Arriving in China – Day One

Experienced June 2017

Our move to China in 2017 was rapid. Too rapid. It was an unusual move. I have been asked (and often ask myself) “How does a geologist from South Africa get into marketing for a biometrics group in Guangzhou, China?”. Glad you asked. Here’s how…

I first heard of the available position from my friend Paul on 21st March. An opportunity. Could not be turned down. The prospect was exciting.

China had never been on my list of “places to see” let alone places to live. What I knew about China was limited: The Great Wall, Beijing, Mao, Hong Kong, Confucius, terracotta soldiers, elaborate dragon dances, fireworks, kung-fu, Hong Kong, chopsticks, sweet-and-sour pork and chop suey.

We decided to give it a go. It was time for a change of the 3C’s: career, country, and culture!
Things moved quickly and I was on a plane to Guangzhou for an interview on 5th April.

Having secured the job, I had 6 weeks to wrap things up in Joburg and get back to China.

I arrived back in Panyu, Guangzhou, at midnight on a very hot and humid Saturday 3rd June. I would be starting work immediately on the Monday and I would have about two and a half  months to set up before I headed back to SA to pick up Shauna and the kids in August.

For the first month I was put up in a hotel called the Mao Feng. It suited my needs, although the floor smelled a bit, and there was a functioning KTV on one of the top floors above my room. Sure it was noisy. My room was directly above a very noisy market street, and adjacent to a busy highway, but it was convenient being within walking distance of Global Villa, where the majority of my colleagues lived, and on the bus route to work. There were a couple of western pubs that served good western fare over the highway from the hotel and a McDonalds if I got desperate. I would inevitably get desperate: the first Chinese I learnt was: Jù wú bà 巨无霸 “Big Mac” (A McDonalds extra value meal is approximately 35 RMB ~ZAR 70).

More importantly the Mao Feng was on a busy and relatively authentic market street which had everything. Excellent, cheap, local food, and plenty of small stores that sold Pringles, sweet bread, and Gatorades that would became my staple diet for the next month or so. I would only get into the cheap local food later when I understood how and what to order.

By the time I had checked in on the first night it was about 1am. I had no money, and no way of communicating with anybody at the hotel. I was pretty hungry by this point. Luckily there were some Pringles, and a pot noodle in the room. I finished those off pretty quickly. Other in-room food included vacuum packed chicken feet and a century old egg. Maybe another time, I thought.

Waking up the next morning, I realized I still had no money, and no way of communicating with anyone. Luckily I was getting picked up by a colleague to go shopping for supplies and later a traditional South African family braai. My colleague arrived on his scooter, and soon enough I was on the back of his scooter, driving up the wrong way of the very busy highway adjacent to the hotel. Guess this is how its done in China.

It’s not unusual for bikes and sometimes cars to drive up the wrong way on the roads here. Driving is a passive activity in China, not like the aggressive fast driving that I am used to back in South Africa. If someone cuts you off on a road in Guangzhou, then they cut you off. If there is a gap, why not take it.

If a driver wants to swerve across three lanes without indicating, or slow down to read his text messages in the fast lane of the highway, well, as long as everyone else slows down behind him then it’s fine. There is no aggressive hooting, or negative hand gestures, no banging on the steering wheel, or shouting obscenities out of your window. The odd glare maybe. But it’s rare.

The shops we ended up at that Sunday could be mistaken for a Sandton or Eastgate shopping mall. A large, bright, modern, air-conditioned mall with all the brand name shops, sparkling floors, LED screens, and a large grocery store. Given the limited choice of food I had at the hotel I decided to stock up on granola bars, cereals, fruit and snacks. There was plenty of good fruit, but on the granola-bar front, there was nothing. There were rows and rows of sweets, and packeted sweet treats (typically red bean with puffed wheat or puffed rice – nothing substantial) but none of the snack-type food I was used to. Woolworths and Pick-n-Pay had spoiled me in South Africa. I would have to adapt my diet somehow.

The variety of live turtles, fish, eels, crabs, prawns and other sea-food that swam around in the tanks at the back of the grocery store reminded me that I was not in South Africa anymore. Those were all for eating.

Back at the hotel I still had no money and no working SIM card. So I still had nothing to eat or any supplies for the next day (except some left over meat from the braai). Walking up and down the market street none of the stores would accept my credit card. It was time to find an ATM. Most places I have travelled to have an ATM at the hotel, or one down the street. But not in Panyu. It was getting late now, and I was tired and hungry. After walking up and down the market street, I eventually found the ATM tucked in right next to hotel. Virtually hidden from view (I would struggle to find it again). I was really hungry at this point and the thought of eating vacuum packed chicken feet did not appeal to me.

Looking at the ATM I then realized that I could not read any Chinese… bloody hell.
I needed to get a translation app on my phone – rapido (why had I not set this all up already?). Without any network on my phone I had to head back to my room (with WiFi) and download a translation app and then get back to the ATM, and translate the writing on the screen. After some fumbling I eventually managed to work the ATM and withdraw the cash I needed to buy some food. I was super chuffed with myself for problem solving this challenge. I recall telling myself, “Yeah! I’ve got this! I can use translation apps to translate Chinese” I’ll be up and running in China in no time!

I pulled out my card only to see a button on the bottom right of the screen that read “Press for English”.


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