I have been in China for almost two months. That being said, I have just arrived here. I read before hopping on the plane across the world that Shanghai is China-lite; it is too modern, too fast-paced, too polluted with dirt, trash, and foreigners, to truly convey that tradition-meets-the-modern-world feel that embodies China. I assumed that whoever wrote that was another holier than thou expat with a superiority complex. This sentiment was further underscored after taking a tour of the Huangpu River, where the emphasis of tradition-meets-modern is almost shoved down your throat by Chinese tour guides and expats alike. It always went something like “The Bund stands on the West bank, in stark contrast to the modern skyline of the East Bank, displaying the most prominent clash of tradition and modernity in all of China!” Looking back on it, the incessant promotion of the ‘clash’ reminds me of Pepsi and Coca-Cola: both spend billions of dollars on advertising to prove how different they are, because honestly, they taste the same. Likewise, Shanghai is touted so vehemently as the epitome of the Chinese cultural clash, because it honestly has little resemblance to the clash at all. After coming to Chengdu, I can see the truth in that conceited expat’s words: Shanghai does feel like China-lite.
The past few days have been relatively eventful. I have increased my guanxi factor by about 500%–not bad for a twenty four period. That translates to having met with about five new Chinese (well, one is from LA but lives in China) people. First off, there is Jaff.
Jaff is a twenty eight something year old who has lived in Chengdu all his life. He works at some local company in Chengdu, who has sent him to Sichuan University to learn English. Jaff has studied English and Japanese for the past three years by himself, so his English vocabulary is amazingly well-rounded. He knows many words that he honestly shouldn’t. His pronunciation, however, needs some work, which is how I ended up meeting him. Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel, both by definition and by reputation, is a crossroads for myriad cultures. I know this; Jaff knows this. Thus, Jaff visits every weekend in order to find travelers with which he can practice his English and his Japanese. This past weekend he found me and Scott. We talked with him for a bit, at the bar, helping him out with his (British) English teacher’s assigned homework. Ironically, the problems he had with the homework for the most part stemmed from his teacher’s incompetence and inability to write a correct English sentence. Just goes to show you how much screening the Chinese do when hiring English teachers. At the end of our conversation, Jaff invited us to go (back in our case, as we had visited earlier that day) Wen Shu Yuan, a Buddhist monastery and tea garden not far from the hostel. Eager to be shown around by a Chinese person from China, we accepted.
Now, Jaff is a ‘Buddhalist’, as he likes to call himself. Evidently he can’t discern the difference between ‘Buddhalist’ and ‘Buddhist’, though not for lack of trying on our part. Anyway, he took us through the temple and put us through a full regimen of Buddhist prayers and knowledge. I can honestly say that this was one of my most religious experiences—it was interesting, but I honestly enjoyed lighting the incense the most. I guess I’m just not a spiritual person, but at least Jaff explained how to do what so we didn’t completely fulfill the douche bag American stereotype. After a good hour of going from Buddha to Buddha to Bodhisattva to Bodhisattva, we walked around the monastery and Jaff translated some Buddhist sayings and Chinese poems hanging around the walls. Also quite interesting.
This guy got angry at me for taking pictures of him. Twice.
This is exactly what you think it is. Prominently displayed right next to the pagoda in the middle of Wenshu Yuan is a large marijuana plant. It doesn’t look like too great of a smoke, but it’s the thought that counts.
We then went to Chengdu’s most popular huoguocanting, (hot pot), which it turns out is the same one that Scott and I decided to try on our first day in Chengdu. We have good taste, I know. Sichuan hotpot is different from Japanese shabu shabu, not to mention different than other Chinese hot pot. Instead of water, they use ma, or Sichuan peppercorn (thanks mom), la, those spicy red peppers, some ginger, lemon grass, and a little bit of peanut oil. Now I say a little bit purely to emphasize how much ma and la they put in there, but they do in fact add about 5 cups of peanut oil. While this is brought to a boil, you pick out different skewers, some vegetable stuff: cabbage, potato slices (think Sichuan potato chips—delectable), bok choy, all sorts of mushrooms, tofu, etc., some meat stuff: fish balls, meat balls, random fish stuff, sausages, Chinese hot dogs, beef, lamb, chicken, pork, parts of all the aforementioned that westerners would never eat, and you stick all that into the boiling oil. I’ve found that in China, things are always more dangerous, but nothing bad ever happens. Driving is one of these instances, and sitting for two hours with your face less than a foot away from scalding oil which is being heated by an open flame is another. Anyway, you let this stuff cook, then you pull it out of the oil, and to cool it off, you guessed it! You put it in your nice big bowl of cold peanut oil, which, if you are true sichuanese, you have already doctored up with cilantro, about a head’s worth of garlic, and the two different kinds of MSG they offer.
Honestly, I have felt a whole hell of a lot shittier coming out of not only other Chinese restaurants, but also some Western restaurants than I did coming out of Sichuan hotpot. Twice. I recommend it to all.
After hot pot, we decided to finally hit up one of the tea houses that Sichuan is so famous for. In fact, Sichuan is famous in China for being relaxed place. It is like China’s hippie town of sorts. The people there are all known for being especially nice to foreigners, as well as xiuxian, or laid back, preferring to kick it at a teahouse all day and chew the fat with one another as opposed to living the big city life. Chengdu itself is one of the smaller capital cities in china, with the city proper borders being four miles apart at the widest. Chengdu itself is a series of concentric circles that make navigation around the city a simple matter of being able to walk. Food prices are surprisingly standardized; it is always 5 kuai for a bowl of noodles, 3 kuai for a steamer tray of dumplings, and 7 kuai for dumpling soup noodles.
Anyway, after we finished hotpot, Jaff took us to one of Sichuan’s many local teahouses, where we sat and enjoyed local Sichuan tea and got him really excited about coming to California, which he’ll never be able to afford. Eh, a little motivation and blind faith never hurt anybody. The teahouse itself was awesome—very laid back and relaxing. It is sad though, that even people like Jaff, who is fairly intelligent and very hard working, are so naïve and ignorant in China. I understand that in order to control a population of 1.4 billion people, the Chinese government needs to govern the country in a much different manner than most western countries are governed. Coupled with the thousands of years of Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist tradition bred into the people, it becomes very apparent that the methods the government uses to keep a rein on its people are probably the most effective ones. Keeping them blissful ignorance is the most natural way to keep control. It is sad, though, that there is very little ingenuity or innovation in the people. They are all sheep by nature, and this translates to China’s being a country of copies. The people copy the west, albeit often in a humorous way (largely unbeknownst to them). I am going to try to bring back some of the most fashionably chinglish shirts that my generation of Chinese kids wear. In fact, they use the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song for most of the airport advertisements, which I have been listening to over and over for the past hour as I sit in Sichuan’s airport. The Chinese are very good at copying other countries, sometimes even improving on original designs, but there is no capacity for the Chinese to break the mold and create something. I think it is because of this that they will not be able to secure the top spot in global society—they have too effectively paralyzed their people and institutionalized the sheep mentality.
This is actually a topic that I spent most of last night discussing with another Sichuan friend of mine, Dan Sandoval. Dan, thank god, is from Los Angeles. He and I immediately connected on that. Dan is also a professional photographer, among many other things. Check out his photos if you have the time—they’re on the whole a lot more interesting than mine www.dansandoval.com
Dan is a cool guy. He’s living in Chengdu, working as a travel photographer and teaching English, among a whole bunch of other odd jobs and ways he finds to make money. He’s a great photography mentor, and is really passionate about his art. Very inspiring person to talk to.
Honestly, at this point I have every intention of coming back to Chengdu to either study or teach English or both. I feel the most at home here, and because it is not a top-tier Chinese city, it hasn’t already been sucked dry by the West. Coupled with Sichuan’s already quickening development, the whole province still has a lot of untapped economic potential. A few investments into this part of China could definitely go a long way.
Besides the stereotypical ma and la aspects of chuan cai, or Sichuan cuisine, Sichuan has some very interesting specialty dishes. Hong shew ciao, which are these unbelievably delicious dumplings in a sweet salty spicy sauce. It reminded me of Indonesian food, except with Chinese dumplings. It was delicious. It is traditionally eaten with something-long-something, so they call the two dishes fuqi cai—literally couple (as in man and wife) dish. It’s delicious.
All in all, my new goal is to find a way to get myself paid a nice American salary to come and live in Chengdu, where everything is cheaper, except the people.