One thing I really enjoy about living in Guangzhou is what one might call "big city life."
I can only speak from my limited experience, but I’d venture to guess that the population density, the scale of the human endeavor in China, is nothing like what most westerners have ever experienced. I’ve read the Hong Kong has the highest population density in the world, but based on what I’ve seen I’d guess that Guangzhou has a higher population density than Hong Kong. The city is full of high rise after high rise, as far as the eye can see. The scale is astounding.
I remember one time as I was contemplating a trip to New York City, one of my friends who is from New York was coaching me on how not to appear like an outsider. She told me, never wear white. Don’t stare up at the buildings. Walk as if you know where you’re going. Living in Guangzhou, I’ve learned that white does get dirty here. I avoid beggars and touts by walking as if I know where I’m going. I avoid having taxis drive me "around" by barking out my orders and directing them in what roads to take to get there.
But after almost four years I find myself still staring upwards in awe at the buildings. Sometimes I thrust my head out the car window to gawk at freeways and overpasses that are sometimes stacked three or four levels deep, vertically. I admire the architecture. China’s wealth and burgeoning economy is fueling an explosion in the number of avante garde, new skyscrapers. They are creative and beautiful. I find myself continually amazed.
Amazed at everything: skyscrapers, freeways, numbers of people, filth and smells. Oh, and sometimes the smells. One time soon after we arrived, I got caught wearing sandals in a torrential rainstorm. The water that washed over my feet smelled so nasty that I came to realize why no one wears their shoes inside their house. Sanitation notwithstanding, the soot that comes in on the bottom of my shoes would leave tracks across the floor, were I to wear my shoes into the house. It’s a very different experience from living in my small town or in the countryside, where even the dirt is clean dirt in that it won’t make you sick and it doesn’t come embedded in soot and grease.
Whatever the benefits and drawbacks, living here has given me a fortunate opportunity to live in a huge city. The biggest city you’ve never heard of! Guangzhou? Five years ago, I didn’t know where it was. Westerners sometimes have a better idea of it if I tell him it’s the city the English called Canton. Then they nod. People have heard of Canton.
But, have you ever heard of Suzhou? (I’ve heard a rumor that there are 30,000 Americans living in Suzhou, so maybe some of you have, but prior to moving here I had not heard of this town.)
The first time my husband needed to go on a business trip to Suzhou, I decided to go with him. We were told it was a small city, so we were expecting something in the range of 300,000 people or so. Three hours west of Shanghai by train. Well, it was only small by Chinese standards: Suzhou has six million people! Yah, it’s just a small town. It was during that trip that someone told me China has fifty cities with more than six million people.
But that’s only the beginning. The scale goes on and on. Guangzhou may have nine or twelve million or sixteen million (depending on how you count, whether you include only legal residents or the teeming masses of immigrants as well), but the city right across the river to the west of here, Foshan, has another six million, and just to the east of here there are the cities of Dongguan and Shenzhen, with millions and millions more people. Everywhere one goes there are lots of people. Every time of day or night, the streets are teeming with people.
One time when we were first here, we went as a family to a shopping mall. It was noisy and crowded. I looked over at Sarah. I can still see the image in my mind of the poor child walking along, scrunched over as if trying to protect herself from falling hail, with her hands plastered over her ears. She was suffering from sensory overload. We couldn’t finish our shopping trip (for food). We just had to leave to get her out of it. Some people, those who require a high level of solitude and quiet, never adjust.
I’ve become acclimated. About six months into our stay here, I was on a busy, noisy, crowded street. It suddenly dawned on me, as I stood there, that I felt okay. It was a surprising feeling: it felt normal, and the noise and crowds didn’t stress me. This feeling of normalcy, I realized, was very different than other times I had been on the same street. On previous occasions, the noise had seemed overwhelming, the crowds claustrophobic. It was at that moment, on that street, that I first realized I had become somewhat accustomed to living in China. Six months into my stay here, I had overcome the first hurdle of culture shock. I found it peaceful and pleasant to have people all around.
Two pedestrian shopping streets on a typical Saturday or holiday when people are out and about
One of my Chinese friends lived in England one time. She, in contrast to me, grew up with these crowds. She loves them. She found England cold, lonely, and distant. I can now adjust to either, I think, but I definitely see the point. Compared to China, the streets of my small American town seems strangely semi-deserted. When in America, I find myself acutely aware that there are no crowds, no people walking, no bicyles crowding the streets, no cars creating three lanes in roads built for two lanes.
I’ve also come to love living in a big city. In the USA, I was forever driving children places as a carpool mom. Here, my children can take public transportation almost anywhere they want to go. If a bus doesn’t go there, taxis are readily available and fairly affordable. (My teenager just used one quarter of her weekly allowance this weekend to take a taxi somewhere, but that was her choice, and still much cheaper than a taxi in the USA would have been.) So, one key advantage for me of living in a city has been the liberation from needing a car and from being a "carpool mom".
Another thing is the fun of exploring and experiencing new things. As in any big city, there are ethnic enclaves and many small shops with things to see and do. There are literally dozens of museums and gardens to explore. There are all kinds of musical, theater, and cultural events ranging from Chinese opera to visiting symphonies and chamber groups, avante garde dance troupes to traditional Chinese. And the restaurants — wow. Last night we went for a fabulous Italian dinner. The waitresses speak English with strong Italian accents they learned from their Italian employers. At our favorite Turkish restaurant, the expat managers rotate in and out of their home country, and they try to teach me the Turkish words for vaious foods.
Another nice thing about experiencing big city life in China is that, while there is violence and crime here just as everywhere, I think perhaps there is a bit less here than in other places. The people are generally friendly and tolerant, and there seems to be less violent crime. We play it safe here, but we don’t live in fear of violent crime.
I also enjoy having friends who have come from all over the world. Having friends from all cultural walks of life has taught me to be more aware and sympathetic, more open minded. It has changed the way I think, in that when I see an issue that affects more than one country or population, I’m more aware of the different viewpoints and needs that could affect one’s views regarding that issue. Diversity is real here; it’s not just a euphemism for quotas regarding integration of African Americans with European Americans.
On the other hand, there are a few drawbacks. The main issue, in terms of risk, is one that is not really an everyday concern, but we do know about it. That is, population density makes disease a real concern. Most of the world’s flu viruses in the last hundred years or so have originated from Guangdong province (this province) or nearby. Many millions of humans live in close proximity to many millions of animals. This was the birthplace of the SARS virus, thought to originate when genes from a civet virus mingled with genes from a human virus. This is where epidemiologists anticipate the bird flu mutation will arise — the feared mixing of genes that will make bird flu readily transmissible from human to human and thus give rise to the next great pandemic that kills millions of people. In fact, there are many more flu viruses here than those that circulate where I lived before. The first year we lived here, I had flu three different times. Yep, that’s three different flu viruses, each time diagnosed by my doctor, each time treated by my Ayi (housekeeper) with traditional Chinese medicine that was very helpful in combating the symptoms.
But overall, in spite of the noise and grime and risk of germs, we love living in a big city. Unlike in the USA, it’s relatively affordable to live in a city here. I hate to think what it would cost us to live in a similarly sized USA city. Living here has given us an opportunity to experience a different walk — a city life — that we never would have experienced in our home country.
When we go back, we anticipate a reverse culture shock when we can’t afford to go out to dinner, when we can’t afford transportation, when we have to drive or walk long distances to get from suburbs into the city. When we would need to buy four cars just to make sure each adult or semi-adult member of the family has access to basic transportation. In fact, living here has changed our ideas about where we want to live and how we want to live. I like having an apartment with beautiful gardens — and gardeners to keep them beautiful. I like being able to walk out my door and catch a bus. I like being able to go to an Italian restaurant run by Italians. I like hearing many languages spoken in my daily life; I like having friends from different walks of life who will share their viewpoints with me.
When we return to the USA, no longer will we live in a suburb! We anticipate returning to our relatively small town, in our relatively small state, yes. But in terms of where to live, it’s "downtown, here we come!"