Week 1: Redefining success

I love ChengduWelcome to the blog of Raymond’s and my reflective journey for our at least two year stay in Chengdu, China. My main reasons to blog are to help me process and to be able to look back on our journey. After twelve days, it already feels quite different to the first few days. However, others expressed interested in travelling vicariously with us, so friends, family and randoms who want to pop in and find out what we are doing, thinking and feeling are very welcome.
I could write about so many things and I have a list of topics growing in my head. However, the overwhelming thing for me has been lowering my expectations of what is possible to achieve in a day. Everything takes so much longer than in NZ. And I have found it helpful to redefine what a good or successful day looks like, to be able to celebrate rather than feel frustrated or despair.
Why do things take so long?
Firstly, we are in a new country and have to learn how to recognise and do everything.
For example, shopping to set up our apartment. First visit, day 3, we walked through IKEA just to work out what was there and only came home with groceries from Auchan (it is a big supermarket right next door) – on the metro. Second trip, we filled up a couple of IKEA bags and unsuccessfully looked for those taxis that were there the day before. Then I asked passers-by for chuzuche, which they seemed to understand, but they did not know either, or we could not understand the answer, or both. So we walked back towards the metro, waving at a couple of taxis who seemed to stop for others who had ordered them (still not sure of the process), and somehow got lost – it was getting dark by now. Fortunately, Du (Chinese maps app) and our growing knowledge of the metro station characters and city street layout meant we eventually found the metro, travelling back with our big bags. Trip three, we planned to do a big shop and use a driver we had connected with via a veteran teacher in our apartment block. However, it turned out he was not available. Fortunately, we had such a large load that we got approached by a driver outside the lift at IKEA. I was pretty sure the driver quoted us double the going rate but did not have the energy to negotiate. At least we were not walking for miles. And our most recent trip went beautifully. We took the metro, walked the tried and true route to the supermarket, shopped, messaged Joe who was available, he picked us up at our agreed place, charged us a reasonable rate, and we clarified which day he doesn’t work. We have a repeatable process!
Secondly, we cannot speak or read the language.
Strategies that work for travelling in other countries do not work in China because few people speak English and everything is written in Chinese characters – understandably. At least English is the other language that is spoken or used for writing in some instances, such as on the metro, or the big signs on the aisle of the supermarket. Our initial pattern was that I would speak in my broken Chinese, they would reply in a torrent of Chinese that I do not understand or English if they have it, and then we resort to miming until an English speaker walks past. This English speaker is very helpful, but sometimes makes things better and sometimes makes things worse. I got quite frustrated with the ‘English speaker’ at the hairdressers (who to be fair was a non-staff person who happened to be walking by). He would pick up on a few words I said and reflect back a totally different meaning, so that I could not trust what he was saying. Raymond steered me away to get my hair washed when he suggested English was not our first language!
We have discovered Baidu translator which can be great, or not. It turns out that ‘toaster’ translates very easily but ‘glad wrap/plastic film/cling wrap’ does not. The roped in English speaker and we got very excited at our final breakthrough in the great glad wrap hunt, only for us to unwrap our purchase at home and find we had plastic bags! Baidu translating is risky because we do not know what it is being translated into, and, based on the English translations, not always reliable/intelligible. We are learning to be short and use simple, non-colloquial terms. The mobile phone shop guy gave a quizzical look when he saw the Chinese translation for ‘we want to top up our phones’. ‘We want to add money to our account’ was successful. There is a speaking function, which some prefer to use – maybe their written Chinese is not so good – which can be entertaining on our side, and, based on the faces of the group of six that gathered to work out what we wanted done at the hairdresser’s, theirs as well.  While time consuming, I find the communication circus a lot of fun.
Thirdly, our tried and true technology does not work, so we cannot use methods that we have relied on in other countries.
I will write another blog on technology (grrr), but the short version is that we are living without Google once we leave our house. We miss Google maps the most. This was unbearable initially, but we are already getting used to it. We now know our neighbourhood and certain routes and we have Du, the Chinese equivalent of maps. It is very good but in Chinese. So we are learning to recognise the Chinese characters for places, which is good in a full immersion kind of way, but means we often do not know where we are going! And, because we walk everywhere, getting lost can be a good way to fill in time.
Fourthly, we are setting up normal life.
I think this is another aspect of why things seem to take so long. We are in a half-way house between being new to an exotically different country and wanting to set up normal life. When we went to the tourist spot Kuanzhaixiangzi, it seemed right and proper that we didn’t know what to do, because we were in tourist mode. When we go to buy yoghurt from the supermarket, it seems like we should be able to just walk in and buy it. Instead, at first we couldn’t recognise it on the shelves, and the assistants insisted it didn’t exist, but it did. Then a few days later, we noticed a little girl drinking the ‘yoghurt’ we eventually found. We also spent half an hour at our apartment photographing various characters on the green yoghurt container and putting them into Baidu Translate to see what the flavour was. We still don’t know, but can tell you it has lacto-acidic bacteria.
Finally, China is more relaxed than we are used to.
Alice, a local new friend, met us at the metro and as Raymond and I walked at our normal pace said to us ‘go slow’. That helped me understand why things take longer. It took 3.5 hours to do my hair, several hours to buy a sim card and cellphones and a couple of hours to open a bank account. For much of the time, staff appeared to be doing nothing, but Raymond’s local colleagues seemed unphased. People go so slow they are asleep – on the metro, workmen lying on the ground sleeping with their tools nearby, a security guard at work sleeping standing up, people at cafes with their heads on the table.
So how do we define success now?
Success is: finding an apartment (beautiful view and walks and lakes nearby a bonus, as below), washing our clothes and the washing machine door opening (not as below, but it does now), VPN working to post on Facebook, knowing where we are going and getting there, cooking our own meal, finding an ‘authentic bakery’ within walking distance, reading a sign, buying our first hunk of meat off a hook at the local market, working out the quickest route to the metro station, taking money out of the ATM without losing our card, buying what we thought we were buying, asking where the toilet is and being understood – and most importantly – doing better today than yesterday.
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15 thoughts on “Week 1: Redefining success”

  1. The last 11 days have been very unsettling. As I posted on a WeChat recently, Chengdu is friendly, more green, warm, crowded at times, peaceful and overwhelming. Terry and I never run out of things to talk about.

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  2. Yes I too feel that it is going to be so interesting to read your blogs and see how you progress, as you surely will. I agree that the language circus can be great fun. You make me think how lucky I was to have some english speakers with me in Somalia. I can just imsgine you roping in all these passing english experts to help. You must keep calm and carry on, as they say. Hope the haircut was ok. Has Raymond started work?

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    1. I, Raymond, have been at school for the past week. This has been teachers only a days involving orientation of the 16 new staff, meetings and prep time. (About 45 teachers in total) The students begin Wednesday 10th. And the settling into routine part of the adventure begins.

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  3. The joy of new languages! I’m currently reading a biography of C S Lewis, and one story was about his correspondence with an Italian priest. The priest knew no English, but no worries: they wrote all their letters back and forth in Latin!

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  4. So does the technology work slowly too – or maybe not at all? ;-O

    Your language challenges reminded me of our short visit to Korea – particularly because of having to find gluten free food – although I suspect our challenges were probably a tenth of yours. Have fun and don’t forget to watch the ‘canes tonight.

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  5. wow. This is going to be fantastic reading. We are impressed with your determination and fortitude. YOUr technology challenges (or even buying gladwrap!) make my 1.5 hours buying an iphone seem like a walk in the park. Can’t wait for your next instalment, but hope to chat on Monday. Kia kaha, and Go the ‘Canes!

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  6. Really enjoyed reading about your adventures. I thought I was patient but no way would we keep as calm as you both appear to be. Looking forward to the next week. Where are you working T?

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  7. Wow Terry. Thanks for the blog. The whole thing, but particularly the “success is …” paragraph reminds me of working at one of our favourite institutions. Have a great time and thanks for being inspiring!.

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