From Big Sky Country to Country of Heaven (Part 1)
Expats come to Chengdu in all shapes and sizes. Some come to travel and learn the language, while others come for the job opportunities. Whether it’s for business or pleasure, most expats are bound to experience a bit of both.
I sat down with Andy Springer and Joe Schadt, two American friends from the same town in Montana to discuss their unique journey to Chengdu. It all started when Andy, a recently graduated architectural student from Montana State University invited to his Chinese buddy's wedding in Chengdu.
"I visited him at his wedding and I toured around China a little. I was completely blown away by China. Then I went back to the States, but I had met some people in China who had also studied architecture as well. I was curious to know why some of these westerners were living in China, and that sparked my interest. And then I also needed to get some more credits for an internship program and that process allowed me to come to Chengdu to work on large scale architecture and engineering projects."
Joe & Andy (from left to right)
Once Andy had settled into his new life as a freelance designer in Chengdu, word got around back home about his adventures in China. That's when Joe heard about Andy through mutual friends and was introduced to him. The two hit it off and Andy extended an invitation to Joe to visit him in Chengdu. Joe quickly took him up on the offer and now they are both here exploring the same city but in completely different stages of their journey. Andy is becoming well acquainted with Chengdu, while Joe is literally fresh of the boat working on a film project.
Andy, what was going through your mind during your first initial visit to Chengdu?
Andy: The first time I came to Chengdu was for my friend's wedding and I wanted to experience the culture and travel. That experience just blew me away because it was so new. I had traveled a bit before, had tried to learn different languages and had tried to throw myself into interesting situations but China was so different from what I had experienced before.
What stood out to you as some of the differences between China and the States?
Andy: A few that stood out to me initially was how community-centered China and in particularly Chengdu is. Chengdu has this community mind set. It's not simply about extending a courtesy, it's more like this way of thinking that we are all in this together. All pushing forward. So I think the biggest differences at first was the sense of community and how that community helps propel the Chinese system. It's not necessarily a politeness thing but a holistic thing.
What about learning the language? Some expats come along and never learn the language and get by just fine. Where do you fall in?
Andy: Well I'll frame it like this. I have had people say to me, "Why are you learning Chinese?" And almost all of them were in passing and didn't really know me and I didn't really respect that opinion. And then I have also had several people who were mentors to me whether in architecture or just in the community that were like, "If you want to put in the effort to learn Chinese, I applaud you for it."
Joe, you can chime in on this, how would you describe the expat scene in Chengdu?
Joe: If there is one institution that I've seen in Chengdu that is most emblematic of the expat community hub, it's Johnny's Donuts. I mean I was in there for the first time four days ago and I already feel I have become a part of the basic scenery in there. And it's not just there, but other establishments as well. It does seem the expat community in Chengdu is not only just supportive but is actually interested in you. It's not like Los Angeles where people end up there because they want to be famous or something. If you end up in Chengdu, you end up here for a reason. It seems people are reliably interesting. Like the assholes back home don't go to Chengdu, they go to Shanghai. I mean most people I know from back home could probably name a couple of Chinese cities but Chengdu is probably not one of them and it's huge. It's one of the largest and culturally unique cities in China.
So I have been incredibly impressed by the expat community here. Obviously expats here must feel very comfortable and at home here in Chengdu. That doesn't just happen. The actual infrastructure here is allowing that. For example, with the topography of Shanghai being spread out or Beijing being spread out, it doesn't do the same thing here. In Chengdu it seems there is a large enough pool of expats but people can still know everybody and that's cool.
Andy: Yeah. Anecdotally, just the other night we were walking near our apartment to a bar and there was a guy just jogging down the street. A western looking guy and it looked really out of place but it just gave me a really good feeling. He was just a guy doing the thing he likes, living comfortably but in an environment that is completely bizarre. There is a little bit of an element of still pinching yourself for being in China, but then you can also find all those comforts that you would have back home. An expat in Chengdu can do the things they want to do and at the same time challenge themselves via the different language and culture. It's a nice blend. When people are pushed out of their element, it forces them to learn and I really appreciate how living in Chengdu cultivates that.
Andy, as a designer, what do you like about Chinese design compared to the west?
Andy: Well, I'm blown away by how fast everything can happen in China. I also feel left behind in certain ways because I tend to over analyze the process. But in China, it's amazing how stream lined all the processes are. We can inquire about problems, have our idea, respond to our investors, build the space, populate the space, and open in China where as in America, we would still be hashing out our ideas.
And that's not just design, that's a lot of other areas too. That sense of urgency speaks volumes to how quickly the country has built itself to be a massive power in the world and in such a short time. There is a belief that China is going to switch from quantity and into quality. As a designer I want to learn Chinese so I can witness that leap and have discussions with these people about it, because the designs are going to be phenomenal.
About the author: Jordan Wolff is from California, the US. He has been living in China for almost 3 years and is currently working in Chengdu. His articles and photographs have been published on the Bottom Line Newspaper and Gaucho Marks Magazine.