By Josh Wagner
East Window by Huang Xiaoliang
My initiation into the world of Sichuan food took place alone in an empty restaurant in Chengdu. Dining solo in China is sort of weird and sad, but the experience wasn’t any less delicious. Broth as red as the harvest moon. Gaping fish heads. Bones you could hang from. Islands of lotus root and cilantro. All of it working together to broker the perfect alliance between salty and sweet. And of course, the essential ingredient: tiny pepper pearls floating like copper bb's on the blood of their kill.
I was told to expect numb lips, but this was nothing like novocaine. The sauce dissolves and effervesces on the tongue. Imagine the personification of a million microscopic orgasms kissing every millimeter of your mouth.
It took me a week in Chengdu to finally try the spicy stuff. I was apprehensive. Every recommendation came across as both temptation and warning, and I was pretty sure it would melt my face off. But I didn’t find Sichuan peppers particularly painful. Rather, they were devotional with heat. A gentle intensity.
Slurping away face down in the smoky ambrosia like something possessed, it dawned on me the locals experience this magic any time they want. They grow up on the stuff like Americans with salt and ketchup. What terrified me was perfectly normal to them. While I was falling into a flavor dream, the people around me watched TV or read magazines, unimpressed by the transcendent education of my face.
The giant bowl was meant to share, but this lonely traveler took the leftovers home. No drop left behind.
On the map, Chengdu is a wheel. Four concentric roads orbit the bullseye of Tianfu square, while the metro, still a work in progress, radiates out toward the parameter. Dharma reflected in the streets. Mountains relieve Chengdu of the setting sun, with Jiuzhaigou in the north, Shangri-La in the south, and Tibet farther west. To the east stretches a mesh of interlocking freeways linking cities all the way to the East China Sea.
I’d already been traveling for a year and a half when I arrived in China. Starting out from Montana the spring before, I lived in Ireland, Prague, Barcelona, the Balkans, and Japan: each for a season – this would be my first full circle around the globe. It was also my first journey without any specific expectation of return. I’ve lived semi-nomadically for almost fifteen years, since I first bought a pull trailer and hopped around state parks in New Mexico. I write, edit, teach, and dabble in a little bit of Cisco tech work to stay fueled and fed. I’ve been fortunate enough to carry my jobs around with me in a world increasingly accommodating to those of us who distrust stability and can’t sit still.
Before China I lived for three months in Osaka researching a new novel. When my visa expired, a friend from Harbin suggested Chengdu as my next stop. It was the most enthusiastic recommendation I’d ever received, and I made the leap with very little planning.
After a week in Shanghai I took the long, slow train west, laying on my bunk researching Chinese history and language deep into the night. Earlier, a bunk mate told me he’d steal my boots. “Love your boots. Gonna take em later.”
The old trains crash a little when they stop. Hiss a little and roll on again. In and out of sleep. Thundering nights. Lost at sea. Shoes off. Fearful. Waiting for the snoring joker to rob me.
I rented a studio apartment on the 12th floor of an ex-hotel turned apartment/shopping complex. Boutiques and restaurants made up the entire first floor. Big bay window looked out out over a garden of dirty white walls towering above a dense canopy of trees. Somewhere below, on rivers of concrete, roamed China’s most dangerous predator: traffic.
Getting off the elevator to my apartment floor I noticed a small sign posted on a window ledge.
“CAUTION IS PROHIBITED.”
I hear it every time I strike out into the unknown. The kind and comforting words, “Come home safe!” But after years on the road I prefer a modification: Travel safe, come home dangerous.
Dictionaries define the word dangerous with terms like “harm,” “hazardous,” “injury,” “treacherous,” “threatening.” But the word originally derives from an Anglo-French mash-up, daunger, which means “power of a lord or master, jurisdiction.”
The reason I move around so much is because my fear festers whenever I remain rooted. Fear of flying, of dying, of being alone, of love’s stagnation, of the unexpected, of learning how to take care of myself. Travel makes me a formidable adversary to my own fear then brings me home a little more dangerous than when I left. Having found deeper mastery over myself, I can return changed.
Coming home dangerous is a reunion on the other side of living through your own fear.
Over the next two months I would pass by the elevator’s “Caution is Prohibited” sign again and again, gradually coming to realize how much this misnomer exemplified the riddle Chengdu was offering me. It would not have surprised me to discover that Chengdu was a city in motion, slowly patrolling the base of the mountains, keeping the contemplative life from falling into sluggish sleep. The city is raw and ruthlessly chaotic – functionally modern, but with a genuine “edge of the empire” aesthetic – ragged and windblown, a cultural concoction as rich and spicy as my Sichuan stew.
A single cockroach lived with me in Chengdu. I called him Stan. He was like my roommate. And he was one tough bastard.
I was in the middle of cooking dinner when I heard a knock at the door. It was a nice young couple with a plastic blue binder. They didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Mandarin, so I could tell right away how much fun this was going to be. They opened up a brochure of cockroaches, and I deduced they’d come to murder my bug. Then I remembered my sizzling pan on the stove and quickly invited them in. They followed me to the kitchen where the peppers were starting to burn. These were not normal peppers. These were Sichuan death peppers. The guy immediately started coughing and hacking, doubling over. I tried to joke that I’ve probably killed all the cockroaches in the building with pepper fumes. I turned off the stove and dragged my new friends back out to the hall. He showed me an orange syringe. Squirted a little dab of a clear glue-like substance onto the base of the wall. Did he want me to do this to my place? Because, no thank you. Then we started using a translation app. I told them I was only renting for a couple months. Did they want me to call my landlord? No no, that’s not necessary, they said. Just close my windows at 9pm. I can open them again tomorrow, they said. As soon as they left, the idea of sealing off my little room during a cockroach massacre suddenly didn’t give me a nice warm feeling. Nor did I want Stan to die.
I saw Stan again the next evening and every other night until I left town.
In Chengdu, strangers are eager to communicate. They’ll take you to dinner, share drinks and stories, or simply add a little energy to your path. The sense that we’re all in this together, the cultivation of raw talent, and an inland spirit of risk and autonomy, give this city the potential to become the next arts capital of Asia – maybe of the world. If there’s a kinship binding Shanghai to New York, Tokyo and London, then Chengdu belongs with Chicago, Osaka and Berlin – the kind of place where trash is transformed into sculptures and grease into paint.
After a week I found myself on the roster to perform at a venue called NU Space – a people-powered vanguard of music and the arts tucked away five minutes from Wide and Narrow Alley. A week later, while I was walking around on the opposite side of town, a woman waved and told me she’d seen my reading. Like all the best cities in the world, Chengdu was letting me know she’s secretly a small town. After she walked away I regretted not saying more. Would you like to come upstairs and meet my cockroach? She was beautiful, now she was lost in the crowd. Apparently there are still plenty of risks I’m too anxious to take. And the wind always snatches something from us, unless we offer our caution as a sacrifice.
Nonetheless, I found Chengdu’s evening streets crackling with vivacious, risk-taking youth culture. Their work struck me as dedicated and intricate, their conversations optimistic and globally aware. Unsatisfied with the normal molds presented by an often hedging world, this slice of the rising generation seemed determined to cultivate the spark of danger into their own way of doing things. Their conversations were bursting with frankness and sensitivity. Their murals on roads like Kuixinglou, blending buddhist imagery with futuristic themes and psychedelic, hiphop styles, rivaled any street art on the planet. Even their approach to fashion, a means of expression too vacillating for me to have ever taken seriously before, seemed to tune into a certain kind of truth. I was reminded of an exhibit a friend told me about called The Year of the Golden Pig, in which contemporary Chinese artists displayed a blend of prescriptive pre-80s artistic sensibilities with a new sense of liberation and exposure to western influences (and I may have caught my own glimpse of this reality from Wang Xiaobo’s novella, 2015). The striking element here was how, in opposition to a western tendency to abandon constraints wholesale, the incorporation of old confinements into new horizons demonstrated a fearless commitment to continuity. As a result, the experimental nature of the art and music of Chengdu, at least in my limited experience, isn’t created for its own sake, but arises out of an intense longing for meaning. Their artistic individualism remains tethered to a sense of community. They do not create for profit or for fame, but for their city.
On the afternoon I’m supposed to leave it’s 95 degrees in the shade, 57% humidity, and I’m eating a steaming hot bowl of something with the word spicy in it twice. Typically I’m no good with heat. I’d rather bundle up in the snow than strip under the sun. But whatever discomforts burden the visitor to Sichuan are worth the transformation she offers.
I say goodbye to Stan, strap on my bags, and swing through the Quinyang Palace grounds after a last minute recommendation on my way to the station. Travel tempers the thrill of discovery with the melancholy of everything you know you didn’t get to experience. I recall the woman on the street – the one who got away. What would have happened if I’d mustered the courage to ask her out? Would my life now be entirely different, or would the risk have made only a ripple, obliterated in the path of a bullish trajectory? The things we don’t do often haunt us more than things we chose to gamble on, win or lose. For all the stamps in my passport I’ve really only dipped a toe into the vast ocean of possible experience. But even the bare surface of Chengdu was enough to leave a mark. I’m sure to hear the city’s song in my dreams until she tempts me back again to the dangerous, delicious wheel of Sichuan, where life is slow and easy but caution is prohibited.
For the last couple of years, Josh Wagner has moved to a different country every 2-3 months. At the time of this submission he was working his way around Japan. Josh is the author of four novels and three graphic novels. His work has been published by Cafe Irreal, Not One of Us (Clarity), Medulla Review, Lovecraft eZine, Cleaver Magazine, Asymmetrical Press, and Image Comics.
Huang Xiaoling was born in Xiangxi, Hunan province in 1985. He is a 2009 graduate from Qingdao University, where he studied Digital Media. In 2010, Huang was awarded the prestigious Tierney Fellowship as well as the Three Shadows Photography Award, and the Fang Jun Art Award by the Beijing Today Art Museum. In 2011, he was nominated for the Foam Paul Huf Award. He currently divides his time between Changsha and Beijing.