Thursday, June 30, 2011

The People We Met

We met some very nice people during our stay in Chengdu. Whereas I am aware that, in Wuhan, people like to talk to me not so much because it is ME but because of my potential language ability, people in Chengdu seem genuinely friendly and open. We met so many nice people that telling you about them warrants its own entry. This is that entry.

Most notable is Gary. We met him and his friend Sun Ye on the patio at Starbucks. Yep, Starbucks again! It was a nice morning so we decided to eat our breakfast outside. As we lingered over coffee and made our plans for the day, two young men sat at the table next to us and promptly lit cigarettes. It was their right, the patio being the designated smoking area. Carrie Ann wrinkled her nose in disgust. She has a presumed allergy to cigarette smoke, though I’ve never seen her suffer any effects in all the times we’ve been out together, although we have been around smokers.

I suggested we move to another table because the gentlemen’s cigarette smoke was wafting directly toward us. She, in a loud voice, suggested we tell them to put their cigarettes out. Just as I was admonishing her that they had a right to smoke and we, sitting in the smoking area, should not inconvenience them, one of them overheard our discussion and told us, in English, that they would put their cigarettes out if it bothered us. A win for Carrie Ann turned out to be a win for us all.

The English speaker was Gary, a very nice man who, as it turns out, lives in Wuhan. He is a business man, head of his own export company. He had just sealed a major deal with a firm in Italy, so he had given himself the month off and had come to Chengdu to visit his friend. He would be leaving the following day, headed back to Wuhan, but was making the most of the fine weather by lingering outdoors and chatting away. We soon engaged in conversation and before you know it, we had exchanged contact information and made plans for lunch.

They took us to a fine local restaurant nearby. Sun Ye ordered all the food for us while Gary arranged for a table in the courtyard that was sufficiently shady. This being peak lunch hour I’m sure a certain amount of Guanxi flowed to ensure ours was a superb dining experience. And it was! Everything was delicious, including the company. This was the only time on this whole trip that we sampled local fare and it was all very tasty. Of course, in consideration to our foreigner taste buds, Sun Ye made sure to order food that was not too spicy.

All too soon our encounter ended. We made plans to get together once back in Wuhan, and then parted company. Gary called me before boarding the train the following day. He assured me that, if we needed anything while still in Chengdu I could simply call him and he would make things happen for us long distance. He also promised to invite us over once we got back to Wuhan. We are supposed to have a nice get together at his home this Saturday night. I’m so looking forward to it! It seems Gary will be a great friend.

Later that day, after roaming around the People’s Park and Tibetan Street we went off in search of Pete’s Tex-Mex restaurant, advertised in Lonely Planet as one of the top rated expat restaurants in town. Having spent a sizable block of time in Texas I can honestly state that everything from the d├ęcor to the food was indeed Tex-Mex. Tea was served in Mason canning jars, tortillas were dispensed from plastic tortilla keepers and fajitas were served on a sizzling cast iron platter, just like in Texas.

Each of us sampled our fare and rolled our eyes at the sublime pleasure of this delicious food. I had ordered only an appetizer, being still comfortably sated with the lunch so kindly provided by Gary and Sun Ye but Carrie Ann had fajitas and Olaf laid waste to some beef enchiladas. My stuffed potato skins and lemonade were so good that I declared I would willingly throw myself on the floor and kick my legs up in the air like a dying insect. Surely, with food this good I must have died and gone to heaven!

But the food and ambience were not the only things that made Pete’s so remarkable. Before even getting to our seats we met Ilona, from upstate New York who was there with six other University representatives from the Northeast States. They were in China to recruit students for their language exchange program. This was to be their last night in Chengdu before they moved on to parts unknown. Nobody suggested we dine together, which was fine. I certainly did not want to barge in on their group. But we did exchange contact information and Ilona and I have already exchanged an email or two. She will help me set up my pen-pal project for my students, with students from her schools. Also, she has promised to forward my initial email to several other schools that have an active Mandarin Studies program, so my kids should have plenty of correspondents next year. I’m so excited about that!

And then, there was Alyssa and MK, whom we met at the Bookworm. That establishment is part library, part eatery, part lounge and completely inviting for its intellectual atmosphere. If I lived in Chengdu, the Bookworm would definitely be my hangout.

Unfortunately, at this point Olaf and Carrie Ann had gotten into a little tiff. For the first time since the start of our trip we parted company. Olaf went back to the hotel while Carrie Ann and I hung out at the Bookworm. She pretended to not be bothered by her friend’s absence but I could tell, by the forced brightness of her speech and her manic joy at perusing the bookshelves that she regretted the fallout between herself and her good friend. I did my best to distract her. We sat in the Bookworm’s warm ambience, talking of books we’ve read and our plans for the future.

Upon arriving at that establishment I had lingered outside to have one of the few cigarettes of this trip. That is when I noticed this beautiful woman, conversing with an older man. Her hair was done up in a french braid from her hairline to the middle of her back. She wore a gray, Grecian styled, long gown with brown trim that highlighted the color of her eyes and the paleness of her skin. Not that I normally notice women in such a way but her beauty was remarkable, especially because it was coupled with an apparent intensity of thought. By her body language and mien I mused the conversation she was having with this older gentleman must be ponderous and thought-provoking indeed.

I had occasion to approach her later, when we were waiting in line in the washroom. I told her I thought she was a lovely woman and everything from her gown to her hairstyle was visually appealing. She thanked me and thus began an hours long debate on religion, philosophy and sociology: just the kind of conversation I hunger for! For several hours Alyssa, Chris – the older gentleman, Michael and I sat on the patio, talking, drinking and smoking. Carrie Ann did join us reluctantly, making me ever aware of her distaste for smokers.

Before heading out to the patio, MK and I had a brief conversation. She had overheard Alyssa and I talking in the washroom and, as a longtime resident of China had several pointers to offer me about negotiating employment contracts. She also knew several people she could put me in touch with for future job opportunities, should I decide to leave Wuhan. She and I also exchanged contact information and have already exchanged emails as well. This woman is a veritable fountain of knowledge, information and contacts! She will retire soon and divide her time between China and America where her 9 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren reside. They miss her terribly and want her to come home. I think she’s ready to, but by personal experience I can tell you that it is very hard to get China out of your blood once you fall in love with the place.

Just ask Alyssa, who vows China is her home. Ask Chris or Michael, who have each married Chinese women and have made their lives here. Ask Ilona, who comes back every three months for her educational outreach program. Ask Gary, who has been all over the world and still comes back to Wuhan.

Isn’t this a lovely group of people we met in the short time we were in Chengdu?

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