We will have been in China two weeks from tomorrow, although it feels much longer than that. After posting a lot of photos, I think the time is right to attempt to sum things up in words. Here we go.

Things on the street move with a hectic frenzy. Traffic is crazy, with cars driving in on-coming lanes, vehicles turning right through throngs of pedestrians trying to cross the street. Unlike the States, pedestrians don’t have the right-of-way. Cars, trucks, buses, bikes, mopeds, all zigzagging and weaving around and through each other at intersections. It’s a kind of chaos in which drivers know the rules enough to avoid multi-car pile-ups. People use their horns to communicate their location, as opposed to yell at someone.

In 2000 there were 650,000 cars in this city of 11 million. In 2005 this number grew to 1.3 million. In 2006 General Motors reported a 40% increase in car sales in Chengdu. Bikes, which used to be one of the primary modes of transport, are increasingly sidelined. I estimate they make up about 10% of transportation. It’s still very awesome to see so many bikes on the street, and bikes and scooters have their own lanes, usually along the street, with a divider between them and cars, and sometimes on the sidewalk.

Scooters are very popular here, as are electric bikes, which move very slow and seemed designed for lazy bicyclists.

Critical Mass?

Parked Bikes

The city is huge, roughly equivalent to NYC in size. A lot of people take the bus. Buses here, as well as cabs, are powered by Natural Gas, which burns cleaner than gasoline. It costs less than two yuan to take the bus (about 7.5 yuan make a dollar).

A New York Times article concerning China’s economy and environment made the analogy of China being like a teenager with emphysema who insists on smoking. This place is very polluted. Chengdu is in a valley, so there’s not much air circulation anyway, but add to the stagnancy of the air tons of industrial pollution and vehicle exhaust and you have a deadly brew. Only 1% of people living in China’s 67 or so major cities have air that meets EU standards of acceptability. And that’s what the capitalist West says is ok to take into your lungs. Add to this the burgeoning middle class and the clamoring after consumer goods, especially cars, in a country of 1.2 billion, and one can see big trouble ahead.

Waiting to Cross

At first we felt pretty isolated here. It’s difficult to describe the feeling of not being able to understand anything you hear or see written for days on end. How are we to navigate through a city of 11 million like this? Lara asked me one morning if I thought there was a need for acupuncturists in Italy. Why China, why not Germany? Any place other than this. I have to admit I kind of hated it for awhile. I couldn’t understand anything, and the possibility of communicating seemed impossible. Plus it’s so dirty, you can’t see the sky, and the whole city at first resembled 14th Street in Manhattan.

The first week or so was hard, but after struggling through with our limited knowledge of the language and with the aid of various reference materials, we started to make some headway. We’ve started learning the words for things, and can now communicate on a very basic level. We still feel like little kids, barely able to talk, but at the same time we know we can get better at it. The administrators at the university are setting up a Mandarin class for us and the other foreign teachers, which begins this Monday. I’m looking forward to starting that.

As we take the bus around the city more and more, I’m starting to really like Chengdu. It feels more provincial than Beijing, yet it has everything a big city can offer. In addition, there are a lot of parks, teahouses, and greenery, and we’re figuring out how to get around. We’ve been walking a lot.

I still haven’t figured out the economy of the emergent middle class, i.e where their money comes from, what kind of work they do, what their pay is like. But it’s a sizable number of people. Billboards and stores are everywhere. All the visible signs are of consumption, not production. I’m not sure where the factories are. Intel has a new one here, as does Volkswagen.

It seems a lot of people work in firms in central Chengdu. There’s also a large section of the economy made up of small shop owners. But it’s amazing they stay in business, with either very slow sales, or immense competition. Near a Sports Stadium in central Chengdu there are shop after shop selling sporting goods, gym shoes, etc. One after the other, all the same store basically. With no one in any of them, except those who work there, sometimes asleep.

We have recently connected with the local ex-pat (expatriat) community, via a little French cafe and a monthly English language magazine (

It took us a week to find them, and it was such a relief. We felt less isolated being able to talk to people about life in Chengdu, getting advise on where to go and people to talk to about things like local gyms and people who study Chinese medicine, etc.

The cafe is awesome, with Friday night DJs and Sunday evening cinema. It’s a gathering place for creative types, artists, musicians, teachers, and writers and has a decent mix of Chinese, Europeans, and Americans. We have also made friends with two people, a couple, a man from New Zealand and a women from the US, who are here teaching English and live in our building.

It’s pretty funny, but many local people we talk to get a kick out of our interest in martial arts. It’s as though anything that existed in China pre-Revolution is gone. The world began in 1949, or perhaps after the trial of the Gang of Four, and now it’s all the New China, which largely consists of producing goods for the world, and for a select section of the urban population, becoming either rich, or middle-class.

At the same time, in our long walks around town, I have started to see little Chinese medicine shops, with herbs and treatment areas. In addition, Lara and I visited the Chengdu University for Traditional Chinese Medicine, and I talked with them about options for study. They expressed their desire for me to become part of their community, and suggested several possibilities, including joining a translators group, participating in a group that meets to talk about various topics in Chinese medicine, and maybe even teaching a class. We also discussed practicing Tai Ji Chuan, my interning with a Chinese Doctor, and attending lectures and events. The person we talked to knew my mentor, Dr. Liu, who used to teach there and comes back to visit periodically.

So this place is starting to make sense, and we’re settling in. Lara started teaching class yesterday, and was enthused to see people’s personalities and ideas, which can only come through a shared language. Today at lunch we joked around with the owner in Mandarin, although this came at the end of a tasty and cheap lunch during which we were the center of attention for about a dozen people. The Chinese are very stoic, and prefer generally to look at us out of the corners of their eyes. But sometimes they just plain stare. We wave and say Ni Hao! or Hello! and they laugh and smile.


August 27th, 2007

We arrived in Chengdu yesterday afternoon, via a short flight from Beijing. This has been a study in contrasts. Chengdu is more tropical, greener, with more insect and bird sounds. It’s also more humid, rainy, overcast and, like Beijing, hot in the afternoon. It’s definitely more rundown than Beijing, everything we’ve seen so far resembles 14th Street in Manhattan. Little shops selling junk at cheap prices. Very few, if any, of the signs are in English. Unlike Beijing there are more parks here, more green space. It’s very much more like being in China, despite the best efforts of globalization.

We spent our first night in an on-campus apartment, but we didn’t like it that much and they let us move upstairs. Our new place is ten times better. We have a bedroom, and a large living room, with a balcony, and a nice kitchen that also has it’s own balcony. We have a washing machine in the bathroom. And internet service in the apartment. We’re actually living on campus, and the students all look like high schoolers to us. About 80% of them are girls.

The complete lack of English language is forcing us to learn Mandarin. It’s funny just going to the store to get something to wash the floors with, pantomiming mopping, to get the right thing. We went out to eat this afternoon with our Guide books, pointing to the Chinese characters for Tofu, Rice, and vegetables. It was fairly comical, but we got what we wanted, had a nice lunch despite the pork mixed in with the tofu, and it all cost less than $3 for both of us.

Well, Beijing was fun, now it’s time to get down to business. In the next couple of days we’ll get bikes, and register with the local Chinese authorities, and at the US Consulate, get some more shots. Lara will start teaching in the next couple of days, and we’ll be looking into Chinese language lessons, probably here at the university.

Lara and I arrived in Beijing yesterday afternoon. There was another Georgetown Fellow on the flight with us, a young man who speaks Mandarin, and is pretty cool. The flight wasn’t bad. They showed three movies, part of one I watched, and we got to read and sleep. Before we knew it, we had arrived. Just after clearing Customs, beyond the throngs of people waiting to pick up new arrivals, there was a KFC and a Starbucks, like any American airport. We were met at the airport by a driver from the US Embassy.

The drive to the hotel was great. The main highway to Beijing is lined with trees and flowers, and there’s tons of new construction going on. The highway signs are in large Chinese characters, with the pin yin, and then English. When we were making our descent, I joked to Lara that the land looks like Illinois. Sure enough, one of the exit signs along the highway said “Illinois.” We don’t know what that was.

We’re staying at the Comfort Inn, in Beijing, within walking distance of a whole bunch of restaurants. We checked into our hotel, took an hour nap and showers, then went out for pizza at a place that has a large stone oven, with Nolan, the Mandarin speaking Fellow, and a local Beijing women friend of his. The pizza was good, and it was nice to sit down and relax. We were really feeling exhausted by this point, trying to stay awake long enough to get in sync with the local time, fifteen hours in the future.

We walked back to our hotel, and sat and watched rush hour traffic. Lots of buses, bikes, mopeds and cars and trucks. Lot’s of people walking, strolling around. It’s fairly humid, and hot. We aren’t drawing much attention. Beijing seems to be a fairly international city, with lots of people from all over. I was surprised by how many Westerners I saw riding their bikes through the streets.

Today Lara is going to an all day Orientation, so I’m going to go look around and have fun. It’s already Thursday morning here. We woke up at 7:15 AM local time, but it’s “really” 4:15 in the afternoon the previous day. Weird.