life in the fourth and fifth tiers Part 1
British writer Nathaniel Cooke and his partner spent one year in Mianyang, teaching English at the Southwest University of Science and Technology as well as studying qigong, taichi, and Chinese.
So ... how did you end up in Mianyang?
When we decided to teach in a foreign country for a year I wanted it to be somewhere that the Western world hadn't really touched yet. Mianyang was reported to be one of the nicest, cleanest cities and passed the "Does it have a Starbucks?" test for Western influence! (It doesn't [... at least not as of press time –ed.])
Had you ever heard of it before you had the opportunity to move out there?
Nope, not a clue. But then, I hadn't really heard of Chengdu or Sichuan (apart from the 2008 earthquake) either.
What were your expectations of life there before you arrived? Were they met?
Honestly, the only information I had to go on about life in modern China was that new Karate Kid film with Will Smith's son in it. So it would be safe to say my expectations were few. However, I did come with the intention of learning traditional kungfu and wasn't prepared for how little is left of this practice.
Would you have preferred to have spent your time in China in a bigger city?
We chose Mianyang because it was a smaller city with a more rural feel and less Western influence, but if we were to return to China (which we hope to do), we would probably find somewhere a bit larger and more cosmopolitan. Having to travel two hours to the nearest city for baked beans, cheese, and real coffee was tough.
What do the locals like to tell you Mianyang is famous for?
Food. Food, food, food. And pandas. But mostly food.
What's your favorite meal in Mianyang?
Spicy beef noodles! Closely followed by Chinese BBQ. We've tried hotpot but it's not for us, but if I could only eat spicy beef noodles from the little street vendor outside campus for the rest of my life, it would be no bad thing.
Is there anything in Mianyang that would make it worth visiting?
I wouldn't go as far as to say there's anything that makes it worth visiting (unless you're into military nuclear research facilities), but if you're already there, I can recommend a walk through People's Park, on the south side to see a tree-dappled area next to a lake where the old men take their songbirds for a walk.
On the banks of the river to the north of the city, there is the mightily impressive Water Temple. You can't miss its many levels rising up the edge of a steep hill or the 100-foot-long white, reclining Buddha. Several hundred new sculptures burst out of the walls and hill depicting monks, spiritual warriors, and devils, all painted in garish colors. If you hurry you can still see workers sculpting them out of wire mesh and cement—it's a wonderful piece of craftsmanship.
What was your social circle like in Mianyang?
We hung out with a mix of fellow foreign teachers, some Chinese teachers and some of the older university students. There is an ex-pat community in the city, but we tended not to get too involved in it.
There are less than 200 foreigners in the whole of Mianyang: twenty of them are employed at our university, and a good chunk more are employed at the other universities and private language schools in and around the city. There is the odd businessman I'm sure, but since we haven't really integrated with the ex-pat community I couldn't really say what they do! And, of course, there is Ralph – owner of the one English bar, Flags, and something of a celebrity in these parts.
Are there any Western-style hangouts?
The aforementioned Flags, an Italian restaurant, several Pizza Huts and a McDonalds.
How does life differ in Mianyang from a bigger city in China?
There is nothing in the way of foreign foods to speak of, and unless you visit Flags or the Italian restaurant the only beer is the local Snow. The real difference is the price – we can go to a local restaurant or diner, eat like kings and drink like rock stars, and still only spend 60RMB between the two of us.
What were your must-dos when you made the trip to Chengdu?
We always stayed at Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, and we tended to go to the Bookworm for some good beer and dinner and Carrefour to stock up on western treats.
Tell us about your book.
How Not to Get Hit is about using common sense, psychology, behavior, and communication to recognize and reduce risk. Skills in non-verbal communication are vital when you don't speak the language. When I was in Hong Kong I saw a man screaming violently at his girlfriend on the street, and he looked for all the world like he was about to punch her in the face. If I'd intervened physically my actions may have been a catalyst to violence, and make things worse so I couldn't do that—but I couldn't walk by either. Instead, I stood far enough away to not become directly involved in the confrontation, but close enough for the guy to feel disrupted in his anger by my presence, and watched him without moving. My presence was enough to distract him and reduce his anger, but not enough to redirect it to me—it had nowhere to go, and dissipated. How Not to Get Hit is all about that third option, between getting in to a fight and becoming a victim.