From the Nanning airport, I looked in amazement out the window of the delightfully air-conditioned school van.
The vehicle swerved, swayed, and wove its way through vast sugar cane fields and low-lying rice paddies, all nestled between jagged mountain peaks that exploded skyward over the flat landscape.
Bright blue skies with mushrooming cumulous clouds perched themselves over our heads.
Tiny villages with water buffalos tied to brick homes popped up at every turn.
This was Guangxi Province, my new home.
Beginnings of a New Adventure in China
Already, 6 days have passed since I arrived at Guangxi Normal University for Nationalities, located in the small town of Longzhou (long – joe), whose population includes just 1 foreigner, me.
Since school hasn’t started yet, the campus has remained quiet and empty aside from the many faculty families living here. Teachers and administrators likewise are not in offices quite yet, still enjoying their last days of summer vacation before entering a new semester. This has allowed me plenty of time to unpack over 60 boxes and try my best to find places to put everything, which certainly hasn’t been a problem.
My apartment on the 3rd floor of the faculty building No. 6 is spacious and huge. I have 2 bedrooms, 2 office rooms, a large sitting room, 2 restrooms (one with western sit-down toilet, one with Asian squat style), a tidy little kitchen and a balcony area for hanging out clothes to dry.
Everything was thoroughly cleaned before I arrived and all the equipment checked out to make sure it was working. Never have I received such a great welcome in China before, where new residents to apartments are usually confronted by a filthy mess. It’s the custom that the new occupants clean things themselves and the old ones don’t bother as they no longer are living there.
The Sizzling Heat: Adapting To a New Daytime Schedule
As is usual in China, one bedroom is equipped with an air-conditioning unit for comfortable sleeping purposes. The rest of my large dwelling, however, is left to the mercy of the stifling heat.
And this place is hot.
The sun is wicked and sizzles the skin in just a matter of seconds as soon as you step into it. Umbrellas are the savior of all here. We carry them everywhere. These shield us from burning rays, but they don’t protect us from the intense heat wafting up and around us from the concrete pavements.
In this climate, grandparents and parents are out early around campus with the children. Since school has not yet begun, the excited cries of kids playing in the park in front of my apartment are a constant. Everyone sits under shady trees to chat, especially the tiny elderly whose wrinkled, weathered skin show the damage of years of living in this region.
Noontime to 4 p.m., the unbearably hottest times of the day, people remain indoors. There’s not a single soul outside on the school grounds. The streets of the Longzhou are likewise quite empty as people hide within, not yet venturing out until evening. Things again start to bustle after dinner, around 6:30 p.m., and then its more adult visiting and playtime for the kids. This might go on until 11:30 p.m. when everyone calls it quits for the night.
When our school year begins, the first class is at 7:40 a.m., giving us 5 class periods of 40 minutes each which end at 11:40. There is an 11:40 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. siesta before we’ll start up again at 2:40 to 5:00. Evening classes take over at 7 p.m. and close off by 9 p.m.
All of this is quite new to me.
I’m not used to a schedule built soley around the weather but I certainly am grateful for it. Teaching in classrooms with ceiling fans swirling around oppressive, sticky air wouldn’t be much fun if we had to endure it all during the hottest hours of the day.
The Small Place Where I Live: Understanding The Divisions of Government in China
To understand a little about where I am, it’s important to understand the division of government levels in China.
There are basically 5 levels of administrative hierarchy in China: provinces (like our US States), prefectures (government level between a province and a county), counties (like our own state counties), townships and villages.
Under the division of “county”, there are a number of levels as well: autonomous counties (those with ethnic minorities, of which China has 56 different ethnic groups), county-level cities, districts (subdivisions of urban areas), banners and autonomous banners (same as counties except the name is different).
In Sichuan, I lived in Luzhou county with the city Luzhou (3 million) being the government county seat. It’s what is called a prefecture-level city.
In Guangxi, I live in Longzhou (long-joe) county (270,000) with the town of Longzhou (maybe 50,000?) being a county-level city only. Mostly, that means it’s much smaller, with no government level offices that are authorized to perform government duties, such as hearing court cases, export-import business documents, visas for Chinese travelers going abroad, work visas for visiting foreigners, and so forth.
To do any of those kind of transactions, you have to go to the prefecture-level city Chongzuo, 1 ½ hours away.
I arrived in Longzhou from the airport, a 3-hour drive away, and was whisked into my apartment quite late, at 8 p.m. I had no time to see Longzhou, even on Monday when I was driven to Chongzuo to register for my work visa.
My waiban, Mr. Luo (the foreign affairs director of our school) and two young Chinese teachers (Millie and Kate) accompanied me.
That left little time upon my return to do much of anything except begin to unpack, which I’ve been doing continuously for 3 days. (That and sweating away in this sweltering heat.)
Finally, the last box taken care of, I ventured out into the town for more than just a quick stop at the grocery store.
Last Thursday led me on an exploratory journey outside the school’s back gate during the 11:30 rush hour of bicycles, a few cars and 3-wheeled taxi motorcades. Here I found rows upon rows of fruit sellers under their canopied stands. What exotic fruit greeted my eyes!
With us being so close to the border of Vietnam, only 1 hour away, you can imagine all the different kinds of south-Asian citrus displayed by sellers. Half of the produce offered I’d never seen before. I’m just wondering if they even have English names.
I’m sure when school is in session, the fruit sellers do a great business from students.
This road also hugs the famous Li River, which is a part of the Guilin River to the east of us. The Li River zigzags through a multitude of Guangxi hills for over 50 miles and passes hundreds of towns such as Longzhou.
Its muddy waters are doted by sampans and low-riding barges. The tall, steep cliffs make for quite a picturesque view as boat owners cruise by.
Also quite majestic is the town’s stone bridge which crosses the Li. The locals call it Da Qiao, or Big Bridge. Built in the early 1960’s by the back-breaking labor of thousands, this bridge gave greater access to those from the distant farmlands into the town. It also helped supply local merchants with more goods and services from bigger cities.
The Town Itself: A Visit To The Market
Longzhou is small.
One can walk from one side to another in about 20 minutes at a fast clip.
Beyond the town limits, you’ll find more sugarcane fields, rice paddies and mountains.
In the town, the center boasts the Longzhou Hotel, the fanciest one we’ve got.
Buzz the gut and you’ll pass numerous family-run shops: stationery, cakes and breads, small and large household appliances, cellphones, traditional herbal medicines, common people’s restaurants, and so forth.
If you’d like to buy everything in one place, like we do at our U.S. Walmart or K-mart stores, then it’s best to visit the largest indoor supermarket. There are 2 floors, one with food items and one with personal supplies and household goods.
There are 2 other such indoor supermarkets that offer similar things but they are much smaller.
Buying fresh, decent produce and meat, however, is best done in the town’s covered open market. Like many such concrete building markets in China, Longzhou’s market brings in sellers from all over.
Freshly slaughtered animals give buyers choice cuts of beef, chicken, pork and duck. All these are displayed openly on concrete slab tables.
Flies abound so it’s best to purchase your meat early morning.
Seafood is yet another section of the market, along with vegetables and fruit.
On my walk-through Thursday, I found what normally I’d see in Sichuan except for one very odd item.
Squatting low to the ground, 2 women and a child were opening up cocoons and depositing fat, wiggling grubs onto a canvas sheet. The green caterpillars squirmed and writhed in the heap they were tossed onto.
After conversing with the women, I learned can jian (as they are called in Chinese) are a favorite with the children. They are stir-fried and eaten as a snack.
“Hao chi! Hao chi! (Good eats! Good eats!)” the women grinned, trying to entice me to buy.
Later, I was told by a new teaching colleague that their soft, pudgy bodies make for a squishy, delicious meal.
Maybe so for the Longzhou crowd but as for me, I’ll pass.
Getting An Extended Summer Vacation: October 9th Starting Date
The complicated make-up of Guangxi University for Nationalities will take a while to explain. I’d leave it for later but since it has to do with my start to teaching on October 9, I’d better spell it out now.
There are 3 campuses to this school.
One is here in Longzhou (the original campus), one is in Chongzuo city (1 ½ hours away) and one is outside of Chongzuo city in the middle of nowhere, literally on the vacant plains without a village, shop or bus stop in sight.
The middle-of-nowhere campus is currently under construction. Officials are determined it will be ready to go by October 9, which is after the 1-week National Day holidays, but I have my doubts. We passed it on my way to the government offices to get my visa. The entire place is a muddy mess, with no walkways, sidewalks or roads yet, and the buildings are covered in scaffolding. It’ll be a miracle to have it done in 6 months much less 6 weeks but one never knows in this country of incredibly speedy, seemingly “overnight” constructed buildings.
Because all 1st year students in China must have military training for a month, and because the new campus is yet to be completed, our freshmen are all coming here to Longzhou to do their mandatory marching, drilling, unity-bonding course.
There’s not enough dormitory space for the 2nd and 3rd year students if the freshmen are here so we have a delay of starting classes until October 9, after the National Day holidays.
By that time, the 1st year students assigned to the new campus will be moved to their school and all of our Longzhou students will be able to return to begin their fall semester..
In other words, I now have an extended vacation of an extra 6 weeks.
Until October 9
After the Amity Teachers’ Summer Conference in Nanjing is finished on Aug. 26th, I’ll be returning to Chengdu to hang out with friends for awhile. Then, with Little Flower, I’ll eventually make my way back to Guangxi by the end of September to gear up for my new teaching position here.
It’s somewhat disappointing not to be able to teach immediately but this does give me yet more time to say my goodbyes to my Sichuan friends.
I’m guessing by October 9th, I’ll be more than ready to start fresh in a place of such beauty and interest here in Guangxi Province.
As always, stay tuned for updates!
From Guangxi, here’s my first (and certainly not the last) Ping An (peace) sent your way.