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Interview – Chengdoo Life

June 30, 2012

Well, my time in China is nearly at an end – one book closes, another opens. I’ve been thinking about how to write a blog that in some way summarises my time in this confusing, confounding, amazing country but to no avail. As ever, though, fortune favours the fortunate, and the local ex-pat / loawai magazine approached me for an interview last week. The questions they asked provided a nice stricture to at least attempt to put my thoughts to paper. It;s published next month, but for you my lucky, lucky readers, here is an exclusive preview:

So … how did you end up in Mianyang?

Well, when we decided to teach in a foreign country for a year I wanted it to be somewhere that the Western world hadn’t really touched yet, and there are few developed areas where this is the case. Western China seemed like one of them, and our best chance to experience ‘real’ China. Mianyang was reported to be one of the nicest, cleanest cities and passed the ‘Does it have a Starbucks’ test for Western influence! (It doesn’t.)

Be honest: Had you ever heard of it before you had the opportunity to move out there?

Nope, not a clue. But then, I hadn’t really heard of Chengdu or Sichuan (apart from the 2008 earthquake) either. For me, China was like one of those empty bits on old maps where territory is replaced with a scary drawing of a monster and the phrase ‘here be dragons’…

What do (did) you do out there?

Well I’m probably back in the UK by the time this goes to press, but my partner and I have been teaching English at the South West University of Science & Technology. I’ve also been learning Qi Gong & Tai Chi, whilst my partner Jess, who is an art teacher in the UK, has been teaching students art and building up her photography portfolio. And we have both been trying, but failing miserably, to learn Chinese.

What were your expectations of life there before you arrived? Were they met?

Honestly, the only information I had to go on about life in modern China was that new Karate Kid film with Will Smith’s son in it. So it would be safe to say my expectations were few. However, I did come here with the intention of learning traditional Chinese Kung Fu, and wasn’t prepared for how little is left of this practice, at least here in Mianyang. It seems that foreign arts such as Jujitsu, Tae Kwon Do and Muay Thai have replaced them in popularity, which I think is a shame.
How were you positively and negatively surprised by life there?

Being British, I was not prepared for how outgoing and friendly complete strangers are in China! Nobody thinks twice about approaching us on the street, saying hello and asking to be our friend. It is impossible to sit on your own in public for more than 10mins without someone starting a conversation with you, and when we have had trouble communicating we have not had to wait long for someone to offer their help. It’s lovely, refreshing, has adjusted my own personal boundaries and is something I will miss when I go back to the privacy and anonymity of the UK.

This openness has its flipside though, and us being such a novelty means that we are also stared at almost constantly, people take photos of us in the street and all the young Chinese boys feel the need to shout HELLO or other English words in a bravado, taunting way to impress their friends, which can become a bit tiresome!

After having lived there and spending some time in Chengdu (and other cities around China?) would you have preferred to have spent your time in China in a bigger city?

We chose Mianyang because it was a smaller city with a more rural feel and less Western influence, but if we were to return to China (which we hope to do, in a few years time) we would probably find somewhere a bit larger and more cosmopolitan. We’ve done the hard way, next time we’ll be taking the path of least resistance and a few more creature comforts! Having to travel two hours to the nearest city for baked beans, cheese and real coffee has been tough.

Having visited Beijing, Chengdu and several other larger cities, I have to say that (and I’m not just saying this to flatter you, Chengdoo Life) that Chengdu would be our choice. It has a perfect balance of modern China, more traditional Chinese life and it’s so much cleaner than the West coast!

What do the locals like to tell you Mianyang is famous for?

Food. Food, food, food. And pandas. But mostly food. And what amazing food it is! That is the one thing we will miss the most.

Is there anything particularly interesting to do/see in Mianyang (that would, say, make it worth visiting)?

I wouldn’t go as far as to say there’s anything that makes it worth visiting (unless you’re in to military nuclear research facilities) but if you’re already here and determined to make the best of it, I can recommend a walk through People’s Park, on the South side to see a tree-dappled area next to a lake where the old men take their songbirds for a walk.

If you head to the outskirts of the city, you should visit the mightily impressive Water Temple. Take a walk along the banks of the river to the north of Mianyang and you can’t miss its many levels rising up the edge of a steep hill, mostly due to the 100ft long white, reclining Buddha off to one side but also due to the several hundred new sculptures being created that burst out of the walls and hill depicting monks, devils, spiritual warriors and devils, all painted in garish colours. If you hurry you can still see workers sculpting some out of wire mesh and cement – it’s a wonderful piece of craftsmanship. These new creations are wonderfully integrated with the original, enormous temple which sports great views of the surrounding area and distant mountains if you can climb your way to the top.

What is your social circle like in Mianyang?

We hang out with a mix of fellow foreign teachers, some Chinese teachers and some of the older university students. It’s a good mix – there is an ex-pat community in the city, but we tend not to get too involved in it as I’m not convinced of the point of travelling half-way around the world for the experience of a lifetime, to hang out with English people in an English pub for the whole year.

Are there other foreigners living there, and what do most of them seem to do for work?

There are less than 200 foreigners in the whole of Mianyang: twenty of them are employed at our university, and a good chunk more are employed at the other universities and private language schools in and around the city. There is the odd businessman I’m sure, but since we haven’t really integrated with the ex-pat community I couldn’t really say what they do! And, of course, there is Ralph – owner of the one English bar, Flags, and something of a celebrity in these parts.

Are there any Western-style hangouts?

The afore-mentioned Flags, an Italian restaurant, several Pizza Huts and a McDonalds. We tend not to travel in to the city centre all that much though, and our social lives are lived out in the local, Chinese restaurants and street Barbecue venues where we eat, drink and spend our evenings chatting to the locals,

What’s your favorite meal in Mianyang?

Spicy beef noodles! Closely followed by Chinese BBQ. We’ve tried Hot Pot but it’s not for us, but if I could only eat spicy beef noodles from the little street vendor outside campus for the rest of my life, it would be no bad thing.

How does day-to-day life differ in Mianyang from a bigger city in China? (i.e., in regard to transportation, product availability, prices, cultural activity, etc.)

Taxi drivers are all insane, or suicidal I have yet to decide which and when you’re in the back of one careening towards oncoming traffic or a blind junction at 70mph, it all becomes a bit academic. The only time I have experienced real, genuine fear in China is in the back of a Mianyang Taxi. Our university is at the end of a long, winding road with potholes that would give the moon lander vehicle a run for its money, so a bus ride in to town is always a spine-rattling experience.

There is nothing in the way of foreign foods to speak of, and unless you visit Flags or the Italian restaurant the only beer is the local Snow, but that’s fine by me. The real difference is the price – we can go to a local restaurant or diner, eat like kings and drink like rock stars, and still only spend 60RMB between the two of us.

When you come to visit Chengdu, do you have any must-dos/must-gos/must-eats? What are they?

We always stay at Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel, which I believe has just changed its name to B4 Garden, or something. We love how welcoming they are there and how it’s like an oasis of calm in the chaos of the big city – we even know of people who live in Chengdu who go there for a weekend break!

We tend to go to the Bookworm for some good beer and dinner and Carrefor for our regular stocking up of western treats. Christmas lunch was at Ikea (that was a very strange Christmas) and New Yesr Eve was spent at the Jellyfish nightclub. Other than that Chengdu is largely our stop-off for travels further afield, so whilst we visit regularly and have taken in the major sights, we don’t regularly visit anywhere else to speak of.

You’ve also written a book on avoiding fighting. Did you find this kind of information useful/applicable to life in Mianyang?

How Not to Get Hit is about using common sense, psychology, behaviour ad communication to recognise and reduce risk so yes, I am of the humble opinion it’s of use wherever you go! Skills in non-verbal communication are vital when you don’t speak the language, as is the ability to recognise when somebody is about to lose their cool with you.

When I was in Hong Kong I saw a man screaming violently at his girlfriend on the street, and he looked for all the world like he was about to punch her in the face. If I’d intervened physicals my actions may have been a catalyst to violence, and make things worse so I couldn’t do that – but I couldn’t walk by either. Instead, I stood far enough away to not become directly involved in the confrontation, but close enough for the guy to feel disrupted in his anger by my presence, and watched him without moving. My presence was enough to distract him and reduce his anger, but not enough to redirect it to me – it had nowhere to go, and dissipated. How Not to Get Hit is all about that third option, between getting in to a fight and becoming a victim.

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