A summer of sensory overload in China’s steamy southwest
To walk down any street in Chengdu, the capital of China’s southwest Sichuan province, is to feel it on every inch of skin. On summer days, the heat rises from the dirt-caked roads and sidewalks, and the sun slicing through the smog is unforgivingly bright. A sweaty, sticky mass of bodies competes with endless lines of bicycle riders for slivers of walking space. Ghostly, orphaned high-rises dot the city, courtesy of developers who constantly start new buildings, then run out of money to finish them. Most of old, traditional structures have been torn down to make way for these new buildings because like most of urban China, Chengdu is experiencing a boom.
I am teaching English at Sichuan University for the summer. It’s my first trip to China, and what I’m feeling is sensory overload.
Young Chengdu women step daintily over the ubiquitous spit scattered across the ground as they clutch parasols to protect their milky complexions from tanning. In East Asia, whiteness is next to godliness, at least for the ladies. Not one native eye widens as bare-bottomed children pee in the middle of the busiest downtown street. A tour guide on a later trip explained that Chinese parents dress their children in these crotchless pants for easy relief.
The lack of personal space is daunting at first, as is the dearth of Western-style toilets. In the English teachers’ dormitories where I stay, the toilets are squat-style holes in the ground, and the showers are directly above the toilets. After losing few bars of soap down the toilet, I soon get over my awkwardness, then am humbled by visits to some of my students’ homes. In one apartment, the toilet is in the kitchen, right next the stove.
Sichuan is famous for its giant pandas and for its spicy food. One of better-known dishes of the region is Sichuan hot-pot. To welcome the summer English teachers, two of the program coordinators, both Chengdu residents, generously treat us to dinner at a hot-pot restaurant. Each table holds two inset bowls full of scalding, pepper-red soup brought to a boil with the twist of a knob. The fiery broth is not replaced for each new customer, but sits in the bowl all day to be repeatedly reheated.
Long tables heavy with raw tripe, tendons and unidentifiable meats and vegetables flank the restaurant?s walls, waiting to be cooked in the bowls at the table. At one end of a table, dozens of people line up to pile their plates with little burgundy-colored hunks of meat. Moving closer, I see they are sauce-covered rabbit heads, with eyeballs and spiky teeth still intact. The program coordinators say that the rabbit heads are a delicacy, and they both dig in. None of us English teachers are adventurous enough to try them. The hum of eating and conversation is periodically punctuated with the sound of people hocking spit onto the floor.
After about a week of ultra-spicy meals, blisters form inside and around my mouth, and my stomach is a mess. It hurts to smile, speak or eat. I am taken to Sichuan University’s hospital. The place seems eerily empty, quiet and in desperate need of a good scrub. Drops of what look like dried blood are speckled across the floor on the way to the doctor’s office. The doctor is a plump, middle-aged woman. After a brief examination, she says that because of the spicy food, my foreign constitution and the humid weather, my body has shang huo. Literally translated, that means “on fire.” She prescribes a few mysterious medications that work immediately.
Many of our Chinese students have misconceptions about the United States. One young boy insists that every American home has a swimming pool. Another adult student cannot believe that the bicycle is not the main mode of transportation.
Later in the summer, during a trip to Chengdu Panda Research Center, one of the English teachers is excited to learn that for about $10, foreigners can buy the photo op of a lifetime. Squirming baby pandas are placed beside delighted visitors; then the camera flashes go off.
When it?s my turn, severe-looking handlers bring a panda out of an open-air pen and roughly slam him down on the bench. I reach over to lightly touch his wiggling body. For a moment, he is still.
On our last trip of the summer, we go to visit the temples and monasteries of Emei Mountain. The name Emei refers to eyebrows and, from afar, the two gentle peaks do resemble the lines of elegantly arched brows. We need to take a long, early-morning bus ride. As the bus climbs through the amethyst dawn, the stinging breeze rubs my face. Passengers bounce hard against cracked and fading vinyl seats.
Along the roadside lie broken bowls, perhaps remnants of hurried meals eaten while waiting to be driven up or carried on the bent back of a stranger. With each turn, I am afraid the bus will fly off the mountain. A light rain comes through an open window, and begins to powder my arm.
The bus winds further up the road, like a tiny figurine of metal and flesh. Almost there.
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