The Guangzhou Grind

Posted on April 10, 2012


My alarm goes off at 7:45, and I roll out of bed and switch on the hot water heater.  Electricity is relatively expensive in China, a fact which forces every Joe Bloe and Wang Fang to be a greenie. It’s great.  At my old office in Nanning not only did people not leave their monitors on all night, each and every one unplugged their computer at the socket as they left the office.  Some smaller shops keep the lights off during the day, and flick the switch when you walk in. As much as I do love the economic incentive to environmentalism, I secretly hate this one because I feel a much greater expectation to make a purchase when they’ve switched the lights on just for me.

After I’ve snoozed long enough to let the water heat up, I’m up and out of bed and before too long trudging down nine flights of stairs and out of my building. The complete the picture; I’m living in a rather old apartment building. At some stage as China got richer, the building regulations changed so that any building greater than seven stories is required to have an elevator. My apartment was probably built the year before that happened, knowing my luck.

I live with two Chinese girls. One works in a state owned stocking company. The other works for a Spanish wine importing business.  They are lovely and are teaching me that you can use a rice cooker to cook so much more than just rice.

The thirty minute walk to work takes me from my bustling, very Chinese neighbourhood, where the footpath is lined with food carts and the concrete dotted with miniature puddles of phlegm, to Zhujiang New Town, the new CBD and embassy district where the only roadside refreshment is warm sweet milk with coffee from Starbucks or a range of interesting snacks from 7-Eleven. 7-Eleven has made an impressive adaptation to its product range for China, it’s more than you would think possible for a convenience store, but I’ll save that for another blogpost. As I swipe my security pass to get into the building, this is the part of my day where it feels like I enter a time/space warp and am somehow transported to Barton or ‘New Acton’.  Almost. The office lay-out and set-up is like any office at home.

Zhujian New Town


There are a few key differences. Firstly, we can open our windows. A nice little feature for a skyscraper, but actually, Guangzhou is unfortunately one of the cities in the world where the outside air is actually less desirable than many-times-recycled office air.  Another key difference is that at around 12:30pm, the aromas that waft out of the lunchroom are of rice, roast pork, chilli and garlic, not melted cheese forming the hundredth layer on the sandwich press.

My office is staffed largely by locals. In my department, we are ten expats to about sixty locals. The local staff does most of the work and is who really keeps the place going while the expats come and go in the revolving door way these places run.

As I fill in my timesheet and shut down my computer, I realise I’ve worked up 40 minutes of flex time today and start thinking about my upcoming three-day weekend in Hong Kong. Chinese work culture doesn’t really have the concept of flex-time, which means when I talk about it in Chinese with my colleagues I get to say flex in a Chinese accent (fe-lai-ke-si), which is fun.

As I walk home past the many construction sites (Zhujiang New Town is still very new) I see a truck full of migrant workers being transported back to their dorms. I shudder to think what their living standards are like.


I stop at the market and pick up some vegies and tofu so fresh it’s still warm. When I get home, one of my housemates, Eva, asks me if I can please make her a hat out of newspaper, because she wants to dust her roof. I happily oblige.

At about 9:30 my other housemate and her boyfriend decide they’re going to go out for a haircut. Hairdressers are open till about 10:30/11pm seven days a week. There’s a lot of Chinese hair to be cut. At about this time I decide I will have some yoghurt, as I was very excited to finally find ‘no sugar’ yoghurt at the bakery under my apartment. Plain, creamy, greek yoghurt is something I really really miss here in China. For a moment I thought I’d finally found something to fill the gap, but the first spoon brings great disappointment. I inspect the label more closely and discover that ‘no sugar yoghurt’ is sweetened with both honey and artificial sweetener, to the level of sweetness the Chinese like which is about 500 times sweeter than what an average Australian palate is accustomed to. Sigh. You can’t have it all. On the up side it did come in a pleasing glass jar for which I had to pay an 0.5 yuan deposit. Instead I decide to stick with what the Chinese do naturally and what comes best, and snack on salty sweet dried olives flavoured with liquorice and osmanthus.

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