Hazarding Life in Chengdu

By: Michelle Ross

Chengdu comes in at #39 on a list of the world’s largest cities, with nearly 8 million residents calling this landlocked city home.  8 million people means it is a metropolis, but if it were interviewing for a job and asked to name three adjectives describing itself, cosmopolitan would definitely not be in the list. Big?  Yes. Up and coming? Definitely.  On par with the great cities of the world like New York, Paris and London? Not quite yet. But, that lack of refinement is exactly what I love about this city. Beijing and Shanghai are great, but they’ve lost a lot of their quirks, their uniqueness and their spirit. Having over a thousand miles between here and the bustling life of the capital has allowed Chengdu to remain its own city, fostering a distinctly Sichuan character- loud and brash, but still laid back and relaxed.

Filled with the ruins of ancient civilizations, as a gateway to Tibet and where you can find anything and everything emblazoned with a panda decal, Chengdu is a fantastic city for ex-pats to call home. We’ve got spicy food that will put even the hardiest taste buds to the test and tea houses dot the city like freckles on a ginger. But, it’s not all fun and games! Western China has its own set of rules when it comes to daily life; pitfalls lurk around every corner and on every sidewalk. To be a successful ex-pat in Chengdu, there are a few “dangers” you must be mindful of on a regular basis.

Since the Chinese (especially western China-dwelling) tend to be rather superstitious, here are a lucky eight “Chengdu dangers,” in no particular order:

1) Electric scooters.  Silent as that holy night in late December, they’ll sneak up on the unsuspecting foreigner, whipping by mere centimeters from pedestrians. Heaven forbid you are walking with a friend, gesticulating even semi-wildly as you recount your day at the panda reserve, for your elbow is likely to be clipped by a passing, eerily silent scooter.  Don’t think that you’re safe just because you are walking on the sidewalk, which one would think would be designated for foot traffic. Road, bus lane, sidewalk- they’re all home to the free-range scooters in town.

2) Grandmas on the subway. Who’s the most aggressive public transportation rider in Chengdu? There’s no question it is the little old woman who stands about five feet tall and is willing to push her way through any crowd to be the first on (or off) the bus/subway/train/plane. Her slight stature gives her a lower center of gravity, somehow allowing her to push burly foreign men out of the way, her elbows precisely placed in the kidneys of anyone blocking her passage.

3) Death-che. (Also called “san lun che” or three-wheeled car.) For those who have traveled in Southeast Asia, these are essentially the Chinese version of the tuk-tuk. In Chengdu, these little rolling tin cans are restricted to certain areas of town, and yet, I see them everywhere. The drivers can smell desperation from blocks away; when you are getting passed up by cab after cab on a Friday night, they’ll slowly sidle up next to you, ask where you are going, give you a ridiculously high rate (that they’ll bargain no more than about five kuai on) and then wait for you to give in to the temptation of a ride, even a potentially hazardous one.

4) Brick bombs. It rains in Chengdu. Not all year long, but we have very definite rainy periods where we get enough precipitation to flood the streets and make the river overflow its banks. But, it isn’t the rain that is the hazard. It is the sidewalks after the rain. You see, many sidewalks in Chengdu are made of these square bricks that are set on top of whatever ground was there originally, but they are not well-cemented down. This means after a few rains, they come lose and are wobbly, leaving space between the brick and the ground for small puddles to collect. Then, as you are innocently walking to work in your adorable new gunmetal gray tights, you step on one of these unattached bricks, squirting the muddy water up the back of your legs, forcing you to utter a string of not very nice words and essentially ruining your cute tights. Total brick bomb.

5) Parasols. Yes, fancy umbrellas- watch out for them! The problem isn’t so much the devices themselves, although their ubiquitous nature is a bit overwhelming. They come out when it rains; they come out when it’s sunny. But, the real issue lies in the height difference between the average Chinese woman and me. I’m 5’10”, which puts my eyeballs directly in the line-of-poking for those sharp metal ends that come off of each section of the umbrella. (Google tells me these are called “end cleats.” I think “ocular gougers” would be a more apt moniker.)  While sunglasses are rarely needed in Chengdu due to the constant overcast nature of the city, I’ve become a continuous wearer, as more than once they’ve saved my eyes for near-blinding.

6) Chinese New Year’s fireworks. Fireworks are fabulous and no one does them better than the Chinese. The problem is, Chengdu does them for a month! They start early and run late. Chengdu is always up for a celebration, so the New Year provides the perfect opportunity to show off all manner of explosions. In the month leading up to Spring Festival, little orange tents pop up on every other corner, all around town. Just a step inside the tent reveals the hazards of this time of year. With little or no regulation (at least enforced regulations), you can buy fireworks of all sizes off the street. Explosive devices that would be left to city fire departments to ignite are sold to teenagers, making the days leading up to the festival a cacophony of pops, booms and bangs! I’ve always contended that if a country wanted to invade China, the night of New Year’s Eve would be the time to do it. With so many mortars and shells exploding throughout the city, there would be no way to differential friendly and enemy fire.

7) Paparazzi.  Flash! Snap! Click! The camera shutters are snapping left and right. Okay, so it may not be as intense as Kanye West’s front yard, but being a tall, blonde foreigner in Chengdu definitely attracts some attention. Again, while Chengdu is a large city, it is still relatively undiscovered in terms of ex-pats living here, so a trip anywhere other than the panda base (where the foreigner tourists congregate, en mass) elicits a rather constant stream of less-than-stealthy photography. Whether it is in the supermarket as I buy meat or People’s Park where I just want to enjoy a few brief hours of sunshine, a trip out of my apartment means I need to be camera-ready. Some people will quietly take a cell phone picture, while others will be quite unabashed in their photographical documentation of my existence. I’ve had large lens cameras shoved in my face, been a part of group photos with my new Chinese “friends,” and even posed with women sporting dynasty-era costumes (I was in red-dirt covered jeans after hiking down a mountain. It was awesomely incongruous).

8) Loogies.  It’s disgusting. I know. I almost didn’t add them to my list because it is so icky, but I’d be remiss in my cautionary duties if I didn’t include it, because even though it is yucky, the real danger is in the viscosity. Loogies are literally as slick as snot! Since they are everywhere (on the sidewalk, the floor of the subway train, the aisle of the supermarket, etc.), it is best to be aware and ready to right yourself (and hold down your lunch) when you feel the inevitable slip of your foot in that tiny, gooey pile of phlegm.   (I feel queasy just typing this one!)

So, Chengdu- even with the potentially eye-socket piercing rain gear and silent but deadly scooters- it’s a fabulous city. It’s filled with ancient temples and modern architecture, all sprinkled with more than a little panda.

Come. Live. Enjoy.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingMichelle Ross is an American expat living in China. Blog description: In Search of Where the Sidewalk Ends is my attempt to record both the extraordinary and mundane events of life as the spouse of a Foreign Service officer.
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Contest Comments » There are 40 comments

Melyssa Ferro wrote 5 years ago:

I am totally laughing picturing the subway grannies taking you out with their handbags (do they even carry hand bags in China)? I would love to see someone blend all of these together into a single illustration to summarize your China experiences... then you can get it tattooed on your shoulder!

Nancy wrote 5 years ago:

What an enlightening description of your city. If I were to visit I would keep my eyes open for little grandmas carrying umbrellas and riding scooters! You have made it so easy to visualize some of the more interesting aspects of Chengdu. And thanks for the warning about slick areas.

Kelsey R Ferro wrote 5 years ago:

This is an amazing post, written by an amazing writer!!

Shannon wrote 5 years ago:

What a great description of life in Chengdu- the good, the bad, and the loogie!

Joyce McDaniel wrote 5 years ago:

After having visited several places in China, I certainly agree with Michelle Ross that there are at least 8 dangerous aspects to Chengdu, China! I would say that she did a marvelous job in summarizing those that stand out the most. And she did it in a very entertaining and humorous way while pointing out truly alarming but unique (to a Westerner!) aspects of Chengdu! Enjoyed the post and laughed all through it.

Marilyn wrote 5 years ago:

I enjoyed reading Michelle's post- it made me laugh AND cringe! I have read some of her blog also and find she is a good, and entertaining writer. I can hardly imagine a city of 8 million!!

Kristen Rush wrote 5 years ago:

Oh Michelle, good round-up of hazards! But what comes through most clearly to me is that with sense of humor intact, such "dangers" are clearly not too much for the intrepid ex-pat who can see past it all to the place and the people (and the food!).

Chengduren wrote 5 years ago:

So true! There are many strange hazards to life in China, but they are also what makes living there a daily adventure.

Erin wrote 5 years ago:

I love this! Makes me feel like I am there!

Harley wrote 5 years ago:

So many good choices on your list! I think in the end I have to go with "Paparazzi" people seem to love to take photos.

Amy Lynn wrote 5 years ago:

It would be so weird to live in a place where you looked like the odd one out, everywhere you went! And loogies....ew! Sounds like an interesting (if not slightly dangerous) place to live! ;)

JoAnnMatray wrote 5 years ago:

Well the loonies thing is the worst but the biggest problem is the prelude. You hear it, you know it's coming as you despirately try to ensure you are out of the way (and view of it). Great blog and, yes, cosmopolitan is not the word although compared to Chongqing it may be!

Connie R wrote 5 years ago:

Ha! I am also 5'10" and your description of the “ocular gougers” made me laugh out loud! SO true! I am not blonde, however I have blonde children and also understand your experience with photographers. How many cell phones are we on throughout the Middle East? Wonderful descriptions! I would love to see Chengdu some day.

Bailey Anderson wrote 5 years ago:

Mrs. Rost, I absolutely love this! I feel like I am right there with you!

John Park wrote 5 years ago:

I was in Chengdu a few years back as a Peace Corps volunteer and Michelle's "lucky 8" is spot on! Sure brings back some fun memories..

Cari Anderson wrote 5 years ago:

Mrs. Ross that was a spectactular description of Chengdu, made me feel as if I was right there in Chengdu with you. I think my favorite part though was the sneakiness of the scooters! :) Great Job!

Thad wrote 5 years ago:

Great article! I too have been the victim of the brick bomb and the parasol jabs of Chengdu. Way to hit the nail on the head! :)

Carrie wrote 5 years ago:

I really enjoyed the depth of the descriptions in this entry and also the humor. My favorite on the list was the brick bombs.

Amber wrote 5 years ago:

This is hilarious! I have never been brave enough to come there, but after reading this I feel like I have. Maybe perhaps a bit more terrified. Love this! Very well written.

Natalie wrote 5 years ago:

Great piece! This kind of blog gives people an idea of what real, everyday life is about and that's exactly the point. Thanks!

Taryn Chenoweth wrote 5 years ago:

I loved this, as well as all the other blog posts you havei Michelle! I love your adventorous spirit! I always feel like I'm experiencing what you experience!

Nicole Gelinas wrote 5 years ago:

Hahha! I loved the grandma's on the subway. Small elderly ladies know how to get by!

Shannon Welch wrote 5 years ago:

I find this article interesting and informative. Love how she writes!!!

Angie Edwards wrote 5 years ago:

What a great insight into life in Chengdu! Always appreciate your humor and unique perspective of life in the Foreign Service! look forward to reading many more.

Shonda wrote 5 years ago:

My question is...how long does it take you to pick up some of the local habits? I always enjoy reading your blogs; always interesting and fun.

Gwen Hogg wrote 5 years ago:

Chengdu sounds fascinating through Michelle's words. It is fun to "travel" while sitting in the comfort of my own "loogie-free" home.

Stephanie wrote 5 years ago:

Great post! As a fellow expat in Chengdu, I can attest to all these "dangers". But it makes Chengdu endearing if not infuriating sometimes. Well written!

Jim Eisentrager wrote 5 years ago:

My personal favorite story has been the one with the rat climbing the walls in the restaurant after falling on your table. Priceless!

Rachel Stenback wrote 5 years ago:

Enlightening as always! I who have also lived in China (three years) especially love keeping up through this blog!

Candace Bilbrey wrote 5 years ago:

I love reading your blog. It makes me feel like I am there. Thanks for a the great stories!

John Love wrote 5 years ago:

I am a follower of your blog, so have been aware of most of these important rules. I did not however think about parasols or how that danger is specific to you. I have heard you mention that people like to take your picture and have theirs taken with you, I did not "picture" that at a paparazzi level. I will not comment on the last important rule. If I were to visit and knew that you or you and your husband would be my guide, I would gladly visit. Your blogs have sparked my imagination and curiosity about the region. However, I have at least a dozen destinations world wide that are calling me, and those are just the really loud ones, so as you are leaving soon, I probably will not be trying to jam my large girth into a three wheeled accident looking for place to happen. It would probably break the third wheel off in the process and I would be starting a new marathon tradition in Chengdu!

Dawn Dopf wrote 5 years ago:

I really found what you wrote interesting even more so since I happen to be interested in this topic now. Would love to hear more from you again about your experiences with the regional cuisine!

Kaho wrote 5 years ago:

What a fun list! The grandma pushing her way at the train station... There are some people like that in Japan, too. It makes me wonder at what point these women change...? The last one, loogie. Wow... It sounds like you have to be very careful when you're walking!! You have a great sense of humor!

Kristina wrote 5 years ago:

I love reading Michelle's blog. She has a way of taking her readers along on the journey!

Judy wrote 5 years ago:

Love Michelle's comments. I know I will never get to Chengdu, but I feel I'm experiencing it with her.

Nicole Edwards wrote 5 years ago:

Great post! I always enjoy your blog, especially when pandas make an appearance :)

Owen Edwards wrote 5 years ago:

Always enjoy your writing, you have a knack to inform and entertain. thank you

Jingky wrote 5 years ago:

I can totally relate to everything! Talk about brick bombs--been a victim, survived but oh so icky! Great article! :)

Jen wrote 5 years ago:

I love seeing Chengdu through your eyes, your descriptions are always so spot-on!

Lynn wrote 5 years ago:

My son has been living in Chengdu for 3 years now and while I have heard some crazy things, and probably not heard the even stranger ones, these dangers have not been exposed to me. Till now. What a world! Nice job!

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