Grasping at Straws … er, Spicy Noodles

Travelling the Silicon RoadCHENGDU, China — It is with a somewhat heavy heart — and a very depressed palate — that I find myself in the Chengdu airport waiting to catch a flight to Shenzhen.

There are a number of reasons for this; I’m acutely aware that my trip is more than three-quarters over; in less than a week I’ll be back in the States. And yet I feel like I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of China, much less gain an acute understanding.

Not that I expected to develop an innate understanding of an ancient culture in a matter of weeks, but I feel like I’ve only just begun my task, and soon it will be over — but not finished.

Plus, I’ve had to say goodbye to Zhike, my interpreter, who has been an invaluable asset these past three weeks — not to mention a new but nevertheless trusted and valued friend. I would not have guessed that I could grow so fond of someone that is twelve years younger than me and from a different culture so quickly.

I find myself not really wanting to leave Chengdu, either. Its food has been fantastic, some of the best I’ve eaten ever; I could happily eat genuine Sichuan food once a day for the rest of my life. Plus the women here in Chengdu seem to be nearly as spicy as the food. Maybe too spicy, says Zhike, both about the food and the girls, but on that score I have to disagree with my new-found friend.

But beyond the spice the Sichuan lifestyle seems more in tune with my own lifestyle — Xiamen tugged at my heart strings, and Beijing stimulated my mind, and I firmly believe that home is wherever I put my head down at night. But Chengdu almost feels like it could indeed be home for awhile.

I think this also has to do with the fact that after three weeks straight of business class hotels, cabs and conference rooms, interviews and airplanes, we actually got out in the countryside this past weekend, and I saw aspects of China that many Western business travels don’t see. You’ll read more about that later on, I promise.

But the green mountains outside Chengdu reminded me of my new home in West Virginia, and it didn ‘ make me homesick, exactly — part of me really would like to remain here in China for awhile — but it reminded me just how tired I am of business travel and hotels, and all the attendant hassle. Someday I will return here for a month, maybe longer, perhaps, with nothing but time and a backpack.

Most important of all though, I find myself with mixed emotions because I feel like I’m getting close to understanding something important about Chinese culture, but I’m not sure yet what that quite is. I’ve gone from thinking Chinese culture is really different, to thinking that’s it’s not that different, to realizing that below the surface it is very different from my own culture. And I feel like I’m getting close to being able to grasp that difference and understand it, but I haven’t got there yet.

And I’m not talking about the mundane differences, like the way traffic works here or what there is too eat, or the status of China’s economic and technological development. I guess I’m talking about what makes me a Westerner, specifically American, and what makes the Chinese … well, Chinese. Of course if I could articulate what I’m trying to grasp, I would have grasped it.

It suddenly strikes me that these words sound familiar.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaAnyway, I had a long talk with Zhike today, about why certain things are the way they are in China — not because I’m annoyed that they aren’t like in the States, or any silly thing like that, but because I feel like there’s something I’m missing, something I can’t understand, and I’m not sure what it is yet. I fear that I’ll be on a plane back to the States before I can grasp that epiphany.

Ah well, my plane is boarding soon. The mundane duties of life intrude. …

Jeff

P.S. Actually, the data function on my cell phone’s smart card wasn’t working for some reason when I was at the Chengdu airport earlier, so this was technically filed from Shenzhen at 2 a.m. the next day, but that’s neither here nor there.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/31/2005 12:02:21 PM, yours truly, reader said:

I found you are a passionate person. When I read your article, tear running in my eyes. I am not sure why I got that feeling..

at 11/1/2005 1:51:13 PM, Sonia Harrison said:

Jeff, I have to say that I’ve really enjoyed reading your Blog the last few weeks. Thanks for letting me visit China with you–even if only through your stories.

at 11/1/2005 3:31:45 PM, Jim H. said:

It’s been fun reading about your journey, both geographically and mentally. I see parallels to my experience with marrying into a Chinese family after growing up in a typical midwestern family. I too went from thinking that they were really different from us, to thinking that they are the same but just talk a different language, to realizing that there are some differences that I will never comprehend and there are things that they will never comprehend about me.

One difference I see is the American desire to be self-sufficient, to be able to repair things oneself, to be able to take care of oneself, to even survive in the wild if one needed to (our recreation of camping). The Chinese see a virtue in relying on ones family and reciprocating by helping ones family. The first is useful if you are in a frontier environment (which we no longer are), the latter is useful if you are in a fully settled country of a billion people.

The Chinese also cannot comprehend why anyone would ever want to be alone, and I cannot comprehend why they always want to be in large noisy groups. Of course these are generalizations, not all Americans or Chinese fit these stereotypes. I will be interested to see what you come up with.

at 11/1/2005 4:45:32 PM, Jane said:

Shenzhen is a very young city. The average age of the population is only 27. A lovely place you sure will have a good time there.

at 11/3/2005 10:23:44 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Thank you all for the kind comments. Jim H: you are dead-on in that observation about self-sufficiency. This is the only place I’ve been where people seemed shocked and bewildered that I would want to carry my own luggage. I didn’t understand why at first. … It was a foreign concept for Zhike and other new friends that if I needed or wanted help, I would ask for it; otherwise I did not want it or need it — that I appreciated the show of respect and friendship, but was quite capable of managing on my own.

I fear I’ve inadvertently insulted hotel bell staff from one end of China to the other. And I confess, as much as I have truly loved China, I think I’m ready for some quiet solitude in the middle of nowhere 🙂

at 11/4/2005 2:10:38 PM, Bill in Mpls said:

Having spent a very short time in Korea, I also searched for some way to explain differences in culture from my own. I see in the Koreans a sense of ethnicity over nationality which is almost opposite of our upbringing. Their history (their “people’s” history) – what they all have in common – goes so far back beyond whatever the current government is that they identify more with their family and neighbors than any larger-scale institution. Our history in the U.S. is focused on what we have in common – our government, local, and national institutions. We don’t have a common ethnicity or history with most of our neighbors. Thanks for the blog.

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