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Monday, August 11, 2008


If China is the motherland, Guangzhou is the homeland.

Or at least, that's how it felt upon initially arriving. The Cantonese, the grocery store goods, the tropical air and low tree-lined streets, the smell of durians wafting out of fruit stands…this is the China I know! The China of New York and Kuala Lumpur, of Paris and Sydney, the cuisine the whole world knows as Chinese. South China, including Guangdong, Fujian and nearby provinces, is the place which the majority of overseas Chinese (including this one) can trace their roots back to, and after spending ten months living in the locked-in southwestern interior of Sichuan, it feels refreshing to be once again in a place so outward-facing and global.

Where as the people in Chengdu look much like the ones I grew up knowing as "Chinese," they sounded completely different, both with their incomprehensible dialect and their thick local English accents. They ate dramatically different style cooking. Even their opera songs sounded foreign.

In Guangzhou, locals not only look, but sound, dine and sing the same way that I knew from family trips to Perth's Chinese grocery shops on weekends, or summer trips back home to Malaysia. And so walking around the city, known these days more for its go-getter capitalist drive than its exported diasporic culture, I felt like, for the first time since coming to China, I'd actually, truly "returned to the homeland." It actually felt like home, sensually, rather than merely abstractly, and I embraced the feeling. Having began the process of acculturation and learned to get by in Mandarin, I was able to savor the return more fully than had I just gotten off the place from New York.

I had previously written the city off in a way. Guangzhou, and nearby overnight-superstar Shenzhen, are China's export factory capitals, where cheap plastic goods and 90 percent of the disposable crap that fills up homes throughout the West originates. I had preconceptions of a city of mere commerce and hustle, of crooks and mobsters and squabbling for pieces of the pie. But it has revealed itself, of course, to be so much more. It's a large, top-tier city, with a first-rate subway, significantly larger and more diverse expat population and—most welcomingly—excellent food.

So with such rash biases thrown aside, I'm looking forward to plunging face first into the intoxicating aromas of home, here in Guangdong.

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