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Taoist toast

September 17, 2011

As I write this, I’m sitting at the side of a beautiful lake at the centre of the university campus.  It’s quarter to eight in the morning, and the sun is starting to break
through as the morning haze slowly fades away in to a clear blue sky. In amongst the willow trees drifting in the breeze students are dotted; some doing Tai Chi, some standing looking across the lake clutching MP3 players and diligently repeating English phrases.  It’s wonderfully peaceful, apart from the buzz of the crickets, the
broken English and the occasional splash as a one of Coy Carp filling the lake breaks the surface.  I could get used to this.

View from the lake

Two days ago we got picked up by our boss Mr Zhong (pronounced Mr Jong – consonants are full of pitfalls here; Z’s sound like J’s, Q’s sound like Ch, X’s sound like Sh) to travel to the Capitol of Sichuan Province, Chengdu, to get our medicals done.

We were picked up at 6:30am, and set off on the two-hour drive crammed in the back of a large saloon with Jess and a shy Japanese girl who barely spoke a word of English, and spent the journey asleep on Jess’s shoulder.  How she slept all the way I’ll
never know – driving in China, as in many Asian countries, is something of an extreme sport.  We speed in and out of frighteningly antique lorries; overtaking and undertaking, driving six inches behind massive vehicles apparently oblivious to us, honking and flashing all the while.  Every now and then we see the traditional massively overloaded scooter travelling the wrong way down the motorway.  My time in China seems to be perilously close to being cut short every few hundred yards.

All is not what it seems, though.  What at first glance appears to be a seething chaos of road rage and near death experiences gradually swims in to focus, and a beautifully simple set of road rules becomes clear.  There seem to be two rules: honk and flash
whenever you are driving past any vehicle at all, and give way to all vehicles to the right.  It’s a terrifying experience for the unwitting passenger, but it seems to work – every vehicle knows you’re coming, and every new car gets a fighting chance at a

In England, our horns are used exclusively for road rage, and shouting at what we believe to be bad drivers as they get in our way, cut us up, or fail to let us in.  Over here it’s used for its original purpose; telling people you’re here.  It seems angry and aggressive to us, but that’s a culture thing – I can just imagine a Chinese passenger in a car in the UK pulling their hair out, thinking “Great Buddha!  Why don’t you beep your horn, that car doesn’t know we’re here! “  And I can see their point – we only seem to use the only mechanism of warning other drivers we are near after something dangerous has happened – wouldn’t life be simpler (albeit noisier) if we just gave a wee toot before, thus avoiding danger altogether?  You have to be careful as a foreigner in Asia – our Western ignorance can make us think we have all the answers when, clearly, we don’t.

Anyway, we arrived at Chengdu alive and well.  The first thing I get at the hospital is what can only be described as a laser gun pointed at my head.  This is a disconcerting experience, and not what one expects from a place of healing, until Mr Zhong explains that it’s a thermometer, checking for fever.  I relax.  What follows is what would best
be described as a sheep-dip medical exam.  I am rushed in to one room, where I am weighed, measured and barked at in Chinese, and given the universal impatient wave that can only ever mean ‘bugger off’.  On to the next room – urine and blood samples now, followed by the ‘bugger off’ wave.  Next room.  Eyes, ears and throat are prodded and stared at with the aid of metal tubes.  Wave: ‘bugger off’.  (Rather worryingly, when Jess did this one, the doctor point pulled out a book with a picture of  two Petri dishes with cultures in them, pointed at Jess and then at the dishes, then kicked her out with no further explanation.)  Next room, X-Ray.  Bugger off. Next room, ultrasound.  Bugger off.  Next room, ECG.  Bugger off.  Next room, general check-up and belly prods.  Bugger off and we are whisked back to the foyer to have our forms stamped, and we are bundled out of the door with, for reasons unknown, a carton of milk for our troubles!

Dazed and confused, our first trip to Chengdu is over, and we run the motorway gauntlet back home – a journey lightened by Mr Zhong excitedly telling us of the sights to see in our week off in a fortnight, which include the biggest Buddha in the world, the giant Pandas, the national park and a Taoist temple.  Jess nudges me in
the back of the car.  “Why does he want us to go and see some toast?”  I decide not to explain just yet, enjoying the thought of the image Jess must have in her head of the biggest piece of toast in the world, in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, China.


From → China, Languages, Travel

  1. Stuart permalink

    Mmm… …Hot Buttered Taoist, breakfast of champions.

  2. 🙂 you will slowly get used to mostly everything here

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