Guangzhou is abuzz with anticipation for Chinese New Year. Personally, it reminds me of the feeling the week before Christmas when looking forward to the day is almost better than the day itself. People are out washing the streets, the windows, the storefronts; planting new trees, flowers, and installations celebrating the year of the dog; selling off old merchandise to be replaced with new. Everything old must go and cleaning must happen now because no cleaning is allowed during the first day of the New Year. You might accidentally sweep away your luck for the coming year.
Even the weather feels washed anew. This past weekend, Amaury and I found ourselves with a lovely lazy Sunday afternoon. Sunny, cool, and fresh, the day outside beckoned us out of our comfy apartment.
We headed into the maze of meandering tree-lined streets and alleys next to our building. A hipster’s paradise, this neighborhood is filled with vintage clothes shops; Chinese, Korean, and Japanese restaurants usually selling one thing like just ramen, just rice dishes, just roast goose; and craft coffee shop after craft coffee shop.
After wandering for a bit, we ducked into one of our favorite coffee places, 回来 Hui Lai (“Come Back” in English) for a tasty coffee and some time planning out our various projects. Hui Lai’s barista bar has a glittering array of equipment that looks more appropriate for crazed science experiments than pressing caffeinated beverages out of beans. Amaury spent most of the time getting up and admiring the various accoutrement that we certainly don’t need.
When I asked Amaury what he felt like doing next he was struck with the happy problem of someone who travels a lot: Eat mofongo along the Malecon in Santo Domingo; eat fried fish in Cinque Terre in Italy; wander along the waterfront in Georgetown. Essentially, he wanted to be outside, preferably by a body of water, eating something delicious. We decided to wander down through Huacheng Park, the giant park in the new central business district, and end up at the waterfront along Zhu Jiang (the Pearl River).
Huacheng has two levels: the upper outdoor level with water features, flowers, trees, and pedestrian-only walkways; and, a second subterranean mall that has at least a mile of cheap eateries and shops that are usually full of young people looking for bargains and cheap eats.
There’s a lot to see in Guangzhou and we do try to get out and see its cultural, historical, and well-known sights on a regular basis. But on that lazy Sunday, we didn’t feel like exploring China; we felt like just being here. It seemed like a lot of Guangzhou felt the same way because Huacheng Park was full of people out enjoying the sunshine. With no real plan other than to wander along the waterfront, we slowly may our way down the park, stopping like many other people for snacks and lazy sitting around. We burned our tongues on piping hot Shanghai-style fried soup dumplings and waited thirty minutes to buy tea from the famed Hey Tea. It’s common practice here for long lines to snake out of popular tea places as people line up simply because there is a queue in the first place. We were not disappointed this time though, as it turned out Hey Tea is worth all the hype. With some reservations, I ordered a “cheese tea” – black tea with a cheesy foam on the top. It sounds terrible, but when done right it’s delicious and a bit like sweet mascarpone.
Tea in hand, we finally reached Zhu Jiang, the skyscraping Canton Tower rising up over Chinese New Year decorations still in a state of installation. Workers in large-brimmed hats worked to plant flowers and put up displays, as we snuck a few sneaky pictures. We’ll have to brave the crowds next week during the actual holiday to see the finished product.
We have just four and a half months left in Guangzhou before we fly back to the US. I feel a strange preparatory nostalgia, as I ready myself for that moment when I will no longer be an ex-pat in China, something that has become a part of my identity. This perhaps explains why lately we feel like taking the long walk home and keep going out to eat instead of cooking at home. There is so much to experience in Guangzhou and in China. Every meal is an experience; every walk and interaction an opportunity to hear and speak Chinese.
Experiences and tasks that once seemed scary challenges have become part of my daily routine. Picking out characters on a menu to order is second nature. I remember how when we first arrived, Amaury and I rarely tried new restaurants by ourselves. We’d go with a friend and then return once we knew what to order and how.
Last week, I had a strong craving for hot pot. There’s nothing like bubbling red spicy soup to clear out a head cold and after being sick for a week, I longed for ma la (Sichuan spicy pepper) to set my sinuses free. We set off for one of my favorite, foreigner-friendly hot pot restaurants only to find that it had closed for good, as often happens seemingly overnight here.
As we pondered our next move, a young woman approached us brandishing a flyer for a new Mongolian hot pot restaurant in the same mall. Taking our chances, we headed in to find a menu entirely in Chinese and a staff that spoke no English. Not deterred in the slightest, we worked through the menu together, using our limited reading skills and a translation app to pick out items we love to eat at hot pot and many of which I’d rarely eaten before coming to China- lotus root, baicai (Chinese cabbage), winter melon. We were so enthusiastic in our ordering that we ordered enough for four people… which we still wolfed down, hot pot has seriously become one of my favorite foods.
Can you tell which soup is the ma la?
After the meal, we were pleasantly surprised to hear from friends that this restaurant is a chain that exists in the US and Canada. Check out Little Sheep Hot Pot to try it out! There’s even a location in the DC Metro Area. It’s good to know that I’ll still be able to satisfy my cravings for foods I’ve come to love here once we are back stateside… And then eventually we’ll be at our next overseas assignment where we’ll have all new foods to discover and over-eat.
新年快乐！ Happy New Year!