9th March 2018
Chengdu, Sichuan (成都，四川)
Yes, the opening scene was certainly a little breathless, wasn’t it? China does look a little frantic. It’s a little like a child’s drawing – Not always attractive but certainly energetic, occasionally absurd (Why is the path so big for such a small house?).
But enter the characters and China starts to feel more mature, and oddly, for the most populous country on earth, a little calm. If in India the people bring an intertwined chaotic energy like the intricate sculpture on an otherwise dead column, in China, the people bring an humanity to the towering concrete.
In these hills certain characters appear often. The people working in the small fields for example, collecting crops from their market garden into a wicker basket backpack. They have a steady air to the work, like a retiree in his allotment rather than a hired day hand. An old, short man will perhaps be working with his taller, adult daughter, one digging a hole the next dropping a potato in.
The car mechanic, in his roller shuttered work shop appears a lot, changing a tyre, on a Toyota or a VW, but often on a brand I’ve never heard of, using an electric nut gun. No cycle repair shacks though.
The noodle store scene appears regularly too. A woman juggling high handled woks on roaring gas cylinders and intermittently using a large butcher’s cleaver to shred a cabbage – it almost sounds like a new idiom – several other patrons staggered on tables around the place slurping, in their own worlds like Londoners on a tube train.
The lady with the roadside handcart recurs, though what she sells changes. Wonton soup, or a jelly made from any carbohydrate you can think of, served with spicy sauce or perhaps skewers of meat – belly, intestines, kidneys. But always with a QR code for instant mobile payment within reach.
But certain less expected cameos reappear. The old lady with the big toothy smile scrubbing to perfection a row of already gleaming white trainers. The younger girl talking quietly to her phone instead of typing – for thousands of years writing underpinned a Chinese culture, now speech-to-text is taking over!
On average I chat to fewer people than in India. There is still a curiosity but it takes a little more time engage. But sometimes, most often from the young there is am eagerness that translates into the necessary patience to make broken English, Mandarin and Google translate into a conversation: a fruit seller who was so thrilled I wanted to buy lychees from him that he gave them me for free, and was desperate to have me try a pear – ‘from Xinjiang you know’. Or the two days of fun that started when the young manager of the hotel where I stopped invited me to dinner with his friends.
But there’s more than friendliness or a quiet industriousness, there is a thoroughly endearing communal leisure visible all around. It’s clear from the set up of most restaurants, big round tables thronged by large groups sharing dishes, but it’s more clear from Sunday afternoon in a random town’s central square. Groups of old men and women play cards, while interested bystanders and an intrigued cyclist watch on. A woman and man with a microphone sing an alternating duet as other men sit waiting their turn, and a seemingly impromptu Chinese classical ensemble under a stone gazebo practice – with clearly varying success, even to my ears untuned as they are to the East.
Or as the sun sets and the neon rises over artificial lakes and islands in an unremarkable but fairly large city, groups of people each following a leader and an amp learn to dance – it makes for an eclectic medley: western and Chinese, old and new, each piece competing but without brashness with those nearby. A few days later in a different city, like an echo, I walked past a woman in leggings, a short dance skirt and trainers as she contentedly hummed similar tunes clearly on her way home.
My favourite time though is the couple of hours after lunch when the roadside eateries combine four things: a cup of tea, a pack of cards, lots of cigarettes and plenty of people. Far from closed affairs, they seem open family places. I have felt welcome, being bought tea and offered the standard symbol of welcome -a cigarette. The women will be talking alongside, and in another recurring image, toddlers of which there are many, will be playing with the old man.
I find myself on the level of the toddlers quite often, both linguistically and socially – I am gently coddled while everyone goes about their business – perhaps a chair is pulled up so I can try to decipher the games. And people will talk to me – slowly but not quite slow enough and with lots of gestures. The author would do well to include a scene like this; perhaps it would be the first, capturing the feel – mature, but not without life, with leisure but not idleness, open but not excitable – that serene backdrop in contrast to which, no doubt the many hidden stories can take place.
An astute critic might pull out age as a theme; Perhaps there are indeed more old people up in these hills. Perhaps, being during the day, the younger adults are at work. But whatever the reason the old people stand out as much as the new infrastructure. I’m not sure whether they are the protagonist to this story but they have certainly been cast with an engaging actor.
And what of me, the narrator?
I have settled quickly. Much like a country that industrialises later, perhaps I haven’t needed to reinvent everything after cycling through India, just tweak India’s experience to a new place. I feel safe here. And things seem as you want them and where you want them – a regular rhythm. Even I have become more regularised with my distances and habits.
But just as I wrote at the beginning in India, it seems oddly familiar to me. Incomprehensible and unexpected of course but somehow normal. It feels like the oddness builds on a familiar foundation – a bit of Italy here, America there. And strangely it is the differences that feel like they are taking time to be recognised.
And so the story must continue. A twist in the tale, a road to redemption, a voyage of discovery? I’m not sure what narrative arc will unfold; I’m just the narrator, no idea who the author is!