GUANGZHOU, GUANGDONG, CHINA – “Sunshine!”
One heard this regularly at the Hunan restaurant we frequented, for we called it out playfully over and over throughout our meals. Over would rush a young Chinese girl, a five year old with pigtails, who would smile a shy smile at us and refill our mugs with scalding green tea, or simply stand by our table, twisting one foot and with it her entire body, waiting nervously but excitedly to see how we would lavish attention upon her.
When first we met her (and her mother who ran the restaurant), none of us spoke Chinese well enough to discover her real name. We decided to call her Sunshine since, initially, she looked like nothing in the world could possibly please her. We discovered this wasn’t true. Frightened by a large group of unknown laowai (foreigners) descending upon what she knew as home, she warmed up to us once we had expressed our interest in her, and shown ourselves to be no different from the Chinese diners who came, ate, and asked for refills of rice and tea.
Her mother ran the restaurant with a few other faces that constantly changed, or remained hidden away in the kitchen. There was only one in our group who could speak Chinese, and Sunshine’s mother (whose name we never learned, nor assigned) learned all she ever knew about us through initial communication with them. She was so kind to us. I never saw her without a smile on her face.
Sunshine eventually grew to love us. She would proudly show us drawings she had made, run to the door to wave at us each time we passed the restaurant, revert to shyness when pressed by her mother to speak the little English she had learned at school.
This restaurant was perhaps our most frequented stop on Yuancun Si Heng Lu. A long street that ran through an area known as Yuancun, part of the central Tianhe district which bordered the northern shore of the Pearl River, it led up to Mei Lin Hai An Hua Yuan, the garden where I worked. (A “garden” is what the Chinese call an apartment community: dozens of tall apartment buildings spread throughout – what else – a lush tropical garden. Shops and schools can often be found in them as well.)
This part of the city – although located in the very same district of Guangzhou that saw the most growth, development and excessive wealth – was completely bordering on poverty. The buildings were not very old, but falling apart. The sidewalks were broken and often nothing but dirt, the street rough and unfinished. People made due, and there was never any complaint – this was just life.
I remember the first time I ever visited this street. It was a February evening, not long after I had moved to Guangzhou, and I was joining two of my coworkers for dinner. Both of them, an Austrian and a Frenchman, had lived in the city much longer than I had and knew the area well. Both of them eventually ended up living on this street – I did, too. We found someone grilling up meat, vegetables and bread on a small barbeque set up on the sidewalk. We ordered some of everything, and ate on small plastic stools around a low wooden table. It was delicious, and cost next to nothing. I couldn’t stop staring at the environs surrounding me, unaccustomed to the actualities of a poor area of the world and what that looked like – and how it worked so well. (I was pretty sheltered growing up in central California.)
Food would become our main incentive to visiting the street. Each day after work we would trek five minutes from the kindergarten to Yuancun Si Heng Lu and debate over where we would eat lunch that day (is there anything better than finishing work at 11:30 in the morning? I think not). Unable to read their Chinese names, we would distinguish restaurants by what they served – there was the place that served the closest equivalent to sweet and sour pork we ever found in China; the “bamboo place”, where you would find rice with vegetable and meat toppings served in bamboo bowls; the Muslim noodle house, a place where you could watch them make and stretch your noodles before they topped them with meats and sauces, where you could always eat well for cheap; Sunshine’s, named after her, our ‘regular’ place, with magnificent Hunan dishes; or a restaurant we went to when we were looking for something different, at which I constantly sat, unable to think of anything but the time my Chinese teacher made me eat frog in one of the private dining rooms upstairs.
The “six-kuai-plate” place was my personal favorite. You ventured into a small dark space between two buildings, pointed out the vegetables, meats and tofus you wanted in your dish, watched them toss these around in huge woks, and had them served to you on rickety little tables in the back, endless refills of rice promising a filling meal. Kuai is slang for yuan, the Chinese currency – 6¥ equaled approximately .91 US cents at the time. (Today, it’s about .99 cents.)I ended up living on this street for half of my first year in China. It was a six-story white building on the corner of Yuancun Si Heng Lu and the street that ran across two of the three entrances to Mei Lin. I was on the top floor. There was no elevator, a staircase open to the elements, bars on the windows and a large square hole without any sort of covering (or hope of being covered) in the top right corner of one of my living room walls. The kitchen had a small sink and an outlet, and nothing more. I will spare you all the details of what could hardly be described as a bathroom (though any one who has experienced rural or developing Asia will probably have a solid idea).
It was a very small space. The only room that could be considered somewhat-fully-insulated was the bedroom, and it also happened to be the only room in the apartment with an air conditioning unit. During the intensely hot and humid Guangzhou summer, I spent most of my time burrowed in there. Too small to contain anything other than a bed, everything was fit around the queen sized mattress, covered in horrible bright pink sheets I had purchased for cheap. Half of my bed was my desk, with my computer and many books stacked high, a collection of empty water bottles continuously building up around them; the other half I slept on.
I relocated there out of desperation after a Chinese woman had been moved into the spare bedroom of the apartment my job had set up for me before I arrived in China. The cultural differences had simply proved to be too much to live comfortably with. Instead of moving to a decent apartment in Mei Lin, I decided to look for something cheap so as to save more money each month. Rent cost less than 150 USD per month, but the apartment was probably worth much less. Still, it was an extremely small price to pay for my own space and privacy, and I paid it willingly. I ended up only having to deal with it for six months.We went to this street for all of our basic needs, since it held the nearest stores in the somewhat isolated area our garden was found in. Supermarkets, fresh fruits and vegetables, cell phones, hair cuts (for the boys), catching the buses, finding little random things you might need for the home. This is where we came for all of it. At night we would venture down the street towards Huangpu Dadao for wonderful barbeque they had on the sidewalks, where we would gorge ourselves on seafood, skewered meats, chicken legs, tofu covered in garlic, grilled eggplant, the best green vegetables imaginable, and lots of beer. It was the perfect way to end – or begin – a night in Guangzhou, especially considering that these places could still be found open at 4AM.
We once tried visiting the small clubs on the street to see what they might hold. Chinese people stared at us when we entered, wondering how we could have possibly ended up there, and then bought us endless drinks.
I spent so much of my life on this street that it feels like another part of home to me. Dirty, hot, crowded and poor, I learned to love it without realizing that I did. Gazing out of a taxi window at night, at the bright lights that illuminated the street and the buildings and the people, became one of the most common occurrences in my life. Never during my two and a half years in that small corner of the world did it ever get old.
The street was familiar. It witnessed so much of my life during those first years in China. I find myself missing it now.
The street, and those years.