For final exams, my students became the teachers. I learned all kinds of things from proper Chinese table manners and new dinner recipes, to magic tricks and origami, to kung fu and basketball. I learned how to weave a scarf and make traditional Chinese paper cuts. I also learned about the famous foods in provinces around the country, which made me eager to visit.
Later, I learned how to play Uno, Mahjong and a variety of card games. I learned the history of traditional Han Chinese clothing, some basic yoga poses and even how to be a proper Chinese wife, in case I meet and fall in love with a Chinese man. Then I learned the aspects of a traditional wedding, including the jokes played on the happy couple that signify good luck for a fast baby. But before the love and marriage stuff, I was informed (twice) on how to properly care for a baby because, you know, I’m probably going to want one of those one day soon.
The most interesting exam, however, might belong to Harden, the student who gave me four tips for “surviving” the end of the world. His number one suggestion? Find a rich boyfriend who owns either a helicopter or a hot air balloon so we can rise above the destruction and share the world’s most romantic experience together.
#2: Everybody should know Chinese Kung Fu, then the aliens and zombies would be too scared to attack. (Thank goodness another student taught me that.)
#3: Adopt a pet. At least you won’t die alone. (I’m one step ahead!)
#4: Never say never. Learn how to eat everything that flies, walks and swims, because you never know. (Luckily, I’m an adventurous eater.)
After the exams, Harden’s class invited me to dinner. We went to a local restaurant and the students asked what I wanted. I replied anything but the dog (which was on the menu) and we feasted on things such as sweet and sour chicken, grilled eggplant, frogs, fried lotus root, pig intestine and more.
Nobody expected me to try the frog. It was placed at the opposite end of a table large enough for 18 of us, and when I said I wanted some, they eagerly filled my rice bowl with a variety of juicy parts (more than just the legs, folks!). It tasted delicious, and I ate everything but the skin (eww). When I was finished, Harden was impressed.
“You stronger girl than I thought you are,” he said. “I think you can survive the end of the world.”
After everybody was full, we went across the street to play Mahjong. We enjoyed a great night of laughs, beers and learning how to play one of China’s most traditional and fun games. The students were good about explaining everything to me in English. It seems this class took their exams seriously. And for that, they all got A’s.
I should have played Charades more often when I was young, but back then, I couldn’t have known how useful the art of body language can be when traveling the world. My Chinese skills range between shoddy and nonexistent, leaving me up for a challenge whenever I leave the security bubble of Peizheng College, where nearly everybody speaks at least some English.
Two weekends ago, I had a serious craving for adventure. I flipped open my found 2002 Lonely Planet China in search of a day trip that would curb my appetite and give me a reason to get out of town. I landed on this description of a smallish city only hours away: “Home to some craggy limestone rock formations similar to those around Guilin…”
I stepped off the bus in Zhaoqing where approximately nobody speaks English. Luckily, on the way in I noticed the limestone mountains known as the Seven Star Crags (named from the belief that the rocks were formed after seven stars fell from the sky and formed a pattern resembling the Big Dipper) only a few blocks away. I walked back, made my way around the beautiful lake and down tree-lined pathways to the entrance. I paid Y60 to enter and managed to lose more than half a day wandering through, up and around the scenic reserve.
It was late afternoon by the time I finished hiking to the top to see the view, and I knew I wouldn’t have time to go to the nearby Dinghu Shan area that Lonely Planet claims is one of the most scenic spots in all of Guangdong. I decided to take a solo walking tour of the city while I tried to find a hostel a friend told me about, though I had no idea I’d end up on a wild goose chase.
I had the address, and I found the correct street (or so I thought), but there were no numbers on the buildings. I asked several shop owners for their addresses by pointing to a business card and asking for theirs. It turns out, nobody knows their business address in Zhaoqing, but they’re eager to help. One nice lady pointed me in the right direction.
But she was wrong.
So I walked all the way back, and found a dead end.
Three hours and a few sidewalk snacks later, I stopped into another business, mimed to a nice man what I wanted, and showed him the hostel name I had written down. He Googled it and then gave me a motorbike ride. I was less than a block away, but the building lacked an English sign (despite the English website) and I knew I never would have found it on my own.
Once there, the woman asked me for Y80. “But online it’s only Y50,” I tried to reason with her. My friend had quoted the price from the hostel’s website.
She wrote 80 again on her paper, not understanding a word of my English. I pointed at her computer, said 50 in Chinese and made the sign for sleep and pointed upstairs. This incomprehensible conversation went on for a good 10 minutes, despite the fact I was ready to give her the Y80 she asked for. But she was determined and called her son.
“Room no have wifi,” he told me over the phone.
“I don’t need wifi in the room,” I said. “I was just trying to say that your website says the cost for the room is Y50, not Y80, so I’d like to only pay Y50.”
“We no have wifi in room. My mother say tell you we no have wifi.”
“I no need wifi.”
“Oh, you no need wifi in room?”
“No. I pay 50. Okay?”
“Oh! You want pay 50? Okay! You pay 50. I tell my mother now.”
The next morning I woke before the sun to give myself enough time to climb the mountain and return to Guangzhou before the last bus would depart for Peizheng. I found a taxi and asked him to take me to the local bus station where Lonely Planet suggested I start.
“Chi che,” I said in Chinese, without consulting my notes. “Qu Dinghu Shan.” Go Dinghu Mountain. I moved my hands as if I were steering the wheel of a bus, in my mind, and he told me it would be Y10 to take me there.
We drove around the corner, and he pulled over at the sidewalk bus stop and pointed to the number 21. I laughed and tried again to tell him to take me to the bus station where I could buy a ticket and actually know where my bus was headed, but I failed. I paid him and found another taxi.
Soon I was back at the Seven Star Crags, the driver having understood only the word mountain from my slaughtered pronunciation.
“No, no, no.” I said. “Bu yao jigga.” No want this. “Yao Dinghu shan.” I drew a mountain with my fingers, and again tried my charades for bus.
Eventually, I did take the number 21 bus to the end of the line and the first taxi driver was right – it took me directly to the base of Dinghu Shan. I paid another Y60 to enter the protected reserve and began my accent up the paved pathway.
I spent some time at the waterfall where locals were practicing Tai Chi and singing opera, then I walked further up to the Buddhist temple and bowed to the Almighty before continuing to Boading Park on top of the mountain, where one of the largest caldren replicas sits. Locals try their hardest to throw bouncy balls wrapped in lucky red ribbon into its center.
I was exhausted from the hours of walking I had done, so when I began my decent, I gave an empty tour bus a friendly smile and got myself a ride. I assumed he asked where I was going and so again I said chi che. He then asked me if I wanted to drive his bus. I know this is what he asked because he pointed to me, made the same motion with his hands on the steering wheel as I had that morning, and then signaled that he would stand near the doorway and I could sit in his seat. Then he asked again, several more times, pointing at me and then his seat and the wheel. I adamantly declined, but I was thankful for the ride.
Once I was finally headed back to Guangzhou, I pulled out my notes from Chinese class. It turns out, chi che does not mean bus. It means car, which could explain a lot of my confusion. While my Mandarin skills remain fairly stagnant, I am getting some good practice for Charades.
When asked about the famous sites near Guangzhou, my students almost always reply, “Baiyun Shan. A mountain in middle of city!” (We’re working on filling in the blanks of that sentence…)
I thought it odd I hadn’t seen it on my many trips to Haizhu Square and other shopping hot spots in Guangzhou, but then again I usually take the subway from one place to the next, and looking beyond the hoards of people, on most days, presents a grey haze hovering on the rooftops of buildings which obscures my vision from anything too far away. Therefore, I guess it makes sense that I didn’t notice this 1,250-foot mountain amidst the concrete and cement that make this city tick. Then again, maybe it’s because Baiyun is only a small hill in comparison to the mountains in Oregon.
However, the mountain range consists of 30 peaks covering over 17 square miles on the north end of the city. Baiyun has been declared a national park and the government is proud to call it one of Guangzhou’s “Eight Must See Sites,” though like most other Chinese parks, it’s less of a hike through nature and more of a walk up a steep roadway. It hardly even feels like you’re on a mountain when cars drive past, presumably taking the shortcut to the McDonalds and other fast food chains that await them on top.
After an unplanned two-hour bus tour of Guangzhou city (we got on the bus going the wrong way and only discovered our mistake after it reached the end of the line – oops!), Ed and I circled back near our starting point and finally found the gate to Baiyun Mountain – the walkway, not the cable car – where we paid our entrance fee of 5RMB (about $0.80) and began our hike up the paved roadway to the top.
We took the long, slow way up via hundreds and hundreds of steep stairs and ventured off toward the center of the mountain, where we found a temple built about halfway up on three different levels. The stairs wound us up and through the landscaped courtyards of the decorative Buddhist shrine, and continued upward toward several platforms meant for viewing the scenery below.
Stairs, I’d say, are more of a workout than a hike through nature, so we definitely got the exercise we bargained for, but we didn’t get the rewarding view we had hoped. Looking out over the railing was a blurry view of the city below, enveloped in several layers of thick white smog that my camera read as grey nothingness.
Baiyun was worth the effort once, but I don’t think I’ll make the trek again. The temple (as you can tell from the pictures below) was my favorite part of the day, but not all was lost. At least now I can tell my student’s I hiked White Cloud Mountain, and that I know how it received its name.
You never know what you might find on a stroll through Haizhu Square. I’ve been there five times already, in my three months of being in China, and though each time I wander down the same busy street, my view is always changing.
Haizhu is an old district in Guangzhou city where Chinese life is rife with an oldtown market feel. It’s the place where one can go to find low prices on imported goods such as pasta and sauce, balsamic vinegarette and cheese. It’s also home to a plethora of dried goods stores. Anything you might think of drying and eating can be found here.
Starfish and mushrooms? Check.
Snakes? You got it.
Even whale shark fins can easily be bought in bulk.
Across the street from the fantastic array of dried goods is an even more wonderful selection of two of the worlds finest creations: chocolate and wine. Unfortunately, most of them only sell wholesale quantities…or maybe that’s not so unfortunate.
Haizhu is also home to my favorite shop in all of Guangzhou – the only coffee store I’ve found with a selection of whole beans from all over the world and a grinder on site. But the deliciousness doesn’t end there. The shop carries nearly every flavor of Torani syrup and other creamers, plus various kinds of coffee makers (even an Italian one!). In a country where tea is relished and few people drink coffee, it’s nearly impossible to find any of the above in abundance, and at a low cost. I thought I found heaven when I first stumbled upon this little jewel of Haizhu.
Traveling in China makes me feel like a calf in the corral at branding time. We push and shove our way through the narrow pathway that’s been created and planned for us, prodded often from behind.
A few of our own will undoubtedly make things more difficult by pushing in the opposite direction, moving backwards through the line as if he or she has the right of way. At some point, we will all make it into the shoot, one at a time, and the peak of my frustration in China is equivalent to that hot iron’s firm press as it synges the hair from my burning butt.
Every time I go to Guangzhou, I return with a chip on my shoulder that’s hard to shake off. In fact, every time I go anywhere in China (which, to be fair, has only been around the Southeastern parts so far), I return this way, which is always a complete change of heart from the way it all started out.
I leave the bubble that is Peizheng full of eagerness and curiosity about what lies ahead. As I walk to the bus station, my escape from the confines of a place where everybody knows who I am, where I’m from and what I do is so tantalizing I can smell it like the body odor that will most likely waft from the Chinese student who sits next to me.
But already, as I approach the bus station and stand in the orderly line that has formed waiting for its arrival, my mood begins to darken because I know what’s coming next. When the bus pulls in and the line pulls apart, I’m agitated. Why did we form a line if we weren’t actually going to use it?
As everyone rushes toward the bus door in one big cattle herd, shoving their way forward, their hands on the person in front of them and three more hands on their backs, I have no choice but to join in the madness. If I don’t, I won’t get a seat, or worse. I may not even get on the bus.
When the cattle run has commenced and we pull onto the road, the fumes (from the bus and the body odor) combine with the swaying from the driver (who speeds over large pot holes) into a toxic concoction that threatens to force my own bodily fluids into the mix.
An hour later, we exit the bus slightly more humanely than we entered, and walk down the stairs to the subway, where the useless lines and the pushing are bound to begin again. Forget ever getting a seat. Nobody will politely wait for you to board. Nobody will get out of the way for you to move over. And nobody will wait for you to step off, either, before they crowd on.
I make my way back up the stairs and through the maze of people. I’m on high alert for small Chinese people walking directly toward me. I know they plan to continue walking straight, whether I move or not, and I’d rather step to the side than butt heads and receive a glare as if I ran into them.
When I walk into the grocery store or crowded shopping mall, I prepare myself both mentally and physically. I know I’m going to have to lock away my learned, polite behavior and plough through in a way I think is rude but nobody will think twice about. I shove through the people, get what I want, and make my way to the cashier where I’ll stand in a cue that exists for no apparent reason. If I stand in that line and wait patiently, like my parents taught me to do, I will get nowhere, because the only thing changing about the line will be the people in the front.
If I decide whatever I’m purchasing is actually worth the battle, I must do the same. I’ll push forward, elbows out and unrelenting. When I reach the front, I’ll hold my item out in front of me, like the five other people vying to be rung up first, and hope the cashier grabs mine next. If she doesn’t, I’ll become slightly more annoying – wave it in her face, start asking questions, push my way further in front of her – until she finally puts it in a bag and tells me the price, without smiling, of course. Then again, who can blame her?
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I need to scream louder, push harder, and hotshot myself into gear each time I want to accomplish anything in China. I’m working on trying to sharpen my elbows as well.
When I return to Peizheng and take a deep breath (whether it’s to feel better after the return bus ride or release my built up agitation, or both), I try to remind myself not to hate China. And it always turns into the same conversation with myself. “You don’t hate China, Jessica. Actually, China has a lot going for it. It has beautiful scenery and a lot of interesting things to do, and the people are actually quite nice if you think about it…”
But something about this conversation doesn’t make me feel better, and then it hits me. I don’t hate China, but I do hate the ways Chinese people deal with their massive overpopulation, and that getting anywhere would be a struggle even if I had four legs and a hotshot on my ass. Unfortunately, China and Chinese culture go hand in hand, like a young calf and a delicious piece of veal.
China Travel and Cattle Branding: They’re Practically the Same Thing
Homesickness has hit me like a Thai teacher’s hand to the back of a rowdy student’s head – swiftly, consistently, and without reason. Each time my wanderlust wins the battle between stay and go, ten weeks later my homeland fights back with a vengeance.
I recognize it almost instantly, often when my mood is sour about something silly and unrelated, and I find myself saying I hate China, or Thailand, or Los Angeles or Spain, for some unworthy reason. It always attacks somewhere between the two-and-a-half to three-month anniversary of my absence, just when the newness of a place is beginning to wear off, a routine taking its place.
Yet it strikes me as odd that, for me, homesickness and wanting to go home don’t necessarily go hand in hand. Yes, in these moments I dream of sitting down for a face-to-face conversation with the ones I love most and curling up with my always-understanding pooch and squeezing him until all of these feelings pass, but I know I don’t actually want to return.
Things won’t be different if I return now or eight months from now, and it consoles me to know that. My parents will continue to enjoy their first year as empty nesters. My siblings and friends will remain busy finding their own ways in life. Everybody else will go about their daily lives as usual. And I know when I do go back, we’ll all pick up where we left off, just like we do every other time.
I know an impulse decision would leave me feeling worse in the end. If I flew home tomorrow, I’d be angry at myself as soon as I boarded the plane. I’d be mad that I’m ruining my chances of earning a teaching assistantship at CSU based on my one-year of experience teaching at the university level. I’d be disappointed that I gave up a paid, two-month holiday and my plans to go to India. And I’d be broke, wishing I’d stayed long enough to stash the savings I’m planning to return with at the end of my contract.
So I know the obvious answer is the wrong one. Instead, I just need to get my hands on a cure. A combined concoction of talking about it, writing, and Starbucks usually does the trick.
At about this time last year, I was writing similar words for Bella Vita. If you read this essay, it won’t surprise you that I’m now writing from the comfort of my cozy Starbucks chair, my red cup in hand and a savory muffin on a plate in front of me. I even managed to find possibly the only Starbucks in Guangzhou that has all the holiday favorites (including white chocolate, which most stores here don’t carry) and has been playing Christmas tunes all morning. I already feel better.
As I stare out the window at the rest of the city waking up to the dreary greyness of the day, I get lost in pleasant thoughts of home, making each delicious sip last. I know when my brew is gone I’ll still be in China, but I also know that if this cup (and telling hundreds of you about my woes) doesn’t completely cure me, I can always have another.
Guangzhou is home to one of the world’s best subway systems, and good thing because without it I’d be at a loss for how to wander this sprawling city with its seemingly endless population (somewhere between 12 and 16 million, give or take a million).
Fortunately, the well-planned underground tram is labeled in English and each line is colored and numbered for ease of remembering. My paper map is dotted with my favorite places at each stop, though I still have many more to explore before I’m through with China.
At the Chigang Pagoda stop, Downtown Guangzhou is home to high-rise buildings not unlike those in Los Angeles or Seattle. They even have their own version of the Space Needle, called the Guangzhou Tower, which is the world’s tallest T.V. tower at nearly 1,970 feet, according to this website.
On my subway map alone I count four parks, but there are surely many more. Chinese people love their parks, and they actually utilize them. A stroll through any one of the lusciously landscaped areas will lead you to families playing games, students studying, couples taking a romantic boat ride and many others having a picnic.
Unlike parks in The States, which are large grassy areas where one can go to find a peaceful place to read or relax, the parks in Guangzhou have paved pathways, hard benches and very little grass for sitting. I found myself intrigued by the amount of people in Yuexiu Park, but disappointed that I couldn’t find a comfortable, quiet spot to finish my book.
In between the massive parks and skyscrapers are long, narrow alleyways booming with locally owned fruit stands, cake shops, clothing stores, butcher shops and vegetables for sale on the sidewalk. I walked down several of the interconnected pathways for what felt like miles, allowing me to forget I was in the middle of one of China’s largest and most developed cities and feel as if I had returned to the villages of ago, where people simply go about their daily shopping without the crowds.
Eventually, I turned onto a lane that spit me back onto a loud, packed motorway and I felt like Alice, returning from Wonderland with a hard slap of reality to remind me I was still in the city.
Well, I thought, I might as well go to a mall. I got back on the subway and picked a random stop (Tiyu Xilu) where I found more adorable (and tiny) Asian shoes and clothes than I could have wished for, as well as brands I recognized from home.
A girl can find almost anything she wants in Guangzhou, whether it’s food, culture, fashion or entertainment, she just needs to know where to exit the metro. However, if a silent place to be alone is what you’re looking for, good luck. I’m still marking up my map, but if I ever succeed at finding one, I’ll be sure to let you know.
Is there anything I must see or do next time I’m in Guangzhou? Which subway stop is your favorite?