Back in 2009 I was still at UBC, living in Vancouver and working at a salon and a cupcake shop. I was also part of the University of British Columbia Opera Chorus, and through some miracle ended up being cast in a tour to China. The even bigger miracle? I could actually afford to go!
This was my first experience with Asia, and I had no idea what to expect. I had done a ton of research, but nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see and experience.
Actually, that’s a big lie. The internet more than adequately prepared me for what I was about to see and experience. I expected a major culture shock. As I write this (now from Korea), I’m still waiting for that culture shock to hit. If you’ve ever traveled internationally, you’ll probably remember even slight cultural and traditional differences. If you’re a relatively respectful person, you’ll probably remember having to change your behaviour to accommodate these differences.
We flew from Vancouver to Beijing and landed the day the H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic was announced. Several of our performances had been cancelled, leaving us far more time to be a tourist in China. Asia in general has a tendency to overreact and rush to judgement against foreigners (lest we forget the treatment of our Black/ AFAM friends in Seoul throughout the Ebola shenanigans [or, you know, ever] or how every foreigner felt during MERS this past summer), but this was my first experience being treated differently because of my race (cue female white-privilege commentary…I know, I know). I grew up in Toronto and went to University in Vancouver, both of which are highly multi-cultural cities. Canada is a new country by universal standards. Being that it’s such a patchwork, the majority of my friends growing up came from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Because of where I grew up, that was neither bad, nor good. The concept of racism in itself was something of which I simply wasn’t aware until I was taught that it exists and that it’s wrong. This little life lesson could certainly be taught in my old neck of the woods in Korea, but I digress…
While there were many beautiful and interesting parts of Beijing, I found it was very polluted (yes, even nearly 7 years ago) and not very friendly. Everyone I met just wanted to sell me things, and when we tried to go experience the nightlife it seemed to be quite limited for foreigners.
While in Beijing we were constantly moving from tourist attraction (The Temple of Heaven) to tourist trap (the Olympic Watercube) and with each stop it would inevitably happen: someone would hand me their child and snap a picture. The first time it happened I was completely shocked. We were in Tienanmen Square. I was already a bit on edge having researched the history (and having seen the photos), but when someone hands you a baby and snaps your picture on your first real day in China, you check your purse more than a few times to ensure your wallet and camera are secure. I was later told that, for many of the Chinese tourists we ran into at these attractions, this would be the one chance at a vacation parents would have with their child. Some of them from very rural areas have never seen a foreigner, so seeing a tall, pale person with blue eyes was kind of like stumbling upon a unicorn – you take a picture! Looking back, I think it’s pretty cool that these people wanted to take pictures with me. It’s much better than those who run away in fear the first time they see someone with different features.
In Beijing, I felt like I was neither working, nor on vacation. Once we arrived in Chengdu, I felt like I could really experience the city. I could begin to understand a little bit more about the 3rd largest country in the world (…casual reminder – Canada’s the 2nd largest).
China came alive when we went to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in South-Western China. Established in 311 BC, Chengdu offers the magic and history of Ancient China, combined with the modern, almost futuristic atmosphere you’ll find in most major cities throughout 1st world countries in Asia. In 2008 Chengdu experienced a massive earthquake. Over 69,000 people died, nearly 375, 000 were injured, and over 18,000 were missing. The earthquake could be felt in both Beijing (1,500 km away) and Shanghai (1,700 km away), and was measured at an 8 on the Richter Magnitude Scale. 80% of the buildings were destroyed. Somewhere between 4.8 million and 11 million people were left homeless, and yet it was the friendliest city I had visited where I had no knowledge of the language (I had “hello”, “thank-you”, and a smile). In a city nearly 5.5 times the population of metro-Toronto with 1,000 km2 less to work with, it would be easy for anyone to get lost in the shuffle.
They could choose to ignore anyone with whom they weren’t already acquainted, but the kids were curious and the ladies at the fruit stand outside our hotel were delighted to serve us fresh pineapple and correct our attempts at a sing-song “Ni hao”. The people were so friendly and the remaining buildings, parks, and tourist areas were so well maintained I was completely unaware of the magnitude of the devastation. It honestly just looked like there was a bunch of construction (I’m looking at you, Union Station).
Chengdu offers an absolute TON to see and do. The focus of our trip was, of course, to rehearse and perform, but we did manage to get in a few days of sight-seeing.
Sichuan Grand Panda Sanctuaries: Wikipedia describes this as “It is the largest remaining continuous habitat for giant pandas and home to more than 80 percent of the world’s wild giant pandas. Globally speaking, it is also the most abundant temperate zone of greenery. The reserves of the habitat are 100–200 km (62–124 mi) away from Chengdu.” Sure, it’s got a lot of greenery and there are a lot of pandas, but this place is so much more. We could have spent the entire day just wandering around watching these giant, goofy pandas eat, sleep, and play. I realise that this is tantamount to a zoo, but the world’s pandas are in severe danger and they have a ton of space to move around, and the security to no longer be displaced.
Chunxi Road during the day was where a few of us decided to relax after some real time on the road. It’s a shopping area where I got some really inexpensive, real hair extensions put in and a couple of friends got manicures. While magnificent at night, it is still quite impressive during the day. Again, the combination (or juxtaposition) of old and new continues to astound me. Built in 1924 (but clearly updated!) it’s a great place to do some serious shopping when you’ve been turned away from the Pearl or Silk market. Even at my thinnest in China (5’8” and 150 lbs of muscle?) in Beijing I was turned away with cries of “No! No! Big Size! No!” My absolute favourite pair of jeans I’ve ever had were from that trip to China (and cost me the Canadian equivalent of $20. I also bought a fitted satin designer-inspired dress without being able to try it on. 21 year old Kate was laughin’).
Wangjianglou Park (an absolute MUST-SEE) and Wuhou Temple (or what I was told was just in the “Bamboo Forest”) needed at least a good 3 hours to venture through. It didn’t feel like 3 hours at all, and if I were to live in Chengdu, I think it would be the perfect place to go when needing to feel calm or when I simply wanted to read a good book. The grounds were incredibly peaceful, even though a movie was being shot in a section through which we passed!
We stumbled upon another Historic Town after going through the Bamboo forest. I thought it was Luodai, but Google Maps says that I am sorely, sorely mistaken (it’s a 5 hr walk LOL – this could have been Dongguan Street, Chengdu if memory serves). While most of the crew retreated to the hotel for a pre-dinner repose, a couple of us pressed on walking and found this old, wooden village. This was probably the closest thing to culture shock I would have experienced in China. There were no other foreigners here, and while it’s on the list of tourist attractions it definitely did not seem like a tourist trap.
We ventured through Huanglongxi Historic Town twice – once during the day (after our relaxing time around Chunxi Road) and once at night before going on a GPS-less walk [it was 2009, and we were in China] for hours upon wonderful hours before arriving home). Even though we spent a few hours here each visit, I felt as though I had only scratched the surface. There were places where you could try on traditional Chinese clothes (with the necessary photo-shoot), eat an impressive array of street food (of which I had been warned against many times, but…who cares?), and endless ancient streets with artists peddling their wares. I loved just wandering up and down the old streets (where there is now a Starbucks, because of course there is) and checking out the art, architecture, and knick-knacks. At night, rather than getting dolled up, we bought some beers, roamed the streets and played some old-school Chinese shooting games. Rad. We also saw some Chinese Opera. Completely different from what we were performing, intricate masks, movement, and fire dominated this show, which was much more impressive in Chengdu than it was in Beijing. Chengdu is a really walkable city if you’ve done your research. While the drivers were terrifying, I always felt safe walking down the street alone.
We were pressed for time and missed the Jinsha Ruins, Anren Historic Town (we saw a similar “old style” village, but Google Images sure makes this one look different and incredible!), and Bailu town (a French-style town! European-style towns and cities are actually incredibly popular in random places across Asia), among other things. The thing I most regret missing in Chengdu has got to be the Giant Buddha of Leshan. I will let the above image speak for itself. Chengdu – on a random weekend next year you’ll be seeing an older and hopefully wiser Seoulcialite in Miss. KCH. Give me everything you’ve got!