The above is what the pollution looks like 45 minutes outside Chengdu on an ok day.
The above is pretty self-explanatory. Garbage in a creek, not totally unusual anywhere in the world.
Air pollution, polluted waterways, economic development, those are the sort of problems I thought about a lot at my old non-profit job.
For my new job though, I use a tape measure, I shop for trucks and carpets. I read more rules and regulations in 30 minutes today than I ever did for my driver’s test when I was 16.
Not surprisingly, it’s fun work and I enjoy it so far. I enjoy my new colleagues. I am grateful, grateful beyond words for the job and the income and the opportunity to do productive work.
Except that the transition is hitting me hard, much harder than I thought it would.
It’s not the transition from unemployed to employed. No, it’s the non-profit to non-non-profit that has me unexpectedly all twisted up inside.
Why did I wake up last night in a panic at 3am because my job no longer involves “making the world a better place.”
Why could I not fall back asleep as I thought about the impossibly nice and charismatic beggar on the street by our house who I keep meaning to give money to but never do?
Why did I get choked up today when I saw our old toilet seats out in a trash pile, and a woman searching through them for useful scrap to sell?
I’m a bit confused and surprised. I wanted this job, I wanted the 8-5 back. I’m already happily getting used to having resources to do my job and the existence of order and systems (what the non profit world could do with a FAM!!!).
But what I didn’t count on was that I would want the sense of “doing good” back so badly.
In a way, I’m grateful. I think this dichotomy between enjoying my new job and wanting to keep doing something vaguely humanitarian will push me to be creative and “do more” in a way that staying home never would have.
But what to do? Especially in a city (and country) with very, very few volunteering opportunities? I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking over the next few months I think.
Have you ever left the chaos and lack of resources in the non-profit world for the order and abundance of government or private sector work? How did you make your peace? What did you do?
I went to work today for the first time since we moved to China.
I put on mascara and a pair of heels.
Ok, let’s be honest, I also put on real pants before 10am for the first time in weeks.
But, of course, the thing about working for the good ol’ US of A means no bringing my camera to work. No blogging during work hours.
So I thought instead I’d post some more pictures from our run yesterday.
I’m not always so good at people shots here. Even though dozens of people take photos of me on their camera phones everyday, I still feel uncomfortable unless the person knows and is ok with me taking their photo.
Luckily, when people stop their cars and bikes and trucks in the middle of a switchback up the side of a mountain highway to stare at our Hash House Harrier shenanigans, they are usually ok with me snapping away. It feels more like a fair trade: they get crazy lao wai entertainment and I document the whole thing. Sometimes the spectators even join the revelers in the fun.
Given this whole “work” and “workplace security” thing I’ll probably be doing a lot more “a photo a day” posts like this. Which is to say, I’ll try to keep posting a photo a day, but they may be photos from the weekend or even a few months ago.
I’m sure a few of my fellow EFM (or E’FM) readers are probably wandering about the job and what its like. It’s hard to say after one day but so far, so good. I’ll try for a more useful report than that towards the end of the week.
Ahhh Dim Sum. It was only a perfectly delicious start to an even better day.
Because later on, Chris found this little guy:
And then of course, there was this:
Lots of fun people picture coming up tomorrow but for now I have to get ready for bed since I’M GOING TO WORK TOMORROW!!!!!!!!!!
I’m also taking bets for how many times I wake up tonight to either check my alarm/change my mind about what to wear in the AM.
Today I went for my first real city run in Chengdu. The sun was shining, the pollution wasn’t too bad, and I just couldn’t take the thought of one more run on the consulate treadmill.
Chengdu’s main thoroughfare is a very well-kept, wide boulevard called Renmin Lu (the People’s Road). As long as one is willing to dodge a few of the rogue scooters and cars that prefer sidewalk driving to the city streets, its actually makes for a rather pleasant stretch of pavement.
Of course, even when the pollution isn’t too bad, there are still a few hazards to be dealt with.
First, of course, did I mention the scooters and petty cabs and cars driving on the sidewalks?
Then, there are the dogs. We don’t have many strays here in Chengdu but one found me today and chased me almost the whole way home. It was the sprint workout from hell that I had never planned on doing in the first place.
Last but not least on the list of running hazards in Chengdu: dinner.
This last one is somewhat unique to our fair city and our citizens love for all things hot and spicy.
To put it quite simply: the kitchen exhaust coming off of the roadside restaurants could probably kill you.
In fact, I’m fairly sure the smoke from burning hua jiao (the fiery and numbing Sichuan peppercorn) could be used as a chemical weapon, and it probably has been.
I made the mistake of inhaling just outside a tiny hole-in-the-wall joint and ended up in a fit of coughing and watery eyes, gasping for (only slightly less toxic) air.
And then the yappy stray dog found me.
Still beats the treadmill though, in my book.
I kind of love this photo. I love the fancy women walking down the center of crowd. I love the guys eating noodles on the left. I even like the stuffed fox sitting on the tea table. Weird.
I know, I know, it’s these culturally-insightful and sensitive pictures that always keep you coming back here for more.
And is it just me or does the dead, stuffed fox (perched next to someone’s thermos and cup of tea) look like he’s about to take a bite out of that kid’s butt? That or he’s trying to read the other guy’s book. I can’t tell.
Anyways, moving on…
When I moved to China, I (naively) sort of thought that all of (urban) China would look like it does in these photos.
Of course, most of Chengdu does not look like this, which makes this little corner of it, tourist-trap that it is, an especially fun place to stroll around.
It’s an older version of touristy Chengdu. It’s not sterile like the newer places, it has some grit to it. It’s not a cartoonish caricature of China, the way some of the newer tourist hot-spots sometimes seem to be.
It’s just China-with some cheap trinkets and a few women who’ve learned how to say “brocade table runner” in English thrown in.
Sure most of the “antiques” are heavy on the air quotes and light on the vintage, but that’s ok. For those wishing to shop, there are still plenty of souvenirs and furniture pieces and cheap jewelry and textiles to buy.
For those just wishing to soak up the atmosphere, there’s plenty of that too.
Happy Friday everyone!
In the spirit of bid lists which seem to be consuming the hearts and minds of 1st tour Foreign Service Officers everywhere right now, let me give one good reason to bid China:
Cheap dry cleaning.
Granted, it’s a little thing but still.
As long as you are going to eat/inhale/absorb a massive helping of carcinogens during your time here, you might as well enjoy the fact that it’s not hurting your wallet much at all.
Monday I brought to the dry-cleaners:
Guess how much this cost me?
I’m fairly sure I would have spent at least $100 dollars for the same service at our cleaners in D.C.
So yea, bid China!
The title above is not just wholly descriptive of a scene I walk by everyday, but bonus! It would probably be a great name for your next indie rock band or historical novel.
Anyways, I have no pictures of my own for this post. See: under the bridge. It’s dark and frankly, it’s a bit creepy.
I’m also a little afraid to ask to take a picture, for fear of misunderstand the response, and accidentally agreeing to pay 500 kuai for some herbal remedy involving a cow skull and snake bile.
That would be sort of awkward “ohhh this is snake bile? Sorry I was actually looking for some ibprofen, yea….”
Oh and you think I’m exaggerating for affect. Allow me to indulge in a bit of a descriptive narrative about a scene from daily life here.
Despite an increasing reliance on Western-style medicine, the practice of traditional Chinese medicine is alive and well, fascinating, disturbing and wholly mainstream here.
Its an unbelievably common experience to be walking behind some young, modern woman and find myself starting at a mess of medicinal fire-cup marks peeking from beneath her stylish bouse.
Apparently Gwenyth Paltrow is also into cupping?
Cupping is just one traditional remedy for colds and respiratory infections and, apparently, a host of other complaints. On the whole, it seems relatively harmless and, who knows, perhaps it is effective. Much like the many, many other Chinese remedies and practices available from pharmacies and clinics here.
Of course, this isn’t a post about traditional Chinese medicine, per se. Aside from some wikipedia searches light reading, I know very little about the subject. From what I can tell, Chinese medicine, much like Western medicine, has some fabulous success stories as well as some deeply tragic failings.
So this isn’t a post about Chinese medicine.
It’s just about the scene that I pass under the bridge on the way to my grocery store every week.
And it’s not so much a bridge as a highway overpass. It’s unlit and quite dark. It’s a bit dank and wet with water and who-knows-what-liquid-that-is pooling in the potholes and between the cracks in the concrete.
In the heat of the afternoon, you will usually find a few petty-cab drivers sleeping on the cool and dark sidewalk in front of their “vehicles.”
And you will also find a booming trade in traditional Chinese medicinal remedies and treatments.
Let me see if I can pain the picture for you.
I walk down a set of chipped and cracked concrete steps and descend into the cool damp humidity under the bridge.
10 feet from the stairs is a large tattered yellow and white menu of sorts lying on the pavement. As far as I can tell, this dirty piece of vinyl advertises the remedies available for purchase from the mysterious middle-aged man smoking a cigarette, sitting in the bamboo chair next to the poster.
Much like I imagine palm-readers and voodoo practioners to have, the man in the bamboo chair has an aura of irresistible power and danger.
On one hand, he looks like a million men in Chengdu, a dirty white tank top rolled up to reveal a paunchy Buddha belly, a shaved head to hide the hair loss, a pair of black cloth shoes and maybe a jade pendant hanging around his neck.
On the other hand, when you look first to his eyes and then to his wares, phrases like “dabbles in dark magic” come to mind, wholly unbidden.
The dark, dank setting does little to detract from this impression. I mean we are, after all, talking about a healer working under a highway overpass.
His wares are what really get me every time though.
Next to the bamboo chair is a large dirty white square of fabric upon which dozens of plastic bottles are carefully arranged.
Upon second glance, you’ll realize that these are not some sort of propriety container, these are recycled water bottles, plucked by some street cleaner from a garbage pile and sold to a middle man who cleans them and then sells them to people like our healer under the bridge.
The labels are long gone and the contents have been replaced with an array of substances ranging in color and viscosity from bootstrap molasses black to urine-sample yellow. Some are reddish brown, some are nearly translucent with some sort of organic sediment collecting on the bottom.
On a second square of white fabric next to the first, you start to get an idea of what contents of the bottles might be. Here, arranged neatly in rows and according to some sort of elaborate categorization, are an amazing array of brown, dry, and wizened objects.
In the first row you might find a few short and stubby tree branches. The amount of stripped bark missing from these branches can give you a good idea of how business is going today.
The next few rows are the domain of the fungi. As I’ve said before, the Chinese love fungi, love, love, love it. They have a truly incredible depth of knowledge about the healing powers of different mushrooms and I’m pretty sure some of them are quite miraculous healing agents.
Still, it really is something to see them arranged on this white square of fabric. Some of the samples are as small as your average porcini mushroom while others approach the size of a regulation basketball. Some appear to be whole chucks of tree trunks, hacked off in their prime for the purpose of harvesting the massive disks of fungus growing on them.
One row over on the fabric, things get decidedly more interesting. Here you will find dried snake skins, small animal bones, and skulls. Nothing is overly large, but then again, we are talking skulls and bones and dead snakes which will soon be ground up and used in various remedies.
No matter how open-minded I try to be, those bottles and bones always call to mind all sorts of nightmares from my childhood.
And yet, I love this scene for it’s intrique, the whiff of unknown danger in the air.
Most times, the healer in the bamboo chair is just sitting around with a couple of friends, smoking some cigarrettes. At times like this, the whole scene is almost boringly uninterestingly.
But once in awhile I see him using a Bic lighter to adhere glass cups to the back of patrons.
And it always makes me wonder. Why see this healer, under the bridge? In this country, you can have Chinese remedies and cupping administered in bright, beautiful, hygienic buildings by healers with many more years of training behind them than their Western medicine Chinese counterparts.
(Western medicine only requires something between and associates and a bachelor’s degree in China, whereas traditional Chinese doctors often receive very extensive training)
Why go see a man under a bridge when you can get this sort of treatment almost anywhere, in any part of town with the option of a spa treatment or a pedicure afterwards?
I can only imagine 2 reasons: 1) He’s either really cheap and/or 2) He’s really, really good at what he does.
Which lends a further air of mystery to this under-the-bridge operation. Why is he there? Why is he successful enough to keep attracting clients? Where did he learn his craft? Where does he source his ingredients from?
To be honest, sometimes when I walk down the grey streets, past hundreds of identical buildings and stores, past thousands of people seemingly all preoccupied with the same things, I feel like Chengdu doesn’t have the cultural soul I was expecting when I first moved here.
Chris and I have talked about this a lot. When you are in India, even in the most modern of spaces, you still know you are in India, it’s in the air, on the faces of the people around you.
In China, sometimes you can forget you are in China, sometimes the realities of this place don’t live up to hype and intrigue. Certainly there are no mini dragons with the voice of Eddie Murphy running around.
And that’s ok, because the longer I’m here, the more I realize that this place does have soul, it does still have that allure of ancient mystery.
The streets and the air may be grey, but the people are most certainly not. The buildings may not look “like China” but the people, no matter how many cell phones or fancy cars or fluffy dogs they own, are still fascinating, still soulful, still imbued with ancient traditions and superstitions and beliefs that have evolved over the course of thousands of years.
Which is why the medicine man under the bridge will stay in business, why people will come and pay him to suction cup glass to their backs in hopes of alleviating what hope to be a comon cold but what is more likely TB.
Yesterday, as I crossed under the underpass I saw a policemean on a scooter. I knew instantly why he was there and what I would see at the other end of the underpass.
Sure enough, four or five paces away there crouched an old women with a bag made of the red, white, and blue plastic used to cover construction sites here. She was quietly, slowly packing up all of the mushrooms and bones and skulls and snake skins into her bag. Further down, the plastic water bottles filled with potions were already packed up. The tattered menu was already rolled up neatly into a corner.
The policeman looked wholly unconcerned, bored even. Likely he knows someone who’s visited this very healer. Definitely he knows that tomorrow, this healer will be back in the very same spot.
And I continued on my way, in the back of a three-wheel petty-cab, crossing 8 lanes of traffic against the light and passing an old man wearing woven reed sandals with poof balls on the end.
This is China, ancient and new, bizarre and mundane, all rolled together into one.
Apples are coming into season here. They aren’t quite as flavorful as the ones I used to eat for lunch everyday in D.C., (must be all of the pesticides) nor as satisfying as the one’s we used to pick on my grandfather’s land, but they will do.
And of course, they serve as another reminder that fall (the best season of all) is on it’s way. As if the blaring classical music that plays until 9pm every night at the elementary school next door weren’t reminder enough. 🙂
Tonight’s a short post but stay tuned because there are lots of posts in the works, including:
Going back to work! An epilogue to the “Career Girl to Temporary Housewife” series
Chinese Medicine!…under a highway overpass
Dinner Chez Dumm’s! That’s right, when we are not bed-ridden, we actually cook
How to Get the Most out of your Foreign Language Tutoring.
Phew! All of that and more will be up on the blog soon. Lots of stuff to finish up before I got back to work on Monday!
P.s. What do you think of give-aways on blogs? Lame? Fun? A good idea? I need input!
Fun shots of the little things that make a culture around the world. It’s the sort of blog I kind of wish I wrote and the sort of thing I think I’ve been unwittingly emulating.
In any case, its a fun read and probably would be some fun reading for those of you out there in the Foreign Service Universe about to bid on your next posts!
Can I just say that I’m so glad that we live in Chengdu and not Beijing, Inner Mongolia or somewhere in Northern Sichuan?
Sure, I’ve found myself stranded 10 miles out of town for hours on end when the police inexplicably closed the highway into town, but that sort of feels like nothing compared to massive road washouts and…
a 10 day long traffic jam. Wow, just wow. Worst part? There IS a toll road people could take instead but that would cost money and in a country with this much cheap labor, it’s rare that any truck driver’s time is worth that kind of money-at least as far as their employers are concerned.
Never mind that they are paying at least ten kuai for each bowl of noodles they have to buy from the roadside vendors while they’re been stranded in their cars for days.
Ah well, like I said, just really, really, really, really, glad I am not in that traffic jam.
But it does worry me. How long before that kind of traffic comes to Chengdu? It’s already so congested here on the weekends that it sometimes takes hours to cross town. How long before we’ve got the crazy jams too?Older Posts >>>