Chengdu, My Hometown
A song I wrote in 1993 on my first trip back home after leaving China more than three years earlier told about my impressions of the great changes in my hometown. It was simply called "Chengdu," sung in Sichuan dialect. Since then there have been a lot more changes, pretty much like every other city in China since the Economic Reform started in the late 70's. But even though I couldn't find my way around the schools I went to as a teenager, I have always felt at home when I hear and speak Sichuan dialect. It is usually spoken with a twang that suggests a down-to-earth, slightly irreverent attitude, but I still smile when I remember how my high school Chinese teacher, who was supposed to teach the official Mandarin dialect and but couldn't actually speak it, insisted that the famous poems of Tang and Song dynasties sounded better in Sichuan dialect than in Mandarin! Ah, the ignorant and insolent people of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan Province.
My departure from Chengdu to Beijing for college coincided with the first phase of economic reform in China. The Chinese leader who was most responsible for the reform that transformed China and the world was from Sichuan. As Chairman Mao before him, Deng Xiaoping imposed his own dialect on his cadre and entourage, and at least on the radio and the TV, the entire nation. Hearing his Sichuan dialect made me proud, but I was still cowed, by the grandeur of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and so on, into believing that it was just not as graceful as the official Mandarin dialect. Regardless, China being a country with a powerful centripetal culture, I soon made conscious efforts in hiding my Sichuan accent when I spoke Mandarin. By the time I started to write songs in my last year of college, it was only natural to use the Mandarin dialect. One song was titled “Where Is the Handkerchief,” and was about growing up in Chengdu as a child. It was in Mandarin Chinese, even though it was in the style of a children's song, with the beginning an imitation of “Young Pioneers” that I sang countless times as a child when I spoke only Sichuan dialect.
A year after graduating from college in 1988, I left China for graduate studies in Chicago. English became the language of my studies and daily routines. The difference between Sichuan dialect and Mandarin, not huge to begin with, became insignificant. Until I left Chicago for my first academic job in Hong Kong, the only time I wasn’t speaking in English was when I met other Chinese students on the campus of the University of Chicago. Of course I spoke Mandarin Chinese, even with Chinese students from Sichuan. By the end of my PhD studies in Chicago, Sichuan dialect had receded into my memory of growing up in Chengdu as a mostly innocent, sometimes irreverent, and often longing child.