As the days became longer and the deep freeze of the Canadian winter seemed to be coming to an end, I was ready to start my next adventure. After working a lengthy contract position and saving enough money to move to Australia, it was time to pack my bags and head out. The catch: I was not headed to Australia, I was headed to Asia. You see, I had a plan. I was going to work hard for several months in order to start a considerable savings bucket to settle in Australia for a working holiday contract. However, plans don’t always work out and things change. Priorities change. People change. And so, a decision was made. Instead of running away, I did what any other rational human being does when facing a crisis. I got a new hairdo. Unfortunately for me, aqua really isn’t my colour. With mermaid coloured streaks and a healthy sum of savings, I made the decision to go on a month long vacation instead.
My Asia trip was a lengthy one which included two cities in China, three cities and one island in Thailand, and one city in Cambodia. All of this was to be done in one month and would include 8 airplane rides and one ferry boat ride. To say it was jam packed is a grave understatement. Nonetheless, I was prepared for the journey that lay ahead. Our first stop: Wenzhou, China.
Now, I am going to be real. Being in Wenzhou was a huge culture shock to me. I had come with my friend who spoke the dialect but would soon learn upon arrival that none of her family members and friends spoke English. As a result, I would depend entirely on my friend for the duration of my stay in China. Up until this point, I had travelled to places in which the dominant language was English, I spoke the foreign language, or the locals understood a minimal amount of English to get around. While it was an uncomfortable feeling not being able to understand those around me, it was a valuable experience. As I spent the week in Wenzhou, it made me realize how isolated immigrants must feel coming to a new country in which they do not know the language. I often do not speak in my second language due to my lack of fluency and personal embarrassment of sounding like a “gringa”. However, in not doing so I have become even less fluent and it has limited my ability to communicate with my grandmother as well as other spanish speaking family. The point I am making in all this, is while I felt uncomfortable, it taught me to try a little more harder to speak my second language. I think we could all agree that unintentionally isolating a family member from your conversations is a lot worse than sounding like a “gringa”.
And so, the stage was set for my experience of Wenzhou. Rather than being a typical vacation in which you check off points of interest off your list, it would prove to be a much more cultural experience instead.
Y’all thought I was kidding about the green hair (slowly fading but nonetheless present)
Learning basic phrases
My cultural experience started off by learning a few Wenzhounese phrases. During my time there I made it my mission to at the very least learn how to say the following: hello, thank you, yes and no. You see, Wenzhounese people are incredibly giving and kind hearted. While I knew it would be impossible to learn how to speak a language in a week, I wanted to know simple enough phrases which would express my gratitude and appreciation for everything her family had done. The word for “no” would become incredibly useful as a girl could only eat so much despite what my thick thighs may indicate otherwise.
Waking up at the break of dawn
When I think of cultural values, one thing that does not come to mind is how sleep can also be affected by cultural values. And yet, this was also something I learned during my visit to Wenzhou. During my first morning in Wenzhou, the brisk morning air filled the home and my friend and I were awaken to the sounds of the roosters crowing. This set a chain of events into motion in which the occupants of the household began to emerge from their bedrooms and my friend’s grandparents would descend downstairs to begin the morning’s breakfast. This would become my routine for the next week and one I dare not deviate from. To remain in bed after her grandparents had arisen and made breakfast would not only be seen as disrespectful to the efforts they made in preparing the food, but would also be seen as a sign of laziness. While I thought this was something I would not get used to, my body adapted quickly and I learned to appreciate this way of life. There was something peaceful about waking up early and watching the city slowly awaken outside your window. Before the hustle and bustle of a busy day ahead, it was a moment to just enjoy being present. The important thing at the moment was enjoying some early morning conversation and filling your bellies for the long day ahead.While I am going to be completely honest in that I converted back to my original sleep schedule the minute I came back to Canada, I could understand the appeal in the sleep schedule of the Wenzhounese. In one full sweep it prioritized family and peace, while still putting emphasis on the importance of being productive.
Trying out Wenzhounese food and learning how to use chopsticks
I am ashamed to say but despite living in an incredibly multicultural city, I somehow up to this point had not learned how to use chopsticks. You see, even when I would eat Asian food in my city I would often request a fork or be given one by default (white girl default utensil) and had never up to this point had to learn. When I went to Wenzhou however, this all changed. For starters, the fork was an elusive utensil. Many households often only carried chopsticks and even in restaurants it was often a personal treasure hunt to go on and locate a fork for my convenience. As a result, I had no other choice but to learn how to use chopsticks. Now, I would like to take a moment to say my natural chopstick abilities were not too shabby and while I am by no means great at using them, I managed to use them for their purpose. In doing so, my world was open to all the fantastic food Wenzhou had to offer. Now I’m a picky eater but wherever I was there was always something to eat. And with Wenzhou being a port city, there was always an abundance of seafood to fill my heart with joy. Between abalone with noodles, lobster, shrimp, and various preparations of noodles and mushrooms I was set.
Yong Jia Light Festival
Every year, Wenzhou holds a light festival in its city. The festival is near the scenic areas surrounding the mountains and offers a plethora of light installations of various shapes and sizes. We walked through passageways lit up with multicoloured lights, installations of brightly coloured umbrellas, and brightly coloured ships. It was definitely an interesting spectacle to visit and attested to the ingenuity of the Wenzhounese. While I appreciated the beauty and the dedication involved in creating these works of arts, it felt as though the rugged natural landscape and colourful installations were competing for attention. And for me, nature will always triumph over anything man made. Nonetheless, the installations were quite creative and had it been situated in a more city like environment I would have probably appreciated them just a little bit more.
Checking out the mountain scenery, flower fields on Qidu island, and the tourist areas of Wenzhou
As I mentioned, while the installations at the light festival were beautiful it was the mountainous scenery which stole my heart. Between walking on cable bridges hovering over the mountainous valleys below and hiking up hills in which I seriously contemplated crawling, it was in these moments I felt the most joy. For those who know me, I thrive off being surrounded my nature. Even in metropolitan hubs such as London, I made it a point to walk through parks and canals for a sense of peace amidst the hustle and bustle of the city. This is what the Yandang mountains had offered. Despite a large pocket of congestion at the beginning of the trail due to it being a public holiday, as we went further on the hike and the crowd thinned out it was here I could appreciate the scenery before me and the arduous hike that came with it.
In addition to hikes, we also enjoyed nature by checking out the flower fields on Qidu island which is connected to Wenzhou via bridge. During holidays especially, Qidu island is a popular place for the Wenzhounese as well as people from other neighbouring towns to visit. The island is home to large flower fields adorned with colourful pinwheels spinning in the breeze. The type of flower varies with the season, and during my visit the fields were adorned with delicate yellow flowers. I don’t know about you, but I cannot think of anything that signifies happiness more than delicate yellow flowers and brightly coloured pinwheels.
(Apologies for the quality, please see first picture of this post to see how this field actually contributes to your selfie game)
Lastly, after one of our lunches with my friend’s neighbours it was time to check out a small tourist area in Wenzhou. The area was specifically created for tourists in mind and has intricately painted murals on the sides of homes and surrounding walls of the neighborhood. From paintings of intricate trees on the sides of houses, murals of men fishing on the river, and houses being painted to look like a barn it was a kind of surreal experience. To top it off, when we arrived the neighborhood was desolate. It was a weekday and the middle of the day and with everyone at work a strange silence took over the place. The best way I could describe it was it felt, was it felt like how one’s feel after a fresh snowfall has fallen on a town. Despite the surreal feeling of having felt like we had been transported to another town entirely, this strange kind of peace was what we needed on that warm spring day after running around from one family dinner to the next. After taking our selfies amidst the murals, we retreated indoors to a coffee shop owned by relatives of my friend and remained there until dinner later that day.
After a week of waking up with the roosters, taking selfies in the flower fields of Qidu island, hiking up mountains, drinking more tea than I thought humanly possible, learning basic Wenzhounese phrases and how to use chopsticks, visiting malls and shops, and checking out the Yong Jia light festival my journey in China came to an end. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post it was a much more cultural experience above everything else. I believe this city has a lot of potential and for those who can speak the language it is one I would recommend to visit. The city is growing and with it you can see the city changing to attract a tourist population such as menus incorporating English translations. However, despite these changes it is not yet tourist friendly in regards to this aspect as many places continue to only have signage in traditional Chinese and despite the English menus many servers often do not understand English. It is a gradual change and I believe in a few years time, the city will succeed in becoming a tourist destination as changes are implemented to help facilitate communication between visitors and people. Regardless of my struggles with the language barrier, my experience is one I will not forget. I cannot express my gratitude enough to my friend’s friends and family and appreciation for everything they did for me during my time there. It truly was a humbling experience.