Arriving in China has been my trip’s equivalent of a human landing on Mars rolled into the Second Coming, with a 100cc dose of any solid Chinatown like a visual needle stuck right into my optic nerve.
When my Financial and Menu Adviser and I planned out our trip, we started off in India knowing that it would be the cheapest country on the itinerary, but also the hardest and probably the least enjoyable. China would be the photographic negative of India, highest in cost yet also the one place that the FMA and I were both dying to explore.
We arrived in Guangzhuo by accident. The cost of tickets from Bangkok to Vientiane, where the trip was aborted so I could get repaired, was the same as the cost of tickets from Bangkok to Guangzhuo. Guangzhuo is in south-eastern China, about a 2 1/2 hour bus ride from Hong Kong. Just from its location alone, you should be able to infer its importance to China’s future. Providing easy access to Vietnam and the rest of Southeast Asia and a southern gateway to Hong Kong, but without the higher costs of doing business there, the potential for growth is obvious.
As the FMA and I discovered, it’s not just a horrid mash of conrete and bad design. The skyscrapers were inoffensive, as much as the things can be. The riverfront views during the day were appealing, and about as charming as well-placed neon can make a place look at night. There wasn’t an over-abundance of it, but enough to draw your eye to the shapes of the towers illuminated against the darkness.
Besides that interesting stretch of promenade along the Yanjiang Xilu, I found the area around the Qingping Shichang to be an incredibly intoxicating introductory taste of China. It looks like China. There were sloping, hooked rooftops, albeit the majority of them were made of tin or aluminum, and there were lots of people shorter than I speaking in Mandarin or Cantonese. Coupled with what seemed to be the same guy lugging a two-story pile of styrofoam on his bicycle zipping by every ten minutes, it all looked authentic to me.
Qingping Shichang translates as Peaceful Market, wonderfully ironic in light of the tiger’s claws, dried whole monkey (with fur!) and other animal parts being sold on the pedestrian overpass-turned-black market.
I was quite lucky to get off one decent photo of the tiger’s scarily dried tendons and talons popping out from tallowed skin before one of the vendors realized what I was doing and jumped up. But the FMA and I had already moved on, and he was unwilling to abandon his wares to give chase.
The non-illegal food available in the market was as impressive as the illicit endangered animals turned into charms. Scorpions were as easy to procure as a cold drink on a hot Tokyo day. There were large black ones, with pincers far more frightening than their tails, and tiny baby ones the color of fresh dust, all their various appendages the same size. Live turtles, too, their heads poking frantically above the rim of their cardboard cage, and a dozen blue-eyed Persian kittens going by in a two-tier cage on the back of a bicycle. There wasn’t much to do except acknowledge their mewling and hope that they were bound for a pet shop and not a hot pot.
The cooked food we encountered was phenomenal. If the stall food in India had been as uniformly good as the food was in this seemingly random Guangzhou market, then India might’ve been more enjoyable. There were easily six stalls within 100 meters of each other, all with various concoctions of fried bean curd, duck, chicken, pork and what looked to be an entire farm of vegetables.
We opted for one place at random, pointed out to each other the utter lack of foreign tourists, and then promptly saw half a dozen walk by within minutes. It didn’t matter. We tucked into our duck, rice, bean curd and steamed buns amazed at how delicious it all was. (Not all simultaneously – yuck.)
Then the most amazing thing happened. As the FMA and I sat at a table and inhaled our food with a speed that would make a Sudanese blush, a young Chinese couple came and sat next to us. There weren’t a lot of tables, crammed into this tiny corner of the Peaceful Market where three streets met. Then, they spoke to us.
My Mandarin is abysmal. I’d been studying a bit from one of those self-teaching audio books, which hasn’t been that bad except it didn’t exactly help build enough confidence, to, y’know, talk to a person. In Mandarin. I did remember enough from the first lesson: “Bu futonqua,” which roughly – I mean, so roughly, it’s the linguistic equivalent of exfoliation – translates as, “No common language.” “Common language” is how the Chinese casually refer to Mandarin, which of course was nothing more than one of many regional dialects until Mao took over. Mao and his followers, of course, happened to be the folks who spoke Mandarin, and thus ends our history lesson for today.
So: strangers spoke to me in Mandarin, or Cantonese, and I was able to communicate enough with them to indicate that I sadly could not reciprocate. In my nearly three years in Japan, I sadly can not say that this happened even once. The FMA says that it never happened to her, either, and I bet a dozen of my gaijin friends would agree, as well.
Explaining why the young ‘n’ hip Chinese felt comfortable starting a casual conversation with a foreigner while the young ‘n’ hip Japanese didn’t would probably take a flow chart and a case of beer or some other social barrier-breaking supplement. Right now, though, I’m not so concerned with why. I’m just glad it’s happening.