A day in the life of a Cantonese village household

A couple of posts ago I received comments intimating that readers would still be happy to read about the most mundane of my experiences in China. With that in mind, you’d better brace yourselves for the following post!

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to have lunch at the house of the mother of one of the grade 6 English teachers at our school, Vivian. My defining memory of Vivian will surely be of her regular, tricky questions about the use of English. The questions are particularly difficult to answer because they derive from the awkwardly phrased exam papers that bear no resemblance to natural spoken English. One example was ‘Is a window in or on the wall’. The real answer is that you wouldn’t ever say either, but that didn’t satisfy the exam question that poor grade 6 students are expected to answer.

Vivian and her husband, like us, live in the school during the week. She goes to her mother’s house most weekends where she tutors local grade 6ers and helps out her mother, who spends most of her time looking after two of her very cute grandchildren – Vivian’s niece and nephew.  Vivian’s own son lives miles away with her in-laws (I can’t remember where) and she only gets to see him once a month, in what is apparently a fairly normal setup in this part of the world.

The invite came about when I asked what there was to do nearby over the weekend. She suggested a garden and a mountain (hill) not far from her mother’s house. As it turns out, I never made it to either. Her husband, on whom we were dependent for travelling, had to go off to do something. He was due back at about midday but didn’t return until about 5!

I was picked up at around 8:30 in the morning and we picked up some cheong fun for breakfast. Cheong fun, so named because of its resemblance to a pig’s intestine (mmmm!), is a filled roll of very thin rice noodle and doused in sweet soy sauce. It’s pretty good but notoriously difficult to eat with chopsticks!

When we got there I met Vivian’s mother, holding one grandchild with another wrapped around her back, and Vivian quickly got to work setting work for the four newly arrived primary school children there. I was left to my own devices, trying my best to tear away strips of stretchy rice noodle with a couple of splinters of wood! The house was dingy and basic to say the least. It seemed all homeliness had been compromised in favour of practicality. There was laundry everywhere – I wondered if the clothes all belonged to their family or if Vivian’s mother earned a little extra washing other people’s clothes. I spent the rest of the morning trying to help with the English teaching. I wasn’t much use as they were busy with practice exam papers.

As lunchtime approached, Vivian told me it was time to make some dumplings, and without further ado plates of dumpling dough circles and a big bowl of dumpling mix were brought onto the outside table. Vivian, the children and I proceeded to fold the mix into the dough ready to chuck into a soup. I think my first attempt at making dumplings turned out to be a success.

After lunch all but one of the school children left and I spent the afternoon keeping myself entertained with basketball, mahjong and cards. Next door they had a few ‘automatic’ mahjong tables. The tables were clearly specifically designed to facilitate rapid transition from game to game, allowing the four competitors, gambling their spare change, to play again and again almost obsessively. The tables each had two sets of tiles, which were shovelled into a hole in the middle of the table at the end of each game. And, with the touch of a button, the other set would magically arise from within the table fully set up in front of the four players ready for the next game. As the next game ensued the table is clattering away within setting up the next game. I was well impressed!


When Vivian’s husband and brother finally returned from their day’s duties, they immediately insisted that I join them for a game of basketball. Before, I was just ‘shooting hoops’ with the one remaining school child, but now I found myself involved in an intense three-a-side game in my crappy, old sandals! Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s P.E. teacher husband was very good and her brother was if anything better. I was way out of my depth!

I haven’t really mentioned in my blog that I have become quite taken with playing basketball since living in China, not ever having played it before (if you discount St. Mary’s junior school). We (Simon and I) rarely do more than shooting during our lunchtime break. But occasionally we have played games with the teachers. I’ve been meaning to show off for a while now that I have now hit 4 half-court shots. Unfortunately, Simon can only vouch for one of them, but a keen basketball-playing teacher witnessed my first! I’ve improved a lot in a year, but not quite enough to hold my own with the company on that afternoon in sandals.

We played until dinnertime. It was so nice to see the whole family converge on the table in the evening having spent the day out and about pursuing their own agendas. The family included Vivian, her mother, father, husband, two brothers and their wives, niece and nephew, and the schoolboy who had spent the whole day at his teacher’s mum’s house. We ate very traditional Cantonese food: peppers stuffed with fish, egg and tomatoes, green beans, soup and rice and I can’t remember what else. After dinner I was taken back to school by the mother of the boy I had played cards, mahjong and basketball. The day wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I probably wouldn’t have said that if the day’s activities were normal day to day occurrences for me, but this was the first time I have been welcomed into a Cantonese family home and I’m glad to have experienced it however mundane.




I hadn’t mentioned before, but a few weeks ago I bought a ticket for Cuban National Ballet production of Swan Lake in GZ. I bought it at the hugely impressive GZ Opera House just across the river from the Canton tower while on my way to Hong Kong. I was heading to Hong Kong to pick up my Easter ‘care package’. I’m still making my way through the sugary delights that it contained! I actually ended up spending two nights at Eleanor’s flat, thinking I was in no hurry to get back for lessons on Monday (because I now rarely teach on a Monday). It was not until I got an unrelated call concerning a question about English grammar that I found that that Monday was to be a Tuesday! While in Hong Kong I met an old school friend of my mother’s and went to the beach where I received significantly more sun exposure than is probably healthy! That weekend was just about the time summer was starting to kick in, so Hong Kong’s coast was baking in 30* heat. Once again I was wonderfully looked after despite the pressures of keeping children who have been off school for three weeks entertained!

So that was the weekend I bought that ballet ticket. Last Wednesday (9th) was the day that I went to the ballet. I had chosen to go on a Wednesday because I knew that, without any afternoon lessons, I would have plenty of time to get to GZ and I could avoid the rush hour. With the performance not until 8, I left the school at two. On the way to the opera house I took a stroll around Liwanhu park, one of many scenic parks dotted around GZ, before grabbing a dish of egg and tomatoes and hopping back on the metro across the city. I still had a fair amount of time to spare so, rather than making a complicated series of changes to get to the right stop I decided to get off a walk from the nearby Tianhe stadium through Zhujiang New Town. Zhujiang (Pearl river) New Town is the trendy new business district that owes much of its impressive recent development to the Asian games that took place here two years ago (hence the stadium). It is densely packed with lofty skyscrapers, none loftier than the eye-catching Canton tower that overlooks the area from across the river. Each night the Canton tower is brightly lit with rainbow colours, constantly taking on new patterns. The walk towards the river is deliberately arranged to allow constant sight of the tower, so my walk that night was a veritable feast for the eyes. The sheer volume of flashing lights in all directions might have appeared tacky were it not so gosh darn impressive! I arrived in good time, though later than I expected because the height of the tower in the distance created the illusion I was much closer to my destination than I really was.

As I entered the threshold of the Guangzhou Opera House I was hit by a wave of cool air. I quickly found my seat in the middle and just a few rows from the very back of the auditorium. As I looked around me I noticed most people were flicking through their programs. I regretted not picking one up on the way in. I regretted it even more so when I found that they were sold out by the first interval. The usherettes were kind enough to offer to look for a copy during the second act for me, but to no avail. Going to a classical ballet performance, I was looking forward to the music as much as anything else, so I was disappointed to find that there was not an orchestra in sight, but just loudspeakers. I’m hardly a seasoned attendee of ballet performances, but it struck me odd that every solo performance was followed by applause and bowing. It might just be my musical sensibility, but I felt this compromised the performance’s artistic integrity. Perhaps this was to appease an audience that seemed ill at ease with silence. I mentioned in my earlier posts on going to the theatre and Baiyun mountain the ubiquity of noise in China. Apparently it’s no different with the ballet-going upper-echelons of Guangzhou society. There were members of the audience who just couldn’t keep it to themselves if they were particularly impressed by a fancy pirouette or a daring leap. At one point, one person seemed to decide that a solo had gone on quite long enough and proceeded to applaud without inhibition, this set off a chain reaction amongst those whose concentration was wavering. Shining brightly through all this irritation was, to an untrained eye, a beautifully portrayed and choreographed display of athleticism. It was clear enough to me why Cuba’s National Ballet company is so highly regarded.

I talked again with the usherettes at the end of the performance and found that they were also heading towards the GZ metro. In typically Chinese concern for my well-being, they made sure to see me off on the correct train for my destination as if I had never been to GZ before. It was the cherry on top of a thoroughly satisfying expedition into GZ. Reading back, I realise I didn’t do Liwanhu park justice. Hopefully the pictures will amend that. Please note the link below. All will become clear when you click on it.


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*insert innuendo here*

Since my last post (crouching tigre) the heat has hit southern China, and will be here to stay until around October. And with the heat have come the storms. In the past few weeks we have regularly experienced booming thunderstorms that exceed anything I have experienced at home. In this heat, sweating has also reached unprecedented levels. At midday I need do no more than sit down and I’ll be dripping! Three showers a day has become standard. It’s not pretty, but you should know how underrated Britain’s mild weather is!

Last weekend we (Amy, Emma, Cari and I) went to visit Danxia Shan. Danxia Shan is a UNESCO world heritage site a couple of hours north of GZ. We were taking advantage of three day’s holiday for May Day. I say three days but, given we had to work a Saturday and that one of the days was a Sunday, it was effectively one day’s holiday. We met Cari and Emma in GZ. A night in GZ was ample excuse for revisiting that Turkish restaurant! Another reason to choose the Turkish place is that Chinese restaurants weren’t likely to be open after 10. It was my third time at ‘Bosphorus’ having been very kindly treated by Simon’s visiting parents a few weeks ago. Before you go chastising my parents for not visiting, Simon’s parents live in Shanghai. Before dinner we had to find a place to buy tickets to Shaoguan, the nearest city to Danxia Shan. Inevitably, GZ was packed with people trying, like us, to make the most of the short holiday. Having tried two GZ stations (the first only had standing tickets at the wrong time; the second, the ticket office was closed), we settled for the more expensive coach.

We spent the night at the same hostel we had before. I had to settle for a pullout sofa because they had run out of space in the dorm. This meant I couldn’t get to bed until everyone else in the hostel decided to go to bed. On the plus side, this meant that I met some friendly people. I met a Turkish guy who spoke very good Mandarin, a Chinese girl called Eva, and a French guy who was working in Shanghai called Victor. That night I was mutilated by mosquitos! I think I just about managed 3 hours’ sleep. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to catch up on sleep on the 3 1/2 hour coach journey to Shaoguan. We spent the rest of our day walking around Shaoguan, attracting many a fascinated look from the locals (significantly more than usual). Shaoguan was a  pleasant city, built along the river with an attractive park, ample shopping, flower stalls, and of course the ubiquitous KFC and McDonald’s!

Monday was set aside for seeing Danxia shan. The mountain was an hour from Shaoguan by bus. We arrived and joined the swarms of people queuing in the stifling heat for a ticket. The crowds continued as we attempted to board the shuttle bus that took us from the entrance to the feet of the mountains. It was every man for himself each time we got on a bus. To wait for the next bus in a couple of minutes was absolutely unthinkable! Our first port of call was probably Danxia’s best known attraction. From the chock-a-block paths we could see a very suggestively shaped rock that, for obvious reasons, goes by the name ‘Male rock’. There was a variety of anatomically themed rocks as well as a few other strange interpretations of the rock formations. Having negotiated the giggling tourists, vying for the best vantage point to take a photo of Danxia’s defining image, we gladly moved onto the main walking paths of Danxia Shan. On the way we caught sight of the ‘Elephants shuffling out of the mountain’ range. There was certainly a resemblance once it had been pointed out to us! It was a relief to get to the long, demanding, winding paths that are a true reflection of what Danxia has to offer. Not least because the claustrophobic number of tourists was stretched more thinly. It was by this time around midday and the heat was beginning to take its toll. After climbing a particularly daunting flight of steps to see ‘Candlestick mountain’ my shirt was wet through and so it remained for the remainder of the walk. By the time we had completed a circuit of the lake encompassed by the mountains, it was already time to head back to Shaoguan to get the train. I thought it was a shame we didn’t spend more time in Danxia because I was thoroughly enjoying the physical exertion of the undulating walk and could have gone on hours longer. Having said that, we did rather cleverly avoid a short but very sharp burst of rainfall (though that would hardly have made me any wetter!).

The train that we had booked the night before just so happened to be one of the new bullet trains. The super fast was to take about a quarter the time of the bus and was actually 5 yuan cheaper. It was a pain trying to get to the station to book the trains because every time we tried to ask a taxi driver to take us to the main station, he would assume we were talking about Shaoguan East. It later became obvious why when the bullet train station turned out to be about 20 minutes’ drive from Shaoguan and completely brand spanking new, only recently having superseded Shaoguan East as the main city station. This enormous and modern station was eerily empty and anomalously quiet. We arrived at the ‘departure lounge’ to discover that our train, a feat of engineering that stands at the very forefront of worldwide technological achievement, was delayed  by more than the amount of time our journey was to take. It was no real concern as I was in no great rush and I met a nice Chinese lady who taught Chinese in a GZ middle school. Once we boarded the bullet train we enjoyed an immensely satisfying travelling experience: Air-con, comfy seats, smooth ride, and an led display proudly advertising speeds of up to 305 km/h.

That’s all for this week’s post. Comments are welcome as always, and I’m going to make a special effort to respond to everyone because it’s thanks to your feedback that this blog is still going. So now’s the time ask any burning questions!

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