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On Window(less) Shopping in Guangzhou

A few days after I arrived here in Guangzhou, the university closed for the three-day national Dragon Boat Festival holiday. I had planned to wake up early and head to the Pearl River to watch the dragon boat races. Unfortunately, exhausted from the long trip to China and from my first day of lecturing at the university the day before, I slept through my alarm.

By more than five and a half hours.

Not only did I miss the dragon boat races, I missed breakfast, lunch, and a good part of the afternoon. I took a shower, dressed, and walked out the front door of the university hotel. The campus paths and lawns were packed with people who had come to the big city for the long holiday weekend. They posed next to statues and signs as their family members snapped pictures.

I walked toward the university’s South Gates to explore the area to the south of campus. It started to rain -- hard -- just a few minutes after I stepped outside, heavy, warm drops falling faster and faster. People started running for cover, huddling under awnings and in building doorways, but not me. I refused to let a little bit of subtropical rain (OK, a LOT of subtropical rain) stymie my plans, and I marched along through the rain under my little travel umbrella, water sloshing in and out of my shoes and splashing up onto my dress.

I exited the campus gates onto the wide city avenue that leads to one of the Guangzhou garment districts. Guangzhou is a major textiles producer, producing fabrics and clothing that is shipped and sold not just throughout China but throughout the world. I bought a few pastries at a bakery, and then walked deeper into the garment district, munching on almond rolls and dim sum buns filled with red bean paste.

The garment district reminded me a lot of Manhattan’s garment district, but this garment district covers a much larger area, while the individual shops – many no larger than a newsstand – tend to be much smaller. Few shops here sell finished clothing. Instead, they sell uncut lengths of patterned silks or cotton fabrics. Other shops sell additional items needed to make clothes – shops that sell only zippers, or only buttons, or just sequins, or just ribbons, or just lace. The little shops gape wide open to the street—the sliding metal front walls rolled up and open for business—often with the shop proprietor sitting on a chair or stool in the entryway, where the indoors and outdoors meld into one.

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Music was pouring out of many of the little shops, a lot of traditional Chinese music and also a lot of North American and British pop hits re-recorded in Chinese. Songs by dramatic female singers were especially popular: Celine Dion in Chinese, Karen Carpenter in Chinese, Whitney Houston in Chinese.

The rain stopped. People thronged the sidewalks, most of them out for a walk on a holiday afternoon. Vehicles of all sizes clogged the city streets, rushing by, narrowly missing pedestrians, drivers yelling at each other to get out of the way, some drivers honking indiscriminately as they squeezed their vehicles through any available spaces in the congested streets.

It seems that stoplights here are more of a suggestion than a rule, with cars, bicycles, little three-wheeled mechanized trucks, and tiny motorized vehicles of all types running the stoplights almost as often as stopping for them. I was careful to cross with the lights at intersections with stoplights, but still I – and all the other pedestrians – had to dodge oncoming vehicles from all directions each time I crossed. It’s a miracle that more people here do not get run over.

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I walked block after block, looking at all of the beautiful fabrics. I was hoping to buy my daughter, who has an eye for fine fabrics, a dress or a lace blouse, but all I could find were uncut bolts of fabric.

I didn’t buy anything. I am a half-way decent seamstress. I sewed most of the window curtains in my house and all of the shower curtains, tablecloths, and bed skirts, but I don’t trust my skills enough to cut into a bolt of delicate Chinese silk.

As the afternoon wore on, the heat index began to climb. I started to feel dizzy from the heat and humidity. I had to remove my glasses repeatedly to wipe the lenses with the hem of my dress to clear off accumulating moisture. I don’t do well in heat and have overheated many times before. On the first day that I lived in Texas, I walked several miles all over the University of Texas campus in the hot August afternoon sun and then passed out cold on the floor of the men’s bathroom in the chemistry building (I couldn’t find the women’s bathroom.). And the first time I visited a beach in Rio de Janeiro, I got a blistering sunburn in under an hour and a blinding headache from excessive exposure to the sun.

Still, a hot day in Guangzhou is like nothing I have ever experienced before. The heat is thicker and heavier here than anywhere else I have traveled. Even though I don’t see well with glasses, I haven’t attempted to wear my contacts here because my eyes are so swollen from the heat, humidity, and air pollution that I cannot open them fully. As I continued to walk around in the worsening afternoon heat, I really needed a cold drink.

Despite the oppressive heat and humidity, most of the liquids here are drunk either tepid or hot. All I could find to drink in the garment district was hot tea, so I turned around and walked back to the main avenue in front of the university. I stopped at a little storefront counter covered with large pictures of fruity drinks. I pointed to the one labeled “coconut.” It turned out to be bubble tea, tea with lumps of sticky tapioca lurking at the bottom of the cup. Bubble tea drinkers drink through a fat straw, wide enough to suck up the lumps along with the tea. I had tried bubble tea before in the U.S. and hated it. I positioned the straw in the top-half of the cup to avoid getting mouthfuls of the flavorless gelatinous globs. The coconut chai part of the drink was sweet and cold, though, and as long as I avoided the globs, it tasted pretty good.

I continued walking along the wide avenue until I came to the next commercial district. It appeared to be a bargain shopping area. Salespeople stood outside the open fronts of the shops, which were larger and more modern here, clapping and yelling at passers-by, trying to entice them to enter and buy. Some even shouted into portable microphones, no doubt touting their low, low prices.

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A few greeted me with hopeful yells of “Hello! Hello!” but I walked along without buying anything. I did stop at a pharmacy in search of Band-Aids. From the outside it appeared to be a standard modern pharmacy, but once inside I realized that it was an herbal medicine shop, with shrink-wrapped packages of modern herbal remedies lining the shelves in the front of the store, and glass counters filled with dried mushrooms, dried roots, and other traditional Chinese medicines filling up the back half of the store.

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I left the herbal medicine store and walked on until I came to a kind of little indoor mall, taking up the whole first floor of a large building. It was crammed full of little stalls where people sold random collections of clothes, pajamas, underwear, purses, shoes, costume jewelry, and makeup.

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I walked around looking at the stalls. I also counted three different little shops that looked like manicure parlors, with young women and men wearing face masks, bent over seated clients, working on their fingers or toes.

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I treated myself to a manicure, which actually proved to be kind of painful. I have never seen such vigorous nail filing before. Instead of filing just the outer edges of the nails, the manicurist also filed the whole wide, flat surface area of my nails down almost to the nerve endings below. Then she built up the weakened nails with a noxious-smelling -- possibly toxic -- compound labeled “builders gel.”

As I was getting my nails done, the young woman in the parlor seat next to me struck up a conversation, speaking cheerfully to me as her own nails were being vigorously filed. I smiled and nodded politely, having no idea what she was saying. Finally she said a word that I understood: “Wechat?” Wechat is the Chinese equivalent of Facebook, and virtually everyone I’ve met in China so far uses it. It has individual and group chat features, e-pay that is accepted in most Chinese businesses, photo and video sharing capabilities, and more.

I pulled out my phone and signed onto my Wechat account. The young woman pulled out her own phone, and we friended each other. Later that evening after I had returned to my hotel, she sent me several friendly messages, first her name and then a series of cheerful emojis. I wrote her a couple of short messages back introducing myself and telling her where I come from. A couple of days later she texted me again, this time with the cryptic message: "Hello, you useful to protect skin to taste?” My best guess is that she is the equivalent of a Chinese Avon saleslady and she’s hoping to sell me some skin products. I have yet to figure out how to answer her message.

After the (painful) manicure, I turned back in the direction of campus to begin the steamy walk home. I couldn’t help but laugh at much of the written English that I saw in the streets: the ATM’s marked “Cash Recycling Machines,” the teenage boy walking down the street with “SOCCER MOM” printed in large, bold letters on his t-shirt, the old ladies wearing shirts making statements about teenage female anatomy too obscene for me to repeat here.

Even though I spent the afternoon just wandering around the city streets, I think I came to know China a bit better that day, coming to understand that China is not just a land of contrasts, but a land of amalgamation as well: the use of English language words as decoration on Chinese clothes and buildings; the seamless mixture of the old China with the new, such as the old Daoist temple standing strong in the midst of the modern garment district, or the half-New Age medicine, half-old Chinese medicine pharmacy; the mixing of foreign cultures with Chinese culture, such as the North American pop music not merely borrowed but remade into something entirely new. All of these amalgamations combine to form modern China, a country that I am coming to love more and more with each passing day.

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Posted by dagosto 04:47 Archived in China

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