24.03.2015 - 04.04.2015
“Ring, Ring, Ring,” the last time I would hear my alarm go off in my Southern Vermont home for the next 98 days. After saying my final farewell to my brother and packing the car in negative temperatures, my parents, girlfriend, and I were on our way to Bradley International Airport at 1:00 am. 24 hours later, I found myself in my Shanghai hotel room. Within five minutes of my arrival, I walked several blocks up to the Global Market shopping mall in search of a jacket, dinner, and a new culture. What better place to experience culture than in the mall, anyways? The place was packed; thousands of Chinese shoppers, sales clerks and vendors flowed through the aisles. It was almost overwhelming. With my broken Chinese, I ordered some noodles, bought a jacket, and asked some Chinese students about their New Year, being the fifth day of the Spring Festival. Exhausted I went back to my room ready for what the Chinese culture had in store for me!
For the next few days, I was given the standard tour of Shanghai; viewing the business district, walking the Bund, dinner in the Pearl Tower’s revolving restaurant, and so on. Although everything was exhilarating and new, I didn’t feel that culturally immersed. Sure, I was surrounded by Chinese people eating Chinese food, trying to speak the language and the like, but I felt that Shanghai’s vibe of modernity was not exactly what I had in mind.
On February 28, I found myself back in the airport boarding the plane to Chengdu. Only this time, something was different. I was literally the only westerner on the plane and nothing was written in English anymore. Two Chinese students in the seats next to me asked me in Mandarin about my plans in China telling me about life in Chengdu in exchange. Although I was just on an airplane, this was the first time that I felt immersed in the Chinese culture! I got off of my plane, met my Chengdu program leader, Yoyo, and was driven through the city to the West Overseas Student Dormitory. I dropped my bags off and walked to a hotpot restaurant for some traditional Sichuanese dinner. Chengdu, at a glance, seemed much different from Shanghai; less skyscrapers, more trees and rural-looking living areas, students and families, and an overall greater sense of community. The culture here seems much more like the China that I had imagined!
On my second day in Chengdu, I woke up and left my dormitory in search of a place to find breakfast. I figured that the best indicator of good food is a large group of the local people, so I approached a local baozi stand. Baozis are steamed bread filled with meat, similar to a dumpling but with bread instead of dumpling wrappers as the outer layer. They are one of Chengdu’s most popular breakfast items and I joined the trend!
After breakfast, I walked to the local supermarket in search of toiletries, snacks and school supplies. The supermarket sure is something; what a great representation of the Chinese culture. The second floor seemed quite similar to an American Walmart; isles of household goods that any store would sell. However, the first floor was a bit different. Tanks full of frogs, turtles, crabs, eels and various types of fish lined the walls. The building next door sold livestock; chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and so on. The Chinese customers simply pick out their animal of choice as if they are selecting the most crisp apple of the bunch. This was the start of my experience of the Chinese food culture. In China, people really take a lot of time and pride in preparing food. Although fast and efficient, the dishes are always as aesthetically pleasing as they are tasty. Even the preparation of cooking seems vital; pulling the noodles by hand, marking each type of baozi with a particular vegetable, heating the tea cups with hot water before serving the tea and so on.
Yesterday, I decided to purchase a gym membership. I avoided the more expensive, westernized gym and instead joined the local school weight room. It was packed with dozens of other Sichuan University students who used old, run down machines and rusted weights. My kind of place! I met three guys who spoke to me (all in Chinese at this point in my trip) about the United States, my hopes while living in Chengdu and my experience lifting weights. We exchanged information using the popular Chinese social media application Wechat and decided to play basketball sometime together! Only my third day in Chengdu and I’m already making friends with the locals! Last night I was taken to the Sichuan Opera, perhaps Sichuan’s most traditional source of entertainment. Using ancient Chinese language, song, dance, and costume, the performers displayed acrobatics, sword fighting, mask changing and so on. Every act was incredible! They really did a great job of portraying China’s ancient culture.
Today, I got out of bed and sat down with a Chinese student that I hadn’t yet met and ate breakfast with her. She told me that she studies music here at Sichuan University and that she would like to play for me sometime. Unfortunately, I could not translate the word for the instrument that she was referring to. Of course, I agreed and we exchanged contact information. I am very surprised at how quickly I am becoming adjusted to Chengdu; it is as if I have lived here for quite some time and have just returned. I am still very early in my trip, but I am already finding myself in culturally immersing situations. Every day, I find myself speaking less English, meeting more locals, and learning more about Chinese culture. I am eager to see what the next few months bring!