Since 2005, Kim Dallas has been at the forefront of the Chengdu expat scene. From running the Chengdu International Women's Club and organizing its annual Christmas Bazaar to running the Bookworm Literary Festival to supplying Mike's Pizza Kitchen with cheesecake, she's worn a multitude of hats, in addition to her full-time position as mom to her two kids.
Kim, an American, ended up in China after her husband was offered a work contract in Chengdu, what they thought would be an 18-month assignment in this far-flung city they'd never heard of ("We never had China on our radar even for visiting—never in our wildest dreams had we thought about coming to Asia," Kim explained). The Dallases decided to keep renewing the contract in Chengdu, turning down offers in other cities in Asia. But in July they were called back to the United States. Kim sat down with us shortly before she left to reflect on her time in China's city of gastronomy.
The role you're probably most well-known for here is as the Chengdu International Women's Club president. What led you to that role?
I always feel that you shouldn't complain about not having anything to do or being bored. I came here and there wasn't very many foreigners here and I didn't speak Chinese and I had two small children so my time to learn was very limited. There was an international women's club, and there was hardly any members or activities so I got a group of like-minded women and we started growing little groups within the women's club, like playgroups for moms with kids, a knitting group, girls' night out, we continued with the book club and monthly luncheons. We were trying to meet the needs of more than just one kind of foreigner in Chengdu. I had some free time, and I love organizing things so that's why I did it.
How do your kids feel about the upcoming move?
They're nervous. I think my son is more nervous. This is all he's known, so it's quite hard for him. My daughter's been really positive. When I'm feeling down and sad about it, she's like Mommy, we've never lived there and we have so much to learn and so much to explore. My daughter's going to a Chinese-immersion school, so I think she'll be with a group of kids that are kind of more like what she's used to.
What kinds of difficulties do you think they'll face?
I think my kids will be very politically incorrect—if they're in America and they see Chinese people, they'll go, "That's a Chinese person!" Or last summer we were in Chicago, and my son said to my husband, "Why are there so many Africans visiting Chicago? Why do they come to Chicago?" They're so colorblind that they don't realize that in America there are people of all walks of life. So people might be offended, although my kids are saying those things innocently.
The thing that I've loved about being in China is that my kids are still quite innocent and naïve about things. I mean we're pretty open-minded about talking about sex and things like that, but there's a naïveté about both of them. My daughter's 11 and she's still believing in Santa Claus. I think she would have lost her innocence a little bit sooner if we were in the U.S. You go into public school, in the U.S., you're going to have a different socioeconomic—it's not that rich kids can't be mean too, but at an international school everybody's about even, like middle-class, and parents who are involved usually, so they might be going into a situation where it's just not the same, not everybody's the same. But they say kids are more resilient, and I think they'll be excited with all the activities they'll be able to do.
How has Chengdu as a city changed during your time here?
Chengdu's definitely becoming more modern and I think that makes life a lot more comfortable here for some people. It appears that people are getting wealthier so it's good that people are able to eat and have a happy life, but it's a little bit sad because you remember how it was. It's probably lost a lot of its charm.
How has the foreign community changed since you've been here?
Is this the part where I piss everybody off? I definitely think the foreign community has changed a lot. When we came, we were one of the first big corporations of expats here, and most of the people had never been overseas before. We had no expectations; we were just like this is an adventure for us. I think there are more people who have really high expectations of Chengdu and aren't as happy here or it takes more to please them. So it's a little bit different from the group of people that I met when I first moved here. There were people from the [U.S.] consulate, people with NGOs working here, some Intel people, missionaries. You used to say hi to every foreigner you saw on the street and now you don't really want to bother people, and they don't want to be bothered.
What are the most common complaints of Chengdu's expats?
I think the big thing is Western food. I think better Western restaurants would have come by now. I think Chengdu's just not ready for it necessarily; there's so many good Sichuan restaurants. After Chengdu won the gastronomic city [UNESCO title] there were some restaurants that got together, and I was invited to go to talk about improving Western restaurants in Chengdu, and nothing came of it. People from Pizza Hut and McDonald's showed up, and they were talking about places like cafes with nice lunches or higher-end restaurants, but so far not much has really opened. I think some of the big chains from Shanghai are moving here in the next year so, like Element Fresh and Wagas.
I was considering opening a restaurant but one of the foreign restaurant owners in town told me it's so hard to have a wholly foreign-owned business. It's a headache, and it would take all of my time.
What are the three things you'll miss the most?
First, I will miss the food. Second, the reason I love living here so much is every day I can walk out of my house and see something that'll put a smile on my face. It always seems like you see something like a guy with a sanlunche with a pile of cardboard boxes 30 feet into the air or a guy carrying a washing machine up a flight of stairs. It's the shock of something you would never think in your life you would see, and you can walk out of your house and see it. And I think I'll miss our ayi a lot, not just because she cleans up after us but because we've been together for eight years and she's our family. She'll be the one we miss the most. Of course our friends too, but she's very special to my children and to us. She's my kids' second mom.
What are you most looking forward to in Portland?
Nice restaurants. Nice Western restaurants. Seeing if I'm more relaxed than I used to be. I think I was way more uptight before, as a mom. I'm excited to explore the U.S. a little more with my kids. Portland is very outdoorsy; we can go pick berries, and there's wineries and lots of camping, probably more easy camping. Things will be a lot easier. A lot of things will be a lot easier.
Also, I'm hoping to open a Sichuan food cart. Portland's the city of food trucks; they have over 400 in the city, and my research so far is showing that there's a huge lack of Chinese and Sichuan food. I'm trying to do more whole foods and cater more to the vegetarians and the vegans and introduce real Sichuan food. I feel like I have a really good taste for it, and I'm a total purist when it comes to Sichuan food, so I don't want to dumb it down. I'm hoping to hook up with a bored Chinese granny to be my new best friend.
Do you have a favorite memory of your time in Chengdu?
I think I'm going to miss all the dress-up parties that we've gone to here. I love going to costume street and getting a costume made or wearing a wig and doing something crazy like that. I feel people here, Chinese and foreigners, are less inhibited. I just feel kind of more at home and relaxed.
What's been the most valuable aspect of your experience in Chengdu?
I think just learning another culture—we're a dual-culture family anyway [Dallas's husband is British]—so it was good to see another big culture like China and see the Eastern way of thinking. The other thing was we met so many other foreigners from different countries, so that's been an extremely valuable thing to us, having friends with different perspectives on life. I think it's been a great experience, and I have gained more from the experience than I ever gave. Last year when some friends left we planned a big reunion so there's a group of us coming back on July 4, 2020.
What do you wish you'd done while you were here but never did?
I studied Sichuan cuisine here, and I actually plan to come back to do some more with that, but I wish I would have studied more, and I wish I would have learned more Chinese. The only tip I would say to new foreigners coming in is start learning to read and write also. It's much easier to learn the language that way. I made the mistake of thinking I was going to be here 18 months and just thought I needed some phrases.
What do you think about the future of your Chengdu-based projects that you've now passed into others' hands?
With the women's club I felt like it was my baby, and I'm happy to not be involved anymore to be honest. There's different people here now and they have different needs and wants. I've let go, and it is what it is. I gave a lot of my own personal time to it, and I wasn't being paid. I needed to step away from it, and it took a new direction. And the literary festival, I see it just growing and having more attendance and maybe next year I can come back for it.
This article was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 66.