Sunday, December 02, 2007

Home away from home

I'm writing this on an early Sunday morning, 4:30 am to be exact, in Xiamen, China. This is my third home, where I spent 2 years of my life, where I learned another language, made friends, tried new adventures, and learned a lot about myself.

Xiamen is the largest city in Fujian province, on the southeastern coast of China. It's right across the Taiwan strait, and has a significant economic role in the region, not to mention being the direct source of many overseas Filipino-chinese families. It is not the capital of the province (Fuzhou has that distinction), but in this small corner of the chinese world, this is the place to be for business, education, and pleasure.

The two years I lived here were mainly spent in Xiamen University or Xiada, over by the then new foreign student dorm, Cai Qing Jie Lou, right across from the overseas chinese language school. We'd have class from 8 to 2 everyday, learning grammar, culture, and trying to learn the 4 tones used in speaking putonghua or mandarin chinese. We also struggled to write the characters, some 3000 of the basic ones, too many others to fully absorb. I was one of the longer residents, and saw many a roommate through my stay on the 7th floor. My primary room was #713, had canadian, japanese and german roommates. J and S are still good friends to this day, and we keep in touch by email or visits when we chance upon one another throughout life.

Since leaving in 1996, I've come back only once before; I could see the imminent changes on the city then, and now am fully amazed at how much I don't recognize in this little town that could. The airport works, the road network is expansive, most of the pokey little villages near the beach are gone to make way for the new apartment developments or a highway; there are 4 major international hotels, many more independent ones that look modern and welcoming. No more fears of questionable toilets that looked like the source of evil, carpets that look alive, or pisspots by the door.

There's a bit more global interaction now, a scatter of Italian restaurants, a german supermarket, and for the pinoys, a SM. Within that mall, Walmart has one of two outlets. Many bars and clubs are jointly owned by expats and chinese partners, and it's not unusual to find a good choice in any general store of items that we once hoarded from visits to HK (toilet paper no longer feels like it was reused from students' notebooks).

In the three days I've been visiting, friends and I toured a couple of regular sites for all Xiamen visitors to see: Gulangyu island and the temple of Nanputuo. We hiked trails, took the cable car to an aviary, were thrilled with the display of cactus in the botanical gardens, and giggled at silly english signs. As for our food choices, we'd save a bit by having breakfast at our friend's apt. followed by a late lunch/early dinner at some of the local eateries, then cruise the night life till the wee hours of the morning. That's sort of why I'm writing this at 4 am. While I have great student budget memories of cheap eats around town, we tried a few other things including an all you can eat hotpot place, a theme restaurant based around what they'd have served during the Cultural revolution (with waitresses dressed in throwback army wear), and a 24 hour hawker place for soup and roasted chicken bits. My fellow travellers were not able to stand hot and spicy food, so our one foray into sichuan cuisine was sort of half-hearted. I was all set to cry, sweat and sniffle my way through the dishes as I love a spicy meal. But not alone. One wants companionship through culinary suffering! Ah well, I got one dish that only I could have, the rest were all milder, albeit tasty.

The weather has been perfect, the main part of autumn is in full gear. I've been able to use a few sweaters and my coat, and wish I could bring home a week's worth of the cold temperature to save up for next summer in Manila. This is the perfect time to hike around Xiamen's sites, and drink large bottles of beer with your spicy soup. For the cost of US$0.30 you can have a liter of beer! Cheaper than water, and safer at times, given this is China.

The weekend's been a nice short holiday from all the hullabaloo in Manila. I'm glad I have a friends who have moved here, to visit again soon, and to revisit that part of me that is of this land. I don't think it's the place to go for everyone, but it's a charming spot, and if you see me having a plate of steamed jiaozi (pork and vegetable dumplings), you'll know I'm feeling nostalgic for my youth in China.


wysgal said...

Beer as cheaper and safer than water! How funny. =) Too many recruiters on campus have been trying to convince Asians to ditch our short-term plans of working in the US post b-school and head straight for Asia because that's where all the action is taking place.

docchef said...

Xiamen is a 2nd home to most of the Chinese settling here in the phil. I was there last summer. have oms food adventures there with my brother.. I miss hte food there. THe hot pot in Little Sheep, THe alacarte buffet in a japanese restaurant, The egg sandwich with mutton filling.. the mutton bbq etc...

Senor Enrique said...

One of these days I have to travel to China. I am in awe of folks able to learn to speak and write in Chinese adeptly.

mtan said...

wysgal, Asia's the growth area, but it will still be a feather in your bonnet if you work in the US for a few years before heading back this way. It's a lot harder now what with visa limitations. But I don't doubt you'll find the right job for you.

docchef, there are tons more restaurants on every street in Xiamen than when I was studying there 10 years ago. So much choice!

Senor enrique, I hope you'll get to go soon. It's less expensive these days and so much easier to navigate. I really need to update my chinese though, it's a skill that needs constant review.

Ruy said...

This is a lovely post. I can feel the nostalgia and love you have for this place you revisited.
I also feel regret with you for not being able to eat all those yummy, spicy stuff!

wysgal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
wysgal said...

And as a side note, because I am part Chinese (I think most Filipinos are) ... I've actually been to Xiamen. It was almost 15 years ago, a huge group of us went as a family trip to trace our roots and we crossed the plains of china on a tour bus. I was definitely too young to enjoy it the same way I would today.

I love the sense of nostalgia in your writing. Somehow I know I won't feel that way about Philadelphia, haha.

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