An American in Chengdu

Car repair

November 29, 2009
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There’s a little shop just outside the gate to my apartment complex that’s literally a hole in the wall. It sells drinks, packaged snacks, and, purportedly, Amway products. The proprietors also do car repair; on most days I see vehicles parked on the street outside with their hoods open, being worked on. Because who needs a garage when you have a convenience store and a bit of unused street space?

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Bad education

November 21, 2009
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Over the last few class sessions I showed the Michael Moore movie Sicko to the spoken English class of doctors. They seem fascinated with the American health system, so I thought they might like it; on the other hand, I worried it would be beyond their English comprehension abilities. So I played it with English subtitles and wrote down words and phrases to discuss after the movie finished. Many of these were insurance-related: deny, co-pay, deductible, pre-existing condition. Others were political: lobbyist, campaign, tax dollars.

Sometimes I was surprised at what the doctors already knew. They didn’t need to be told that “the Hill” means Congress, or who Richard Nixon was (“Watergate!” someone said immediately). They knew about the Cold War and the Third World and didn’t need any explanation about Guantanamo Bay. By comparison, no one knew that cab is another word for taxi, and they were unfamiliar with the expressions “put [someone] on [a medication]” and “take [someone] off [a medication].” I wasn’t surprised to find that educated Chinese knew about the less-savory bits of recent American history, just that this education was so thorough as to include English terminology.

At one point Moore pokes fun at American attitudes toward Cuba by saying that the island is “where Lucifer lives.” Later, when I asked the class whether anyone knew what Lucifer was, several immediately said “Fidel Castro!” Not exactly the point Moore was trying to get across.


Canned cheese

November 21, 2009
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A few nights ago I took the bus to Carrefour, the French supermarket, to stock up on long underwear (which turns out to be completely necessary in “subtropical” Chengdu, but that’s for another post) and other things. While there I picked up a baguette and a bottle of olive oil, and stopped by the tiny cheese section to pick out one of the overpriced, hermetically sealed European cheeses. I’d been by the cheese section on previous trips but hadn’t bought anything. It was enough to know these well-traveled morsels were there when I needed them. Now, having braved the cold all day, not to mention the sardine conditions of a city bus at rush hour, I felt entitled to a treat.

I settled on a small box of Camembert. At a little over $4, it was half the price of the other Camemberts, so it felt like a more reasonable indulgence. On getting it home, I discovered that 1.) it was made in Germany (which seems like the kind of thing the EU would have banned), and 2.) it came in a can reminiscent of cat food. I ate it anyway, of course. It didn’t exactly transport me to the Mediterranean, but it was edible enough.


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Wedding

November 13, 2009
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On Sunday I went to a wedding reception. Apparently it was an auspicious day to get married because the words for the date sound like “will get rich” in Chinese, but I can’t confirm that, as I can’t actually read this article. It’s also prestigious to have foreigners at one’s Chinese wedding, which was why I was invited: I’d never met the bride and groom before, but the bride works with my friend Lee. Lee told me it would be very traditional, and that even he wasn’t sure what to expect. I think most urban Chinese now have somewhat Westernized weddings, with ceremonies held in hotel ballrooms or even churches, and the bride in a white dress. This was not to be that kind of wedding.

At 9:00 am the guests met in front of a hotel near campus and boarded a bus. After an hour or so of driving we arrived in a village, and the bride met us in full regalia. Many group pictures were taken, red envelopes full of money were given to the bride, and men (family members of the happy couple, I assume) handed out Panda Pride cigarettes to the male guests. Actually smoking the cigarettes didn’t seem to be obligatory, though–Lee simply carried his and abandoned them on a table later.

We had to walk the last half-mile or so down a narrow concrete road to the bride’s parents’ house. We milled around the courtyard for awhile, the bride disappeared and reemerged in jeans and a sweater, and then the groom came out in costume for his round of picture-taking. Some fireworks were set off on the road outside, sending a tall plume of smoke into the air.

Eventually the food started to come out, and our corner of the courtyard arranged ourselves into drinking and non-drinking tables. As we ate the dishes of food kept coming out, and had to be constantly rearranged to make room, and finally new dishes were simply stacked on the edges of others. Lee had asked the bride to arrange some vegetable dishes for me, which was embarrassing, but perhaps necessary given the traditional meatiness of wedding banquet food. The vegetables just kept coming until they were stacked three-deep in a pyramid in front of me.

The gifts kept coming, too: a little red change purse filled with candy for each guest, red embossed hand towels, a whole platter of Panda Pride cigarettes. These last were handed out by the bride herself, who gave them to women as well as men. I left mine on the table, though I couldn’t help admiring the tiny red panda stamp.

After lunch some of the guests, with the bride’s permission, raided the vegetable patch. Then we all wandered back to the bus. There was no ceremony–I gather it’s common for the actual marriage to take place months before the celebration.


Tour

November 4, 2009
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Saturday I went on a day tour with most of the doctors from my spoken English class. On the agenda were the Dujiangyan irrigation project and Qingcheng Shan, the holy Taoist mountain I visited during the recent holiday. Dujiangyan is the kind of place all Chinese people read about in history class. It’s certainly impressive, but I don’t know that you get much more from going there than you would from reading about it. Unless you count the bonus thrill of walking across rope bridges while your fellow pedestrians stomp vigorously to sway them.

After Dujiangyan the bus stopped at a building that was clearly unconnected with a scenic spot. I guessed we were there for lunch, though it was a little early. Instead, we were herded into a room and given a sort of live infomercial about a set of knives. The practiced salesman, easily identified by his microphone headset and badge, demonstrated a potato peeler that could shred boards and peel your vegetables in two directions, not just one. I stared at him incredulously and thought about the extra sleep I could have gotten if this hadn’t been on the agenda. The obvious solution was to take a nap, which I did, though I was temporarily awakened by the sound of a knife hitting a metal pipe. I can report first hand that no, the knife did not chip.

Back on the bus, I asked Grace, who had arranged the tour, whether she’d known in advance about the knife stop.

“Oh yes, it’s normal on Chinese tours,” she said. “But this will be the only stop. Some tours have as many as three, but I told them we wanted no more than one.”

Grace’s seatmate asked whether it’s the same on American tours. “No,” I said, “Americans would be very angry if this happened.” They laughed.


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Seven

November 1, 2009
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On Friday I went to a club with Albert, a Uyghur doctor from my spoken English class, and a couple of his friends. We went to a place called Seven, because one of them has a VIP card for the club. It’s unclear to me how a math student at Sichuan University spends enough money at a club to get a VIP card, but there are a lot of things I don’t understand here.

The four of us got our own table, fruit plate, and pitcher of weak cocktail. I was happy that so little Johnny Walker had gone into the pitcher when we started drinking: we toasted and drank about three shots in a row, after which some leather-covered cups and dice appeared and I learned a drinking game. I did pretty abysmally at first and resorted to cheating by taking only half a shot at a time, but my luck improved considerably as the evening wore on. Nevertheless, I was happy when we abandoned the dice for the dance floor.

I was interested to see what people wore to the club, since Chinese fashion is a bit more conservative than American. That is, it’s not too rare to see women here wearing miniskirts, but no one displays any cleavage or midriff. Even shoulder-baring tank tops are just about non-existent. There were a few lower necklines at the club, but some women were covered all the way to the neck.

The DJ played only English-language dance music, but periodically live performers would appear on the tiny stage in the middle of the center bar and sing in Chinese, with plenty of audience participation. At one point a male dancer appeared wearing only a pair of electric blue briefs decorated with feathers and sparkly eye shadow painted onto his face in the shape of a masquerade mask. He danced seductively, at one point pretending to pull one of the male audience members in for a kiss, then pushing him away coyly. Then he plucked a woman out of the audience and performed a few highly suggestive dance moves with (to?) her, and tossed her around the stage like a rag doll, throwing her off balance with lifts and dips, then catching her just before she hit the floor. It was an impressively athletic performance.

In between live performances anyone could dance on the stage, a situation that in the States would be called “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” The stage was less than four feet wide and perhaps 15 feet long. The bartenders worked in a narrow walkway about two feet below, and the bar itself surrounded the stage/walkway at shin height to the dancers. It was crowded up there, and I wondered how often people fell on to the bar. It didn’t take long before I saw someone do it; a bartender calmly helped him back up on to the stage.

At some point in the evening I acquired a Uyghur name, Xahida (pronounced Sha-hee-da, meaning princess), and in return dubbed one of Albert’s friends “Eric” (he just seemed like an Eric).

Later I sat outside getting some air and listening to Albert and Eric talk to each other. Uyghur is related to Turkish and dominated by the sounds of high-points Scrabble letters like J, K, and Z, a marked contrast to the vowel-y Sichuan dialect. A very drunk couple sat down across from us and the woman, who had feathery hair died a lighter shade of brown and looked to be an undergraduate, yelled “Hello!” and waved at me enthusiastically. Later she interrupted the conversation again to tell me in Chinese, “You’re pretty, you’re very pretty.” “No, I’m not,” I said. Albert, who seemed to have temporarily forsaken Mandarin for Uyghur and English, told her “You’re very beautiful too.” I should have thought of that. Finally, when she sensed attention again drifting away from her, she deployed another English phrase. “I love you!” she yelled, hanging on her date, who looked about halfway passed out. “I love you!” It was unclear whether this was meant for her date, me, the Uyghurs, or everyone within earshot. We went back inside.

We left comparatively early and dodged two people with trained monkeys on leashes. This was the first time I’d seen such a thing, and it wasn’t clear to me what the monkeys did if you paid their owners. The next night I would see a monkey grab onto one of my students’ calves and cling cutely until the student paid the owner one RMB to call off his pet.


    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.