Given the fact that most girls by the age of 12 have already begun to consider the minutiae of their future Big Day along with the popularity of reality TV shows on the topic, there is no doubt we are marriage- or at least wedding- crazy in the United States. But if you’re feeling wedding pressure here, thank your lucky stars you’re not a 20-something in China.
One of the most amazing things about living abroad is that every day is an adventure to the senses. In China, I needn't look far to see sights that surprised me on a daily basis. Just when I thought I had my neighbors’ daily routines figured out, one of them would start carefully laying out peppers on the sidewalk (to dry in the sun) or a group of old men would be gathered in the park for kite flying festival. You never know what you're going to see next!
I wake with a start at 7:00 AM to the sound of the Chinese National Anthem through my window. Somehow its melodies seem too grand for a daily occurrence. Nevertheless, it plays faithfully over the school’s loudspeakers every morning; waking me like some patriot’s alarm clock. I lay in my bed, motivating my body to move while the children of Liewu Public Middle School stand to attention on the other side of the thin wall that separates my apartment building from the school courtyard...
My stomach growling in anticipation, I follow my nose and compliantly slip out of the drizzle into the bright restaurant to my right. It is astonishingly small, just a few tables packed snugly into a dingy storefront. The menus consist of single sheets of paper with lists of indecipherable Chinese characters, and though I always hope for menus with pictures, a good option for the illiterate eater in China is to find something you like and stick with it. In my case, this is the famous, the magical, Gong Bao ji ding (Kung Pao chicken).
I’m not really one to be picky about the authenticity of ethnic food in America. Like all who have experienced its magic, I too was entranced by the bucatini all’amatriciana served up in the street cafes of Rome and Florence, but at the same time I can appreciate Olive Garden for what it is. I can sympathize with the difficulty of re-creating beyond French borders the delicate flakiness of a croissant or the perfect baguette (soft, light interior + crunchy crust), and am equally forgiving of Tex-Mex (my favorite and most dearly missed cuisine when I’m abroad). As a rule, as long as it’s tasty, I will accept it with an open mind and mouth. Until China.
“Being white” is not something I really think about on a daily basis and, like a lot of people, talking about race makes me cringe just a little bit. But once in China I soon realized that my entire experience would be shaped by this part of my identity that I have rarely been concerned with- the fact that I was white. And not only white, but 5 foot 9'' with sandy blonde hair and blue eyes.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China. The Country of Heaven. The Garden City. Land of Abundance. Sounds like an alright place to spend six months to me. I hardly knew what to expect when I arrived in Chengdu, city of 11 million people, after my month-long orientation in the beautifully rural Guilin (think blue skies and Mario World-like mountains). I left early one clear, hot August morning by train and arrived 27 hours later, sweaty and tired at Chengdu Dong Train Station. Talk about an imposing introduction. It opened just three months earlier and still smelled uncommonly like a new pair of shoes. Passengers leaving the train face a mountain of stairs followed by stark white and cavernous rooms seemingly designed to maximize required walking distance or possibly to accommodate the entire population of China should they all decide to vacation here at the same time. I would soon discover that Chengdu Dong Station wasn’t the only building that smelled like new shoes in this city and is, in fact, a perfect introduction to the desired feel of modern Chengdu -- bright, new, grandiose and ever-so-slightly extravagant.
"China?” my dental hygienist asks as she inspects my back molar, “Well, how was that?” The dentist chair is in full recline with my mouth obligingly open to allow her metal tools to prod away. In the end all I can manage is, “oh, it was grood…” It is the fate of every traveler when they return home to be asked that dreaded question – to sum up the experience of a lifetime in a sentence short enough to be uttered between teeth x-rays. But China is a particularly ambitious task, dental impediments aside; I have yet to come up with a good response.