Flashback Spring 2014: I’m helping with Steve Shaner’s introductory English class for new Chinese students at Harding University. For the assignment they have to introduce themselves to Americans in the student center. One of these Chinese students is a beautiful and very English-savvy girl named Sharon. She is a theater major, and we become good friends over the next year and a half. We go to dinner at “Chinese” places in Searcy, and go to events together. She teaches me more Chinese culture and also helps with my China application.
Fast forward to November 2015 and Sharon messages me on We Chat: “I will come back to China this month. Will you come visit me?”
First of all, getting to see Sharon in her own country? YES. Secondly, she lives in Guangzhou, the third biggest city in China, a city just two hours away that I have been dying to see since I have learned about it. Thirdly, the Canton Tower. I’ll come back to that.
So I book my fast train tickets and makes arrangements with Sharon, and BOOM, Thursday December 3 I’m arriving in Guangzhou with 4 days to explore the giant city.
The more I travel China, the more I learn, but the more I also see how little I know. I’ve barely tapped into the deep roots of Chinese history and people and places. Just a drop in the vast waves of Chinese culture.
Within each province of China, there is its own subculture. Different dialects, different food, different traditions. This is especially true in Guangzhou, where the people speak Cantonese as well as Mandarin. They learn Cantonese at home and through people they meet in the city, but they learn Mandarin at school because it is the national language. Sharon taught me a little: hello is Néih hóu (similar to the Mandarin hello Ni hao, but pronounced like Nay-hoe, not Nee-how) and thank you is M̀h’gōi (pronounced like Mmm goy, very fun to say)
Sharon’s mom and dad both work in prominent hotels in Guangzhou, and they graciously and generously arranged and paid for a hotel room for me in The Legend. After Sharon picked me up from the train station, we dropped my things off at the hotel and went to get Chinese foot massages. They also did back massages for us, and it was absolutely heavenly. We went to dinner with her mom afterwards in her mom’s hotel, where I tried Dim sum (also called Morning Tea), a local Cantonese cuisine, for the first time.
Her mom also arranged for us to go on a ferry ride that night to look at the city and the lights and the CANTON TOWER!. Unfortunately the weather was not good, and it was hard to see the lights, but it was still an amazing introduction to the city and so beautiful.
Okay, let’s get to the Canton Tower. Google Guangzhou. Press images. See that beautiful colorful building? There it is. (It’s ok if you don’t feel like googling, I’ll post pics further down) It was built in 2010 and is like a signature for the city of Guangzhou. It lights up every night and you can see it all around the city! I want to live and breathe and stare at this tower for the rest of my life. Sharon, a local, of course was surprised. “You really like this tower? Wow. Let’s go see your tower.”
Friday morning we went to a beautiful cathedral and then a 10 story shopping mall where vendors sold all kinds of trinkets and decorations, house items, and clothes. I bought a lot of Christmas decorations here because Hengyang does not sell much in the Christmas department.
We went to lunch at a Cantonese noodle shop where I tried shrimp wantons, cow stomach, and a sweet coconut and boba desert. There was also a food festival going on outside, and I tried some fish and meatballs with a sweet sauce. Cantonese food is traditionally sweet and much less spicy than Hunan food.
We shopped more in the afternoon. The cool thing about Guangzhou is how MANY SHOPPING MALLS THERE ARE. And there are all kinds of stores, American and Japanese and Korean. It was so cool being in a modern city with a million choices.
Another thing about Guangzhou – the Uber app is fairly new in China, so the prices are very cheap to encourage people to use it. Sharon lives and dies by Uber in Guangzhou. She doesn’t like taking taxis, because she thinks the drivers are not safe and their cars are dirty and they might cheat you. With Uber, you can call a driver to your location, and they have more requirements to be an Uber driver than a taxi driver does. Also, motorcycles or motos are banned in big cities like Guangzhou! It was so different than Hengyang, where you constantly have to check for crazy moto drivers before walking anywhere.
We met with Sharon’s dad and his friend for dinner that night at a Yunnan styled restaurant in a mall. (Because there are so many malls, of course there are tons of really great restaurants in these malls). Yuenan is a province in China next to Guangdong, the province Guangzhou is in. We had spicy eggplant, pork and peppers, tofu, and soup. Both Sharon’s mom and dad are ridiculously cool and hip people. Her mom speakes Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and English. Her dad doesn’t speak English so Sharon had to translate for us to talk to each other, but he has traveled to Australia, Korea (north and south!), Vietnam, and Thailand.
From there, we took the metro to the CANTON TOWER, because her parents bought us tickets to go to the TOP! It was amazing. The tower is the third tallest building in the world (it used to be the first) and the view at the top was gorgeous. There was a photographer by a glass ledge that would take your photo for you, and it was cheap to buy the photos (30 yuan for each picture we bought, or less than $5 each).
After the tower, Sharon took me to another area of the city where she said the nighttime came to life. We went to a restaurant she thought I would love, which I did. It was modeled after a Western style-literally. The waiters wore cowboy hats and flannel and boots, which was hilarious because I’ve never seen anyone in China dressed like that. They had western food as well, and a western live singer.
Side note on Sharon: Sharon does modeling, works for a TV studio in Guangzhou, and has also recorded a real song, and she is also one of the most put together people I’ve ever met in my life. After a full day together I looked like a hot mess and she was looking ready for a photo shoot.
Saturday morning I went exploring a little on my own, and then Sharon and her mom picked me up to go to lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant. I’ve never had Vietnamese food before – we had fish and spring rolls, shrimp and special noodles, and a spicy soup.
We walked around a super fancy mall afterwards, a mall with Prada and Gucci and all those expensive stores. There was also a bookstore with ENGLISH books and I’ve never been more excited. It’s been so long since I’ve seen English books. We tried Thai desert in the mall food court after, a sweet icy mountain with boba and red beans and yam on the side.
I went back to my hotel then, because we had a CHINESE WEDDING to get ready for. Sharon’s high school classmate invited her, and she asked if it was okay to bring me too (of course, he said) She said his family was very rich, so it was not a traditional Chinese wedding, but more of a Western style in the fancy Ritz-Carlton hotel downtown.
The wedding was in a beautiful room that felt like my high school prom – everyone sitting at formal tables. The ceremony was shorter than I expected. After a short time, the bride and groom entered and went to the front of the room. They exchanged vows and kissed, and then their families came on the stage and made speeches. There was a host who emceed the event, a normal thing in Chinese parties. While the groom and bride said their vows, Elton John sang “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” and the groom and bride walked out to “Sugar” by Maroon 5. “Very Western wedding,” Sharon said.
We ate dinner next – platters of pig (like a whole pig head was on the table, like in the medieval movies you see. There are cherries on the eyes of the pig that mean good luck), chicken, vegetables, mushrooms, snails, and soup came next. Then a desert of fruit and pumpkin soup. The wedding ended after dinner, which was a little surprising to me. I expected dancing or some kind of entertainment at a wedding like this, but dinner seemed to be the main event.
After dinner I wanted one last look at the Canton Tower, which you could see across the Pearl River from where we were. Unfortunately it was raining a little again, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Chinese people, they hate rain. Like even little sprinkles make them whip out their umbrellas and shuffle faster than their normal pace (Chinese people are pretty relaxed and slow walkers, which causes me a little frustration on the streets sometimes). So poor Sharon had to walk with this crazy American who wanted to see the tower one more time in the rain and take pictures while trying to hold an umbrella. She’s the real MVP.
My last day in Guangzhou I spent walking around my hotel area some more before Sharon called an Uber driver to pick me up and take me back to the train station. My uber driver was like the coolest driver I’ve ever had. He knew a little English and we asked each other questions about traveling, languages, and Guangzhou. He heard me singing to the song “House Party” on the radio (which, by the way, Country music playing in China is very strange!) It was bad quality on the radio, so he found the song online and played the song on the car speakers through his phone. He played some Maroon 5 and Adele as well and I was so sad when I arrived at the train station. I’m a little mad for not getting my new friend’s wechat information because he was so cool! I’m probably never going to see him again, and that made me think about all the people I will meet and will never see again in China. A good reminder to make the most of the time you have where you are.
It’s such an exhilarating thing to travel around China, seeing new cities and meeting new people. I want to see as much as I can, and I’m excited about the month long winter break I will have in February! Sorry this is such a lengthy gushing session about Guangzhou – I loved this city so much!
Peace out, homies