The China Visit: Part 1—Chengdu
I had the extraordinary privilege of traveling to China in May for the Chengdu Homeschool Conference plus a few days of sightseeing. I spent the first part of the trip in Chengdu, which is in the Sichuan province. After the homeschool conference and a visit to the pandas, my amazing hostess and I were able to spend a few days in Beijing, seeing the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City (Beijing photos will be in the next post).
China was a feast for the senses, at least after the senses quit reeling from the effects of a 12-hour time change and 18 hours of plane time. Wherever we went, we traveled through neighborhoods with small bright shops opening directly onto the sidewalk, an astonishing array of 2, 3, and 4 wheeled vehicles jostling for space on the roads and sidewalks, and an array of interesting food sights and scents. There’s no way to convey what it all sounded or felt like, but here are just a few iPhone photos to give you an idea of what it looked like. I hope you enjoy them!
I have never before ridden to a homeschool conference on the back of a scooter. My hostess, Terri, was adept at zipping through traffic, weaving in and out between vehicles, across entire busy roads, and in and out of the scooter lanes. It was a lot of fun to be a passenger and not have to worry about driving the busy roads myself. I just had to assume that anyone adept enough to plan and pull off an entire conference is likely to be a competent navigator!
Despite the intriguing variety of vehicles on the roads, and the fact that lanes and traffic lights seemed to be suggestions rather than commands, traffic flowed smoothly. Cars, small three-wheeled vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians blended with surprising harmony. There was a fair amount of honking, but it wasn’t the ill-tempered sound of one driver chastising another. Rather, a honk served as a polite notification that a vehicle was preparing to move past in close proximity. Since most vehicles sported intact side mirrors, this gentle notification seemed effective.
The homeschool conference was held in a beautiful, light-filled space near Terri’s apartment. There were about seventy ladies from many different areas of the country. Many brought curriculum to share or sell, so just outside the wood screen you see above, there were many tables full of material to browse. On one wall, there were a number of posters with pens where people could list their favorite books, curriculum, or ideas by subject. These were to be transcribed and shared with the entire group after the conference.
The three-day conference was a blessing for me, and it was humbling to meet all these women who had courageously accepted the challenge of homeschooling in a foreign country, often in communities with no other English speakers. These are just a few of the families worldwide who have chosen to live life a bit differently. Please remember them in your prayers.
On the first day of the conference, Terri and I rode the scooter to a Muslim noodle shop for lunch. She parked on the sidewalk and ordered, and we got to sit on plastic stools at a small tray table by the curb and watch our lunches being made. There was a great deal of folding, spinning, and whacking involved in the process, but eventually, this long strand of dough became a bundle of noodles which were plopped into the pot of boiling water you see in the foreground at right. After boiling for a minute or so, the noodles were fished out with a pair of chopsticks, dropped neatly into a bowl, topped with good stuff (no idea what), and served. The side dish of stewed tomatoes, bok choy, and something else was especially delicious.
After the second night of the conference, four of us went out for the famous Chengdu hot pot. It was a beautiful meal, and is basically like fondue. All of the lovely veggies — lotus root, squash, mushrooms, etc. — you see in the photo (and more that wouldn’t fit) are picked up with chopsticks and dropped into the bubbling pot of tea. Leave them for a minute or two, then enjoy. And speaking of chopsticks — either you grow adept or you grow thin. Forks are simply not an option.
The last night of the conference, a larger group of us went to The Iron Pig, a southern-style barbeque restaurant (“barbeque” as a noun, not a verb). Astonishingly, the fried okra, corn, and sweet potato sides seemed quite authentic when paired with actual pork barbeque. It was odd to eat home food halfway across the world, but I can imagine what a treat it was for those who haven’t been back to the southern U. S. for awhile. Riding in a san lun che (three-wheeled vehicle) was a logical way for everyone to get back home for the night. These little vehicles come in myriad shapes and sizes, and are very inexpensive to ride in. Even though they were noisy and bumpy, they were a lot of fun to ride in, and I took them as often as possible.
The day after the conference, Terri and I had a slow morning. We finally made our way over to a park for a little local sightseeing and relaxation. The vehicles above were only two of the interesting vehicles we saw as we traveled. I was impressed by how much the little trucks could haul and how well they blended with traffic.
From what I could tell, small vehicles like this, powered by hand, cycle, or motor, are often used for tasks we would assign to a large vehicle. Things like furniture moving, trash pickup, or parcel delivery happened in little vehicles that could weave through traffic, park on sidewalks, and run economically. It seemed a surprisingly efficient solution, and it had the social benefit (consistent with the wise principle of subsidiarity*) of providing honorable work for thousands of small entrepreneurs.
We stopped at a lovely tea house at the park, and I had a bit of tea with my jet lag. All the travel and the three days of conference were catching up to me, but it was lovely to be out in the sun enjoying chrysanthemum and jasmine teas by a lovely lake. Many others had made time for the park, too, and people were having tea, playing games, and strangely enough, getting their ears cleaned. The gentleman you see standing in the center of the photo is a traveling ear cleaner. He carries a small toolkit of instruments, and seems to keep quite busy. I’m a wee bit squeamish about such things, so I couldn’t watch, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone else.
Later that evening, I went to the Chinese opera with Cindy, one of the expat homeschoolers who lives out near the mountains of Tibet. We would have enjoyed exploring this lovely building, but just snapped a few photos on the way in to the opera.
There’s never quite enough time in a single evening to get fully acquainted, but I thoroughly enjoyed getting a glimpse of Cindy’s life in this very different world. Like all homeschool moms, she faces the challenges of finding the right curriculum, wondering if her children are up to speed, teaching when illness strikes, making time for husband, family, community, and school, and keeping everyone fed, and she does it in remote village where few if any speak English.
She’s not alone — moms are doing this all over China and throughout the world. It’s something I want to remember when I’m tempted to complain about the lack of whole-milk plain yogurt in the grocery store or even something not so trivial. Much better to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness and contentment in the present moment, place, and time. I am blessed beyond measure in so many things beyond my control, and I want to be always grateful.
Chinese opera resembles Western opera in its pageantry, but is different in that it a series of acts or vignettes, rather than a cohesive story from beginning to end. Cross The Magic Flute with Barnum and Bailey, and you have an idea of what it’s like. Small bamboo tables were arranged in groups of four, with a small tea table in the center of each group. We sat down, and the tea server poured tea for us. The teapot spout was 4-5 feet long so that the server could reach far away tables while standing in the aisle.
As we waited for the performance to start, we were able to see the actors applying elaborate makeup and costumes, and we also spotted one of the professional ear cleaners plying his trade with all the aplomb of a hot dog seller at a ball field. I still can’t imagine why anyone would be doing that in public.
The performance was varied and interesting, with music, dance, comedic melodrama, hand shadows, acrobatics, and face-changing. The latter was fascinating. Costumed actors moved through a stylized dance, changing faces and costumes by simply passing their hands across their face or body. The changes seemed impossibly swift, and there was no visible transition between the old and new.
Many of the streets in China are lined with small neighborhood shops. This little grocery store packed in a lot of fresh produce, and even meat. Closer to the tourist areas, there were larger shops, but all seemed geared toward serving a specific neighborhood, rather than drawing traffic from afar.
On our last day in Chengdu, we went to the panda preserve. We arrived early in the morning, so the baby pandas were still out. Many were napping in trees, looking much like a child’s forgotten toy. It was fun to watch them wrestle and roll and climb and play. They are such little butterballs that even when they fall out of a tree or off the little bridge, they just roll over and waddle off. A photographer was in the pen with them for awhile, but they kept wanting to tackle his white galoshes. It was funny to see him high-stepping swiftly to avoid an embarrassment of pandas (the collective noun seems quite appropriate in this context).
This post has gotten rather long, so I’ll leave you with this last shot of the chubby baby pandas playing in slow motion. Even when they run, there’s so much waddle in their gait that it takes awhile to gain momentum, and as they grow older, they move less and less. The adult pandas we saw seemed content to just sit quietly on the ground audibly munching their day’s bamboo ration. If you do get a chance to visit Chengdu, be sure to visit the pandas very early in the morning when the babies are awake, or you’ll just see them napping through the heat of the day.
In the next post, I’ll share a few photos from the Beijing leg of our trip. We were there only three days, so I’m pretty sure it won’t be this long.
* Subsidiarity is the principle that the functions of government, business, and other activities should be as local as possible. According to Wikipedia, ‘The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual, and holds that all other forms of society, from the family to the state and the international order, should be in the service of the human person.”