A visit to the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation system.
Recently we went to Dujiangyan, the world’s oldest no-dam irrigation system, doncha know. A beautiful place where we were blessed by beautiful weather. I think this is our first trip outside of Chengdu where the weather has actually been clear and sunny and it brightened the whole experience. The colours of the trees, blossoms and hills, and most of all water, actually shone out.
It was quite a busy day as it was Tomb-Sweeping day, one of the seasonal holidays, but not too busy to obstruct the views of the river and the hillsides around it. Although crossing couple’s bridge was, perhaps, a little too intimate.
The irrigation system works by altering the level of the river and splitting it into two channels – and a connecting overflow. By channelling the river in two and altering the strength it means that flood waters keep harmlessly through the channel and the channel remains open to transportation and ships.
The fact that it was busy gave rise to that wonderful phenomenon of travel in China (and possibly other mono-cultural countries) – attention.
The attention one receives as a foreigner is one of the big things you have to acclimatise to. Recently we spent a day with a new(ish) arrival to China whose program had placed her on her own in a city called Guanghan. Without any other foreigners in the school, or indeed in the city, she cried “everyday I was there”.
Now she was back amongst a few other foreigners she was able to try and get used to it at her own pace and was able to ask “do you ever get used to being stared at?” Staring is the most common example of this attention I am talking about and it is something you have to adapt to. Although I guess it depends on the individual it can definitely take a long time.
Guanghan is home of the sanxingdui excavations – the alternative ancient (non-han) Chinese culture which you’ve, also, probably never heard of. However, the new Walmart was pretty big news as well and a certain wolf like character of our acquaintance was such an intriguing individual to the town that they put him on television – doing unusual foreigner activities like, waiting for the kettle to boil, wearing a (somehow, the guy is over 6ft) oversized suit jacket, being ignored by his co-workers in the staff room and clearly laughing through the whole, drily narrated, experience. However, not everyone is a person such as this Lutheran.
Dujiangyan was a good example of the lovely side of attention. People approach you, having mustered the courage to use their English, and ask to take a photo. Then you all line up and get to be part of making some strangers happy for a moment, a few thousand miles from home.
Or maybe you get exceptionally lucky and they give you a lolly as payment; I got my favourite, a milk lolly, and Fi got a tasty one with red bean paste inside. We bumped into the lolly people again, and they walked to the end with us – Dragon and his friends from Chengdu medical school.
Then we bumped into Dragon and his friends again: they’re medical students from a university in Chengdu. So we walk along with them talking about their lives out lives, asking questions, sharing our “favourite” places; we found out about our next destination – Xichang!
It is often said amongst expats that people here are always looking for something, they won’t just take you out for a meal without expecting help with their English. There is some truth in this statement but if you mistakenly think that this is always the basis of interaction, just as the basis of the “staring” is simply intrusive curiosity, then you are going to be hurt by it.
Consider instead what it means to “practise English” with someone. It means practising the process of language, that is the process of opening up your thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, one’s heart.
Engaging with people here is like taking the choice to dam a river of attention, or to act like the builders of Dujiangyan and split it into a shared, mutual thing. If you stand in front of their attention and let it hit you then it will hurt you like the pounding river; if you respond quietly to it then it will break over you and provide you with simply lovely views.
For more of Dujiangyan, check out our vlog: