Mementos from Chengdu - an admission letter, IDs, travel permits, the hated White Cards
On July 27th 2005,at exactly 4:20 in the afternoon, our Malaysia Air flight left Saigon, where we'd been living for a little over two and a half years, for Kuala Lumpur.
There were difficult good-byes at the airport -- we were especially touched that most of Dave's staff turned out to send us off, and with a river of tears to boot -- but we boarded the plane happily. Under different circumstances our time in Vietnam would probably have been better (fodder for another post at another time, perhaps). But the fact is, we lived there miserably and couldn't wait to get out.
It was thirty months before we even considered returning. We booked our tickets with trepidation. How would it be? Would we want to leave as soon as we arrived?
It was a fantastic trip. Saigon had changed -- or, more accurately, we had. We'll never move back -- with some places living is apples to the oranges of visiting, and for us Saigon is one of those places -- but we adore Vietnam more with each visit.
I'm thinking that's how it might be with China.
Tomorrow we're off to Chengdu, where we taught English for a year (6 months for Dave) in the mid-eighties. Our time there was ... intense. We changed and grew and learned about ourselves and each other, about what it means to really be challenged, about China and about history and the ways in which it molds a country's present in ways good and bad.
Everyone has turning points in their lives. Chengdu was mine -- the Big One that determined much of the course of my life and in many respects made me the person I am. Dave and I -- we'd known each other for only six months before I left for Chengdu alone in August of 1984 -- are married because of Chengdu. In a roundabout way we live in Kuala Lumpur, and have lived in Hong Kong and Shanghai and Bangkok and Saigon, because of Chengdu. I write about food because of Chengdu. On my way to figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up long after I already had grown up, I benefited from/wasted (I go back and forth on this, usually landing on the side of the former) many years in graduate school, because of Chengdu. In China I sharpened my elbows and learned how to stand up for myself; when I am assertive it's because of Chengdu. I am a social and political liberal and deeply distrustful of propaganda in any form, from any government, thanks to that year in Chengdu. After all this time away from China I'm still immediately at ease whenever I hear Chinese spoken, and when I travel I look for a Chinatown because to me Chinatowns feel 'normal'. That's because of Chengdu too.
That doesn't mean I loved Chengdu unconditionally. That year was a colossal bitch. There was good stuff -- food of course, and amazing conversations and late nights with Sichuanese friends capped off by manic, high-speed bike sprints through streets that rarely saw cars. There was the luck and privilege of living in China far, far away from the capital of Beijing just as things were changing, just as Deng Xiaoping's kaifang gaige (opening and reform) was gaining traction. In 1984 and 1985 the air in China crackled with possibilities (as well as other, more visible things) and everyone in Chengdu and everywhere else we traveled (Tibet excepted) was hopeful. It was an exciting time.
University housing -- there were actually more trees than we remember
But I worked for a big institution (Sichuan University) and its bureaucracy was unrelenting and unbeatable. Petty cadres meddled with my classes in the most ridiculous ways. I formed attachments to good, hard-working students only to see them get shafted by their work units at the end of the school year. I played hide-and-seek with a waiban (Foreign Affairs Dept -- the university unit charged with monitoring us foreigners) that read my mail, monitored my visitors, and tried hard to scuttle my friendship with a grad student whom they deemed a rabble-rouser. I got worn down by winter below the Yangtze, a region considered too temperate for indoor heat despite lows of 2 C, by bone-numbing damp cold, gray skies ('Dogs bark at the sun,' is a Chengdu saying that describes how rare it is to see a clear sky), and coal smoke, by a nagging cough, constant stares, and the snarky little cabal of foreigners amongst whom I lived. Silly stuff I suppose, but it added up.
By the time Dave and I returned to the USA I'd developed a classic love-hate relationship with China. I was sad to leave but swore I'd never go back. I did, of course, when we moved to Shanghai in 1996. But when we left Shanghai I rejoiced. And, except for five brief days in 2001, I haven't returned.
But for the last year or so I've been feeling like it's time. Taiwan reminded me how much I am still a 'China person'. And I'm thinking this trip might be OK.
Chengdu holds a pretty unique place in my heart, after all. Dave and I returned for a week in 1991, and I spent 3 brief, whirlwind days that I can't at all remember there in 1997 (with my grad student friend from the mid-eighties -- take that, waiban!). I know that it will be completely unrecognizable, that most of the city's street vendors and open markets are gone, that its quaint wooden houses have been bulldozed, that hole-in-the-wall restaurants with one wok and two tables are a thing of the past, and that careening midnight bike rides down the middle of Renmin Lu will probably be out of the question.
But I'm hoping for something, anything, that hints at my first home away from home ... even if it's only a fine bowl of dandan mian.
Dave's been digging through old slides and photos. Way at the back of my filing cabinet I found a manila folder of mid-eighties Chengdu mementos. Among the old Sichuan University IDs, 'white cards' (anyone out there remember those? or FEC?), 'Alien's Travel Permits', class lists, and my poison-pen Letter to Editor that appeared in the China Daily (my first published piece, I suppose) were notes I'd prepared for a presentation on studying and working in China that I gave after I returned to the USA in 1985.
Under "Advice to Others -- How to Get the Most Out of China" I'd penciled "Go without expectations, without specific goals. Take it all in, let it happen."
Good advice, then and now. After eight and a half years I'm going back to China. And for better or worse, I'm just gonna let it happen.