Every morning in the winter, I walk to school under the glow of the tungsten streetlights, watching my breath billow in front of me in small puffs of steam. My scarf is tight around my neck and my jacket, with its ripped pockets and fraying liner, never quite warm enough. In Chengdu, I always feel cold in the winter.
Every day at school, I defrost in my office or the classrooms, but move briskly through the halls or between the primary and secondary building. The air has too much bite to it, too much moisture, and the cold settles around my shoulders and feet, sinking somewhere beneath my skin to the very bones within.
Back in Virginia, in the middle of the winter, I used to crank the heat in my house up to a comfortable 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit (15-18 degrees Celsius) and wrap the back door with plastic to keep out the chill. I would come home every day and kick off my shoes as I walked through the door. In socks, jeans, and a tee-shirt, I would lounge around, grading papers, watching television sprawled out on the couch, or reading in my bedroom.
In Chengdu, I remain fully bundled in my apartment, removing my shoes at the door, keeping my feet bare only long enough to replace the shoes with slippers. The heat on my living room AC unit is set to 25-30 degrees Celsius (77-86 degrees Fahrenheit). The apartment will never get that warm. The hot air blows noisily, heating the sitting area before dissipating, disappearing through windows and uninsulated walls. To sleep, I wrap myself in a heavy comforter, snuggling close to a water bottle filled with boiling heat. In the mornings, I loathe pulling back the comforter, forcing myself up and into the eternal chill.
It’s official though, I will not be here next year. After nearly four years of the same routine, same apartment, same school, the thought is both thrilling and sad. I knew, when I moved away from Virginia 4 years ago, that, with family there, I would always have a reason to visit Fredericksburg, to watch from afar as expanded and aged. Chengdu, however home it feels to me now, does not have the same hold. I have friends—good friends, great friends—here, but many will move away to new jobs and new schools in years to come. Yes, some will remain here, but factoring together plane tickets and visa prices, it’s quite possible that I will never be here for more than a few days after I move away.
Always striving to be diplomatic, I have thought about what I will and won’t miss about Chengdu, the city, itself. Thus, this excludes the phenomenal people I have met here.
What I Will Miss:
1) Food. Sichuan food is amazing; hot, spicy, and flavorful. I detest so-called “Chinese” food in the states now with its cloying sweetness and sugar-overload. From the street vendors to the upscale hotpot restaurants, from dim sum to shao kao, China has some of the best (and least expensive) food I have ever tried.
2) Culture. When you go to the touristy cities of China—Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen—I feel you miss a lot of “real” China. These places feel overly westernized. While Chengdu may be slouching in that direction, for now, it remains steeped in tea houses, bamboo-laden parks, and Face Change artists.
3) Togetherness. I know I have written about this before. In the states, we spend so much time indoors, watching television or talking only to those we already know. In China, so much life is lived outside. People exercise on street corners every morning, dance in public squares every night, eat chuan-chuan at small folding card tables, and get in screaming matches over card games, causing crowds three to four people deep to gather around in curiosity. Any time I travel to the west, I find myself wondering where everyone is and why they don’t spend more time with others.
4) Nightlife. Chengdu is known as a relaxing city and, with traffic, this may be debatable. But there is no shortage of things to do here. If you want to watch a movie, there are literally hundreds of theatres to choose from. Ice skating? Got you covered. Ski slopes? Fake ones here too. Want to go dancing? Okay, just pick from the endless stream of bars and nightclubs that have popped up all over the city. Whatever your cup of tea (haha, puny), Chengdu has you covered.
5) Community. Here, specifically, I am talking about the expat community. While this includes other Asians as well, I’m mostly referring to the western community. There are 20,000ish (rough, rough data) foreigners here in a city of well over 15,000,000 people. That’s a very small percentage. And you end up seeing the same foreigners over and over again, especially if you hit up expat restaurants. I’ve met many men and women just because we keep running in to each other grocery shopping or at international school events. Chengdu is large enough to feel quite anonymous, but the expat community is close enough to feel intimate.
I’ll miss a lot more than this, like the cheapness of China and the ease of transportation, but these are the Big Five, as I will call them.
So, where am I moving to? Germany. And considering I never was really drawn to western Europe, I find it crazy and exciting that this is where I’m heading. To make myself feel better about leaving…I compiled a list of things I will not miss about Chengdu:
What I Will Not Miss:
1) Pollution. I am looking forward to being able to walk outside in the winter without checking to see if I need to wear a mask.
2) Traffic. In a city of (last I heard) nearly 17 million people, traffic is—of course—a problem. But common-sense whilst driving also doesn’t seem to exist here. Cars gallop over sidewalks, barrel the wrong way down one-way streets, and blast their horn at red lights as though that’ll make the light change or the traffic move.
3) Inescapable Temperature. Apartments here are basically giant chill boxes. While this is helpful in the summer, in the winter you. can. not. get. warm. There’s no true indoor heating and the standup air conditioning units make the air so dry that hands and lips constantly cracked. Centralized heating will be a dream come true.
4) Construction. This city has grown so much since I’ve moved here. We’ve gone from two metro lines to six (with 15 more on the way). We’ve seen malls and apartments and overpasses spring up from nothingness to fully operational almost overnight. But with that constant climb comes massive inconvenience—rerouted bus lined, closed sidewalks and streets, and more traffic elsewhere.
5) Spitting. This pet peeve is getting a lot better, not nearly as prevalent now as it was, but the expectorating that the older generation does here—loogies smacking against the ground on heavily polluted days—is still disgusting. I will never enjoy the sound of someone summoning up phlegm and will not miss it in the least.
There will be more forthcoming, but for now, I’m in China, trying to make the rest of this school year a great one and preparing to move west.