Finally, after a few days of seeing just Birdy, I get to meet a few of the other foreigners here. Just around the corner of the university gates are a few restaurants. Many of them are run by Muslims. Probably because Xinjiang Province is close by. They are quite distinctive from Han Chinese. You can spot a Muslim Chinese a mile away. Their features are different – and their dress and mannerisms different. One of the restaurants I like is run by a friendly Muslim woman. She is almost always sitting outside the restaurant, urging customers to step inside. In front of her are flat breads – almost like a pizza base we know back home. Many stop by, and take a few of these breads home. I am not sure I like them. I had tried them back in Xuchang, and it was a bit too dry. Sort of like having dry roti without a curry. But these buns are fairly popular here and the lady does brisk business. Also doing briskly is her restaurant.
12PM is prime time for lunch here. We stand outside trying to see if there is a table or two, and we see another laowai standing outside, with a Pepsi bottle. We start talking – she is a teacher elsewhere, and has been in China for 8 years. There are 3 kids with her, one a Chinese kid, obviously adopted. Her husband comes along a few minutes later, and after knowing that we were content writers, offers us a freelance job for an SEO company he consults for. We decline politely. Tempting as it is to have some cash flowing in, I decide against it. I have never been ‘rich.’ Nor have I been poor. But this is the first time in 9 years that I will be without a regular income. The thought is scary. It’s not liberating as some would have you believe. But some fears can be just that. A fear. Blink and its gone.
Entering another bustling restaurant, it’s the usual routine. Surprisingly, except in one instance, many of the Chinese seem to immediately understand the basic concept. It’s the small pieces of meat that they fail to understand. This time lunch is the world-famous mapo dofu. This is where the silken tofu doused in spicy peppercorn broth became famous. Usually, mapo dofu comes with beef broth. Don’t ask me what we had. I think it was without the beef broth. And a huge bucket of rice to along with the tuduo si. Yes. A wooden bucket. Rice is as cheap as beer here. I am not sure that’s the best analogy, but it is.
Afternoon, finally, I meet a few other students. There’s Sophie, a German student from the Blackforest region, and Da, a Thai student. There is also a Chilean girl, a few more Thai students, and an Italian student. I learn also that I am placed in B1 level class, whatever that means. All of us make our way through the same bus number 5 that took me to the Wenshu Yuan monastery to the PSB. It’s a huge office that is filled with a lot more Chinese than I can imagine. The wait is endless as the foreign students officer takes our passports and papers and presents them at a desk. We sit. And wait. Finally, a token is presented. We wait again for the number to be called out. Then we go, have our photos taken, surrender our passports and walk out. It’s half past 4. The whole process has taken more than 3 hours. And there is a Korean student who seems to have a terrible headache. He walks out with us trying to hail a taxi. I try telling him that obtaining a taxi in Chengdu is difficult, but with little English and my little Chinese, it is futile. More temple rubbing. More waiting. Finally bus number 5 rolls around. We beckon and try to plead that perhaps it may best to get into the bus. He agrees. Albeit grumpily.
What I like about the buses here is that they have designated bus lanes. I am not sure how well that would work in Bangalore, but here they stick to their lane. It was the same in Chicago too. Makes traffic management a whole lot easier. Once in the college, I find to my delight that my student card has arrived. Carrying that one card shaves 50% of your entrance fee. And considering that even the barber in China has an entrance fee that is some saving! (OK, the barbers don’t charge entrance fees, but well, you get the drift).