Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Culture Shock

The bus heads along the motorway past nondescript industrial scenes until we enter the outskirts of Guangzhou. It reminds me of Sao Paolo with its endless vistas of overpasses and appartment blocks, concrete everywhere. It's not noticeably polluted although the sunshine is hazy. At the bus station a friendly woman at the information counter tells us about onward buses. And food?, we ask, instinctively miming with our hands the act of pushing something into our mouths. Over the road, 3rd floor. We take a footbridge that leads us to a KFC and the Kung Fu fast food restaurant. Bruce Lee and Colonel Sanders look at us impassively over the heads of hundreds of hungry punters. Nonplussed, we decide to try our luck by the railway station where, sure enough, there's some cheap and cheerful little hovels serving noodles or rice and steam tray food. We plump for rice, veg and pork rind. Should've gone for the chicken. Now, how to eat rice with chopsticks? Despite Kenny's attempt to improve my technique in Singapore, I'm still learning. It's easier when I don't think about it. Unfortunately when I'm hungry I think about it a lot. Luckily, the bloke at the table next to us is demonstrating perfectly. Basically get your gob as close to the rice as possible and shovel. It works. Later that day we practice eating noodle soup with chopsticks. This is best done whilst wearing a multi-coloured patterned shirt.

We're Couch Surfing in Guangzhou. Couch Surfing puts you in touch with people who can give you a bed (or couch) for the night and perhaps provide some local knowledge. It's a great opportunity for some 'cultural exchange'. Our host is Eli, a 60 year-old New York businessman and self-proclaimed "wise ass" with a voice like gravel. He's straight out of 'Rhoda', and between cracks about living and working in China, he gives us shopping tips and places to find bargains. ("Haggle for everything!") It's a different kind of cultural exchange.

We take the metro, modern clean and crowded, into the centre for a look around. There are the ever-present 7-Elevens (which Gayle keeps calling 9-Elevens) and McDonalds. We even come across a Tesco's and check out the fruit and fresh produce. The apples look good, but we pass on the frogs, crabs, toads, turtles, eels and various fish - particularly the one that leaps out of its tank into the aisle in front of us and is quickly swept up by a cleaner and dumped straight back in. Not quite like home - at least here you know it really is fresh. In the old downtown area the streets are leafier and smaller and lots of cyclists whizz by. Instead of the shopping plazas and chainstores there are hundres of tiny shops, looking as untidy and disorganised as those we have seen in Bangkok's Chinatown. Everyone seems to be out shopping, just like every other Asian city we have visited, and come to think of it, just like London or Manchester. Shop shop shop. China seems on first impressions to be no different to anywhere else. This thought comes as a disappointment.

Guangzhou is China's third largest city and was it's biggest trading port before the Communist People's Republic opted to try Capitalism. The province is heavily industrialised and down on the river front you can see cargo boats and freight barges ambling past, whilst in the murky waters are groups of adventurous swimmers crossing the wide Pearl River. On Shamian Island, a piece of land conceded to the British and French, there's a clutch of old colonial buildings and churches. Some are still being restored. Young wedding couples pose in the gardens for photographs. Groups of old folk play cards or checkers or just sit motionless in the stifling afternoon heat. We succumb to the air-conditioned comfort of Starbucks. Inside there's a group of Americans with newly-adopted Chinese babies - apparently it's the place to do it - and various young and wealthy-looking locals, all busily tapping away at their laptops. We stay for two hours until our sweat-dripping clothes have dried out. Down Smooth Minaret Street is a smooth minaret. It belongs to a mosque that is believed to be China's first, established by one of Mo's uncles around 627 AD. Muslims only, unfortunately, but we can confirm that the minaret is smooth. Not far away is the city's oldest Buddhist temple, the "Temple of Filial Piety', about 300 years younger. The temple complex is in very good nick which means it either survived the worst of the Cultural Revolution or has been well-restored. We wonder how popular religion is these days in China.

Not as popular as shopping, based on a simple visual assessment. Down on Bargain Street things are hotting up. Discount shops have clapping sales assistants to entice us in. Or drive us away. Down a back street there's rows of food stalls. One advertises "Fresh New Zealand Mutton". Another sells kebabed grubs, beetles and scorpions. After shopping in Tesco's and drinking in Starbucks here is a great opportunity for us to submerse ourselves in China Proper. Go on, have a scorpion on a stick!

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