I woke up at 6am this morning, thinking about the American-in-China culture clash I was experiencing. It’s what I came here for, testing my deepest beliefs, my earliest training, by slapping me in the face with so much new and different. It’s how I learn where my attachments are – attachments in a Buddhist/neurological sense. When I experience something new it reveals the old, and I see with new eyes.
In this context, I asked myself where Chinese and Americans were going to meet, where would we find common ground, and where to agree to disagree. It’s no different than my transplantation to North Carolina, just magnified!
What do we share in common – the Chinese person I pass in the street and me? To even begin to find the answer, I need to get out, put myself into the world of Chengdu. I won’t learn enough sitting in my apartment. I decided I’d go out early in the morning, before people head to work, to see what the world looks like at sunrise.
Okay, so I didn’t get out until 8am. I had a few e-mails to answer. I had to take a shower, brush my teeth, put on my deodorant, get dressed, make myself presentable? From the kitchen balcony I could tell it was deliciously cooler outside, only a drop of rain here and there. I put on my yellow short-sleeved polo shirt and my light-green shorts. My shoes failed me. The linings had torn/worn at the heel (hence yesterday’s blisters). I tore the linings out, tested the modification wearing my low-top socks, and made a mental note to find inserts. With my little black umbrella, green Wal-Mart bag (I was going to finish my walk with some shopping), my Samsung cell phone with a GPS mapping app, and my Kindle Fire tablet loaded with the Pleco Chinese/English dictionary app, I set out upon my mission.
I used the back elevator, which is closer to the store (I’m a smart monkey), turned right, and headed into the jungle that grew over the streets in my neighborhood. I noticed that nearly everyone was walking the other way, out of the jungle and into the city. They were also looking down, leaning slightly forward as they walked, paying very close attention to their cell phones. I remembered the GPS app on my own cell phone and pulled it out of my pocket, tapped in my pass-code, and stared at the little dot that was me.
A car honked. I jumped to the left to let it pass. But it was only a motorbike with a horn that sounded like a car. Why had he honked? There was plenty of room in the road for a pedestrian and a motorbike. I watched as he headed further down the street and heard him honk several more times, at everyone, or perhaps at nothing in particular. I gritted my teeth and frowned. I don’t like honking.
My eyes widened. My first lesson for the day. Lots of people honk in China. Some say it’s used like a turn signal. Realizing my training, my American cultural training, I re-considered what I had just experienced. Perhaps I should think of honking as a form of social interaction. What if honking were the same as clicking the “like” thumbs-up icon on Facebook? Down the road, the motorbike honked again. I smiled as I heard the motorbike driver “liking” everything he passed.
There were lots of stores along the street, mainly noodle shops and tea houses. I heard some blaring western-style music being sung in Chinese coming from one of the shops. There were six uniformed workers, standing outside, facing their store, all doing the same movement exercises. Did they have their backs to the street traffic because they were embarrassed? Or just trying to be inconspicuous? The loud music argued the former.
One of the reasons the streets look so jungle-like is that the trees are allowed to grow against the buildings. They’re not trimmed for wires or blocked views.
The trees make a beautiful shady walkway. The canopy completely closes over the top of a two-lane road, with parking, and sidewalks.
I came across another reason the trees might be there: a canal system.
As I enjoyed my cool walk, I noticed everyone else was dressed in long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and a coat. I got stares, perhaps because I have such handsome legs, but more likely because 65 F. was cold compared to the 85 F. we had day before yesterday. I was glad not to be sweating, something nobody else seemed to suffer. It didn’t matter. I was going to stand out anyway. I was the only Westerner I saw all morning.
I turned a corner and saw another man wearing a t-shirt and shorts. We saw each other, I think. We walked along together for a few steps. He was carrying a paper bag with handles… with a puppy poking his head up over the edge of the bag. It was so cute, I wanted to take a picture, but my attempt to get his attention was not successful and at the next intersection we went separate ways.
I passed a Montessori school and made a mental note to consider asking if they ever wanted me to sing American folk songs and play guitar for the children. One of my goals this trip is to learn a Chinese song.
After circling the block, keeping certain landmark buildings in sight, I arrived back at my apartment building. I had forgotten about the GPS, pulled it out of my pocket, but the little dot was right where I had left it. I guess the GPS will be more useful when I get lost. I shrugged, disappointed that I hadn’t seen the dot move, and went shopping at my favorite Wal-Mart.
I can only imagine what I would think if I saw someone taking pictures in Wal-Mart? I mean, Wal-Mart isn’t the most beautifully appointed store. But there I was, snapping away. I turned off my flash, and waited for the aisle to clear a bit, before taking each shot.
This is the dried seafood section.
My favorite item in the savory pastry section: sausage and egg breakfast cooked into a bread basket. If a hot dog in a biscuit is a pig in a blanket, does that make this a pig and chicken in a bed roll?
I found some pork buns (at least that’s what they looked like). In the same case, at the other end, there were some steamed buns that looked similar to the bean buns I used to eat in San Francisco’s Chinatown. But these buns didn’t have the one or two red or black dots on the outside to say that there was red or black bean or lotus paste inside. I bought one of each and took a picture of the name to investigate at home. Unfortunately, the clerk put both buns in the same bag, mixing them together. He also charged me the same price for both buns, even though the signage showed 1.20 yuan for one and 1.50 yuan for the other. I watched carefully as he charged me only 2.40 for the two, using the lower price. I thanked him. When I got home I tore open the buns only to find they were identical and contained nothing! So maybe no dots means just a plain, unfilled steamed bun? A mystery that will have to wait for another day. (Note: Per my dictionary, the name of the cheaper bun was “plain steamed bun”. Next time I’ll have to try to get some “corn filled” steam buns. Maybe even ask for “red bean” or “lotus” filled buns?
Here are the results of my shopping trip: broccoli, young ginger root, young onion, two plain steamed buns, dried mushrooms, eggplant, a bag of black beans, a bag of sesame seeds, a squeeze jar of honey, a jar of hoisin sauce, and a jar of red pepper (hot oil) paste. (Missing from the picture is a small bottle of sesame oil.)
Tonight’s dinner will be broccoli ginger beef, with honey-braised hard Chinese tofu instead of beef. I’ll throw in some dried mushrooms, too. They’re soaking up water right now.
PS: While I was typing this, I met my first insect! Well, second, if you count the unseen mosquito that bit the back of my left arm just above the elbow last night, at the same time Melissa says she was bit by a mosquito, on the back of her left arm, just above the elbow. Seems the insects have had internet all along. We just didn’t notice until we got internet!
Since arriving, I had not seen a single insect or bird. I have heard a parrot in the neighborhood, seen one cat on a distant rooftop patio, and of course there was the puppy in a bag from this afternoon.
A bee came in the kitchen, rounded the door, and flew straight at me, or so I thought as my hand flew up to brush him away. Had he heard I got some honey? Like a true bee, he wasn’t interested in me, and headed straight for the brightest corner of the window. I watched for a minute, hoping he would head to the other end of the long window where I had a section open. But he did not. He buzzed towards the bright clouds (yes, clouds, I actually saw clouds for the first time instead of a thick haze). I wasn’t sure how long it would take him to find his own way out, so I intervened, getting a glass from the kitchen, searching for a piece of cardboard or stiff paper, finding my cheat sheet for Simon and Garfunkle’s “Mrs. Robinson.” I folded Mrs. Robinson in half, clamored up onto the wide window seat, and glassed the bee. I slid Mrs. Robinson under to seal the bee inside and I carried him to the window. “Where will you go, Joe DiMagio,” I hummed, remembering that I still needed to check with the consulate on how to vote in the Presidential election coming up.