High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost written and posted online onto TibetCul in August 2015. The name of the Chinese language TibetCul blog where the post appeared is “A Grain of Tsampa”.
The blogger describes his personal experiences with his family in the city of Chengdu, provincial capital of Sichuan Province, and is an interesting snapshot of the lives of modern and seemingly affluent Tibetans, navigating their way through life in the PRC today.
Although it is not clear from the post exactly where the author lives, Chengdu is home to a sizeable Tibetan population and is also a destination for Tibetans who need to seek more serious medical treatment unavailable in rural areas. This blogpost shows Chengdu in several different lights, starting as a horrible nightmare and ending as a “city of love”.
According to this USA Today article from 2014, “about 60,000 Tibetans live in Chengdu, a city of about 7 million”. A scholarly analysis of Chengdu’s Tibetan area was done by Trine Brox in her 2015 paper “Tibetan minzu market: the intersection of ethnicity and commodity” (behind a paywall).
Last year, a young Tibetan couple who live in Chengdu took the internet by storm when they published their wedding photos online.
Chengdu Seen Through the Eyes of a Tibetan
Before the 2015 Spring Festival, my wife and I took my son to Chengdu for an operation. During those 10 or so days, what I heard, what I saw, and what I felt, all those stories and experiences – Business Drive; Active Waiting; One against Three; Heart Therapy; The Place where Dreams Begin; Do one Good Turn a Day; It’s all Relative; and, City of Love – impelled me pick up my pen to write an impulsive impression of Chengdu.
As we get off at Chadianzi Station, my family and I are loaded down with bags. With such heavy luggage I was hoping to quickly find a hostel near the provincial hospital for us to stay. The attendant took us around twisting corridors to a standard room with three beds. “This is the only room left,” the attendant said. From the attendant’s expression it was clear we were being taken for a ride, and I really wanted to say let’s go somewhere else. But my whole body ached, I was exhausted, and also we had to get up bright and early the next day to see the doctor and so the words stuck in my throat. Even though the public bathroom stunk so bad it made my wife scowl, she didn’t want to give me any more trouble so she said: “Never mind. Let’s just stay here tonight!”
That night when I wanted to sleep, I realised that not only was the bed hard, but what was even worse was that the bed cover was too thin. When I went to get the attendant to ask for another blanket, the attendant turned to another guest and said: “Another blanket is out of the question. It’s the same for all us.” The disappointed and dissatisfied guest said: “What a funny way you do business here.” The attendant – who couldn’t care less – said: “Look at that building opposite that’s being refurbished; they don’t have any business. Our business is getting better and better. If you don’t stay here, other people will.” Filled with fury, the guest left saying: “What do you have to be so proud of. It’s only because you are close to the provincial hospital that your business is so good.” Listening to their conversation, I thought that the driving force of this prosperous business was indeed strong, but this kind of strength caused me to worry that in the future, I wouldn’t be able to afford a room any more.
My muscles all over were sore after a night on the hard bed. So my son could have his operation as soon as possible, the whole family rushed to the provincial hospital the next morning before it was even light. The hospital’s ground floor foyer was brightly lit with people rushing by and crowds streaming past. When we arrived outside the third floor consulting room, after queuing up to take the lift, we saw that it was already full of people. When we were finally admitted, the doctor wasted no time in deciding that my son needed an operation. “Go to the first inpatient department on the 17th floor and see if you can get a bed. Once he’s been admitted then we can talk about the surgery.” When I heard the doctor say this I felt anxious all over again because we didn’t have much time.
Flowing along with the crowd, my family and I made a dash for the first inpatient department. When we reached the ground floor foyer we saw lines of people waiting at the lifts. I was immediately stunned. My head started to spin thinking of ways to save time and get my son admitted into hospital as soon as possible. Finally, after running around, I found the 17th floor nurses station. Seeing all the other people waiting in front of us, and recognising the same worried expressions on their faces, I grew even more anxious. Eventually it was my turn to see the head nurse. The plain-speaking matron took my form, and while writing in her notebook said: “You definitely won’t be able to get a bed today. I’ve written down your name and contact details. Please wait and we’ll call you.” Seeing that the matron went on to serve the next in line, every cell in my body suffused with disappointment. Inside the lift going down, an older grey-haired man told me that although he was being admitted into hospital today he had been waiting half a month. Thinking about how short my own holiday was, I was determined to head to the nurses station every day at the crack of dawn. I’d need to rely on my sincerity to move the matron. Back at home my mother, with her full head of white hair, was waiting for me to come back and celebrate the New Year with her.
It wasn’t easy to get leave, and I had a lot of things to do in Chengdu. One of these was to pay back my mortgage. By paying back my mortgage, I had gained a better understanding of banks and mortgages, and in particular the terms set out in the contract on paying back the mortgage early were preying on my mind. So I decided to push for returning the entire loan back to the bank ahead of time. Since my son was still waiting for a hospital bed and time was precious, we couldn’t waste it, I just went ahead to pay back the mortgage. When we got to the bank, the duty manager asked what we needed and promised profusely that we could pay back the loan in full ahead of time. Feeling that things were going so smoothly; my wife and I hurriedly withdrew our savings from another bank to pay back the loan. Having had such heavy hearts, my wife and I now felt like a huge stone had been lifted from them. When the duty manager saw that we were depositing money in the bank he asked us to come into his office. He said he had to talk to us about procedures. The manager sat down and still smiling he said: “You can repay the loan but you have to buy insurance.” Hearing that we had to pay several thousand a year, and also that the insurance was a 10-year policy, I refused. Seeing my determination, the duty manager’s smile disappeared, and he said coldly: “If you don’t buy the insurance then you can’t repay the loan.” When I saw the duty manager’s face fall faster than the weather on the [Tibetan] plateau, I suddenly understood why he didn’t say all of this at the start. Why did he wait for us to deposit all our money in the bank first? I had learned my lesson: I had realised that, after all, professional smiles do not come from the heart.
One Against Three
My son was finally admitted into hospital, but we still had to wait two days before the operation. Looking out of a window in a door in my son’s hospital room, I could see the Chinese traditional medicine hospital close by. The brown façade of the Chinese traditional medicine hospital’s high-rise building opposite was striking, but the provincial hospital had three brightly-coloured high-rise towers, and each one was taller than the next. Thinking that it was a case of one against three, I thought back to China’s modern history. While reflecting on that, I recalled an old saying that only by forgiving everything can one go forward.
Again what would be the ratio if we looked at the coastal cities from Chengdu? Thinking about my own hometown, looking out at the whole country, what kind of ratio would that be? And exactly what kind movement forward would that be!?
While we were staying at the hostel opposite the provincial hospital, early every morning some elderly people would gather in a meeting room. The first time I saw this, I thought it was weird; the second time I saw this, I was curious; and the third time I saw this, I stopped to peer into that meeting room full of old people. Playing at the front of the meeting hall was a film about Tibet. I saw my hometown. The sight of an old Tibetan man who was all smiles in the film was especially moving. The audience were listening happily and attentively to the presenter in the meeting room. He had a snow-white khata around his neck. While my son was in hospital, I thought about that elderly audience and I remembered a 90 year old man who lived on the grasslands near my home. This cheerful old man had lived all his life on the never-ending grasslands. He had never ventured as far as the county town just a few dozen miles away, never mind the provincial capital Chengdu. This man, who loved his life on the grasslands, had turned down his son’s well-intentioned plan to take him on a trip, saying he was happy and content on the grasslands! This old man’s life made me think that life is a flower. When we smile the flower is open; when we are worried, it wilts. Why do those old people enjoy going to these talks? I believe they also want the flower of life to bloom in gorgeous colours.
Confidence and Dreams
My son was discharged from hospital. Bidding farewell to his hospital bed, he wanted to get out and breathe in some fresh air, so we went to the Cultural Park and Baihuatan Park. What really surprised me was that both of these parks were free. I remember when my wife and I were university students in Chengdu more than 10 years earlier, back then you couldn’t get into a park without buying a ticket. Making parks free reflects a kind of air of strength, a change in the idea of development, and the idea that the economy should serve the people. Chengdu had become magnanimous.
A cyclist carrying a backpack painted a bright colour on the highway and attracted my attention. I knew that Chengdu was the starting point of the Sichuan-Tibet route of cyclists’ dreams. The road heads west and it’s the extraordinary dream of a lot of ordinary people. Chengdu is where the dream begins!
Do One Good Turn a Day
To celebrate my son getting out of hospital, my wife’s elder sister invited us to eat at a vegetarian restaurant opposite Chengdu’s No.3 [People’s] Hospital. Chengdu’s restaurants had always given me the impression that one could sum them up with the phrase “exciting and noisy”. This was especially true for food stalls; they are more exciting than excited, noisier than noise; extraordinarily lively! But this vegetarian restaurant gave me a new understanding of eating out in Chengdu: it’s a kind of delicate and beautiful essence, a gentle calm and a cultural immersion. As we arrived at the entrance to the restaurant, a wait staff in a dark-coloured uniform smiled gently at us and opened the door, saying: “Please come in. Welcome!” As I stepped inside I felt that what I was face-to-face with was not an exciting and noisy food hall but rather a scholar’s lounge. There were books placed in the centre of the room and the shelves at the side of the room were full of books. The titles were all about thinking kind thoughts, being kind to others, and being kind to oneself. An air of tranquillity made all those who entered forget about their cares. When we got into the restaurant, although we could see that there were a lot of people, the diners were all talking softly, in here “clamour” was a superfluous word. Every dish that was served, every intention, went into building up a kind of natural beauty, a harmonious beauty of humanity. The point of this place was the joy brought by such elegance. The restaurant interior’s simple postmodern décor appeared effortless; life is just so. Dining here was a way to truly experience culture. Dining on culture at this Chengdu restaurant is different from culture that is derived from elegance. So what kind of culture was it? You want a discount when paying the bill? No problem! The waiter will ask you to hold up a sign reading: “Do a good turn every day”. I noticed that everyone who held up that sign looked pretty happy.
It’s All Relative
While my son was recovering from the operation, we went to a small lakeside teahouse in the Cultural Park. The rather elegant surroundings put my son and me in good spirits, but it wasn’t long before my son got upset. A goose that kept up a constant honking swam across from the opposite bank to just next to my son at which point he stretched out his neck and honked even louder. My son, completely baffled, cried: “Why doesn’t he go away? His honking is horrible.” The persistent goose began bobbing its head up and down to indicate it wanted to eat. Understanding this my son held his two hands out helplessly and said, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting [to feed you].” But the goose didn’t think to leave. Perhaps he’s never had the habit of leaving just because he didn’t get anything to eat.
The park gradually began to fill up with people and also many more people came to feed the goose. The goose began to sound more cheerful. Noticing that the goose was quite plump, my son said: “What would happen to him if one day no one came to feed him?” My son’s words made we wonder whether Chengdu would still be known as “the city you only go to retire” if it didn’t have the benefits of being the “land of abundance”. My only answer was the phrase: “It’s all relative”.
City of Love
The day before we had to leave Chengdu, I heard my wife’s sister who works in Chengdu say that a young girl from Chamdo in Tibet had been admitted into West China Hospital with a rare brain tumour. However, there was an enormous gulf between the high cost of the operation and her family’s meagre income. So, a group of caring people in Chengdu had organised a compassion relay to raise money. My warm-hearted sister had gone to the hospital to donate some money and had been very saddened by the sight of the little girl tortured by such pain and suffering, but she was heartened when she saw how quickly the money was raised to pay for her operation. Chengdu’s love had given the little girl hope. When I heard this I thought Chengdu is the city of love.
This post is also available in: English