Adventure, China, Educate, Global Health, High School, Humanities, Middle School, Travel

A Chinese Village, 14.8 Million Strong

I have arrived in Huadu, China, a small…ish suburb of Guangzhou in southern China, just two hours inland from Hong Kong.  Trees and green hills abound and calmness reigns amongst the high-rises in my neighborhood.  All of this is very surprising to me.  Happy people meandering the streets and lush plant life are every where.  I knew that China’s major cities were built with high-density in mind, but to me, that meant people en masse, cars honking, smog, ugliness and rudeness.  To the contrary.  Although there are 1 million people packed around me, you would not know it.  Very few cars honk horns, people are in large numbers in certain places, but most of the time the streets are easy to maneuver.  It is a bit odd really.

Image courtesy of

But let me back up as I have now been here for 22 days and I have eased in to my new world.

Week One First Impressions:

I arrived in Guangzhou on Sunday, August 16th.  To say the least, Guangzhou is huge.  It has 14.8 million people, but still, I didn’t realize how large that would really be.  Especially knowing that the Chinese like to make dense, compact living ie. high rises everywhere – I somehow assumed it would just be a tight-knit largish city that was walkable. Ha.  I am so naive.  I’ll say it again, Guangzhou is huge!

Early Monday morning I was taken to get a health checkup for our insurance.  It took us two hours to reach the government hospital.  The entire time we were within the city.  On either side of the freeways for miles and miles, there are high rises for living, but I have yet to see where everyone works. In other words, although we drove for so long, I never saw the downtown or large areas of just commerce. The bottoms of the high rises are often businesses, but none could possible employ all that live above.  These high rises have at least 100 apartments in each of them.

Chinese Health Care System:  Mandatory Foreign Workers Checkup

It felt like we were farm animals being moved through a health screening before slaughter.  Some of the nurses were friendly, many too busy to be courteous and just pointed at things, annoyed that I couldn’t speak the language.  Plus, as we had arrived around 10am, we were cutting it close to get everything done before the hospital closed for lunch at 12 noon.  Here is a list of what I, and about 100 other poor souls had checked that morning:  Blood panel – 2 huge viles of my blood, ultra-sound all over my belly and back – very cold and goopy, radiology – I was directed into a huge metal room, instructed via pictures how to put on the protective sheath around my private parts, then told, again via hand signals to face a board with lines on it, a big sound vibrated through the thick walls and then I was done.  I’m still alive, so hopefully nothing too awful was shot through my body. Next I had height and weight checked and then I gave a urine sample.  I was hopeful that I was done, but no.  EKG came next.  This one was scary.  Big, metal clamps connected to wiring were put around my ankles and arms – kind of like I was being strapped in to be electrocuted.  Then metal, round discs were placed on my poor, left, bare breast.  Zap! – no not really.  But I was sure it was coming.  Seconds later and again I was done and on my way to the Ear, Nose, Throat gal.  The problem now was that it was getting dangerously close to 12 noon.  The gal that checked me out at this station literally checked those areas in less than 20 seconds.  It felt a bit like whiplash as she tugged on each ear, thrusted the wood stick into my throat etc.  I had to laugh as it was so fast, and happily she did too.  My final checkup was the eye doctor.  He was jovial and could speak some English.  It was a great way to end.  I put a big, ceramic spoon with Chinese writing on it over each eye and told him the direction of the ‘E’s.  He said I did a great job.  Then pointed to a table full of those pictures within dots ( I can’t remember the name).  And said I saw the image and I was done.  Phew.  Right at the bell of 12 noon.

I’m now a number in their system.  And, they can now see what it is going to cost them to give me insurance and keep me healthy.

Huadu 2
The RT Mart – where I try to avoid, but it is a well stocked grocery (+++) store.
Huadu Misc
Top of Craft Museum, Year of the Horse statue and TV Tower

Overall, I have been happily amazed at the smiles that I have encountered.  The last time I was in China I spent most of the time in Hong Kong and Kowloon.  I found un-smiling, unfriendly people.  So I was not looking forward to the effort it was going to take to break through and find the happy people living inside.  Or just living in a world of un-smiling people for a couple years seemed awful.  But I am happy to report that people in Guangzhou (gwan joe) and Huadu (hwa do) smile often, especially after I look at them because they are blatantly gawking  at me, this strange foreigner. There aren’t many of us in this part of town.

After the health check, then a lunch that we were an hour late to, we finally headed back home to our apartments – yes, in high rises.  I needed to get a few things for the apartment and food.  The closest market is 3 long blocks away.  I had been told it was decent and full of everything I needed.  At 7pm I walked over, still swelteringly hot.  Really it is the humidity that gets you as I think it was only in the upper 80’s by then.  I walked into a nightmare.  I think all one million inhabitants of Huadu were inside this mall.  The Fall Festival is coming up so that may be some of the reason people were out in hoards, but somehow I doubt it.  After seeing the attraction of shopping and malls in Mandalay, Myanmar and Bangkok, Thailand I think it is really just something fun to do with the whole (I’m talking, entire – grandmas, grandpas, moms, dads, multiple children…) family.

Trying to by-pass the mass of people scrambling for carts at the entrance, I wrongly did not grab a cart going in – each one costs $.15 and the system is clunky and inefficient, so I just went in thinking I would just get a few things and be more agile in my movements without a cart.  Well once you are in the throngs, going against the tide was nearly not an option.  But yes, I attempted it.  Anyway I started finding the few things I needed amongst the screaming children, loud conversations and general mayhem.  So then my hands were getting full.  Oops.  Thought I would just head back to get a cart.  Big mistake, everyone was staring at me for going the wrong direction and messing up the not-so-smooth flow.  Then when I finally got to the carts they were all chained up.  My hands were full, people were everywhere jostling each other and me.  The gals that could have helped me, just stared and giggled.  I have to say I was not hosting my best “USA representative” face as I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t help me.  They acted like they had no idea what I was trying to do.  Just a tad overwhelming and frustrating.  But I did manage the thank them (barely) once I got the coins and unchained my cart.

RT Mart Checkout
RT Mart Checkout. There are 50, yes 50 checkout lanes!

The fun was not over.  I then had to go back into the chaos and find the cashiers and exit.  I decided now that I had a cart, and since I was already there enduring, that I would get a few groceries too.  It was nearly impossible to maneuver (especially now that I had a cart!).  I picked up the bare minimum as my friendly demeanor was fast departing.  But then I couldn’t find a way out.  I tried to go with the flow, but it seemed the flow circled aimlessly.  Finally I saw a ramp escalator going down – good sign as I was on the third floor.  I arrived to an entire new floor of thousands of people and products.  Still no cashiers in site.  Again I went with the flow and stayed to the outside and this time spotted them.  I felt bad for the cashiers, the noise level was so loud, I kept thinking about their ears.  They all needed earplugs for the hours spent at those decibel levels.  Once I paid, I then exited the grocery story into the mall.  But there was no exit in site.  I have to admit I was fried.  I was so ready to be free of people and noise.  I started zigging and zagging around people more quickly than ‘respectable.’  I had to get out.  Finally I spotted a door.  FREEDOM!

The warm, humid rush of the night air (it was now 8:30pm) was welcoming.  I was going to leave my cart and run home, but no, you needed to chain it back up first.  I couldn’t believe people actually did this.  They took the time to weave the chain back through their cart before leaving.  Thankfully, as I was about to be a bad foreign visitor and just leave the damn thing, a woman and child came up waiting to then pay to remove a newly chained cart.  I gave them mine.  She tried to pay me, but I kept saying no.  She didn’t understand.  But I smiled and waved her goodbye as I walked away.  Maybe that made up for some of my bad foreigner vibes I had inside – hopefully.

The next few days were spent at the Dragon Lake Resort.  It is like a mini-Europe.  Cobblestone roads, faux-old rock walled buildings.  It is quite pretty with vines growing up the sides of buildings and sweetly arching bridges over water ways.  I learned it was built for the wealthy to come, stay, play golf and for the rest to come and take photos as if they were in Europe.  So we have been using their conference room as our prep area as our school is still being built.

The group of foreign and Chinese teachers seem to be really dedicated teachers and fun people. We have now started developing our curriculums.  As this is a new school, we are combining the Chinese National Curriculum with the National Curriculum of the United Kingdom.  I am teaching humanities to years 6 – 10.  So with 5 grade levels to develop it is a bit challenging.  I have created the curriculum calendar, basically outlining the year ahead and now developing  a more complete  curriculum map using Unit By Design.

Here is what my school looks like as of now.  They still seem confident that it will open on time, in 10 ten days.  I’m not so sure.

School Collage

I purchased a cruiser bike this weekend.  It is so fun.  I have been tootaling around town exploring.  Really nice to start to get a feel of this vast city (suburb).


Green Huadu
View from my 7th floor balcony and street scenes

I love all the care they take to make it green, lush and full of flowers.  Check out the off ramp!  Every ramp and over pass has bougainvillea growing on it.  Stunning.  I wish we did this in the US.

Last night was the start of the Mid-Autum Festival which is similar to Thanksgiving in the US; a time for families to get together.  At my apartment complex they hosted what looked like a talent show.  Girls and boys, young and old presented their best on stage.  It was odd.  No one clapped except when the MC’s came up and spoke.  No one seemed to mind, but I did.  Felt odd not to support them.

Mid-Autum CollageMonday is a holiday so I will take advantage and start to develop actual lesson plans.  Looking forward to getting into the details.  We have been told to be very flexible the first month i.e. not to expect internet.  So I will plan as if I was teaching in the ’90’s!

Next post will be shorter and will come soon.  Thanks for hanging in there with me.  It is fun to be here and start to feel China in my bones a bit.

Happy Fall!





5 thoughts on “A Chinese Village, 14.8 Million Strong”

  1. Gretchen,
    I am again impressed with your love of adventure and going into the unknown. The grocery store entry had me so anxious for you!

    We are grandparents to a lovely 12 week old boy, Weston. He looks and acts just like Nicolas did so it is very sweet to relive those memories.

    All is fine here–I look forward to reading more adventures!


  2. Gretchen, delighted to start a new vicarious adventure with you through your writings and photos. Just like being there myself. Love, Sandy

  3. Hey Gretchen, so wonderful to hear from you and about your adventures! I am so glad Huadu is more friendly and happy than you were expecting. The shopping cart thing cracks me up!!

    Look forward to hearing lots more! xox

    Lea McLeod, M.A. Training, Coaching, Consulting + Speaking

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    Training, Coaching + Talent Development For individuals and organizations.

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    From: Sunshine Impressions Reply-To: Sunshine Impressions Date: Sunday, September 7, 2014 at 1:08 AM To: Lea McLeod | GMAIL Subject: [New post] A Chinese Village, 14.8 Million Strong Gretchen Fogelstrom posted: “I have arrived in Huadu, China, a small…ish suburb of Guangzhou in southern China, just two hours inland from Hong Kong. Trees and green hills abound and calmness reigns amongst the high-rises in my neighborhood. All of this is very surprising to me. “

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