the westminster news
Published by the students of Westminster School
By Paolo Wan ’26
There was this crossroads in front of the international school I used to go to. Right in front of the school was a hospital that seemed like it was under construction forever but had never been finished. My mother would make a right turn here in her SUV every morning before dropping me off. The dull mornings were matched by the gray and white apartment buildings on that side of the road. The left turn led to a territory I never explored until my 6th-grade year. The smells of buttered baked sweet potatoes and sizzling dian fen chang, a kind of starch-filled sausage, often tempted me when I walked by. But the good kid inside of me and my mother’s vehicle seemingly staring at my every move always kept me walking straight past it.
Terry was a completely different person from me during 6th grade. It was the first time in our time together that he had been taller than me. With his newfound confidence and transition into puberty, he had also become more rebellious.
It was a Wednesday afternoon when Terry came up to me grinning from ear to ear.
“You wanna go and grab some snacks across the road there?’’ he said in conspiratorial tones referring to that forbidden zone I dared not enter before.
“What? How?’’ I asked incredulously. “We have Dance Club in like 8 minutes!”
“Keep it down,’’ he whispered. “You know Dance Club doesn’t matter. They didn’t even care last time Catherine missed two sessions.”
“I don’t care what you say, I’m not going,” I declared in my best voice of authority.
“Come on! Pleeeease, just this one time,” he pleaded, putting his hands together as he wailed.
Reluctantly, I nodded.
All around us, swarms of students were rushing the gates. It was a sea of the grey and red of our school uniforms. Unlike Moses parting the proverbial sea, Terry and I struggled through the after-school scrum to get through to the other side. Once out of the gate, my head was on a swivel as I anxiously looked back and forth, as if trying to cross a busy road but just as importantly standing lookout for prying eyes. Even the trees seemed to grow them. I had to shut my mind off to the sensory overload brought on by my fear of being caught cutting dance and entering the prohibited area.
Although only a few dozen steps away, after that left turn, you reach a different world. I might not have been Alice in Wonderland, but everything made me curious. There were old men sitting in groups, their shirts off and showing more confidence than I’ll ever have in my life talking politics and how the recent Syrian conflict was going to affect China. Old women too, whispering among each other and walking in groups, their green and red house dresses almost too bright for the hot day.
Unlike the usual clean streets of Shenzhen, thick dust covered this one. I wasn’t too bothered about it, but it didn’t resonate well with Terry and his white shoes. Along with the dust, broken bricks would pop out of nowhere, making even a casual walk treacherous at times. There were street carts everywhere. They sold anything our snack-hungry stomachs could want - from syrup candy to buttered sweet corn.
Terry and I chose the safest bet - a grocery store with a yellow logo we’d never seen before. As soon as we walked in, a mixture of the smell of cheap cigarettes and sweat made an unwelcome beeline for my head. The shopkeeper sat on a wooden stool behind the counter, one leg up. His white tank top had been washed so many times it had a yellow hue. The pricing of the “fast food” section was stuck right on top of the counter. Above the counter, some prices were crossed out in favor of lower ones, a come-on to discerning customers.
I chose the rickshaw noodles. Although Terry was the kind of kid who often wanted to be different to show he was special somehow, he also thought the rickshaw noodles looked the best. It took the shopkeeper two minutes to finish. We squirted some ketchup on the thick brown noodles and decided we needed some meat.
Straight across from the grocery store was a diner that advertised itself as “Western style,’’ but in reality its menu offered just about anything from West to East and lots in between. The restaurant was empty at 4 in the afternoon on the hot autumn day, so we had the place to ourselves. Popcorn chicken seemed like the best decision out of everything in view of our limited funds, and that’s what we got. With our main dishes of noodles at our side and some snacks, we watched a movie I downloaded three weeks earlier on my iPhone.
It’s hard to tell when you’ve become friends with someone. That was the case with Terry. Play a few rounds of hide and seek under the September sun, and you become friends by third-grade standards. That’s how I met Terry.
What I enjoyed the most over the course of our friendship was spending time at dinner where we could talk about everything and anything, ranging from the greatness of Messi, to teachers we mutually disliked, to Terry’s crush on Catherine.
As much as I loved spending time with Terry, I parted ways with him after 6th grade. He stayed in Shenzhen, while I moved to another school, then flew overseas to school in America. Along with the essays and problem sets, the time difference caused our conversations to die down. We didn’t become strangers, but sometimes I’d have to scroll to the bottom of the texting app to find our last conversation.
The last time I saw Terry was a year ago. I just got back from school in America and decided it was a good idea to catch up with an old friend. We met in our usual spot near our old school.
I was pleasantly surprised when Terry emerged from around the corner - finally, I had reclaimed my spot as the taller friend. Terry didn’t look too different from the last time I saw him. His jaw grew a little bit bigger, and his haircut was more stylish now. There wasn't a smirk hiding behind his eyes, instead he looked fatigued. It was the first time he ever talked about the books he was reading. He was never much of a reader from what I recalled.
It was difficult to pretend like everything was still the same. The broken blocks still required attention and side-stepping navigation, sure. And the shirtless old men no longer talked about the Syrian conflict, but their arguments had moved on to other conflicts around the globe. When we fell silent, there was a scent of awkwardness in the air.
“The chicken place closed down, you know?” Terry said, searching for a topic of mutual interest.
“Yeah, I thought it would. There were absolutely no customers there when we used to go.”
“Well, it was also like 4 in the afternoon.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Then we went silent again.
“Wanna just go to McDonalds and get some chicken nuggets?” I suggested.
“Yeah, sure,” came Terry’s reply.
As we sat down in the white plastic seats, Terry finally became a version of his past self again. We started talking about soccer, video games, and anything that happened in our time apart. By the time we were done, the Coke had lost its fizzle and the fries had gone soft.
“Wanna come over and play some PES some day?” Terry asked as we parted.
“Yeah, let’s find a time. Just text me!”
I walked away satisfied with the result of that day. But we never talked after.