An American in Chengdu

Catching a cab

October 28, 2009
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Apologies to those who already saw my Facebook post on the subject, but I really like this translated article about a guy who makes money chasing down taxis for other people. It can be really hard to get a taxi here, even though there are a lot of them, because demand often far outstrips supply. Buses, in contrast, are cheap and ubiquitous but crowded, and can be hard to figure out if you’re going someplace you haven’t taken a bus to before. Then there are the motorized rickshaws, or “electric tricycles,” as this article translates it, but I think those  only work well for parties of 1-2 people who aren’t going very far and have better bargaining skills than I (they’re not metered). All good reasons to ride a bike. It will be interesting to see how the opening of the subway system next year (knock on wood) changes the transportation game.


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Jumping fish

October 25, 2009
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On Friday Cecilia took me on a tour of the university’s new campus, a vast swath of land on the south edge of the city that’s mainly populated, for now, with first- and second-year students. We came across a part of the river where fish were jumping like I’d never seen before. I thought they were after bugs until we got closer; then I saw they were jumping back and forth across long nets. Some had already gotten caught in the nets and were a sad sight. It was enough to make me reconsider pescetarianism. But I thought it made for a nice video clip.

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October 24, 2009
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A year ago today my first trip to China ended, as I flew from Shanghai to San Francisco via Vancouver. I’d been in the country for three weeks, and covered a lot of ground by train, plane, and bus. I’d seen Sichuan opera, a Naxi orchestra, and the Great Wall. I’d seen the biggest stone Buddha in the world, my first yaks, and the terra cotta warriors. I’d also gotten into a minor bicycle accident, bitten into a plant that made my mouth burn for days, and contracted an ankle infection that sent me to a Shanghai hospital for intravenous antibiotics. A combination of language and cultural barriers had meant I’d rarely known what was going on or why. When finding a vegetarian meal seemed difficult or impossible, I’d frequently filled up on crackers and fruit. In short, I’d discovered that having fun as a lone backpacker in China is hard work.

I’d made peace with my vacation’s rather low fun-to-frustration level by beginning to regard the trek as a sort of starter trip to China. I’d learned a lot that would make my next trip easier. Perhaps most importantly, I’d learned that I didn’t hate the place, which had been my biggest fear before I left (since I’d been interested in China for years, hating it would have been a little tragic).

So as I boarded the plane, I didn’t feel guilty about being glad to leave. I was unreservedly happy to be going to California to speak English and see my friends and eat Mexican food, but I was pretty sure I’d be back. I just didn’t know how soon that would be.

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October 22, 2009
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“Did you feel the aftershock this morning?” Samantha asked a few days ago as we were sitting at our computers. I hadn’t. She said that she’d felt her bed shake at around 1:00 am, and had just been reading about the magnitude-4.9 aftershock that hit at that time.

This led to a conversation about the May 2008 Wenchuan earthquake (as people call it here). Samantha was teaching at the time, she said–it was 2:30 in the afternoon. When the earthquake started about half of the students ran out of the classroom, and she stayed with the other half, telling them that they were safe. She knew that the building, less than a year old at the time, had been built to withstand a magnitude-8.0 quake, so she wasn’t afraid. But, she said, if she’d known how big this quake was, she would have been afraid. The building swayed for three minutes.

Afterward the staff and students weren’t allowed to go back into the buildings for two days, until they could be inspected. It took Samantha two hours to find her husband, who works on the other side of campus, because phones weren’t working and because he had gone to find their 12-year-old daughter at school. She and the other teachers stayed on campus with with students for the two days until their dorms re-opened because the students weren’t allowed to leave. The teachers at her daughter’s school did the same.

Samantha said she doesn’t like to watch natural disaster movies anymore, which is interesting since by her own account, the disaster itself wasn’t so bad here. As far as I know, no buildings collapsed in Chengdu. But the immediate aftermath–a city of four million people made suddenly homeless, unable to reach their loved ones by phone to be assured of their safety–is something I can’t fathom. And I certainly can’t wrap my mind around the enormity death toll, which official figures put at more than 69,000. That’s more than twice the population of Ithaca, NY.

More adventures in teaching

October 17, 2009
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About a month ago I got a call from Laura, one of the university’s non-foreign English teachers. She explained there

The building where I teach spoken English

The building where I teach spoken English

was a workshop for doctors coming up in mid-October. The doctors hailed from all over China, and had been selected to attend a training program in Japan. First, though, they were coming to our campus for a workshop in reading and writing medical English, and speaking Japanese and English. Normally Laura would have taught the two spoken English sessions, but she had a new baby. She’d already found a teacher to fill in for one of the sessions, and would I be able to fill in for the other one?

Sure, I said. Giving a 90-minute seminar to a group of doctors didn’t sound too onerous, and it was weeks away. Laura and I exchanged a few emails about what time slot was best for me and what, exactly, she’d like me to talk about. She connected me with the teacher for the other spoken English session, Lucy, who came to see me on Thursday.

Lucy is 58. I know because she told me this on the phone when we were arranging a meeting place, and describing what we looked like. She took early retirement this year so that she could care for her father, but she’s happy to be teaching again, she told me at our meeting. She lived in Winston-Salem for a few years, studying English, and then decided to move to San Francisco for a while. Translating a chapter on homosexuality had peaked her curiosity about “home people,” as she calls them, so she took a job in a restaurant in the Castro in order to learn more about this mysterious breed of non-breeders.

But sometime before this delightful detour in the conversation, something Lucy said gave me a clue that I’d signed on for more than a single class session. I asked Lucy, and she confirmed that yes, I was expected to teach not just the next day, but every Friday for thirteen weeks. Why had I thought otherwise, I wondered. Laura’s English is excellent, so I can’t blame that.

Though shocked by my own obliviousness, I’m glad (so far) to have agreed to teach. Unlike the Medical English class, it won’t require that I spend hours each week teaching myself the meanings and pronunciations of words like “epididymovasostomy” and compiling PowerPoint presentations. Instead, I can do a little planning and spend the class hour chatting about American table manners or having the students act out scenes from ER.

For the first class, I asked the students to pair up with someone and pretend they’d just met them at an international meeting. After a 10-minute getting-to-know-you chat, they each introduced their partner to the class. Along with name, hometown, and medical specialty, most included which year they’d graduated from medical school in their introductions, as well as what they thought of the food and weather in Chengdu. Apparently “what do you think of the food?” isn’t just a question people ask Westerners here.

Next I asked each student to talk about what they hoped to gain from the class, and in what situations they expected English to be most useful to them. I thought this would help me figure out the best subject areas to build lessons around, but also, in general, I’ve had hard time wrapping my head around the exact utility of spoken English to the average Chinese professional. Many people are convinced it’s very important, but there are very few foreigners here to converse with, and few people I’ve talked to are interested in living abroad.

Most of the doctors offered generic responses along the lines of “I think English is very important because it is an international language,” but most also offered specific situations that ran the gamut from interacting with foreign colleagues in the same field to treating foreign patients to listening to the BBC to curiosity about American and British culture to wanting to make foreign friends.

With about 15 minutes left in the class, I donned my foreign expert cap and invited the doctors to ask me questions about America. The questions were almost invariably health care-related: Can you talk about Obama’s health care reform plan? Why do people oppose it? What if I’m in visiting the United States and need treatment–how do I pay for it? Should I go to a government-run hospital or a private one?

After being lavished with so much attention, I fear I might return to the States convinced, like Ron Burgundy, that I’m kind of a big deal. I’ll almost certainly have picked up his habit of over-enunciating everything.


October 16, 2009
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or, Why I’m Not Losing WeightMaking youtiao

The workday here starts at 8:00 am. On most mornings I console myself for this unfortunate reality by taking a detour to the youtiao vendor on my way to the office. Youtiao are long sticks of dough that are deep-fried and sold piping hot. They’re not sweet, or round, but otherwise they’re not unlike donuts. Two youtiao and a cup of warm, slightly sweet soy milk cost less than US$0.40, and I’ve found them to be a great way to start the day.

Other traditional breakfast options include steamed buns (with or without a meaty filling) and rice porridge.

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Traffic (Part 1)

October 13, 2009
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We face off across the street like ragtag armies: bicycles, electric bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians. Our numbers swell

Rush hour on campus. The light you see disappeared over the holiday; I haven't checked to see whether it's back.

Rush hour on campus. The light you see disappeared over the holiday; I haven't checked to see whether it's back.

by the minute, each new arrival angling for a strategic position. Finally, the traffic officer’s whistle, our battle cry, sounds, and we surge across the street, soon meeting a wall of determined travelers coming the other direction. Sometimes a car has tried to make it through after the whistle and gotten trapped in the middle of the onslaught, presenting an additional obstacle. We edge forward, the cyclists remaining stubbornly mounted, though most of us are forced to put a foot on the ground for balance. Finally the crowd thins and we’ve made it: we’re on the other side of campus.

There used to be a pedestrian tunnel under the busy artery that cuts our campus in half, Samantha told me, but it was closed because of subway construction. So now, especially at busy times, getting across the street is a battle. It can be even more interesting at less busy times, though, since the traffic officer seems to go home around dinnertime, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

I noticed back in Washington that people tend to follow others’ lead when it comes to jaywalking. That is, if you’re at an intersection waiting for the light to change and you see someone just stride across, your natural inclination is to go, too. But it’s psychologically harder to jaywalk past a group that’s standing and waiting for the light, even if there are no cars coming. This herd instinct, a curiosity in DC, is an important survival mechanism here. Drivers don’t always stop for red lights, but they do stop when a steady stream of cars, bicycles, and/or pedestrians is in their way. Similarly, the way to get across the busy street in the evenings is to wait until a few more bikes arrive, watch for a thin spot in the traffic, edge forward, edge forward, and go as a group (preferably positioning oneself safely in the middle of the pack).

By any other name

October 9, 2009

A few weeks ago, at lunch with Cecilia and her cousin, Cecilia said, “Her English name is Rose. Do you think it sounds like a country person’s name?”

I said no, I thought it was a nice name, maybe a little old-fashioned. My grandmother’s name was Rose, I noted. I neglected to mention that she hated “Rose” with a passion and went by her middle name.

“I think Chun Hua is like that. It sounds like a girl from the countryside. Or like a servant girl.” Ah, so the Rose discussion had been a delicate way of leading up to the revelation that my Chinese name made me sound like a hillbilly. I hadn’t seen that coming.

My first Chinese teacher gave me the name Chun Hua (春花) in 2002. It means spring flower, and it always did seem a little, well, sweet and flowery to me, but I didn’t mind. When I introduced myself at Chinese meetups people would sometimes tell me it was a pretty name. Now I knew they meant it was a pretty name… for a bumpkin.

With some help from friends, I’ve now re-christened myself Chang Xi (嫦兮). Chang is part of the name of Chang’e, the mythical woman on the moon honored in last week’s Mid-Autumn Festival. Xi is just a character used to represent a sound–it has no meaning of its own. I liked the idea of becoming a new person at the Mid-Autumn Festival, a person that will, I hope, actually learn Chinese rather than dabble in it. A sophisticated, urban, moon goddess kind of person.

The Tao of Chinese mountain climbing

October 7, 2009
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I had booked a three-day tour to a park in Sichuan with glaciers and hot springs, but Cecilia told me a few days later that no foreigners were being allowed on that trip. Something about unrest in the area, which politically-minded foreigners might exacerbate. My “foreign expert” experience in China is rife with seeming contradictions: I’m treated like an honored guest and a potentially dangerous contamination, an expert and a child. To be fair, I’d doubtless be treated like more of an adult if I could communicate like one. But the language barrier doesn’t explain why one of the students would think it necessary to advise me not to leave my purse with my bicycle when I park it, or why no one expects me to be able to use chopsticks.

But I digress.

In lieu of seeing glaciers, Cecilia and I set off yesterday to climb Qingcheng Shan, a nearby mountain famous for its views and significance in Taoism. Climbing mountains in China–at least, the famous ones that are reasonably easy to get to–is not a recipe for solitude. The paved paths are crowded enough that your pace is more or less determined by that of the people ahead of you, and if you hear a birdsong, it’s far more likely to have come from the whistle that a nearby child bought from a vendor than from a bird. Still, it’s nice to be on a mountain, and there’s no danger of getting lost in the wilderness. Instead of bird watching, Cecilia and I spotted girls climbing the mountain in high heels to entertain ourselves. I wonder what Taoists think of the place. Plenty of people pray and light incense at the temples along the way. Do the photo-snapping, whistle-blowing, high heel-clad hordes put a damper on their spiritual high? I should investigate.

Hot pot

October 3, 2009

“Have you eaten hot pot?” several people have asked me since I came to Chengdu. Admitting you haven’t had hot pot in Chengdu is like admitting that you haven’t had Guinness when you’re in Ireland, so confessing to this gap in my gustatory experience inevitably led to promises to introduce me to hot pot sometime soon. Today Cecilia made good on that promise, taking me and two of her cousins to a hot pot restaurant.

I’d heard different stories about whether vegetarian hot pot even existed, or whether the broth in the pot always contained some meat essence. And I was a bit concerned that something that involves fishing morsels out of a boiling vat of spiciness would be too much for my American palate. But Cecilia assured me that both kinds of broth she’d ordered were vegetarian, and the smaller one wasn’t spicy at all.

As the broth bubbled in the middle of the table the girls checked the toppings we wanted off on a list, sushi-style. “I didn’t know which vegetables you would like, so I ordered almost all of the vegetables,” Cecilia explained. Indeed, when our food came it wouldn’t all fit on the small three-shelved cart, but overflowed onto the table as well. There were at least three different kinds of mushrooms, multiple forms of tofu, lotus root, cucumbers, enormous rice noodles, quail eggs, fish, and endive leaves. There were things I can’t name in English or Chinese. The girls would put a few plates’ worth of raw ingredients into the pots, wait a few minutes, and then they’d be ready to fish out (with chopsticks and/or the slotted spoon) and plunk into our own small bowls of broth to absorb more flavor and cool down before being eaten.

The broth before anything is added

The broth before anything is added

The first piece of tofu that finally made it to my mouth was indescribably flavorful. The crucial ingredient, I think, was the tiny green berry-like things you see floating in the red broth. They’re Sichuan pepper, and they lend a fresh, citrus-y taste to the broth, in addition to being spicy in a way that makes one’s lips tingle pleasantly. It’s likely that the reason I’d never tasted anything like it before coming here is that it was banned by the U.S. government for nearly 40 years. A spice! Banned! Allegedly because it carries plant germs. Here’s a tip for any investigative science reporters reading this blog: follow the money. I’m guessing it leads directly from the bland food lobby to USDA.

My own bowl, the stopping-over point between the pot and my mouth. Next to it are a bowl of garlic and one of cilantro, added to one's own bowl for flavor. The endives in the foreground, cross-bridge noodles in the middle ground, and quail eggs in the background are destined for the pots.

My own bowl, the stopping-over point between the pot and my mouth. Next to it are a bowl of garlic and one of cilantro, added to one's own bowl for flavor. The endives in the foreground, cross-bridge noodles in the middle ground, and quail eggs in the background are destined for the pots.

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    About me

    I've come to Sichuan in search of adventure, fluency in Chinese, and awesome vegetarian food. I have to concede that the baby pandas are very cute.


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