I always really like visiting Chris’ Mom in Guangzhou. It’s so different from Chengdu, so different from most cities in China.
You will hear more Mandarin in Guangzhou these days than you used to, but there are still lots of people who only speak Cantonese. Have you ever listened to Cantonese? It’s a completely different language than Mandarin, much more lyrical, almost sing-song-y. Its really quite lovely to listen to.
Guangzhou seems to be much more liberal and open than most Chinese cities, both socially and societally. You’ll see young, unmarried, couples cuddling in public, you’ll see protest banners hanging from construction sites. I’ve heard it said that you can criticize or protest anything you want in Guangzhou, as long as its not the government.
That’s not fog…
China owes most of its economic growth to Guangdong province and you can tell. The wealth in Guangzhou just seems older somehow. For me, its the grocery stores and the restaurants that always tell the story. Are the non-Chinese restaurants packed with Chinese who seem to really enjoy the food they are ordering? In Guangzhou, yes. Are there grocery stores catering to people more inclined to spend their money on high-quality food rather than a new car or purse? Yes. The ostentatious displays of wealth are still ostentatious and shocking, but somehow they seem more ordinary than in Chengdu.
People in Guangzhou are both superstitious and religious in a way you won’t find anywhere else in China. People wear jade for luck in Guangzhou, not just for looks. Nearly every family name has an “ancestral home” in Guangzhou, a small temple-like construction where people can go to honor their ancestors, celebrate weddings, hold funerals, and just visit on the weekends to burn incense and offer up prayers. People pay dues to support the upkeep of the ancestral home and in return they have a place to celebrate life’s most important events. It seems like a nice tradition.
Temples are far more interesting in Guangzhou than in most places around China. The Cultural Revolution doesn’t seem to have swept religious belief from the Cantonese people the way it did in other places. Sometimes when I visit temples in Chengdu I see people giggling nervously as they bow before the alters. They look around sideways as they plant their incense, as if they aren’t quite sure what they are supposed to do. There are usually as many people taking pictures as there are people praying in temples around Chengdu. Guangzhou is different. People are serious about their prayers and their offerings of fruit and rice and other small gifts cover the alter tables and overflow onto the bricks below. I was one of just two people in the whole place taking pictures instead of praying.
There isn’t really one style of food in Guandong province, there are lots and lots of styles, variations on the favored Cantonese ingredients and Cantonese methods of food preparation. It’s all very different than Sichuanese food. There is less oil and the seasonings are much lighter and more subtle. Seafood and poultry are more popular than pork. I won’t say one is better than the other but I will say that eating in Guangzhou is a delicious change of pace.
Guangzhou has a rather tropical climate and the old style of building construction always included upper floors that butt out over the first floor to create a covered walkway on the street below, protection from the daily tropical downpours during the spring, summer, and fall. The old parts of town are really beautiful, I wish I had gotten some pictures this trip but they use lots of green ceramic flourishes and the buildings just have this nice stateliness to them that reflects both the Eastern and Western history of the city. Its hard to find really well-kept older building in China but luckily Guangzhou has lots of them. The new buildings in Guangzhou are often just as eye-catching as the old ones, albeit for different reasons. The city hires really great architects and let them go wild in their designs. The buildings are stunning, at least for the first year. The workmanship is not very good so the buildings start to look worn down and dingy pretty quickly.
The only thing I don’t like about Guangzhou is the airport, for some reason we never have an easy time going through security. Once we tried to take some tiny jars of jam back to Chengdu in our carry-on. They were all under 3 oz but they confiscated them anyways. No big deal, but this time they objected to me carrying Will through security in his Ergo.
Will was fast asleep and, according to all of the travel and airport message boards we read, security doesn’t usually require parents to take their children out of an all-cloth carrier. I didn’t want to make a fuss so we carefully removed Will from the Ergo and I carried him through the scanner without setting off any alarms. That should have been the end of it right?
Nope, the woman on the other side of the scanner informed me that I would have to hand my baby over to her while they scanned me a second time with a wand, despite the fact that me and all of my bags had already scanned cleanly.
I told her no way. We’ve had way too many bad experiences with people trying to take Will from us without our permission. She continued to insist that we had to give her the baby or they wouldn’t let us leave the security check point. We were incredulous. Chris got ready to flash our dip passports. After a few tense moments, they let Chris hold Will, who was now awake and very unhappy. Of course the scanning wands picked up nothing but static and we left for our gate completely enraged.
I’m convinced there was absolutely no good security reason for them to take Will from me. I’ve got a whole post coming on raising Will in China, but for now I’ll say that the Guangzhou airport security definitely represents a low point in our experience.
On the other hand, Guangzhou itself is lovely! The pollution was horrendous on this visit but, other than the low-lying “clouds” we had a wonderful time, as always.