Nearly Dead on Arrival

An Excerpt from Michael Meyer’s ‘The Road to Sleeping Dragon’

In June of 1995, Michael Meyer arrived in China to train for a two-year posting teaching English as one of the country's first Peace Corps volunteers.

Six weeks after I arrived in China, in hot, cicada-scored August, the teachers ordered us away from campus for a night to practice our Chinese “in the field.” I wanted to travel north to the world’s largest panda preserve, located in a valley enticingly named Wolong, “Sleeping Dragon.” The narrow road to pandas snaked 12 hours through deep mountain gorges. Plunge potential notwithstanding, the infrequent bus service meant I couldn’t make it there and back in two days.

Instead, I queued between cattle bars at the cavernous Chengdu station and felt a surge of accomplishment in buying a train ticket without reading the vocabulary I had written on my forearms. I picked Yibin, a Yangtze River port located seven hours south. I loved trains, and had never been on a Chinese one, so the journey, not the town, was my true destination. Only one-way tickets were sold back then, so I planned to ride the rails during daylight, disembark in Yibin, look at the Yangtze, and buy a ticket for the overnight train that returned to Chengdu.

The train did not disappoint. This was the end of the era when steam engines in China still chugged on some lines, and the journey on hard, shared L-shaped benches was a rolling town square, soon to be replaced by the hushed, individual airplane seating of high-speed carriages. The trip felt more like a voyage than a ride: as the train cut through the flat, farmed landscape—as unchanging and unnoticed as open ocean—passengers chatted and shared dumplings and smoked and sang and cracked sunflower seeds and argued, and one handed me her plump baby to bounce on my knee. Kids scampered up to yell “Good morning, teacher!” in English. They didn’t know that I was a teacher; it was the one sentence they remembered from school. In Chinese they politely called me shūshu (uncle). We discussed the train’s size and speed and what foods we liked and hated, and I was happy to keep conversational pace with the children, even as they corrected my pronunciation, until the train reached the end of the line.

When I asked for a return ticket in Yibin, the clerk said my least favorite Chinese word. “Méi yŏu.” My Sharpie’d arm once displayed it as MAYoh—“Not have.” After each entreaty—a standing-only ticket; a ticket to another northerly town—the clerk repeated méi yŏu with emotionless finality. Sensing I would be stuck in this humid, cement-colored city with little money and even scanter Chinese, the word sounded as chilling as Poe’s raven-squawked “Nevermore.” I had come to China without a credit card or pocket money—or even a camera—and had to subsist on Peace Corps’ monthly salary of U.S.$120. Even if there had been an airport or a driver to hire, I wouldn’t have been able to pay my way back to my bed in Chengdu.

“I need a ticket,” I pleaded, adding the phrase Chinese commonly invoked to persuade foreign guests: “It’s for our friendship.”

Méi yŏu,” the clerk repeated, unmoved.

“I’m a U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer.”

“Take the bus. It leaves at sunrise.”

I had miscalculated terribly. There were no train tickets, and only one hotel in town was allowed to take foreigners. The reform-and-opening-up policy transforming China’s coastal economy had yet to trickle upstream to this river-fogged town, whose vaporous air smelled like the 104-proof báijiǔ(grain alcohol) being distilled in its largest factory. Even the clouds above it looked hungover.

I trudged down People’s Road to the hotel, averting my eyes from the pedestrians who froze in their tracks, and bicyclists who stopped pedaling. They did not call me “uncle,” they called me lǎowài, the Chinese slang for “foreigner” that literally means “old outsider.” In my Peace Corps training, I had been told to ignore people who yelled the word: imagine a kangaroo wandering through your hometown; wouldn’t you gawp too? No, I thought now, I would not taunt the creature by yelling, “’Roo!”; I would help it find a train ticket. The road turned, leading to a crumbling concrete bridge. The Yangtze—called the Cháng Jiāng (Long River) in Mandarin—banks east in Yibin. Before this turn, its upper reach, which I stared at from the tired bridge, was called the Jīnshā, or Golden Sand River. The water looked brown and torpid. At my back, I heard voices mutter lǎowài. This wasn’t fun. I wanted to hop back on the train.

The state-owned hotel’s lobby was not quite as large as Tiananmen Square. When I spun out of its revolving door, the staff did the kind of eye-popping double take I had only seen in black-and-white comedies. In China, a foreigner gains an enlarged sense of self; you are constantly reminded how present you are. The hotel workers looked me over from the shoes up. In a developing land where people still walked long distances, quality footwear attracted great interest, especially before coastal factories started cranking out Nikes. The concierge said I was the first foreigner he had ever checked in.

I was lucky he let me stay, as I had forgotten to bring my passport, a requirement to register as a guest. The concierge thumbed my little green residence permit booklet and laughed. “Heroic Eastern Plumblossom!” he snorted. “That’s a girl’s name.” Which made me feel sorry for that girl, wherever she may be.

The hall attendant who guarded the keys opened the door to a room whose clammy walls made a gallery of smashed roaches framed by shoe prints. Next door, a karaoke hall pulsed with the sound of wounded hearts bleating Karen Carpenter’s every “sha la la la la” as if it were their last. When I stepped into the shower the next morning, I looked up to an open pipe, pointing straight down. The water hit my head fast and cold.

I arrived at the bus station with swollen, sleepless eyes. A billowing black balloon crowned each vehicle, making it look ready for liftoff. The bag held natural gas, a cheap way to fuel the engine, the driver said, offering a cigarette and lighting his own. So our plunge would end in a movie-perfect fireball. I didn’t smoke, and tucked the butt behind my ear, just as Peace Corps training had instructed. Always be polite. Don’t make others lose face. Just say yes.

“You’re going back to Chengdu?” the driver asked. “Get on my bus. I’m going to Mount Emei. You’ll be there by four.” That was eight hours away. “You can catch a bus onward and be back in town for dinner.” Mount Emei is one of China’s four sacred Buddhist peaks, historically seen as a place of enlightenment. Pilgrims, I knew, were often plunge victims, since their destinations often perched perilously far from flat roads. But the passengers on this bus looked like they were heading back to school and work, not to a temple. So far I had made only three mistakes: assumed a return train ticket existed, failed to bring enough money, and traveled without my passport. Full of wary hope that the worst was behind me, I stepped aboard.

“Please sit down,” a young man said in English from the front seat behind the driver. He wore stonewashed shorts decorated with replicas of $100 bills. Benjamin Franklins smiled from his lap. “My English name is Franklin, my foreign friend.”

Franklin studied at the local teachers college. His introduction exhausted most of his English. I tried Chinese. When the bus rumbled awake five minutes later, we’d run out of things to say. Franklin looked out the window.

Thirty minutes after departure, the bus broke down. The driver stopped, opened the engine compartment beside his seat, and stared into the smoke, calmly prodding while passengers coughed. After this repair, the bus sped along a two-lane cement road threading ripening rice paddies. The view showed no billboards, no buildings, and few people. The Sichuan countryside looked beautiful from a passing window; eking a living from it looked much less alluring.

Out the windshield I watched as a man up ahead fell off his steel-frame bike. The driver pulled hard on the wheel, sending us gasping and leaning, then pulled hard the other way, straightening out, avoiding the man and heavy bike and not once tapping the brake pedal.

Only a line of thin baling string a little later could stop him. Tied between dried bamboo stakes, the barrier marked where a flash flood had washed away a section of road. The driver spied it from a distance, slowed to toss cigarettes to the repair crew, then swung the bus into a field of golden rapeseed, bumping along two ruts.

Franklin laughed nervously. I scanned the horizon for danger.

But there were no ravines here; the bus bounced along furrows, honking at farmers harvesting the bright yellow blossoms from the table-flat fields. The afternoon slipped away; I would not reach Mount Emei, let alone my bed in Chengdu, by dark. I worried whether I had enough cash for another hotel room, but remembered another admonishment from training: It is rude to count money in public. Since landing, I had sat through six weeks of cultural classes that were variations on the theme Never Offend.

I was a six-foot-two-inch rake whose strongest muscle was my mouth: at college I once talked down a mugger pressing a knife against my gut, and twice lost fistfights after telling off racists. I never felt big, but in China my size usually made me the largest person in the room. On this bus I was a head taller and two weight classes above the other riders. Yet, with my kindergartner’s vocabulary and dependency on others, I was also the smallest person there.

I can still feel my heart racing as the bus slowed. Three young men stood at the edge of a rapeseed field. One held an open glass bottle half filled with clear liquid that I knew wasn’t water. Our draining momentum brought an increase of dread. Keep going, I thought. Keep going keep going keep going. The bus stopped. The driver’s sidekick, a conductor who sold tickets and let people on and off, reached up and removed the screwdriver that dead-bolted the hinged door.

The three men staggered on board, then yelped at the sight of a foreigner. They leaned into my face, laughing sharp and drunk and mewling “Hello” with fermented breath. Franklin turned to the window. I swiveled to see the entire bus looking anywhere but at the three men. One wore a black shirt, one wore a white shirt, and one was bare-chested. A large knife dangled from each of their belts.

I froze when the word lǎowài barked from their lips. The word was a daily, often hourly annoyance, but this was the first time I’d heard it spat with such malevolence. I tensed, muted and still. The bus lumbered on. The conductor stood by the door, silent. The driver’s thin shoulders hunched forward. The shirtless man knelt and blew into my ear.

Black Shirt said, in singsong English, “Hello-ARE-you-AN-English-FELLOW?” Where had he learned that? I laughed, softening. “I’m American,” I answered in Chinese. Wǒ shì měiguó rén.

He raised his thumb. “Very good!” He chugged from the bottle and offered me a swig. He leaned close and asked more questions, which I couldn’t understand. “Tīng bù dǒng,” I responded, words meaning I hear (tīng), but don’t understand (bù dǒng). I leaned on Franklin, who leaned harder against the window glass, but still the man came, repeating the questions louder in my ear. The other passengers stayed silent. I stared ahead, terrified at what would happen next.

Suddenly, from behind, the conductor demanded their fare. White Shirt pushed him away. The bus driver glanced back but kept steering. Black Shirt, now kneeling beside me, held his eyes on mine.

Over his right shoulder I watched an elderly passenger rise to tap his back. The old man spoke too quick and harsh for me to understand.

White Shirt, standing beside him in the aisle, responded by smashing the liquor bottle over the old man’s head. Blood, booze, and glass splattered our faces.

Black Shirt turned from me to pummel the old man’s slumping body.

This is where I should have done something. Instead I sat terrified and mute.

White Shirt shoved the old man to the floor. Then he wrapped his hands around my neck and started to squeeze. In the aisle, Shirtless kicked the prone old man. Black Shirt unsheathed his knife.

Franklin pushed me away and then clambered over the seat onto the grandmother behind us. The other passengers surged to the back of the bus. Just as I pressed a forearm into my assailant’s chin, I saw the conductor remove the dead-bolt screwdriver from the door.

One quick stab between the shoulders brought down Shirtless from behind.

As if cued, the bus driver slammed on the brakes, causing Black Shirt to pitch forward and fall. White Shirt still clenched my throat. My free hand could not release his tightening grip.

The driver unscrewed the metal gear stick from its floor housing, raised it above his head, and brought it down as if driving a railroad spike. I heard the sharp crack of breaking ice. The hands around my throat loosened, then fell.

The bus went silent. And then came the sound of shattering glass. Frenzied Black Shirt and bloodied Shirtless had jumped off the bus after it stopped and started pelting the windows with rocks they plucked from the dirt road. I ducked the shards. White Shirt’s body slumped beside me in the aisle.

The fusillade ceased. I peeked over my seat and met tufts of black hair and pairs of brown eyes doing the same. Sitting up, the view showed we had made it to a village; this was why the driver had kept going when the violence began. I looked out one side of the bus and saw police officers in olive-green shirts running to where a circle of village men pinned Black Shirt and Shirtless to the ground.

I had never met Chinese police, and guessed it was not a pleasant experience. I also realized that forgetting to bring my passport was about to become more than an inconvenience. My left leg spasmed from adrenaline. Villagers ringed the bus, pointing and staring and murmuring lǎowài lǎowài lǎowài.

“Please,” a voice asked in slow, gentle Chinese. “Get off the bus. Come with me.”

The man pointed at his arm patch, where I recognized the characters for public security.

Another cop grabbed White Shirt’s inert body by the ankles. His wounded head thudded slowly down the bus steps.

“Please,” the officer repeated.

Since arriving in China the previous month, my reading outside of language lessons consisted of Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square memoirs. Exiting the bus seemed tantamount to erasure. I would walk through the gates, up the station driveway, and then slowly fade from view. I heard the sound of the body being dragged away.

Wŏ hàipà.” I’m afraid. My teacher had taught the phrase in a lesson not about violent crime—of course, China didn’t have any, officially—but about politely refusing the throat-closing extremes of Sichuan’s spicy cuisine.

The officer realized he had a situation. Out the windshield I saw the old man, the driver, and the conductor waving encouragement from the driveway. My leg jackhammered from fear. Two more officers boarded the bus. “Foreign friend,” one urged, in halting English. “Please.”

I pointed at Franklin. “Can he come?”

Franklin’s face said: This is what happens when you practice English with a foreigner.

The police led us up a pitted concrete driveway through unlocked metal gates. We entered a courtyard bordered by one-story buildings with barred windows. Slumped silently in the dirt, hands lashed to the poles behind their backs, sat Black Shirt and Shirtless. The other body was nowhere in sight.

The driver smoked at a desk inside, facing a seated officer. He looked as unfazed as earlier that day when he avoided the fallen bicyclist on the road. The men nodded wordlessly when I entered, as if I had just popped in for a chat. I sat next to Franklin on a slatted wooden bench. “Tea? Cigarettes?” a cop asked. I watched the driver smile as he spoke. The listening officer smiled as he took notes scratched onto onionskin paper with a steel-nib pen. The old man stepped inside with a large white bandage taped in the shape of a plus sign to his head. I was in a country I knew nothing about, in the hands of people I couldn’t fully understand.

Then the screaming started. The howls collapsed into sobs and rose into howls again.

“The bad men,” Franklin explained.

The driver kept talking. I understood nothing. The conductor gave his account to another officer in another room. Suddenly I feared that our retellings wouldn’t match. The smart play was to blame the lǎowài, board the bus, and drive away, leaving me behind. For the first time in my life I accepted an offered cigarette. The Red Plumblossom tasted nothing like its name, but after the third one my leg finally stopped bouncing.

Outside all had gone silent, but then came more screams.

Through the barred windows I watched a white Toyota Land Cruiser arrive. The doors discharged plump men wearing white dress shirts belted into navy slacks. I thought: I’m in trouble. The last person out of the vehicle, a thin young man in street clothes, handed me a card that said, in English, office of foreign affairs. In Chinese he announced: “I am an English teacher!”

Switching to English, the man said he taught middle school. We were pre-cell phone, but the Chinese countryside is a network wired by word of mouth. On this Saturday afternoon the English teacher had been leading supplementary classes as his students’ parents harvested their crops. The Land Cruiser scooped him up mid-lesson and raced across the fields. His head, the teacher said, rubbing it theatrically, was sore from bumping it on the roof. I was the first foreigner he had ever met, and he wore the thrill on his face.

The teacher led me to a room where a group of green-shirted officers stood around a polished mahogany table. It was the nicest piece of furniture I had seen in Sichuan, made all the more incongruous by the barred windows and dirt courtyard outside. “This is the interview room,” the teacher explained. He meant “interrogation.” The button-down Foreign Affairs cadres passed around my little green residence permit booklet, noisily rifling the pages. I waited for a joke about my Chinese name, but it never came. Instead I heard, “Tā méi yŏu hùzhào.” That needed no translation: He doesn’t have a passport.

“Who are you?” a man demanded.

“I’m a U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer.”

“A what?”

“Peace Corps,” I confessed.

His face remained unchanged.

An officer motioned for everyone to sit and asked: What did the suspects look like? What had they done to me? Would I like some watermelon?

A cop carefully placed plates of pink triangles on the table. I told the story to a slurping audience. An officer read back my statement in Chinese, which the teacher translated aloud into English. I nodded. Next, the officer said he would read the driver and conductor’s statements aloud. I tensed at hearing lǎowài, not understanding the verb that followed. Provoked? Killed? What had the foreigner done? Inwardly, I knew: he impulsively agreed to teach in China for two years; he overeagerly set off to practice Chinese on the road; he foolishly assumed he could purchase a return train ticket.

But what did the police suspect?

The teacher sucked on a watermelon slice between short bursts of translation. Finally, he said, “All three statements are the same. You can leave.”

A policeman instructed me to sign each page of the transcription. In characters, I wrote Heroic Eastern Plumblossom with a steel-nib pen on five pages of thin paper—tearing only three of them—and pressed my red-inked thumbprint over the characters.

“What’s going to happen to the two men?”

The teacher translated the reply: “They will be punished.”


“The police have decided that the criminals will be beaten until you are satisfied justice has been achieved.” What a sentence! The teacher repeated it, ensuring that I understood.

We had been inside past sunset. In the dirt courtyard, under the halo of a moth-clotted floodlight, Black Shirt and Shirtless sat bound to the pole, faces blurred by blood and snot. With a skipping start as if he were taking a penalty kick, a policeman darted forward and planted his loafer into Black Shirt’s face.

Flinching, I said quickly: “I am satisfied justice has been achieved.”

The officer motioned toward the open gate. He smiled, waved theatrically, and in English said, “Bye-bye.”

The bus waited, quiet and dark. In his seat, the driver snapped awake and tossed me the smokes. He was out of Red Plum Blossoms; these were Famous Dogs, whose package showed a mirthful, panting spaniel. I passed the pack to the old man, whose bottle-lacerated head shone from ribbons of new white gauze. Franklin gestured for me to sit beside him. Only this time he greeted me in Chinese.

The bus stirred and started. The damp night air rushed through the smashed windows. Passengers heaped padded cotton jackets atop me. They held my shoulder and smiled and praised my Chinese and said America was good, and China’s friend. “We are friends,” they said. As unsure as I had felt at the police station, perhaps the police and passengers had, too. The officers had ignored my absent passport and lack of any contact numbers and called for a middle school teacher to interpret at a crime scene. Over the hours, the driver and conductor had retold what happened while a bus full of passengers waited in the dark.

Rolling at last toward our destination, I felt charmed. Then a fellow rider stressed that the attackers were Yi, an ethnic minority. “They are not Chinese,” she said. By which she meant Han, her ethnicity. So China had racism, too. I didn’t have the words to respond, just as in training I dared not question the party line that China’s 56 “nationalities,” as the country called its ethnic groups, lived “hand-in-hand” in socialist harmony. Later I learned that, as with most propaganda, Chinese didn’t challenge such slogans; they ignored them. Now, however, the driver answered for me, shouting that of course the men were Chinese—didn’t China have bad people, too?

Playing peacemaker again, the driver asked if I liked to sing. In training, I was compelled to learn a popular Sichuan folk song whose first line I belted now:

Păo mă liū liū de shān shàng. The mountain streams with running horses.

Laughter filled the bus, and the second line rang out strong from many throats. Yī duŏ liū liū de yún yo. A piece of cloud whisks across the sky.

I forgot what line came next, so I waited for the chorus:

Yuè liàng wān wān/ The crescent moon shines upon/

Kāngdìng liū liū de chéng yo. Kangding city.

The bus sang it together, from the start: “The mountain streams with running horses. A piece of cloud whisks across the sky.”

The dark bus drifted across the night.

* * *

The Mount Emei bus station staff stared wide-eyed as the smashed vehicle pulled in. The passengers said zàijiàn—good-bye—while Franklin, the driver, and the old man with the bandaged head argued over the best place to leave me for the night. I said I didn’t have much money. They argued some more.

They woke a guesthouse clerk, paid for a room, and escorted me to the door. The old man made sure the shower had hot water, holding his hand under the tap until it glowed pink, then drying it on the gauze taped to his skull. Franklin filled the tin tea thermoses at the hallway samovar. The driver lit the room’s mosquito coil. The clock said 12:20 a.m. I closed the door and fell on the bed. My hair softly crunched from dried blood that was not mine.

I stepped into the shower to sluice away the day. Five minutes later, a knock. I opened the door in a towel.

“You haven’t eaten all day! Come, come, come! Our treat! Fish! How’s fish? Get his shorts! Dry him off! Get his shoes!”

We prowled the silent streets in the wounded bus, whose deflated gas bag sagged over shattered windows, before parking in front of a closed roll-up metal door. The driver’s pounding echoed down the dark street, waking the restaurant’s staff. A popular poster hanging on the wall above the mossy fish tank showed a rose in a crystal vase beside a plateful of fried eggs, sausage, toast, and orange juice. I said I’d have that. Méi yŏu, the waitress replied, unsmiling. The driver chose an unlucky fish from the tank. The waitress raised it above her head and slammed it to the cement floor. It made a familiar sound.

The driver ordered a case of Five Star beer. He said that “Chinese are good, Americans are our friends.” He placed the chili-stewed fish’s head in my bowl to prove it. “For our friendship.” I was already tiring of that line, but at least I understood it. The driver, the old man, and Franklin clinked my tall brown bottle and began extinguishing the day’s adrenaline.

Looking back, I can see that this unlikely trio prevented me from catching the next flight out of China, and undoing the life that has followed. I, not the bus, was the one that plunged.

The men played a popular singsong drinking game called Guessing from Chaos. You cocked a fist and shouted a number while making puns. The loser chugged a glass of beer. I grasped the idea but not its execution. Exasperated, the driver placed a chopstick in my hand and said, “We’ll play a very simple game instead. Even children can do it.”

He banged his own stick on the rim of a bowl and chanted, “Bàng Bàng Bàng Bàng.” The word meant stick. This much I understood. The driver motioned for me to mimic him. Together we went, “Bàng Bàng Bàng Bàng.

The driver shouted, “Tiger!”

I didn’t shout anything. The table shook with laughter.

The driver scratched his head comically. “You speak when I speak. Say stick, worm, chicken, or tiger.”

“You can say human, too,” Franklin added.

“What?” the driver demanded. “You can’t say human.”

“You can! Worm eats stick, chicken eats worm, tiger eats chicken, and human beats tiger!”

“No! Tiger is the biggest. A human can’t beat a tiger!” It was the most agitated I had seen the driver all day. “Who taught you this game?”

Franklin tensed and sat up straight. “My father taught me this game!”

“I understand now,” I lied. “Let’s play. Ready?”

The table fell silent and we leaned over our bowls. Rhythmically our chopsticks clinked against the rim.

“Bàng Bàng Bàng Bàng.”

The driver shouted “Stick!” as I screamed “Human!”

“Stick beats human,” Franklin said with finality.

“Correct!” the driver said, filling my glass with Five Star to slam. Then he tossed his chopstick on the table and held his fist up to his ear. “No more kids’ games! Guessing from Chaos! Ready? A one and a two and a . . .”