It feels good to be back in Chengdu. It’s been a minute.
I don’t recognize much of this city anymore- its streets, its skyline, and its people have all transformed while I was away. But I recognize this feeling in me and the accent, a distinctive type of flat-toned sichuanese dialect with a laid-back speech pattern and drawn out vowels that are uniquely Chengduren. An occasional “Tzu’atzi Maa!” from a person next to me reminds me again and again that I’m home. It feels good.
My parents made Chengdu their permanent home in 1988 after completing medical school and residency in Luzhou, a port city known for its Baijiu (rice liquor) in Sichuan Province. They were the first generation of college graduates in China, class of 1977, in the post-Cultural Revolution era. They, like people of their generation, had one and only goal: to make China a better country. They belonged to a devoted and hardworking generation that endured hardships unimaginable to subsequent generations. I had lived in a small town close to Leshan (known for its giant buddha statue) with my grandma for 18 months during the most difficult times of my parents medical residencies. I moved to Chengdu in 1989 to join my parents and to start kindergarten.
I did not like Chengdu at the time. I had no friends. I didn’t know my parents well (my earliest memories were with my nainai, my grandmother). The television was not showing the Transformers (Chengdu had moved on to Saint Seiya: Knights of the Zodiac by that time). The garbage trucks- my favorite entertainment was watching a giant garbage truck raising its trunk to consolidate garbage to the rear of the container- were much smaller and far less impressive in Chengdu. I loudly voiced my displeasure, protesting my parents’ moving me without my consent. But my discontent proved to be short lived. I made friends in Kindergarten. My parents seemed to like me ok. I dropped my Leshan accent for that of a Chengduren. I became a huge fan of Saint Seiya and fantasized to be Yihue, one of the characters that respawns stronger after each deadly battle. And I stopped watching garbage trucks. Before I knew it, Chengdu was my home.
Growing up in Chengdu was a thrilling experience for a curious little boy. From 1989 to 1991, I lived in a studio apartment with my parents on the campus of Chengdu University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in western Chengdu. Within the high walls of the university, I, with kids of lecturers, professors, and various university administrative staffs, built a kingdom of my own. We explored every corner of the campus. There wasn’t a peach tree unclimbed; there wasn’t a bird nest uninspected; there wasn’t a classroom un-vandalized, especially when there was colored chalk. I left my footprints in libraries, clinics, hospital hallways, gyms, laboratories, and I, accompanied by other curious boys, even peeked into the morgue before getting spooked like a bunch of scattering birds. Quickly, I no longer saw the high walls of the university as protection but barriers. Ignoring my parents’ warnings of danger, I yearned for the world outside. I couldn’t wait to grow up.
Outside the walls, Chengdu was licking its wounds from the summer of 1989, when country-wide demonstrations and their subsequent suppression seemed to mark China’s last opportunity to embrace a Western-style democracy. The political turmoil left the country gasping. Party leaders promised prosperity and stability. I- standing on the back rack of my dad’s bike, watching in awe at the crowd gathered at Tianfu Square in front of Chairman Mao’s statue- remained blissfully ignorant of a historical event that I was witnessing. In my mind, it was far more important that I get roasted goose for dinner that night and go to the zoo to feed black bears that weekend.
I’ve been contemplating how to write about the trip I took to Chengdu this year since before even leaving for Chengdu. I went to China mainly to see my nainai who is turning 80- a very very young 80- this year. Unlike previous trips I took back to China where I planned extensive travel all over the country, I decided to spend the majority of my two weeks in Chengdu, hoping to gain a glimpse of a 20 year life trajectory that was suddenly interrupted when my parents decided to emigrate. I plan to write five more chapters on my memories of Chengdu and Chengdu culture through the eyes of a boy who couldn’t wait to grow up. Next chapter: A Changing Chengdu.
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