Why I Can’t Leave Chengdu

I first talked with Ron, Chi Chi and Bianca in the stairwell of the Poly Center, outside of the Sinostage Dance Studio where the three of them worked as dance instructors. About two minutes into the conversation, I asked them about Chengdu, in the sheepish way you’d ask someone about a dish you made that you know you’d oversalted. Ron’s shot me a eyes-wide glance and cocked his head like only a black man can, and shouted out, “Chengdu is the Shit!’

Chi Chi and Bianca nodded sagely. I looked at my casserole in a whole new way. The Shit? Really? I pressed on, what do you mean by this “the Shit” statement? Please elaborate, because when you’ve lived here so long like me, you overlook the good things and get lost in the daily grind. You get them blues, and start stomping about. Or retreat to a compound and only venture out once a month to say hi. Or move, right?

Chengdu Compels You

“There’s an energy here,” Ron explained to me gently. “This place is bumping and you can feel it.” Bianca and Chi Chi chimed in, “There’s so much going here” and “This is definitely the vibe of a city that’s coming up.”

Los Angeles
Los Angeles: a lightyear ahead of Chengdu?

This from dancers who live, work and play in the streets of Seattle and LA. I found it hard to believe. But afterwards I walked around, sniffing up the old Yulin alleys. I stopped and took a good look at the glassy high rises on Tianfu Dadao. I actually clicked on and read my “Chengdu” Google Alerts. I counted Bentleys and Rolls Royces.

I got off the 815A, a rickety peasant bus that ferries workers to the South Railway station from Huayang and back, and looked up at the Wal-Mart across from my compound. Almost finished. They also finally broke ground on the hole behind the Wal-Mart, and both of the major roads leading there just got repaved.

Someone’s coming up.

But paved roads and a Wal-Mart do not mean Chengdu is “the Shit” – getting that title added to your town requires a lot more. A great club scene perhaps? Street art that people from non-the Shit towns come and marvel at, take selfies in front of? A couple companies that aren’t evil but still do awesome work? Diversity? Is diversity a prerequisite for being the Shit? I think it is.

Sinostage dance studio
International instructors are a regular feature at Sinostage Dance Studio in the South of Chengdu

So maybe Chengdu isn’t world class but it’s not the first time I’ve heard people say nice things about the city I live in. One person put it to me this way:

“Why would you move your whole family to send your kids to an American school? You went to American schools, you know what they’re like. The kids that come out of Chinese schools, what’s the worst disciplinary problem you’re going to have with them? Smoking? Any thing could happen to an American kid at school. But here in China the kids learn to study hard, they behave, they take school seriously. Do you see any gang fights, bums, stuff like that out here? Don’t you feel safe? I would think hard before you choose the US … “

See we were talking about my Big Plan to establish a presence on three continents, specifically Phase 2: Get my two kids to America. After that … well I can’t tell you too much about it because

  1. It’s top secrets, and
  2. The Big Plan is a work in progress.

The Philosophy of the Big Plan

How I feel scheming a 3-continent lifestyle

I can offer my children up three worlds: Europe, the US and China, because I am from two of them and lived for a long time in the third. Having my kids spend the first few years in China was actually the wise choice in many ways.

The primary way that living here turned out to be wise was cost. In the US or Europe, I would not have had the time I had with my boys these past four years because I would have been away from the house working. Here, I managed to put together a pretty decent living situation and spend a ton of time with them. Low cost of living had a lot to do with it.

But now the boys need schoolin’ and although I feel the person who commented above, I also feel that the US and Europe have the best education systems right now, especially when compared with China. Japan and South Korea and Singapore are great I hear, but when it comes to this Big Plan, feasibility is the trump. To wit, my plan is to keep this compound I have in Chengdu and establish a beachhead in the US, while sending a team of spies into Germany. Sound feasible?

We’ve seen what happens when aggressive expansionists take on more than they can chew. Will the Big Plan result in colossal defeat? Or can I leave my boys three territories to choose from as they see fit?

Tell Me of the Sun

Let’s leave the details to the Devil for a moment, and first ask the question: why?

I make a point of asking everyone who has returned or recently arrived from the West what it’s like back there. Like a grubby malnourished prisoner accosting an inmate who had an hour out in the yard, “tell me of the sun!” because most of the time it feels like I am living on the periphery of the periphery, and there is no Foundation I am aware of slowly going through the motions of galactic conquest. It’s just us, out here, living cheap and being us. Ron says we’re coming up? I don’t have big papers coming here asking to interview me, “You’ve seen Chengdu rise up from the shit to become the Shit, tell us how it went down Sascha!” and until they do, I reserve my “the Shit” for cities that deserve it.


When China Rules the WorldWhat I hear from those I interrogate isn’t that the sun shines down a bit warmer over there in the West, or that the streets are paved with gold. Oh no. I hear just the opposite. Life is tough. Work is scarce. The police are beating people up. Ignorance rules the land. I skimmed Martin Jacques’ book, When China Rules the World (which led to Troy Parfitt’s Why China Will never Rule the World), and as I left The Bookworm I peered up into the sky and saw the China Dream the Party wants us all to see: ultra modern cities gleaming in the sunlight, children laughing and playing, harmonious interactions as far as the eye could see, no derelict noodle stands anywhere and every laowai was getting a benevolent pat on the head.

Could it be true? Will China rule the world and spread their deep wisdom and culture all across us like smooth Skippy’s across a strippers ass? (Sorry). But it’s books like Jacques’ that makes me ask myself, why? Why make the jump to the US when I have a pretty easy life here in Chengdu? I spend most of my day thinking up stuff to write and hanging out with my kids. You think I’ll be doing that in the US or Germany?

Macroeconomic uncertainty has me wavering. Microeconomic certainty has me wavering too.

What’s Really Good

Another friend of mine put it to me this way the other night:

“I’m never leaving Asia. Are you crazy? Over there [in the West] people get arrested for everything. Here, I could drive drunk and run into a lamp post and what would happen? Nothing. And beer is cheap. YO! Two more IPAs!”

That’s right. We were drinking IPAs at The Beer Nest and it’s not hard to imagine every bar in Chengdu serving up microbrews in a few short years. Every good thing the West has is eventually discovered and reverse engineered by the renascent Chinese. Should we view our status as fleas clinging to a mangy Chinese mutt’s balls as actually first dibs on the Shit?

Jacques says ten years, and China will have a bigger economy than the US. Twenty-five years and Americans will be begging the Chinese to let them in. Ok that’s not what he wrote, but basically, Jacques thinks the West is finished, and we better start reading up on what tribute we should offer to our new overlords.

I for one am hedging my bets. The answer to Why Try to Make It in the West for me is this: the West has so much to offer and it is my responsibility to expose my kids to as much of that as possible. I think it is very feasible to have three living spaces on three continents, even if you are a broke writer like me. It just takes ingenuity and harnessing all of the resources available to you. For me the rewards are worth every bit of the stress, and so I am moving on to Phase 2 of this Big Plan in the Fall. That does not mean I am leaving this city. Chengdu is the Shit, after all. No, the Big Plan calls for mobility between the three nodes.

So that’s why Phase 1 of the Big Plan was Building My Chengdu Compound, because that way, if I do find that the economic barriers to a beachhead in the US are too high for me, I can always retreat back to Chengdu, lick my wounds, tell my friends some lie about how “it sucks over there anyway” and just wait for China to rule the world.

28 thoughts on “Why I Can’t Leave Chengdu”

  1. The “big plan” concept is frightening. i thought the germany mba plan would put some “plan” in order, but i swear my chengdu lifestyle had more order than köln. eager to return to the middle kingdom with initials after my name but the meta plan is still continent-hopping. at least i in CD i had an income and arts and culture in my life, now i feel like a 27 dorm-dwelling manchild addicted to blizzard games and weightlifting.

    topnotch writing… as always!

  2. Thought provoking stuff as always. I love how the “big plan” seems bold, yet flexible. My plans are more often made of straw than cement, and this makes me really want to start thinking. I guess I’m still in the conception stage at the moment, and can do little more than wait and see what happens. Chengdu is always a valid choice, haters be damned.

  3. My current situation couldn’t differ more from yours, but I agree wholeheartedly that there is no place other than Chengdu for me, right now.

  4. This is very similar to my ideal set up, which would be half the year in San Francisco and the other half in Chengdu. I was very close to setting this up about 18 months ago but an opportunity to make it happen ended up not panning out.

    There are hardships to living in Chengdu, like anywhere, but I don’t think there’s any place like it. Certainly not Shanghai, Beijing, or any of the more well-known cities in China. The more time you spend here, the more it grows on you, I feel.

    What separates Chengdu from almost anywhere else is that at this point in time, the city itself grows around you. In the time I’ve been here, it’s been like a complete transformation. It’s always exciting to see what’s coming next.

  5. I still think Chengdu is a bit of a cultural hole. There is a degree of activity in music and the arts, but there’s also a pervasive party culture and most of the heavily promoted activities you find around are for some kind of party or another. It seems a bit immature and leaves little room to attract more people to invest there time in anything else.

    To be honest, this is one of the more exciting things about Chengdu. In the West you struggle to find footing in a niche and compete tirelessly to be considered of value to any community. With a lack of anything here, if you do it even remotely right it’s a breath of fresh air. There’s a lot of dropped pretenses (mostly).

    • @Jacob: agreed. i’m always impressed by the “just do it” nature people have here, provided there’s a profit motive. Everyday in Chunxi Lu there’s a new exhibit on the street (whiskey/Ray Bans/Converse etc. etc) but in terms of the arts, for a city of 10 million +, it’s very thin on the ground. Pretty much one place for live music, 3 or 4 with live DJ’s,(the same 6 or 7 year after year) a few half-hearted art galleries; that ain’t much really. But if you wanna make a buck, this place is happening.

  6. Yo,
    it’s like this…..With everything in the universe known to man.
    There is a a natural balance which is inevitible, a trade off. You grow grapes and get a great huge harvest, they lack the essence which a smaller cluster would provide. You take that bomb office job and your innerchild withers. You don’t take that bomb office job and you’re a broke busta. So you live in Chengdu, the great couch of the east a place where you essentailly have a level of freedom in life style (through the opportunity advantages of being a foreigner), but with great freedom comes great cost. The sun.
    You move back to the west and you loose that freedom, you grind with an over head of several thousands of USD a month, you’re schedule is dictated by opportunity cost, cuz you can’t afford to sleep in. But when you do get a moment, the sun….The sun is glorious. It shines through the redwoods and drips cash as you hit the switch in your red 67 cutlas convertible and your sexy girl gigges at something stupid you say. And as it does, you dream of having that 67 droptop cutlass and that string of redwoods and that the love in a place where you have the freedom to really enjoy them.
    You know what it is. You’re making the right decision. Let your kids check em both out, with a side of snitzle. Bring me some tea mutha fuka, some rinshin oolong. Or sleep in the car.

  7. The title is a bit misleading, because the Big Plan actually DOES involve leaving Chengdu, but not for good. I think this whole essay is an exercise in indecision, hence the “flexible” plan … which itself reflects indecision about where exactly I want to settle down.

    Truth is, I don’t want to settle down, I have been these past few years, but all of this is really about providing for the next gen, while reaching for the end goal of Ultimate Freedom.

    Dirty Du forever bishes!

    • We were just “gossiping” about your Big Plan in Sonoma over the weekend with folks you know. If you must move your kids to the US, CA is highly recommended. The only drawback: lack of decent Sichuan restaurants. But, there is the Mission Chinese can provide some comfort to Beans, and the 小肥羊火锅 in SF!

  8. As a longtime Chengdu resident (5 years) who recently relocated to the USA (last summer) I think I can offer something.
    1. I loved Chengdu. It is an amazing place, but I think best for 20 somethings and for single people.
    2. Family played a big role in my move back. If you are not super tight with your family, Chengdu is a great place to live.
    3. Coming home has been amazing. If you have a plan, a program and, hopefully, a job, it can be amazing. if none of that is true, figure your shit out in Chengdu before moving home.
    4. Food, weather, environment, travel, and freedom are amazing in the USA. I have been a poor grad student and have enjoyed a better quality of life than I did in Chengdu, with a middle-class income.
    5. Chengdu holds a special place in my heart and I am glad my wife is from there and that I will have ample opportunity to return many times in the future. That said, I want to continue to live in the USA. More surprisingly, so does my wife (a Chengdu native).

  9. Interesting reply Reid,

    My wife is also from Chengdu and is there now where she will give birth this winter. I’m holding up fort in Canada.

    totally agree with #1. .China is great fun when you are young and single.

    I’ll of course be going there for a bit this winter for the birth. . but based on my last winter visit to my inlaws 2 years ago. . not particularily looking forward to it. I’ll most likely get sick again as I always do when I go to CHina int he winter. . and be bored. . and use up all my holiday savings and vacation time.

  10. This article resonates with a lot of long-time expats, because, if we are taking ourselves seriously, we all have a grand vision of sorts.

    Sometimes that vision is hard to reconcile with the realities of finance, family, and personal growth.

    For many people, Chengdu can support development in some of these areas… but it does not always support all of them. That said, few places do. Chengdu is a package deal that offers certain benefits and certain drawbacks.

    And when your needs change, sometimes you need to switch to a different package, offered by a different city.

    It is pretty audacious to expect to maintain an anchor in multiple cities. But I have pretty much the exact same fantasy. For me, it will be compounds in Chengdu, Atlanta, and NYC/LA.

    • I’ll take Chengdu, NYC and SF.

      While we’re dreaming here, I’ll take a spot in Palm Desert, too. You can come crash from LA.

  11. Great article Sascha. Always legit to see that voice of yours rip out the narrow op-ed scale.

    I’m out in the desert (Palm Desert, to be exact) trying to feel Steve McQueenie but mostly just missing the real frontier out in China. The only place I’ve been this trip in the states that feels like it has buzz like China has buzz is New York, and that is in spite of how fashionable unemployment is becoming there.

    So the sun is fine man. Comfortable. I’ve gained a handful of pounds, and the tacos are good. But, like you said, the tacos will be good in China in the next decade, too. After that, what’s left really?

    Also respect for the Foundation reference.

  12. “Here, I could drive drunk and run into a lamp post and what would happen? Nothing. And beer is cheap.”

    What kind of fucktards are you talking to? How ’bout everybody gets drunk and runs into shit? How about that? How ’bout they drive into your children?

    Man. I was really into your stuff until you ended a piece with a quote like that.

    Californians. The people who invented poseurs. Escape them if you can!

    By the way, Beer Nest has absolutely lovely beer, but by no means is it cheap, compared to any country.

  13. Good article.. I’m on my way to doing the dual anchors thing myself between OZ & Chengdu. The main reason I don’t like bringing my baby up in Chengdu is the air quality — it’s hard to keep from thinking about all the toxic shit she breathes in daily even with air purifiers running 24/7 in the house.

    • Hey Rick,

      Like yourself, I’m from Australia (Adelaide), and I share the same concerns.

      I’m not yet a father, but my fiancee wants a baby next year, so we can see ourselves raising the baby between Chengdu and Adelaide. Besides the education system (she and I want Western education with an Asian work ethic), we also want to raise the child in a clean-air environment. A good medical system is also a key concern for us.

      I was here in 2011, and the air seems to have improved since then. Mind you I still get sneezes and hayfever regularly though.

  14. You totally could drunk drive and get away with it here… since everyone drives like they’re drunk anyways. I don’t know if I’ll leave China or not, but if I stay another year I’m ditching Nanchong for Chengdu. It is the Shit.

  15. Hi
    I am a photojornalist working for Atlas Geographical Magazine base in Turkey-İstanbul and published for Eurpean Countries. http://www.kesfetmekicinbak.com/
    I between 4-13 November I will be in Chengdu for a city guide news and I want to make an interview with you about the city and life in Chengdu. Any advises or suggestions will be appraciated.
    Thank you so much
    my email: [email protected]


    Ufuk Sarısen


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