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Cultural News

Sojourn in Guangzhou

24 May, 2017

Sojourn in Guangzhou
Sojourn in Guangzhou

I visited Guangzhou from my home in Bristol for two months earlier this year, having accepted a position to teach 'Introduction to Software' at South China University of Technology (SCUT). Up until winter 2016 I had not heard of Guangzhou. But in October I began looking through UK academic job listings for a part-time role, only to see jobs with various Chinese universities included. When I saw that SCUT was flexible about the duration of the contract, I asked whether two months would suffice.

And so at the end of March I found myself flying out to a city with which I had had no contact beyond a Skype interview with Professor Xia, the head of the department, and numerous emails exchanged with Chunxian, the administrator who guided me through the visa application and all the other preparations - mostly done in a hurry just before the university's break for Chinese New Year.

I was excited at the prospect of living in China for the first time but had few specific expectations about what I might find (living abroad several times before has taught me not to imagine I know what I'm getting into). A business trip to Beijing in 2007 for a few days hardly counted as prior experience. I knew that Guangzhou, China's third city, was big and crowded - around twice the population of London where I lived for 18 years. It took a long time for the driver and Chunxian, a Guangzhou native, to find my Airbnb accommodation in the Tianhe district after meeting me at the airport. The flat was tucked away in a sheltered enclave of shops and small apartment blocks off the busy streets surrounding it. I was close to Zhuijang New Town with its skyscrapers and its view of the Canton Tower just across the Pearl River I wasn't expecting the cold and wet weather, but soon learned that the rain – sometimes tropically heavy - was part and parcel of the Guangzhou spring; and that the initial cold was not typical. After about a week it was regularly 20C at night and up to 30C during the day, humid and generally overcast. I was grateful for air conditioning.

From my arrival on a Saturday night to my first lecture on the following Wednesday there was just time to get over jet lag, meet my SCUT colleagues at the Wushan campus and begin to explore my neighbourhood. Chunxian and my landlord, Wu, offered helpful (and much needed) advice on finding my way around a world that was very different in many respects from what I am used to - a world where fluent English speakers are relatively scarce. The friendly smiles I received whenever I asked for help will be an abiding memory of my whole stay in Guangzhou.

I taught programming, using Python, to forty first-year students at SCUT. About a third of them were female, which compares well to UK courses. SCUT is one of the better universities in China, and the students were enthusiastic, hard-working and able. However, the standard of their English was variable, from relatively poor to excellent, which complicated the teaching. All SCUT's courses are taught in English - I had been recruited specifically as a native English speaker. SCUT's goal is to recruit foreign students. None were enrolled in my course but I often saw non-Chinese students around the campus.

The facilities - I lectured in the South Campus, in what is known as the University Town on Xiaoguwei Island, Panyu District - were good overall. The exception was that there was no internet in the classroom, a surprising omission.

I spent about 3 days a week on producing lecture and exercise materials and giving the course. The rest of my time I kept my Bristol business running (I create and sell digital media platforms, notably Vorb ) and exploring Guangzhou. Very cheap bike hire - of the app-based variety which has recently arrived in Bristol in the form of YoBike - was ubiquitous. I'm a cyclist in Bristol but preferred the walking pace in Guangzhou because of the many details and points of interest I would notice as a flâneur . Travelling away from my neighbourhood was easy. One of the most impressive aspects of Guangzhou and the surrounding places in the Pearl River delta was its cheap, modern and efficient public transport system of buses, the metro and trains. The largest fare I paid across Guangzhou was about 40p.

The skyscrapers and the pervasive shopping malls of Guangzhou soon began to grow tiresome. One quickly realises just how much of the city's long history has vanished beneath, first, the bulldozer of the Cultural Revolution and subsequently a relentless urge to expand and modernise, come what may. But what I found in between was endlessly fascinating: the Buddhist and Taoist temples - however recently rebuilt; the alleyways with their incense holders and offerings; the people cutting hair, making or soldering or in the street. Historic sites included the Peasant Movement Institute where Mao Zedong was a director, and the Liwan museum in the Xiguan district. Always tempting were the gateways into enclaves such as where I lived, separated from the rush of the main streets around them, filled with birdsong despite the snarling traffic a few streets away. The many parks, reflecting Guangzhou's status as the 'city of flowers', play an important part in the life of the city, where so many people spend their Sundays outdoors together, playing games or dancing. In the interstices of expensive neighbourhoods stand half-shanty buildings where relatively poor workers live, their washing hanging to dry beneath the eaves. And everywhere I went was a multitude of eating places with their fascinating, varied crowds and interiors - although, as a vegetarian, none but the few Buddhist restaurants were any good to me.

There was so much to see in Guangzhou, I ventured outside the city only for brief trips, to nearby Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and to the beautiful scenery of the River Li and the distinctive karst hills around it near Yangshuo. Yangshuo was rather further but still only just over two hours away by bullet train.

As an expert in technology, I was keen to find new forms and usages in Guangzhou. Not so different from us, Guangzhou citizens are glued to their mobile phones for much of their time. Unlike in London, 4G mobile data is available even throughout subway rides around the city. People constantly make phone calls and flick through their apps. WeChat, which is roughly a Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp but with payment facilities, is indispensable for making contacts. A particularly useful feature for the Guangzhou ingenue is the ability for someone to send their location in a link, so that you can find them on Baidu maps (the equivalent of Google maps). Translation apps - I used Google Translate and the Chinese largely used Baidu's equivalent - could be very useful but their accuracy was often doubtful, too. Access to some of my familiar (and necessary) Western websites such as Google, Twitter and streaming services across the 'Great Firewall of China' required VPN. VPN traffic is intrinsically slower than regular internet traffic but I suspect that it is additionally subject to a varying regime of deliberate throttling. I often experienced a return to the World Wide Wait of the 1990s.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of mainstream technology was the use of QR codes.  This was of significance to me personally because I jointly led an initiative to popularise their use in the mid-2000s in the West. We may have largely failed to find a compelling use for them here, but the Chinese use QR codes routinely, especially for payment, for bicycle hire, and to transfer contact information from one WeChat user to another. No doubt if I had spent more time in Shenzhen, the hi-tech city downstream along the Pearl River, I would have seen more innovations.

Were there frustrations? Certainly, the bureaucracy was heavyweight at times. It creaked in particular when it came to registering my presence in China (a statutory requirement subject to fines) from an 'unofficial' Airbnb apartment. I was naive to think that I could be paid as a representative of my business, and the money transferred straight to its UK bank account. Moving personal money from a Chinese bank account to a foreign bank account is a whole story in itself.

But am I glad that I went? Very. I found my sojourn in Guangzhou to be energising, endlessly fascinating, and full of memories that will always stay with me. I felt that I barely understood much of what I saw, which made me enjoy it all the more. As for the people themselves: from the students to all the other people I met, I was made to feel very welcome. One has to make the effort: the people of Guangzhou do not naturally show much interest in the relatively few foreigners among them. But any gesture towards them is rewarded immediately and fully. I made friends with the city and will maintain links as far as I can.

Tim Kindberg's photographs of Guangzhou are on his Instagram account @takeyouwithme_.

You can reach him at tim@matter2media.com .