At some intangible point between the crush for the plane at Moscow (despite numbered seating and sequential boarding procedure), and the familiar ‘neutral-yet-stern’ look of the Chinese border authorities I had arrived back in China for a second year of teaching.
Barely a year has gone by since I completed my training in Beijing and headed south to be welcomed by Guangzhou’s stifling summer heat, and once again its sweaty embrace is clinging to me nearly as much as my t-shit is to my back.
If the weather’s atmosphere has been oppressive and hugely draining, then the opposite can be said of the new school.
Smiles and handshakes were thrown around with great abundance when our mentor (read; troubleshooter/lifesaver) Bin Li collected us from Guangzhou. Replaced momentarily with looks of disbelief and nervous laughter when he saw the pile of stuff me and Anna had with us, a quick phone call to a couple of mates for help ensured they quickly reappeared. Now nearly a week later the smiles still remain and only the faces have changed.
When light dawned on the Thursday our surroundings took on more shape than they had the previous evening. The school is situated next too a river flowing towards Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Bang in the middle between Gunagzhou and Hong Kong lays the city of Shunde. Made up of several different conurbations (as is often the way in China) Shunde still remains a ‘small’ city in Chinese terms despite a population of over 1m. The school lies 10km outside of one of Shunde’s larger centers, Ronggui, in an area that is owned, developed and named after the East Coast Development Company; in Chinese, Dongyiyuan.
Dongyiyuan is s strange place. Next to the school in one direction along the river lie a row of houses that would not look out of place in any American sitcom based in wealthy suburbia, yet in rural(ish) China they appear entirely alien. Head in the other direction along the river away from the school and you quickly reach more the traditional and disheveled housing associated with manual and agricultural workers.
Across the road from here is street upon street of American suburbia, and yet this is just the start. Travel a further 5 minutes down the road, pass under the high speed rail bridge and you reach row after row, street after street, mile after mile, of brand new housing, unused yet ready for occupancy. There are just enough construction crews milling about to convince you that life is possible beyond the bridge.
Back at the school students pour in for the new term, classrooms are cleaned, and the school quickly awakens from its dormant summer. Built only a few years ago things here are state of the art. Each classroom has full air conditioning and interactive electronic boards; the school swimming pool enjoys a roof-top location overlooking the river; and the gym with pull out seating puts many university facilities in England to shame.
Up on the 8th floor, overlooking the river and its incessant convoy of freight boats I am beginning to feel slightly lost. Yes this is China, the daily smog and groups of people in the local shops who stare and slyly take pictures of the two new foreigners are ample testament to that. But the attractive housing, the rooftop swimming pools, the high speed train network and the endless stream of Mercedes and BMW cars hints more to a China of the future than the crowded chaotic and old city I left just a couple of months ago.
Do not be fooled though, Shunde is merely the first minute representation of an expanding middle class with access to a disposable income, just round the corner in sleepy Xiaohuangpu the usual grinds of poverty are more than evident.