Chengdu and Sichuan

My intuition was correct that I would find a more immersive experience in Chengdu than in Beijing.

Ir started with the flight from Beijing to Chengdu.  Instead of flying out of the large capital airport, my travel agent booked me a slightly cheaper ticket to the Nanyuan airport in the south of the city.  This airport is only reluctantly a passenger terminal, catering mostly to the Chinese Air Force   Almost nothing was in English when I arrived, and I also found out that my travel agent omitted my middle name on the boarding pass, meaning I needed to get issued a new ticket to get through security.  Thankfully pointing to my name on the passport and the name on the ticket was sufficient to have them understand what needed to change.  The best part though is that instead of issuing me a new ticket, they just wrote in my middle name in pen, which I then smudged 30 seconds later en route to handing it back to security!  By heeding the first piece of advice on the Beijing hostel wall to smile kind of dopey when problems happened, I was able to charm the security agent to let me through despite the smear.

The next part was also amusing.  For domestic flights, they don’t post the flight information on the gate until the plane is ready to board.  And at Nanyuan, they don’t have a  status board updating about flight delays   So when my flight was delayed, I had to maintain a constant watch over each of the three gates to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight, and be ready to rush to the front of the boarding line before a crowd of Chinese tourists took all the good carry-on slots on board the flight.  The lack of queuing does not pose a problem to me, as I’m used to being cutthroat with the train in New York, but I was quite worried I’d accidentally board the wrong plane in my rush.  It took me until my plane was rolling away from the gate before I could actually confirm with anyone that I was on the right flight.

It took me a day to get used to being in Chengdu.  The city core was much smaller than Beijing’s, but the scale of development and building is far greater.  Everywhere you look there is a 30 story apartment building or 10 story shopping center being built.  Traveling from the airport alone I counted enough new development to house tens of thousands of residents.  Jane Jacobs would find no home in many of these neighborhoods as the scale dwarfs the natural environment.

Things to write about in the future:

Day 1 Interview with Jane at Habitat
Details of each visit to the different village
Remarks on government led rebuilding/housing policy
Loneliness in a new place
Sichuan hotpot and communal dining
Interpreting between non-native speakers of English (i.e. Chinese and Spanish speakers)
Distance from expatriate life
Difficulties booking train tickets!

Habitat for Humanity – Sichuan Province

My attempt to write one post dealing with my Chengdu experience and my Habitat experience has failed, so I’m breaking them up into pieces to get it all out there.  And to think I haven’t even started on my current location of Xi’an yet!

These are some of my guiding project questions for Habitat for Humanity in Sichuan province.  The preliminary answers have been gathered through an interview with Jane Li, Government Relations and Resources Development Manager at the Sichuan branch of Habitat for Humanity China and visits to three different project sites that serve earthquake survivors of the province. This is an initial write-up with some additional fact-checking to be done, so please use this information only as insight to what I’ve been working on so far in China, and not as gospel :)

1. Where does Habitat build in Sichuan province?  

After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Habitat for Humanity has been engaged with 10 different rebuilding projects in the earthquake zone and helped build or fix 1,700 houses in the area.  While I took notes on this during the interview, the Habitat China website provides a much better write-up than my attempt:

“In May 2008, Sichuan experienced an 8.0 magnitude earthquake that killed approximately 90,000 people. Over 1.5 million people lived in the affected area with 3,476,000 houses destroyed or damaged according to government statistics. 1,263,000 houses are in need of complete reconstruction and 2,213,000 are in need of repair. Some of the families hardest hit were those living in poverty in rural areas.

Habitat for Humanity China began its operation in Sichuan province in 2008 in response to the devastating earthquake. To date, HFH China has built 1,400 houses in ten villages in the townships of Xioayudong, Bailu, Jiexing, Zhuyuan and Qionglai working in partnership with the local government.

These houses, which include single detached, row houses, townhouses and apartment buildings, were all built using the government’s quality standard for earthquake resistant housing and designs from the Architecture Design Institute in Chengdu from which the families could choose. In an effort to increase income generation for the families affected by the earthquake, many of whom lost their farm land because of the disaster, 297 of the houses were constructed with livelihood in mind. In Taizi and Yangping villages, houses were built as bed and breakfasts to accommodate the many tourists that visit the area. The houses in Luoyang and Changzhen villages were constructed so that the families would have space for a small business on the ground floor and could live comfortably above.

Habitat for Humanity’s approach to community development in China is holistic, accounting not only for the homes of families, but the education of children as well. In Zhuyan township, Qingchuan county, Habitat is building ten apartment buildings, which will house 236 families, as well as a nursery school to help replace the more than 7,000 classrooms that were lost during the earthquake.”


2.  How do volunteers participate in the Habitat builds?

The volunteers come from many sources, from high school students and professionals across China looking to do service to help their country, to Global Village builds that are organized by Habitat to bring disparate volunteers from around the world to work together on local construction sites.  In Sichuan, the volunteers are primarily doing a lot of the heavy lifting for seasoned construction workers.  This means that they carry bricks from one worksite to the next, clear areas of debris, and assist with farming and landscaping tasks in a particular village.  They don’t do the primary bricklaying of the houses, as the houses must be built to a strict standard in order to withstand future high magnitude earthquakes.  For the most part the volunteers take it in stride, knowing that they save the construction workers valuable time as they prepare worksites for bricklaying and other construction.

3. Which families receive houses from Habitat for Humanity?

In the case of the Sichuan Habitat office, families who are selected for the program had their homes destroyed or severely damaged by the 2008 earthquake and have applied for a new Habitat home.  Additionally, even if their home is intact, they may be chosen to participate as part of a land swap with the government, to encourage them to move closer to a centralized village where electricity, gas and sewer services can be provided.

To participate, they must have some savings to contribute to the construction of the house, but they also receive subsidies of 15,000 yuan from the government and also an additional 15,000 yuan per family member from the Habitat office.  These subsidies are not paid in a lump sum, but are sort of like matching grants to the family once they achieve certain milestones for home construction, such as the foundation being laid on the house.  Once a milestone is achieved, the family receives the next portion of the subsidy.

For families that need additional funds beyond the Habitat and government subsidies, they would apply for a mortgage from a local bank that provides a 3-5 year mortgage for the gap financing.  I was quite shocked to learn how short the loan repayment terms were!  In the United States most mortgages have small down payments and 15-30 year terms.  This likely has a lot to do with the sky-high savings rate in China and the terrible savings rate in the United States.

4. How much do the new homes cost?

On average, the building cost for each house is 900 yuan per cubic meter.  China has regulations for new buildings that require each family have 30 cubic meters of space for each occupant, so the cost runs around 27,000 yuan per occupant in a family.  Given that most families have 3-5 members, the average cost of a new Habitat one family house is about 120,000 yuan.  This is about $20,000 US dollars and is considered quite expensive for the region due to the materials used in construction and the tight earthquake building standards.

5. What style are the houses built in? What materials are used?

The new houses are very simple structures and are standalone brick one-family homes.  While brick is the primary building material, the important sections are reinforced with concrete and rebar to provide earthquake protection, and wood is used for interior and exterior finishes.  The roof is primarily made of concrete.  While the Chinese government does use more expensive and sustainable materials in some houses for earthquake survivors, it is not common because the scale of destruction was so vast that it needs commonly available materials to rebuild houses rapidly.  Additionally, these materials are a significant upgrade from the previous homes which were made of dried bamboo, clay and bricks made of sunbaked mud.  These materials were not very insulative and often exposed homeowners to the elements.  They were also incredibly fragile when subjected to a major earthquake, which accounts for 80% of the structures in the area being decimated in 2008.

Old House:

New Construction (This is a multi-family unit built at a different site.  All the houses at Mayan Village where the old house is pictured were still under construction at the time of my visit):

The Chinese government provides the design for the houses and also arranges the contractors to do the actual construction.  In this way, the government takes a primary role in the home building process that is distinct from how Habitat operates in the United States.  Habitat serves as the primary builder and lender for houses built in the states and also solicits designs from architects across the country.

6. How much money do homeowners spend on energy in the new houses?

For most of the homes, electricity costs about .57 yuan per KW and natural gas costs 1.89 yuan per cubic meter.  If a house is primarily occupied by elderly residents, they could spend as little as 5 yuan a month on electricity, as they use few appliances or electronics in their households.  For younger households, the monthly electric bill could approach 80 yuan as they use air conditioning, computers and appliances such as refrigerators.

As an aside, I have to remark on how energy efficient the Chinese people are in almost all the cities I’ve been.  Even as I write this in Xi’an on the top floor of a modern high-rise condo building that I’m staying at with a family member, almost all appliances are unplugged from the wall, the windows are used instead of air conditioner, and the lights remain off.    My host even unplugs things such as the cable modem and router at night to save electricity!  As I blogged earlier, this is likely to change with younger generations of Chinese citizens who become acclimated to Western taste in electronic usage, but for now it still impresses me greatly.

7. Does Habitat for Humanity refurbish houses in Sichuan province?

As soon as I learned a little more about the earthquake, I realized how foolish of a question this was!  Given that 80% of the houses were rendered uninhabitable in the earthquake area, there was very little to rebuild after 2008.  And even the structures that remained were often abandoned due to susceptibility to future earthquakes (and the aftershocks from the 2008 earthquake that continued at up to magnitude 6.0 for months after the initial quake).

However, Jane did tell me that the Habitat branch in Shanghai has a project to refurbish “old-age” buildings in the central city.  I will investigate this further during my trip.


I’ve waited far too long to update here on my academic project and experiences in Sichuan, so while I continue to work on that several page long entry, here is a fun aside from my visit to the Chengdu Panda Research Base today. These photos are from early this morning around 8:30am when they are eating and still have energy to do something. Otherwise they lie around all day.

Morning feeding time for pandas.

Red panda that snuck through fence and ran by me.

Pandas up in the trees.  Interesting videos of how they clumsily scale the trees to follow on Facebook.

The visit today confirmed my belief that pandas should be allowed to die out as a species. Watched an informative video about panda reproduction at the center and essentially the folks in Chengdu have to combine both artificial insemination with a special massage to even have a shot at starting the reproductive process.  Then if the near miracle occurs and a baby panda is born, it is only 100g (1/1000 the size of its mother) and faces the indignity of its mother smacking it around on cold concrete like a doll.  Without human intervention there is simply no chance these animals can survive, even if we gave them the entire country of China to wander as a human uninhabited playground.  I suppose I could be convinced that having a cute animal as the figurehead of a global environmental movement is good for fundraising and provides a net beneficial impact for conservation, but in the long run we probably need to learn to value ugly life intrinsically, like the ugly toads that are dying everywhere from global warming.

Colorful Kunming

Since last 13 days I stay in Kunming, it really a colorful experience for me. Life here take a shape like a fair. For my project work daily I meet lots of new people, lots of new thinking, lot  of fresh aspiration. It is a really a huge learning experience for me. Kunming people life style, their Charm, excitement, lots of young folks fun, people’s food attraction, people fascination on different pets all these things make the city more illuminated. Another  things which give the city an extra flavor which is the weather, Kunming is really a eternal spring city.

Xu Jia’s new hope

When the dream suddenly come ? Last time you climbMeiliSnowMountainwith a lot of strange Tibetan people, you stand at the top of one mountain , a sea level of 3500m. That moment you can seize your own freedom, which seems like all dreams can come true. And this time ,after today’s interview , your heart be fired again. She is right ,since you are so young , what the reasons for worrying about registered residence ,why not just give yourself a chance and have a try ,why not just believe in yourself. God will bless me . These days we do many interviews of professors, NGO officials and journalists. They dedicated themselves to the public career and without any pay. It is with passion, courageous conviction and strong sense of self that take our next steps into the world. So congratulations, these are good signals .Wish me have a good job .

Xu Jia's new hope

When the dream suddenly come ? Last time you climbMeiliSnowMountainwith a lot of strange Tibetan people, you stand at the top of one mountain , a sea level of 3500m. That moment you can seize your own freedom, which seems like all dreams can come true. And this time ,after today’s interview , your heart be fired again. She is right ,since you are so young , what the reasons for worrying about registered residence ,why not just give yourself a chance and have a try ,why not just believe in yourself. God will bless me . These days we do many interviews of professors, NGO officials and journalists. They dedicated themselves to the public career and without any pay. It is with passion, courageous conviction and strong sense of self that take our next steps into the world. So congratulations, these are good signals .Wish me have a good job .

Mushrooms in translation

Hi all!

I want to share this section of my fieldnotes. Rather than description, it is my analysis. It is very much a thought in progress, so I would love any feedback!

A description of mushrooms and mushroom sellers at a Kunming market


There are two important variables concerning mushroom sellers in Kunming’s farmers market. The first variable: Is the seller also the picker, or did the seller buy from a distributor? The second variable: whether the mushrooms are wild or not. While the word ‘wild’ seems to translate into English quite nicely, and without confusion, describing ‘not wild’ is more open to interpretation. Andree, my Chinese counterpart, prefers the term ‘artificial’. Indeed, after spending a good week chatting with Kunminese about mushrooms, it seems that ‘artificial’ is the most commonly used English word. Other translations would include, ‘cultivated’, ‘industrial’, ‘farmed’, ‘mass-produced’, etc.

In my opinion ‘cultivated’ is the most accurate term. Afterall, cultivation is exactly what is being done. As opposed to mushrooms growing without the aid of humans, in the wild (interestingly, most wild mushrooms still cannot be cultivated), this other category of mushrooms ARE grown by humans, they are cultivated.

But, that point aside, the fact that these Kunminese prefer the translation ‘artificial’, is very telling. ‘Artificial’– to describe not-wild– is by far the most polarizing term to use. To say ‘artificial’ implies that something is not real, it is not genuine, and thus inferior if not critically flawed. It goes far beyond terms such as ‘cultivated’, ‘industrial’, or ‘farmed’. And indeed, when discussing this choice of translation with various Kunminese, I have questioned whether or not they mean ‘industrial’ or ‘farmed’. They tell me that they also mean these other, nearby terms. But still they insist that ‘artificial’ better expresses what they are trying to say when describing those mushrooms that sell at a cheaper price and are lacking in robust flavor and aroma.

Additionally, this view of wild vs ‘artificial’ mushrooms applies to other produce. At one point, when walking around the market, we found ourselves in an area that strangely lacked the hustle and bustle occurring everywhere else. I wasn’t the one to bring it up. Rather, Andree pointed it out by asking Shiladitya and I why we thought this section was so quiet. We gave many guesses but couldn’t figure it out. Finally, she said that unlike the rest of the market, where the farmers themselves sell food, this section was comprised only of distributors. Andree explained that these distributors get their food from industrial farms (of course she said ‘artificial’). She said it wasn’t as fresh, or natural. And evidently everyone knew it. (Now I have to also admit that on average the price is slightly lower, and it is easier to bargain with the farmers. But still Andree stressed that the quality of the food was of higher consideration to the scurrying consumers.)

In other words, what Im trying to say, is that Kunming doesn’t need Alice Waters to come and lecture on the importance of naturally grown, locally sourced food. Such values run deep in Kunminese culture.

And to really take this thought too far… I will say that this story is very interesting in relation to the macro picture of an industrializing, urbanizing China. If there is such concern over naturally-grown, fresh foods, how do people swallow such obscene industrialization? Throughout my interviews, I am surprised to find so much acceptance over industrialization (and its consequences on food quality, including pollution in general). Obviously people aren’t happy about it, nor am I inferring any sort of apathy. But still, there seems to be a sense of trust, or calm, maybe understanding that this is part of a process, a cycle, and that resolution will be found. It is hard for me to express. And it is hard for me to say how I feel about it, but it is what I observe.

You Never Could Wake A Person Who is Pretending to be Asleep

I was working carefully on my final paper when the postman called me to get the parcel. It is a book from my best friend Chen. The cover of the book is very simple and clean, I like the design of this book. There is a sentence at the back of the book: “in some sense, our lives just like a complete liquidation, like a war we need fight unremittingly against our nature, even like an unanswered question about ‘know yourself’. During this long course, we need liquidate our unwise, more important, we need overcome our foibles. Of course we can choose seek help from the ancients, the contemporaries, relatives, friends, even strangers. But ultimately, no one can depend on.”

While the language of this book is schmaltzy, it got me thinking about life and knowing myself. I have to have the courage to examine who I really am, to find out what I really want, to come to terms with the dark corner of my own soul. We live in an era in which information speed around the global, every hour of every day. No matter how unfair or wrong, whether we like it or not, all of our fortunes are tied together. Maybe we can choose shake hands and move on, or we close our eyes and pretend to go to sleep. The author of this book told us a story: he has a dog, it always trusts everyone, and shows the soft abdomen to people who want to touch it. Such unquestioning trust is a point of the utmost jealousy. And I believe once upon a time, we can trust anyone just like the cute dog.

The name of this book is You Never Could Wake A Person Who is Pretending to be Asleep. If a person chooses to pretending to be asleep, maybe that means he chooses not to believe.

Dian Lake and the Gateway to South East Asia

Apologies for the lateness of this post, I was out of town and didn’t have net access.

Friday morning I managed to pull myself out of bed around 7:30.  I stumbled my way to the dining hall, eager for some steamed buns and a heaping bowl of boil-them-yourself noodles and broth.  As I slurped up my breakfast and sipped my leafy tea I wondered what exactly a trip to Dian Lake and the new Yunnan Campus would entail.  The significance of the lake was lost in the barrage of information I’d received in the past seven days but I was looking forward to getting out of town and seeing a bit more than the blocks surrounding Yunnan University.

We miraculously were all able to get on the bus on time and soon we were on our way to Dian Lake.  The weather was quite overcast but I for one was glad when we pulled over by the side of the lake and were invited to take a walk.  It’d been a while since I’d been able to walk around such a spacious, not-so urban area (I’d spent the past week on crowded flight from New York City to Shanghai and then a packed train car to Kunming, which may be a smaller city in Chinese terms but it’s still a bustling metropolis) and the lapping of the water mixed combined with the serene Sleeping Beauty was calming.  This portion of the lake had undergone a massive cleaning overhaul but the section we were about to visit was still highly polluted.

Teams of workers in orange vests could be seen on rafts as we rolled past the lake.  The massive project they were undertaking was made clear by Ruyong when he explained that the water was so dirty that it could not even be used for industrial purposes.  While this fact was jaw dropping, the portion of the day that left the largest mark on me was the drive back to the city.

The fact that China’s urban migration is of an unprecedented size is well known (a figure I read recently claimed that a decade of rural to urban migration in China has eclipsed the entirety of Irish immigration to the USA and the number continues to rise) but until you see the dozens upon dozens of high rises being built around the outside of the city and recognize that it is just a single Chinese city among hundreds, the reality of the situation is impossible to grasp.  Furthermore, after seeing the While giving me a much clearer sense of the scale of China’s urbanization situation, the skeletal frames of the high rises, the unfinished freeways leading toward them before ending abruptly and the cranes dotting the landscape created many more questions.  With Dian Lake still on my mind, I wondered about the environmental effects of such development.  I also found myself wondering who exactly was going to be living in such complexes and what sort of work would they be doing?  As we entered the city proper I became more aware of the work occurring within the city as well.  What I took for renovation was in fact construction and reconstruction.  All of this lead me to wonder what the Kunming represented to the its long term residents and how that differed from how it is being understood in the state development projects that view it as the gateway to the markets of South and South East Asia.

Talk about why I choose this topic

Time really flies. It have been eight days past, and I want to explain why I chose this topic. I think having a well-defined set of objective will give me a hand to complete this research program.

Firstly, many people work hard to earn money for their family’s living, and the house is one of the biggest expenditure in their living cost. My friends also strive to earn a living, who just have graduated from the university in these years, with the hopes for their future and happiness living and marriage. House is the indispensable things for their future. Because the house is the symbol of the stable life for our Chinese, and also linked with many social problems, such as household register system, medical care and child education, etc.

Secondly, In our Chinese traditional values, land and house are the best choice as a store of wealth. In the modern society, the land is strictly controlled by the government; But the house always is one of the best choice as a store of wealth. And in Kunming, lots of house are stockpiled for investment to have the sudden profiteering.

Thirdly, according to some surveys, 13.04% of China’s GDP today comes from the house market, and the house market have the huge influence for our country’s economy. Between 2009 to 2011, our Centre government has published many policies and regulations to protect the normal house market. Changing house price will be influenced the continuing development of china economic, and the normal life of citizens.

At last, I thought that it’s a critical problem for the huge rural country with 1.3 billion people and India will also face this problem in the future or maybe now. Because both China and India share similar national conditions, for instance, the rapid economic development, the huge population , the rapid urbanization and the emerging middle class. I am very interested in this topic, and I will try my best to complete this research program.


Pages: 1 2 3 5