Travel To Chengdu, China

Posted by on Jun 25, 2013 in Blog | 0 comments

Travel To Chengdu, China

Hot Pote in school I had the amazing opportunity to travel to China for a month and study Traditional Chinese Medicine in it’s native setting.   The trip was lead by my teacher and mentor, Tantan Huang. Three weeks were spent in Chengdu, the capital of Schechuan Provence, as an intern at the Chengdu hospital,. In addition, I was able to take a week to visit Tibet, spending time in Lhasa and Shegatze.  Below is a letter, with some revision, that I wrote home after my first week.

I’ve been in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, for a week now, and I would be content to stay here for another year or so. The city is filthy and beautiful in equal measures. It is arranged with 3 concentric roads spreading out from the center with a couple rivers intertwined. The main streets are wide and tree lined with ‘bike’ lanes. The side streets have narrow sidewalks lined with store fronts, all selling the same stuff. There are general stores with assorted junk, small electronic shacks, and a lot of tea shops selling the most fragrant tea you could ever imagine. There are many green areas in the city comprised of large parks, small neighborhood parks, and rooftop/courtyard gardens. The streets are filthy and the smog is pretty heavy.  Although not as bad as LA, I have still yet to see the sun. People spit frequently on the street, mother’s hold their toddlers over trash cans to go to the bathroom, and there are many unidentifiable spills.  The sidewalks are being constantly swept by brooms which consist of nothing more than a wooden stick with branches lashed to the end. These brooms are left in the areas used by workers and if one looks they can see them in the limbs of trees and roadside bushes everywhere. No matter the frequency of sweeping it does not put a dent in the grime. My white running shoes have a nice grey patina.


It does, however, prevent the sidewalks from being ankle deep in cigarette butts, as everyone here seems to be a smoker. On more than one occasion I have seen a parent hold their child over a trash can to defecate. All the toddlers pants have slits along the butt crack for this purpose, and I don’t think diapers are a common convenience. Construction is rampant and they work 24/7, much to the chagrin of fellow students on the other side of the hotel next to adjacent construction.  I’m still amazed by how many apt buildings are going up around the city. Although, I imagine they are badly needed. The city appears to be overcrowded. Chengdu is only a middle-sized city by Chinese standard — with its population of 7 million. The weather has been exceptionally cold for this time of year, but is now starting to warm up. I’d rather it be cold than the sweltering humidity I was told to expect.


Everywhere I go I turn heads. It’s kinda funny, and after a week I am so used to expecting it that it will be a shock to go home and NOT have people stare. At first I thought it was just due to me being a tall white dude, but I’ve come to realize it’s mainly about the beard. I get people pantomiming the stroking of the chin and then a thumbs up sign. The other day it was from a buddhist monk, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Lol, he was walking next to me and staring in amazement for a full city block. My fovorite moment was when I had a toddler being treated in the Tui Na department call me ‘grandpa’. That made everyone in room crack up.


No one here is shy about staring.   One translator was really cute when I asked her why people stare. She said it was because I’m so handsome, “maybe they think I’m a movie star”. The Chinese are excellent flatterers, but I try to not let it go to my head. The kids have the best reactions, they will stop and stare mouth ajar. Then usually their parents drag them off, or if Im in a clinic room or store, I will see the same people walk by 4 or five times to get a good look. Locals have even stopped in the middle of the street to stare, which would truly shock you if you could see how dangerous that is.

I play frogger everyday with cars, busses bikes, mopeds and rickshaws just to cross the street from the hotel to the hospital. People drive cars here as if they were bicycles and the dotted white street lines, in fact most all rules of the road, are merely suggestions. From what I understand, it is only in recent years that  many people can afford cars, and bicycles/mopeds were the main form of transportation.   People drive and park on the wide sidewalks, and in the bike lanes, or they drive the wrong way on one way streets. It seems that as long as they use there horn its OK. There is a lot of honking! So far I have yet to see an accident, or cause one from the double takes. From my hotel window I saw a police car with sirens blaring stuck behind another car for the entire block without said car making any attempt to let him pass.  I guess that too is merely a suggestion.

We went to see the giant buddha of leshan on Sunday and I was more of an attraction than the statue. In the line to get to the cliff stairs, everyone was giggling and taking pictures and videos of me. The best is when people do exaggerated double takes.  I caught them scanning the crowd and they pass over me, but then their head snaps back with a shocked expression a split second later as their brain processes what they had seen. Of course, then they nudge everyone they are with and it turns into a group of onlookers. All speaking in a language I cannot understand, usually while laughing. I merely smile and join in the laughter, which is truly a universal language

Laughter has helped a lot when trying to deal with the language barrier. I’m fortunate to be someone readily able to laugh at a situation and myself. The absurdity of it all makes for some good humor. At this point, I have perfected lesson one from the Pimsleur mandarin tape, even getting the correct tones on the word(I think). Lesson one is basically, “excuse me, may I ask you a question. Do you speak english?” Saying this has spared me from a lot of confusion. The first few days, there was a lot of blank looks on my part, and continued gibberish (to my ears) from the part of whomever I was being addressed by. For some reason, when one responds in english or with a blank stare and head shakes, the Chinese speaker takes this as encouragement to speak more chinese in search of any word that can be understood. . In my case that amounts to none. I’m sure I would do the same thing to a foreigner in the states Although now I am starting to pick up a few words and phrases. Tones are much easier to pick up here, being immersed in it. I was very happy when I first asked a cab driver if he spoke english and he responded with the proper “can not, or bo wei” response. Whomever I am addressing can tell my poor mastery of the language with that one simple phrase, and it completely cuts out the frustrating barrage of mandarin.


We meet a bunch of english speakers at an Irish pub called the Shamrock, Chengdu’s first and most popular westerner bar. One of them, an irish guy here studying chinese, invited us to watch his rugby match on saturday. So, about 10 of us took cabs out to Army Park to watch the match. Army park is this huge park 20min outside the city with man made cliff’s in the middle of a large lake surrounded by statues, playgrounds, noodle shops, rusting jet fighters and ballistic missiles. The man made cliffs are in varying states of disrepair and the rebar infrastructure is evident at the base of most portions. You can rent paddle boats and there is a massive zip line over the lake as well as a large ‘lazer tag’ field. The rugby match was quite the spectacle for locals, and the Chengdu Panda’s, who we came out to see, ending up winning. There was an adorable 19yr old and her cousin who used us as an opportunity to practice her her english. She was so nervous at first that her lip was quivering and she blushed every 5 seconds. She said that she saw us walk by and followed us. Her english was really quite good. She has been practicing for 8 years and has a private tutor. Her english name is Jessica, and she is in college to be a nurse. She wants to be a doctor but did not do well enough on the state or national? examination. Her grandmother wants her to be a TCM doc, but she prefers western medicine because it works faster and takes less compliance on the part of the patient.


Most of the time we have something planned. Every week day we have clinic from 8:30 to 11:30 and then 3 days a week we have lecture in the afternoon. The lectures are little frustrating due to it being translated, but I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. The clinic can also be a little frustrating depending on which translator one has, but at the very least we get the herbal formulas being prescribed along with the modern clinical dosages that tend to be higher than the classical range from our textbook. Back in San Diego I had a shift with a doctor from China, and we saw a patient who had been getting an herbal formula but it was not working. All he did was the change the dosage of the herbs to what he had learned in China, and the next week the patient reported a remarkable improvement. So, I find such information to be higly valuable. It is also remarkble that the doctors here have integrated western medicine to such a degree into TCM, and that they see over 20 patients within three hours when stateside it’s generally a patient per hour.

The Food here is bloody amazing. It’s possible to get 8 dishes for about $4USD each with a large group. Also, no one here tips, which is nice.  In fact, the restaurant tips the customer!  They give a scratch off lottery ticket to the person who pays the bill, and I once won more than I paid for the meal. Another cultural difference is splitting bills.   It’s simply not done in China, which is probably one of the reasons why the food was so cheap.  There’s a social etiquette around who pays for the bill, and we got a lot of attention trying to figure out how to divide our bill 12 ways. I can only imagine how strange that looked to native onlookers, or what they must have thought of us.  Moreover, rice is served at the end of the meal contrary to what I believed based on my experieces with Chinese Restraunts in AMerica. Rice is served at the end of the meal, presumably to eat during the hours of drinking that follow the meal in a ‘business’ setting.  I was told that one is considered “cheap” to fill up on rice, and we had to ask that it be brought out with our main dishes.   But, to be honest, the food was so good that the rice was unneeded.


Last night we went to Hot Pot, which is a local specialty. They are large pots of oil in the center of the table where you cook the food. There are two different types of oil to cook the food in, one spicier than the other. This was the second time I had gone, the first being with a translator. I must say that what we ordered the first time (2 meat dishes, fish, and assorted veggies and mushrooms) was tame compared to what Tantan ordered (certain people were requesting more exotic food.) The Duck blood was interesting,and the most ‘exotic’ although to me it just tasted like tofu. In general, all the food is amazing and spicy.

Post Script:

Since coming back to States, I have searched for Authentic Schezuan Food.  A place in Queens, NY came close but none have rivaled the delicacies experienced on the trip.  Most restaurants make the food sweeter to accommodate US customers.  I’ve since come to question whether it was the food, or the liberal amounts of MSG used in the cooking.  Either way, I’m looking forward to getting back to China and eating more food that makes my tongue numb.



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