Chengdu blues: Don’t skip breakfast

The snow in Emeishan was part of a cold front that smashed Chengdu into the low 30’s. I forewent another tour and instead concentrated on one of the best things about China: The hotel breakfast. Let’s just say it wasn’t toast and a mini-box of corn flakes.

Fresh noodles, spicy vegetables, fried eggs, various delicious pickles, and made-to-order wonton soup were all on order, along with a rich buffet of western breakfast foods. Modesty and fear of getting fat on vacation kept me from having seconds of everything.

I decided to go to the Panda Preserve and maybe return to the tourist shopping alleys. After all, I hadn’t explored the shop whose sign read, in English, “The Smell of a Woman.” However, the cumulative effort of endless walking was starting to wear me out. It was also raining outside,and the warm hotel room, finally sort of almost partially somewhat rid of the stale cigarette smoke here on Day 6, was feeling pretty cozy.

On the other hand, when would I next get to see some pandas? And this led to the next question: If I were going to see pandas, shouldn’t I dress for the occasion? So my first stop was to the Shunxilu shopping district for a jaunty cap and a scarf. I’d had to confess that I had been miserably cold except when in the shower or in bed, and it was time to get warmer clothes.

However, I was hijacked by a donut and coffee shop. The latte was badass and I scarfed the donut bomb while the loudspeakers spoke, loudly, Debbie Harry’s “Call Me.”

Donuts?

Coffee?

Debbie Harry?

My Chinese love affair was almost complete, all I needed was a clean public toilet of which there were three or four every couple hundred yards. The only thing about the public toilets that took a bit of getting used to was the fact that you can’t put your toilet paper in them, and have to drop it into a waste can next to the toilet. Kind of weird sitting on the can with a trash receptacle topped off with white tissues that have seen better, whiter days.

My jaunty cap and thick wool scarf that would have doubled as a blanket for a king-size bed set me back $65. I never made it to Pandaland, either, detoured as I was by the Shunxilu shopping district. All I can tell you is that if you ever had any doubt, the business of China is business. You look sideways and they are closing.

I walked by a row of noodle shops and every single one hit on me. A guy selling Rolexes and Nike tennis shoes followed me to the official Swatch shop, where I was surrounded by five salespeople, but not before the Rolex sales guy followed me into the store and argued with me for five minutes about his watches.

“I don’t want a Rolex,” I said.

“Why? They are perfect.”

“I can’t afford one.”

“How much can you afford?”

“$14.”

“You’re in the Swatch shop, though. Everything here is at least $75.”

“But they are the kind of watch I want, not a Rolex.”

“Rolex is for successful, handsome Americans.”

“Then you should be in New York. Because I don’t see any of them here.”

He left and the sales team sold me a watch but my card wouldn’t run. They didn’t care. “We will make it run,” the lady said.

She called someone from the back and suddenly I had six people working a $75 sale. And you know what? Even though the card was declined seven times, on the eighth time it worked. They closed the sale.

I spent the day in the shopping district getting my mind blown about China’s consumer economy, then went back to the hotel and on the way stopped at a noodle shop for dinner. I ordered a bowl of noodles and then saw a picture of some wontons. “How many wontons?” I asked the lady, but I couldn’t understand. The small bowl was either four or ten, and the large bowl was either six or sixteen.

It was going to be way too much food either way. When the wontons came, they were also in a bowl of noodles, so I had two giant bowls of noodles and everyone looking at me like I was crazy, and they were loaded with asshole-incinerating Sichuan peppers, too fucking hot to even swallow, but I did.

It occurred to me on the way to the hotel that I was going to burn a hole in my stomach, just as it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single newspaper, magazine, or newspaper stand of any kind. This made sense, because everything in China is digital so that the government can track what people read, and more importantly, can go back and delete things they wrote in the past that conflict with the present, just like in 1984.

Then I realized that I had seen no art, no books, or even a hint of literature anywhere. The only thing on display about China was its ancient civilization and its ancient literary tradition, for example the poet Du Fu. And I wondered how you can have a country without modern art or literature? More to the point, I realized that you can’t have art or literature in a totalitarian state because if it doesn’t criticize then it cannot, by definition, be art.

China’s narrative is that “We are the oldest civilization on earth. We invented everything. The last couple of hundred years we’ve been in a spot of bother, but don’t worry. We are back.”

They are.

END

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