VII: Chengdu’s Pandas

Chengdu, May 11th—Tonight we learned what dangers lurk in the language barrier.

Chengdu’s train station is the size of the Vatican but with the interior frenzy of Penn station on amphetamine. We queued for a taxi, our first successful queue of the trip I might add, and Mother insisted I stop teasing the non-licensed drivers bothering us with their offers. I engaged them, announcing I wanted discount fare to Times Square. Those who understood some English spotted the ruse and backed off. Others of less cultural bandwidth continued to crowd us like seagulls at a sandwich. Once my desired stopping points grew to include the St. Louis Arch, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Great Wall, only the absolute dullards remained committed to the task of conning. This is when Mother told me to cut it out. We shuffled into the back of a cab—a legal one—and showed our hotel address to the baby-faced driver. As with most, this driver demonstrated agitation at having English speakers in his car. “100 percent more,” he said, “Outside city.” I wanted proof. He pointed to a sticker on my window. This sticker, which I assume listed the fare schedule and rider’s rights, was helpful in so far as a passenger could read Mandarin. We bit the proverbial bullet and watched for the next forty minutes as the meter amputated that and the next day’s travel budget.

This isn’t the danger I alluded to in sentence one. Budgetary threat is a constant threat and known consideration, both in foreign travel and American medical care. My reference was to physical danger.

The driver, obvious by now, spoke English, but an amount that proved deceptive as it implied a vocabulary he did not have. A language tip of the iceberg without the underwater mass. I had downloaded Google Translate to communicate, but the app had too many shortcomings to be of comprehensive value. It was better than nothing, but often Chinese speakers shook their heads at the Chinese sentence I’d just translated from English. I sometimes utilized the app’s text conversion feature: hold the phone camera up to a sequence of symbols and the app would swap them for English. A steady hand and ample time were prerequisites for this to work. In time-pressure situations, like in the cab, I felt too pressed to make sense of the non-sensical. “Wheel fly white some octopus cash pay,” a bakery sign might say. (Restaurants were the obvious and best venue for the app. Context is obvious. Just a single, correctly translated word (chicken, for example) is useful to extrapolate on a dish’s other components.) A cab situation, a 100% fare up-charge, a city policy written on a sticker, there’s too much context there.

We drove and in short time merged onto a highway of a dozen lanes. Babyface put us into the slowest one, far to the right. The night was dark except for the centralized glow of city behind us. We’d driven fifteen minutes, and I began to feel shaky about the understanding on which the trip rested. Our direction just didn’t feel right. With nothing but intuition shaking me, I thought I could settle myself if the driver could perhaps confirm we had but twenty or so minutes to go. “How many minutes to the hotel?” I said, poking my head between the two front seats. Babyface veered the car to the shoulder, the narrowest shoulder, our door handles protruded into traffic, and a car honked and veered around us. “Huh?” He asked. I had no clue how to convey that I’d asked a laughably innocuous question and we had no reason to be sitting in the shoulder waiting for the grill of a Toyota going 70-plus to introduce itself to our rear bumper. In a show of abdication, I waved my hands, hoping he’d see the signal as a cue to keep driving. He didn’t. We had to grip an imaginary wheel and wobble it back and forth while alternatively pointing to the road for him to catch on.

That was the height of the danger, perhaps oversold, but our miscommunications continued. At the destination, we found address but no hotel. A padlocked gate protected an enclosed lot of something, all dark. The driver tried to shoo us, “Here, here,” he insisted. I asked if he could perhaps give the hotel a ring. I showed him the number. He gave me his phone to dial.

Narrative pause. Dialing another country’s phone number while in that country is a weirdly deceptive task. Take this lesson from Australia where Vodafone gave me the number “+64 420…” On my resume and at social gatherings I started my number with “420”, dropping the +64 since the country code is not necessary for an in-country call. A naturalized citizen said to me, “You’re leaving the 0 out of your phone number.” “What 0?” “The one at the beginning.” “If you need to dial 0, then why wouldn’t they write 0 into the number?” “Because everyone knows that you dial 0 at the start of the number.” “And yet here we are, having this conversation.”

Such an unstated rule befell me as I dialed this number, exactly as written, five times before I attempted tricks—drop the number between the parentheses, drop the country code, dial the country code, add a 0, smash the keys with my fingers. The cabbie grew agitated enough to take the phone and dial. The hotel picked up. First try.

We asked at the front desk the veracity of the 100% fare up-charge. “No,” the attendant smiled, “It’s 50%.”

It’s best to not imply bad-faith when ignorance or stupidity stand as ready substitutes. Certain actions this night give me the argument for these latter two.

May 12thI have never appreciated nor understood the hullabaloo over Giant Pandas. Until today that is. For my apathy, I blame the media. Local news media at least, which, during my childhood, oversaturated the airwaves with all news panda. San Diego has its zoo, the zoo has its pandas. I don’t need to belabor the well-established fact that Giant Pandas are not world-class copulation machines. The majority of hours dedicated to their care seem to go into making them sexually interested in one another. But, by ways I need not get into here, four Giant Pandas were sent by China to San Diego for cub-making purposes. San Diego then allotted for itself shelf-space in zoological history when it witnessed the birth of the first and then, a few years later, second, Giant Panda born in the U.S. To say this was not treated as a very big deal is to say Anchorman did not have exceptional leather bound book references. To me, Anchorman’s plotline was so apropos I believed there existed a true Ron Burgundy in San Diego’s history. Nothing in the film, truth to be told, existed outside the realm of San Diego possibility. From a linguistic back and forth on the correct moniker for a San Diego resident, to a trident attack in Barrio Logan, to the absolutely no Padres references, a more perfect capturing of a city and its spirit does not exist. As a kid, I remember watching as Channel 10’s anchor Kimberly Hunt couldn’t go a night without having her head cropped by a screen insert of baby Hua Mei (b. 1999) or Mei Sheng (b. 2003). Everything from birth weight to diet components to rectal temperature was reported with a journalistic integrity not seen since before the rise of Roger Ailes.

And yet, here I am in Chengdu and a bamboo poke away from the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, the place in China, the world, to see Giant Pandas. Our corporate hotel has a branded, Giant Panda themed room, panda print linens, a horror of stuffed panda teddy bears, a gigantic, like, gigantic stuffed Giant Panda teddy (it blots the moon) all available for a small upgrade fee, perfect for the family, please inquire.

There’s a rumor online that it’s possible to hold a Giant Panda cub. Hold a cub! Think of the ‘gram likes, a cuddly celebrity in your hands apathetic to your glee. We confirm the rumor, but not until after we visit the center and meet a woman visiting alone from Perth. She partook in two cub holding sessions for the easy price of $500 per. $500 is what she admits to paying, “But it’s actually more, I can’t bring myself to say how much, but it was at least $500.” She’s upped her iCloud data storage to warehouse the photos. Apparently the photo opportunity is thirty seconds. “You hardly register the cub is in your lap.” She shows us the photos. I feel like I’m viewing individual slides in a film reel there are so many. She set her camera photo setting to blast and the shooter had at it. Perth-lady’s smile is stretched so far back into her cheeks that there’s no curvature on her lips, it’s just a wall of teeth. The $500< isn’t for the photo opportunity, I learn. It’s to volunteer and the photo is but a perk. Let’s not lie to ourselves though and say the photo is not the sole reason, because what volunteering entails is cleaning panda enclosures, and cleaning a panda enclosure is one of those marketing phrases that means picking up shit. And there’s a lot of shit because all Giant Pandas do is eat, sleep, and defecate. There are piles and piles of shit. Gazebos of shit everywhere. Jurassic Park where Dr. Malcolm takes his sunglasses off in front of a Kilimanjaro of poop is about the vibe I’m striving to get across. Blessed be the Lord, though, the poop is fibrous. It’s more a more wet pulp, like a byproduct from paper production than actual scat. And people fork out the dough to shovel it. To me, it’s a no-brainer though, a black and white decision to be able to hold one of those little furballs for thirty seconds. What I’d do…

What’s fascinating about Giant Pandas is that their movements are both hypnotic and dull. They eat, that’s about it (and sleep and defecate, see supra). I could find similar entertainment at the all-you-can-eat buffets on the cheap-side of the Vegas strip. For one, a panda’s commitment to laziness is so dominating that they sit atop their food whenever possible. While burrowed into these bamboo thrones, they utilize their extremities to assist in making an assembly line of calories. With incredible legerdemain, their teeth strip off the inedible bamboo parts, and while they’re chomping away on the fleshy cores, one paw continues to feed while the other grasps the next serving. If humans had a similar process, it’d be eating soup with two spoons and rotating them to our mouths in water-mill fashion while bobbing inside of the actual soup. Also, pandas move like drunk children. “Survivalist species,” as the museum here says, is a questionable claim.

That so much energy, money, and adoration is funneled into a species that is the wildlife equivalent of a deadbeat roommate decades behind on rent is enough to make one wish climate change had fuzzy round ears.


We reallocate mid-afternoon, leaving our sterile corporate venture in favor of a hostel that has intense character. We pay the 50% surcharge.

On the recommendation of a hostel employee who has the beginnings of a potentially remarkable Fu Manchu, we visit a temple. Admission is the yuan equivalent of seventy-five cents, and I pay it to a delighted woman who stands at a desk guarding the entrance. In exchange, I’m given a packet of tea leaves. Visiting, I see, is not for the temple. There are jade columns and square rooms ablaze with incense, people peak in and out. A student tries her hand at a lonesome gong and shrieks when the felt-tip she’s using makes the gong clang. The visitors, mostly a local crowd, are centered in the courtyard. Trees dapple the sun, which is brutish and hot. Chair spots under shade are coveted and brimful with people sipping tea. There’s a canteen of sorts in the corner. There a man fills a pot with hot water and hands you two cups. With these, we sit. Our attentions are drawn to the social enclosure of an old and trim monk with flourishing hands. He heads a table of six. A woman slices slabs of ripe melon. It is pale green. The monk sees in me what may be jealousy and he says something to the woman. She then stands and hands us a quarter of the melon. The monk, hands outstretched, entreats us to take. He gleams and bows to us when we’ve finished the pulp and hold up the bare rind as a toast of thanks.

Our exploration continues, and I see a noodle shop with a line outside. Closer, the dishes are stained red, the dye of the Sichuan peppercorn. I order. Dishes appear to be variations on a central theme: noodles of some shape with a peppercorn garlic sauce. I join a couple at their small table. The noodles I’ve ordered are more bricks than noodles, like Legos. Their color is a cloudy white, just barely translucent. Their texture is like a dense jelly. The Sichuan peppercorn deserves more attention than as just a heat source. Heat is not its sole, primary, or even best features. It is a cavity of flavor. Certain Mexican chilis I’ve had approximate its taste and effect, but require hours boiled with an intense animal fat, like lard, to do so. In recognizing this similarity—between the familiar Mexican chili of my childhood and this new-to-me Sichuan peppercorn—I see the way in which we expand our experiences: by pegging the new to the old. “This dish reminds me of…” we say or “This landscape looks so much like…” What’s rarer than new is an experience we cannot connect to our own past.

The hostel is run by locals, happy, urbane people with an affection for outsiders and a sincere desire to bond. They host dumpling making for the evening, and it starts with a young girl making a firm dough that she portions for everyone. Chengdu locals arrive. For them it’s part of self-directed initiative to practice their English with native speakers. A clever and concise girl sits next to me, her taciturn boyfriend next to her. The two of them—all the Chinese there, actually—are experts handling the dough. They pad a bit into a flawless disc, allot a perfect amount of cabbage filling using an innate inner scale, and then press opposite sides of the dough together, seaming it like an expert tailor would. “See,” they say, holding the exemplary work in their palms. It’s artisan and beautiful.

But this girl—once it’s determined I’m, for that night at least, a hopeless dumpling maker—pursues other topics of conversation. Mostly about life in America and life in China. She is forthright, so I decide to get her take on this observation, which I noticed straight-away in Hong Kong: why are all the models on billboards and advertisements white? And, when the models are Asiatic, why are they closer in appearance to Caucasian people than to any Chinese citizen I’ve seen? For some context, I say to her, America is witnessing an energetic movement towards a more realistic depiction of American diversity. Skin color, body types, sexual orientation, etc. It’s burgeoning, it’s trying, it’s not wholly successful but it is there and it is noticeable. I ask if the advertisements are considered offensive and whether there is a movement in China to change them. “Not offensive,” she says, “Chinese prefer the looks of whites. Many prefer to look white than to look Chinese because that is our standard of beauty. We do not think we are beautiful.” The boyfriend looks at her, at me, folds a dumpling, and opts out of the discussion.


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