Asia travelogue: Guangzhou
I travel 2.5 hours by car from HK to Guangzhou to visit family. This plan was hatched before I realized the enormity of the communication challenges ahead. I have only enough vocabulary for three days of conversation, mostly centering on food and family. I am apprehensive.
I learn the Chinese do not hug. This lesson comes after two of the most awkward greetings between relatives in the history of familial relations. My aunt grabs my outstretched arms, and brings it back to center for a polite handshake. A friend later advises: apparently only Americans hug. My mind is blown.
By the end of the first day, I am already plotting how to cut short my stay here; the communication barriers are just too high. My relatives are speaking too fast, using too much local slang, and no one is understanding anyone. One uncle has decided to try to bridge the gap using the little simple English words he knows, like “car”, or “food”, or “go there”, except I actually know those words in Chinese. The result is a struggle to understand his heavily-accented English and everyone else’s advanced Chinese.
On day two, my Chinese clicks, and I’m talking smoother, even making jokes. I think I am way funnier in Chinese than I am in English. The Chinese can be silly, and somewhere in me lies the capacity to be silly right along with them. Word play is appreciated, as is deadpan use of Chinese proverbs. It may seem like a fortune cookie cliche, but Chinese people actually do use proverbs in regular conversation. Proverbs are typically 4 characters long, and are either shorthand for a fable (“croaking frog at bottom of well”) or an elegant turn of phrase (“people from the mountains to the ocean” == “fucking crowded”).
Few sights in the area. Guangzhou is more a major trade city at the southern tip of China, than a tourist town. Still, I soak in the atmosphere and the food. A cornucopia of the unsual: snake, fish air bladder, meal worms, and water cockroaches. Perhaps I am trying to prove that I am Chinese, though not by tongue, then at least by taste bud.
At meal time, my uncle delights in two games: Guess How Old My Nephew Is, and Do You Believe My Nephew Is An American Movie Star. Waitresses are popular targets. I am 18 years old and have starred in the latest Tom Cruise vehicle.
Shopping, I buy clothes from Chinese brands which oddly fit my frame extremely well. In the fitting room, it is clear where my ancestry lies. I try to buy a pair of kicks from domestic shoe company Li-Ning, but the quality is worrisome and they were not cheap. But still, where else can I find red sneakers with cloud designs on them?