This blog is becoming a great gauge of how full our lives are here in Guangzhou… I’ve tried to sit down to write a few times, but then put my computer aside to go explore, try a new restaurant, or simply stand at our windows watching storm clouds roll in. These posts are also a lesson in finding time and peace amidst so many new things. Thank you for giving me a reason to pause.
Amaury and I agree that we are very blessed to be in Guangzhou. Living abroad in a new and foreign place always comes with challenges, but when the place is a good fit, it also comes with so much joy. We’ve both lived overseas a few times and relish this period of firsts and settling in. It’s exciting to have an adventure every time we head outside and so good to have each other when we feel overwhelmed. On Monday night, we walked home with some new friends who live in our building. They took us on a slight detour through our neighborhood and introduced us to a network of tree-lined alleyways and pedestrian streets we didn’t know was there. So far, most of our experiences in Guangzhou have been on the large boulevards of Tianhe – the Financial District – or in tourist-friendly parks. We’re really looking forward to trying the various little coffee shops and ramen houses just behind our building and finding more hidden-from-view places like that.
Tasty ramen from a place around the corner
Coming here means finding a wealth of ex-pat tour guides who were in our shoes not that long ago. Everyone is new. People who’ve been here over a year are old-timers. Which in, our experience, makes a very welcoming community. We also have a couple friends from here and have met a few people who’ve been here for many years. I want to soak up all the information they can give us. Mainly they tell us how good the food is and then provide restaurant recommendations- amazing. We’re both blessed with few food restrictions/allergies, so we’re completely spoiled for food. Plus, there’s no shortage of slightly expensive, but delicious Western options:
I’m realizing at this point that I should probably preface all my posts with “remember, Nicola generally finds the good in everything.” I don’t want to give the impression that moving to China is all sunshine and rainbows. International moves are hard and even harder for others depending on where loved ones are, health, and level of anxiety in adjusting to strange, new places. But, I tend to find the silver-lining in most situations. And I really don’t see the point in ranting about my complaints and negative experiences. So generally-speaking, these posts will be positive, focus on the good, and likely paint a rosy picture of our experience here. And I think that’s good. Just remember this little disclaimer from time to time when you start to think we’re just swanning around on vacation all the time.
Amaury and I had a conversation the other day about making sure to check ourselves when we’re complaining about something here, because this is such a great assignment for us and a really nice place to live. We reminded ourselves that we and our classmates managed to find things to complain about even when we were living in Bologna, Italy for grad school. I distinctly remember complaining about missing Chipotle and there only being Italian food to eat. So yes, we’re going to check ourselves. And without getting too political, I will say that “checking your privilege” is always extremely important.
Amaury had his first week of work last week, which he adjusted to so well, coming home tired but positive each day. Every day is a long one for him with a lot of training, shadowing, and meetings. Meanwhile, I’ve had to adjust to not having my best friend with me all the time and to having free time on my hands. I’ve now settled into a nice routine of a little vacation (aka watching “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” and going swimming) each day plus some errands, exploration, and Chinese classes/studying. While spouses don’t have a training schedule, we do have a few resources here. This week I joined a group of ex-pats on a short excursion along the Pearl River, and next week I’m going to a cooking class at one of the other apartment buildings.
As a serial-academic, I’ve of course already joined a weekly Mandarin class and have been filling my open afternoons painstakingly trying to memorize Chinese characters. So far, Amaury hasn’t tired of me practicing my Mandarin on him and loudly pointing out characters I know on street signs… but it’s good to also have an in-person class with people who’ve signed up to weather my language-learning. Cue Leslie Knope pic:
I don’t often use my halting Mandarin beyond ordering coffee or a sandwich, because gesturing usually works ok, or I’m with a Chinese-speaker, or the other person speaks some English. Though, today, for the first time, I found myself being the more accomplished Mandarin speaker. Another spouse (N) and I went to a small print shop to get some business cards printed. There have been so many times when I’ve met someone here, but not had time to add them on WeChat (the app everyone uses to keep in touch) or give them my email. N had recently bought some cards at this shop, so we headed there together to buy some. He warned me going in that they don’t speak any English and asked if I’d be able to do most of the talking. Ironically, one of the first phrases I learned in Chinese was “zhè shì wǒ de míng piàn” (“this is my business card”), so in theory I should’ve been able to navigate buying some. We actually did very well mainly through gesturing. I think my apologetic “Wǒ shuō de bù hǎo” (“I do not speak well”) was the most useful thing I said.
Language learning is as much about learning how to learn a language as it is about learning the language itself. And the how isn’t often taught alongside words and phrases. Two golden rules I’ve internalized from 20 years of language study are 1) don’t be afraid to practice and, related, 2) be ready to laugh at yourself. Language practice is hilarious. I say everything wrong and make a complete fool of myself.
For example, this afternoon I successfully ordered a chocolate ice cream cone by pointing and saying “I would like chocolate, thank you” in Chinese. Applying rule #1, I wasn’t content to leave it at that. No, seeing as there was no one else in line, I just had to follow up by asking the poor server “how do you say that” (pointing to the cone). Can you imagine if someone did that in the US out of the blue? She was so confused, especially when, after she politely told me to say it (tián tǒng), I repeated it back at her loudly while gesturing at my cone. After that little exchange, I felt horribly embarrassed for a second as I walked away. Thank goodness for golden rule #2. You just have to. You have to laugh yourself (especially because others will be too polite to do so), and move on. Next time, I will say “I would like one cone of chocolate, thank you”… and then ask how to say “ice cream.” Apparently “tián tǒng” assumes ice cream, but I’ll have to confirm through more field research.
I’ve decided that moving to a new place is an excellent time to start new hobbies and change up my routine. I’ve started swimming regularly in our building’s pool (What?! A pool?! Yeah, we are so, so spoiled). It was slow-going at first, but yesterday I got into a really good rhythm. It became so meditative, almost relaxing, swimming back and forth. I set a small goal, but was having such a good time, I ended up swimming more than expected. Each time my head went under the water, I thought “I am healthy”; each time my head broke the surface I thought “I am strong.” As I finished my last lap, I let myself float as a starfish, feeling my breath move my chest up and down, bringing me up, lowering me down.
I felt so content.