An American in Chengdu

Nanchong | July 20, 2010

Last week I went with Cecilia to stay at her mother’s place in Nanchong. Nanchong is a little over two hours from Chengdu, one of those vast Chinese metropolises you’ve probably never heard of. It has a ridiculously wide river and some mountains along the edge of town and decent air quality, but overall, there’s probably a good reason why I’d never heard of it before I was invited to visit. We went to a few tourist attractions, which mostly consisted of reconstructed old-timey buildings in the aforementioned mountains, but mostly what I did in my two and a half days in the city was eat, sleep, crochet, and read.

One highlight was my visit to Cecilia’s mother’s workplace, which is a pig farm. Yes, not to fear, I’m still a nerd/science writer at heart. We didn’t get to see any actual pigs at the industrial pig farm, but we (we being Cecilia, her cousin Phoebe, her sort of adopted brother, who I’ll call Didi, and me) got a personal talk in a conference room about the operation, complete with video. I learned that about 60% of China’s pigs now come from big industrial pig farms, while the rest are still raised on small farms. This particular pig farm is flexing its industrial muscle by importing breeders and frozen pig sperm from a partner operation in Canada. The pigs live indoors and are subject to stringent “biosecurity” measures. For example, before someone can go into the piglet area, they have to spend more than 24 hours in a kind of quarantine room, except that the object is not to make sure they’re not sick, but to make sure that any pig pathogens they might be carrying have died. Then they work in the piglet barn for 30 days straight before their next furlough.

I asked about cows. Apparently most of the dairy in China comes from two big industrial farms, one in Xinjiang and the other in Inner Mongolia. But cow farms cause a lot of erosion, at least when they’re close to rivers, and much of China’s non-mountainous land is close to rivers, so the government hasn’t permitted more industrial farms for cows. At least that’s my understanding. So I, the smoothie-drinking vegetarian, am supporting nasty industrial dairy farms, while China’s beef eaters are potentially eating someone’s grass-fed backyard cow.

Another highlight of my visit was watching Didi’s father do calligraphy. He’s very good, I gather, and after we watched him demonstrate he insisted on giving me a finished scroll off his own wall. Later Cecilia’s mother mentioned that he’d given her a piece, too… after her hysterectomy.

Being a guest in China can be a little overwhelming: life seemed to revolve around me all the time I was there, and I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything, even my own transportation from and to Chengdu. I was concerned about upholding my side of the bargain: what could I possibly ever do to repay these people for their kindness? I didn’t even have the words to be sufficiently effusive in my thanks. I also became concerned on behalf of the entire Western world, which surely isn’t holding up its side as far as hospitality goes. If this is the norm for guest treatment in China, how un-welcomed must Chinese feel when they go to America?

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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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