In our first segment of “Let’s Talk About…” we take a look at the city of Chengdu through the eyes of Dieter Vanonckelen, a foreigner who has been living there for some time.
Yocoy: Please tell us a little about yourself and what you do.
Dieter: Hi, my name is Dieter Vanonckelen from Belgium, I am 25 years old and I work as Marketing Manager for Maxxelli Real Estate.
Yocoy: How did you end up in China and then in Chengdu?
Dieter: The main reason why I came to China was to (try to) comprehend the Chinese language and society. I started studying Sinology in Belgium in 2004, but at the same time I realized that it is necessary to discover the Chinese language, culture and habits in an active manner… That’s why, in between completing my Master in Sinology, I’ve studied in China for two years (2006-2007 in Dalian and 2009-2010 in Chengdu).
After losing myself in this field for more than six years, I can now speak, read and write Chinese fairly fluently and I have learned a lot about Chinese society. I personally feel that a Sinologist who hasn’t spent some time studying in the Far East, does not have the proper background to fully understand Chinese (or East Asian, for that matter) society. Since I like to be abroad and China is becoming the new center of the world, I have no plans to leave Chengdu for the moment…
Yocoy: What is Chengdu like compared to other, major European cities?
Dieter: Chengdu, just like any other medium-sized Chinese city, is much bigger and denser populated than major European cities. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine. Chengdu, for example, is as big as and counts as many inhabitants as my home country… [Editor: Chengdu has a population of about 11.3 million]
Yocoy: How many foreigners are there in Chengdu?
Dieter: The official number tells me around 20,000, but I ask myself where they are hiding.
Yocoy: Is there a certain appeal that makes Chengdu an interesting place to live for foreigners (not just because they came there to work)? As opposed to major cities like Beijing and Shanghai?
Dieter: Chengdu is often described as “一座来了就不想离开的城市”, the city you never leave or “天府之国首都”, capital of the Heavenly State. It is famous for its good food, relaxed atmosphere and easy way of life, like having tea a teahouse or playing or watching others play mahjong in a park… But if you’re business minded, there are more and more opportunities in Chengdu, since investment coming from national and foreign companies, and government stimulation. Chengdu is one of the most important economic centers, transportation and communication hubs in Western China, ranked as one of the “world’s fastest growing cities in the next 10 years” by Forbes (October 2010).
Chengdu is a second-tier city and not quite as expensive, polluted [Editor: Air pollution due to traffic and industry is a problem in many large Chinese cities.] and “over-run” as the other cities. There’s a kind of “gold-rush” atmosphere with lots of investment coming from national and foreign companies.
Yocoy: What does moving to China mean for a foreigner? What kind of steps are involved?
Dieter: That depends on your situation… There is a big difference between relocating as a student, expat, or something in between. Students will probably end up in the university’s dormitory with their backpack, expats will find a nice place to live through a relocation company (paid by their employer and being able to ship in or fly over a bunch of your stuff).
Yocoy: How do the Chinese people treat their (new) foreign neighbors?
Dieter: In medium-sized Chinese cities, people sometimes are still surprised to see foreigners, or they at least notice us. You often hear the word “老外” (lǎowài – foreigner). On the one hand, it’s nice to get attention, but it can also become annoying, since it makes it difficult to find peace of mind. Another phenomenon is what I call “white license”: the fact that foreigners in a certain way receive more rights than Chinese people (e.g. preferential treatment while queuing) and are seen as a kind of status symbol (e.g. people will offer you free drinks, let you sit in the first row). This is part of the Chinese “face” culture. Again, it can be both nice and/or annoying at the same time.
Yocoy: Last question: Could you describe the city of Chengdu in one sentence?
Dieter: A unique, opportune environment with lots of future opportunities, but requiring certain cross-cultural understanding, resistance, willpower and ambition.
The editorial staff of Your China Blog kindly thanks Dieter Vanonckelen for taking the time to do this interview and for providing the pictures used on this page.