Disconnection Broadens Perspective

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Chengdu, China

Disconnection Broadens Perspective Chengdu Reviews

WarrenRodwell WarrenRo…
50 reviews
Oct 10, 2007
Nineteenth century Missouri-born writer Mark Twain once observed that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it solely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one corner of the earth all one's lifetime." A journey of short duration often provides a glimpse of what the visitor wants to see, or of what is presented and processed within a particular mindset. But sooner or later, when disconnecting completely from one’s own background and culture for an extended or indefinite period, some additional emotional issues may need to come under serious consideration.

The decision to become an expatriate is a massive one by any standards. For most, it involves a great deal of planning, deciding what to take along and what to leave behind. Of course, personal financial commitments have to also be put in order. Roger Jones decided to make a complete separation from his native country so he quit his job and sold all his possessions after living in Los Angeles for fifteen years. This transition granted a different perspective as well as an uncomfortable sense of dislocation. Adjusting to Chengdu food and living was fairly easy, but it has not been psychologically possible to leave everything behind because some past forgotten memories have resurfaced for no apparent reason.

The manifestation of emotional baggage is unpredictable. However, talking and hearing about the experiences of other foreigners can prove beneficial in a light-hearted way. One recent flashback that Roger readily recalls is a rebellious childhood conversation with his mother and father. At that time, there was a feeling of being mistreated, but now the wisdom of hindsight and maturity brings realization that puerile cheekiness is not uncommon when parental authority is exercised. There no longer exists the same mood of defiance or helplessness. An ongoing twenty first century passage through middle age and culture shock sees stages such as anger, frustration and resentment as benchmarks or milestones in the fabrication of a fresh new existence.

Chengdu is very slow moving compared to multi-ethnic Los Angeles, which is spread out over a much greater distance. Although the city of angels has a higher population, there is little likelihood of being able to witness thousands of people for as far as the eye can see when queuing to buy a long distance train ticket in the economic hub of west China. It takes a while to get used to being surrounded by so many people because personal space is sacred to Americans. Roger Jones wears sandals during summer, and has noticed that on a crowded Sichuan bus nobody has ever stepped on his feet. Solitary activities such as guitar practice, learning Chinese and charitable writing can be safely pursued at home.

Part of the reason for wanting to come to Chengdu is the Kham Aid Foundation, a non government organization (NGO) that helps people of the eastern Tibetan plateau with programs in education, health, cultural heritage preservation, economic development and the environment. After reading a couple of the founder’s books, Roger became a volunteer so he could better understand Tibetan ways. The educational coordinator has supplied note books with letters written by children to their sponsors. Already translated into English, Roger’s task has been to edit and convert the writings into word documents. A warm feeling has been derived from transcribing one hundred and fifty letters to date.

Architecture is another fascination which has ignited the passionate imagination of Roger E Jones over the decades. After studying political science as a youth at undergraduate level, a master’s degree in art history followed. In between, was a one year Rotary International Fellowship (scholarship) to France where a room in a private house was rented and appreciation of art history was refined. Sometimes when walking down the street in Chengdu, Roger could swear that he is in a French metropolis because the actual look of the Chinese city appears to have been copied. The wide boulevards planted with trees bear a striking resemblance to Paris, the city of romance.

Countless hours are consumed with seeking out unique construction styles. With camera in hand, ordinary Chengdu neighbourhoods are explored and snapped. Not much traditional architecture is left these days, apart from tourist sites and temples, such as Dufu Cottage, Wenshu Monastery and Wuhou Temple. Some of the remaining older residential areas have been allowed to decay and fall down. The cityscape is changing as empty lots replace former housing districts. Everything about Chinese art and history is new and intriguing to Mr. Jones, but friends forewarned that China may destroy its entire past in the onward march of capitalism. Fortunately, photos serve to immortalize.

When buildings are torn down, people are displaced. This happens all the time in the United States. Whole parts of a town disappear. Although having said that, subsequent changes are usually for the better. A building style of special interest is the vernacular type - a kind of design found within small or narrow streets. In Beijing, the traditional hutong is a good example. Roger admits to being a beginner with respect to Chinese architecture, but this does not curb his interest when seeing buildings falling down, as it actually presents an opportunity to scrutinize how they were originally constructed. All the time, local people occupy partially collapsed buildings until they can not any longer.

The above situation would probably be a bit of a shock in the USA. Roger chuckles and confides that he went through his own shocks when first going to Los Angeles. For one thing, treatment is generally much harsher for those who don’t speak English. There is a lot of intolerance and not much unity within such a compartmentalized society. This is not so for our novice Chinese-speaker who plans to stay at least two years in Chengdu. With a crown of light coloured hair, he is usually regarded as an object of curiosity. Memories may flood back when least expected, but the future draws Roger forward deeper in understanding various cultures and broadens his overall perspective.


Expatriate writer Warren Rodwell has been in China since 2002, and teaches university postgraduates in Chengdu. Many of his feature stories, reviews and photographs have been published online or in hardcopy media form. Warren also narrates documentaries and administers various websites as part of his efforts to promote Chengdu and Sichuan culture more globally.


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