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Travelers vs Expats and thoughts on Leaving Chengdu

sunshine Chinese street scene

We leave Chengdu in less than 3 weeks!  3 weeks!!  It seems unreal!  I’ve been so looking forward to seeing my parents and our time in D.C. that I’ve sort of forgotten that we aren’t just going back for another rest break, we are actually almost done with our tour in Chengdu.  I’m rapid-fire trying to process that fact, that we are leaving behind not just all of the things we don’t like so much about this place, but all of the things that we really love about Chengdu as well.  It’s so true what they say, two years goes by really, really fast.

As such, I’ve had some thoughts and I’m wondering if you can indulge the following random draft of some of them:

I don’t think anyone has ever heard me brag that I really “know” Chengdu, that I’ve explored every back alley in this city, or sucked the mala-spiked marrow out of life here.  That’s because I know I haven’t.

Sure I’ve seen the sights, I’ve eaten my fair share of street food, I’ve had conversations with the ladies at the market and I’ve wandered down many a side street in search of the “real Chengdu.”

Lately though, I’ve begun to realize just how shallow my knowledge and understanding of this place is.  So much of what I knew about Chengdu isn’t really an accurate reflection of the real place, its a reflection of how I feel about living here.  Knowing how to navigate a chaotic grocery store, tell a cab driver how to get to a restaurant, or block out the sight and sound of a man hacking up half a lung onto a spot 6 inches from my boots is not the same as knowing the heart and soul of a city.  In fact, it might be the opposite.

I worked so hard to learn how to survive in Chengdu that I never really learned how to live here.

I used to think that, to really know a place, you had to settle down and call it home for awhile, not just travel through for a days or weeks.  Now I’m not so sure.  Calling a place home means not just unpacking boxes, but also unpacking a lot of emotional and mental baggage.

When we travel, we keep our eyes wide open, trying to drink in as much of the culture and the life around us before our time is up and we have to go home.  When home is the exotic location, something changes.  Instead of savoring every moment, we tend to merely endure them as long as necessary.  Even in places we really like, it’s easy to accidentally while away the time, making comparisons and judgements rather than trying to delve as deeply as possible into the newness, the foreignness of the experience.  And that makes sense.  It’s difficult to maintain a traveler’s sense of adventure in the face of real life obligations, challenges, and responsibilities.

When you’re travelling, things like smokey, beat-up taxis and the time you almost got mowed down by a scooter on a sidewalk are funny anecdotes to tell friends and family after you’ve returned home safely no worse for wear.  When home is the place with the smoke-filled taxis and the swarming herds of electric scooters though, those things stop being amusing and start just being an everyday nuisance.

When you live in a place, you aren’t always trying to pack in as much adventure and exploration into every waking minute as possible.  You don’t have time.  You may live on the other side of the world from your friends and family, but you still have errands to run, bills to pay, and housing maintenance to take care of; and often doing those things overseas takes at least three times as long as they would back in the U.S.

Too many times the mundane but real need to make sure there is food in the house and that there are clean plates to eat it on crowds out the possibility of exploring that one market or that one temple you haven’t seen yet.  The paradox of living in a place for long enough to see everything is that you rarely end up doing so.  Why do it today when there is always tomorrow or next month or next year?

It’s not that we spent every weekend at home here, washing dishes and streaming American television through our VPN.  Far from it.  We’ve done quite a bit of exploring here, but as much as we’ve seen, there is so much more we never got to.  As much as I’d like to think I know the people of this city through my interactions with them, I’ve come to realize how little I understand about who they are, what they think, why they do what they do.

If I sound a little nostalgic, it is because I am.  I was talking with a friend the other day about my sudden insane urges to document everything I see with my camera and my keyboard, from the afternoon mahjong games, to the university students with the dramatic hipster glasses-sans lenses, to the posture of the street cleaners in their neon orange uniforms.

“Do it, ” he told me.  “Take pictures of everything.  None of it will be the same by the time you come back.”

He’s right.  This city that I hardly know is changing so fast that even I notice the differences; not just in the restaurants that come and go and the glittering new shopping malls on every corner, but in the people too.

And I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to know them better while I had the time.  I’m sad I didn’t try harder to find out what the young people here truly care about and what the old people think of the blistering speed of change and the gobs of wealth being flaunted all around them.  China is a hard place to get to know people for many, many reasons, especially as the wife of a “diplomat.”  I don’t beat myself up for not having a huge circle of Chinese friends, but I do wish I had tried harder in spite of the odds.

I tell myself that I’ve learned something here, that New Delhi will be different-and yet I know that it might not be.  I love India but I’m not kidding myself.  To love India is also to hate India on a regular, everyday sort of basis.  Just like here, there will be the temptation to relax in the comfort of my home when the weather is too hot or my toddler is too cranky or I can’t stand the thought of bargaining with one more auto-rickshaw-wallah or seeing one more impoverished child begging outside my car window.

I’ll make the mistake of confusing my umpteenth trip to the market with a cultural experience rather than branching out to try something new.  I’ll get frustrated with the prying eyes of some Indian men and the difficulty of meeting young Indian women my age with whom I have things in common.  I’ll use my setbacks as an excuse to not make the effort to engage other men and women with who I might find a real connection.

And if I do, it will be my loss, just as it has been here in Chengdu.  To be leaving a place just as one realizes how little they know of it is bittersweet.  My only hope is that the affection I already feel for India will give me that leg up of understanding that I never quite found here in Chengdu.

Maybe I’ll remember next time how short of a time two years really is, and manage to keep my eyes open most days, like a traveler soaking up the best the place has to offer instead of rushing through the moments to get home in time for dinner.

Chinese street food preparation


3 thoughts on “Travelers vs Expats and thoughts on Leaving Chengdu

  1. Ah. I feel the exact same way here in Ya’an. Most days are just “panda, panda, panda” for me and Dee and Nate get to experience the true culture of it all! Not that I have regrets – just wish I had more time 🙂 Keep up with the wonderful posts!

  2. Pingback: Looking Forward and Back « Hot Pot

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