Going to Beijing was exciting and a great experience, but my real interests were invested in the second half of the trip, our journey to Sichuan province in China’s southeast. The Discovering China program was funded by the Chinese ministry of education, a thank you of sorts to SUNY for providing assistance to Sichuanese university students following the earthquake in May of 2008. I had a great time in the capital, but was looking forward to heading to a place that had a bit less western influence. At this point, I hadn’t experienced any significant culture shock, and was good and ready to see the China that lay outside of the rings of Beijing.
On our way to the airport, guide-Ronald began making jokes about Air China, the carrier by which we would be flying, talking about how unreliable they were and how crappy the fleet was. Speaking of some acronym related to China airlines, he began laughing.
“CAC, China always cancels!”, chuckling to himself a bit, then adding a little joke about the French airlines,
“Fly air France, take a chance!”.
Ronald’s sense of humor was just shy of bizarre. He appeared to be very entertained by things that were unpredictable and occasionally ill-fated (great words to use describing the hours before you board a flight). There was some element of misfortune that he found intriguing, though there were occasions where it was hard for me to tell whether his laugh was because he thought something was funny or because it made him uneasy. There is a characteristic Chinese smile and curt laugh that don’t exactly come from good things. One way or another, I was sad to be leaving him behind in Beijing.
There was nothing notable about either our time in the airport or the two plus hours that we spent on the plane flying south. I got through the inspection points with general ease, we got some good food and the plane was on time. One person made a quiet joke about hiding the guns while we passed through a checkpoint, but hey, what’s a trip through security without a risk of deportation, right? Once we were seated on the plane and waiting to depart, I started to get a bit nervous, which doesn’t happen to me that frequently on planes. Something about an Air China flight filled entirely with happy study abroad students, a large group of good-will diplomats; it just seemed like the perfect flight to plummet out of the sky. The media would have had a field day, a picture perfect way to build up all sorts of tension between our nations. We took off with little fanfare, though later on I would hear from several others that the anxiety was shared, but mostly out of concern for the maintenance of Chinese aircraft.
Not three hours later, we were on our final decent. As we approached Chengdu Airport I could see nothing but white. Sichuan, in particular Chengdu, is renowned for humid weather, but this was ridiculous. The pilot said that we would be arriving within two minutes, but there was still nothing to be seen, no indication that we were even close to the ground. Then, almost without warning, an inky black tarmac rushed up from nowhere to meet the plain, and we set down onto the runway. The plane stopped at the gate, people jostled each other, jockeying to get out of the cabin first, and before I knew what had happened I was outside and headed to a bus.
The differences between Chengdu and Beijing stood out like light against dark. Not only was it almost 50 degrees outside, there were also leaves on most of the trees and many of the plants, not dissimilar to a spring day in New York. It was a great relief to be out of the frigid temperatures that we had been dealing with up north. In addition to the radically different climate, it was also apparent that the culture had shifted as well. The houses looked different, the roads were less well kept, there were more people on bicycles and scooters, even the people themselves looked different from those in Beijing, with darker, often rougher skin. As I mentioned in a post a few weeks back, we found ourselves constantly in the dark as to what the itinerary consisted of. About 10 minutes after we got on the bus, our new guide told us that he would be handing out schedules, at which point everyone cheered. It was like the sigh of relief that might be heard when passengers on a sinking ship see a rescue boat in the distance. One by one, we received a red pamphlet containing the details about our time in Sichuan. I skipped all of the standard welcome nonsense and went straight to the page designated ‘schedule’. It ran something like this:
Schedule for your time in Sichuan
January 2nd- Arrive and Stay at Chengdu Century City
January 3rd-9th- Various activities with host universities
January 10th-Depart for Beijing
I do not know why I allowed myself even the momentary hope that we would know what was being planned. The whole situation reminded me of a scene from “A Christmas Story” in which Ralph, after weeks of waiting, receives his secret decoder pin, the answer to all his problems, only to find that it is nothing more than a gimmick. Great expectation followed by crushing defeat. Sure, it was a schedule, and yes, one could argue that we followed it perfectly. Then again, it was a little vague.