29.08.2010 - 10.09.2010 0 °C
As the train crept out of Beijing West Train Station, almost imperceptibly moving, the harsh feeling of an end to the known and a leap into the unknown was yet again inescapable. Gone were the comfortable surroundings of the 4 star hotel, the friendly shop owner next to the hotel that provided water and breakfast every day, and the array of friendly and well priced restaurants that had become ‘home’ over the past two weeks. The journey from Beijing to Guangzhou proved a neat metaphor for the whole journey so far in China, just as you settle and get used to anything you are confronted with another ‘first’.
Guangzhou is a city with an official population of 11 million, although many predict it closer to 15 million, making it China’s third city in population size and also importance. Having been a world port for hundreds of years and an important trading post for the whole of China, Guangzhou exhibits a multicultural mix that very few cities in China can boast.
Having ‘jumped’, in the loosest possible meaning of the word, off the train at Guangzhou Railway Station, the first thing that was noticeable was the wall of heat and humidity that was there to greet me. (Trust me when I say that 29 degrees and 92% humidity are numbers which at home create a strange excitement, but when you have to function as a human in such conditions they appear to be a sadistic joke played for crimes in a former life). Despite the station clock indicating half past the eighth hour of the day, the heat was already unbearable and as I was forced to move through the throngs of humanity at the station, I began to slowly shut down, just doing the bare essentials to keep moving towards the exits. As I dragged and hauled my two bags through the security scanners, I glimpsed a sign that read ‘Roger/Anna/Shreya/David’. At least I was in the right place and, in the heat and exhaustion, these words were tantamount to paradise!
The first impression I must have given I barely dare consider: skinny westerner, with a massive rucksack and duffel bag being dragged along behind him, covered in sweat…Hmmmmm note-to-self: get a damn porter!!
With no rest or refreshments on hand, we met our mentors for the year, our cultural, professional and general life trouble-shooters if you like. Having been introduced to various senior members of the school, we were whisked across town to what turned out to be one of the top 2 or 3 restaurants in the city and were treated to ‘dim sum’. Dim sum, is a Cantonese expression that finds its English equivalent in ‘brunch’. A wide array of snack dishes were brought to the table, ranging from amazing prawn and beef dumplings, to a sort of sweet cake flavoured with water chestnut and of the texture of jelly!! It was amazing to find such variety on one table, and it is in this setting that the Chinese eating culture comes into its own as a social tool. A large round rotating glass top is placed in the middle of the table upon which all the food is distributed; the diners then rotate the table taking what they want of the food. It is a wonderfully social and unique way to enjoy food and it means you can enjoy the whole range of dishes not just one. If I were to leave now, this would be the thing I would miss the most for certain!!
It turns out table etiquette is not the only difference between England and China. It was gone 4pm by the time I landed at my school and as I walked through the gates I was greeted by a quite staggering scene. Einstein and Confucius had turned out as part of the welcome party!! My home for the next year is a mix of state-of-the-art campus and indeterminate institution.
The facilities are unbelievable; the 400m running track, numerous basketball courts and state-of-the-art gym make it feel like more like a holiday resort for those of a sporting disposition… Then comes the institution. As I walked through the door of my fourth floor dorm in the teacher’s block, my heart hit the ground; the bed avec mozzie net attempting to fill one corner and a desk with a TV perched precariously on it in the other, could not disguise the spartan walls that consumed the room on all sides. The bathroom was discovered: a squat with shower head attached 5ft above were to be my washing facilities for the next year. As my eyes took in what my head refused to accept, I caught a glimpse of what I thought was graffiti on the wall. Intrigued, I wandered over, only to be confronted with the harsh reality that, to avoid the asylum being taken over by its inmates, my predecessor had kept a rather grave count of ‘dead cockroaches’ on the wall over the desk… Wormwood scrubs eat your heart out.
Now, to say it was a slightly harsh bump back down to earth after the high life of Beijing would be gross understatement. However, spare a thought for my fellow teachers; they have exactly the same set up as me in terms of rooms but they share two, or often three, to a room, a lot of them living away from young families who are only seen at the weekend. The shift in my mentality from frustrated to a wave of guilt, followed by the feeling of luck, was immediate upon this discovery.
I must also be fair and not work quite so hard to undersell my area; the place where once the city’s outskirts lay - with my campus originally boasting a rural setting - is now a construction site. The school is rapidly becoming swallowed by China’s unstoppable march towards development as both the city, and the modern world, encroach upon its once rural demeanour. The brand new 6-lane highway running parallel to the school is dwarfed by the dozen 50-storey-plus tower blocks shooting up over the back of the school to compete for areal dominance with the dozen already there.
Having set out to find my way around the city in the two weeks I had to settle in, Guangzhou has brought many different surprises and new experiences to my attention. Firstly, there is the bar that adorns a local roof in my area, where, after you walk past its entrance a few times, you might just wonder what the beer signs high on the wall are hiding and discover that at the top of the stairs lies a flat roof complete with cheep beer, a street style bbq in the corner cooking up Guangzhou’s best in ‘sh*t on a stick’ cuisine, and a big screen TV with the footy on in the corner. Also of great enjoyment has been a square in the centre of the city. If you are lucky enough to wander across its heart come nightfall, you will find it comes alive with locals meeting here to play badminton, roller blade, line dance to all genres of music imaginable, practice tai chi and, my personal favourite, hacky sack.
Now, for the uninitiated, hacky sack is effectively a collection of weighted plastic circles attached to a set of feathers about 4 inches in length with the aim being that the circle of 5 people keep said hacky sack airborne for as long as is possible, whilst taking it in turns to use just one touch from their feet. As the locals make this look ridiculously simple, flicking with their heels and ‘catching’ it on their feet before flicking it on again, it seems that the English feet are less well suited to such sports. Usually a local will ‘tutor’ the foreigners (us) until such time as he gets bored and wants to play properly. Now, something amazing occurred just a few nights ago: as the crowds started to drift at 10ish, the loyal locals started to move away, normally a sign to go, yet, to the amazement of those that witnessed this, a wave was given in our direction to join the pro game…comfortably the proudest moment in China yet.
So, there you have it. Guangzhou is to be my home for the following 10 months and I hope you enjoy exploring it through me. Next up is the story of the Friday night out in the deluxe hotel, the free wine and the 600 colleagues… Oh and I forgot to mention the mayor and the state official for education. TTFN.