I just got back from my spring break— well, sort of. As China doesn’t start school until mid-February, the whole concept of “spring break” doesn’t really exist. There aren’t crowds of Chinese college students flocking to southern China to party on the beach; honestly, there isn’t really much of a party culture here anyway. My “spring break” is actually self-created, to a certain extent. From April 2–4, everyone in China was getting off for Tomb Sweeping Day, a holiday centered around honoring one’s ancestors. Since the whole country was already getting Monday off for the holiday, my program approved everyone to take the rest of the week off as well for travel.
Deciding where to go was harder than I thought. In making the decision, I was really conflicted on whether or not to stay in China or to head out and explore other parts of Southeast Asia. I ended up deciding to stick nearby. Since it is my first time being in mainland China, I want to take this chance to really get to know the country I am currently in.
China has far too many places I want to visit, and I think it will take me years of traveling here before I am bored with the scenery. After much research, I decided to travel first to Guilin, a city known for its rivers and mountains, then head down to Guangzhou, one of China’s largest cities. Lastly, I would hop over to Hong Kong and Macau for a few days. This way, I would not only experience some of the best nature in China, but I would also see world-famous cities.
Now that I’m finished my vacation and back in Xi’an, I’m really pleased with my route, and I’m also overjoyed I chose to do it all alone. It fits in with my belief that studying abroad is not about discovering a new you; rather, it is about finding out who you really are. Traveling alone has put me in situations that forced me to use my Chinese in new ways, and I am so glad to have had this opportunity to explore southern China.
My first day in Guilin, I arranged a tour that included a four-hour river boat ride to Yangshuo, as well as tours of some of the local scenery. I was generally excited to see the scenery; Guilin is known for its natural beauty and the tour was amazing in terms of that. The mountains were covered in green trees, and the slow speed of the boat made the boat it a great place to take pictures and to take a nap. What left a sour taste in my mouth, however, was the tour itself.
I opted to do a tour with a Chinese group. While this was a vacation, I still wanted to force myself into situations where I would have to use aspects of Chinese that I never use in the typical academic environment. I had heard stories about how Chinese tours are aimed not at seeing scenery but more aimed at shopping. I didn’t realize how true this was until, after merely being on our tour bus for a few minutes, the tour guide started pushing for us to buy a perfume special to Guilin. It was fascinating to hear how the tour guides advertised the products. They brought up filial piety, an incremental part of Chinese culture, constantly, suggesting that if us tourists didn’t purchase the perfume to bring home to our parents, we weren’t honoring our parents. I did my best to not listen to the constant advertisements, but it was difficult. It makes me hesitant to do another tour arranged for Chinese people. That being said, I am glad to have this experience under my belt, because it was an interesting insight into an aspect of modern Chinese culture that I would not have gotten if not for taking this tour.
After Guilin, I took the high speed rail over to Guangzhou. As I walked around two huge shopping districts in Guangzhou, I could not help but gasp in joy at the familiar products for sale around me: Mango ice, papaya milk, and bubble tea (for the record, Xi’an also has bubble tea, but nothing compares to the bubble tea from the south). It felt amazing being back in the south, with the familiar humidity and warm weather. I immediately fell in love with Guangzhou for its eclectic mix of modern amenities and ancient traditions. It is a city of both towering buildings, like the Guangzhou Tower, and also of quaint streets lined with trees and dirty restaurants. My favorite part of the city, however, was far away from the hustle and bustle of the city center.
Shamian Island is a sandbank in Guangzhou that used to be filled with British and French people during the colonial period. What now remains is a quaint, European-feeling island. I imagine that how I felt walking through Shamian is similar to how Chinese people feel like walking through Chinatown. The atmosphere felt almost like being back in the United States. The buildings all followed rules of western architecture, and there were many stores selling Western food such as Gyros. However, something was a bit off. There were crowds of Chinese people wielding selfie-sticks and nearly everyone around me was rambling away in Mandarin or Cantonese. Needless to say, it was a bizarre experience, but it was the oddity of it all that made me fall in love with that western sandbank in a Chinese mega city.
I happened to be walking by the Opera House in Guangzhou when I noticed a sign for a Chinese production of War Horse. It peaked my interest because it was fitting in well with what had become the theme of my trip — the mixing of East and West. It was a London show being produced in China with Chinese actors and in Chinese. It seemed like such an odd concept to me.
War Horse was the most beautiful stage production I have ever seen in my life. Some of the main characters were actually huge, puppet horses, and their actions were so lifelike that they there were points in the show when I forgot that there were humans controlling them.There’s also something about watching things in Chinese that makes me react differently. Maybe it’s because I have to pay more attention when things are in Chinese, or maybe it’s because Chinese hits me at a more emotional level, but I was deeply moved by the show. The play centered on war-torn Europe during the First World War, and the interaction between man and beast was beautifully executed. It was also enlightening on aspects of Western culture that I do not believe I would have ever noticed had I not seen the show in China.
In China, there are a fair number of movies and TV shows centered around the anti-Japanese war from a little before WWII until WWII ended. When I’ve watched these shows, they’ve made me uncomfortable at some of the language used towards the Japanese people. The words are harsh and far from polite. However, when watching War Horse, it really struck me how a lot of Western movies centering on WWI and WWII actually use the same sort of language towards Germans. While we do not feel that way anymore, there was a point in our history when words like “Krauthead” and “Jap” were acceptable parts of our vocabulary. That wasn’t so long ago.
The oddity of seeing a production from London produced in China was also an opportunity I never thought I would get in my life. I hope to see more cooperation like this in the future. One art form is not just something for one country to enjoy. Art is something for the world.If the Beatles could go to India and produce pop music with sitar solos, perhaps now is the time to start incorporating traditional Chinese instruments into the pop music of the world. Personally, I think a Chinese lute solo would make a great addition to the next Justin Bieber album. The chorus in an Orselan’s song “La petite marchande de porte-clefs” in Chinese, so perhaps Western musicians are already looking to the East for inspiration. Eastern musicians already look to the West for ideas; maybe one day the exchange will go both ways. The future will only tell.
Hong Kong (Finding Color in the Urban Landscape)
I remember the first time I went to New York City. I looked up at the sky and became dizzy from the height of the buildings surrounding me. The seemed to wobble, as if being lightly pushed by the wind floating through the city streets. In Hong Kong, the effect is more staggering. Not only are there high rises at every corner, they are also stacked at varying angles, fitting into the mountain landscape like puzzle pieces made by a drunk man.
Hong Kong is a city that is easy to find color in. It bursts through the alleys like water spouting out of a leaking pipe. Neon signs light the street at night while exotic flowers and vibrant colored buildings light the city by day. Even some of the more industrial aspects of the city add color to the urban landscape. The tangerine garbage cans and bright red taxis are just a few of the metal objects that add to the city’s color scheme. In many places, these necessities seem to detract from the overall appeal of the place, but in Hong Kong, they served to brighten up what could be a dreary place.
I loved Hong Kong for its unique blend of the modern and the traditional. A walk through Hong Kong is a walk through space and time. The streets in Soho near the financial district feel completely Western, with a plethora of foreign restaurants and architecture. At the next turn, there is a market, rank with the scent of durian and raw meat dangling from metal poles like a trapeze artists. The blend of cultures loops throughout the winding streets of Hong Kong, making each street its own universe, overlapping at the edges.
Hong Kong is easy to get lost in. A wrong turn and you’re faced in with what feels like a never ending alley. But in Hong Kong, getting lost is not something to be upset about; it is a pleasure. It’s like getting lost in a garden maze on a bright spring day; it is a mystical and exciting experience.
The two most prevalent things I saw in Hong Kong were porn for sale and Indian people. These are not things I searched for, and two things I didn’t expect to see. However, they were constant on every street corner in Kowloon, especially Mong Kok (Don’t worry Mom and Dad, I didn’t purchase any porn. I closed my innocent eyes at the sight of every blurred out nipple). I don’t believe they are related, but I appreciate both for the color and diversity they add to the city. The Indian population has carved its own little niche into the city. Temple Street felt like Little India, with Nepalise stores selling Buddha and traditional clothing on side, and supermarkets selling ingredients for traditional Indian food on the other. It is one of the many fascinating aspects of this vibrant, southern metropolis.
Hong Kong has cemeteries with dead British soldiers, a horse racing track, mountains covered in foliage, and food from every country imaginable. Though it is incredibly small, I am convinced I could spend a lifetime there and never get bored. I hope in the future I have many more opportunities to wander through Hong Kong’s winding alleys and sloping roads, and find more of the color that makes this city’s landscape so unique.
There is something amazing about a place where you can eat Portuguese food for lunch, visit temples thick with incense in the afternoon, tour a neighborhood reminiscent of Europe, and finish the night off with a gondola ride in the largest casino in the world. That is the splendor of Macao. It is a strange yet fascinating place.
Before starting to study Chinese, I had never heard of a place called Macau. It didn’t occur to me that nestled along the Pearl River in southern China was a former Portuguese colony that now is home to some of the world’ most luxurious casinos. Studying Chinese has offered me so many new opportunities to learn things about the world that I didn’t even know were there。
And on the Eighth Day, God Created Dim Sum：
Visiting southern China, especially Guangzhou and Hong Kong helped me make sense of Chinatown in America. The food is similar and so are the restaurants. They are pleasantly dirty, and have a similar atmosphere. I loved the food down there, but thankfully the food in Xi’an is also delicious, or else I’d pack my bags right now and move.
Dim sum is the most amazing form of food invented. Period. It is everything great about Chinese food in miniature, bite-sized pieces. In both Guangzhou and Hong Kong, I took every chance I could get to eat dim sum. As eating food is the most important part of my day, I’ve dedicated a whole section of this post to pictures of dim sum. May your mouth water and your eyes cry with joy.
When you travel in a group, you develop relationships with the people you’re with. You have fond memories with them, the discussion you had together, the things you saw together, the food you ate together, but when you travel alone the experience is different. Instead of forming a relationship with friends or family, you develop a relationship with the city, and when you leave these places, it’s the city you’ll miss, because by the time you leave, it’s already an old, familiar friend.
Hope all is well,