I met S outside her apartment building in Guangzhou, where she was waiting to handover the keys to us. I was surprised when she greeted me with the excitement of a long lost friend. We had never met in person, but had had a fleeting interaction on Skype, if I can even call it that. The Mr. had stayed in S’s apartment a few times on previous work trips, and she had expressed an interest in knowing about me. At dinner one evening with S and her husband, she insisted that I be Skyped that very moment. It was a brief call, in between a noisy dinner table full of food at a Cantonese restaurant. I could hardly hear anything, but her enthusiasm was evident even then.
She took us to her apartment and showed us around the artistic house, her pride obvious. The cozy two bedroom in a modern sky rise building overlooked the Pearl River and had an airy and comfortable feel. It was probably the most well-kept Airbnb I had ever stayed in, and when I mentioned this to S, she beamed like a proud parent. She offered to take me around the city and I said happy to say yes. We decided to meet the next day in the afternoon, as her morning was busy with a family get together called Ching Ming. When I asked what that was, S explained that it was an annual ritual to pay respect to the dead in the family. I know it sounds morbid that I was keen to observe the ceremony, but I did not feel comfortable asking S so I kept quiet.
The next morning after breakfast, I decided to head to Shangzxajiu street, the very busy and commercial town center. I took the metro, which was surprisingly easy to figure out and super-efficient. At 1pm, S messaged me on WeChat that she was on her way to meet me and asked me my whereabouts. Thirty minutes later she found me, and I was glad, as Shangzxajiu hadn’t caught my interest particularly. It was noisy and touristy, and there wasn’t much to do around. “I take you to another place”, she said.
We headed to Dongshan and I was immediately taken in by the beautiful neighborhood, full of multi-storey mansions with terraces and gardens, many of which were converted to art galleries and cafes. S explained that the houses were built by Chinese expats after returning home, hence the houses had a strong international influence. We entered one of the houses and explored the art gallery on the ground floor, before finding our way to the terrace where we decided to catch a break and get a drink. “Would you like to have coffee?” I asked S. Only tea, she said and launched into an explanation of the different types of Chinese tea, their benefits and its significance in the Chinese culture. Tea was the drink of choice, at all places and all times and the similarity to India wasn’t lost on me, though we have our own variation with milk, sugar and spices. I decided to share tea with her and she promised to take me to some special places where I could purchase teas to take back home.
Over the next few days, we met many times – sometimes to explore markets, take a walk or just get a meal. I found S to be a great companion in a city whose language I did not speak. She was curious and interested but never overbearing and pushy. She was pleasant to be around and thoughtful in many ways. For someone like me who thrives on my own private space and the need to be independent while travelling, she was a great match and easy to adjust with.
S and I were having lunch one day at a Cantonese restaurant close to the apartment. The place was full of people and noise, a very typical meal time scenario anywhere in China. Food is a national passion, and meal times are sacred. Since the menu was in Chinese but had pictures (which is very common), I made some suggestions by eye and insisted that S order for the both of us. She told me that it was the norm to eat out a lot, as meals are complex to cook at home and eating out was fresh and inexpensive. When they had people over, they would create a meal but it was a lot of effort as it was always elaborate.
Over food, S and I spoke of many things. She told me she had two Airbnb’s in the city and she loved renting it out to international people, as she wanted to meet and interact with cultures from different parts of the world. “It is not just about giving my house, I want to know more of the world through the people I meet” she said. I was curious to know if all guests had a similar level of enthusiasm to let her into their life and she gave me a knowing smile. “I don’t interfere if people don’t want”, she said.
She was curious to know about Amsterdam, where I worked.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
“I love it”, I said and she gave me a wry smile.
She hadn’t been to Europe but was keen to go soon. Since her husband wasn’t as crazy about travel as she was, plans were always hard to make. I found it incredible that she possessed such an understanding of people, cultures, behaviors and the world, despite not seeing any of it. As I am fully knowing of the fact that not all those who travel far and wide learn anything from it.
She asked me how long I was married and I said 5 years.
“No kids?” she asked.
“No kids”, I said.
What about you. I asked. “Same”, said S and we smiled.
Her husband worked in a startup and kept busy hours. They had been married a few years and had been living in Guangzhou for quite some time. Her family wasn’t too far away, and her father-n-law lived very close by. We discussed aspects of society, culture, family and relationships in our respective countries and realized the strong points of intersection in our own thoughts and ideals.
We finished the meal and she told me that she would take me to the most beautiful store I had laid my eyes on. We reached a mall, packed on a weekday afternoon and went to a huge store selling everything from furniture to arts, crafts, crockery, gifts, candles and homeware. It was stunning. And expensive. I didn’t want to buy anything but we both spent a lot of time just looking at things. Picking up a piece here, admiring it and then putting it back. I could see that S had a love for beautiful things and a keen eye for art. Her home was an exact reflection of that. She told me she came to this store often just to browse around.
As we were heading out, we passed a store selling traditional Chinese dresses.
And then something crazy happened.
S caught hold of my arm and squealed excitedly, “Let’s put you in a traditional Chinese dress”. I wasn’t really keen but S and her enthusiasm did me in. We entered the store and S approached two girls standing at the billing counter. I couldn’t understand a word of what they spoke but I could see that S was explaining that I wanted to try on a dress. One of the girls eyed me up and down and started pulling out dresses from a rack. I picked out a few that I liked, very sure that none of them would fit me as they were definitely made for XXXS sizes. I tried them on, one after the other, my cheeks getting redder with each dress, both because of the cramped changing room and the humiliation of literally bursting out in every piece. The girls got out bigger sizes for each dress and finally I found something that didn’t look totally ridiculous. S demanded that wear the highest heels in the shop and pose while she clicked photos. I looked terrible, but S wouldn’t hear of it.
I think it took me one full day to get over my embarrassment.
On our last night in Guangzhou, the Mr. and I went out for a farewell dinner with S and her husband. They took us to one of their most frequented Cantonese places, a cuisine which I had grown to love in my short time there. The food was brilliant – we had stir fried bok choy, a variety of dim sums, mussels, silky sizzling tofu and pork. After dinner, the couple decided to walk us back to our apartment. Over promises to see each other soon and keep in touch on WeChat, we said our goodbyes.
I haven’t been in touch with S since then though I think of my time in China often and hope to go back soon. Maybe that’s the nature of travel. You meet people and connect at a certain moment in time, and then you move ahead in your own direction. I hope though that ours intersects again sometime.