CAUTION: Country Under Construction

Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich

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This article is the second in the Lens on China blog series by Lauren Katalinich. Lauren is a 2011 International Studies graduate of the University of Iowa and spent the last year living and working as an English teacher in Chengdu, China.

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.

For over 2,000 years Chengdu, Sichuan’s capital, has played a strategic role in China’s cultural and political development. It was the birthplace of paper money and tea trading. Today it is home to the Giant Panda Research Base and serves as the government’s model city of modernization in Western China. Along with its sister city, Chongqing (hometown of the recent political scandal that went international), Chengdu is classified as a Tier-1.5 city. It is in a transitional phase towards joining the ranks of the famous coastal Tier-1 cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen but it was the reputation of its lively social scene, love of leisure, beautiful scenery and fiery cuisine led me to The Garden City.

After my time here, Chengdu holds a special place in my heart. But let’s get one thing straight: I’m not sure how many dynasties ago the Garden title was won but these days it’s just not feeling too garden-like.

In fact, the weather and lack of greenery was the biggest adjustment for this country-girl-at-heart. The skies are a constant gray due to a mixture of local topography and industrial pollution, and everything outside is covered in a thin layer of dust. On the days that the sun does manage to penetrate the cloud cover, the result is only a faint yellow/gray glow and the perpetual feeling that it’s about 3 p.m. It's a strange place without shadows or blue skies and even though the moist air is touted by the Chinese for its benefits to the complexion it had me vowing on a weekly basis never again to take sunshine or stars for granted. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Chengdu for me in my early days though was the vast disparity between lifestyles in the different areas of this surprisingly compact city. The booming electronics, IT, financial and automobile industries have allowed many to join the ranks of the exorbitantly wealthy and the government is eager to help Chengdu show the world that Western China is on the path to progress. To this end they have poured money into making Chengdu’s infrastructure match its growing wealth. Chengdu’s metro system currently has one line functioning but is set to open nine more in just five years, and the skyline is crowded with cranes and the skeletons of new skyscrapers. On every corner, construction workers labor 24 hours a day, even living in the half-erected buildings on which they are working until they are complete. New projects are cropping up everywhere, but so far the development has taken place predominantly in the richer areas leaving the rest of the city in a strange limbo somewhere in between.

As part of my contract, my school provided me with accommodation in one of the older, less developed neighborhoods away from the modern city center and revamped districts where most other ex-pats reside. It was situated near the eerie ruins of an abandoned amusement park and was not one of the new high rise apartment buildings but a modest “old-school” Chinese one made of concrete and barred windows where my neighbors hung their clothes and meats to dry. Three elderly men took turns sleeping in a tiny room at the front of the complex where they guarded the gate that was promptly locked at 10:30 every evening. Coming home after curfew cost me one yuan and the guilt of waking an old man from his bed.

Even through the bitterly cold winter and blistering summer almost everything is done outside in this part of Chengdu. The remnants of an old Cultural Revolution law banning doors on establishments leaves most restaurants and shops with open storefronts. It made for some less-than-delightful dining and shopping experiences in the winter months but gave new significance to my mother’s old admonishment, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.” In my neighborhoodm, women still bathed their young children on the street, hung out their laundry on lines strung from doorway to doorway, made fires on the corner, and kept chickens tethered to trees outside the hairdressers. A ride down my street offered views of full goats skinned and hanging from hooks outside restaurants and old men and women playing mah-jong over tea.

Continue the ride 10 minutes down the road, however, and enter another world. One teeming with men in Armani suits, tall glass buildings, futuristic skyscrapers and fast, sleek cars (still parked up on the sidewalk in the Chinese way). One of my first days in Chengdu I toured the center of town with a fellow teacher’s friend who happened to be a Porsche dealer. Last year Porsche sold 10,000 cars in Sichuan province alone. “They have the money,” he said, “they want to spend it.” They certainly do.

 Luxury shops dot the wide and well-manicured People’s Road -- Louis Vuitton, Tiffany's, Gucci and Coach. There are a handful of McDonald's, KFCs (with rice side dishes), Pizza Hut (practically a four-star affair here) and the internationally omnipresent Starbucks, serving up lattes on every corner for all those Chinese thirsty for Western culture and high-status symbols.

At moments, even I found myself forgetting where I was, transported by the tall buildings and clean, spacious sidewalks to cities back home. But something always remains distinctly Chinese to bring me back to reality. Sometimes it was the old man who made his living watching bikes all day and passing the time drinking baijiu for lunch. Sometimes it was the street sellers or the innumerable occasions I found myself slowing my gait to a crawl as two women sauntered along the sidewalk in front of me- existing in consummate contrast to the speedy, distracted strutters of New York City streets. There is a patience and inner calm that pervades this roaring, crowded city of change, and though Chengdu may be developing at an unprecedented rate, it’s still holding fast to one title- The City of Leisure.

* Have any of your own reflections on living in large cities? Leave a comment!