An American in Chengdu

Year of the Tiger

January 31, 2010
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Chinese New Year (known here as Spring Festival) is in two weeks, and I’m starting to get the idea that it’s kind of a big deal. This is when universities take their between-semesters break, and the powers that be have declared that the foreign teachers should get the entire month of February off. Tonight, as my final official duty before my vacation begins, I went to the school’s holiday party for teachers.

About a dozen of us had gathered on Thursday to coordinate a performance of a song; I was told I’d be handed the mic for a four-line verse, “since you are a foreigner.” This afternoon I practiced the lines, and when I sang them for Samantha just before the dinner started she declared my performance satisfactory. There was probably no connection, but she spoke much more Chinese to me this evening than usual, and assured the nurse sitting on the other side of me that “she can speak some Chinese.”

I needn’t have worried too much about giving a perfect performance; the sound system was bad, and most of the groups even less practiced than ours. In one group the men were dressed in silk jackets and the women in cute red suits with white trim that made them look like Santa’s Chinese helpers. Their singing was no less terrible than the rest of ours, however. In addition to the songs, there was a skit with a nurse and three slovenly patients, of which I understood nothing. The best performance was by four 20-somethings who danced to an R&B song.

The performance quality was really beside the point, though: the important thing for a Spring Festival celebration is that it be renao (“bustling with noise and excitement,” according to one translation). To this end there were gifts (one dispensed to each of us when we came in, others distributed by a raffle, and still others by performers after each song), toasts (someone would come by our table about twice a minute for this purpose, and we’d all stand up and touch glasses), exploding tubes of confetti, and, of course, the performances. There was much merriment and little conversation.

After about an hour and a half the room was suddenly half-empty. This, it seems, is how Chinese banquets normally end: early, and with few goodbyes. I walked home with my loot: fabric stool that can also be used to store things, a lucky red envelope with some token cash, a set of ceramic bowls with plastic lids for storage, and a large tin of mango-flavored candy. I’d also gained an intangible grasp of this concept of renao.

So happy new year, everyone! I probably won’t be blogging while traveling, but I’ll try to do the trips some justice when I get back. Here’s the plan:

Feb. 1-10: South to Kunming and Xishuangbanna with Cecilia

Feb. 12-18: Deano visits Chengdu; we see the local sites, including those long-snubbed pandas

Feb. 19-28: Malaysian Borneo with Deano, plus a few days in Kuala Lampur.

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Geography

January 14, 2010
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When a Chinese person asks where in America I’m from, it gives me a chance to practice the tongue-twister that is the Chinese translation of Colorado: ke lwow la dwow (here written phonetically instead of in pinyin, for full tongue-twisting effect). Then my new acquaintance invariably says, brightly, “Oh, the Grand Canyon!”

The same thing has often happened to me in Europe (minus the Chinese), and even sometimes when talking to fellow Americans. I don’t know what respectable river confines itself to a single state (do people think the Mississippi River only flows through Mississippi?), but yes, it is a little confusing that the Colorado River runs through the Grand Canyon in the state of Arizona. It’s interesting to me that the world over, the name of the river that carves the Grand Canyon is apparently deemed important enough information to include in school books, but the name Arizona is not.

As of this week I’ve stopped correcting people who think the Grand Canyon is in Colorado. It’s impressive that they have any association at all with the name of one of the 50 states in one of the world’s 200 or so countries, even if that association is a tiny bit off. After all, most Americans find Colorado indistinguishable from the other “square states in the middle,” believe it to be completely mountainous, and/or think it’s freezing cold and snow-covered all winter. And then there are those who think that Alaska is an island off the coast of California. If we don’t really need to know the location of the Grand Canyon, then why would a Sichuanese?

Actually, there is one setting in which my new nod-and-smile policy could plausibly backfire: a trivia contest. Let’s say the question is, “In which American state is the Grand Canyon?” Teammate A says it’s in Arizona. But teammates B, C, and D insist it’s in Colorado. Then Teammate C settles the argument: “But I met someone from Colorado, and she said the Grand Canyon is there!” The teammates lose and brings everlasting shame on their families.

Fortunately, the odds of someone I meet both getting that question and having a teammate who knows the correct answer are vanishingly small. So I’ll take my chances.


Move

January 13, 2010
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I moved on Monday. The powers that be at the school decided that my old place was due for a complete renovation, so they moved me into another school-owned building a bit further from work. Though it’s been a huge hassle so far I think it will turn out to be for the best, as my old place didn’t get enough natural light and was moldy. I’ll get more exercise now that I live on the fifth floor instead of the first. The neighborhood is lively, with lots of little shops and old men playing cards on folding tables set up on the sidewalk. And then there are the architectural features of my building, such as a parking garage for bikes. I’ve never seen such a thing in the States, but there’s one at work, too. It’s nice to live in a place where bicycling is so common, though not so nice that leaving a (locked) bike parked on the sidewalk overnight is tantamount to kissing it goodbye.

Here are  a few picture of my new building. Once I get the apartment itself cleaned up, I’ll post pictures of it on Flickr.


    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.