Well, ready or not I’m off to Thailand in 2 days! I am so excited to immerse myself in Thai culture and be back in the classroom as a student! As a Senior Enrollment Counselor in the Boise State Admissions office, I talk regularly to prospective students about making the most of their college experience whether that is through academic interests, student organizations, internships, or study abroad programs. I always let these students know that not taking advantage of a study abroad experience while in college is my only regret from my undergraduate career. When will you ever have the chance to live, learn, and fully experience a culture in another country like you do as a study abroad student?!
So, why did I choose Thailand? I have been fortunate enough to travel to Europe and knew that I wanted to go somewhere that was completely out of my comfort zone. I wanted to be in a country where I did not know the language, where religion is predominately different, where the weather is different, and where the food is incredible! After looking at the full list of USAC programs that I was eligible to apply for, Chiang Mai University quickly made its way to the top. It is located in the mountainous region of Northern Thailand with over 300 Buddhist temples within the city alone. As someone who loves to hike, I’m so excited about the weekend trekking trip into the mountains I will be doing with other students from my program!
Packing for this trip has been a challenge! I am determined to pack minimally and do laundry several times while I am there, so I am attempting to pack for 5 weeks in a large backpack. As someone who over packs for simple weekend trips, this is a true test of needs vs. wants. Let’s see just how much I can fit in my backpack before my flight on Friday morning… :)
I am so grateful for this upcoming opportunity and am honored to be given this once in a lifetime chance to be a student again. Thank you, Boise State! Let the adventure begin!
As my time in Thailand winds to a close, I thought it would be fun to write a blog post about a number of the small (and not-so-small) place-based and cultural differences that I’ve encountered here. I don’t think that I’ve actually felt any sort of serious “culture shock,” but living in Thailand for nearly two months has definitely come with its share of adjustments! Here are some of the things that might stand out to other fellow Westerners:
Weather: It’s hot here—hot hot hot. I lived in Tucson for almost five years in grad school (and I understand it’s been over 100 degrees in Boise for weeks this summer), so I know hot. But this tropical heat is something else, mostly because of the humidity. I’ve actually heard that Bangkok is the hottest city in the world, when year-round temperature averages are considered! Thankfully I’ve been in Thailand during the rainy season—and in the somewhat cooler mountainous northern part of the country—so most days there is significant cloud cover which keeps it manageable. But when the sun is shining, it can be pretty intense. I packed mainly dry-fit clothes (designed for hiking or running), but most days it’s normal to be sweat-soaked after walking around, and an afternoon shower to cool off is pretty typical. (Thankfully, the apartment in Chiang Mai where I’ve lived has a nice swimming pool!)
Water: The water systems in Thailand supply water that is safe to bathe/shower in, but you can’t drink the tap water here (unless you boil it or filter it somehow first). While in Chiang Mai, we’ve had a water service at the apartment, and every few days we’ve had three 5-liter jugs filled up with clean water. But it’s been an adjustment, certainly, to always be cautious about where water comes from. Back home in Boise I never buy bottled water, which is such an extraordinary waste of resources and money, so it’s been a little uncomfortable to rely so much on it here—anytime we’re out at a restaurant or traveling.
Paper Napkins/Towels: There are none to speak of. We use tons in the U.S., in surprising amounts. Here, a restaurant might have a single tiny paper napkin or, more common, a box of tissues or even a roll of toilet paper at the table. This isn’t a very big deal most of the time, but on the occasions when you’re eating finger food it can be a bit of a challenge. The same goes with most public bathrooms at restaurants or other places: if there are any “towels” at all (and often there are none; drip dry is evidently the way to do things), it’s often a Kleenex-style tissue or toilet paper—which is pretty much useless when trying to dry the hands.
Speaking of Toilet Paper: For those who haven’t traveled outside the U.S., you may be surprised to see the variety of bathroom options that the rest of the world provides. Thailand is no different. In the cities (and all the hotels and the apartment I’ve stayed in), toilets are pretty much the standard sitting/flush versions we’re used to in the West. But in even slightly more rural areas and in many food stalls and small restaurants and businesses within the cities, the “squatter” is still the norm. For those who are curious, a quick intro to the squat toilet can be found here. However, regardless of the type of toilet, one common rule exists throughout Thailand: aside from body waste, nothing goes into the toilet—including any paper products! The reason for this, I understand, is that most Thai sewer systems are so old that they can’t handle it; paper products very often lead to expensive clogs and damaged pipes. So, there is usually just a small bin by the toilet to put your used paper products in. But if this sounds unpleasant, it’s much less of a concern than you might think because of another ubiquitous feature of Thai toilets: the toilet hose, or as I’ve heard it called, the “bum gun.” Virtually every toilet I’ve encountered here that has plumbing (whether in a mall in Bangkok or in a remote northern Hill Tribe village) also has this Southeast Asian version of the bidet. Read about it here. And one final detail: You quickly get used to carrying your own small packet of toilet paper here, as the odds are likely that the public toilet (in the restaurant, at the rest stop, or even on campus) won’t have any.
Traffic/Walking Around: I’ve spent most of my time here in Chiang Mai, which is the largest city in northern Thailand. The city proper has a little under 200,000 people in it, and the metro area just under a million, so in many ways it feels a little like Boise in size. (Though that may be because my apartment is right by campus, so the vibe there has reminded me of that area of Boise). Bangkok, however, is much bigger, with a population of over 8 million, about the size of New York City—and like NYC, it comes with all the good and bad that 8 million people crammed into one city bring with them. But whether in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, there are a number of things a Westerner needs to adjust to when getting around. Most jarring, for me, is the reality that here, in the cities in particular, pedestrians do not have the right of way. If you want to cross the street, be cautious, look both ways, and be ready to scramble. Even if there is a marked crosswalk, a stop sign, or a traffic light, don’t expect any vehicles to stop for you. The streets here are typically packed with cars, taxis or rod daeng, and a legion of motorbikes. I think there are traffic laws, but sometimes it seems like they’re much more guidelines than actual enforceable rules or laws. But you get used to it, learning to measure gaps in traffic and becoming comfortable with walking into streets amid vehicles and making your way through (and watching how the locals do it). I’ve operated under the assumption that drivers don’t really want to hit any pedestrians, and thankfully the roads are set up so that generally traffic isn’t moving too quickly except on main arteries and expressways. Quite frankly, after spending the summer here, it will probably seem like culture shock to return to my neighborhoods in Boise, where generally the pedestrian reigns supreme.
The Thai Baht: The final topic I’ll mention here is the local currency, the Thai baht, and, more generally, the cost of living in Thailand. While I’ve been here, the exchange rate has been pretty consistent, with $1 (USD) equal to about 30 or 31 THB. The bills come in denominations of 1000, 500, 100, and 20 THB, with 10, 5, and 1 THB coins. The new currency initially took some getting used to—such as seeing a dish on a menu for 110 baht and trying not to think of it as really expensive—but before long it became clear how inexpensive most things here are (in terms of $USD). In the more touristy areas, and in more upscale restaurants you can certainly pay more for meals, but for the most part in Chiang Mai (or Bangkok, for that matter) a lunch or dinner from a street vendor or food stall/restaurant will run from 30 to 80 baht (the equivalent of $.90 to $2.40). Likewise, an espresso drink at one of the ubiquitous coffee shops is about the same. I’ve often thought, while enjoying a good, cheap Thai meal, how the same dish at a restaurant back in Boise would very often cost, quite literally, ten times as much. Some other typical costs include:
- A rod daeng (public group taxi) trip across town in Chiang Mai: 30 baht ($1.00)
- A 1-hour Thai massage in Chiang Mai: 250 baht ($7.50)
- 1-way fare for the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, 1st class sleeper: 1400 baht ($42.00)
- 1 night in a bungalow at a beachside hotel/resort in Railay Bay: 1250 baht ($37.00)
As you can see, it’s no wonder that many Westerners are drawn to Thailand, as the dollar goes quite a long way here.
There are a lot more curious details about and differences in day to day life in this wonderful country that I could share, but I think this list gives a sense of some of the more immediately noticeable ones to most people coming from the U.S. It’s been a fun (and occasionally challenging) journey so far to experience as “unusual” what so many people in another part of the world see as “normal”—which is a good and powerful lesson that we all can learn from, and one that more of us back home should experience!
In addition to the Buddhism in Thailand course, I’m also taking a 1-credit Intro to Thai Language class. This class meets for an hour and a half a couple times a week, and it has served as a helpful and fun crash course in learning to speak Thai. We’ve learned quite a bit—but I’m finding myself wishing I could stay even longer or take a more intensive 3-credit class to learn more!
In the past I’ve studied both French and Spanish, and while I can’t speak either language very well I have some basic reading ability; and by having studied the English language and its history for much of my career, many of the connections between the Romance languages and other Indo-European languages are familiar to me. But Thai is another thing altogether! First of all, I can’t read the language (though I’ve been teaching myself some basics on my own): The Thai script bears no resemblance to the Latin alphabet we use. It includes 44 consonant characters and 21 vowel symbols (yet there are only 20 different consonant sounds), and it follows a number of rules that seem strange to those used to working in Latin-based Western world languages.
But more challenging for Western speakers is the fact that Thai is a tonal language. That is, the tone, or pitch/inflection, with which you say a word is directly connected to its meaning. And in the Thai language, there are five possible tones: low, medium, high, rising, and falling. The result of this is a beautiful, almost sing-songy quality to the language, and it makes learning and speaking it both fun and quite hard (for those of us used to speaking languages where tone doesn’t carry so much importance). As I learn to pronounce words, I find myself using parts of my mouth and the muscles around it in ways that English simply don’t call for. A common, funny example often used to illustrate the challenges of tones are the words suai (spoken with a mid-tone) and sŭai (spoken with a rising tone). The latter, sŭai, means “beautiful,” but the former means “unlucky.” So, travelers beware when complimenting someone—you may inadvertently be calling them unlucky!
The Intro to Language class has so far focused on many of the practical basics: greetings, introducing oneself, numbers, colors, identifying and ordering foods, shopping (and bartering!), and asking for and communicating directions. Our teacher, Ajaan Oi, has been wonderful (and patient), and I’ve become increasingly comfortable trying to muddle my way through basic communications.
Out on the streets, talking with food vendors, rod daeng drivers, or pretty much anyone else, I’ve found that Thai people almost universally respond positively and patiently to foreigners (farang) who make even a small effort to speak the local tongue—and many seem impressed by hearing just a few words spoken by a Westerner beyond the basic hello and thank you.
It’s been far from easy, but I’ve loved this experience learning a language so very foreign from any I’ve known before. And it’s a good heartfelt reminder, for those of us who have grown up all our lives as English speakers in the U.S., to know what it feels like to be the one from another place, where even the smallest day-today communications can be a challenge.
So far I’ve written almost entirely about the various fun trips and excursions that I’ve been going on with the USAC program, but amid all that fun I’ve also been a regular student in the Chiang Mai University classroom here, too. One of my classes is “Buddhism in Thailand,” and it’s been a pleasure to study so far with experienced teachers and monks in this country.
Back in Boise, I’ve been a practicing member of a Buddhist sangha for a number of years, so Buddhism isn’t a new thing for me. In fact, I’ve been intellectually interested in Buddhist philosophy and other Eastern spiritual traditions since I was a college student two decades ago, where I first encountered the concepts by way of Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and the poetry and essays of Gary Snyder. Despite my long-held interest, it’s only in the last half decade or so that I’ve become serious in my own practice and study, and the prevalence of Buddhism in Thailand and the opportunity to study it here is one of the main reasons I was drawn to this particular USAC program site.
The Buddhism in Thailand class itself has been an interesting experience so far. It is taught by three different professors, each a former Buddhist monk (two are Thai, and one is originally from the U.S.). Each ajaan (professor) is in charge of a different section of the class: What the Buddha taught; Mindfulness practice; and Buddhism in Thailand. The course has covered the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and other basic Buddhist teachings and concepts; and we’ve studied mindfulness as both an idea and a practice/way of life. One of the highlights so far was a day-long meditation retreat at Wat Umong, where a monk led us through different mindfulness meditation practices and talked about their benefits. (We also got to share a lunch in the monastery and practice walking meditation around the temple grounds.)
I’m particularly interested in the third component of the Buddhism class, which focuses on the history and practice of Buddhism specifically in Thailand. Buddhism seems to be a very adaptable religion, and it’s fascinating to learn about all the ways that older folk religion/beliefs and cultural practices in Thailand still exist alongside—or even intermixed—with Buddhism as it has been adopted here over the centuries. Thailand itself is about 95% Buddhist, and the Thais practice mainly the Theravada school of Buddhism. The ajaans have all studied in different places (including China, India, and Thailand), and their varied first-hand experience as former monks–alongside their experiences as citizens of Thailand–adds an invaluable depth and range of knowledge to the course.
So far, it’s a treat to be back in the classroom and focusing on learning, on ideas, and on new experiences, and I look forward to studying more about Buddhism as the rest of the term unfolds!
Traveling abroad is an exciting, interesting, and at times, a trying experience. This is as much true in China as it is anywhere else in the world. I wanted to share a few of my observations about what I have experienced in Chengdu.
- Crossing the street. This could fall in the exciting and trying categories. Thankfully, there are walk signals so you know when to cross the street, the only problem is that the green walk signal does not preclude mopeds, bicyclists, and cars from also crossing the intersection. As far as I can tell, there are no informal rules about who has the right of way. Sometimes as the pedestrian I have to yield to a car, bicyclist or moped, other times as the pedestrian, the mopeds, cars and bicyclists yield to me. Very confusing. Google video of street crossing
- USAC classes. Definitely interesting! I have learned so much about China and Chengdu, I wish every time I travel to a new place I have an opportunity to learn about the culture like I have had with this opportunity.
- Photo opps. Interesting. As a foreigner you can attract attention in Chengdu. This attention is about 99% good natured curiosity. Most people who live in Chengdu have seen foreigners numerous times, but many Chinese in Chengdu are on holiday, especially at the major points of interest in the city. Some of these Chinese may be from more rural towns and villages in China and have not seen many or perhaps any foreigners before. Often you will get politely asked to take photos with people. I have no problem obliging as you can visibly see the excitement and interest they have in getting this photo. Sometimes people do not ask for a photo but they try to get one on the sly, I usually pretend I do not notice and let them take it.
- Traveling to Chengdu as an Asian American. From conversations I have had with these students, I think this fills all three categories of exciting, interesting, and trying. I want to point out I am not an Asian American, but I felt it is important to share what studying abroad in China can be like for this group of students as best as I have understood it from them. There are a number of students in our USAC group who are Asian descent. Some of the students have families who left China 2-3 generations ago, others who were adopted from China as a baby, and some whose descent is from Korea and not China. These students typically do not have the curious camera wielding Chinese approach them for pictures, but they do face the constant assumption by people in Chengdu that they speak fluent Mandarin. If a group of students walk into a restaurant to eat, the waiter will go right up to the Asian descent student and start speaking to them, either assuming that the student is the translator for the group, or that as a person who looks Chinese they MUST obviously speak Chinese. Our teacher has explained to our class that it can be very difficult for some Chinese to understand that a Chinese American might not speak Chinese. Some of these students have had exposure to certain aspects of Chinese culture and food and have a leg up on understanding what we all might be eating, or the symbolism or or importance of certain behaviors.
- Food. Exciting, interesting and also trying. I finally had the chance to try some famous Sichuanese hot pot the other night. No trip to Sichuan is complete without a visit to a hot pot restaurant. We tried half spicy broth, which includes a hot broth filled with Sichuanese chili peppers and Sichuanese peppercorns. The non-spicy side was a tomato broth. We ordered various meats and veggies and plopped them into the boiling broths to cook. It was an exciting and delicious meal, although the spicy broth is not for the faint of heart. Food can be trying for me at times, usually when I am really hungry and cannot figure out what I want to eat, or where to go to easily order something I want. As I mentioned in a previous post, without any Chinese language skills ordering food can be difficult. I usually stick to a few standard food dishes that most places have, but I miss out on getting to try all the various Sichuanese dishes that are available. Also, sometimes I do not want to eat local food and really crave something more familiar. Thankfully, there are a few places in Chengdu where I can get this food, but it is typically much more expensive.
So, who, you might wonder picks Chengdu, China to study abroad in? And, what do they study in Chengdu? Well, at this point I think I have met almost all of the summer session II students, and they come from all over the United States including, Idaho, California, Minnesota, Florida, Michigan,Texas, Ohio, and more, and study all sorts of subjects back at their home institutions. I have met students who study History, Mechanical Engineering, Philosophy, Geology, Electrical Engineering, Psychology, Economics, Business Management, Pharmacological Chemistry, you name it, and there is probably a student in Chengdu who is studies it. The really cool thing about studying abroad over the course of the summer is that you do not have to worry about falling out of sequence with courses, or having to delay your graduation. Some students might find that they knock out some credits at a cheaper rate by studying at a USAC site than they would at their home institutions (this was the case with one student I spoke with). Can’t study abroad for a full semester but still want to study abroad longer than 1 month? Consider staying for both summer session I and II as some have in Chengdu.
A number of the students in the summer sessions are enrolled in the Chinese (Mandarin) courses. Some of them have been studying Chinese at their home institutions and are pursuing an opportunity to continue those lessons in China where they have a much more intensive experience learning and using the Chinese language. Quite a few of the students have never studied Chinese before but are using their summer as a chance to dive deep into the language, and a number of students, like me, are interested in the non-language courses focused on Chinese history and culture.
The course I enrolled in is called Chinese Popular Culture: Past and Present. Our course is taught by the amazing Professor Chen, who teaches Chinese at Mount Union University in Ohio and is the USAC Visiting Professor for summer session II. Professor Chen is so amazing he had a few students from Mount Union follow him here to Chengdu to take his course, and he is a native of Sichuan so he serves as our go-to person with questions we have about things we do not understand or want clarification on. He starts out each class by asking each of us to share one thing we saw or noticed that we thought was interesting, different, or we were perplexed by. He then provides information about whatever it is we shared. For example, one day I shared that I kept seeing staff at various places, like waiters, or gardeners, lined up in orderly rows, with their hands behind their back, facing a person who appeared to be their manager, and that at the end of this session there was unified shouting amongst the staff before they were dismissed. Professor Chen explained that this is normal and that it is common for staff to meet like this before going on duty and it is essentially a pep talk given by the manager, which usually ends in the group shouting something positive in unison, sometimes dancing is involved, and then they start work. I think I should institute this in my office when I return.
What I have learned while being here is that any student, regardless of their major, their year in college, their age, their previous travel experience (or lack thereof), I am sure this list goes on, can study abroad! One of the coolest things I have observed while being here is the friendships that students form with one another. They have a chance to meet their peers from different universities around the country and the opportunity to explore a new city together.
This past weekend was a major Buddhist holiday in Thailand (referred to by many as “Buddhist Lent”), with schools and many government agencies closed to honor it. Because regular classes weren’t in session, USAC scheduled a 3-day “trekking tour” for students in the program. I’ve been lamenting the fact that I’m missing most of the prime backpacking season back home in Idaho, so I was more than happy to join this excursion—which was led by our program assistants, Siri and Malisa, and several other hired Thai guides. And while this wasn’t the same as backpacking—food and sleeping accommodations were provided—it felt good to gear up to spend a few days away from the bustle of Chiang Mai.
We drove northward (towards the town of Pai) out of Chiang Mai for about an hour and a half before finding the trailhead, and then from there began hiking through dense tropical forests. The trail was well maintained—not unlike a forest service trail in Idaho—but even so it was a workout: For most of the distance we either climbed straight uphill or descended straight down, with only a few level spots in between. Not a switchback in sight. Fortunately, those level spots were frequently atop ridges and accompanied by breathtaking views of the mountainous jungle unfolding into the distance. I don’t know precisely where we were on a map (which has frustrated my cartographic brain), but I know that many of our views looked northward toward the Myanmar border.
Each of the two nights we stayed in villages of the Karen hill tribe people, who were also our guides on the expedition. I was uncertain of what to expect of our lodging and the peoples’ hospitality, but we were greeted and welcomed with open arms. A young village girl taught a few of us a card game, we played with the chickens, dogs, and cats that roamed everywhere, and took exhilaratingly cold showers in the simple bathroom facilities there. Sleeping arrangements included a thin mat, a small pillow, a couple of blankets, and a mosquito net—not exactly a posh resort, but a few steps up from usual backpacking accommodations. And much to my delight, we woke to roosters every morning at dawn, about 5:30 a.m.
One of the trip’s highlights was hiking to a small Karen village the second day, where after lunch we had the opportunity to interact with elephants. It was a small camp on the edge of a river, and we had an hour or so to wade into the water and bathe the elephants and otherwise bask in their presence. I’ve seen live elephants before at some zoo or other during my childhood, but it was an entirely different thing to be that close to them outside and in the “wild.” It’s a good experience, I think, to feel so small standing next to another animal.
Another unique aspect of the trip was using bamboo rafts to travel between several locations during the second and third days. And by bamboo rafts, I mean just a handful of long (30’+), thick bamboo logs lashed together, with a guide standing on either end each steering with another bamboo pole. The wide, brown river (I never learned the name of it) was relatively calm—like the Boise River during normal float season—and for hours we meandered downstream through some pretty dense jungle. Our guides at one point stopped to cast a net to catch fish, and we took a couple rest breaks to swim or find a “bathroom.” The bamboo rafting made the perfect peaceful counterpart to our earlier much more strenuous hiking.
For me, the final highlight was having the opportunity to help prepare and then eat a dinner with our guides and the Thai USAC staff—a “local” meal apart from what the rest of the USAC students ate. They’d learned that I was very open to trying Thai food of all kinds, and that I have a high tolerance for spicy things—and so as the visiting faculty member (ajaan, they called me, which means “professor”) they invited me to join their table. I don’t know the names of all the dishes that covered the low round table, but it was a meal to be remembered: Two types of nam prik (chili paste), one with a lot of garlic, and the other made with fermented crab, both blazingly hot; massaman curry; a laap plah made fresh from the fish the guides caught on our rafting trip; boiled and sliced bamboo shoots (which are in peak season); stir fried long beans; a bitter fish soup made from the fish entrails and bony parts; and a seemingly bottomless pot of jasmine rice. We also snacked on deep-fried spring rolls filled with nothing more than a wedge of gluuay—the small bananas that are ubiquitous in Thailand.
All told it was a fun adventure that allowed us to see and explore some areas of Thailand far off the typical beaten tourist path, and to meet peoples that we wouldn’t likely otherwise see. Over the next two weeks, I’m taking a Hill Tribe Peoples “field study” course, and the experiences on this trekking tour make me eager to learn much more about the people and cultures of far northern Thailand.
This weekend I had a guest visitor join me in Chengdu from Hong Kong. My guest suggested that we visit Mt. Qingcheng which is located about 50 miles outside of Chengdu. I was excited about the possibility of getting outside of Chengdu for a day. After I did some basic research on the internet I visited the USAC office to have Jiajing confirm what I had learned with my research and help me purchase train tickets. I had read that the train often sells out of tickets on the weekend, as it is a popular weekend spot for many in Chengdu. Jiajing bought the tickets for me and my guest on her phone, I paid her back ($6 for 4 tickets), and she printed out a confirmation sheet for each leg of the journey. Jiajing told us to get to the train station early, bring our passports, and go to the ticket counter to exchange our print-out confirmation sheets for real tickets.
The morning of our trip my guest and I rode the Chengdu Metro to the end of one of the lines, which also happened to be the train station. We followed the signs (and crowd) to the train station and easily found the line for tickets (marked in English). When it was our turn at the counter I handed over our passports and confirmation sheet and the man behind the counter printed our tickets. No words were spoken. The train station was not as large or confusing as I had feared it might be. There were only two platforms and you could match the numbers of the train and departure time on your ticket easy enough to know when your train boarded. In China boarding a train is somewhat similar to boarding a plane. All the passengers wait in a terminal until the train boards (about 15 minutes before the train arrives), at which time you put your ticket into a machine (similar to what you do at many Metro stations in the United States) and you walk through a now open turnstile. Also similar to a flying, before you can enter the train terminal you must present your ticket and passport to be inspected and pass through security. It is important though to hold on to your ticket after “boarding” because when the train arrives at your destination you must again put your ticket into the machine to open the turnstile allowing you to depart the train station.
After arriving at the Mt. Qingcheng train station we again followed the crowd to the buses. My research had provided me with the bus number we could take to get to the base of the mountain. A bus pulled up, the crowd rushed forward, we followed suit and sure enough about 5 minutes later we pulled up to the base of the mountain.
According to Wikipedia, Mount Qingcheng is one of the most important sites of Taoism (Daoism) in China, and on the hike up the mountain we passed through numerous Taoist temples. After spending so much time in Chengdu, which is a modern, bustling city, being outside under a canopy of trees was a lovely treat. The hike up the mountain was tough going, the paths are predominately stairs, and by the end of the day my guest’s tracker device said we had climbed the equivalent of 141 stories. Despite this long slog up the mountain you see Chinese families of all ages making the trek. Our instructor had informed us that Chinese people value health and exercise very much, and it is clear to me after seeing the elderly in China that many are quite fit at advanced ages.
After we reached the top we opted for the cable car down part of the mountain and about 45 minutes later we were back at the base of the mountain. Our next stop was the town of Dujiangyan, which is located nearby. We took a taxi, I showed the driver the town on google maps (which thankfully shows the town name in pidgin-Dujiangyan and in Chinese characters) and then in my translation app, I just wrote “tourist area.” He seemed to understand where exactly I wanted to go and indeed, dropped us off at the entrance to the UNESCO heritage site of the Dujiangyan irrigation system.
The Dujiangyan irrigation system is the oldest irrigation system in the world, first built in 256 BC! According to the UNESCO website it “uses natural topographic and hydrological features to solve problems of diverting water for irrigation, draining sediment, flood control, and flow control without the use of dams.” This irrigation system which is over 2,000 years old, still irrigates 668,700 hectares of farmland!
I have been settling into Chengdu and exploring the city over the last couple of days and I wanted to share more information about the USAC program in Chengdu as well as how I am managing in a country where I do not speak the language.
First, I cannot say enough about how wonderful the USAC program is run in Chengdu. Our tireless Resident Director, Wentao, and her hardworking program assistant Jiajing, are amazing. China can be a difficult country to settle into, here in Chengdu not many people outside of students on the campus speak English. This can add a few challenges to getting settled and set-up in the city. Both are always available only 2 floors down from me in the International dormitory and can be easily reached with a messaging app if any students have a question, emergency, or simply want to share something we discovered in the city.
The day after our arrival we had orientation, in which Wentao and Jiajing provided a great overview about China and gave us each a small booklet with famous attractions in Chengdu along with their addresses in Chinese and English as well as the addresses of our dorm and apartments in English and Chinese. This is helpful so that when we take a taxi we can show the driver the Chinese address. They also gave us a small laminated sheet with a few requests about food (for example, “I do not eat meat.”) and some popular dishes in Chengdu written out in both English and Chinese. This will certainly come in handy at restaurants. During orientation we also had the chance to get our bus/subway cards set-up. Jiajing and another English speaking USAC helper took us to a nearby newsstand where we purchased our bus/subway card (only $4), and then to a store where we could load the card with money (the bus and the subway cost about .45 for each ride). Without someone explaining to me how this works I do not think I could have figured this out on my own. Now, instead of always worrying about having coins on me to pay the bus or subway fare each time I ride, I can simply tap my card like the local Chengdu residents. Next up was a scavenger hunt. We were divided into small groups and given a famous Chengdu landmark to visit, take a picture at, and then return to a prearranged meeting spot. I felt that this was a helpful push to try riding the public transportation and navigating the city on your own (or at least with 2 other people to share the challenge with). Now that I have rode both the bus and subway I feel confident navigating alone.
Now, some initial observations and survival skills about China. Food is cheap, like really cheap here. If you are budget conscious there is no better place to study abroad then in China. The picture below of wontons in chili oil is what I had for dinner a few nights ago and it cost $2.25, the night before that I had a bowl of beef noodles that cost me $1.05. A more spendy Sichuanese dish will set you back $3-4, and last night I “splurged” for a salad and soda water at a western restaurant which ran just under $7!
Now, how you might wonder do I manage to eat at all with zero Chinese language ability? To be honest, it is not always simple but I have developed a few methods and rely on a few apps that make my life a bit easier. The first two nights here I was intimidated about entering a restaurant. The menus at the nearby restaurants are all in Chinese and none seem to have the picture menus (allowing me to point). I knew from my map that our campus is located nearby a famous walking street called Jinli that has loads of food vendors and many famous Chengdu street food specialties, so I headed there. Once there it was very easy to walk up to the vendor, check out what they are selling and then simply decide what I want and point at it. I even did a little research ahead of time on the internet to decide what sounded good (or was not too far out of my food comfort zone) and when I saw it, I went for it. This YouTuber has a number of videos and the one below showcases a number of dishes on offer at Jinli, near campus.
As I mentioned above, I also use apps which have helped me out quite a bit. One of the apps I use, I can type in my request in English and it translates it to Chinese. The translation is not always perfect, but it usually works, and when it has not worked, I make the request more simple. For example, when I tried to order the wontons in chili oil my initial request, was something like “do you have wontons in chili oil,” was not understood, so I just typed in the word “wontons” and showed the man. He nodded that yes, he had wontons. I then added “in chili oil”, and he nodded yes, he had that. Problem solved. Now, this app is not helpful if the person replies to me with a question in Chinese. There are apps that you can speak English into, they translate and speak out in Chinese. This also allows a Chinese person to respond in Chinese which is then translated back into English for you. I need to get one of these apps. Another app I use, uses my camera feature to scan Chinese characters and it displays the English for me. Again, not perfect, but I can get the gist (usually) of what some menu items are.
Below are a couple of shots from my strolls through the city. Another helpful survival skill in not getting hopelessly lost is using your phone. The google map GPS works even with my data turned off and no wifi, so I always know where I am. I also downloaded an app called Maps.me before I came and downloaded the Chengdu map in case Google maps did not work. This too has an active GPS locator and therefore always has interesting site and landmarks noted.
Unlike Bangkok and the other parts of southern Thailand that I visited in the past weeks, Chiang Mai strangely feels like home in one significant way: To the west/northwest, a large mountain looms over the city. The relative flatness of the jungle landscape of the southern coasts and the level urban sprawl of Bangkok felt foreign, but the presence of Doi Suthep (doi = “mountain” in northern Thai) feels comforting, reminding of me the cities of my adult life whose skylines are dominated by mountains—Reno, Tucson, and Boise.
Our first days with the USAC program have been packed with an assortment of field trips and tours, and we’ve managed to see quite a few of the sights and sites around Chiang Mai. One of the highlights was traveling this past Saturday up to the top of Doi Suthep, to escape the city and also to visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and Bhubing Palace near the summit of the mountain. Our rod daeng shuttled us up the winding 9+ mile road to the top, where the elevation is nearly 5,500 ft.
Our first stop was Bhubing Palace, which is a residence of the Thai royal family, built in 1961. Here the royal family stays during seasonal visits, and they also use the Palace to entertain State visitors from abroad. Built at such a higher elevation than most of Thailand, the Palace grounds contain extensive gardens that feature temperate-climate flowers and plants that can’t otherwise grow in the tropical heat of the rest of the region—including roses.
After a walking tour through the Bhubing gardens, we next visited Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a Buddhist monastery first constructed in the 1380s and still very much functioning today. To reach it requires an ascent up a long (300+ steps) staircase flanked by naga serpents, and the temple grounds surround a stunning golden chedi (or stupa), a spire that supposedly houses relics of the Buddha. (For more on the story of the founding of the temple, read an article from Sacred Destinations or Thailand Visitors) Wat Phra That Doi Suthep is a sacred site of Buddhist pilgrimage, and we learned that at Chiang Mai University it is tradition for the incoming freshman class each year to walk up the mountain (11 kilometers) to pay respects and make merit at the temple.