At the end of my first day on the road almost a year ago, I spent about fifteen minutes plucking up the courage to ask the pub landlord if I could put my tent up in his beer garden after chickening out wild camping. Fast forward seven months and I didn’t bat an eyelid when breaking into an abandoned factory with the certainty that 4 dilapidated walls around me will provide a good night’s sleep.
Cycling to China really showed d me how easily the novelty, scariness, or profound nature of something can get whittled away by routine. What was once something that initially took prescience in my diary, such as where I slept, is barely mentioned in the more recent entries as it simply joins the ‘just another day’ category of events. Although there were some absolute gems along the way, the actual process and anticipation of finding a good spot to sleep became as profound as checking your emails first thing in the office.
Its partly why I decided to stop cycling; the fear of becoming too jaded to make the most of something I may have few opportunities repeat later in life.
One month after that blissful night’s sleep amongst the rusting machinery I was a resident of Chengdu. It was the beginning of a new, exciting chapter of what might turn out to be a multi-year adventure around the world and I was in a branch of IKEA.
Not exactly the cultural immersion I aspired to. But even when you take the presence of international furniture chains out of the picture, settling down in Chengdu has really demonstrated how quickly the mundane creeps back into your life when you stop riding a bicycle every day. Three months in, the most striking thing is just how normal everything here feels; Chengdu has turned out to be a shiny, modern city with all the conveniences and pastimes that London offered.
There’s a craft beer pub, basically.
It’s only been three months, but the reintroduction of all that stuff that was so reminiscent of life before riding a bike to China – like coming home to the same apartment every night rather than pitching a tent behind some trees; the routine a job provides; the bad habits induced by a reliable, ever-present internet connection; a branch of Starbucks a 10 minute walk from my flat – makes life on the road feel so distant by degree of change, if not time.
This relapse of normalcy also might explain the radio silence on this blog.
Nevertheless, this is China after all. They do things differently here and I have to admit that things weren’t always so normal as I set myself up for a year as a resident in the People’s Republic. Just like the process of wild camping, many things in China which were initially overwhelmingly different, remarkable, or frustrating but have been whittled away by repetition and are now seen as ‘just another day’. Here’s a few:
Everybody seems to be fine with saying the N-Word
No one seems to be shocked by constantly saying it except me and my politically-correct sensibilities. But no, it’s not like Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s. By an unfortunate coincidence, it turns out that the filler word “er” is “那个” (nèi ge). Recently, when trying to speak what little Mandarin I know, part of me that wants to emulate this in a pathetic attempt to show I am integrating…
Staff meetings equate to flash mobs
They usually are held outside and once the admin and roll call has taken place things turn into a bit of a pep rally. Music begins, often accompanied with singing, synchronised dancing or military-esque square bashing. These meetings deserve a good stare and happen like clockwork, no matter what the business is: the estate agent doubles as my ‘now is a reasonable time to get out of bed’ alarm; when the guys at the hot pot restaurant across the road start pulling shapes, it’s four O’Clock and time to go to work.
WeChat makes the world go round
Imagine Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Uber, and Paypal merged into one and heavily monitored by the government and you’ll be close to understanding what WeChat is. With almost the same number of users as Facebook, this ubiquitous app an essential tool for daily life in China. Adding someone on WeChat seems to be a suitable alternative to the handshake when meeting a stranger.
Estate Agents aren’t total scumbags
No common language but they helped me sort out an apartment and proceeded to come with me to set up utilities, internet, etc etc. Also bought me dinner. Kind folks who still say hello when I see them in the neighbourhood.
No matter how much Mandarin I learn, I will never be able to tell a taxi driver my address
There’s Jin Yang Lu and then there’s Jin Yang Lu….a subtle difference between two streets in town that even my Chinese colleagues struggle to make clear. The one time I thought I managed to do it without needing my smartphone resulted in a scenic tour of Chengdu beyond the third ring road. These days I’m opening my phone to display my address before I even get into a taxi.
It’s not a meal in Sichuan unless you’re sweating
On every table in every cafe, restaurant, or street vendor are boxes of tissues, ready for your body’s reaction to the ‘little devil’, the Sichuan Pepper. This ingredient is behind the provinces reputation for fiery food because, fun fact here, the chilli pepper (what I usually associated with the spiciness of Asian cuisine) didn’t reach this part of the world from Latin America until around the 16th century. Anyway, this little addition to food not only packs the heat, but also numbs your mouth, bringing forward other tastes beyond that of brimstone while opening the flood gates of your nostrils, tear ducts, and sweat glands. There’s no doubt that you will need those tissues.
The rate of development is astonishing
I spent a weekend in Hong Kong to change my Visa and upon my return to Chengdu I found that the local authorities had thrown up a flyover around the corner from my apartment. This rate of construction really demonstrates how important infrastructure has been as a driving factor behind China’s economic boom. I still think things are changing fast, but a local friend told me many people are moaning about what Xi Jinping calls ‘the new normal’, a slightly slower rate of development and economic growth that’s still around six times larger than most countries in the West.
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So a great deal of life in Chengdu is comfortably familiar. I have had to come to terms with the fact that there have been remarkably fewer memories of anything exciting or adventurous in these last 3 months than in a fortnight of travelling by bicycle. When you’re moving, your just more likely to have stuff happen to you. This is particularly when you’re travelling by bike; you’re a curious and approachable sight to locals which leads to countless experiences of local hospitality and kindness.
This does not mean that life in Chengdu is, by it’s globalised, familiar, and developed nature, dull. Far from it. I’m certainly not counting down the days until I get back on the saddle but it does make me think about the advantages and disadvantages of passing through a country compared to living in it. I may have previously misjudged these: you can’t beat bicycle travel if you want a story to tell.
The lessons learnt are clear. While I remain in one city and have the same apartment to come back to every night (an apartment that has Netflix, mind), adventures aren’t just going to unfold in front of me as they did on the road. This new state of normalcy requires a little more proactive thinking if I want to break out of it.
More on these efforts next time.