The day I left Chengdu was oppressively hot but unusually sunny. The final days of June had been sunnier than usual and the city looked fresh, glistening a little despite the film of dust and veil of fog. The week before I left I had asked Mr. Kang if I could meet with him one last time and ask some final questions, but we hadn’t been able to find a time. So Mr. and Mrs. Kang came and met me at the airport two hours before my flight.
I arrived before them and waited in the airport’s one coffee shop, which required a 38 RMB purchase in order to sit. I squeezed my two huge suitcases behind a bench in the back corner, hoping that I could hide how much stuff I had. The Kangs arrived and Mr. Kang greeted me sternly, Mrs. Kang mildly, and they sat down across from me at the booth. Mr. Kang slapped a thick book down on the table, a gift for me. It was a huge almanac of Chinese traditional medicine, all in Chinese.
“Once you read this whole thing,” he told me seriously, “You’ll know everything about Chinese medicine.” He shuffled around for a pen and instructed his wife to inscribe the book. She wrote:
June 28th, 2011, Chengdu, China, Shukang Logistics Limited Liability Company. Mr. and Mrs. Kang and little sister Rachel!
He read the inscription back under his breath and gave a tight, satisfied smile.
“Very good”, he said, and signed his name.
The Kangs sat with me for about a half an hour while I went through a list of questions, holes I had identified in my understanding of their business. He was patient with my questions and formal in his answers. His sentences didn’t wander into wonderings or theories. They succinctly stated facts about his business, sprinkled with vague, canned phrases about “government support” or “human relations” or “future expansion”. It was difficult to get many details.
I recorded the interview, which I had never done with Mr. Kang before, and maybe that contributed to his formality. But the things he said echoed things he had told me in the past. He approached business, life, and his country like lines on a graph: steadily and inevitably climbing. Maybe in some cases the slope isn’t steep, but the trajectory is clear and straight. His business will grow, the industry will improve, China will develop; it’s just a matter of time.
An hour before my flight, the waitress came over to politely remind me that I should go check in. I asked my last question, and then Mr. Kang took the opportunity to get in a final, formal, recorded statement of our relationship. He said that I was welcome to come back any time, and that he hoped that for me coming back to Chengdu would be like coming home. He wished me good luck in my career and told me that if I needed anything personally or professionally I should contact him right away. He declared that my leaving wasn’t sad because it was only the beginning of our relationship.
Earlier in the year, Mrs. Kang had asked me if I would send their daughter Taizi English post cards once I left China to encourage her in her English studies. Earlier in the year, I had sent her one from Macau. The Kangs had only briefly acknowledged receiving it, but Mr. Kang brought it up again at the airport. He told me it had really encouraged her to apply herself at English, and he asked that I continue sending them from the US. The system of reciprocity in China is sometimes very blatant, but this time it didn’t feel off-putting.
We took a couple of photos. Mr. Kang stood firmly with a straight face and Mrs. Kang slouched slightly with a passive smile. They insisted on helping me bring my bags over to the check-in counter, which embarrassed me because they were so heavy. In line I lamented that I would have to pay an arm and a leg for the overweight baggage. Without any fuss, Mr. Kang turned to the woman behind us and asked if she would check one of my bags as her own. She said she would. Problem solved. After the bags were safely checked away, I said goodbye to the Kangs, giving them each a hug which they each took very uncomfortably. Mr. Kang spent the final moments telling me to go along with the woman who had checked my bag.
“You two together!” he commanded, “you two go together!”
Once he had satisfactorily seen that I was in someone else’s care, we waved goodbye and headed off in separate directions.
It was the second time that the Kangs had seen me off, though the situation couldn’t have been more different. The last time was at the beginning of my first hitchhiking trip. I was getting on a truck to drive overnight to Kunming on the mountain roads of northern Yunnan. This time I was boarding a plane to Shanghai and then back to the US. Between those two departures were a set of experiences that were among the most challenging and formative of my life. But the feeling of the departure was the same: the Kangs’ inexhaustible hospitality, their positivity and pragmatism, the feeling that I was one of their own, and the conviction that it was only ‘goodbye for now’.