Sunday, May 19, 2013

A tiny glimpse of Guangzhou life and food

A faithful blog reader asks what a typical day is like for us. We actually have a few different "typical" days here in the G-Z based on the particulars of our work schedule, but there are some common themes among them. 

Being part of an English teaching couple, a lot of our days at home -- that is to say, in our residence -- are actually indistinguishable from days at home-home in the U.S. (wherever that home-home may be). If Brian and I are hanging out in the apartment watching a movie, blogging, reading, or having a glass of wine, there is nothing particularly Chinese about the scene. Our apartment is in one of many, many indistinguishable apartment buildings found in Guangzhou and other cities: tall, grey or earth-toned, rows and rows of places to live. It's a one-bedroom (desk, wardrobe, nightstands) with a small living room (couch, glass coffee table, bookshelf, TV, cable, DVD player), dining area on the side (where we also have our shoe rack), small kitchen (fridge, microwave, stove, sink, tiny countertop, dish drainer) and small bathroom (dark blue tile floor, glass-doored shower, no bathtub). I'm reminded that I am in Asia by the washing machine on the balcony/laundry area whose buttons are still indecipherable and the rods on which we hang clothes to dry. Dryers: the ultimate electricity-devouring appliance that is definitely not standard in minimalist apartments around the world. 

It only now occurs to me that I should probably take pictures for this blog post. Oh well, a thousand words are worth a picture. We'll do a visual tour in some upcoming entry. 

Since we work in the evenings, we usually spend our weekday mornings at home. We make French press coffee and breakfast on fruit and/or bao zi, the latter of which are sold hot and fresh about a 2-minute walk from our building. I'm partial to the shu cai bao (vegetable dumpling) while Brian often gets pork. This is an incredibly cheap breakfast of champions -- 1 RMB per dumpling! That's like 16 cents. Yum!  We always get bao zi  when we head out to our weekly morning Mandarin language class or when we head to work at 10 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays, too. 

I like to go on walks, listening to my mp3 player, and I haven't really found a good nearby running route yet. I've done a few runs to the river and back, which sounds nice, but isn't at all -- we are in the middle of urban crowded urban-ness, and the route to the river is a throng of cement, people, storefronts, traffic, hotels, taxis, parking lots, restaurants, you name it. I can go either by busy street or by the little canal/river off-shoot, which, again, sounds like it would be nice but is really just full of people walking and is more like a sidewalk. A crowded sidewalk. I spend most of the run, about 3/4 of a mile from here to the river, dodging people and cars. I should also add at this point that neither the river nor the canal smell nice -- the Pearl River is evidently quite polluted. Such a shame.  Brian usually works out on our all-purpose balcony, which is small, longer than it is wide, and sadly has a not-very-exciting view of the sides of tall grey buildings and a smattering of green plants and treetops.

We live right next to the subway station, at the corner of a very busy thoroughfare-like road and our less busy road from which you enter our place. Everything small is within walking distance: convenience stores, snacks, banks, the pirated-DVD selling man, Lenscrafters, 7-11, the bottled water place with which we have a contract for delivery -- you know, those big bottles you turn upside down into the water cooler, like in an office, and then they come back to trade out the empties for new full bottles. It's a little bit farther (one subway stop or a longer walk) to the big grocery stores, of which there are many in GZ, including several with imported goods (I totally found everything I needed for a Cinco de Mayo party for my students), but within a five-minute walk between here and the river is our local market, a crush of people and stalls and chaos where we can buy vegetables, meat, tofu, snacks, condiments, live chickens (no thank you), and plenty of other things for incredibly cheap. 

Within a 1/4-mile radius we probably have three dozen restaurants; we have tried a bunch and have a few favorites. Sometimes they have picture menus. A few have English printed on the menu, including our much loved northern cuisine restaurant right on the corner which has a giant menu we are working our way through. We dine out weekly or so at one of these nearby places. Our evening work schedule isn't really conducive to going out to dinner, so we often dine separately on our way to or home from our separate workplaces. We like to lunch at the delicious noodle places and other spots nearby, and Brian has been using his wok to cook up delicious lunches with vegetables, tofu, pork, fried rice, and his newly discovered favorite condiments. 

Every afternoon I spend time at my desk writing, checking in online, emailing, organizing my life, making lists of books to read, etc. From the desk I can gaze through the window at the less-than-thrilling view of the air conditioners and windows of the side of another wing of our building and the always gray sky. I do mean always gray. We see the sun for an hour or two about once or twice a week, but even then the sky isn't really blue. This is partly because of the seven-month rainy season and partly because of the ever-present pollution haze, as I understand it. 

We leave for work around 5 p.m., scattering in opposite directions on the subway. The Guangzhou subway is extremely crowded and although it is clean and convenient, the sheer mass of people who refuse to stand-to-the-right-walk-to-the-left on the escalators drives me batty. It's cheap, though! We have our transit cards and probably spend about $20-25 a month on commuting at most. 

On Saturdays and Sundays we leave for work in the morning and work a full 8-hour day. I almost always lunch at this place by my center called Long Lin which is kind of like a cafeteria -- you go down the line with your tray and just tell them which dishes you want (or in my case, you point). There are always at least a dozen options, and I almost always get a tofu dish (I've had five or six different ones there) and a vegetable or two, but I've also had fish -- even a whole fish once, just there on my plate -- and accidentally some unidentifiable things too that I had thought were chicken or beef but could be any animal, really, to hear the Guangdong province locals tell it -- they eat everything from turtles to what we would call house pets. It hurts my heart and brain. I have been trying to go completely back to vegetarian, and it's not too difficult to do so, but I tend to indulge in a meat dish when that is the path of least language-barrier turmoil. I also eat the occasional burger at the Western, expat-filled pubs we go to. I suck. Brian has an awesome lunch spot near his center, and we eat there together every week after our Wednesday Chinese class, which is also held at his center. It's a large food court in a huge, nice mall, but get those pictures of Sbarro's and Hot Dog on a Stick out of your head. This mall is full of Louis Vuitton and Dior and elegance, and they don't let people loiter around near the doors, and the food court is full of real, delicious food of all sorts: Flavors of Xi'an, Macao, spicy hotpot, vegetarian place, Japanese place, Vietnamese place, etc. 

We've been doing a bunch of traveling on our days off but there is also stuff around here to do. We like to go to Shamian Island, which is a tiny little island of city created by the river that was once a foreign concession and now has an interesting look and feel, architecturally and plant-wise. We enjoy our favorite Starbucks there -- it's in a really cute setting with great outdoor seating -- followed by a walk along the river and dinner. Yes, I openly go to Starbucks, often. There are eleventy gazillion of them in Guangzhou. I have also tried a few other coffee shops, and I drink tea, too, but coffee is just a part of my life and it's completely a part of the (urban) landscape here as well. On Wednesdays we go to trivia and dinner at The Tavern, a British-y pub with lots of western grub. Imported beer is much more plentiful here than in Korea, although it's still cheaper to drink Tsingtao or Harbin or Pearl River Brewery beer, but Chinese beer is leaps and bounds ahead of Korean beer, in my humble opinion. 

We're friendly with a bunch of our co-workers including a group of teachers who live in the same apartment building as us. We often join them for dinner or drinks or to see a band play live. I've been to a bunch of different bars and restaurants, which are everywhere, but there are definitely concentrations -- in Zhujiang New Town, the super-modern, all high-rise district where the Opera House, Guangdong Provinicial Museum, and two of our Western pubs are located; in Taojin, the foreigner-laden district with all kinds of nationalities and some sketchy people and several Indian restaurants among other cuisines; Tianhe, which is where Brian's center is and has a bunch more tall buildings, malls, modern things, cafes, bookstores; and the Party Pier, which is a new crop of restaurants and bars and clubs along the south side of the river, also within 10-15 minutes of our place by cab. And this really only scratches the Guangzhou surface! The subway stops running at 11-something, so we head home in a taxi for about $2-3 dollars from many of our nightspots. 

It rains at some point about six days out of every seven. 

I like to stop at the little Uighur-bread stand near my work, when I get off early enough and they are still there, or sometimes I'll get bread before work. The Uighur culture is from the far west Xinjiang province of China, bordering Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and in multiple places you can find Uighur Muslims here in GZ selling the round bread baked in their oven right there on the sidewalk and kebabs that they grill up right there as well. There are other late-night street food options to be had, too. You cannot go hungry in Guangzhou and you will not run out of new places and delicious foods to try. We also have a favorite Uighur restaurant, in the Tianhe district, one subway stop away. 

I'll stop jabbering for now and maybe even go take some photos to illustrate all of these things I've been babbling about. And I will talk about our work and students and job environment in a future post! 


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