An American in Chengdu


August 20, 2010
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I’ve discovered that a good way to strike up conversations with Chinese strangers is to knit in public. I think this is because Chinese people assume that knitting is a Chinese thing, so they figure that a knitting foreigner must be picking up local habits. On a recent four-day trip from Chengdu to Beijing via Shanxi Province, a man in a bus station mimed knitting and gave me a thumbs-up, and a few women looked at my work and asked what I was making (a dish towel). One day I was knitting in the aisle of a train and turned around to find a male train conductor, a woman, and two preteen girls standing in the doorway of a sleeping compartment and staring at me with rapt attention. One of the girls, who was eating a stick of processed meat, gave me a little wave.

“Ni hao,” I said.

And so it began. Where had I learned to knit? In America, when I was a child. Who taught me? My maternal grandmother’s mother, I said, not knowing the word for great-grandmother. They were impressed by this. How old was I when my great-grandmother taught me how to knit? About 11, I guessed. I explained that my great-grandmother died when she was in her 90s.

Later I reflected how lucky I really was to have known my great-grandmother well enough that she could teach me how to knit (as well as crochet and do counted cross-stitch). And it’s remarkable that knitting helps me connect both with my own ancestors, and to women in a culture that could hardly be more foreign to my own. All thanks to some expat friends who peer-pressured me into re-taking up needles and yarn.


    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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