Hot-and-Sour in China


 To walk down any street in Chengdu, the capital of China's southwest Sichuan province, is to feel it on every inch of skin.

On summer days, the heat rises from the dirt-caked roads and sidewalks, and the sun slicing through the smog is unforgivingly bright. A sweaty, sticky mass of bodies competes with endless lines of bicycle-riders for slivers of walking space.

Most of old, traditional structures have been torn down to make way for these new buildings because like most of urban China, Chengdu is experiencing a boom.

I am currently teaching English at Sichuan University. It's my first trip to China, and what I'm feeling is sensory overload.

Young Chengdu women step daintily over the ubiquitous spit scattered across the ground as they clutch parasols to protect their milky complexions from tanning. In East Asia, whiteness is next to godliness, at least for the ladies.

Not one native eye widens as bare-bottomed children pee in the middle of the busiest downtown street. A tour guide on a later trip explained that Chinese parents dress their children in these crotchless pants for easy relief.

The lack of personal space is daunting at first, as is the dearth of Western-style toilets. In the English teachers' dormitories where I stay, the toilets are squat-style holes in the ground, and the showers are directly above the toilets.

Sichuan is famous for its giant pandas and spicy food. One of the better-known dishes of the region is Sichuan hot-pot. To welcome the summer English teachers, two of the program coordinators, both Chengdu residents, generously treat us to dinner at a hot-pot restaurant. (Let's just say the offerings aren't kosher and leave it at that.)

After about a week of ultra-spicy meals, blisters form inside and around my mouth, and my stomach is a mess. It hurts to smile, speak or eat. I am taken to Sichuan University's hospital. The place seems eerily empty, quiet, and in desperate need of a good scrub.

Drops of what look like dried blood are speckled across the floor on the way to the doctor's office. The doctor is a plump, middle-aged woman. After a brief examination, she says that because of the spicy food, my foreign constitution and the humid weather, my body has shang huo. Literally translated, that means "on fire."

She prescribes a few mysterious medications that work immediately.

Many of our Chinese students have misconceptions about the United States. One young boy insists that every American home has a swimming pool. Another adult student cannot believe that the bicycle is not the main mode of transportation.

President Bush-bashing is prevalent and, strangely enough, usually accompanied by negative statements about Falun Gong and "that evil rebel cult leader, Li Hongzhi!" Religion is never discussed, but the students all worship basketball, bootlegged American movies and … Michael Jackson.

Later in the semester, during a trip to the Chengdu Panda Research Center, one of the English teachers is excited to learn that for about $10, foreigners can buy the photo op of a lifetime. Squirming baby pandas are placed beside delighted visitors, then the camera flashes go off.

When it's my turn, severe-looking handlers bring a panda out of an open-air pen and roughly slam him down on the bench. I reach over to lightly touch his wiggling body. For a moment, he's still.

On our last trip of the summer, we go to visit the temples and monasteries of Emei Mountain. The name "Emei" refers to eyebrows and, from afar, the two gentle peaks do resemble the lines of elegantly arched brows. We need to take a long, early-morning bus ride.

With each turn, I am afraid the bus will fly off the mountain. A light rain comes through an open window and begins to powder my arm. The bus winds further up the road, like a tiny figurine of metal and flesh. Almost there.

Link to 'China's Schindler'

While the current U.S. president may not be heartened by hosannas here in the provincial city of Chengdu, there is one wartime warrior who certainly merits the attention for bravery beyond the battlefield.

Chengdu certainly has a sense of history; it's no stranger to the horrible persecution of Jews during World War II. An exhibition about Nazis and the Holocaust was a major display here some summers back at nearby Sichuan University, which honored the memory of Dr. Fengshan Ho, often called "China's Oscar Schindler," for his role in helping save thousands of Jewish lives while serving as consul general in Vienna during the war.

His heroics were unknown to even the closest members of his family. And, as for his humble reaction to the hoopla greeting his heroics, Ho himself was reported to have said: "I thought it only natural to feel compassion and to want to help. From the standpoint of humanity, that is the way it should be."

The exhibit was coordinated by Israel's embassy in China and the Sichuan Provincial Association for Friendship With Foreign Countries and was a major draw, especially for many younger Chinese, who knew little of the late diplomat's derring-do.

But Israel possibly plays another, albeit, different, and decidedly more modern-day, militaristic role here: The Chengdu Aircraft Industry Corporation, which manufactures the fighter-jet Chengdu J-10, a well-kept military secret until earlier this year, may feel the need to sweeten its tea with some milk and honey

Rumor and speculation abound that Israel helped cooperate in Chengdu's J-10 development by extending technological help to the Chinese for the fighter's program.— Michael Elkin


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here