China / Travelling in Chengdu

Seeing Chengdu through the eyes of visitors

By Clemens Kienzle ( Updated: 2016-04-01 10:26

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"It’s all so modern!” my sister exclaims in amazement as we ride in the taxi from the airport to the hotel. I had finally half-coerced, half-lured some family members to visit China, and Chengdu was showing its best side. The sky was clear and the traffic was still light from the Chinese New Year exodus.

My sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew had come with packed suitcases as well as a few stereotypes and misconceptions. “So what do you feel like doing now?” I ask, “Are you guys hungry or do you want to rest in the hotel first?” My 9 year old niece responds: “I have decided to only eat vegetarian food while I’m here!” “Yeah, she is worried that someone will slip cat meat into her dish”, my sister adds. I sigh, “People here don’t eat cat meat. Well, maybe some people do, but you’d have to go to a special restaurant and probably pay a lot of money! So no one is going to hide cat meat in your food, ok?”

I now realize that the hotel in the High-tech Zone was the perfect choice. Their first impression of Chengdu will be that of a super modern world city. After checking into their hotel, I suggest some breakfast and coffee, for example at the nearby Starbucks. “Yeah, a coffee would be great”, says my brother-in-law “but not at Starbucks, no way”, as we usually dislike the chain for their commercialization of coffee culture. But this is China, so I chuckle inside; my own first visit to Starbucks was on my first day in Chengdu. “Well if you don’t want to go to Starbucks, then your choice of coffee might be limited”. In the end, we end up at Starbucks after all.

During their first few days, they continue to experience the modern side of Chengdu; its giant malls, brand-new subway, its city center, and of course the pandas. After a while of this, I start to worry that this is all they will see. Time to showcase them something more unique, so we take a crowded Chengdu bus to Jinli Street. We stop to marvel at every stone, lantern, and decoration. When we stop to eat, I need to figure out what they could possible like. Beef noodles? Let’s hope they aren’t spicy. Fried peanuts? That should work too. Tangyuan should also be fine, since they are used to sesame and sweetness. In the end, my nephew eats most of the noodles while I finish the peanuts and tangyuan. Oh well, I’m giving up on Chinese food for today and suggest Mexican food for dinner. The sights of Chengdu will prove to be more amazing than the taste of Sichuan cuisine.

Having visitors makes me as an expat feel strangely at home in Chengdu. Until now, I have always felt helpless and lost whenever I try to use my rudimentary Chinese with people. Suddenly, with a crowd of guests in tow who can’t understand a word, I realize how much I’ve picked up. There are many small subtle moments like this. At a teahouse, I’m aware that you don’t order a quick cup of tea like my brother-in-law attempts to do, you invest in tea leaves and enjoy the changing taste for a few hours. Sometimes I can almost start to understand the local Chengdu residents who chuckle at us clueless foreigners. Like when my family arrives at the breakfast buffet in the hotel in Dujiangyan and is disappointed by the Chinese-style breakfast. “Haha, were you expecting coffee, toast, and cereal? Here, have a steamed bread bun and some soy milk”, is more or less my reaction.

The surprise of my visitors at finding themselves in a modern, clean, and prosperous city, rather than run-down, dirty, and impoverished, which is apparently what they were expecting China to be, causes me to rethink some of the annoyances I’ve developed about living in Chengdu too. After spending a few days with people who keep commenting on the cleanliness and modernity, I start to realize that it actually is pretty neat here. I also notice many of the wondrous sights again that made every step out the door an amazing experience when I first came to Chengdu, but that have now become ordinary.

By the end of the trip, my visitors have seen the modern showcase areas of Chengdu as well as the old temples and lanes of Dujiangyan, the modern residential compounds as well as the older apartment blocks where the less prosperous live, the crowded traffic of the Chengdu rush hour as well as the mountains and rivers around Chengdu. My sister concludes: “This really wasn’t what I expected. I realize that I came with a lot of biases I wasn’t even aware of.” I start to think of a famous quote of Mark Twain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”.

Seeing Chengdu through the eyes of visitors

The opinions expressed do not represent the views of the China Daily website.

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