Guangzhou is a great walking city,
and one takes a certain comfort in what one hopes will be the
familiarity of Cantonese cuisine.
The city is home to
the U.S. Consulate, and when one adopts, there are certain
formalities that culminate in a mass swearing in by a government
We had five days in
Guangzhou for exploring until the swearing in and the issuance of
our daughter's Chinese passport.
Most adoptive couples
stay at the White Swan Hotel, a nondescript white tower with a
lobby that looks as though it was designed by the same team that
designed your town's largest Chinese restaurant. The decor is
accentuated by a floating antiquities sale that fills the lobby
area with beautiful screens and lacquered chests.
A number of local
businesses have developed around the hotel, each of them catering
to American and British visitors with time on their hands and the
need for infant clothing.
By this time we had
started a list of apparent Chinese "laws," one of which appears to
outlaw the concept of browsing. Walk into any store and a
salesperson will hover just off your right collarbone. They never
try to hard-sell, but they are there to assist, should you need
My forays got me into
some trouble almost immediately. I saw a kiosk selling Christmas
decorations. Some were black and some were red. I picked out a
lovely hanging box in black metal and was looking forward to
hanging it on my tree when the salesperson threw out the word
"funeral." Wrong kiosk.
We were staying at
the Holiday Inn, a new hotel, and surely one of the chain's
centerpiece properties. You enter the hotel through an arcade
filled with small shops and food stands. Everywhere we looked in
Guangzhou, we saw people eating. Notice I did not say slurping, one
of the stereotypes that just didn't pan out. We saw relatively
little slurping or spitting. But each of the food stalls seemed to
be doing quite well, and you could not walk through the crowds that
gathered in front of the small gas stoves and woks without feeling
that you had ingested at least half of what was being
The arcade entrance
to the plush Holiday Inn was directly across from a stand that sold
one item only: pig intestines on rice. It made you enter and depart
the hotel in a hurry, actions that really must have reinforced the
doorman's opinion that Americans are crazy.
What I liked most
about the Holiday Inn was the fact that room service really did not
understand English. That made ordering fun, and we came to accept
the fact that we were going to be tasting things that one doesn't
find at the local take-out in Peoria.
We had upgraded to a
suite, as we thought an extra $58 for a six-night stay was
reasonable. It came with an entertainment center of the human kind.
Next to our hotel was a massive condo construction project. It was
being built, as these things are, floor by floor, and the
construction was not only right outside our window but only two
floors below our room.
Now, if you know
anyone in the building trades, you might suggest that they pay
their union dues on time. In fact, they may want to pay a little
extra. On the work site out our window, a beehive of activity that
fascinated our daughter, a great deal was done by hand. During
breaks, the workers simply lay down where they were. Fortunately,
they didn't clang their steel all night long. The site closed at 4
a.m., allowing us about two-and-a-half hours before it all began
I loved walking the
streets of Guangzhou. One right turn out the hotel door was a
narrow street that looked like it might have come from a period
movie. There were two blocks of shops selling fish in tanks, fish
in metal tubs and goldfish of every hue. They were packaged in
tiny, plastic bags.
Farther down the
street was a large family that sold nothing but live scorpions.
They were mixed up in large pots just prior to the sale. Used for a
delectable local soup I am told. Next came the puppy vendors. With
the strictly enforced rules on one child per family, the Chinese
have taken to buying small, exotic dogs to carry in their shopping
In the middle of the
street, a woman taught her child how to do math on an old abacus,
as they sat at a small wooden bench. Everyone walked around
People did not smile
at us. But they smiled back if we made the first move, and always
they came up to see our baby. If her forehead was covered by her
blanket, they would stoop down and fold the blanket back so they
could see her features. Her eyebrows arch upwards in the corners, a
point of great discussion and joy to the Chinese.
Continuing down the
street we came to a pedestrian overpass over a six-lane highway. On
the other side we found older buildings, some clearly built in a
British colonial style, with shady streets. A Chinese actress was
filming a commercial in the middle of one street.
We discovered a
Chinese school of massage and enjoyed a 90-minute massage for $10.
The only disconcerting thing about the massage was that it was a
semiprivate room and an earnest young manager would keep walking in
asking if "OK, OK?" I was having a hard time pretending that I was
But I haven't told
you where you end up if you leave the Holiday Inn and turn left
instead of right. Continuing out of the arcade, past the pig
intestine store, you come to a huge walking street that goes on for
Someone in Guangzhou
has clearly paid the electric bill because neon signs and
billboards blanket the night sky in ways that Vegas can only
imagine. The streets are surprisingly clean. The young people are
well dressed and animated. Music blares from the storefronts.
Jewelry shops predominate. Side streets have the best food stalls.
I try to talk with the owners of a tea shop, and they show me the
tins where they keep the really good stuff. A shop nearby sells
medicinal herbs in liquid form. This means a few ounces from a
large jar holding the entrails of a snake or worse. The liquid is
thought to be healing but it all has to ferment for a
I take an escalator
up to see what McDonald's is up to. The frantic crew is practicing
crowd control, leading customers to hidden, available seats as soon
as they order.
Eight years ago, I
was traveling in Hong Kong with a group that included an executive
of McDonald's. He invited me to dinner with the head of their
operations in China. At that time, he pointed out, China had 15
cities with a population of more than a million.
Walking the streets
of Guangzhou with a Chinese baby offers a perspective few tourists
would ever get. We were constantly approached by well-wishers. As
new parents of a Chinese girl, we felt that we were somehow invited
to see and feel the soul of China. Every few minutes brought a new
encounter despite the relative shyness of the
I thank each of the
hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese who offered the thumbs-up
sign to us as we moved, with our pink baby stroller and its
occupant, through the exciting, clean, frantic streets of their
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a
vacation-planning firm, and has been named to Conde Nast's list of
the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list