Uniquely China [Life in GZ, Ed. 30]

Teaching English class at Elite Modern in Tianhe

While I am so ready to leave China at this point, I of course have to take the limited time I do have left to enjoy what I call Uniquely China Things.

What I will miss about China is the ability to learn and experience things about the country and its society from an outsider’s perspective but with the insider’s advantage of having a Chinese face and being able to speak and understand the language—albeit at a rudimentary level.

In the instances I successfully blend in (usually involves my not opening my mouth), I usually feel relieved that I don’t have to be treated differently. Sure, having others know that I am a foreigner has its advantages (foreigners—save for blacks,#racism—are seen as superior; we can speak English instead if they can, too; among others), but I find that the attention just leads to the bromide conversations about me and my background. I can’t count how many times I’ve repeated the phrase, “I’m American but my parents are from Guangzhou.”

Besides, being able to pass as a local makes life here seem that much easier. Effortless. No doubt, I still encounter many situations in which I severely wish my Chinese were better to articulate beyond a fifth-grader’s level, but I find that many locals are graciously patient, even when they never end up realizing I’m not a local. Sorry, I’m normally not this slow/mute/incapable, I find myself quietly begging.

But then I look around and see that I’m not alone. Although they might not see it as such, it’s a struggle for everyone, and it’s a wonder the service industry has so much patience to handle the masses, which often seem even more incapable than I am…

Anyway, this is all to say that I find that my life in Guangzhou has been incredibly valuable, largely thanks to my Chinese face. Many stories, hastily typed notes on my phone, and unedited photos have not made it on this blog, but I have tried to record as much as possible over the past year, with countless unfilled promises to expand on this or that eventually. The truth is, life is impossible to record in full, let alone life in Guangzhou.

So with that, I highlight a few Uniquely China Things from this past week+.

Teaching English class at Elite Modern in Tianhe
Teaching English class at Elite Modern in Tianhe.

1 — Spreading Good Ol’ American Values as an English Teacher
I’m amazed at how easily I find myself teaching English in front of a class of high school students as a one-time thing, simply because of who I am and what I do: an American working for the TV station. After substituting for my coworker last time, the same contact wanted me to try one class with another group of students, frankly because of the status I can help bring to this modest English learning center. In China, one’s perceived status is worth way more than any apparent experience, and while I should only be grateful for what this means and has meant for the opportunities I’ve been given based on such an idea, it’s clear how wrong this is, especially when others who are much more qualified than I am should be getting these opportunities. Then again, what is seen as “qualified” here? As long as perceptions are fulfilled, standards are ignored—although unlikely to have been established in the first place. #CHINA

2 — Ride Hailing
Especially as a foreigner, it’s easy to think that taking Uber and Didi in China is annoying as hell, because once you call one, the drivers always call you immediately to confirm your location, no matter how precisely your entered your address on the app. Moreover, you often have to adjust your own location to make it easier for the driver to find you, despite, you know, GPS. While I hate having to describe exactly where I am to sometimes incapable drivers, I can’t complain too much, because I’ve never had to pay more than a couple dollars taking a taxi in Guangzhou.

Anyway, the more important observation here is the switching between Cantonese and Mandarin within a ride. Whenever I answer a call, I speak in the preferred dialect of Cantonese. When they answer in Mandarin, I can expect that they’re a non-local driver.

Today, although I had answered in Cantonese, we spoke in Mandarin on the phone. Once I got in the car, however, he switched to Cantonese, which always makes me question whether it’s because my Mandarin has a strong southern accent (definitely). Because I had chosen the carpool option, we went to pick up someone who at first clearly spoke Cantonese to both me and the driver, asking where I was heading and whether I would be dropped off first.

Then came the call.

This passenger picked up his phone, only to be apparently berated by someone who had been waiting for a while for him. This man responds in Cantonese that we were stuck in traffic (we weren’t) and then immediately after he hangs up, he asks the driver to hurry up in Mandarin. The driver responds in Mandarin.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting in the back, wondering why this man who is apparently late chose to be cheap and not spare that extra few yuan to get his own car, and why he thinks he can switch from Cantonese to Mandarin and assume we didn’t just witness him lying to someone about being stuck in traffic. Sure, traffic was slightly slow, but we were moving at a decent pace. #thingsillneverunderstand

3 — Guangzhou-born Celeb Chef Martin Yan at TEDx!

Guangzhou being a surprisingly expansive city, there are several TEDx events organized throughout the year, but from what I hear, the one I attended Saturday was better than the one in Zhujiang New Town last December. With nearly 600 attendees, TEDxXiguan was hosted in the beautiful Garden Hotel and boasted an impressive line-up of speakers, including the architect behind Shanghai’s beautiful Xintiandi, an impressive Hong Kong-based a cappella quartet that made the day-long event worth it, and the hilarious celeb chef Martin Yan.

Born in Guangzhou and having spent most of his career on TV in America, Chef Yan speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and English and did exactly that during his talk. He switched among the three, sometimes to clarify but mostly just made him hard to understand for those who didn’t know all three. So since I could understand all three, I’ll be honest, I felt special. This was something he could really only do in a city like Guangzhou where anyone who speaks just one of those three can fairly easily get by. I only wish I had more actively tried to talk to him directly and tell him how much I loved the first video I watched of his, a recent one because I’m too young to have known him during his peak years.

China's Cash-Free Day
Lead-up to China’s Cash-Free Day.

4 — WeChat WeChat WeChat
On the days leading up to the auspicious August 8, WeChat held a “Cash-Free Day” promotion throughout select stores that gifted what ended up amounting to just a few yuan to use on August 8.

In other news, I recently got my hair color retouched, for which I paid my stylist through WeChat. In China, it’s rare for me to use anything other than mobile payments, whether it’s to my landlord or hair stylist.

5 — Voiceovers for Crazy English
Again because I do voiceovers for the TV station, I was recommended to help record voiceovers for Crazy English magazine. For those who don’t know, this magazine’s founder has an insane and infamous history, but according to my coworker, this particular branch has “nothing to do with the crazy guy.”

So despite my reluctance to help an infamous company, I took the opportunity anyway. I figured I might as well see what kind of people work for such a company—turns out, all women who, as expected, have an excellent command of English and unfortunately work in a shitty office building.

I admire their efforts to create interesting, topical WeChat posts for English learners, and I appreciate that they “love” my voice, but companies like this are too #CHINA for me, in that standards are lower than what I’d prefer but, at the same time, low enough for me to gain experience and insight into China’s workplaces.


I’ll leave those who have made it to this point with:

  • These lovely screenshots of that weird Chinese “expert” teaching us how to massage our pelvises on television.
  • An article on burnout
  • Chinese Olympic swimmer Sun Yang with a selfie stick in an obnoxious ad in Tianhe

    Sun Yang selfie add at BRT station in Guangzhou
    Sun Yang selfie add at BRT station in Guangzhou.
  • And shots from the hilarious Shrek The Musical at the Guangzhou Opera House, thanks to free tickets from Hazza 🙂