Three rapid knocks on the door jolt me awake from a semi-conscious state. “Chi tsu’ung lo…. Tai yang tzao pi’i gu’u lo’o!! (Get up… the sun is shining on your butt already)” my Erba’s voice announced loudly from outside my room. Hearing this statement in its Sichuanese dialect in a Chengduren accent, a statement that my dad had often used to chase me out of bed in my teenage years, spoken by my dad’s younger brother, brings a huge grin to my face. I am home. Not home in North Carolina with my parents. I am home home, in Chengdu home.
Outside my room window, 26 floors below Erba’s condominium, runs River Jin, which connects to the former Chengdu city moat dug thousands years ago to protect the city from invasion. The government had broadened, cleaned and beautified the river with a greenbelt walkway for local residents. Along the river are rows of high rise residential buildings, much like the one I am standing in, extending as far as eye can see in a somewhat smoggy atmosphere. Outside the back windows of Erba’s condo I can see Chengdu’s Third Ring Road, one of the five arterial routes encircling Chengdu, now packed with cars on the morning commute. The sun has risen above the horizon in the distance, waking up a city that is home to almost 15 million people with its light and warmth.
Chengdu hadn’t always been this expansive. When I started first grade in the fall of 1990 Chengdu had only its First Ring Road. It was hardly a highway by today’s standards. It had two lanes in each direction with brand new automated traffic lights. But major intersections, like First Ring Road and Shi’er Qiao Road, which was the first intersection outside of the front gate of Chengdu University of TCM, still required a traffic director. This director, who stood on a raised square platform painted with white and red vertical stripes, seemed to be constantly swarmed by a massive number of cyclists and comparatively scant automobiles.
In the summer of 1991 my parents bought a small two bedroom condo located one block outside of First Ring Road, just west of the university campus. Four six-story buildings each with 4 unit stairways were constructed to accommodate a total of 192 university families. I was ecstatic to move into our new home. But moving into our new home was not the only exciting thing in the fall of 1991. My elementary school had also finished its construction. I, along with 53 other kids in my class, 3 other classes in my grade and 5 other grades of students, moved into our new campus for the first time. Second graders were on the second floor, one floor superior to the lowly first graders.
On the southeast corner of our new campus stood three new Ping Pong tables made of bricks and concrete. These concrete tables proved to be hot real estate. When the recess bell rung they were immediately flooded with screaming kids, all wanting to swing paddles at a tiny plastic ball. The tables were first come first serve but a new group could challenge the incumbents’ claim on a table. Second and third graders had massive advantages claiming these tables in recess because upperclassmen had to come down from higher floors, but upperclassmen were often better Ping Pong players, because they tend to be taller and stronger. That didn’t bother me though. I learned Ping Pong from my dad, who was an avid athlete who played basketball, volleyball, and Ping Pong competitively in college, and from random college students who had the patience to humor an enthusiastic paddle wielding child living on the university campus. I feared no upperclassmen challengers.
Along with my friend and fellow Ping Pong enthusiast, Funzer, we warded off many challengers during those recesses. Funzer’s parents also worked for the University, and they lived in my neighborhood. We were inseparable. We took the same buses home after school, recounting the newest episodes of Saint Seiya and discussing the newest issues in the comic book, Dragon Ball. We spent weekends riding buses all over the city looking for open tables to practice Ping Pong.
While we were busy growing up, so was Chengdu. The city expanded quickly. New buildings were rising all over our neighborhood. The city has laid the Second Ring Road’s foundation, cutting through miles of farmland. In 1993, new double decker buses were introduced to the city to replace the old electric buses that had spring-loaded trolley poles drawing power from overhead wires. The overhead wires were taken down, too, once the electric buses were gone. With our unlimited student passes, we excitingly hopped on the top floor of these new double decker buses and explored these new vehicles and new routes around the growing city from a high vantage point.
The first three years in elementary school were the most carefree days in my life. I played plenty of Ping Pong, watched lots of Saint Seiya and read lots of comics. But life isn’t supposed to be worry-free forever. We all grow up and learn to keep an eye on the darkness pervading this world. In the rapidly changing realm of Chengdu entering the mid 90s, I learned my lessons quickly.
Next chapter: Dark Clouds and Silver Linings – Part 1
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