Life in the ‘Du: Chengdu via ENREACH
By Kyle Labak
I typically advise students against starting with an adage, especially a translation from Chinese. But for want of a better start: “When you’re young, don’t enter Sichuan; when you’re old, don’t leave” (少不入川, 老不出蜀). That is to say, its traditionally slow, folksy way of life can kill the ambitions of the young. But in the twilight of life, it brings a peace and warmth which is to be envied.
Life in Chengdu can be measured as adherence to—and deviations from—such traditional views of its province. Some days, I think slow living is an impossibly distant memory. People don’t cram subways and elevators in a “relaxed” way. When I bike in the city, “peaceful and folksy” aren’t the rules of the road. Yet the vestiges are there. You see people around a table playing majiang, or two old ladies ambling arm in arm, and the slow past seems less distant. Even the way many shopkeepers or restaurateurs treat you is warm and welcoming. (And if you know some Chinese, they will be delighted and surprised.)
You don’t need Chinese to get around, but it can be quite helpful. Sichuan dialect has its own twang and vocab, but everyone knows Mandarin these days. And personally, I’ve had a blast studying a little Sichuan dialect. My coworkers have been quite patient with my curiosity, and always chuckle when I turn a phrase.
You’ve probably heard about the food. That part is true. There are a ton of delicious things to eat: so many, I’m not sure how to list them. A good start would be to Google traditional Chengdu food like hot pot, chuan-chuan, and dan hong gao. But until you’ve put Yan Tai-Po’s guo kuiin your mouth, I can’t explain how amazing it is. It’s a piping hot bun stuffed with your choice of filling and served with an oily hot sauce whose main characteristic is “addictive”. I have waited over 30 minutes, several times, just for one guo kuifrom that particular stand. When you hanker for foreign food, there’s the usual array of MacDonald’s, Burger Kings, etc. But Chengdu also boasts a wide variety of global cuisine. Indian restaurants, Mexican food, and even the infamous Mike’s Pizza—pizza that rivals even places in my native Chicagoland. You won’t go hungry, whatever you have a taste for.
How do we livein cities? By their geography? By monuments and public spaces? By numbers like population, number of app-based bikes per capita, or metro seats per household? By the money we spend and how we spend it? How to explain.
I live by the metro stop Wenshu Monastery, and apartment life isn’t bad at all. I have card which I can charge at a quickie-mart to pay for electricity. Rent is paid tri-monthly, water and fees monthly. One day, a strange woman began yelling outside my door, and when I did not come out, she knocked. She had been shouting “Gas meter!” And that was how I ended up paying the gas bill that month. There’s a fresh produce mart near my house, and two convenience stores. The monastery is a beautiful place to take a walk and ease my mind. Most days, I bike eleven minutes to work.
Chengdu is essentially three massive rings, marked by the “ring roads”. Metro Line 1 cuts the city in half north-to-south. From the monastery, this line goes south to Tianfu Square, a lovely little plaza. Then on down further to Sichuan Gymnasium, with the massive electronics store and Raffles City mall. Going a bit further gets you to Nijiaqiao and the Bookworm, a hip bookstore with a lot of foreigner-friendly events. Until finally you get to Tongzilin, which is widely seen as the foreigners’ district of the city. Mike’s Pizza, the Denny’s-like Pete’s Tex-Mex Grill, and a host of bars and restaurants are down there. Down further, and you get to Gaoxin, where we have our second office. Beyond that, I’ve never been. The other metro lines cut the city into quite a navigable web, especially if used in tandem with the app-accessible bikes. You could find yourself in all sorts of places. There’s a space for blind awareness, Dialogue in the Dark, in which a blind person guides you in a pitch-black tour of common areas. There are the nightclubs in Lan Kwai Fong, near the ancient bridge. And don’t worry, there are Starbucks. But no, you won’t commonly see pandas; they’re outside the main city in a stifling, overcrowded facility.
As for work, whatever I say would probably be changed by the time you read this; that’s just the nature of working with a Chinese company. Things change, and you may get late notice about some things. That experience isn’t for everyone, but I will say that my coworkers here have been quite kind, and everything turns out okay. (You will always get paid on time, at least!) If you are flexible, you will likely have an awesome experience here. Just do your research, as anyone should before an international move, and you shall be fine.
To make a long story over: life in Chengdu isn’t usually slow anymore, but it is still comfortable. The city is a maze of interesting places and experiences, as well as people from all walks of life. It’s not hard to eat well here… and even easier to live well. 少该入川, 老也该入: whether young or old, come experience Chengdu.