Over a year ago, after sending my CV to English schools in Korea, Japan, Sudan, Mexico, Spain– pretty much everywhere – I was offered a job in Guiyang, a city in southern China. After a couple of days’ indecision I replied to the school manager’s email and said, Yeah, I’ll take the job.
I’d been in my hometown, in the west of Ireland, for seven months, unemployed, not sure what to do, and a whole load of clichés echoed in my head: What have you got to lose? Better to regret something you did do than something you didn’t do, etc., etc.
So, here I am, in southern China, 6,000 miles from home.
Guiyang is a city of about four million people, approximately three million in the urban area, which three million live in a shoved-up cluster of highrise apartment blocks.
I teach in an English school, and some of the students, when I ask them if they’d like to live in Guiyang after University, respond with a chorus of: it’s boring, it’s too small, it’s backward, not exciting like Shanghai. And the people in Shanghai (China’s biggest city) probably consider Guiyang a backwater.
It’s said that Guizhou, the province of which Guiyang is capital, doesn’t have three days without rain, three miles without a mountain, or three pennies to rub together.
As an introduction to Guiyang it’s probably useful to at least briefly explore each of those declarations.
Declaration the 1st: All the relevant books and Internet entries say that Guiyang has a humid subtropical climate. I can’t argue with that. Summer days and nights are warm and sticky. People contiually fan their faces. And the air that is fanned is damp; molecules of oxygen like drops of sweat. You walk through glue. Sometimes, in the afternoons, dark clouds rush in from the surrounding mountains and either they hang there waiting, above the skyscrapers, heavy, threatening rain, but do not break, or they break, and the rain is biblical; massive waterbomb drops exploding off every surface, splashing off a million quick umbrellas.
Guiyang itself means ‘precious sunshine,’ an allusion maybe to the original inhabitants’ understanding of sunshine as something to be valued.
Declaration the 2nd: With an elevation of about 1,100 metres, the city is surrounded by and built upon mountains. In the gaps between the skyscrapers I see mountains: made of karst, shaped like cones, their steep slopes covered in forest. I first saw them from above, on the fifth of July, 2010, when my flight from Beijing began its descent to Guiyang’s airport. From the airplane, the entire landscape looked crumpled up – not a stretch of flatland in sight. I remember looking out the airplane window, gazing at the smooth, undulating land, the valleys and slopes; I got a real sense of the processes of geography; could almost see the continental plates shove up against one another, the land forced together, buckling under the pressure, crumpling, folds appearing where once the land had been flat.
Declaration the 3rd: Do the people have three pennies to rub together?
(a) Some own skyscrapers.
(b) Some search through bins for recyclable materials.
Anyway, most of these facts about Guiyang are easy enough to find; a google-search away (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guiyang) if you’re interested…
Or: 百度一下 …
My first couple of weeks here I wondered if I made the right decision coming over. Doubts plagued my brain. Here’s what I wrote four days after having arrived: ‘I don’t know. It’s 3AM in Guiyang. I woke up half an hour ago after having slept for maybe two hours. Hot and humid. Cockroaches scuttle shadowlike across the floorboards and tiles. Outside, seven floors down, along the street, cars flash by, horns blaring, beneath neon. Other machines clatter and drone. In the adjacent flats, children cry…’
I wasn’t happy. I was in a strange place, 6,000 miles from home. The people I’d met were friendly and generous but mostly I perceived only chasms of personality between myself and others. Everything other people were interested in appeared to be the opposite of what interests and excites me. The way of life for a foreigner in Guiyang seemed like the opposite of the life I had imagined for myself.
I wrote: ‘I feel what seems to be a combination of apprehension and dread, on and off for the last coupla days and nights.’
That was over a year ago. Those words and feelings feel like a lifetime ago. Reading them now they seem like those of a different man…
Guiyang, I have much, much to learn…