, the Zhangs and I went over to the house of one of the other drivers who had driven in our caravan to Anhui, an unusually tall man even by American standards, with a wide smile and a seventeen year old son who had also accompanied us on the road. I had originally thought that the son was a driver in training, but when I asked about it, one of the drivers told me definitively that he wasn’t.
“This profession is too bitter! We just eat bitterness. Do you see this?” He had said, pointing to another man tying down the tarp over his truck, “it’s just eating bitterness! When we were young there was nothing to do. Now there are things to do.”
This was a mindset that has been consistent in this particular community of drivers: their kids won’t be drivers.
The tall driver picked us up in a large white van with curtains over the windows; it was difficult to imagine how this strange vehicle came into his possession. We drove a few minutes just outside of the busiest area of town to a wide road lined with one-story white tile buildings. The house had large, minimal concrete rooms with just a few items of furniture in each: a couch in the entryway, a bed and a desk in the bedroom. They were worn and un-cleanable in the way that old buildings become after a certain amount of use; a completely different feel from the Zhangs’ apartment. A gaggle of older people sat outside on folding chairs and the Zhangs joined in. I was ushered across the street to a similar one-story house full of a slightly younger crowd so that I could transfer some of my photos to a computer over there.
This house consisted of a similar large concrete entryway with a desk, and two bedrooms, and that was it. Like the house across the street, the concrete walls of the rooms were scantily decorated, with a couple of posters and a map at most. In the entryway/living room the only decoration was a professional photo of a beautifully done-up couple in wedding attire. The house was inhabited by two drivers, one of whom had done the trip with us from Sichuan. His name was Liu, and he was ageless and intellectual looking, with square plastic nerd-chic glasses. He wore a bright pink shirt with large letters of the English alphabet scattered around it, the same he had been wearing for the past three days. The tip of his right index finger was missing, which was the only thing about him that gave a clue as to his laborious profession. Liu is the nephew of the tall driver who had picked us up, and drives with him as an employed driver.
Liu had a mess of electronics on the desk, including an HP laptop, various USBs and external hard drives, and a tanker of a desktop machine which he told me he bought in 2000 and doesn’t use anymore. I commented on the impressive amount of electronics, and he told me he likes this kind of stuff.
“He loves technology!” a little boy chimed in who had scooted into the room a few minutes before.
After I gave Liu my photos, he started showing me photos of his own, most of which he had taken with his phone. He kept excusing the quality, saying he didn’t have a camera as good as mine, but as he went through he showed me some beautiful ones of which he was clearly proud.
The places and landmarks flashed by: Yurts in Inner Mongolia, wind turbines in Gansu Province in the plains of northern China, The Three Gorges Dam, a statue in Ningxia, a boat on the Yellow River – all places where he had hauled goods. He slipped in little tidbits about each place (they say the Yellow River is one bowl of water and half a bowl of sand), but excused his explanations, telling me that if his brother were here he could explain these things to me better. He was overtly self conscious about his level of culture, which he put down a few times, telling me that he was really “the lowest rung of Chinese society.” As we went through the photos I recognized a lot of familiar faces from our caravan from Sichuan, from the house across the street, and from the room we were in, through which flowed a continuous stream of men, women, and children. Each person in the photos and in the room was introduced as so-and-so’s wife or son or brother-in-law. Liu himself is the oldest of four boys – China’s one child policy wasn’t so strictly enforced back when his family was being created, he told me – and at least two of the brothers are drivers. The youngest, though, in his twenties, is currently in college studying computer science. Another young person from a trucking family decidedly not being channeled into the industry.
The final set of photos Liu showed me weren’t from a trucking trip, but a small vacation he had taken to a nearby mountain with some friends and family. One of the features of the Huangshan or Yellow Mountain, which Liu pointed out in the photos, is a type of pine tree that grows out of rock and is considered a symbol of vigor because of its sturdiness and longevity. As we looked through the photos, the small crowd in the room gathered around to comment and laugh and joke.
Afterwards I was summoned back across the street, where an older set of relatives and friends were still sitting in the cool night air enjoying each other’s company. The community was thick with family ties and shared experiences of working and living together. Even though some of the group is transplanted away from the home base for the majority of their lives, perhaps because of it, this group of families is beautifully cooperative and codependent. They are in touch with each other and involved in each other’s lives to an extent that most communities I’ve encountered in the US can’t or don’t want to achieve.