The Road South

Chengdu BusesThe morning after we arrived in Chengdu, our entire group attended a welcome ceremony held by the Sichuan ministry of education, filled with a number of speeches that did not seem to grab anyone’s attention.  The continual fanfare that accompanied our arrival had grown thin over the last few days, and most people were looking forward to getting out of the hotel and on to the host university at which they would be staying.

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Because of the massive size of our total group, it was decided that it would be easiest to spit us into 13 subgroups for the duration of time that we spent in Sichuan.  This was nice in that it made traveling significantly easier.  My group consisted of a friend of mine from named Julia (from Purchase) as well as several students from Plattsburgh who affectionately referred to their school as ‘SUNY Canada’.  I believe we also had two students from Clinton Community College, though I don’t quite remember.  The nine of us were being hosted by the Leshan Teachers College, in the city of Leshan that lies a bit less than 100 miles to the south of Chengdu.  Prior to my departure for the trip, I had written a post on what little information I was able to garner about this city.  As we boarded a tiny little bus for the journey, we spoke nervously about what might await at our next destination.  Though I had spent a fair amount of time searching Google for any information, I knew little more than the city’s location and the history of the Big Buddha.

Discovering China Sichuan Ceremonyβ

The bus that would take us to Leshan was a tiny thing.  It was as though someone had grabbed a work van, scaled it down by a third and added a bus-like interior.  It didn’t have anything that resembled seatbelts, and for the better portion of the trip I had to work on ignoring thoughts of the consequences of a rollover.  About an hour into the journey, the driver slammed on the brakes, causing everyone to lurch forward and look up in surprise.  The traffic in front of the bus had completely stopped.  We pulled up behind a truck, immediately finding ourselves blocked in by cars and trucks all around.  Ten minutes passed, but there was no sign of movement, and drivers had started to get out of their vehicles and look up the road for any indication of what might be causing the delay.  While we waited, one of my friends took the opportunity to wave at a truck driver who was leaning out of his window.  He looked quickly, and then set his eyes back on the road.  A moment later, he looked again, eyes a bit wider, and disappeared from sight.  When he returned, he had produced a camera-phone, and started to take pictures of the little bus filled with foreigners.  The blast of a truck horn made him jump, causing him to hit his head on the door frame.  The traffic had started moving again.

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In the middle of the road lay the wreckage of a very large truck, completely on its side and perpendicular to the direction of travel.  It had flipped over, scattering its contents (what appeared to be large bags of cornmeal) all over the highway.  Immediately behind this mess, I saw another truck of very similar make being reloaded with the bags that had not exploded during the accident.  A large chain of workers were tossing the sacks into the bed of the truck, and I wondered if they had been traveling together, or hired on the spot to help clean up the mess.  This accident, which would have brought out an entire rescue crew back home, was marked by one policeman that sat idly on the median watching the proceedings.

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Soon after passing the mechanical carnage, we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom and stretch break.  At this point, we were well away from any area were foreigners were a common sight, and our arrival did not go unnoticed.  I walked past a service counter, aware of the gaze of the attendant and several others.  As several of the girls walked in, I could hear him commenting on our presence.

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Bread Loaf Bus Interior“Four of them…..No, wait, there are seven! More!” he said, in a voice mixed equally with excitement and disbelief.  This was the first real experience that I had with people stopping what they were doing to watch my movement.  Despite knowing that it was bound to happen at some point, it was still a strange feeling.  During the week I started to label the ill effects of the spotlight as ‘foreign rockstar syndrome’.  There are delusions that recently arrived foreigners can have of their own importance, seemingly brought on by the constant attention.  It can be hard to avoid.

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Back on the bus, nearly everyone fell asleep.  The countryside moved by quickly, comprised mainly of farms and large fields of green plants resembling lettuce.  Little villages here and there reminded me of photos that I had seen of Vietnam.  Julia and I spoke a little bit with the girl who had come to pick us up in Chengdu.  She explained that she was an English major at Leshan College, and was very shy because she rarely got to use English with a native speaker.  Despite her concern, she would only answer me in English, a trend that was very common with people I spoke to.  We talked about what it was like studying in Leshan, and about what the upcoming week might hold.  Things had been getting progressively more interesting following our arrival in Sichuan, but I remember this moment more clearly than almost any other.

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“We figured you probably won’t like staying in Chinese Dormitories”, she said to us.  True enough, dormitories didn’t sound all that great, and I would have been on my own as there were no other male students.

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“Instead, we have worked very hard, and made special arrangements for each of you to spend this week living with a family”.

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At this moment, I was caught between complete horror and a balanced level of excitement.  Living with a family was about as great an experience as I could ask for, but damn if I wasn’t surprised.  I had spent the previous month and change under the impression that I would be living in a dorm for foreign students.  Whatever mental preparation I had made was vaporized, gracefully destroyed with a single sentence.  Any culture shock that I had missed in Beijing was now ready and willing to come forth.  With the exception of the two of us from Purchase, the rest of the people in my group had heard nothing of this announcement, as they were asleep.  When we finally pulled up at the college gate, we got off of the bus and entered a crowed of excited families and their friends, all of whom had apparently known of these plans for months before our arrival.  Communication is optional.  Cameras, smiles, students, flashes, handsome boy, luggage, baby, family, car, swept away.  Welcome to Leshan.

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