Monday, August 5, 2013

Chi Bi, not Totoro

When John first struck up the idea that I come visit his hometown I agreed enthusiastically. This being my travel season, I have again been plagued with the Foreigner Phenomenon, where I’m seen as a tourist rather than someone who wishes to understand the culture and history of the locale. While being a tourist is not a bad thing, it precludes me, and other travelers like me from gaining a true picture of where I’m at and the role it and its people played in history, and in today’s shape of things.

The best way around that is to have an ‘in’. Someone who is from that area and understands my desire to truly know the significance of their home. In return, he/she gets to parade me around and gain untold amounts of guanxi. The balance is measured by how much ‘foreigner phenomenon’ I can stand versus how badly I want to learn. Sometimes, especially in the smaller towns or more rural areas, being part queen/part freak for a day is too much. I do my very best to decline those invitations as gently as possible, usually by postponing them indefinitely.

John would not stand to be postponed. In fact, so adamant was he that I come to visit that he suggested he rent a car to pick me up so I can spend a few days… essentially kidnapping me. Being as my travel documents are still at the local constabulary – it now takes more than 3 weeks to renew residence permits, I would have no valid travel papers. I would be completely at his mercy. Although I’m sure nothing so sinister as an outright kidnapping/torture scenario was in the offing, at no time am I ever inclined to give such complete control of my circumstances away. Only by the greatest of verbal prowess was I able to dissuade him from my immediate appearance in his town.

John is a handsome young man, model beautiful and quite photogenic. He is sweet and kind and generous. Why he had to be so adamant and why I had to be so resistant is a mystery. In the end I did go to ChiBi, and had a marvelous time.

I like to research where I’m going before I get there. Also, it helps to know my destination when buying passage on one of the many available means of transportation. This time I chose the train over the long distance bus. Not only would the train get me there faster, but train rides afford me the luxury of anonymity. Once everyone understands I’m a friendly foreigner but not one that likes to hold court, they pretty much stop gaping and staring, and everyone usually leaves me alone.

Quick text message volley, me to John and back: “what is the name of your town?” “Chi Bi” came the answer, both in pinyin and in characters. I gave a start. I know about Chibi. They are shy little Totoros, of the movie ‘My Neighbor Totoro’.

This anime masterpiece by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki, the renowned Japanese master of the genre is a gentle story of two girls and their father, displaced to the countryside so they can live close to the sanatorium where their mother is confined. A geomancer/village elder confides that only those pure of heart can see magical spirits like dust sprites and Totoros. The girls, especially the younger one are such people. Not only does Totoro befriend her but watches over her when she takes off on foot across the countryside by herself to visit her mother.

The Totoros and all other mystical characters are drawn simplistically, perhaps to stand out against the lush backgrounds that Mr. Miyazaki is famous for. Chibi Totoros blush when seen and literally fade away. However, they are not my favorite character in this movie. The Cat Bus is. I’m not saying anymore. You should check it out for yourself, along with Mr. Miyazaki’s other works, among them Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the classic of the same name by Diane Wynne Jones.

Now I want to spend the rest of the day watching anime instead of writing. Get back on task, Krej!!!


Chi Bi is a relatively small city, located in the southwest of Hubei province, about 2 hours from Wuhan. If Wuhan is considered a Tier 3 city then Chi Bi would be maybe 5th tier. It receives hardly any government money although it sponsors plenty of industry. Most of the buildings are still faced with that white tile/barred window look, a mute testimony to China’s erstwhile collaboration with and emulation of Soviet communism. Very little new construction and virtually no high rises mar the horizon which, in itself is spectacular.

I would liken Chi Bi to Boulder, Colorado for all it has to offer: savage water, stately mountains, eclectic lifestyle heavily shaded by tradition. This town of just over half a million people houses only 1 KFC and no Walmart, with no plans to bring in any more or any different foreign trades or businesses. It seems the Chi Bi-ites are quite happy with their local shopping venues and foods.

I can see why. Whereas Wuhan specialties rely either on heavy spice or on that one herb that makes everything taste like dirt, Chi Bi specialties are fragrant and flavorful. One dish in particular, Feng Wo Yu Mi, is a deep fried corn dish that had till that moment never met my lips but that I would now gladly reproduce to awe my loved ones with, if I could be persuaded to share. Another winner resembled a Yankee pot roast, except the beef was sliced thin rather than left in chunks. Regrettably the trademark dish of the region is fish, something that, at this point in my forays into Chinese cuisine I have been able to avoid (and I intend to continue avoiding it). Besides fish and outside of those standout dishes mentioned above, everything else I ate while there was more than passable.

With food all over China tasting so good, I wonder what happened to Wuhan food to make it taste like dirt? Or: why did I have to settle in Wuhan, the one place whose gastronomic specialties happen to be so unpalatable to me?

After all: why blame Wuhan or its gastronomy when it is my palate complaining?

Like several seemingly poor areas around China such as Wenzhou, there is quiet money in Chi Bi. Audi, VW, Cadillac and Buicks all vie for road space. Taxis are plentiful. Nine bus lines rumble through the city, joining outlying areas to New and Old Chi Bi. The buses themselves are poor, diminutive, wheezy little things, no doubt dating back to around 1980.

At night, New Chi Bi glistens like a shiny penny, but during the day that part of town is as mediocre as any other city. While the sun is up it is best to visit Old Chi Bi: more iconic, characteristic and charming. It seems most residents prefer Old Chi Bi to new. Early morning marketing, traditional lifestyle, street vendors and neighborhood restaurants thrive. New Chi Bi sees everyone headed for the office, or whatever concern might be signing their paychecks. Shopping and strolling are mainly New Chi Bi pastimes, while neighborly communing, dancing and hanging out in the park belong to Old Chi Bi. The passion for food is about equal on both sides, with Old offering more traditional fare while New draws more trendy but nevertheless fully Chinese menus.  

Whether old or new, Chi Bi beds down about 10PM every night. It is a working class town, and 6AM comes pretty early.

Of all the sights and areas of interest, the first that John highlighted was the 3 bridges that span the Han River – that body of water which divides Old and New Chi Bi. The government has funded only 3 bridges (as opposed to Wuhan’s 5), and done very little else for infrastructure and transportation. Funny how a city’s worth is measured by the number of bridges spanning its waterways… no?

Besides the bridges there were swimming holes, battlefields and The Peoples’ Square to take in. John, age 20, did his best to tap into my love of history and passion for culture, all while not boring himself or his friends to death. Everywhere we went we had a retinue, which was a good idea because his English leaves a lot to be desired and my Chinese is not stellar… although it was enough to impress his parents and maintain a somewhat lively chatter with him and his social circle.       

In the next post I will cover our activities in more depth. Each experience deserves more room than I’ve left myself in this jaunt’s introduction. So… grab your swim suit (or not), sound the war drums and get those dancing shoes ready. Let’s go have fun, Chi Bi style!


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