Bonnie the Bonsai isn’t looking so hot

As usual, you find me and China in a state of transition. It’s been a while since my last missive, so brace yourselves for a lengthy ramble!Chinese New Year and the holiday season ended with a happy sigh last week with the Lantern Festival- it occurs about 15 days after New Year’s day. Colored lanterns appeared outside some of the major restaurants and buildings and these past weeks we’ve seen a lot of young families out enjoying the sunny weather and occasionally blue skies. Though we’ve had a few yucky days with bad pollution, the New Year’s holiday caused the major factories to shut down for at least a week, so the holiday break brought welcome clean air. Now work has restarted along with my music rehearsals and social groups. Spring is definitely in the air and the weather has been beautiful with 70 degree days.Entrance to a park filled with lantern festival installationsAmaury and I stayed in Guangzhou over the holiday and took advantage of the quiet city to try out popular restaurants, go on a bike ride on the deserted streets, explore the local festivities, and relax at home. The few days leading up to New Year’s Eve, each city district in Guangzhou hosts a flower market along a main street, so that people can buy flowers for their families before they head to their hometowns. We live in the heart of the city’s downtown Tianhe District, so were just a short walk away from the Tianhe Flower Street.Flowers at the Guangzhou Flower MarketWe thoroughly enjoyed the market with a couple friends and their children. We flew a kite, people-watched (China has GREAT people watching), and bought a small bonsai. Now that we’ve had Bonnie the Bonsai at home for a couple weeks, I’m not convinced she actually is a bonsai, but rather a twig with leaves stuck in some dirt, but she was only $4 so I don’t know what I expected.

Interesting local fruit at the flower market

Our few of our good friends were also in town, so we were pretty social over the break- getting together for game nights and exploring. Always trying to satisfy our travel itch, we did go on a day-trip to Kaiping Diaolou, a UNESCO World Heritage site a couple hours drive away from Guangzhou. The diaolous are 3-5 story towers built in the 1920’s and 30’s by Chinese people who had previously emigrated to Western countries. They came back and applied Western architecture (think Roman-style columns and Spanish mosaic tiles) to their buildings creating an East meets West building style. They are beautiful and fascinating.

View of Kaiping from the 5th floor of a Diao Lou

Since Kaiping is in the middle of the countryside, we also got to try traditional “peasant food,” according to the many signs around the diaolous. We saw cleaning of chickens and fish, people tending their amazing gardens and farms filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, and local preparation of dishes like claypot rice. We weren’t entirely sure what we ate from our claypot. It appeared to have some kind of shredded fish or eel. Our friend J persisted in calling it leeches. We also ordered half a chicken that was likely butchered that morning. It was much tougher than store-bought chicken but tasty. We rounded out the meal with freshly-picked strawberries. We were all a little nervous about getting traveler’s tummy but were all fine. Honestly, the food looked fresher and healthier than most of the produce we find in Guangzhou.One of the highlights of our day-trip was deciding to beat the traffic on the main road by leaving the car and walking through the countryside. It was peaceful and quiet and nice people gave us directions so we didn’t get too lost.

Walking through the Kaiping countryside

Returning to food issues. Apparently, all the wet markets in Guangzhou are currently forbidden from selling chicken due to a strain of nasty avian flu. Thankfully we NEVER buy meat from the local markets, but I think we’ll completely avoid chicken in general for a bit until the risk of pandemic has decreased. Scary, scary stuff. Anyone here ever watched Contagion? I think we’ll be a bit more careful from now on; even if we like to be adventurous, food-borne illness is a serious thing to avoid.8 months into our time in Guangzhou, I find myself reflecting a lot lately on the process of settling in. Amaury and I are both loving the foreign service life so far, and we often pause to consider our happiness. Amaury commented today that he thinks we’re both good at adapting- we’ve both certainly had to in the past as immigrants and during other travels. That may be it, but I also think Guangzhou is pretty adaptable itself. China presents many challenges, but Guangzhou is a nice place to live as an ex-pat. There are so many little ways that it welcomes foreigners. Although we have yet to find any Dominican food here, we’ve successfully found a couple decent brunch spots, bars, Mexican food, West African food, and all kinds of Chinese and Asian cuisines. Guangzhou is actually known in China for having some of the best eating in the whole country, not mention its many coffee shops. It’s possible to escape into a Starbucks or Costa and forget where you are for a moment- I guess that’s the appeal and dis-appeal of Starbucks… it’s the same everywhere.

I tried searching for funny Starbucks images. How could I pass this one up?

Starbucks is a funny experience here, though. Interestingly, they don’t list regular American coffee on the menu and don’t provide the normal milk and sugar station. Half and half doesn’t exist here. However, I’ve adapted by learning to ask for “Mei shi ka fei” (American-style coffee) “jia nai you” (with cream added).  While the baristas ask Chinese people for their names, they always write “Miss” for me even when I order in Chinese. I suppose that’s a lot easier for them and certainly less work for me. We both bend a little; I end up with coffee I like and they avoid a headache.Another winnerPeople in stores here often give me a funny look or interact with me a bit strangely, because they cannot believe that a foreign woman can speak Chinese (a little). The other day the barista serving me in Starbucks could hardly contain herself from laughing when I ordered coffee (Mei shi). Not because I said anything incorrectly, but because I was speaking at all. After telling her what kind of coffee I wanted, she leaned in expectantly and asked (in Chinese) “and what size cup do you want…?” She leaned back excitedly to see how I’d respond. “A large cup,” I replied. “A large cup?” She said incredulously. “Yes, correct, a large cup.” It was like a dog had walked into the store and started talking to her.I experience a lot of what I like to call “pumpkin latte” moments… see past letter… IE an interaction where a local and I are both logically right, but logically wrong to the other person. Case in point: yesterday, Amaury and I went grocery shopping at Olé, a local store that specializes in imported and foreign goods. For example, it’s one of the only places where you can buy actual brown bread- living in China as a British-American makes me appreciate very small things like the smell of fresh brown bread. Whenever I buy it I spend a while just smelling it.

Olé also has a great yogurt section. Chinese-style yogurt is usually liquid and comes with a drinking straw. This is not acceptable with my granola (also available at Olé). I found one of my favorite brands of grapefruit flavored Swiss yogurt for only $1.50 a pot, so grabbed three. After shopping around for a while for various things, (no black beans this time, but success! I found canned soup!) we headed to the checkout. The nice cashier checking out our items commented that the yogurt was “buy one get one” and gestured towards the customer service desk. Thinking she meant they’d go get a fourth one for us, but seeing no one moving from the counter, I took it upon myself to get another one. Guangzhou is often an “if you want something done right, do it yourself” kind of place. The cashier seemed a bit confused by my take-charge attitude but rang up my fourth yogurt. As she gave us our receipt, she gestured again to the customer service desk. Thinking maybe she hadn’t been able to add the fourth yogurt to get us the discount, we dutifully headed to the desk. There, another nice employee opened up a cooler behind her and pulled out four additional, grapefruit-flavored Swiss yogurts.

I mean… they’re not wrong… it was “buy one get one.”

Italian Red Meat and Seaweed Flavor Lays.
Another thing that some find logically right, and I find logically awful.

In my mind, there are three main takeaways from this experience (can you tell I write a lot of essays?)1) Guangzhou is a nice place for ex-pats. I can get Swiss yogurt? What?! Here I can find products from all over the world including English treats that I can never find in the U.S. Apparently this is a very new (last six years) phenomenon in Guangzhou. While there isn’t a big ex-pat community here, we’re generally concentrated in Tianhe, so many of the shops here cater to us. Plus in China, foreign products- especially luxury brand products- are extremely fashionable and an indication of wealth. Now we’re not wealthy by U.S. standards, but by Chinese, we’re doing quite well. And as the only butter here is imported butter and the only cheese, imported cheese, we end up eating Kerry Gold butter and cheese from Ireland.2) It’s important to stress first that the ability to travel as much as I have comes from a place of huge privilege and includes access to high-quality education. That said, I am so convinced that if more people got out of their home countries and really explored and even lived somewhere else for even a short time, we’d have much, much fewer conflicts and political problems. I’m particularly looking at you America. There are so many times when locals and I have different approaches to things and yet are both right. We come at situations from different angles, but at the end of the day, we’re all just people trying to buy food to feed ourselves and our loved ones.In China, it’s particularly hard for the average Chinese person to travel outside of the country- it takes a lot of time, money, organization, and, honestly, desire to do so. Due to our more flexible schedules, accompanying spouses are more likely here to be the ones interacting with locals on a daily basis. So, I take my role as foreigner very seriously. Diplomacy is inherent in the most basic conversations I have. How do I want them to remember the American that came through the cash register?3) I’m always ridiculous here. I always make some small mistake during even the simplest interactions. But I hope people see how I laugh at myself, how I’m friendly, how I’m always quick to say “bu hao yisi” (“sorry, I’m embarrassed for that mistake”) how I’m very human, and that they remember that.That said, I will say that China is changing me too. I have become more direct when I talk to people, more aggressive when I cross the street, and more insistent when I need something. Here, it is very common for a local to see a foreigner and assume that we will be more difficult, more needy, more complicated, and less worth their time (these things are likely all true) mainly because we’re unlikely to speak Chinese and/or require something different from their typical customer.  They also don’t want to go through the embarrassment of it not working out well.  This results in locals mainly saying “no” to ex-pats. “Can I use visa?” “No.” “Driver, can you take me here?” “No.” “Can I reload my SIM card?” “No.” “Can I have a bag?” “No.” But in reality, the general rule is that all of these things are likely possible, you just have to ask insistently. For example, I know through past experience that my local grocery store (the Chinese one, not Olé) takes U.S. visa cards. However, usually when I ask, the cashiers say no, because it’s annoying for them and/or they don’t know for certain. So now, instead of a polite “Can I use visa?” I say “I know you use visa, here’s my card.”But here’s an important point. Locals here are generally super kind, nice, and helpful people. Every week I experience strangers going out of their way to help me. They’re just used to doing things a different way. A more direct and arguably clearer way that will get them from point A to B. And sometimes a way that results in me getting 8 yogurts instead of 4.So I’m doing my best to adapt to China, and I find it tries its best to adapt to me.

On that note, though, I’m excited to share that next week Amaury and I will be leaving China for about 3 weeks. Amaury’s work is sending him to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to support their consular section. I have to pay my own way, but of course, couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be there with him. I’ll have to brush off my Spanish and merengue moves.I love living in Guangzhou, but I’m looking forward to a little break, new scenery, and Dominican food that, as I’ve mentioned, cannot be found for love nor money in this city.

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