The Bus Driver's Face

Jing Xianghai

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Securely seated in a moving bus with a lover, I suddenly recalled the following episode from Valentine's Day last year.

It was a day like any other. At that time, because my current lover and I had just begun dating and hadn't made our relationship official, I decided to ride the bus, bored. A cold front had just passed; the sun was out. Through the window, the street scene unfolded as usual. All at once, the bus driver, whose face one never usually notices, suddenly turned around and addressed us as a group. "I'm going to stop the bus here and run a little errand, can I trouble everyone to wait for just a while?" His face seemed to wear the typical, reassuring expression of a bus driver.

Our vehicle was parked on the road somewhere between the next stop and the previous. I saw in the distance the lurching figure of our driver already disappearing into an alley. Apart from me, there was only a scattering of passengers on board. I started to speculate: Is it diarrhea? But the expression on his face seemed like it could be anything. All of us turned to look at one another without speaking.

Motorcycles and pedestrians passed without end; the sounds of the city came in through the door that the bus driver had left open. The constant racket of engine noise made me think: if some thug wanted to hijack the bus, there would be no better moment than now; moreover, I was the only man on board, the rest were old folks and young ladies. If a real fight was required of me, I would not have been up to it, seeing as I have always been the shy, conformist type. Confronted with such a situation, I probably wouldn't even have the guts to go, "Hey, you! What on earth do you think you are doing? Where do you think you are taking us to?" This harsh tone was something I could never bring myself to use. Would it then fall to the white-haired fogey to do something? The office girl with dyed hair, sitting behind me, to the left, would look down on me, and my good name would surely meet its ruin. Oh, why, on such an ignominious afternoon, did the bus driver have to entrap me like this?

Although I was still an active reservist, I had just barely passed target training; shooting lessons were something I had never taken seriously. In fact, if the thug didn't injure anyone, none of my skills (apart from being a poet, I'm a doctor by training) would apply to the situation. Had our bus driver gone to buy a Valentine's Day gift? That face—was it a benevolent lover's face? Can we tell from a face what kind of lover its owner is? Even lovers who spend half a lifetime together in the same bed, whose bodies are known to each other through endless groping—if even they have a hard time grasping what is going on in the other's mind sometimes, what chance did I have of comprehending this bus driver who'd suddenly run off in the middle of his route? Can that guy with the office bag be the one who'll hijack our bus now? What about that fellow behind him with the skateboarding shorts? Suddenly, I felt a pang of envy for superheroes like Spider-Man, who, completely ordinary otherwise, is always able to rise to the occasion in moments of crisis—swooping through the air, tumbling around, delivering blows to his arch-nemeses and even shooting threads from his wrist.

I was only a poet after all (one whose inspiration isn't always reliable to boot); I would not in reality be able to defend anyone from harm. But, if the aggressor were one who reads poetry, would I then be able to talk with him? I would probably confront him like so: "Whose poems do you read?" No, no, I would probably get to the point, "May I ask from whose imagery and rhythm you drew the courage to transgress today?" I know this will come across as silly (that office girl with dyed hair will surely look down on me even more); from time immemorial, poetry has only ever inspired people to go after love, to conquer stars; as for instigating carjacking and robbery, come to think of it, probably neither Zheng Chouyu nor Yang Mu would even have this ability. Maybe the driver himself went to rob someone? That face just now—was that the face of someone who had come to the end of his tether? If he really never returned, would all of us, strangers one to the other, just stay on the bus until we aged? And if an officer asked me, that bus driver—what did he look like? Had I really seen his face clearly? Whose face had I seen clearly? I turned my head and saw my own face reflect in glass and bob over the street scene outside: now was this a poet's face? Could this be the face of a good doctor who saves lives? Was this a Spider-Man's face or an outlaw's face? A benevolent lover's face? How was this face different from the bus driver's?

All at once the bus driver reappeared. After taking his place by the wheel, he put the mike to his mouth and announced that he had gone to look for an ATM: he owed someone for hitting a rearview mirror. The situation explained, I immediately saw the light side. When it was time to disembark, I intentionally went to the head of the bus, hoping to get a good look at the bus driver's face (no, no, I was not in love with him or anything), or perhaps I was trying to determine how his face was different from mine, the face that seemed like it could be anything.

translated from the Chinese by Lee Yew Leong

Used by permission of 聯經出版.

Click here to read Jing Xianghai's poems from Nobita, published in Asymptote's Oct 2011 issue.

Read the original in Chinese, Traditional

Read the translation in Chinese, Simplified

Jing Xianghai is a Taiwanese psychiatrist as well as poet and essayist. His three collections of poems are A Wanted Man (2002), A Mental Home (2006) and Nobita (2009); his collections of essays Looking for Friends Along the Coastline (2004) and A Welder of the Milky Way (2011).

Born in Taoyuan, Taiwan, in 1976, Jing was educated at Chang Geng University, where he earned a general doctor's degree. In 2009, he passed his exams to qualify as a psychiatrist and started practicing in a hospital in Taipei.

In 1996, he began posting his first poems on BBS. By the time he set up his blog, "The Thief Who Steals From Jing Xianghai," in 2004, he had already acquired a loyal following as a result of his well-received debut collection, A Wanted Man, which came out in 2002. Celebrated by the poetry reading masses (these exist in Taiwan), Jing has been included in the annual anthology The Best Taiwanese Poetry almost every year since 2001 and is easily the best-selling as well as most acclaimed Taiwanese poet of his generation.

Lee Yew Leong is the founding editor of Asymptote. He is the author of three hypertexts, one of which won the James Assatly Memorial Prize for Fiction (Brown University). Currently based in Taipei, he has published in The New York Times, Words Without Borders and DIAGRAM, among others.