I dream of characters

I try to write the simple characters, Qing wen, two that I have known from my earliest studies.  They are not hard to write, not hard to remember, yet every time I try to put them down on paper I find that they are wrong, that I have scribbled them or that the radical is not correct.  Qing wen, may I ask, why these two characters?  This man I front of me, I cannot decide why he sits where he is, watching me labor over my words.  The dream is tinged with anger and with frustration, as though this man has challenged my ability to speak and write.  To ward off his doubts I grab a pencil to write something, but in this moment my characters fail me.  Perhaps this man represents my fear, a laugh against the hope that I have built in my studies.  My inability to write something so simple confirms his suspicions, and my anger turns to feelings of defeat.  In sleep, my dreams are slipping.

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I often dream in Chinese and of writing the now familiar characters, but never before have I had a dream in which I was so vividly unable to use the language.  This dream has interpreted fears of the day, my feeling of loss over not being able to go back to the Middle Kingdom.  I have not given up my plans or my goals, but there is a dark cloud sitting idle in the back of my mind.  I will make it back, of this I am certain, but for the time being I must fight to keep these words and characters with me.

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Barnes and Noble

BooksThere are few things that I find more intimidating than a trip to Barnes and Noble.  It is not the tacky music, the contrived café culture of the implanted Starbucks, or even the invariably dreadful hired pianist that often marks the entrance.  No, it is the shocking amount of published material that horrifies me.  Finding good publication as an author has never been a walk in the park, and getting your work into print is a success to be celebrated, but it is just the beginning.  Even if I actually manage to write an entire book, and by some chance am lucky enough to get it published, how will it ever survive amongst this maelstrom of covers?

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My trip to the bookstore came out of an interest in finding Peter Hessler’s new book, which has been out for just under two weeks.  I wasn’t sure if they would have it, but I was passing by and figured that it didn’t hurt to have a look.  Assuming that it would be shelved along with other travel books, I began to search.  I won’t deny that I can be more than a little stubborn, and for the most part hate asking a salesperson for assistance in locating a book.  I probably could have shaved off a good 20 minutes by simply having someone search the computer, but part of me enjoys the hunt.  Computers are a great convenience, but at times leave me feeling like I have cheated.  I know, I know, it’s completely irrational, but hey, I was on a mission.

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After scouring the travel, culture and history sections for the book, I was beginning to get a bit discouraged, and was completely overwhelmed by the amount of material that was labeled as a ‘new release’.  Every other book seemed to carry the title, and all of them claimed to have been highly reviewed by any number of notable sources.  Seeing such consistently high ratings stamped on so many different works left me feeling as though the reviews didn’t actually serve much purpose.  I want to hear why people liked the book, not just that it was ‘a remarkable work’, or that the author is ‘astonishing in his ability to craft a script’.  These statements don’t mean anything, and for all I know are just excerpts from something far more critical.  As publication becomes progressively easier, the fight to have someone spend more than 10 seconds looking at your work becomes dire.  Catchy covers, bright stickers and a rampantly abundant usage of the word ‘new’ pop out in all sections.  If there is one thing that remains consistent, it is the romance novels; cheap, un-reviewed, and all with illustrated covers sharing a likeness to Fabio.

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Having given up on looking, and still without any interest in asking for help, I headed back toward the exit, passing a large stack of ‘new arrivals’ that blocked the direct route out of the building.  There, right in front of the door that I had initially entered through, sat Hessler’s book, mocking my original guesses as to where it might have been.  At twenty four dollars, it was significantly more than I feel a book needs to cost.  Then again, I can only hope that someday I will be so fortunate with the work I publish.

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The Best and the Worst, Part 2

BoratAlright, I’ll say right off that this one is just about the best.  I wasn’t on my reading A game this week and didn’t get through enough material to find anything that I truly disliked.  Nothing wrong with that!  Here, for your reading/viewing pleasure, are some of my favorite things from this week.

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  1. 1.  Xin Nian Hao- 24 Hours in Liuzhou–  This is a post from the Expatriate Games blog, which I actually found mentioned on Lost Laowai.  By far my favorite of the week, the author documents the events of (all) of New Years day, with one picture representing each hour.  There is a very well written story that accompanies the pictures, absolutely worth reading.  Michael, the author of the blog, does a great job of capturing the days events from many locations and perspectives, rather than focusing exclusively on the traditional activities.
  2. Tibet and Western Romanticism–  Oh look, everyone’s favorite topic, Tibet!  Another good article from C. Custer on ChinaGeeks.  This post is a response to an article by Christina Larson.  I enjoyed this post because it makes good points about the source article.  As the author later points out, there is a frequent tendency to make Tibet a black and white issue.  This article is not quite gray, but it certainly presents a view different than that which is presented within the American public.  If you have time, there is also some good discussion in the comments (though a bit lengthy).
  3. Sino-Vietnamese War Veteran Finally Finds Friends Grave–  A good post on chinaSmack, detailing the story of one war veterans quest to bring the body of his lost friend back from Vietnam.  I good look into the life of one individual, with some great pictures.
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The City Revisited

Leshan Sichuan RestaurantIt now seems that I must make some additions to the little information that I was able to locate on Leshan.  Searching on Google told me that it was the home of Dafo, the giant Buddha, Guo Moruo, a famous author, and that the population was somewhere between one and five million.  Nice and specific.  As I continued to look, I also discovered that most people visited the city out of an exclusive interest in seeing the massive Buddhist carving, and that most did not venture into the city.  One particular blog that I read gave an account of the time that a couple had spent in Leshan.  They concluded their description by advising everyone to avoid spending any time there, as they were unable to locate even a single restaurant or place to hang out.  Common wisdom of the day:  Google can tell you a lot, but not everything

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The city of Leshan has a population slightly larger than one million people, a number which seemed to be agreed on by most of the residents that I spoke to.  Most of them also suspected that I must have been unimpressed by such a small city.  Though it felt absolutely enormous to me, there is some truth to its being small.  The characteristics of urban development within China are quite different than those at home.  In the United States, a city with a million people will typically have many very tall buildings, and in most cases spread over a sizeable amount of land.  Leshan was nothing of the sort.  The vast majority of the buildings did not surpass 5 stories in height, and the population density (As is the case in nearly all Asian cities) is far greater than any place at home.  The other fact that really jumped out at me was the difference in layout.  The standard American city is a sprawling creature, with the density of construction tapering out for many miles away from the city center.  These cities seem to fade away into their outside surroundings.  Leshan, and many other Chinese cities, had a more definite space.  One minute, you would be traveling within city streets, then suddenly find yourself on a road surrounded by an unknown crop.  The separation between rural and urban is drastically different, and in many cases I felt a need to label Leshan as a rural city.

Leshan City Sichuan

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This is not to say that the city does not have all of the modern desires of any other region.  There were long streets with bars and small clubs, all of which seemed to be thriving, packed with groups still in good spirits following the January 1st new year.  There was also a huge variety of food and restaurants, many of which specialized in and prepared only one dish.  While driving around one evening, my host father told me that he would have liked for us to be able to go out to his favorite restaurant, but that he had been given instructions not to take me out to eat in certain places.  This order probably came from fear of issues that related to food poisoning.  An American student that I met at the college told me that he had been hospitalized twice for food poisoning in the four months that he had been there.  It does not have so much to do with the food being bad, but that the stomach does not have the enzymes to deal with unfamiliar bacteria and cultures.  The trick to preventing such maladies, as it was explained, was to eat only small bits of street food at a time for the first few weeks.

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One of my favorite memories from Leshan are the lights that decorated nearly all of the streets in the city.  Almost every tree that I encountered was dripping with nets of rainbow light, as well as long tubes of LEDs that replicated the effect of falling rain or icicles.  These lights gave the city an ethereal look, and reminded me of trips to Disney World.  I wondered how they could have possibly figured out how to power so many strands of lights, as I could find neither extension cords nor outlets, but a closer inspection revealed that all of them were battery powered.  Because they were all LED, entire strands were being run on AA batteries.  Very impressive, though I can only wonder how many dead batteries were left lying around after these lights were used for a month.

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There was more than one occasion on which someone told me that I was the first non-Chinese that they had seen.  At first, I was not sure how this was possible, but it soon became a bit more believable.  The Leshan Teachers College had only 30 international students, a good portion of which were Nigerian.  Zack (the one who had gotten the food poising) had much to say about the city, though I am not so sure about the validity of some things that he told me.  For now, I’ll say he was a great source for opinion.  This aside, I asked him how he enjoyed living in Leshan, and his thoughts on the city as a whole.  He pointed out the more common things (no English, trouble with the Sichuan dialect, girls all want pictures), but also brought up another point that I found interesting.

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“Leshan is a good place to go if you need to disappear”.  Um,  Like magic?

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“Many of the people that I have met, at least the ones that aren’t Chinese, are out here for a reason”, he continued.  “I mean, most people don’t really set their heart on living in Leshan”.

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This was true.  While in Beijing, I told a huge number of people where I was going in Sichuan, and not a single one of them had heard of the place.  Many knew of the Buddha, but could not pinpoint its location.  It was hard to determine exactly what Zack was implying by the word “disappear”, but I left with the feeling that the foreign population that settled in Leshan had done so with the hope of staying off the radar, or at least in an area where they could isolate themselves, whatever the reason might have been.  In my experience, people who move to a different continent in order to be left alone are typically ones you don’t really want to hang out with.  Zack told me that he was planning on getting on to a different city as soon as the term ended, preferably Beijing.Leshan Sichuan New year Lights

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Leshan

Leshan Baby DinnerThree people sat at the table with me, watching as I ate a meal that had miraculously appeared along with my entrance.  I say meal because it was a table laid out with many dishes of a wide variety, but, of the seated group, I was the only one eating.  The others did not have plates, and as such I assumed that this meal had been cooked entirely with me in mind.  I had already eaten a massive lunch, but out of a fear of offending my hosts told them that I had a good appetite, which proved to be a bit of a mistake.  While I worked my way through the second bowl of rice, my host mother, Teacher Dong, observed my every bite, maintaining a substantial grin as she leaned closer to watch.  The food was amazing and I told her so, at which point an already big smile turned into look of awe.  With a bit of a laugh, she leaned over to hear nephew and whispered.

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“We are so lucky to have him in our house”, she said, almost as if she felt I wouldn’t hear her.  My host family consisted of two music teachers from the Leshan College, Dong and Zhang Laoshi, and their adorable one year old daughter.  In addition, there were frequent visits from their Nephew, who would only go by his English name, Danny.  As an English major, he was the only member of the family that spoke any English.   I was able to get along reasonably well without his interpreting abilities, though there were plenty of times in which I could only wonder if my host parents and I were actually understanding one another.

Host Family House Leshan

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After I had finished eating (feeling as though my stomach might explode),  Danny stood up excitedly, announcing that we would be going to look at the local park and to see a store that the family owned.  Though I did not feel ill, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed with a strange feeling of fear.  It was as though I was having euphoria to the point of hallucination, finding myself aware of where I was, but feeling that I was in a dream.  For a little while I was afraid that I was having an allergic reaction to something in the food.  I’ve never had a strong reaction to anything, but there was plenty of stuff in the meal that I had never even seen before.  After about 20 minutes, the feeling leveled out and eventually dissipated into nothing.  Looking back I suspect that it was just pure panic, the result of being in a very alien place and completely overwhelmed.

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As it turned out, my host family was relatively well off in terms of financial standing.  They owned not one, but two music shops, as well as a small music school.  Despite what I interpreted to be a sizeable income, they were extremely modest, something which I grew to like over the time I spent with them.  Once we had finished our walking tour of their immediate neighborhood, we got into my host fathers car and set out to get my student Id card.  Not only did we receive a photo Id, but we were also issued a library card with full access to their collection, all for our one week stay.

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While the nine of us waited outside of a store front to have our photos taken, a small crowd of students began to gather.  At first they were a bit shy, but it quickly wore off and more joined by the minute.  Most just watched and said hello, but there were a few who immediately started asking questions about the United States and trying to get us to make comparisons.  A few girls came up told me that I was very handsome, followed by giggling and turning around to cover their faces.  If a girl at home told me she thought I was handsome, I would be at a lack of words.  In China, I simply had no idea what to do.  I generally ended these encounters by saying something like, ‘oh, thank you, no, not really that handsome’, at which point the initiator would giggle even more and disappear.  There is more to be written on the Handsome Boy saga, much more.

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Once the photos were complete we were taken on a tour of the campus, led by an increasingly large group of students.  Each one that I spoke with apologized for their school, saying that it was very small and hoping that it would be adequate.  It may have been outdated, but small it was not.  With 15,000 students, Leshan Teachers College is pretty darn large, though in Chinese standards 15,000 is nothing.  Small villages have 15,000.  The landscape was beautiful in a strange way.  The school had only been built in the 70s, but it held a mysterious air of something much older.  All around, the walkways and roads were colored green by moss and other growth, the result of a very humid climate.  The campus climbed and twisted into itself, seemingly designed in many pieces at different times.  Even after a week of navigating I still had trouble figuring out the location of one building in relation to another.  Returning to our starting point at the main entrance, I realized that we had done a complete circle.  My initial anxiety had vanished, at least for the time being, and as I met back up with my host father I found myself already loving every bit of Leshan.Leshan College Hall

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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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Time Away

It seems like ages ago that I posted anything on here, and though I don’t have anything ready for tonight, I wanted to let anyone reading know that there is more to come.  It was a long week of unexpected events, and writing was not in the books.  There are always things that I want to document, thoughts that I want to put into words and various other oddities that I’d like to share, but this week was not meant for these interests.  I won’t go into any detail at this point in time, but don’t disappear just yet!  I will have new stuff written and up by tomorrow evening, and movement will continue once again.

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The Best and the Worst, Part 1

It was a great week for reading about all things China, and I have decided to post some of my favorite and least favorite articles, in no particular order.  Actually, it would be better to say that they are all my favorites, but that some of them are atrociously written, or I feel that they present bad points.  This will be a strange mix, but hey, continuity is overrated.

Lets start with the good!

  1. Hecaitou on Race in China– A great blog post from ChinaGeeks (written by C. Custer) examining the potential for racism within China.  I don’t know if I agree with everything that the interviewee (Hecaitou) says, but the post is well written and very nicely framed.  A great number of well thought out comments follow
  2. How to Speak Through a Chinese Interpreter–  This article comes from the China Law Blog, and is also an interview, one between the blogger (who blogs on China’s ever changing legal scene) and an interpreter that he knows.  This article gives a much greater sense of how difficult it is to translate effectively, and how having a solid knowledge of a language isn’t always enough to convey the appropriate meaning.
  3. ‘Leopard Print Man’ Latest Shanghai Metro Celebrity –  An excellent post on chinaSMACK documenting the antics of an attention grabbing individual that has been frequenting the Shanghai subway system.  Great pictures, and a small story about the guys obsession with a Korean model.  The comments below this article are not worth reading

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And then….The Bad.  Actually, there was only one, but it was stupendous.

  • When China rules the world? Sorry, Not Likely–  This comes from the Washington Times, which I know to be a conservative paper.  Nonetheless, the views in the article stem far from any truth that I can see.  How the author is able to make the statements she does baffles me.  Then again, to each their own.
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Century City

Chengdu Century city hotelAfter the irritation of schedule ass-hattery had subsided, I sat watching the new scenery drifting by. Chengdu looked absolutely nothing like Beijing. The traffic was unbelievable, with cars, scooters trucks, buses and miscellaneous other contraptions weaving in and around one another, a devilish ballet of sorts. Everywhere that I looked, there was construction. Entire sections along the roadway had been ripped out and lay as hug ditches, presumably for the expansion of roads. China is growing at a rate where it is almost unable to keep up with its own transportation needs. The roads are simply unable to handle the needs of shipment and travel.

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I had cursed loudly and quite directly in the face of a teacher when I was informed that we would be headed to yet another hotel. I’m normally much more reserved, and almost immediately regretted the outburst, but was beyond irritation at this point. I came to China to experience China, and as of yet had been left feeling as though all we had seen were done up tourist sites and five star hotels. It was China, but I wanted the low down, the real nitty-gritty. That is until I saw the hotel.

Chengdu Bonsai

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Chengdu’s Century City looks like a monolithic space station out of Stargate or some other sci-fi classic. It was, without a doubt, the largest hotel, and until we had made our way inside, I thought it to be one of the ugliest. Once we entered the building, this opinion changed almost immediately. The lobby was a small world of its own, glowing mysteriously with Christmas lights and a strange spider web-like metal work hanging from the ceiling. As we exited the elevators and made our way to the rooms, I also noted that the hallway lights came on automatically as we passed through each section, rising and dimming with your passage. My roommate for the Sichuan section of the trip never showed up at the airport, which meant that I had a room all to myself. It also meant, however, that I was destined to be the only guy in a group of 8 girls. Not the worst thing that could happen, but after a while I just wanted to talk about beer and things that go boom.

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After we had settled in, a bunch of us headed back down and into the hotel complex to look for some food and drink. There was a small shop, the equivalent of an American convenient store, located less than 2 minutes from the hotel. I bought a cup of extremely spicy instant noodles, along with a large bottle of beer, totaling about 1.50 American. A girl that was with me bought a box of Chinese Oreos called ‘okies’, which were without a doubt the most disgusting things I ate on the trip. They may have surpassed the duck webbing. Snacks and drinks in hand, we made our way back to the hotel and rode the elevator to the very top, arriving at the ‘Sky Bar’, to relax and watch people sing karaoke. I had a good time chatting with the bartenders, who were quick to ask what so many Americans were doing in the one hotel. This conversation in itself could be a post, so I’ll save the details, but it was the beginning of any number of troubles that I would have with the regional dialect, Sichuan-hua. Tired, I headed back to my room and devoured the noodle bowl that I had purchased. About two hours later, I woke up thinking I was suffering from appendicitis. Spicy.

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Landing in Sichuan

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.
Beijing AirportOn 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.

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“CAC, China always cancels!”, chuckling to himself a bit, then adding a little joke about the French airlines,

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“Fly air France, take a chance!”.

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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.

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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.

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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.
Chengdu AirportThe 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:

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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

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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.

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