A Rough First Month In Guangzhou

If you are just arriving in Hong Kong and need to transit to Guangzhou there are some things you should try to avoid. Number one would be to make sure that you have some rest at the airport. Maybe a couple of hours in the airport bar, especially after your 12-hour flight. 

If you are heading for China, may I suggest you take a train? You really don’t want to have to drag yourself and your luggage to the 3hours + bus, with a one hour wait at the border in Shenzhen. If this is the first time in China, you really must try to book a hotel where the staff can speak English. 

Unfortunately, I was guilty of all of these. Although in my defence, I hadn’t booked the bus or the hotel. These were arranged by my employer, and I had little say in the matter. 

When you sign up with a teach abroad programme, your head gets full of wild ideas of trekking the Himalayas, the great wall of China, exotic romance. But the first couple of days were spent doing mundane tasks that amazed me only in that they were done with the most mind-numbing bureaucracy imaginable.

That terrible bus journey, all the way from Hong Kong to the inner city of Guangzhou , made me realise how much concrete I was going to see. Not only that but the place looked like Korea did before it became cool. 

After eventually finding the hotel (tip: for gods sake choose somewhere central)I then had to think about eating. What’s that smell? When you can breathe something other than pollution, you’ll see that food is all around you. You choose between eating in one of the cheap canteen style places, or somewhere more upmarket, like a shopping mall restaurant. the first meal I had was some kind of beef offal noodles and it was totally delicious.

I thought I had come to the wrong place…

After the first night in Guangzhou, I was soon to discover just how total and all encompassing tool the Chinese system was. It seems that all long-term visitors are required to submit to detailed medical checks. This could not be done at a small private clinic, but a vast public building. The main task was to process us as quick as possible. This meant that the blood tests were carried out in the open, not behind closed doors. It’s more efficient, though less private way of carrying out procedures. In less than two hours, I was given kidney, lung, heart and urinary tests. This was done with the maximum of efficiency and the minimum of bedside manner or privacy. Yet they msut have taken care of 250 +arrivals that morning alone. I was forced to admit the sheer task of it was something to admire. 

Back at the hotel, I was starting to appreciate the extra touches that were available. A pool would have been a boon on the stuffy afternoons. In Guangzhou, the heat stays on the ground , and never moves from morning to night .

I was subjected to a battery of tests on my first day.

But the hotel offered a gym, and a laundry room And every afternoon, staff laid out fresh cakes and fruit in the restaurant area. There were still surprises when it came to breakfast. Sometimes , there would be croissants, other times not. Egg came hard boiled or fried. And there were only a couple of cereal options. 

It was fun to open up the large steaming serving dishes and think of what to have. There was a choice of rice porridge, and several condiments that seemed to make the bland dish jump alive with flavour. 

I followed my cue from the mostly Chinese diners.  Every so often I would spot a non-Chinese face, this was extremely rare however. They were mostly as bemused by the situation as I was . the situation was not like t standard international hotel that could have been anywhere. Instead, this was strictly a Chinese hotel that made few allowances for non-locals.

Another shock was seeing that the bedrooms on one side of the building did not come with an outward facing window. The only opening window opened to the landing, the only air flow then came from opening the door, and the air-condioning. If you’re a light sleeper, you’ll find it difficult to sleep if the bed is near the AC unit. 

My first impression of China was extremely negative. Partly this was my fault. If you go to a country knowing nothing beyond some loose ideas from what you’ve heard or seen, you are going to be surprised. In my case, I believed that reading too much would possibly cause me to have ideas that China was worse than it really was,. 

In any case, you don’t really know how it’s going to feel until you live in a country. And however much you can read, when you get there the place you come to is often not the one that you pictured.

On my third night, I took a walk to the Pearl River Bridge. Across the street next to the underground metro is a giant shopping mall. It was full of teenagers, dressed in their best clothes and seeming to be moving around, excitedly taking photos, milling in and out of shops but never buying anything. It was a common sight wherever I went in the next few weeks. A few scrappy street vendors selling things on skewers, but inside, teens waited in front of restuaurants for a seat inside. The old Chinese style was giving way to shiny comsumerism. 

There were coffee shops, American fast food restaurants alongside more traditional Chinese tearooms and roast duck restaurants.

I walked past stalls selling durian and piles of CROCS. Inside the old restaurants sat mostly older men, their chaests bared,  smoking and eating from steaming cauldrons. Most of these restaunts only had signs in Chinese. But I could tell from the shiny pictures what I was going to be given. At one beef noodle restaurant, I paid less than two pounds for a glossy bowl of beef soup, vegetables and rice. 

I went in to a gleaming Starbucks occupying a prime location next to the Pearl River. Coffee was marketed as a luxury product, with prices to match. One medium freshly brewed coffee was nearly double the price of my noodles. None of the well-heeled locals seemed to mind. 

The Canton Tower, a recent addition to the city (finished in 2008) was brightly lit and stood out from the boxy grey towers.  Right next to it is another major Guangzhou landmark. The National Theatre, designed by Zaha Hadid, was one of several new buildings by so-called star-chitects. the sloping steel concrete design looks like the body of a giant whale. Inside, the walls represent the pebbles smoothed by the Pearl River, all very poetic.

China may be currently facing a mass retirement with the largest group of pensioners in history, but with the easing of the one child rule, there are babies, children, and teens everywhere. And whilst the young are squeezing themselves into packed subway trains, their elders live a slower life, pushing babies in strollers between dancing Tai Chi in the park. 

At night I read more about China’s history. In 1979, Deng Xiaopeng singed reforms allowing limited free trade in China. Wham played the first rock concert EVER in 1985 a few years before THE LAST EMPEROR was filmed in the Forbidden City. A period of modernisation led to the democratic uprising that was brutally crushed. But nothing could stop the rapid industrialisation. A country that hadn’t changed for centuries hosted the Olympics and had the highest steel production in the world, rising to 1 billion tonnes in 2015. 

I suddenly had to reformulate everything I thought I knew and develop a new understanding, and it was going to take much longer than a few weeks.

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