After my horrific flight experience, we arrived in Chengdu and drove to the family’s holiday house. I was completely stunned by my surroundings. All the buildings looked traditionally Chinese and it was so much more rural than I had expected – I knew that the city had a population of over 10 million people. Mr. Xiang’s niece, Lilly, who is only two years my senior, explained that we weren’t living close to the center of the city. We were living in one of its suburbs and that’s why it was so quiet and had a small-town vibe. She assured me that the city center was packed this time of year.
There are two types of cities in China: hometown and working cities. Some cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, are both. Hometown cities are where most Chinese citizens have been born, raised or where their family resides. Migration cities are where young job seekers migrate in hopes of finding a job. The former is old and full of culture; the latter is new and modern. During the working year Hometown cities have a quiet and laid-back lifestyle, whereas the migration cities are fast-paced and energetic. However, during Spring Festival, the roles reverse. Everyone flocks home to celebrate this family centered holiday. This is called Chunyun and it is the world’s largest annual human migration. Over a period of 40 days, 3.6 billion people head home to celebrate their most important holiday of the year. I had witnessed the streets of Shenzhen slowly emptying towards the New Year and was curious to witness how hectic Chengdu was at the moment.
The next day, we headed further out into the rural area to a small and picturesque village. It took my breath away. Everything I had stereotypically envisioned China to be was right there in that town. The tiny lanes were cobbled, the architecture was traditionally Chinese, there were food stalls selling customary snacks in the street corners and every space open to the street was either a shop or a restaurant. Where the people slept, I hadn’t the faintest idea. And the streets were packed. I wanted to take pictures of my surroundings, but failed to do so, as there wasn’t enough space to move my arms to reach for my phone and take a picture.
We had a conventional Sichuan lunch, which meant it burnt like hell. Sichuan is known for its spicy food. The problem is that it is so tasty that you ignore the burning sensation, but after a while you lose all feeling in your lips and when you try to drink anything; you end up making a huge mess of everything. It’s not at all sexy when you’re mouth has gone numb and your drink starts dribbling down your chin.
Before we headed back home, we visited three of the village’s four museums. The first was about the Second Sino-Japanese War. Although it was the largest Asian war in the 20th century, I was ashamed to admit that I had never heard about it. My poor excuse was that I had never learnt about it in school. I was shocked that I could be completely unaware of a war this big – to this day it still remains a sensitive topic and should neither be brought up in a discussion with a Chinese nor Japanese person.
The second museum was about the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province, which was exactly where we were. With a magnitude of 7.9, it was one of the largest earthquakes in human history in terms of socio-economic losses. No one except the guide (and Lilly who had to translate everything for me) uttered a word. It was sickening to see the pictures of all the children who died in the collapsed school buildings. There was no time for them to escape; the bodies that were dug up were still clutching their pencils. They recreated destroyed rooms with rubble from the actual earthquake to make it even more morbid. However, there was a pig in a stall just outside the museum. He was rescued from a collapsed building a month after the earthquake and was now considered a lucky pig. He was spoilt rotten, fat as only a pig can be and blissfully sleeping in the corner of his pen while visitors snapped pictures of him.
The final museum that intrigued me the most was centred on the ancient Chinese custom of binding feet. From the 11th century this excruciating practice was the norm for women in China. They aspired to have small feet, also known as “lotus feet”, for which the ideal foot size was three Chinese inches (10 – 15 cm). It was a symbol of status and power. Large feet were disgusting and a woman with unbound feet was less likely to receive a marriage proposal, bringing shame on her family. To achieve this seemingly impossible size, all the toes, except the big toes, had to be broken and bound tightly. This had to be done during the ages of four and nine, as the bones in the feet are more flexible. Surprisingly, it was the emperor of the time who thought out this practice. I was also shocked to learn the practice only became illegal in 1958. Nine centuries of torture. I still cringe at the mere thought of it.