An American in Chengdu


June 5, 2010

A few weeks ago, to mark the belated start of smoothie season, I went looking for a blender at the French supermarket Carrefour. It’s hard to avoid getting “helped” at the supermarket if you’re looking at anything at all expensive (e.g., electric blankets, wine, tea), but I thought I might have escaped when I walked purposefully past a group of staff in the small appliance section and none said a word to me. But I didn’t get far before I was chased down by a guy I took to be the designated foreigner consultant.

“What do you want to buy?” he asked in Chinese.

Me: “I don’t know how to say it.”

Him: “Coffee machine?”

Me: “No.”

Him: (in English) “Blender?”

We foreigners are pretty predictable, apparently.

It’s not that the Chinese don’t drink coffee, but for everyday sipping, they usually go with pre-sweetened, fake-creamered instant. Brewed coffee, and certainly anything involving espresso, is a luxury one finds at Western restaurants, Starbucks, or upscale domestic coffee houses. Starbucks prices are about the same here as they are in the States, which means a latte or cappuccino runs around 30-35 yuan. By comparison, my usual breakfast (two large steamed buns and a cup of soy milk) costs 2 yuan; a bowl of noodles in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant costs about 5 yuan, and a short taxi ride costs around 10 yuan.

Even Nescafe, which costs around 1 yuan per serving if you buy it in a box at the supermarket, seems to be cultivating its cachet. Just as some moon cakes come in elaborate packages to be given as gifts, there are shiny golden Nescafe gift boxes that you can use to show your esteem.

This post is dedicated to Joey, who suggested I blog about coffee. He was probably kidding.


In February, there was vacation

March 18, 2010
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Certain people have hinted strongly that I should blog about my month-long February vacation. I’ve been a little apprehensive about starting, though, since last time I blogged a trip, it took me six months. In that case, the trip itself had lasted three weeks. So this time I’m trying this approach: I’ll put up some pictures and this “highlights” entry now, then describe specific episodes in more detail if and when the mood strikes. Here goes.


Kunming (capital of Yunnan Province, China): Kunming is a little smaller than Chengdu, and in February, it’s a lot warmer. A flurry of construction had left it with what seemed like an even higher density of malls and fast food restaurants than Chengdu has. But it’s very sunny there, and breezy weather keeps the air pollution from getting too dense, so it has a bright and shiny look to it. Cecilia and I went to a botanical exhibition garden, a temple, a mountain just outside town, and a few really good restaurants on our way to and from…

Xishuangbanna (the southernmost prefecture in Yunnan Province): We ate a lot of spicy Dai food (Dai people are the same ethnicity as Thai, but their food tastes nothing like the American Thai food I’ve had). Saw lots of jungle, some performing elephants, and an impressive botanical garden. We tried to go hiking in the jungle with mixed success, and stayed the night in the home of some Hani villagers. One day we rode bikes around Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna. It was hot. I loved it there.

Sichuan (the province where I live): We arrived back two days later than we’d planned due to a shortage of train tickets (everyone was headed home for Chinese New Year/Spring Festival. And I do mean everyone). Cecilia went off to join her family. Deano had arrived the night before, so after I did a bit of cleaning I went to pick him up at his hostel. We spent a few days seeing the sites in Chengdu, wandering around aimlessly, and going to see the pandas. On New Years Eve, Feb. 13, we ate street food and watched fireworks through the window. On the 15th we took the bus to Langzhong, a town known for its good feng shui, beef jerky, and vinegar. The old town has appealing cobblestone streets and old-fashioned tile-roofed buildings, and it’s set along a wide river–the Jialing, I think. There wasn’t much to do but walk around and look at buildings, or walk along the river. At night people would light lanterns along the edge of the river. We stayed in a hotel attached to the feng shui museum, which was very cool. I can’t pretend to have learned anything about feng shui on the trip, though, because none of the captions in the museum were in English. In fact, we appeared to be the only Westerners in town.

Sabah (Malaysian Borneo): We flew into Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah. Explored a little, stumbled on a dragon dance, and then spent a few days snorkeling and hanging out on the beach on a few tiny tropical islands near the city. We saw lots of coral and colorful fish. Then we took a bus to Kinabalu National Park, where we hiked around in the jungle, though we didn’t climb famous Mount Kinabalu (it’s very difficult, and expensive). We couldn’t even see the mountain through all the clouds. We took a bus to the small city of Sandakan, and promptly booked a stay in a jungle lodge, where we went on several boat rides up and down the river and saw oodles of wildlife: birds, monkeys and more monkeys, and even two orangutans. Then it was back to Sandakan, where we whiled away our last afternoon on Borneo in an English tea garden, followed by a harborside cafe. The next day we saw Mount Kinabalu from the plane, which just goes to show that you should never give up hope.

Kuala Lumpur: We flew Air Asia, which has its hub in KL, so we’d decided to spend a few days there on the way back. Actually it was only I who was on my way back to Chengdu; Deano was planning to go find a nice tropical island. KL was hot and diverse and Westernized. We met up with my sister’s college roommate, who took us to a lantern festival at a Chinese Buddhist temple with some of her friends. The lantern festival was in honor of the Chinese New Year, which just goes on and on. After the temple we went to a Chinese restaurant, and I felt like I was in some sort of alternate-universe version of China–very interesting. The next day we went to a famous Hindu temple in a cave, drove around KL, and shopped. On the last morning of my vacation, we got up early to get in a closer look at the Petronas Towers before my flight back to Chengdu.


December 31, 2009
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It seems to me that the assault of Christmas is so total in the US that it can’t fail to induce a certain cynicism in most sane

The Wangjiang River on Christmas. There are a few lanterns above the trees on the left.

people. The mandatory shopping! The carols! The decorations! The carols! The sweets! I try to ignore it for two months, and then I go home, where the tree is already up and decorated. I put the presents I brought into gift bags, and there it is: Christmas, with little effort required on my part.

This year, however, I felt there wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas unless I made it happen myself. It happened that my last spoken English session with the doctors fell on the 25th, so it was obvious what the theme of that day’s lesson should be. But how to stage a non-depressing Christmas party at 10 am in an unheated, fluorescent-lit classroom? This would require some preparation.

On my trip home I stocked up on candy canes, some decorations, and miniature stockings. I found more decorations in China. Since I don’t have an oven, I got the number of a local woman who delivers bagels to a friend and, with Samantha as a mediator for the rather complicated transaction, put in an order for cookies shaped like angels and Christmas trees. I chose a song to teach the students (Santa Claus is Coming to Town) and a movie to show (Elf, for which I put together a vocabulary sheet). I coordinated a Secret Santa gift exchange among the students.

All this paid off on Christmas morning, as the students were wonderfully enthusiastic about everything from getting their pictures taken with “Santa” (me in a Santa hat), to opening presents, to the napkins I’d bought that had Christmas tree designs printed on them (apparently they’re just used to the white kind here).

That afternoon I went to a small get-together hosted by a Canadian and a Scot, where the broken remains of the Christmas cookies were a big hit. We ate treats and chatted, played a trivia and charades games, and had a white elephant gift exchange in which everyone was too polite to take anyone else’s gift.

We moved on to someone else’s apartment for dinner, an informal but bountiful spread of Sichuan dishes. I headed home around 10:00. Near the bars and clubs along the river, Christmas didn’t look much different from any other Friday night in Chengdu, though perhaps it was a little busier. As I crossed a bridge I saw people lighting fires under red lanterns, and stopped to admire the result: star-like points of light rising up to keep the moon company. This may be a holiday tradition, but I suspect that, like dodging trained monkeys, it’s just something to do when you’re out on a weekend night.

In conclusion, I’m still not sure what exactly Christmas means in China, though it looks like an excuse to decorate, wish people merry Christmas, and perhaps have a party. But I had a great time in my role as Christmas ambassador.


December 2, 2009
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My 30th birthday was Sunday, but I did most of my celebrating on Saturday. Cecilia and her mother had me over for a

Cecilia's cake. The raisins on top spell "birthday" in Chinese.

birthday lunch, which was also attended by Cecilia’s girl-cousin (who has changed her English name from Rose to Phoebe), her boy-cousin, two aunts, and an uncle. Cecilia’s mother and one aunt cooked long and hard, filling the table with one vegetable dish after another. For dessert, Cecilia had baked her first-ever cake, which, she forewarned me, was “catastrophical.” I admit it wasn’t the most elegant cake I’ve ever seen, and it was a little too sweet, but quite edible.

For the evening I’d made a reservation (my first in Chinese, quite a test of the waitress’s patience) at Chengdu’s nicest vegetarian restaurant. Explicitly vegetarian Chinese food is quite different from what you get if you go to a regular restaurant and order vegetable dishes. It’s part of a tradition that grew out of Buddhist and Taoist temple food and involves elaborately-rendered fake meat dishes. My favorite on Saturday was the “Peking duck.”

After dinner we went to sing karaoke, or KTV as they call it here. Karaoke in Asia isn’t the ritual of public humiliation that it is in the States; instead, you get your own room with your friends and hope not to be privately humiliated. Also, Chinese don’t go to KTV to sing cheesy pop songs ironically. They want to sound good. In short, I think the foreigners and Chinese at my birthday party brought with them somewhat different KTV expectations. Fortunately no one seemed to get too annoyed, even when I and another American belted out the chorus of “No Scrubs” from memory (for some reason, no written lyrics were provided for that one), or when Cecilia and Phoebe nearly punctured our eardrums hitting the high notes on some cheesy pop song.

Another cultural difference that came into play that evening involved who pays for a birthday celebration. In the US, of course, the birthday person is the guest of honor, and usually doesn’t pay for anything on his or her birthday. In China, though, the birthday person is the host, and pays for everything. I was a little worried that this would lead to some awkwardness if my fellow foreigners tried to pay and the Chinese guests felt they should, too, so I tried to pay for dinner and KTV discreetly. It seemed to work well, though most of the foreigners insisted on giving me some money later.

Overall it was a fun and delicious celebration.

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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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.


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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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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September 30, 2009
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Last night I went to an annual reception held by the Sichuan government in honor of foreign experts working in the Receptionprovince on the occasion of China’s National Day. China turns 60 tomorrow (October 1), and it’s a big deal. Flags have cropped up everywhere, you see 60th anniversary displays in store windows, there’s going to be a terrifying military parade in Tiannanmen Square, etc.

I didn’t get my actual paper invitation until just before the event, so I didn’t know that I could have worn “Lounge Wear or National Dress.” It would have been fun to show up dressed as a cowgirl. In theory, anyway. Instead I wore the dress Cecilia helped me pick out a few weeks ago.

The reception wasn’t exactly the gold mine of blog material I’d hoped for. There were speeches, which were translated into English, and as a former Asian Studies minor I should have been delighted to hear these examples of Chinese pomp and circumstance. But I found myself zoning out amidst talk about socialism with Chinese characteristics and the spirit of earthquake reconstruction. Then we stood and toasted, and then the live music began, and we were free to eat and chat.After an hour and a half someone thanked us for coming, and the reception came to an abrupt end.

I go days at a time without seeing another Westerner, so it was strange to spend an evening with my fellow foreign experts. Back on campus I had a drink with two Brits, Jacob and Elisa. Elisa is a longtime resident who peppered us with advice on everything from where to get fake (pirated) books in English to fake (vegetarian) chicken feet to where to get clothes made, and not to touch that cat because it will take your hand off.

Moon cakes

September 24, 2009

The Mid-Autumn Festival is coming up, and moon cakes are everywhere. The supermarkets have tables and tables of them in big, showy gift boxes. There are versions in humbler packaging, as well. The filling options range from strawberries to bacon. One student (not my student–it wasn’t bribery) even gave me a foam moon cake on a key chain. It smells like vanilla. I can neither confirm nor deny rumors that I mistook it for the real thing and tried to take a bite out of it.

Yesterday I went by the school’s international office and picked up my official holiday gift, one of those big showy boxes of moon cakes. I haven’t actually tried one yet, and am hoping they’re bacon-free. But with packaging this pretty, the taste almost seems beside the point.

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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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