I was scared. Airplane ticket in hand, travel insurance purchased and travel documents in order, I wondered how else I could prepare for a two month long trip thousands of miles away in a country where I would be subject to whatever fate would throw at me. I had spoken to many people who have been to Guangzhou, a city in southern China two hours away from Hong Kong, where I was to stay with a family acquaintance and my girlfriend and teach children English, but it didn’t make me any less nervous.
Everyone offered me advice, each one frightening me more than the last: don’t ever carry my passport on me, I will get pick-pocketed. In fact, don’t bring my beloved BlackBerry, my watch or my wallet when I go out. Don’t walk down dark alleys, don’t tell people anything about myself and the list goes on. The fear of the unknown has no boundaries.
Still, my first glimpse of China was breathtaking. Two flights and 18 hours later, my girlfriend and I found ourselves standing outside the sprawling Hong Kong International Airport. A wall of humidity closed in around me as I gazed at the mountain faces to the North which reminded me of British Columbia. To the South was the expanse of the South China Sea, with the massive state-of-the-art airport built on a man-made island perched on the water in the middle of it all.
“First, second and third world all wrapped in one”
Hong Kong holds true to its reputation of being an ultra-modern city with the flavours and traditions of the Orient. And apart from Shanghai and Beijing, Guangzhou is the closest one gets to the hustle and bustle that is Hong Kong. In China, greatness is measured by the country’s prosperity in trade and commerce. Everything else is secondary. There is a saying in my native tongue Cantonese: money doesn’t make everything possible, but without it, nothing is possible. That said, Guangzhou’s growth is getting much attention. The construction in particular is overwhelming. New buildings are popping out of seemingly nowhere. Migrant construction workers labour around the clock. Cranes straddle the sky, with bamboo scaffolding and dark green canvas covering the steadily-growing concrete behemoths. My girlfriend, who’s been to China before, was willing to bet money that the hole in the wall of a building we walk by everyday will be open for business by the time we leave the city. Sure enough, the bare concrete and steel space turned into a brand new bustling eatery five weeks later. It’s difficult to grasp the scale of China’s economy. In a big city like Guangzhou, there is no perspective. For instance you can have a meal for $2 CDN, or you can shop at the Nike store and pay roughly the same amount as you would in Canada for a pair of runners. A house in a super-exclusive complex in Guangzhou could be worth up to $6 million CDN or higher, and trust me, there are people living in them. However, at the same time there are migrant workers from agricultural provinces who live and hang their laundry on a patch of dirt in the median of a highway. What I saw was a first, second and third world country all wrapped in one.
At the centre of all the development in Guangzhou are the 17 million people who live there (roughly half the population of Canada). Contrary to what I was told by friends and family who are all natives of Hong Kong, people there were very friendly and nice. They will smile if you’re nice to them, and they will help ignorant and helpless tourists like me with directions (provided that my rusty Cantonese was actually making any sense). But here’s where the praise stops and the paradoxes begin. In China, people don’t believe in waiting in lines. Waiting for a seat before you get on the metro? Four people will cut in front of you before the doors open and straddle whatever space is left. Waiting for service at a department store counter? The etiquette isn’t to wait and smile when the store employee looks at you, but to wave whatever item you’re trying to return and yell at the stressed employee. It was amusing to watch at first, but irritating after three weeks. I had to intervene when a lady tried to jump the queue after I waited five minutes for ice cream at a buffet. Enough was enough. On a side note, people also don’t turn off their cellphones in a movie theatre. Expect to hear every ring tone ever produced.
I will say I was very glad to be able to speak the language. Cantonese is a Chinese dialect spoken mainly in the southern parts of China and Hong Kong (where I lived for the first seven years of my life). There’s a lot to be learned when you can converse with the locals. One of the first things I noticed is that they are a very proud people – especially when they know you’re from abroad. That is because it is very difficult for ordinary Chinese earning far below the North American poverty line to leave the country. But the challenge is not only economical; the government makes it hard for people without connections to get travel visas. I found them proud because they are very conscious of their social standing compared to foreigners, even though it’s silly for any foreigner to put themselves on a higher level than a local. I had a delightful experience meeting the family of a local friend we met, for which we travelled to a quaint small village outside of town for a family feast. But the main topics of conversation between her mom and I were: what’s it like living in Canada; how commercial opportunities in North America compare to Guangzhou; how much property she owned and important people she knew. This was all discussed within the first five minutes of our meeting. I wished they could just be happy with what they have, rather than constantly comparing themselves to others. I have a few explanations for this, mainly that Hong Kong businessmen and tourists, who used to come in droves to Guangzhou to run their factories, may have created a sense of insecurity amongst mainlanders (a term used amongst Hong Kongers as borderline derogatory). People in southern China, being next to the commercial giant that is Hong Kong, have always been made to feel inferior in culture, ethics, civility and education. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear the elitism coming from my own family in Hong Kong after spending seven weeks on the mainland, but I cannot blame them because the sense of superiority is ingrained.
Capitalist economy under autocratic rule
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not under any illusions about the things in China which require massive changes. When I was there, two things happened which reinforced some of the negative global perceptions of China. A brand new condominium building toppled over because the developer cut corners with the materials and the construction. Luckily, residents hadn’t moved in yet. Second: the social unrest and rioting that happened in Xinjian province where the Uighur, a Muslim ethnic minority in China, took their frustration out on the police and the Han Chinese. This led to martial law, widespread arrests and 140 deaths in the region. During my stay in Guangzhou, this led to the banning of Facebook by whichever agency in the Central government that controls Internet use (YouTube was banned the year before).
For journalists in Canada, freedom of the press is an ideal which is protected from any encroachment by our government. But in China one has no choice but to roll over. Although I came to China to teach English, I wound up as a volunteer copy editor at an English magazine. On my first day, I asked about how the government regulates media content. My editor in chief, an Indian and a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, said it was very simple: they send all their pages to be censored a few days before going to press. I was told this shadowy government agency has a list of words which cannot be used in our writing. For example: “homosexual,” or “gay.” You can probably guess some of the others.
One can see a great deal in two months in a foreign land – much more than can be covered in 1500 words . My trip was an eye-opening experience because it broadened my perspective of the world ten-fold. It made me realize what I’ve always taken for granted in Canada and helped me understand the causes and effects of a rapidly growing economy. It also reinforced my roots and my connection to my birth country. But would I do it again? Probably not. It’s too hot, too crowded and too dusty. On top of that, I would probably be put in jail for writing this in China.