This week, the guest post series takes us to China, for a peak at the city of Wenzhou in the country’s southeastern Zhejiang province. Our guide on the journey is Doris Gallan, who has been traveling and living abroad non-stop since April 2006 and is currently writing a book to help others do the same. She also offers daily travel tips and writes two blogs – This ExPat Life & Baby Boomers Traveling – which can be found on www.dorisgallan.com.
WINGING IT IN WENZHOU
You won’t find Wenzhou in most travel guides: believe me, I looked. I wasn’t encouraged by the few mentions of this city of 7 million people as these indicated a place focused on business and little else. Everything seemed to say that there’s nothing here to interest visitors. But I was going to live in Wenzhou and decided I would find its hidden treasures myself.
I don’t yet speak the language and there’s no English-language anything (books, maps, tours etc). So pasting Google maps together I got a sense of this city crisscrossed with rivers and canals, most of which are lined with parks. The Lupu River and its parks provided a good place to start walking as I came across older neighborhoods with homes built of traditional gray tiles and bricks. Small gardens were often planted on the riverside adding to the activity along the water.
I enjoyed the startling contrast between this old China and my own neighborhood with its dozens of apartment buildings, small restaurants, and retail shops selling the latest fashions. When not walking along the rivers and canals, I found little else but modern edifices boasting the commercial success of my new home city: Wenzhou Museum of History, city government and corporate headquarter for companies I’d never heard of. And the shopping areas of town – EuroCity and Wuma Street especially – look so Westernized with Pizza Hut and McDonald’s that you can almost forget you are in China.
Affluent Chinese – and there is a large middle class in Wenzhou – dress well, drive nice cars and have more cosmopolitan tastes in food than you might expect. We witness this regularly at restaurants in the Wendi Lu area of town including The Indian Restaurant, The Arab Restaurant and The Italian Restaurant (those are the actual names of these businesses, at least in English). My favorite, however, is Lao Beijing, a small quintessentially Chinese restaurant serving the best dumplings this side of the Yangtze River where well-off diners rub shoulders with working-class people.
Weekends and national holidays draw people away from business to visit the park on Jiangxinyu Island with its thousand-year-old Seven-Buddha Pagoda. Several amusement parks also attract people on days off as do cinemas, sports facilities, and shopping malls. Every weekend these are filled with families enjoying their time together. Xiushan Park is a local favorite with kite sellers, arts & crafts tables for kids, and goldfish ponds where you can catch your future pets.
Which brings us to an important difference between Wenzhou and the rest of China: the One-Child Policy didn’t really take hold here. These successful business people could afford to pay fines for having additional children so most families have two, three or more children. One Chinese friend, who comes from a family with four kids, was asked how her parents managed it and responded: “My parents lived away from their registered home in Wenzhou so no one was keeping track of how many children they were having. When we returned to the area, the children had already grown. So what were they going to do? It was too late to kill us. So my parents just paid fines.”
My husband, an English teacher at English First, says that most of his students have brothers and sisters. Before learning this, he wasn’t sure how he would handle teaching the vocabulary used to describe family members. It turned out it wasn’t an issue, as family composition in Wenzhou is pretty well the same as in the Western world, with brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. My Mandarin teacher had more trouble trying to come up for words for our concepts of step-mother/father/sister/brother and we didn’t even attempt to figure out second-cousin-once-removed.
The greatest challenge to adapting to life in Wenzhou is the fact that of the 7 or so million people living here, there are only 200 expats registered. So yes, we are a minority. That means we get stared at – a lot. On the street, in restaurants, in stores, everywhere – we are a curiosity in the same way that a three-headed, blue-skinned, eight-foot-tall, naked person would be. Some just glance at us or discreetly look and try not to stare. But many gawk open-mouthed at these strange beings: the laowai (literally, old foreigner). The very brave among them might even say “hello” or “welcome to China”, digging out the remnants of English lessons from years past. I usually say nihao (hello) which completely shocks them as they don’t expect us to speak their language.
The expat life in Wenzhou isn’t as easy as, say, in Shanghai where there is a lot more English spoken and many more foreigners living. But it is certainly challenging and interesting. And, as soon as I know enough Mandarin to do so, I hope to take a bus to venture out farther to Yan Dang Mountain and the Nanji Islands Marine Nature Reserve as well as to the many small villages nearby.