Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fifth Day Chengdu

July 31, 2008
Yesterday I got up, went to the coffee shop, studied Chinese for a while and saw Alex for a minute, then walked back to the apartment. It was really hot so I put on Brazil (1985), which was pretty weird but good overall, a bit drawn-out. Sam and I ordered some food delivered, spicy Sichuan food. Then we went to the police station to register, got really sweaty in the process, waiting outside after a really hard rain, hot and humid and sunny. Then we went to a computer city on the first ring road.

“Computer city”, as these buildings are called, are multi-story electronic malls. They sell more high-cost goods on the lower floors (video cameras, digi cams, laptops, monitors, etc.) and these are all grouped by manufacturer, with their own little display area of glass cases and tons of advertisements. The upper floors sell videogame systems and other hardware, as well as bootleg games and dvds. We were eventually led into a room on the eighth floor and looked through some dvds, then we went out onto the first ring road and waited for a cab or bus for about 20 minutes, but it was rush hour (about 6 or 630), so we started walking back to the apartment, stopping in a fake-Nike store on the way and talking with the girls who worked there. Then we continued our walk back to Yulin and cooled off in the house.

We met up with Alex and Rick for dinner, walked somewhere in Yulin for more spicy Sichuan food. It was pretty good, I went home and took a shower then we went to Jah Bar. We talked for a while with the owner and a middle-aged Chinese couple about the changing face of China and the new generation of “little Emperors.” We hung out there for a while, listened to some James Brown and petted some dogs, then we went to Hemp House, which is in the second story of an apartment building overlooking one of the rivers. It's a sometimes more-Chinese, sometimes more-Westerner bar (apparently these things go in cycles). We met three Americans there, one of whom, Nate, played pool with us and is from northern Illinois. We talked with them for a while and then the bar closed so we went home. Sam and I watched Kill Bill 2 then went to bed.

For the first time I was able to understand an entire sentence I overheard – Alex asked for the bill – women yao maidan. The Chinese is coming along slowly, as is my internal map of the city. The ring road concept makes things hard sometimes because they curve, but the naming of streets is beginning to make sense, as middle roads become north and south or east and west at either end.

The process of learning Chinese is definitely a process of building by small increments, like assembling a wall of Legos. Once the first walls are put together they can be reassembled to create more and more sentences. I'm at the absolute low end of the spectrum but it is beginning to become easier and my ear is starting to begin to discern more and more.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Fourth Day - Chengdu

Wednesday July 30, 2008
Yesterday I slept in, Sam and I got some lunch delivered to us (pseudo-mashed potatoes, kung pao chicken and fried rice) then he came with me to an interview at an English school for professionals called New Dynamic Institute. It was in the eighth floor of a mall, but it overlooked a beautiful rooftop garden with a square building set above a circular pool. The interview went fairly well, I learned a bit about how to answer the questions talking with Sam after the interview. It seemed like a good, formal place to teach professionals but it seemed like they were looking for more hours than I am ready to commit to right now.

Sam and I went home afterward, he met with the landlord to sign a new lease and I got ready for soccer, then met up with Rick to go play on the public field at Sichuan University. We took a bus from Yulin, it was really crowded, not too surprising as it was about six o'clock. The soccer field is surrounded by a track so we warmed up a bit while waiting for the other team members to show up. Once we had assembled a nine-man team we took the field against a team of Chinese university students. They gave us one of their players so we had even sides. Our team is made up of Westerners, mainly Scots, Aussies, English and Americans. Chinese players are fast, good on the ball but very selfish and flashy. They cannot create space or pass the ball effectively and they don't contest headers. So we won pretty handily, about 8 or nine goals for us to 2 for them. It was a lot of fun, very tiring and we all got super sweaty in the heat. Then we walked to the Leg and Whistle, a British pub. We walked across the campus of Sichuan University, about the size of a major US university campus like Texas or Wisconsin. When we got to the bar, Tony, the owner, gave us all a free beer (which I guess happens every week). Rick and I stayed around for another one, talked with Andy (a Scotsman who owns a bar called Dave's Oasis) and Dwayne (a Canadian English teacher). Then Rick and I got dinner and took a taxi back to Yulin, I took a shower and read a bit before bed.

Most transportation here in Chengdu is by taxi or bus, lots of people ride bikes but it's really hot and humid so it's a little more comfortable to take a taxi or bus, about half of them are air-conditioned, about the same proportion of restaurants and bars as well.

Things don't seem especially crowded, which is surprising. There are always people around but it's rare to be in a crush or a huge shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. Chinese people are very noisy, vendors walk through the neighborhood and into the courtyard yelling services (like knife sharpener was an example Sam gave). But overall, it's like a big city: traffic, rich food smells, etc. The streets themselves are very clean, they're washed every night, and businesses are in a constant state of cleaning.

Rick and Alex run an eco-tourism company, and Rick teaches a bit on the side. About half of the other ex-pats I've met are teachers, some work remotely.

I don't really have much of a take on the pollution because it is naturally cloudy here all the time. We're in the Sichuan basin, so we're basically surrounded by mountains and rivers. So Chengdu sits in the bowl of Sichuan, probably holding in the pollution. So far, traffic hasn't seemed very bad and while I've spent most of my time in Yulin and the other southern parts of the city, it seems very manageable.

The city largely consists of seven-story apartment buildings like mine, with shops on the outside and a courtyard on the inside. Buildings over seven stories are required to have an elevator so more modern buildings are quite a bit taller and have an elevator.


The stupid server isn't allowing me to upload them, so I'll just post a flickr account. Here's the address:

Also I am now on skype - username is reidwyatt. holla at me!

Third Post - Chengdu

Sam is a friend of Max Berson, a friend of mine from Grinnell. He has lived in China for two eyars and went to Berkeley for undergrad. He, Alex, and Rick, are all 25 y/o Americans who live here in Chengdu. You will hear about them a lot.

Yesterday I woke up early, around 7, and read in bed til 9, wrote a bit and then walked to the coffee shop to meet up with Alex. It was great to have 2 americanos, which cost a little bit less than a dinner for 3 people (40RMB), first coffee in three days. I started studying mandarin from a book I borrowed from Sam, read a few chapters and started to put some things together. Coffee is conveniently a cognate (kaifei) and the tones are slowly coming together. Then Alex and I went back to his apartment, he did some work and I played some video games, then we went to Subway with Sam. Subway was alright, very expensive in contrast with most places, I got a meatball sub, which they put lettuce and american cheese on, and the marinara was really thin so I had them add some bbq sauce which turned out well. Then Sam and I went to Trustmart, which I think is owned by Walmart. I bought a set of sheets, a lamp, a converter, toothpaste, etc. I also had to buy a plastic bag, a small step towards environmentalism in China. Then we came home, it was really hot so we just hung out in the living room for a while then we went over to Alex's house and played some Halo, I started writing chinese characters, which brought back memories of the chinese calligraphy class I took with Andrew Hsieh's wife back at Grinnell. Then we went out for dinner in the neighborhood and went back home to shower. Alex and Rick came over around 11, we drank some baijaio (firewater) and then walked down the block to Little Bar, where we had some drinks with some nice Tibetan ladies. We talked there for a while, Alex went home soon after, then we went by the convenience store and bought some beers and came upstairs and listened to music and talked for a while. Rick and the two Tibetans left around five and Sam and I stayed up talking til 615, the sun was coming up and I heard a rooster crow twice. It was the first day that I felt really glad I'm here, that my friends here are great, and that as long as you keep an open mind and a smile on your face, shit will be well. Also, keeping an ever-open ear for Chinese is crucial, as is keeping up the diligence of writing and studying every day. I try to use my new words more and more, and I know now that I made the right move. But the first day was a huge culture shock, and last night at the bar, I busted out the meditation I know the two Tibetan girls dropped their jaws and Rick and Sam were just as surprised that I knew some Tibetan. So things are really good, it was a bit uncertain at first but I think it's going to be great.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Second Post - Chengdu

Monday July 28 2008
Day 2 in Chengdu was pretty good. I managed to sleep until about 1030, then read in the apartment for a while. Sam and I got some lunch, then went to the bank to change money. We then took a bus into downtown, walked around a bit, saw the huge Mao statue in the square from the bus and lots of new buildings. The cell-phone mall was a bit crazy, especially the prices the Chinese will pay for phones – a lot of really nice models are over $400. Per my instructions, Sam just asked for what their cheapest phone was, a new Nokia, pretty basic, so I got that. My Chinese number is 13666249331. Then we walked to a pet store near there and got some goldfish for the piranhas at the apartment, looked around at some really cute baby turtles, then caught a cab back to the apartment as it started to get a lot hotter (around 4 pm). We listened to some music back at the apartment and played some Wii, then Alex, another American our age, came over and we went out for Muslim food, passing the new Hooters on the way. Alex and Sam were pretty excited about that prospect, especially because the massive sign out from just says Hooters Chengdu. They said it didn't even have signs up a week ago so that is a new American business here in the city.
After the Muslim food (they used some other word for it but it's escaping me now), we went back to Alex's apartment and just chilled out, we were all pretty tired. The high humidity really takes it out of you, and the constant stimulation of being in a new culture is taxing as well. I was, however, able to walk Sam and I home from Alex's, based on landmarks and my internal compass, and got us home the most direct way, so I was pretty happy about that. Now that I've got a phone I feel a lot more comfortable just going out and exploring along with my camera – walking a city is definitely the best way to get to know it so over the next few days I think I'll try to hit some of the sites in Rough Guide by myself and see how that goes.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

First Post - Sun July 27 2008

Well here I am in Yulin, Chengdu, Sichuan. I'm in my apartment, on the fifthfloor of a walkup (ie no elevator, the more traditional style of Chinese apartment living). The buildings are like tenements, with a central courtyard which the apartments look down into. The windows are enclosed in cages, I would imagine so one could grow flowers or herbs on their slats. The apartment is a lot bigger than I expected, I have my own bedroom with an air conditioner which is very necessary in this summer heat and humidity. I'll just talk about a few things today, so as to save some fodder for the coming days.
1.Chengdu – Chengdu is a major city, the fourth or fifth biggest in China. It is the capital of Sichuan Province, in the southwest, where the earthquake was. Apparently the city has not been effected too much but the shock of the earthquake was enough to send some expats packing. I live in the southern area of the city, just outside the first ring road. My neighborhood, Yulin, is up-and-coming, with a lot of boutique clothing stores, restaurants and bars, and even a local cafe (founded 2005) that supposedly has okay coffee. More on that to come, once I've experienced it. China is roughly the size and shape of the US, and if you overlay a map of the lower 48 states over China, Sichuan is in about the same position as Texas, and about the same size. To give a little context in terms of population, Texas has about 25 million inhabitants, Sichuan has 90 million. Chengdu is the largest city in Western China, a major intellectual, cultural and manufacturing center. It is known for tea-houses and a laid-back population.
2.Chinese and Chinese people – Unlike the other countries I've been abroad in, I came to China with virtually none of the local language. The lack of cognates and the disconnect with Western verb roots has been hard so far but will force me to learn Mandarin. Additionally, unlike in Western Europe, it really is not possible to go up to someone on the street and ask them if they speak English, in English. So the necessity to learn Mandarin should serve me well and help to encourage me. The unintelligibility of Chinese characters is also a major hurdle, especially for someone like me who is a compulsive reader. So it is a good thing that I have a well-experienced hand as my roommate, Sam, who has been here for two and a half years.
3.Tea – I just had my first experience with loose tea. I figured I would just sort of add hot water and then wait for a while for the tea to settle to the bottom. After about thirty minutes of waiting, I discerned that wouldn't work too well. So, after a little google searching, I discovered that the key is to strain the loose tea. Needless to say, I'm drinking some very strong green tea but thinking of all the antioxidants my body is enjoying right now.
4.Expats – Sam came and picked me up from the airport, we went to a local cafe to hang out and played do di jo, a brilliant Chinese three-player card game. After a couple hours, Rick (another American) showed up and then his friend Nancy came (a Chinese woman). Rick and Nancy proceeded to do some translation for some business proposal on a meat company, while Sam and I sat around and I asked him some general sort of questions. I also discovered Tsingtao Black at this time, a malty, brown, stoutish beer. Sam and I got some dumplings and came back, only to find they hadn't even finished the first page. Chinese characters are very dense in text, I surmised. I'm getting a little off topic here, but Sam and I went back to the apartment and chilled for a while. Nancy and Rick met us for dinner, some Szechuan food, fairly spicy, somewhat sweet, along with some deep-fried corn kernels and some green vegetable, as well as some smoked ribs. The food here is awesome, by the way. So then we went to a new expat bar near the second ring road (about 10 min in a taxi, cost about $1.25) called the Leg and Whistle (est 2007). It was packed, with a number of Brits with their shirts off in the steamy night, celebrating a friends birthday. We sat outside and chatted with an older Aussie for a while, drank a beer and ended up meeting the captain of the football team I'll be joining (as Rick told me, we speak international English here, so henceforth football=soccer). He came up to me in my Celtic jersey and we chatted for a while, a very friendly Scot from Glasgow. After a couple hours we came home and Sam and I fed the piranhas. It was a good show. So the expat community is live here in Chengdu, always a strong possibility for an escape if thats necessary. But so far things are good, happy to be settled and unpacked.

EDIT: Chongqing, not Chengdu, is the biggest city in Western China. It was formerly a part of Sichuan Province and became an autonomous municipality in 1997.