“What’s China like nowadays?” he queried me, as we lounged lazily on well-worn leather couches. I sipped my chai latte as the question hung in the air, and I let my mind wander back to the six previous trips I had made to the Middle Kingdom. Darin and I were spending an early morning together at the coffee shop he owns, enjoying our last hour together before I moved to Chengdu in late August 2013. As the sunlight spilled across the horizon, its brilliant golden and orange hues illuminated the drab century-old brick buildings and drove out the last remnant of the night’s pall. As I took it all in, I exclaimed, “Look out there! This is how China is nowadays!”
As the previous night’s evening hour stole the last glinting rays of sunshine, darkness cast its veil of grays and blacks across the cornfields and quaint towns. The streets are quiet at night in our hometown and there is an anticipatory sense in every child’s mind for what will come next. Because for every sunset and ensuing shroud of darkness, there’s one thing that is certain: there’ll be joy in the morning as the sun comes forth from its resting place, running its course across the sky in its quest to envelop every child, mother, father, and grandparent in its warm embrace. It rises as surely as anything, and each new day all of humankind awaits its arrival so that by its light we can walk confidently and know that the labor of our hands will be rewarded by the growth and sustenance it provides.
This picture is representative of my impression of Chengdu and China at large. There have been past seasons in China where darkness loomed large, but now a new day has dawned and awakened the sleeping giant. She is now proudly marching ahead to the beat of her own drum. Collectively, efficiently, and with great fanfare, Chengdu encompasses the heart of what I value and appreciate about China. Here is a city that is in what some would call an out-of-the-way place. It’s neither a “Beijing” nor a “Shanghai.” Instead, she has remained a city unique unto the thousands of others in China, and that has lent her the valuable quality of being a hub of productivity, creativity, and pioneering while not caving in to the relentless pressures to become a whirling, buzzing, non-stop hustle and bustle city. Whether one spends most of his or her time working in the booming High-Tech Zone in the south or visiting the magnificent natural and cultural attractions, Chengdu’s hospitality and relaxing lifestyle shine through.
May 12, 2008: this date will live on in infamy in the mind of more than a billion Chinese for the remainder of our lives. The jet touched down in mid-July 2008, and I arrived in Chengdu for my first time. Though I only spent seven days here that summer, the same traits that I see now were evident then. Sichuan Province bore the brunt of one of the largest and most devastating earthquakes in recorded human history, and there was no hiding that fact. Yet, for the all the buildings that collapsed and the corresponding dreams and lives that also were crushed, I have unforgettable memories from that time of traveling toward the epicenter and teaching English for a few days. A smile from a student, a meal offered by a family who’d lost everything in sight, and a friendly wave and “你好” from a rescue worker who had been hard-pressed from all sides but yet was unrelenting in his effort to rebuild his country—these memories live on in my mind, but are also testimonies to the caring, generous, and sacrificial lives that people lead here.
Fast-forward five years and now Chengdu is my home. Home is a concept that takes on different meanings in the eye of each beholder. Yet, I would venture to guess that many would agree that home is a place where family is present and friends, both old and new, are in close proximity. There’s not an easy way to sell off most of what one owns, board a jet plane and relocate to a new city in a far-flung region of the world. But, as is true with most big decisions where fear and anxiety can paralyze the risk-taker, there is a future breakthrough where it seems as if no sacrifice was actually made in the first place. I can say that with each passing day, my joy in making this decision becomes more readily apparent and present in each circumstance, even the difficult ones. Chengdu is becoming home to me. Chengdu has welcomed and continues to welcome me, even the foreigner among them. Just last month I was in a bicycle accident with a middle-aged man on his way to work. Though I felt like he may have sustained worse injuries, his genuine concern for my well-being was encouraging and another demonstration of the solid character of people here in Chengdu.
Usually, though, my introduction to new friends takes on a more relaxed and less forced approach! There are a several avenues by which I’ve formed new relationships—on campus, at English corners, over badminton and basketball games, during an 18-kilometer trail race near Long Quan Mountain and on bike rides, over hot pot dinners so spicy I can barely take another bite, and during ultimate Frisbee games. Some friends are students and teachers from the four corners of China who have descended upon Southwest University for Minorities to further their education or to teach me Chinese. Others are young professionals chasing their dream of becoming the next CEO or entrepreneur to make it big, or they may be like the young man and lady I met who hope to improve their English enough to get a lucrative business job. This city is full of young adults who are dreaming large and taking strides to make those dreams come to fruition. These men and women who are my teachers, neighbors, colleagues, fellow students at Southwest University for Minorities, sales staff, restaurant wait staff, and running and biking friends have shown me that they are the new face of China. They are following in the footsteps of their parents who neither had everything they wanted nor had the means to obtain it, but now the tide has shifted and China will never be the same. Chengdu and her people have embraced the necessary changes to allow her to become a world-class city in many respects, and she is poised to take further strides to become the center of attention at home and abroad. These advances have made it such that it’s neither surprising to hear nor a hasty decision on the part of 233 of the Fortune 500 companies to decide to make a presence in Chengdu. They know something that the local people have known for some time—Chengdu has the type of visionary people to make exciting things happen, but neither at the expense of forsaking traditional values nor forgetting time for entertainment and relaxation!
The three months since I’ve moved into my sixth-story apartment, my nights have been accompanied by the ceaseless ‘thuds’ of pavement breaking and sparks illuminating the darkness as steel bends to the will of men who are insistent that it become part of the exciting and impressive new metro project. The logos that adorn the subway construction barriers cry out “Today’s inconvenience will bring us a convenient future.” Such a promise has proven true time and again in China, as the government and the people have come together to forge a strong, unified country. “Chi ku” or the ability to “eat bitter” is a trademark of the Chinese people, and it indeed seems as if the past days of eating bitter have made possible what I see today in Chengdu. The shared vision to create a better life for all and to promote China’s standing on the world scene has not escaped notice by the West! The more time that I spend here, I more clearly see that these efforts to develop all spheres of life and work from the business, trade and finance realm to education, technology, tourism, transit and the service sector has turned out impressive results. No longer is China nor Chengdu a place where people are settling for mediocrity, but the collective desire is to take the necessary strides to build a stable family and find a good job, which will in turn produce a thriving and prosperous society.
Since I’ve arrived here, the local people are quick to remind me that just last summer the city played host to the Fortune Global Forum, is home to the world’s largest building in the New Century Global Center, top-tier universities, the best hot pot the world over, and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding that boasts the only preserve in the world where wild and captive pandas co-exist. Chengdu offers these attractions and many more, so it is no wonder that this city in southwestern China is an attractive place to raise a family, obtain higher education, start a company, and take a vacation. As I continue to study language, explore the nooks and crannies of Chengdu on foot and by bike, sample the local cuisine, meet more of her residents and build friendships, I can only look to the future with hope as this is a home that I really enjoy. One can never know the future with certainty, but I will wager that Chengdu continues her upward ascent to prominence among China’s metropolitan cities and as a beacon to the world for great business and investment opportunities alongside her offerings of delicious cuisine and fascinating tourist attractions!