Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tasty Bargain in Chengdu

Ikea has an amazing bargain which I wish I had known about over the past three years.  We often have to come to Chengdu for different trainings so knowing about this little gem of a bargain would have been useful.
What is the bargain?
1.  If you fill out the paperwork, you can get a free Ikea Family card.  With this card, you can receive a FREE bottomless cup of real coffee every day except on weekends.
2.  Between 2-5 pm on weekdays Ikea has happy hour where various items are marked at half price.  For example, a plate of 10 meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy usually costs 15 RMB ($2.35), but during happy hour, this wonderful plate of yumminess costs only 7 RMB about the same price as rice covered with a Chinese dish at your local hole in the wall.
3.  Ikea has FREE wi-fi.
How does one get to Ikea?
From Sichuan University, take bus 76 going west (away from the university).  The closest bus stop is across the street from McDonald's.  When the bus has passed through an underpass, you are getting close.  Wait one more stop and get off at the supermarket Auchan (full of cheaper western food than Sabrina's).  Ikea is behind the Galleria and Auchan.
Take the Metro and get off at the South Railway Station stop.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

New Life: Moving to Chengdu

Moving to Chengdu
I've been a volunteer for five years, so why in the world would I want to remain an additional year?  In Chengdu, there are higher playing jobs!  Instead of a 1,500 RMB living allowance, having to budget and resist temptation, I could be making 6,000-10,000 RMB living a comfortable life, mixing a local Chinese lifestyle with a Western one.  It doesn't make sense to be a PCV for only one year in Chengdu.  In my opinion, one year isn't enough time to build community and start secondary projects.  The reason I stayed in Peace Corps for one more year was to get exposure to the Peace Corps office and to see how thing are run from a Peace Corps staff's point of view, a type of internship to broaden my skills.
There is a hiccup to my plans though.  Originally the PCV leader position was going to be a part-time teaching job then work in the office twice a week.  Due to complications, there is no longer a PCVL position and now I have to be a regular PCV with a full time teaching load.
My Host Family
I had a great four day homestay with my Chinese host family.  I stayed with a newly wed couple where the wife is a teacher at my new college.  We lived in a new flat, beautifully decorated with wood floors in an apartment complex that had an outdoor swimming pool.  I slept in the only bedroom while the couple went to the building next door and stayed with the husband's family. 
The mother-in-law cooked us three delicious meals.  Sichuan food is absolutely amazing!  There is such a variety of vegetables and flavor.  Plus the father-in-law loves meat. 
We drove everywhere, but I kept a mental check on the bus lines so I'd know how to get places on my own.  The teacher took me to see Harry Potter in 3D and we drank tea and played Mahjong for a whole afternoon before having hot pot while watching a Sichuan opera show.  It was an enjoyable host stay, chill, relaxing, plenty of time for myself, and extremely informative about Chengdu's local customs.
My New Flat
It is HUGE!  The living room feels like a classroom that can fit 20 desks except the room is completely empty except for a telephone and a black leather couch.  The dining area is empty except for a fridge.  The kitchen is well stocked with a microwave, stove, and dish drying machine.  The washing machine is high tech.  Push one button and it automatically runs through four cycles compared to my old machine which was more manual. 
The bedroom has a closet, two desks, and two twin beds and an air conditioner.  It is a smaller room than the living room making it easier to cool and to heat.  It is where I'll live.
The bathroom has a bathtub and I am not too excited about having to keep the grim clean.  The college provided a computer but there is no Internet so it is hard to have an online presence.  I am back to handwriting letters and blogs posting them whenever I visit the PC office.
My New Neighborhood
My college is in the middle of office buildings with a few restaurants, the cheap 6 RMB meals mixed with the fancier 30 RMB meals.  Then after a 10 minute walk, I am in suburbia America with its Ikea parking lots, Auchan (French supermarket), and an upscale shopping mall with a movie theater whose tickets are 120 RMB, a Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, a Tex-Mex restaurant, and Starbucks.  Then if you continue walking for another 10 minutes, there is a more typical Chinese neighborhood with tea houses, massage places, barber shops, a farmer's market, parks with people dancing, doing Tai Qi, and playing with their grandchildren.  Mixed in with this local color is the upscale imported Western food supermarkets of Sabrina's and Carrefour.  My old sitemate described it perfectly, "Best of both worlds."
My New Lifestyle
It took a couple of weeks to adjust to the big city, but finally I'm enjoying it!  I grab a 6:30 am bus and after 20 minutes arrive at the West gate of Sichuan University and then walk 20 minutes to the office.  I work for a day by helping PC staff and by helping with various sessions of PST like a PCV panel or helping the trainees with their semester course plans for the start of school.  At around 6 pm I leave the office and head home to crash.  Rush hour traffic is heavy but on a bus with AC it isn't too annoying.
It is exciting being in a bigger city, exploring neighborhoods feeling less isolated mentally and physically compared to traditional Gansu.  I am excited to explore the things that I've missed for the past 5 years- concerts, shows, films, an international community.  Being in a bigger city I am often not initially assumed to be Chinese.  During a morning run, I overheard construction workers say, "Hua ren," meaning a person with Chinese heritage but not necessarily a citizen of China.  When getting ID photos taken, the photographer asked, "Japanese or Korean?"  It is nice to feel part of a more international city that is exposed to diversity.
I am even enjoying the heat of humid Chengdu.  It reminds me of Africa as I sleep on a bamboo mat cooler than cotton sheets.  Compared to brown Gansu, it reminds me of Alabama, the smell of grass and trees.  Having a fridge, a fan, and running water makes life so much more comfortable than living on the dirt porch under a straw roof in Burkina.  China makes the heat nostalgic and more bearable.
Processing and Adapting
My initial reaction to Chengdu was culture shock... I left America to live a different lifestyle in a different culture, but in Chengdu I was thrown right back into Western food and stores.  After some time, some processing, some psychological adjustment to the idea, my reactions shifted and in the place of resistance, acceptance started slowly forming.  I realized that this is where I am stuck, so try to focus on the things I like about the place.  Accept the idea that Ikea will be my neighborhood coffee shop instead of resisting and hating the idea. 
Am I too flexible?  Not having my own values, ideals, and type of lifestyle to hang onto?  Maybe after five years abroad, I have learned that the only way to be happy is to adapt and accept whatever I am given.  Instead of focusing on the things I don't like, try to find the pleasures in whatever environment I am living.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

First Impression of my New Neighborhood

On an empty Saturday, living in a hotel can be a bit boring, so I decided to scope out my new home.
My university is in a neighborhood of new wide sidewalks and streets, empty of cars and people.  The place is like a research park that only fills up from 9-6 pm then becomes a ghostville.  Luckily there is a subway entrance right outside of the front gate of the university that will take me to the back alleyways of Chengdu.  The area is actually a biking paradise with its wide streets empty of cars.  I even bet the countryside is just down the street.  Even though I am surrounded by new buildings rather than back alleyways of food, color, and Chinese flavor I am in a place where I will be able to bike and have quick subway access to markets, food and colorful sights that I love.
I feel like my new neighborhood is like Huntsville, AL or Redmond, WA.  Who would have thought I'd end up living in a research park in China?  At least I'll be able to commute safely to and from the PC office by bike and there's nothing to spend on coz the few places that do exist are too chic.

Chengdu and Thoughts about Homestay

I have moved to Chengdu, a bustling metropolitan city, big, a place I can't explore by foot in a day, a place whose neighborhoods are as big as my Gansu city.  For me Chengdu, has always been a vacation spot, the place you go for Peace Corps trainings, a place where you might spend 10 times more than what you usually spend for a meal since it's a special occasion.  You're getting per diem, and it's only a few times a year that your tongue can have the special treat of raw fish, hummus, bacon, and a bottomless cup of Joe. 
Now though I've become a resident. 
Instead of an African village with once a week transport out on dirt roads or a small Chinese city with a population of over 200,000, I am in a city of millions.  I am in a city with a diversity of international food, entertainment, people, and places.  There's even rugby; however, unlike Seattle where I had enough to spend freely to feed my desire for film, theater, and food, I now must be careful with my money and resist temptation.  Will I have the self-control to face what every volunteer encounters when living in an expensive city?
Cities are exciting and can be cheap.  Biking, buses, a subway, and eating out can all be inexpensive.  Exploring the streets, and going to free concerts and tiny restaurants will be fun.  Finding bike routes out of the city will be great.
Currently I am living in a hotel.  My flat isn't ready yet.  Monday I will be moving in with a host family for a week just like all the other PC trainees who will be on site visit.
When the idea of having trainees live with host families during site visits was being discussed by the training staff, I would often discuss with other PCVs the pros and cons of having a temporary host family in the city you'd be working in for two years.  The biggest disadvantages were
-being used as the foreign face to be shown off to the community
-being requested to teach English
-having a forced relationship in a new community with people whom you might not get along with and who might be hard to avoid
-having work and social boundaries blurred as you might live with a counterpart, a colleague, or a boss
These challenges can be a bit daunting if you haven't figured out how to cope with China yet, like how to tell white lies, how to indirectly say no, how to smile to create harmonious relationships and how to feel at peace with the extremely long social obligations of a single day when you would prefer some privacy and alone time.  A homestay though is a perfect opportunity to learn about Chinese culture and the local community.  Also, it is a time to grow and evolve into a person who knows how to meet one's own needs and desires as well as learn how to implement boundaries in culturally appropriate ways.
As a veteran volunteer, even though I'm fully aware of all the potential frustrations of living with a host family, I am super excited about living with a Chinese family.  Why?
-I can improve my Chinese.
-I can learn about the school, the neighborhood, the people, the pockets of activity and the local customs.
-I can start forming relationships, guanxi, a network of people with whom I can exchange favors.
-I can learn so much by living with a host family like finding the best ways to get my needs and desires met like a new mobile phone number, names of local dishes, a massage place, a place to take martial arts, buy a bike, bus routes, and where to buy yarn.
I like being independent and like feeling successful when I have accomplished something on my own; however, even though I've lived in China for three years and one could assume I can speak a bit of Chinese and can do things by myself, it is still a lot easier and more efficient when community members are helping me.  Most of the time people are happy to help.  At least in theory, when community members are happy, the whole community benefits from the harmony created by helping each other.  (*wink*  Theory and practice don't always match.  I have had plenty of frustrating moments trying to navigate Chinese culture and relationships while trying to keep the well-being of the community harmonious and peaceful.)