Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Shamian Island

Our first fully-awake day in China took us to Shamian Island, an area of Guangzhou on the Pearl River. Guangzhou is unusual for Chinese cities, in that it has almost always had contact with the West. Guangzhou -- once known as Canton -- was open for trade even when the rest of China was closed to foreigners.

And Shamian Island was the Western enclave in Guangzhou. China gave Shamian Island to the British and French after being defeated in the First Opium War in 1841. In that British/French enclave, there were mansions and tennis courts and yacht clubs, as well as import/export businesses galore. When the Communists took over in 1949, much of the grandeur faded, but in the 1980s the Chinese put a lot of effort into restoring much of Shamian Island. The original British/French buildings remain, so the entire effect of Shamian Island is Western.

For us, Shamian Island makes for an easy transition into China. I visited Guangzhou in 1991 and stayed at the White Swan Hotel. In 2001, I returned to the White Swan after adopting Zoe, to get her visa from the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. In 2005, I returned to the White Swan after adopting Maya, to get HER visa from the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou. So, I guess it's natural that we drifted to those familiar stomping grounds for our first outing on our own in China.

We took a taxi to the White Swan -- about a 20 minute drive from the Poly Hotel, where we are staying. We reacquainted ourselves with the waterfall in the lobby and the koi in the fish pond. The hotel is decked out for Chinese New Year, as is most of China right now. Lots of red scrolls, lucky red envelopes hanging in trees, red lanterns, mandarin orange trees indoors and out, and of course, pigs, pigs, pigs! This is, after all, the Year of the Pig!

We wandered through the park alongside the Pearl River, and watched people as they exercised. Morning exercise is very important in China, and different groups congregate in the parks for this ritual. We watched a small group of women doing fairly traditional (for us!) calesthenics, a woman doing martial arts with a sword, a group of younger adults playing badmitten without a net, and -- Zoe's and Maya's favorite -- a group ballroom-dancing! Zoe and Maya actually danced along!

We also watched two groups of women playing mah jongh, and a group of retirees in an enthusiastic sing-a-long!

We garnered quite a bit of attention through all of this. We are as conspicuous a family in China as we are in the States! Even without me there, though, I think Zoe and Maya would be the object of much attention. It is really obvious that they're more American than Chinese -- for one thing, I don't have them bundled up in umpteen layers of clothes! And their clothes, as basic as they are, mark them as un-Chinese -- I don't think I saw any Chinese children in jeans. Long hair is also fairly unusual for girls their age. And then, of course, is the language.

Zoe is getting very brave about speaking Chinese -- she'll say "ni hao," (hello). And when someone speaks to her in Chinese, she's say, "Wo shi Meiguo ren," (I am an American) as her all-purpose excuse for not understanding what they say. People have smiled and ahhhed in apparent understanding. She talked to one grandmother, and identified Maya as mei-mei (little sister), herself as jei-jei (big sister), and me as ma-ma (umm, mama!). I'm really proud that she's trying!

The park has a small assortment of kiddie rides, probably circa 1950s! The girls were excited to ride the ancient train, pirate ship, and airplanes. All I could think of was lawsuits! But they emerged unscathed!

We then went back to the White Swan, and snuck into the Swan Room. The Swan Room was outfitted by Mattel for adoptive parents and kids as a play room. You're only supposed to get in if you're staying at the White Swan, but a guard let us in -- a caucasian woman and two Chinese children is the perfect calling card at the White Swan! The kids enjoyed the play room, even though it is more geared for babies (the usual age of adoptees from China), and even though it was completely empty except for us. The White Swan is not swarming with adoptive families as it usually is, because of Chinese New Year. The U.S. Consulate closes for Chinese New Year, so no visas issued means no adoption trips this time of year.

We ate lunch at the White Swan buffet, a mixture of Chinese and Western dishes. The girls had fried rice and italian pasta, and fruit, fruit, fruit! Between them, they ate 4 mandarin oranges and about 20 grapes the size of plums.

We taxied back to our hotel around 2:30, and napped through dinner. We ended up having ramen noodles in our room -- another blast from the past! We did that several times on the adoption trips, when we were too exhausted to venture far with the baby!

And thus ends our first fully-awake day in China!

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