6/5/16 - 6/5/16
My first impression of Guangzhou, China, the city that is to be my home for the next two weeks is…NEON. I arrived at dusk on a hot, humid Sunday evening. Guangzhou is a huge, sprawling subtropical city, the third largest city in China. Population estimates vary radically--anywhere from about 12 million to over 40 million in the metropolitan area--but most estimates place the area population at well over 20 million. That makes it the biggest city I’ve ever been to, significantly bigger even than New York City, where I lived for a year and a half after college.
But back to the neon lights. Speeding in a cab from the airport north of the city into downtown, I looked out the cab windows at the nighttime city, fascinated by the blinking yellow, blue, pink, green, and red neon lights on most of the thousands of modern buildings and skyscrapers packed into the downtown area. Even the hospital and school buildings here flash and blink at night, competing for attention in the midst of the urban chaos and lighting up the night sky. As a manufacturing hub for the country, the neon signs make promises of cheap wholesale goods for sale, such as clothing and electronics, or they lure hungry bargain hunters with promises of the Cantonese region’s famous cuisine, or they simply scream out the name of the business or agency they adorn.
I was lucky to have two graduate students from the university pick me up at the airport. Lynn and Apple hailed the cab that took me to the university hotel, where the three of us dropped my luggage and walked back outside onto the campus. The Sun Yat-sen University campus, dimly lit by an occasional streetlight, was a stark contrast from the bright, lively city. Small groups of students walked along the quiet campus paths or rode by on manual or gasoline-powered bicycles. We could hear bullfrogs croaking and smell the subtropical flowers that fill the many campus gardens.
We walked across the dark campus and out the campus gates into a narrow, brightly lit alleyway filled with street vendors who cater to the university students, mostly food stands, but also vendors selling pencils, notebooks, slippers, and other little items.
We stopped at a fruit cart and purchased a plastic bowl of freshly cut pineapple, dragon fruit, yangmei fruit, plums, and mangoes sprinkled with shaved ginger. Next we stopped at a tiny China Mobile storefront, where a store employee outfitted my cell phone with a Chinese SIM card.
Ever the unabashed tourist, I snapped pictures as we headed up the street to a small restaurant, where my hosts ordered us a traditional Cantonese meal of omelets and pounded rice porridge, which we ate along with the fruit. The food was fantastic, and Lynn and Apple were generous and gracious hosts, patiently answering my countless questions about the food, the city, the university, and their studies. They bursts into fits of giggles when I tried to grip my slippery omelet with chopsticks, Lynn rushing up to the food counter to grab me a spoon. (Good thing they weren’t around later in my hotel room to watch me try to figure out how to turn off the floor lamp. That would have made them laugh even harder.) They walked me back to my hotel room, and I slept right through past breakfast time Monday morning.
Thank goodness Lynn and Apple were there last night to lead me around town and to translate for me. They even wrote me up a little survival sheet with useful questions in Chinese that I can show to strangers in the hope of an answer in discernible gestures: “Where is the nearest metro stop?” “Where is Sun Yat-sen University?” “Where is the campus cafeteria?” It’s a strange and vulnerable feeling being a foreigner in a land where I don’t know the language at all. It’s a feeling that’s not entirely unfamiliar to me, as I’ve traveled to many non-English-speaking countries in the past, but it still comes as a shock to realize how little of my surroundings I can comprehend. Even tasks as minor as counting out change or reading a street sign are nearly impossible, with little to rely on but the good nature of strangers (and graduate students).
The neon lights, the sweet-smelling campus, the perfectly ripened fruit, the simple supper—It was a perfect introduction to China, and a magical evening here in the Guangdong Province, 500 miles north of the South China Sea.