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John Haymaker

By John Haymaker

Qingdao, China - August 1985

Early morning in Qingdao, China’s most beautiful city. I sat on an inoperable trolley bus. I found it abandoned and parked catercorner as a storm raged. A heavy Sycamore bough had crashed onto the roof, downed power lines and dislodged the trolley poles as it fell. I wedged past the partially closed bi-fold door to escape the worst of the storm. Torrents of rain bombarded the metal roof like hail and breezed through the mostly shattered windows. Though cracked, the windshield remained intact, and the driver’s seat seemed the driest spot, so I parked my backpack on the dash and sat at the helm, soaking wet and cold.

But what a view! Storefront windows lay shattered on sidewalks, downed trees and tangled power lines barricaded and damned streets as sewers backed up. In front of the bus, an upturned handcart’s load of scrap metal spilled out on the street, its upturned wheels spinning wildly as wind fanned the spokes.

The streets were eerily deserted then, but half an hour earlier, when my train entered the station, frenzied passengers disembarked, fighting against wind gusts and unrelenting rain, raising alarm about news reports of a typhoon. We all crowded into the station house, seeking shelter behind its towering walls of steel-framed glass windows. But crackling announcements over the loudspeaker ordered us to exit the facility immediately. Uniformed attendants pointed fingers toward exit signs and pushed on the backs of hesitant passengers, forcing them to jam through turnstiles.

I held back as rain blistered the windows and winds rattled the roof. I was a foreigner; I could have pretended not to understand, and for a moment I thought to test the attendant's resolve to make a foreigner leave under such weather conditions. But the windows might shatter at any moment, or the roof collapse.

As fearful of leaving as staying, I crowded into the turnstiles and, once outside, ran for cover, fighting high winds, holding my backpack overhead, caught unprepared without an umbrella or rain slicker. As sweeping bands of the storm blew over, day nearly turned to night again.

The massive crowd dissipated in all directions. I ran vestibule to vestibule for a time, witnessing uprooted trees along the shoreline promenade, overturned trash receptacles, blowing debris and cars piled together into twisted Rubik’s Cubes. Waves crashed over the seawall with alarming ease, reaching upwards of twenty-six feet that morning.


It was hardly the seaside visit I’d anticipated. After arriving as scheduled at a new college teaching post in Shandong Province, my hosts encouraged me to park my bags in my apartment there and go spend a week in Qingdao, three hundred sixty kilometers to the east. It was “China’s most beautiful city,” they said of the former German colony, known for stunning architecture, beautiful beaches and weather.

I’d already been on a month's break in Beijing after my previous post and didn't need more vacation time. However, I’d never been to the seaside, and students wouldn’t arrive for another week. So it sounded like a good idea. My hosts booked a hotel and ordered a car to take me to the train station. I bought a ticket for a late-night train – but at the last minute, only an unreserved hard seat ticket, guaranteeing passage, not a seat. My work permit allowed me to pay a regular fare rather than the tourist prices, so for about 4 USD then (8 USD at today’s prices), it seemed quite the bargain. 


When I boarded, though, I found all hard seats already occupied. Some passengers, mostly peasants from the countryside, resigned themselves to sitting on the floor while others stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles. Where I stood near the entry, the crushing weight of bodies pressing against mine made breathing difficult. Then I spotted an empty space atop a canvas-wrapped boiler, like an oversized teakettle in a cozy, and I clambered atop to rest there. Despite the crowded conditions, passengers still jostled and elbowed their way nonstop toward the boiler to fill steel mugs or soup bowls with the purified water. I dozed off at times and invariably awoke to staring, bemused crowds who had never seen a foreigner before.

By morning, despite a crooked neck, I was mesmerized watching out the window, astonished that the train seemingly ran right along the beach, waves lapping mere feet from the tracks. It seemed odd and eerie, but romantically beautiful, to be riding an iron horse right out on the sand at daybreak. Intermittent rain splattered windows, but nothing hinted at a storm – not until we neared the city.


Aboard my inoperative trolley, a drip from the roof commenced overhead. I looked about for better accommodation and noticed the backseat on a riser above the puddle-laden main floor, and the back bay of windows remained intact. So I grabbed my backpack and headed there, startled to find I was not alone – a man sprawled out on the back bench suddenly sat upright. He might have been watching me all along. From the silhouette of his mop-top haircut, I ascertained he was young. He didn’t shy away as I trekked through puddles toward him, probably as relieved as I was not to be alone. The streets still remained deserted. He nodded for me to join him and slid aside to make room.

Nǐ hǎo (hello), I said, offering him a cigarette. He grinned and signed with his hands, from which I gathered that he was deaf. As I took a seat beside him, he lit my cigarette, then his own. In the match light, I saw his face clearly – we were about the same age, in our twenties – and I saw that his clothes were as soaked as mine and that he was shivering. He threw out his hands, demonstrating the hopelessness of the weather. I nodded agreeably, but shrugged. Whether nervous or just passing time, he lit stick matches, tossed the flame to the floor, and laughed as they extinguished in the puddles.

I offered him another cigarette, and we smoked in silence for a time – until another limb crashed onto the roof, giving the bus a violent jolt. We were spooked for a second, but immediately felt at ease knowing the roof had held. We laughed and flicked our last cigarette butts out a window. Despite our inability to converse, our body language, our gestures, smiles, laughs, blinks and sighs said enough. I lost track of time, but in all, probably two or three hours passed. At some point, we dozed off from boredom. We awoke leaning against one another, but neither of us pulled away when we realized it. Like back on the train, shoulder to shoulder, pressured now by the elements to seek warmth.

When the rain let up and clouds gave way to light, I thought it was safe enough to go look for my hotel. I grabbed my backpack and nodded at my companion. He smiled as I stood, signed something and stretched out again as I squeezed past the bi-fold.

Outside, I made my way through a devastated, desolate hellscape, like a jigsaw puzzle with many misplaced and missing pieces. I found my hotel across from rough seas and an uninviting beach. The hotel interior was dark and rope cordoned off the front doors. Still hopeful a room awaited, I scaled the steps, but an attendant appeared behind the glass doors to make an X with his forearms, signifying closed.

Room or not, I needed food and water and headed back to the beach area, where vendors had started to open shuttered stalls against a backdrop of unmoored, half-submerged fishing boats and trawlers just offshore. I found one stall offering boiled dumplings and bowlfuls of warm tap beer. The vendor had seen me turned away from the hotel and pointed me up the beach to a hostel he believed remained open.

Ordinarily, only Chinese citizens were allowed, but I spoke the language well enough that they gave me accommodation – a box room with a cot and shared toilet facilities. Pretty bare-bones, but after my train and bus experiences, it almost seemed upscale. I asked the attendant about the weather forecast. “Táifēng jiéshù le (typhoon over),” she said, smiling. “Hǎotiānqì láile (good weather coming).” Hopefully that would please the restless five-year-old child of the sleepless woman in the next room, who seemed to be the only other guests.

On walks outside after the weather cleared, I found the sea remained too rough for swimming, and anyway, posted signs warned of sewage danger. Along with scavengers, I found the beach littered with debris, seaweed, driftwood, dead fish, fishing nets and glass globe floats, all broken save one. Just as I set out to retrieve it, some ornery youths used it for target practice. Well, why should anything go unscathed after such a typhoon?

Including myself, apparently. I wandered far out along a breakwater of massive boulders protecting two sides of a shipyard – unaware that high tide was rolling in. The speed, ferocity and volume of water coming at me caught this seaside newbie off-guard. Rough seas soon lapped at my ankles, and I struggled for firm footing. Walled off by the loading dock’s lofty foundation, my only escape would be to retrace the tortuous route I’d followed. Stevedores looked down from the dock, some twenty feet above. They seemed to yell, but I couldn’t hear them over the ocean. I barely kept a grip on the slippery boulders, but leaned into gaps as waves crashed about me, solid and violent, then nearly carried me into the backwash –  tantamount to reliving the typhoon. Odds were not in my favor, but as I rounded a bend and the beach came into full view, I dared to sprint the final stretch knee-deep across the pounding surf, unsure whether I’d make it.

I stuck close to land after that, but found I still had to be careful. When I was about to order dàbāo,  a Qingdao specialty of meat and vegetable-stuffed steamed buns, two irascible youths returned to assail the stall’s vendor, cursing her while slamming their dàbāo to the ground. "Huài le (spoiled)," the youths said, spitting out their words. Though refrigeration had failed during the storm, the vendor sold tainted meat anyway. Well, I moved on to a stall with better fare.

If I’d mostly seen Qingdao’s underbelly since my arrival, hints of another side appeared. A temple looming above the city in a forest covered hill provided a serene lookout over the Yellow Sea – high enough to obscure the imperfections below. Over the next few days as the city sprang back to life, I seemed to have walked every road as cleanup crews cleared streets and beaches and engineers restored power. Buses and trolleys resumed their routes. Shop owners busied themselves sweeping sidewalks along the sycamore-lined main street, pausing to share their ordeals with laughter.

Near the end of my trip, I saw the young man from the bus again – pulling a wooden cart laden with scrap metal down the broad lane fronting the ageless German mansions. I never suspected the cart had been his. I waved, but he didn’t notice me as he toiled with the load.


For my return train ride, I fared better, snagging a guaranteed hard berth, double the cost of a hard seat. Out the window, I observed that the train actually ran a safe distance away from the beach – now that the sea surge had receded.

My hosts apologized profusely upon my arrival at the college, saying they had no advance warning about the storm. They weren’t alone in that. An entire trainload of people were caught off guard. Sixteen died and one hundred sixty-five were injured in Qingdao alone during that category-one typhoon. Luckily, I rode out the storm – and returned to engage with the most wonderful students imaginable.

About the Author:

John Haymaker is a  LGBTQIA+ writer whose stories and nonfiction appear in various online journals, including Five on the Fifth, Quibble Lit, The Bookends Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Cosmic Double, and Across the Margin. His Chinese to English translations appear in Chinese Literature (Beijing), Pig Iron Press (Youngstown) and online at Bewildering Stories. John writes as an American expat from Portugal, where he lives with his partner of 29 years. Learn more at


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