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Christmas in Chengdu

January 4, 2012

The toilet paper here is terrible.  I know I should be writing about more profound things, life-changing experiences and the unrepeatable adventure that is spending a year living in such an alien, foreign country.  But when you’re sat on your throne and your only salvation is shredding beneath your fingertips, resembling more a screwed up used tissue you found in your pocket that the clean, crisp tool that is required, it’s hard to think of anything else.

However, you will be pleased to hear I am not writing this at a time when such things are a pressing, urgent need – you can relax, I’m sat on my sofa with a nice coffee so banish those images that were creeping inevitably in to your mind.  This is just a clumsy metaphor, a writers’ tool to demonstrate two things to you, my readers who have made it past that first paragraph (well done, by the way).

One – no matter how incredible, amazing and unique this experience is, none of us can escape the mundane realities of life.  Most of our time in China, as with you back home, is spent getting on with the daily grind of living; doing the laundry, finding the next meal, planning lessons, cleaning the flat.  We could be in China, South America, England or the moon – these things must still be done and life is, wherever you go, life; ordinariness creeps in after a while.

Two – and this is linked to one – our time in China so far could be, on some levels, an extraordinary exercise in underachievement.  We’ve spent four months in China now and have actually seen incredibly little.  We’ve been busy teaching, getting to know our city, going out for dinner with friends, doing the daily chores – in fact, exactly what we would have been doing had we sat tight and stayed in England.  There have been some highlights, sure – the Earthquake Museum at Beichuan, the Big Buddha at Leshan, Ping Le ancient Village, and of course leading my department in the flagship Tai Chi contest at the university’s annual mini-Olympics – but not nearly as much as we’d planned to have done by now.

I had high hopes for Christmas; we had countryside hikes planned, Christmas shopping, our own secret Santa, and a trip along the Yangtze River on the three gorges boat cruise.  As it happened, we spent five days wandering aimlessly around the same set of shops gawping at the grossly inflated prices of near enough everything we looked at.  Fake PVC leather jacket you could pick up in the UK for £50?  Why to you sir, £500.  I’m not kidding.

Christmas is a strange experience in China.  They don’t celebrate it, but enjoy the party like everyone else – but China style.  So, every store had garish Santa pictures on the front doors; teenaged shop assistants cheerily wore badly fitting Santa costumes and Christmas music blasted out from speakers in the streets – but that’s about it.  Our Christmas dinner was particularly surreal, as we sat in Ikea, which at least is the same wherever you go, munching on meatballs and gravy, clearly the only people around who even knew it was Christmas Day.  We didn’t even get a cracker.

I guess you could argue that living in a country isn’t quite the same as travelling through it.  There’s less pressure to do as many things as possible in a short space of time, and the real experience is more subtle than ‘look at the beautiful view’, or ‘look at the massive statue’ as instead, we’re getting to truly understand the Chinese culture in a way that you never could whilst backpacking, hopping from hostel to hostel and rarely interacting with the locals at all.

We’re off on our own backpacking adventure in a few days time, taking in: Hong Kong; Boracay in the Philippines; Borneo (monkeys, hiking, Orang-Utans, jungles); Yang Shou to see the rice paddies and Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors, and then it’s back in February for the final lap of our year away from life as we know it.

And that’s what it will be – life.  With the boring bits, the daily grind, the job, the mundanity; but also the little joys, the moments you never saw coming but will stay with you forever (like the lovely Jessica Nash bravely trying out her Mandarin on a local shopkeeper, trying to ask if they had a shirt in a large for me (Zhe ge da zai nar) but ending up politely asking “This?  Toilet?  Toilet?  This.  Toilet.” with an earnest, honest quizzical look on her face as the assistant stared at her with a mix of confusion and terror), and maybe, for the sake of balance, a teeny bit more travelling than we managed in the first four months of our stay.

Merry Christmas, and a happy 2012 wherever you are!

  1. GaiL permalink

    Best of luck to your journeys Natalie! I’m sure you’ll fall in love with Boracay! =)

  2. The expression of terror on a Chinese persons face when confronted by Westerners not conforming to the norm is bemusing at first, and quite annoying after 3 years. Great post thank you for sharing.

    • Many thanks Shardsofchina, and I know what you mean. A few months ago a student was quite staggered when I told her I would be able to get the bus back from town on my own!

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