Charles Outhier was travelling from Austin, Texas to Tucson, Arizona to see his grandparents for Christmas at the end of 2003. “I had seen the film The Station Agent, and I thought the idea of taking a train sounded appealing,” he says. “But in San Antonio, the train car I was in had separated and all the passengers continuing on were herded into two cars that would connect with an incoming train.” He spent a miserable night trying to sleep on the crowded train with no air-conditioning and, once the trains connected in the morning, he went to the empty cafe car with sightseeing windows.
He was soon joined by Yidi Shen, who sat down near him. “I had left China to study in Germany, and I was on an exchange programme in Wisconsin,” she says. “I got a train pass to travel the country and wanted to make the most of my opportunity in the US.” She had previously been travelling with friends, but had separated from them in Orlando, Florida, to go west towards California.
“The first thing that struck me about Yidi was how ‘in the moment’ she was,” says Charles. “Everyone else was looking down at a device or a book, but she had that look of a person who was seeing something for the first time.” Yidi asked him about the little white huts that dotted the landscape. “I explained they were for deer hunters,” says Charles. They continued talking for the rest of the 18-hour journey. “I was practising my English at the time,” says Yidi. “But we talked nonstop, and it didn’t dry out or get boring for a single moment.”
When they reached Tucson, they shared a hug and exchanged emails. “When I saw my grandparents later that day, I told them I’d met the woman I would marry,” he says.
The following February, Yidi returned to Oldenburg in north-west Germany to complete her studies. They stayed in touch and, a few months later, Charles went to visit her. They spent 10 days together in May 2004, travelling to the Netherlands to visit Rotterdam, Texel and Amsterdam. “By the end of that trip, we knew we wanted to be together,” Charles says.
Yidi had an internship lined up in Shanghai and flew back to China when she completed her studies. That autumn, Charles went to meet her and proposed, before they flew to Qingdao so he could meet her parents and family. Later, they stayed in touch online while Yidi went through the US fiancee visa process. “Something went wrong with the papers, and I was so stressed that it was going to fall through,” says Yidi. Luckily, her visa was approved in September 2005 and the pair married in Las Vegas two months later.
During the time they had been apart, Charles had moved to Pennsylvania for his work in technology sales. Yidi joined him there and later got a job in local government. “It was a real honeymoon period. We really appreciated finally being together,” says Charles.
In 2016, they went through a difficult period, after they were both badly injured in a car accident. Not long after, Charles’s grandfather, who had more or less raised him, died and Yidi had to return to China to care for her parents, who had become unwell. “Charles sent me letters and postcards every day while I was there,” she says. “He also encouraged me to take time for myself and start painting.” When she came back to the US, she brought home a picture she had painted of him.
Although the past year has been difficult globally, they were grateful to be in the same place. “It was actually a better year for us because we were healthy and spending time together again,” says Charles. “After some dark times, we were even stronger.” Yidi is grateful for her husband’s kindness. “He’s so generous and supportive, even when he was in pain from the accident,” she says.
Charles says his wife is the wittiest woman he has ever met. “She always makes me laugh. We try to make each other the best versions of ourselves we can be.”