I have just spent 5 days in Chengdu, a large city in the west of China, to attend a conference on creativity in higher education. I was met at the airport by two very likeable student volunteers who are studying English and translation studies at Sichuan University. By volunteering to meet and greet they felt they were enhancing their education. The plane was delayed so it was quite late when we arrived but I was greatly relieved to see them and they whisked me the hotel in the centre of the city and then helped me check in - which was great because I my room booking hadn't worked and the receptionist did not speak English. It required quite a lot of negotiation.
The city at night looked like any other city but I took a walk in the early morning rush hour and it is quite different to anywhere else I have been. We are on a busy main road, 3 lanes in each direction and tall grey concrete buildings on either side. At 8am it was really bustling with traffic in all directions including bikes and motorbikes/scooters on the pavement. The sounds were like any city but the smells were different to anything I had experienced before, except perhaps for Chinatown in London. The people looked similar as they walked briskly to work or university, which is just next door to the hotel. One interesting thing I noticed was that the footbridges over the busy road did not have steps that had stepped ramps and then I realised these were to enable scooters to ride over them.
When I got back I went to breakfast determined to try the Chinese cuisine. In fact, there was only Chinese cuisine. A long table with perhaps 30 dishes on it and many vegetables I had never seen before (there were no labels). I had a good go at trying about 15 of them I recon.. Only small amounts but enough to discover which I likes and which I didn't. Many of the tastes were familiar from the Chinese food I'd eaten before but a lot were alien to my taste buds - quite a lot were very bland or subtle depending on your point of view. What was also strange to me was sitting at large round tables with people who I didn't know. In English hotels we have small tables and you keep to your own space.
It does us good from time to time to experience a new place which is culturally very different from our own in order to remind us what it feels like to experience that sense of foreignness and inadequacy (because of an absence of language and cultural understanding), unfamiliarity and uncertainty because the context is so very different to what we know.
I also learnt a lot about what is valued in Chinese culture. Throughout the conference the meals had been one of the highlights - Sichuan food is some of the most delicious food I have ever taken and it is a very social affair. We were also treated to some wonderful restaurants - some of which were in buildings constructed in a traditional way. Chengdu is full of wonderfully recreated old buildings that enable you to appreciate the past.
But the last day in Chengdu was very special. The university had provided us with a conducted tour of the city with an emphasis on giving us a flavour of their cultural heritage. The tour guide 'Bobby' was a brilliant and knowledgeable communicator -perhaps the most creative person I had met all week. Written on his T-short were the words There are two sorts of people in the world - those that entertain and those that observe.. he was most definitely in the first category.
The audio file records some of the Chinese opera.