Writing a love letter to Guangzhou

I lied. I told you my next post would focus on our Bali trip, but since getting back, Guangzhou has reached out and pulled me into such a full and busy life that I’ve hardly had a chance to write. And when I do have a quiet moment to do so, my head and heart are so full of my experiences here, that I feel compelled to write about them. After some admittedly down times recently, it’s been nice to reconnect with this city and remember all the things I love about it.

One of my favorite hidden alleyways in GZ

Sweet, sweet fall has arrived in Guangzhou, which is a lot like summer in other places. It is a balmy 70-80 degrees with somewhat blue skies and an occasional breeze or cooler rainy day. The first cooler day hit a couple weekends ago when a group of us headed about 2.5 hours away to Qing Yuan for white water rafting. Since this is China, the river itself had actually been painstakingly crafted into what was essentially a 4.5km waterslide. It wasn’t exactly manmade but also wasn’t a completely natural river, so the drops and curves were sculpted for maximum shock while still being fun. I was trying to get water out of my ears for days afterward.

To give you a sense, here is a brief video from a couple years ago of it. I also can’t resist sharing this other video of some other river like this in the same region of China. I just love it so much, especially the music. Unfortunately, I don’t have my own pictures since we couldn’t take phones or anything we wanted to keep in the boat- this is why I need a GoPro.

The beautiful weather has been met with a mixed bag of clear and hazy days, but with such inviting temperatures, it’s hard not to want to be outside wandering around. And that’s what I’ve generally been doing lately. My wanders remind me of a line from Adele’s “Hometown Glory” –

I like it in the city when the air is so thick and opaque

I love to see everybody in short skirts, shorts, and shades

While I may not like the air, it does occasionally give the city a golden light. A brilliant yellow sunset casting a glow over people living their lives.

View from my window this morning

I took a different bus route home today and found myself wandering through a different part of town. A small neighborhood set against a backdrop of tall trees and taller skyscrapers. A mix of Guangdonghua and Putonghua (Cantonese and Mandarin) punctuating the warm but not too warm air. Children playing in a schoolyard and parents chatting outside the gates just like they do in the US and perhaps most other places, waiting to pick up their kids and head off home. Oh, and these children doing some kind of after-school rollerblading class:

The air in Guangzhou is always filled with competing odors from the disgusting to the calming to the worrying to the mouth-watering. The unmistakable whiff of urine replaced by the light scent of osmanthus flowers; the chemical smell of burning plastic or industrial paint briefly covered up as I walk past a dumpling shop.

Guangzhou is known in China for its food and it doesn’t disappoint. That perfect moment when a soup dumpling dissolves in your mouth. The spicy taste of hotpot that overwhelms all the senses and wets the brow with a light sweat. A beautifully crafted pineapple bun filled with red bean paste that reminds me of jelly donuts.

Pineapple bun

Ordering nái chá (milk tea) and asking for xiao tian (just a little sweet). A roundtable full of dim sum dishes served family style to a group of friends who keel over afterward and have to support each other in waddling home. Beijing style kao ya (roast duck) wrapped in light, tortilla-like pancakes and served with delicious brown sauce.The plethora of ingredients in some food versus the Cantonese tradition of cooking with minimal spices and light broth creating frequent dilemmas on where to go to eat. The paradox of choice. Not to mention all the Japanese restaurants that are tucked away on quiet street corners and in hidden second-floor restaurants just down below my soaring apartment building.

More soaring buildings

Guangzhou has competing sounds of traffic and roadwork and random men hammering out sheet metal and streetcleaners indiscriminately spraying the streets and unfortunate passersby with loud power hoses. Not to mention the sounds of competing songs played in the park by the famous ” dancing grannies,” serious power walkers, and karaoke singers.

At least in American terms, Guangzhou is hazardous. Construction work going on alongside pedestrians trying to get to work. Exposed wires poking threateningly out of the ground. Playing chicken with taxi drivers, bicycles, scooters, and people pulling handcarts filled sky-high with everything from small trees to styrofoam boxes to metal pipes. The polluted air complemented by cigarette smoke, road dust, and all those aforementioned smells.

Guangzhou doesn’t have a lot of foreigners except for during the current Canton Fair when all the hotels and foreign restaurants are bursting with wai guó rén (foreign people). During this time, there are about 10x more foreign faces in the crowded streets than usual yet it is still unusual to see a foreigner around, especially outside of the city center.

To celebrate a friend’s birthday, we go out to a popular speakeasy known for its excellent cocktails. We are the only foreign group in a bar filled with locals. The live band sings Western song after Western song, occasionally slipping in a Cantonese ballad or two. The local folks chat quietly, stare into their phones, or look off into space while our group sings loudly along. I feel both squarely in China and somehow back in the States as I sip an expertly-crafted Moscow Mule.

Later, we head over to a club at the Sofitel Hotel. The downstairs area is filled with young Chinese people yelling and dancing to intense dubstep. Someone sees us looking confusedly for our friends and waves us towards the back. We exit the dubstep dungeon through a winding flight of stairs and find ourselves in a chill bar playing hip hop and some Latin beats. It’s as if we’ve walked through a wormhole into downtown DC. It’s possible to be in two places at once. We leave the club once our refuge fills up to the brim with all the expats in town for the Fair. A sea of diverse faces all dancing to “Despacito.”

Guangzhou is filled with small, urban villages within the huge city. Traditional Cantonese life thrives just outside the central business district and coexists with the ubiquitous malls and enclaves of migrants where Mandarin and other dialects take over. In Dongshankou, the old residential heart of the city, we spend an afternoon ambling from one art gallery to another, into small tea shops, and marveling at the incongruous ecosystem of Western, traditional Chinese, and Communist architecture.

Historic building “1922” in Dongshankou

Inside the 1922 gallery

Dongshankou tea shop

As the weather cools, it is a time for exploration, for long walks, and for long chats. On a lazy Sunday, we get up late and meander over to Sun Yet Sen University. We arrive at a campus that feels like so many other college campuses we’ve visited. People laze around on lawns in front of buildings for various subjects. It’s so peaceful to wander around a university when you’re no longer a student.

Sun Yet Sen University

Not a student

The university’s north gate complete with students

Sun Yet Sen University

I finally screw up my courage to see a Chinese chiropractor. I’ve been hesitant because Chinese medicine can be a bit intense, but my shoulder and neck pain are insistent. Mr. Chen trained in Texas and speaks excellent English in a soft and soothing voice that encourages me that I’m in good hands. We look through my X-Rays together and he points out how my neck stands up straight as a pole instead of having the normal slight curve. After some massage, he tells me to lie back and relax. Breathe in; breathe out. He then says “put your hands to your side.” As I move my hands down he quickly jolts my head to the right with a loud crrrrack. He tricked me into relaxing.

As I lie there being tugged and stretched and evened out, I realize that the chiropractor is a metaphor for my larger experience in Guangzhou. It so often causes me to tense up and be apprehensive, but if I just relax and go with the flow, it can be really good for me.

Next time Bali, I promise.

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