Summer is in full swing, and the days are hot, humid, and stormy with daily torrential rain showers that cool off the city and people. I’m spending my week days working as a Lead Counselor at Camp Canton Academy AKA summer camp. I think this is the third year we’ve organized a camp. It was initially started by a few spouses who are teachers, but who are otherwise unable to teach in China. This year we’re putting it on in partnership with the U.S. Consulate and the American International School of Guangzhou (AISG) and have a mix of academic activities taught by AISG teachers and summer fun led by me and my friends S and Y along with some assistant and junior counselors. It’s designed to bring an American-style camp to ex-pat families here in Guangzhou.
It’s fun to dig deep into my, now long ago, college summers as a camp counselor and teaching assistant and come up with games, songs, and crafty activities to entertain excited kids. It’s also super tiring. My energetic rendition of “Boom Chicka Boom” (fun camp song) left me breathing hard in a way I don’t remember from when I was 18… Either I have a rosy memory of camp or I’m getting old…heh. That said, one of the campers asked me what grade I’m in, so I guess I’m holding up well. I’m responsible for the rising 2nd grade age group, ages 7-8, as well as running a couple games with the pre-K group each day. One of my campers told me the other day that when she leaves camp each day, she wants the time to go super fast so she can be back at camp again, so that’s a good sign!
Playing a space monster during an obstacle course we made for them
It’s hard to believe that we’re now at our year anniversary of being in China. We’ve been staying close to home over the past few weeks and have been enjoying finding new things to love about Guangzhou. A year in and there’s still so much to experience. For so long, it’s felt like we just arrived. Now it feels like the clock is ticking down, and I want to fill in my free hours with more of Guangzhou before it’s suddenly time to leave.
Due to language, cultural, diplomatic, and academic barriers, the ex-pat community here is somewhat apart from everyday Chinese life. While we interact with locals on a daily basis, we also have our own separate way of life and community within the city. Some separation is officially created- for example, only ex-pat kids are allowed to go to AISG, only ex-pats are allowed to go to certain churches, and only ex-pats (from certain countries) have easy freedom of movement between Hong Kong and China. Other divisions are more organic. Our local Cal-Mex restaurant is generally filled with only ex-pats, as are several ex-pat bars. Many housing complexes, though open to anyone, particularly cater to ex-pat families. The same goes for the imported goods grocery stores around the city. We also have our own ex-pat magazines including “That’s PRD” (Pearl River Delta) and “Urban Family,” which are written in English mainly by ex-pats and feature topics that we all experience here.
For example, the current issue of the magazine focuses on the sudden proliferation of public bicycles in Guangzhou. Within a couple months, the streets and sidewalks have been filled with subscription bikes that you can sign up to ride for a small fee. Equally rapidly there has been the appearance of at least 5 different public bike companies, all competing with different colors and features to grab people’s attention and money. Watching the economics in action is amazing- I think the market may be reaching saturation, because sometimes there are so many bikes parked on the sidewalk that pedestrians can’t get past. Apparently, the public bikes are so popular that regular bike shops have been put out of business.
Another recent issue focused on Guangzhou and Shenzhen’s urban villages. Cities have developed so rapidly here that within just a few years previously-empty land has become extremely valuable, as have old, deteriorating apartment buildings that used to make up small villages here. Seemingly overnight, villagers have found themselves wealthy property owners and in an advantageous position to negotiate with the government over the sale of their land. While many urban villages neighborhoods are sticking around for now, others are slated to be torn down. Such goes the saga of the famous urban village Xian Cun, which is just a block away from my apartment building.
For a couple years now, Xian Cun’s apartments have been officially empty and are crumbling into a level of deterioration that looks post-apocalyptic. While the government has been negotiating with the owners, Xian Cun has remained in limbo. Unofficially, people – original villagers and migrant workers – continue to live in the buildings. Washing is hung up outside glass-less windows, strung-up electricity lines zigzag along the alleyways, and entrepreneurial souls set up little convenience shops and restaurants down below. In fact, Xian Cun is one of the few places in the Guangzhou city center where you can find street food (it otherwise being forbidden in this area). Since it’s already not supposed to exist, it’s sort of fallen into a bureaucratic no man’s land. None of my pictures of Xian Cun could do it any justice compared to ones taken by others. Here are a few I found that capture it well (linked to give credit):
Walking home about a month ago, Amaury and I were concerned to see a large event outside Xian Cun’s main entrance. Most of the neighborhood is hidden from view behind tall, concrete walls with just a few entry points. A large red banner and tables had been set-up, apparently to celebrate that a deal between the owners and government has finally been reached. It will be good that new, safe buildings will be built in Xian Cun’s place, anyone looking at the pictures can see how hazardous the current ruined buildings are. On the other hand, it will be devastating for many of the current residents, mainly migrants, who cannot afford housing prices in the city. I’m doubtful that any public programs will be developed to meet their needs, because they are not from Guangzhou so according to Chinese law, do not qualify for social services here.
It will also be sad to see a slice of urban village culture disappear. Walking along one of Xian Cun’s street-food streets makes Guangzhou feel much smaller and the people there are friendly and kind. We went there recently for street food- a whole eggplant grilled in garlic, sizzling oysters, squid on a stick, barbecue meats, flavorful noodles, and corn on the cob. A young guy grabbed our food to fry up saying “You want this? And this? How about that? How many?” There is the “oyster woman” who makes the best-cooked oysters and the “noodle man” who makes the best noodles. It’s a very local place and few foreigners come through. I don’t know how to feel about China and its fast-paced development- definitely conflicted.
Xian Cun Street Food
Our Food Selections
I definitely know how to feel about Guangzhou’s taxi drivers. Ugh- lately everyone has been getting increasingly annoyed with them. Far too often they are rude, unintelligible, threatening scam artists. My negative experiences with cab drivers fall into a few categories:
1) They refuse to take you anywhere. I don’t know how the economics of this works in their minds, but easily 50% of the time a cab driver will pull up to me, ask where I’m going, and refuse to take me either because it’s too close, too far, or not on his (they are mainly men) way. These reactions range from a silent negative wave of the hand, to one driver literally saying “Ahahahahaha, there?! No way” to me in Chinese.
2) They don’t understand or choose not to understand. Many cab drivers are migrants from other parts of China, so sometimes they really don’t understand Mandarin. Other times they see a foreigner and decide they can’t/won’t understand us. Just this weekend a friend and I got in a cab and told him where we live, which is in a particularly well-known part of town on a major thoroughfare and at a clearly marked skyscraper that can be seen from far away. He refused to listen, saying “I don’t understand you.” Finally, my friend said in Mandarin, “What kind of driver are you?” which he apparently understood just fine. He then tried to cheat us before we left the cab in disgust (see item 4 below).
3) They really don’t know where something is. The other day one of the staff at my building helped me flag a cab, but when I got in, the driver didn’t know where I was going. In this case, I was going 15 minutes away to a well-known island that pretty much anyone who has lived in Guangzhou for a month knows. The staff person and I were so shocked, we both kept saying, “You DON’T know?” even after I got out of the cab and it drove away. If only there were a small machine, that most every person in China could afford, carry, and use basically 24/7 (sometimes while walking, driving, and crossing the street), that would allow one to get visual and audio directions to any place one wishes to go.
4) They just want more money for being them. Sometimes drivers are willing to take you… for an extra fee, usually around double the actual price to go somewhere. If I’m desperate I’ll agree, but most times I just get out or argue at them to “da biao” (use the meter). My favorite was when Amaury and I took a cab home from the airport and the driver wanted us to pay him a “special price” because he “had been waiting at the airport for THREE hours” before we showed up… Note, we did not book him in advance, we just went to the taxi stand. Of course we made him da biao, because what? As Amaury said, as politely as possible to him, “bu shi women de wenti” (not our problem).
Of course, it’s illegal for cabs to do pretty much all of the above (apart from just fundamentally being lost), but enforcement is sketchy. One helpful thing is that the crumminess (or quality if you want to take the glass half full approach) of cabs is color-coded. The worst ones are dark green, followed by red, then gold, then light green, then blue, then yellow. Yellow cabs are the pinnacle of Guangzhou cabs. They have mainly local drivers, are nicer and more comfortable, and the drivers tend to be polite.
That said, the terribleness of cabs here makes the good experiences shine out. Just today I took a light green cab to work and the driver was so polite and followed my directions. He even played soothing music and then struck up a brief conversation with me when I complimented him on his radio station choice. Aaaaaah it’s the little things in life. And there’s always Didi, the Chinese version of Uber, which recently launched an English version of its app. Now if only I could get it to work on my Android phone.
We recently attended an American Independence Day celebration hosted by the U.S. Consulate. As is becoming tradition, the Cantones, one of the choirs I’m in, sang the U.S. and Chinese national anthems. This year’s theme was National Parks and guests walked past large pictures featuring major parks throughout the U.S. Along the way, guests could collect stamps of each park in a National Parks passport and of course take photos (you know an event is successful in China if everyone has their phones out for selfies and group shots).
On stage, as we began to sing, I suddenly felt a rush of emotion. Is this my life? That I get to participate in events like this and meet people from all over the world? Sometimes it feels like I’m living in a dream. A dream in which my love for music, international affairs, language, and food come together in a wonderful combination.
On the rollercoaster that is ex-pat life, I’m back up at the top… even GZ taxi drivers can’t bring me down.