~By Dev Lewis
Since getting to Sichuan, as the sole foreigner venturing to these parts, I’ve been given quite a welcome into Long Chang. In China, there is no better way to welcome someone than with dinner. Since my arrival Sunday evening, I’ve been hosted to meal after meal, after meal. & I’ve been enjoying it. From dinner with all the 3 partners who opened the school where I will be teaching, to family and close friends of my friend Xin Kai. I’ve been treated to the finest Chinese hospitality.
So, since the meals are such a big deal, here’s how they’ve played out. The food has been really good, and I’ve been sort of following a “don’t ask because it’s just going to lead to confusion” policy, because nothing is off the table, if you know what I mean. It’s all been generally very tasty, and very Sichuan, with lots of la(spice), though not nearly as much as I had been warned off. But, what really sets the experience apart has been the drinking.
So if you read my first blog post you might have seen that I mentioned Sichuan folk enjoy their beer and baijiu (grain alcohol). With each meal, all the men on the table, especially the older, all have a glass full of some of this potent alcohol. As the guest and foreigner I’ve been treated like royalty which means the moment I sit down I have a full glass poured and handed to me. Secretly they’re probably thinking, let’s see what this guy can do. Well aware, I smile like I was born drinking this, feigning absolute confidence since I’m also aware that to them I was representing my culture and my country. Once everyone had taken their seats, we were ready and so it began. With a group “cheers”, one man has quick 5 second toast, and its drink time. First sip, I’m alright, I think i’ve actually had worse. But I didn’t have too much time to think about it, because in quick succession I had about 5 of the old men individually lean forward and tap my glass to cheers me. This all happened so quick I barely had time to put my glass down. This was their way of welcoming me. I definitely felt it. I attacked the food to combat that awfulness of the baijiu. Soon enough, the beers were out, and it was more of the same, but this time “lai lai gamblei…gambei…gambei” ( come, come, Bottoms up). Since none of them could speak mandarin, my conversations were very limited, and this was the only way we could talk to each other. After about and hour and a half later, when we were all to full to eat anymore, we all got up and ended our festivities, I’m guessing they went for a nap. I wanted one. I think I did well, and had some fun; my college education came in handy.
So about my other experiences in Long Chang so far. I am the only foreigner living in this town and probably for many, many kilometers outside. Everybody speaks only Sichuan Hua, a few understand mandarin and will speak it if required, so I’ve spent my last few days very quiet. Kind of like turning the clock back on my mandarin, back when i first landed in Shanghai when I didn’t understand what was being said. Only then I was surrounded by foreigners like me who spoke english. Here, I havent conversed in English in 6 days. Also, any public appearance always involves stares and I’ve turned more heads in the last few days than I have my whole life. Stares of shock, stares of disbelief, bewilderment to curiosity. I’ve had them all. In Long Chang, I’m a celebrity by virtue of my very existence in this part of China.
I spent the weekend visiting a friend from ECNU, who is from a town called WeiYuan in Sichuan, a couple of hours from where I am. His house is in the country, and from the town we needed to take a short bus ride, followed by a bike ride and then a short climb up a mountain to reach his place. Here I got to experience the Chinese countryside, as his family who have farmed the land for many decades, grow crops like corn, potato, beans, among others. Stepping inside the house, I was transported back decades, and far from imagining what a Chinese farmhouse in the mid 20th century, I was in it. At times I was reminded of a small house in the village of Alibaug outside Bombay in India, or even a tiny hill farmhouse I once visited one a trip to Mukteshwar, at the foothills of the Himalayas. As a storm brewed outside, with frequent bolts of lightning lighting up the valley, his grandfather showed by pictures from his past, tracing back his ancestry about 300 years. I was given the honor of writing my name in his book, one he’s kept with him for decade, and I smoked a personally hand rolled cigar. For a night I was at peace in the simple life of the Sichuan hillside, punctuated only by the deafening thunder that sounded like the Japanese were coming back.
I’ve had a week of welcome in Sichuan, and I’m starting warm up to the place. Without the comforts of Shanghai or prevalence of Mandarin, it hasn’t been easy getting adjusted to life here in Long Chang. But I’m starting to make some friends, and a bike, so I’m more mobile and I can into the town and check out the talent. Also, I’m going to start teaching, but more on that later……