Part 3: 成都 / Chengdu
My hostel in Chengdu, which is not to be named, pulled the ‘ole switcharoo on me. And by that I mean I showed up at around 9:30 at night and they were like, “LOL what reservation?” Followed by the ever-adorable, “Yeah, we’re all booked up for the night, and so is everywhere else! Don’t you know it’s National Holiday?”
I had never set foot in Chengdu in my life, and I was suddenly left homeless.
Someday in the far distant future when I’m trying to get into politics, and all the other candidates are pretending to be homeless for a week to try and be relatable, I’m glad I’ll be able to cite Chengdu 2015 as putting me a step ahead of the competition.
What kept me calm in the situation was actually an extremely fortunate coincidence which involved me downloading a free travel guide off of Reddit during my first week or so in Shenzhen. I’d perused only the first few chapters, learning that this guy had backpacked Southeast Asia for years and was now sharing what he’d learned. And one piece of his advice that was suddenly clear in my mind—possibly the only piece I actually remember reading—was that you will always find a place to sleep, no matter where you are or what the circumstances.
It makes a lot of sense in hindsight, because barring an extraordinary circumstance like the Olympics, what would it actually take for every single room in every single hotel in a city to be filled? If not even National Holiday can do it, then it’s tough to say. So I would have to say that after this experience, I absolutely endorse this advice 100%. If your hostel cancels your booking, you will find a room. It might be a crappy room, or on the other hand a room that’s a bit out of your intended budget, but it’ll be there. Don’t stress.
At the time this advice was only acting as a skinny little lifeline attaching me to my sanity. I wasn’t exactly breathing easy. Still, I totally credit that guide with keeping me level-headed that night, and will totally go read the rest now!
So there I was, this one lone white girl wandering the streets of Chengdu armed with nothing but a backpack half my size and some kick-ass leg muscles thanks to 20-odd years of dance practice. And so I began my quest, to find that one open bed waiting for me somewhere, faith resting in God and one random Redditor who I’ll probably never meet.
Two things happened to me that night. For one, something clicked in my brain regarding my Chinese level, and continued to click with me for the rest of the trip. For the first time, I had to really face the facts—messing up my pronunciation of a word is just far less terrifying than sleeping alone on the streets of an unfamiliar city. At each hotel I had to figure out how to ask for rooms and what the prices were (if I even got that far…) which involved operating solely in Chinese. You just don’t get to that kind of a crossroads sitting in Chinese class, and that is why I believe in travel.
Second, I stumbled upon one aspect of Chinese culture that it turns out I absolutely love. In China, your personal problems are looked upon as everyone’s problems.
At first glance this seems awful and sure, to our American minds it is, and I can think of at least 1,000 problems that I wouldn’t want to be anyone else’s problem. Example being a village I visited once in Anhui province where whether or not each woman in the village was using birth control was posted up on a public display board.
However, when you are in need of help in China, this habit is really quite excellent. Several times, people went far out of their ways to help me out, offering directions, hastily scribbled instructions, and gestures in the right direction when words wouldn’t do. And this has been a common theme since I got here. On my first night in China I missed my connecting flight to Shenzhen and got stuck at the Beijing airport and a Chinese man helped me and another woman translate with the staff at the airport to figure out where the free hotel the airline put me up in was located and how I could get there. Expecting nothing in return, people here will go to significant lengths to help you out with whatever you need.
I still struggle to find the words to directly describe it, but it’s like a heightened awareness of the people around you and the fact that they are all people too. I suppose one could just call it having a greater sense of empathy. Either way, it’s something America has likely never had, as we prioritize remaining true to our individual beliefs and responsibilities rather than the needs of others. Both ideas are equally valuable and each has its positives and negatives, it’s just nice to experience a change every once in a while.
And yes, I did eventually find a room, granted for far more money than I had wanted to pay. Though this was to become a common theme throughout the rest of the week, and all thanks to the madness of National Holiday.