The orange bangle and the orphanage

Posted on May 8, 2012

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I originally began this post a couple of weeks ago on a quiet evening at home when my internet had gone down. What I thought would be a brief drop off line turned into a week without connection, causing me immense irritation and also inspiring grave concern about my intense internet addiction. Surely there’s a word for this condition by now? The interim between the writing and this posting also saw my first visitors from home. The wonderful Helen Rydstrand, the charming Alex Burt and the thoughtful Curt. I was delighted by their visits and am waiting for yours. Yes you.

So here’s where it originally started:

Wednesday will mark my two month anniversary of living in Guangzhou. My relationship with the city is progressing nicely. I am starting to feel a relaxed familiarity and I am working out how and where to get what I want. I am also coming to terms with what’s not on offer.

In terms of GDP, Guangdong is the second largest economy of a sub-national entity in all of Asia (Tokyo wins, although I’m not sure how recent my figure was..) and the sixth or seventh largest sub-national entity in the world. The GDP of Guangdong is almost as large as that of Indonesia. The most recent estimate values it at CNY5.26 trillion (US$836.19 billion). Thanks to Wikipedia and the Economist for the figures. If you like infographics, check this one out.

According to official figures, the economy of Guangdong increased from 24,521 million renminbi in 1980, to 4,596,300 million renminbi in 2010. This massive growth is as impressive as the steady decline of my brainpower, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how to calculate the figure as a percentage growth. I can thankfully still manage basic division, so let me put it that way: the GDP today is about 187 times as big as it was only 30 years ago.

I’ve already made it painfully obvious I am no economist, but I am pretty sure that scale of growth would be hard to parallel anywhere in history, and probably not in the future either!

Of the ten tenable things in your immediate line of sight, I’m willing to wager that eight of them were made in China. (Please post your statistics as a reply below, I would be very interested to know the results!) Consider that Guangdong is the province that conducts the most exporting in China. Incidentally, it also imports the most too. What am I getting at with all this amateur economics talk? I am trying to express to you that there is a lot of trade happening here in Guangzhou.

This means good and bad things for the city.

I am going to describe at one benefit and one disadvantage. I won’t save the best for last, but do the opposite.

but first for a picture interlude

After work badminton

The good: a steady flow of international businesspeople makes Guangzhou a very cosmopolitan, multicultural city (by Asian standards). People from every nook and cranny of the world live and do business here. Just the other week I met a woman from Madagascar. I’d never met a Madagascan (Madagascuddlian?) before. I told her Madagascar immediately conjured the sweet, delicious scent of vanilla in my mind’s nose. She breathed a sigh of relief and told me most people just think of the movie about cute, African animals from the Central Park Zoo.

Then last night I had a conversation with a Bulgarian who explained that Bulgarian food still retains a lot of Turkish features from the days of the Ottoman Empire.

A few weeks ago I got fantastically lost riding home from a picnic and found myself in a particularly seedy part of town where many African people live. Apparently it can be quite difficult for them to get visas so many of them live here illegally. They’ve teamed up with Uyghur immigrants from Xinjiang (another group of people who are treated like second class citizens) and inhabited a part of the city with many winding alleyways, filling them with aromas of salty baked breads and barbequed fish. The seamy, underworld vibe was exciting!

A friend has told me about a Korean ghetto which I plan to explore soon in search of a top notch bimbimbap.

The down side of all this trade is that it feels like everyone I meet (Chinese and foreigners alike) is in the industry. I’ve never really mixed much with business-bots before. Turns out that very often their interests and ideas about the world are different to mine…

So, I’ve been on a bit of a quest to find people with a world-view more closely aligned with mine. Through some internet research I found out about BEAN, which is an organisation that helps people with bleeding hearts network and organises regular do-gooder type outings.

I went to my first event with them on Saturday which was a trip to play with some kids at a local orphanage. Six of us piled into a bread van – the Chinese word for a minivan 面包车 mian bao che derives from just how much a mini-van looks like a loaf of bread (?!??!?!) – and drove an hour to the orphanage, which was somewhere near the airport and housed about 200 kids. We arrived just as the kids were waking from their post-prandial sleep and were given a group of about 20 kids to entertain for the afternoon. Most of them had disabilities and/or physical deformities. The organiser had prepared some songs to sing (including Old Macdonald in Chinese – old Wang) and had brought along some copies of the lyrics. The kids loved the singing, but weren’t really in to learning the words, compounded by the fact that few of them could read (as they don’t get to go to school). There are only so many times you can sing old Wang before it gets pretty boring so we had to find a plan B.

And this is where I got to a couple of weeks ago, and where I’ll stop now. Stay tuned for part two: Plan B.

See you next time

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