Julianne and I woke up early on our first day in China. This was kind of crazy because we were both exhausted from all the cleaning, packing, moving, and prepping we’d been doing to leave Korea. The problem was we didn’t know what time it was (and forgot to use our cell phone clocks), and the sunlight coming into our bedroom woke us up around 7am.
We got up and checked our emails, and tried to sign into facebook one more time–no luck again.
After that we began exploring our apartment until we heard a soft knock at our door. It was one of the other foreign instructors wanting to know if she could show us where to buy some Chinese breakfast. We followed her outside, and saw for the first time what everything looked like.
The stairs leading down and out of the apartment were a deep dark blood red–nice, lol. At the bottom of the staircase was a massive fish tank with 3 large fish of some sort swimming slowly around in it. Once outside the building we could see a seven foot concrete wall running around the four story apartment buildings (3 small ones inside the compound). In the center was a sitting area with grass and stone stools and small tables where I was guessing you could eat or sit and relax beneath some trees that ran along the sides of it.
A lane way ran along the concrete wall and at the end of it, beside our building, was a three car garage where the beat up old van sat from the night before. At the other end of the lane way, about 50 feet away from the garage, was the security office and a large metal gate. The foreign instructor took us outside the gate and we were standing on the street taking our first look at China in daylight.
A light steady stream of cars, buses, and scooters flowed past us with the what is apparently normal sounds of honking when driving. On the opposite side of the street from where the apartment compound was there was a long low building with small shops running its entire length. The sidewalks and exterior walls of the building were dirty grays, browns, and black colors. The sky was smoggy and grey too.
The foreign instructor took us across the street quickly, Julianne and I both watching furiously in both directions for rogue scooters/cars/buses that might come flying by, to a small dumpling stand sitting just outside what I hesitate to call a ‘shop’ because it lacked shelves or any other things you’d associate with the word ‘shop.’ It looked very stark, somewhat dirty, and simply put the word ‘poor’ came to mind as we stood there looking at the dumpling steamer towers (made of wicker basket material-NOT stainless steel) and a Chinese middle-aged woman standing behind her little set up.
A person walking by came up to the dumpling stand and ordered. Julianne and I watched as the cook moved sections of the dumpling steamer aside and pulled out different kinds from different levels (I think she had a six or seven high set up). Our guide then asked us if we were okay with eating dumplings for breakfast, and we said yes. She asked us how much we wanted to order, and we hesitated because we had no idea how to order and what the serving sizes were or if you just ordered by individual dumpling . . .
We told our guide we were pretty hungry and then in a haphazard fashion she ordered in Chinese for us four different kinds of dumplings, each time glancing at us and asking if we wanted to try a different kind as the Chinese woman would lift up a level of steamer to reveal another type. Once that was done, the Chinese woman gestured towards a wok filled with oil fried dumplings but we passed on those because of the stories I’d read on the Net about how street vendors use heavily recycled food oil when cooking. Steamed dumplings, in contrast, looked much more appetizing–and safe!
Back in our apartment, after hiking up four flights of stairs, we sat down and ate while our guide chatted our ears off, lol. She is from America, had been in China for a year, and was older than I am (I never guess a woman’s age!). After finishing eating, she invited us to go along with her to Waco department store which is a 10 minute walk from our apartment.
A little while later we headed out and began walking to the store. As we walked down the street the sounds and smells were an experience. Chinese people sitting and standing in the square-shaped openings of their stalls/shops stared in shock/surprise/wonder as three foreigners walked past. The stares were not hostile like they are sometimes/too often with some/too many (in my opinion) Koreans and many of the Chinese people would smile and look happy to see us in their part of China. It was a refreshing feeling to be stared at without any of the animosity/xenophobia that Julianne and I too often would experience in Korea when being stared at.
While walking we came across some kind of stall that had an animal cage in front of it next to the sidewalk. A very dirty, sick, and unhappy looking dog was lying inside it with a puddle of urine in the corner of the cage. Later, on the way back from the department store the dog was gone–hopefully to a happier life with someone who bought him . . . though I suspect that that is rather idealistic.
We passed fruit shops, gambling rooms with wooden tables and chairs, and several other places that I had no idea what they were although they had WWII-era machines and other odds and ends. The one defining characteristic that it all had an early, and I mean EARLY, modernization period feel to it with a good dose of dirt and pollution covering all of it.
Arriving at the intersection with the busiest traffic we’d seen so far we waited for our guide to signal we should cross because it seemed like NOBODY was waiting for a red light or a green light or the second coming of Jesus for a clear sign of when to cross the six lanes of traffic. Cars, scooters, buses, and people all walked and drove in whatever direction they wanted to with maybe half of the vehicles following the traffic lights and the rest doing their own thing–wow.
We got across the chaotic six lanes of traffic and then walked into the department store.
Inside it had the feel of a traditional market that had been transplanted into a warehouse that was trying to pass itself off as a department store. One major thing I noticed while entering the store was that the entrance way had the long vertical thick strips of plastic curtain thing going across it instead of a door to keep out as much of the heat and humidity as possible. I thought to myself that Korea really needed to do something like this instead of the open door with the air conditioning blowing out onto the sidewalk/street folly that seems to be so widespread across the country and all of its incredibly more ‘modernized’ shops and stores.
We headed up an escalator and then walked into a huge open warehouse-esque sort of like Walmart concept department store. It was pretty warm and too humid, and the hopes I’d had for it to be air conditioned were quickly destroyed.
Customers and floor sales people all stared as we walked around with enormous curiosity, eyes big and round and wondering. There were no explosive bug-eyed stares followed by outbursts of machine-gun-fast comments and then rude laughter while pointing in the manner that most if not all foreigners experience in Korea. If the people staring at us said things to each other it was in a soft barely audible voice, and a degree of decorum was maintained. Even the younger school-age kids didn’t go berserk the way Korean students will with wild hysterics, gesticulations, and howling comments about foreigners being in their country.
JULIANNE AND I LOVED THIS!
A little while later I noticed something: NOBODY WAS BOWING!
The sales and service floor staff weren’t bowing to customers. Junior social rank Chinese people weren’t bowing to senior rank social people. I began to ponder this huge cultural difference (compared to Korea) as we walked around . . .
My earlier comparison of a traditional market being transplanted into a semi-modern warehouse-department store continued to be reinforced. Tables with piles of spices, herbs, nuts, seeds, etc, were in one area with no modern enclosures of plastic or glass containers. In another area, smoked meats and fish hung from hooks (also seen at Walmart!), and the smells permeated the air (though not as powerfully as what we’d smell later on at Walmart).
After about five minutes of being shown all the different parts of the store our guide left to go to Walmart with another new foreign teacher who had been here for a few days. Julianne and I grabbed a shopping cart and walked around checking out more closely what was available, and picking up food supplies for our apartment.
FRUIT!!! Another big difference so far that I’ve noticed in China, in contrast with Korea, is that selection and prices of fruit is far superior. I won’t list all the stuff I saw but suffice it to say I’ll be eating a LOT healthier here (you can eat well in Korea too, but you have to PAY MORE for a fair number of fruits) because the fruits I’d eat back in Canada are also available here, for the most part, and the prices are good.
We finished up our shopping and walked back to the apartment. Going through the security gate we smiled at the guard, and hiked up the four floors back to our awesome apartment.
By this point we were pretty tired so we decided it was time for a nap.