I was taken to the train station on a tour bus full of African scholarship students – some from Mali, some from Ghana, some from Chad. At the train station, another bus from the Language University unloaded around 20 North Koreans. They were all sporting little bright red pins bearing the face of their smiling dear leader. I practiced my rusty Korean with one of them as he dragged on a cigarette. He made it clear that he was from the DPRK, not just Korea. I made it clear I had studied in Canada, not just the US.
I spent some time with the Africans (most spoke English and/or French) before heading to my own waiting room. For many, it was their first time to China, for some, their first time outside of Africa.
The ride to Chongqing was 25 hours long on a ‘special fast’ class train. I met a fellow student – a Sierra Leonean man named Gerald – who was heading to study at Chongqing University and didn’t speak any Chinese. We talked with a nice Chinese couple from Hunan for most of the train ride who were extremely interested in this place called Sierra Leone they had never heard of. They didn’t speak any English so I acted a translator for most of the trip.
Once we arrived in Chongqing, weary and smelling of train, we stepped out of the air-conditioned car and into a sea of searing heat. It was 105 degrees out, and Gerald and I were both in jeans and boots. I suddenly understood why the Chinese called this place a ‘furnace’.
A middle-aged man standing outside the gate was clutching an A4 sheet of paper with ‘Charles Depman’ in large font printed on it. Gerald was greeted by a larger welcoming party: a driver and a fellow Sierra Leonean holding up a small tricolor flag: green, white, and blue.
We drove for an hour, out of Chongqing city proper and through a mountain, and I was deposited in front of the International Students Dormitory on the campus of Southwest University.