At 2:00 pm in Guangzhou.
Our American cities are pantheons to the International style in architecture: great glass boxes stretching skywards; verticality accentuated by thin ribs like pinstripes. It is the style that emerged in the 30s and ate skylines in the 40s and 50s (and beyond).
Here, a student of architecture of the past 50 years would gaze into a textbook. Cement facades overtake glass and steel adding textures and colors to the cityscape.
The skyline is riddled with cranes, sweeping high, and reconstructing the city in the image of the present, which is also the image of the hoped-for future.
The China Hotel’s walls are incised with illustrations, and those drawings are repeated on the 18 story towers flanking the central structure of the building. The pictures tell the story, taken from fairy tale and history, of princes and princesses and caravans. It is the story of trade, which is the master plot of Guangzhou.
Tonight we ate out away from the hotel. We shared three dishes (barbecued pork, sautéed green beans, noodles) and the bill came to 108 yuan (17 dollars).
Once again the staff asked Katherine questions in Chinese, which continues to make her feel uncomfortable. She hates being singled out. Ellen and I can easily pass as non-speakers, and we will draw attention because we are Caucasian, but we have years of thick skin developed. Katherine feels the burden of others’ expectations.
And once again, we pointed at the menu. This one had some limited English descriptions (“no lip disturbance” was one), and that helped us avoid the beef with peppers and mushrooms (my wife and daughter do not like mushrooms) miscue of yesterday. Always a noodle dish, always a vegetable, and then one other thing. The food is well seasoned (so much for the Cantonese/ Szechuan comparisons from home). And we are challenged to finish all this food. The flavors help us eat beyond our hunger. And maybe we don’t know how to order it, but no steaming bowls of rice accompany our Chinese food here.
One other observation: at a table near us, a boy was obstinately pounding the table with his mother’s well insulated cell phone. Clearly protesting her choice for dinner. She just ate. Picky eaters are everywhere.
Finally, a reflection on the expenses: 108 yuan is inexpensive, especially compared to meals at the hotel. There is a Sunday family brunch at the hotel that costs 258 yuan. The dinner buffet is over 350. Our coordinator explained that the average salary in Guangzhou is 3000 yuan per month. Of course we all know that average is a slippery term, but it keeps me cognizant of the divide between the what we experience at the hotel, and what we see in our walks out of it.
It’s Sunday in Guangzhou, which means construction. Always construction. There is a jackhammer attached to an excavator (think steam shovel) making dust out of out foundations in the lot beside our hotel.
Our adoption coordinator explained that even though Guangzhou is 2000+ years old, little in the city is more than 100 years old, and most post dates 1949. Here, the new is valued over all. There are museums for the past.
In 24 hours we will meet Shi Hui, whose name could be pronounced one of three or four ways. We have been saying “Shee Wee,” but it could be “Shuh Way,” or “Way Way,” or who knows? All we can do is learn.
And did you learn, while you were growing up, that everyone in China rode a bike? They don’t. Some streets have “No Bicycle” signs, and it is clear that on the streets of Guangzhou, bicyclists are either daring or endangered.
Shopping for glasses? The prices here are well below those in the states. The advertising in the shop has nary a Chinese face; our coordinator explains that this shows the freshness of what the shop sells.
Guangzhou is not a tourist city. This place is a business center. Rows of wholesale shops: leather, hair care, glasses. The streets are relatively narrow and densely packed with trees. Even though it is raining today, we barely need umbrellas as we walk from shop to shop.
Katherine is constantly stopped and spoken to in Chinese. I explain, “only English,” to various helpful, curious shop workers. Nonetheless, she is freaked out by the attention. Here she looks like everyone else, and is singled out with her strange Anglo parents.
Breakfast is amazing, because there are 300 people from all over eating at the same time. Yes, about half come from China, but since there is a huge international trade show in Canton (Guangzhou) right now, there are heads of all different sizes and shapes, and skins of several hues, and all the languages that toppled Babel.
And while the food is laid out like an American buffet, there are a dozen different noodle dishes, freshly baked croissants, pineapple preserved with lemon and chili, Brie, dragon fruit, and four different kinds of sausage that all look exactly alike.
Organizing everything is a staff of at least forty to cart away plates, rearrange the pyramids of Fuji apples, and assist the Iranian businessman who wants his coffee blended with a teaspoon of cinnamon.
I traveled to Austin, Texas a few weeks back, and spent part of Saturday night at the Broken Spoke. People were dancing and having a good time. One of my friends pointed out that lots of the people there would probably be enjoying themselves in other ways after they left, and I guess he was right. I kind of just enjoyed the fact that all these people were gathered together, dancing a little Texas swing, chattin’ with each other, and some chattin’ each other up. Some were there to dance, others to drink, others to talk; I don’t guess that anyone was there to be alone.
“We gather together” starts the old song, and gather we do. I gathered with friends in Austin–6 short of a minyan, but we often found oursleves in larger companies of people, either at the Broken Spoke, Louie Mueller’s, Threadgill’s, or La Condesa. We gathered for food and drink and and entertainment and company. And we weren’t the only ones.
Even though we weren’t eating with people at those restaurtants, or sharing pitchers of Lone Star with people at the tables, the experience was made better by their presence. Even more than homo sapiens we are homo congregantur; we just want to be together. Of course, it helps to have an excuse, like dinner, or, for that matter, church.
What makes gathering for church different than gathering to dance at the Broken Spoke? No, really. When isn’t there some element of the divine evoked when we gather well? We may not say that, we may not even want to acknowledge it (and for my atheist friends any discussion of the divine will cause a fair amount of consternation). And still, we gather.