Xiamen – Part 2: Parks & Shopping

Another day is coming to an end here in Guiyang.  On Wednesdays I teach 2 kindergarten level classes; one at 5:30pm and one at 7:00pm (each are an hour long).  I can’t say I enjoyed teaching these groups for the first few weeks.  I’ve never been particularly fond of teaching kindergarten (I find it’s more nose wiping than it is teaching), but these students have come a long way in the 9 weeks that I’ve been their teacher.  Their behavior has improved greatly and they learn new words every class.  In the last two months I’ve taught them 10 occupations (policeman, doctor, mailman etc…), 12 locations (library, park, hospital), how to use 5 pronouns properly (he, she, it, I and you) and I’ve even taught them a couple of phrases (Where does the policeman go?  He goes to the police station!).  More importantly though, these students have been building the confidence that is SO necessary when learning a new language.  I had parent teacher interviews this weekend, and one parent made my day.  He told me that he’s noticed a HUGE improvement in his son’s confidence since I began teaching them this semester.  Jason even approached a Lao Wei while on vacation and struck up a conversation with them.  His father was so impressed that he asked if I could stay in Guiyang forever.  This…my friends…is why I’ve spent the last 8 years of my life telling you all how much I miss teaching.

My first class of the week!  They can be pretty rowdy...but I have to admit they're a lot of fun.
My first class of the week! They can be pretty rowdy…but I have to admit they’re a lot of fun.
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The little girl in the front came in today with a monkey on her sweater. She gave me a big smile and pointed to it. I always call them my funny little monkeys. She apparently understood!!! I love that kid so much!!!

No matter how much I love teaching though, holidays are pretty grand as well!  The last 3 days of our National Holiday in China were spent in Xiamen city where we drank tea, shopped to our hearts’ content and enjoyed the hot sun.

Our first stop on Thursday October 2nd, was Zhong Shan Gong Yuan.  Our hostel was located right next door to this large park, so when we got outside our first day, we walked through the park to get to our bus stop.  ZhongShan Gong Yuen is famous for its pristine condition, it’s beautiful palm trees and it’s lovely man-made creeks, where you can rent a paddle boat and enjoy the views from the water.

The entrance to Zhong Shan Gong Yuan
The entrance to Zhong Shan Gong Yuan
Retirees playing mahjong and card games in the park.  I think this would be a lovely place to spend my retirement!!
Retirees playing mahjong and card games in the park. I think this would be a lovely place to spend my retirement!!
Well kept gardens and lawns.  Lots of trees shading us from the hot October sun
Well kept gardens and lawns. Lots of trees shading us from the hot October sun
Another beautiful path.  There are plenty of benches, where you can enjoy the view, read a book or take a break from the crowds after a busy day of shopping on Zhong Shan Road
Another beautiful path. There are plenty of benches, where you can enjoy the view, read a book or take a break from the crowds after a busy day of shopping on Zhong Shan Road
Nice little bridge and a paddle boat.  We never had time to rent one, but  I've always been impressed at how clean they keep this water.  Very unusual for China!
Nice little bridge and a paddle boat. We never had time to rent one, but I’ve always been impressed at how clean they keep this water. Very unusual for China!

After a peaceful walk through the park, we head downtown so I could show Dave all the places where I lived and worked back in 2005/2006.  We didn’t find any of the restaurants or tea shops where I spent my time then but we did find a new tea shop where we sat for over an hour, trying different leaves and chatting (as best we could) with the owners.  We left with two very nice red teas, and head for ZhongShan Lu…the shopping street of Xiamen.

Fujian is famous for its tea.  This is an Oolang Tea Plant harvest, just out side Xiamen.   Tea is taken VERY seriously in Xiamen.  In Guiyang, we've walked into several shops and had nobody even look up at us.  In Xiamen, we walked into each shop, and within 30 seconds, we were being served tea each time.  Tea tasting was one of my favorite pass times in Amoy City
Fujian is famous for its tea. This is an Oolang Tea Plant harvest, just out side Xiamen. Tea is taken VERY seriously in Xiamen. In Guiyang, we’ve walked into several shops and had nobody even look up at us. In Xiamen, we walked into each shop, and within 30 seconds, we were being served tea each time. Tea tasting was one of my favorite pass times in Amoy City

Zhongshan Lu is interesting in several ways.  First, it should be noted that it is a pedestrian street.  The lack of cars means it’s much safer to weave in and out of shops, and it’s no problem to run to the other side of the street if something catches your eye.  Zhongshan Lu is also interesting because you can find both designer brands as well as knock offs, all within feet of one another.  There are more stores than you could possibly visit in a day, and it’s a struggle just to pick and choose which ones to stop and see.  Finally, Zhongshan Lu comes to life at night.  We were there during a major holiday, so this was especially true during our visit.  For as far as you can see, there are people walking from stores to street vendors, and from tea houses to restaurants.  There’s an abundance of strange foods to try, and often, there are shows put on as well.  I saw some neat puppet shows years ago, and this trip, we saw some street performers and a photography show.

The view behind us on Zhongshan Lu that night
The view behind us on Zhongshan Lu that night
The view ahead
The view ahead

I do have to say that my favorite part of ZhongShan Lu though isn’t the shopping or the way the buildings are lit up at night.  My favorite part of Xiamen night life is the food!  We had various dishes from street vendors both on the main road, and off onto side streets.  We ate some fantastic dumplings at a small wooden table with pink plastic stools.  The location left something to be desired perhaps, but the food was delish!  We also got something similar to popcorn chicken while we were there.  The key to eating street food is to eat where the locals eat.  We weren’t worried about buying meat from this street cart because she was running out before the stuff she brought from her freezer had had time to thaw!

I never got a picture at the time (I don't like having my camera out when it's that crowded...always scared someone's going to snatch it!) but this is a street similar to the one where we ate supper on Zhong Shan Lu
I never got a picture at the time (I don’t like having my camera out when it’s that crowded…always scared someone’s going to snatch it!) but this is a street similar to the one where we ate supper on Zhong Shan Lu

My favorite street food dish that night happened to be crab.  Whole crabs are coated in a batter and deep fried on a skewer.  People huddle around garbage cans to eat the meat and throw out the shells, so we joined them after ordering a skewer to share.  Of course, we soon realized, standing over that garbage can, that we were as much of a tourist attraction as the street itself.  People started flashing pictures of us eating this (rather messy) crab on a stick, so we decided to finish our delicious snack back at the hostel, which was only about a 15 minute walk away.

We took a quick picture as we were getting away from the crowds, because I wanted to be able to show you the crab!  I could have eaten 3 skewers myself! haha!
We took a quick picture as we were getting away from the crowds, because I wanted to be able to show you the crab! I could have eaten 3 skewers myself! haha!

Now, this wouldn’t be a blog written by Marie Willman, if it didn’t have a cute animal story or two, so here’s one from this day that we spent in Xiamen:

Back at the hostel, we sat down at an outdoor table to enjoy our crab and put down our numerous bags for a while, before heading up to our room.  Two minutes after sitting down, we heard frantic meowing and saw a white ball of fur charging toward us.  This cat had been somewhere on the grounds and smelled our food.  He came running, hoping that we’d share.  Of course, Dave and I are total softies when it comes to animals, so we began throwing him scraps.  Before we knew it, the meal was gone, but our friend stayed. He took a bath (as cats tend to do after a delicious meal) and curled up on one of the empty chairs at our table.  He looked healthy, so I went over to pet him and sure enough, he was purring up a storm.  I miss my “Hobbsiecat” so much…and it was so great to meet a furry friend in Xiamen.   I saw him the following day and he came running over and rubbed up against me.  Cats in China aren’t usually friendly (because people in China aren’t usually very friendly to cats), so for this guy to come up and give me some loving was pretty cool!!

He got downright cozy with us!  Shameless, Mr. Kitty!!  As you should be :)
He got downright cozy with us! Shameless, Mr. Kitty!! As you should be 🙂
Also, here's a picture of Hobbes because I miss him and happen to think that everybody should see his face now and then...I know  he brightens my day, so I hope he brightens yours too :)
Also, here’s a picture of Hobbes because I miss him and happen to think that everybody should see his face now and then…I know he brightens my day, so I hope he brightens yours too 🙂

The rest of our night was spent sitting in the hostel bar, sipping beer and talking to fellow travelers, as well as our bartender, Wesley.  We sat there for hours, eating BBQ and relaxing after a long day in the hot Xiamen sun.   Hostels aren’t always the nicest places to stay, but I’ve always met interesting people at them, and I always look forward to my next hostel experience as a result 🙂

The hostel where we stayed our two nights on Xiamen Island
The hostel where we stayed our two nights on Xiamen Island
BBQ as it's done in Xiamen.  They do something similar in Guiyang, but they deep fry everything before throwing it on the grill (to save time, I suppose).  It isn't nearly as good.  I was so happy to have Dave try proper Chinese barbecue, as I'd always enjoyed it.  He agreed...it's much better this way!!
BBQ as it’s done in Xiamen. They do something similar in Guiyang, but they deep fry everything before throwing it on the grill (to save time, I suppose). It isn’t nearly as good. I was so happy to have Dave try proper Chinese barbecue, as I’d always enjoyed it. He agreed…it’s much better this way!!

Next time, I’ll be writing about our adventures at the South Temple and on Gulang Island!

The Life of the Lao Wei

China is an interesting place to be for a foreigner.

First, let me begin by asking you:  what do you know about China?  Really?  The fact that dog is eaten here may have popped into your mind, and perhaps you pictured deep fried ‘honey garlic’ something or other as well.  Maybe you thought about the Great Wall.  But really, for a country with 5000 years of written history, many North Americans  know very little about life in the Orient.

Many of my friends and family assumed that I would be going to a country with more advanced technology than we have in Canada.  Many people also assumed that I would be eating nothing but rice and chicken feet. But in reality, China is an incredibly diverse country.  There are hundreds of local languages here, an incredibly diverse geology and every city has it’s own specialty cuisine.  In short, China is so much more than you can imagine.

There are over 50 ethnic groups in China.  They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language.  How's THAT for diversity!!
There are over 50 ethnic groups in China. They all have their own traditions, holidays, cuisine and language. How’s THAT for diversity!!

But as little as you know about China, China knows less about you!

Eight years ago, when I lived on the east coast, in a beautiful little city called Xiamen, I was stared at daily.  I had people point at me and yell “Lao Wei!” (foreigner) so that their friends might notice in time and get a look at me too.  I had people come up to me and ask for my photo.  More often still, I caught people sneaking photos of me.  There were times when an interested man or woman would come up to me as I shopped, pulling things out of my cart to see what the strange ‘lao wai’ was purchasing.  Everywhere I went in Xiamen, I was pointed at, shouted at and stared at.  Whether I was taking a 2am stroll (the only time I found quiet in that small city of 2 million people), or walking up the path to my apartment, I was constantly met with stares and pointing.  And of course, the ever-present sound of the words “Lao Wai!!!!”

Beautiful Xiamen City.  My home in 2005/2006
Beautiful Xiamen City. My home in 2005/2006

I imagined it would be different in Guiyang.  8 years have passed, and thousands of teachers have arrived and left the country since I departed in 2006.  Nearly every young person here now speaks at least a little English.  EAL teachers are everywhere, working for private training centers (like I am), for private schools and even at public schools.  There are easily a hundred of us in Guizhou province alone.

I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang
I live in the capital of Guizhou province; Guiyang

And if the presence of white teachers isn’t enough, Western culture has also permeated life here.   Guiyang has several KFC restaurants, 2 Pizza Huts, 3 Walmarts, a Starbucks and H&M, just to name a few.  English is everywhere!  In their music, on their signs and on their T-shirts.  Any company who aims to have a ‘cool’ image must have English in their name, even if no one within the company speaks a word of the language.  People here are obsessed with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber, and today I even heard “Criminal”, by Brittany Spears, blasting from a lingerie store.  8 years ago, this was not the case.  Sure, there was a Walmart and KFC in Xiamen, but seeing English on signs and T-shirts was hardly an every day occurrence.

We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work
We have a Dairy Queen and a Baskin Robs by the school where I work

Yet, the sight of a foreigner is still shocking for the majority of Chinese people.

A few weeks ago, I was driving my scooter to school, when a bus pulled up beside me.  I had to focus on the traffic and ignore the commotion that my presence had caused in that bus.  Windows were rolled down, and people were shouting and laughing and saying ‘Hello!’.  I sometimes feel like an un-talented celebrity when this happens!  (Perhaps this is how the Kardashians feel?)  When Dave and I went and visited QianLing Hill Park, we were in as many pictures as we took!  Even the monkeys seemed to think we were interesting and strange!

A wild monkey, staring at the Lao Wei!  (Lao Wei is 'foreigner'.  We hear it everywhere we go!  We are treated like celebrities because there are so few of us in Guiyang)
He’s looking at me, thinking to himself “Lao Wei!!!!”

On good days, this isn’t an issue.  I laugh and smile and respond to their calls with ‘hello’.  A simple wave, or greeting in response to their excitement usually results in further excitement.  “Did the Lao Wei just say hello to ME!!!  Oh My God!!!”.  I waved at a child who was staring at me from a restaurant this week.  Her entire family waved back.  Some of them even stood up to get a better view of me!  And this, I should add, was in Zhong Tian Garden, where I live.  There are between 8 and 10 EAL teachers who live in this area, yet it’s still exciting for them to see one of us.

On bad days, this aspect of life in China is less enjoyable.  Being stared at while you are fighting back tears after a particularly difficult day, is not a pleasant feeling.  Having a crowd form around you, while you struggle to chain your scooter to a gate because it has a flat tire, is exasperating.  There are some days where I want to shout: “What’s wrong with you!  Didn’t your mothers ever teach you that it’s rude to point!!!”. But I don’t.  I know that even if I did, they probably wouldn’t understand me anyway, so I keep my head down and try to blend in with the masses.  I’m vertically challenged so that’s easy, but it’s certainly harder for some of the tall teachers at Interlingua.

Still, in spite of these bad days, I’d say life in Guiyang is more interesting than upsetting.  More often than not, people here are curious, but kind.  We’ve had people bring out dishes for us that other customers in the restaurant have paid for us to try.  Most people thrilled when I greet them in Mandarin, and embarrassed but excited when I respond to their ‘Lao Wei!!!’ with a ‘hello’ and a coy smile. (Yes, I know that you are talking about me…).

I consider myself lucky to be in China in 2014, during such a time of growth.  In the last 8 years, many things have changed: I now see English everywhere I go, I hear English Music in cars and in stores and I can shop at H&M (I can’t even do that in Winnipeg!).  But in some ways, China continues to be its cut-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world self.  The people here still marvel at the foreigner as though they are something special and interesting.  I can’t help but wonder whether this will still be the case in 8 years from now.

M.