Hazarding a Life in Chengdu

Here’s the blog I entered in the ExpatsBlog.com contest. I ended up getting 2nd out of 8 entries in the China catergory, with 39 comments. It wasn’t the showing I was hoping for, but it was still fun to write for a wider audience. I hope to find some similar writing opportunities in the future.

Thank you to everyone who commented!


Chengdu comes in at #39 on a list of the world’s largest cities, with nearly 8 million residents calling this landlocked city home.  8 million people means it is a metropolis, but if it were interviewing for a job and asked to name three adjectives describing itself, cosmopolitan would definitely not be in the list. Big?  Yes. Up and coming? Definitely.  On par with the great cities of the world like New York, Paris and London? Not quite yet. But, that lack of refinement is exactly what I love about this city. Beijing and Shanghai are great, but they’ve lost a lot of their quirks, their uniqueness and their spirit. Having over a thousand miles between here and the bustling life of the capital has allowed Chengdu to remain its own city, fostering a distinctly Sichuan character- loud and brash, but still laid back and relaxed.
Filled with the ruins of ancient civilizations, as a gateway to Tibet and where you can find anything and everything emblazoned with a panda decal, Chengdu is a fantastic city for ex-pats to call home. We’ve got spicy food that will put even the hardiest taste buds to the test and tea houses dot the city like freckles on a ginger. But, it’s not all fun and games! Western China has its own set of rules when it comes to daily life; pitfalls lurk around every corner and on every sidewalk. To be a successful ex-pat in Chengdu, there are a few “dangers” you must be mindful of on a regular basis.

Since the Chinese (especially western China-dwelling) tend to be rather superstitious, here are a lucky eight “Chengdu dangers,” in no particular order:

1) Electric scooters.  Silent as that holy night in late December, they’ll sneak up on the unsuspecting foreigner, whipping by mere centimeters from pedestrians. Heaven forbid you are walking with a friend, gesticulating even semi-wildly as you recount your day at the panda reserve, for your elbow is likely to be clipped by a passing, eerily silent scooter.  Don’t think that you’re safe just because you are walking on the sidewalk, which one would think would be designated for foot traffic. Road, bus lane, sidewalk- they’re all home to the free-range scooters in town.

2) Grandmas on the subway. Who’s the most aggressive public transportation rider in Chengdu? There’s no question it is the little old woman who stands about five feet tall and is willing to push her way through any crowd to be the first on (or off) the bus/subway/train/plane. Her slight stature gives her a lower center of gravity, somehow allowing her to push burly foreign men out of the way, her elbows precisely placed in the kidneys of anyone blocking her passage.

3) Death-che. (Also called “san lun che” or three-wheeled car.) For those who have traveled in Southeast Asia, these are essentially the Chinese version of the tuk-tuk. In Chengdu, these little rolling tin cans are restricted to certain areas of town, and yet, I see them everywhere. The drivers can smell desperation from blocks away; when you are getting passed up by cab after cab on a Friday night, they’ll slowly sidle up next to you, ask where you are going, give you a ridiculously high rate (that they’ll bargain no more than about five kuai on) and then wait for you to give in to the temptation of a ride, even a potentially hazardous one.

4) Brick bombs. It rains in Chengdu. Not all year long, but we have very definite rainy periods where we get enough precipitation to flood the streets and make the river overflow its banks. But, it isn’t the rain that is the hazard. It is the sidewalks after the rain. You see, many sidewalks in Chengdu are made of these square bricks that are set on top of whatever ground was there originally, but they are not well-cemented down. This means after a few rains, they come lose and are wobbly, leaving space between the brick and the ground for small puddles to collect. Then, as you are innocently walking to work in your adorable new gunmetal gray tights, you step on one of these unattached bricks, squirting the muddy water up the back of your legs, forcing you to utter a string of not very nice words and essentially ruining your cute tights. Total brick bomb.

5) Parasols. Yes, fancy umbrellas- watch out for them! The problem isn’t so much the devices themselves, although their ubiquitous nature is a bit overwhelming. They come out when it rains; they come out when it’s sunny. But, the real issue lies in the height difference between the average Chinese woman and me. I’m 5’10”, which puts my eyeballs directly in the line-of-poking for those sharp metal ends that come off of each section of the umbrella. (Google tells me these are called “end cleats.” I think “ocular gougers” would be a more apt moniker.)  While sunglasses are rarely needed in Chengdu due to the constant overcast nature of the city, I’ve become a continuous wearer, as more than once they’ve saved my eyes for near-blinding.

6) Chinese New Year’s fireworks. Fireworks are fabulous and no one does them better than the Chinese. The problem is, Chengdu does them for a month! They start early and run late. Chengdu is always up for a celebration, so the New Year provides the perfect opportunity to show off all manner of explosions. In the month leading up to Spring Festival, little orange tents pop up on every other corner, all around town. Just a step inside the tent reveals the hazards of this time of year. With little or no regulation (at least enforced regulations), you can buy fireworks of all sizes off the street. Explosive devices that would be left to city fire departments to ignite are sold to teenagers, making the days leading up to the festival a cacophony of pops, booms and bangs! I’ve always contended that if a country wanted to invade China, the night of New Year’s Eve would be the time to do it. With so many mortars and shells exploding throughout the city, there would be no way to differential friendly and enemy fire.

7) Paparazzi.  Flash! Snap! Click! The camera shutters are snapping left and right. Okay, so it may not be as intense as Kanye West’s front yard, but being a tall, blonde foreigner in Chengdu definitely attracts some attention. Again, while Chengdu is a large city, it is still relatively undiscovered in terms of ex-pats living here, so a trip anywhere other than the panda base (where the foreigner tourists congregate, en mass) elicits a rather constant stream of less-than-stealthy photography. Whether it is in the supermarket as I buy meat or People’s Park where I just want to enjoy a few brief hours of sunshine, a trip out of my apartment means I need to be camera-ready. Some people will quietly take a cell phone picture, while others will be quite unabashed in their photographical documentation of my existence. I’ve had large lens cameras shoved in my face, been a part of group photos with my new Chinese “friends,” and even posed with women sporting dynasty-era costumes (I was in red-dirt covered jeans after hiking down a mountain. It was awesomely incongruous).

8) Loogies.  It’s disgusting. I know. I almost didn’t add them to my list because it is so icky, but I’d be remiss in my cautionary duties if I didn’t include it, because even though it is yucky, the real danger is in the viscosity. Loogies are literally as slick as snot! Since they are everywhere (on the sidewalk, the floor of the subway train, the aisle of the supermarket, etc.), it is best to be aware and ready to right yourself (and hold down your lunch) when you feel the inevitable slip of your foot in that tiny, gooey pile of phlegm.   (I feel queasy just typing this one!)

So, Chengdu- even with the potentially eye-socket piercing rain gear and silent but deadly scooters- it’s a fabulous city. It’s filled with ancient temples and modern architecture, all sprinkled with more than a little panda.

Come. Live. Enjoy.

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