Even after all these years, I’m still a Guangzhou girl. I’m not sure what it is about some cities that make them feel more homely than other ones, but Guangzhou takes the cake for my China home, always. Considering I haven’t been back to visit in over three years, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my heart still felt the same. I guess some places are just more suited for me than others. Guangzhou was the first piece of Asia that my toes touched down in, back in 2009 and I think I’ll always have a soft spot for it’s scrambled chaos. Despite spending more time actually living in Shenzhen than in Guangzhou, I still regard Guangzhou as my original China home. It’s not only the first place I lived in China, it’s also the first real city I lived in, and of course the first place I felt like I really had to grow up in. When I arrived in Guangzhou Baiyun Airport on that dark and humid September night, I had no idea what was in store for me, nor why I had actually accepted the opportunity to move to China all by myself. I was terrified. I could barely utter a word of Chinese, never mind string together actual sentences. I had never tried ‘real’ Chinese food before. I knew no one, not one single person in all of China, and yet there I was, being picked up at the airport- after about three days of travelling due to broken engines, missed flights and a whole lot of drama- by three Chinese students who were holding a sign that read ‘Joanna from South Africa’ (my middle name is Joanna and I was an exchange student from a South African university). Misunderstandings are the norm here, and thus I let it be. It’s kind of fun to have different identities anyway.
Guangzhou is primarily a Cantonese speaking city, and so when my mandarin did at last start to improve, I would always feel a bit disheartened when the person I was speaking to would reply in Cantonese- a tongue which I doubt I will ever be able to grasp. But, I loved Guangzhou, and still do. It has that real urban grittiness that is so often associated with big, sprawling cities. It’s not gentle, it’s not so easy to navigate but no matter which neighbourhood you find yourself wandering in, you’ll be sure to feel welcome there. I find Guangzhou very friendly, and it is full of character and history, unlike baby Shenzhen who popped up over the past few decades. Shenzhen is extremely easy to find yourself in, in fact it’s near impossible to get lost in this new city because it’s pretty much one long street. I think that’s why I still prefer Guangzhou. I crave oldness. I like seeing all the different communities come alive on the streets and I like old faces. The old lady selling all kinds of nuts on the corner of the Six Banyan Tree Temple looks like she is as old as the temple itself. There are stories hidden in every alleyway and every wrinkle of every face. The mix of old and new, dusty and sparkling is all across Guangzhou and this past weekend it was so cold and misty, layering the tips of every skyscraper with frosting, that it really felt like a proper winter, Christmas just around the corner. I like shivering on the streets of Guangzhou and being hit in the face every few metres by a steaming wave from the bamboo baskets.
After three years, of course there were some big changes. Firstly, most people I knew from my Guangzhou days have moved elsewhere and lots of my favourite restaurants and bars have either shut down or changed locations, making it quite comical every time I led my friends down a road where I swore we could buy the most delicious brownies, only to be greeted by a dark, abandoned doorway. Chinese cities develop at the most incredible pace, and well, life goes on, things change.
Maybe I really am just the most nostalgic person. Last night on the train back to Shenzhen, I messaged my friend to tell him how much I still love Guangzhou and how I want to move there again and he just laughed and replied “You say that about everywhere.” He might have something there. I do have a habit of romanticising every place I visit, especially places that have already played a huge part in my life, whether it be South Africa, Taiwan or Guangzhou. I prefer to think of it as positivity and an inkling for spotting beauty in even the world’s busiest and darkest quarters.
In Guangzhou I learnt how to deal with crowds of people so deep that you could be carried along without even grazing the surface of the ground. I discovered a more independent side of myself that didn’t mind eating alone in a small restaurant or spending a whole day exploring gardens of orchids with only my notebook and novel as company. I began to embrace a completely foreign culture that never seizes to baffle me even after all these years. I started communicating in a second language and kept my feet planted firmly on the ground even when the language made me so frustrated I threatened to quit in a flood of tears every time I was cheated or scammed for being a non-native speaker. Perseverance and patience are the key to unleashing this land and its languages.
And so, after three years of letting Guangzhou be, it felt amazing to go back and take a stroll down memory lane. I saw it with a more curious eye this time, noting the quieter streets, the sharper, contemporary architecture jutting next to the old balconies and temple-lined streets. I inhaled all the different scents- the freshly-baked breads from the African district, the pork dumplings on every corner of every street and the familiar musky fumes floating up from the Pearl River.
I should really go back more often. There’s so much still to explore, and it feels like I’m just popping home to one of my many ‘second homes’ every time I go. And, Guangzhou Girl has a nicer ring to it than Shenzhen Girl, don’t you think?
See you soon Guangzhou.