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The city of Zhuhai, China, is viewed from the Pacific coast. Photo courtesy Brandon Ferdig

A Minnesotan in China: First impressions, first experiences

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The hum of the airplane, 13 hours of white noise to sleep to -- assuming you can sleep sitting up.

We landed into Guangzhou Airport at 9 a.m. Guangzhou is on the north tip of the Pearl River delta, a large bay that juts into the mainland on the southern coast of China.

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When you step off a plane and onto another hemisphere, little things are significant. Bathroom configurations are spaced differently, and the stick figure for the exit sign has a different shape. So many things that work together to tell you you're not in Kansas anymore.

The cars are different, the landscape is unique. The architecture in the airport is similar -- but not the same. Nothing is the same, which is what's so cool about travel.

I never really worried about getting by without knowing Chinese. There are two reasons for this. One is that travel turns me into a more carefree person, always believing that the next step -- getting a ticket, finding a landmark -- will be attainable. The other is that I am in the fortunate position to speak a language that is universal in many capacities. Heck, this is why I'm going to China in the first place. I figure I can start teaching right off the plane.

In the airport, I talked to a sales guy who knew a bit of English and found out how to get a bus ticket. I walked up to the ticket counter and said one word: "Zhuhai." The woman at the counter replied in Chinese.

Oh boy. I handed her some denomination of money and she gave me change and a ticket. I walked away thinking, "Okay, smarty-pants, if you're gonna experience the country, best to know a few words."

I walked outside, saw a bus with "Zhuhai" written next to it and jumped aboard.

This is China, a place most have heard a ton about, but know very little.

For decades, China was very poor. Now, the country is the second-largest economy in the world, while incomes average between $3,000 and $4,000 a year. The magnificence of the photos of Beijing and Hong Kong is offset by the poverty in rural China and much of urban China as well.

But signs of expansion are everywhere. On the bus ride south from Guangzhou to Zhuhai, cranes and bulldozers were sprinkled among a mix of impressive developments and humble shacks.

The landscape of this area is beautiful, with hills and lush greenery supported with the subtropical climate.

China has Western influences all over -- English on signs, on people's shirts and in songs played in the grocery store. I'm waiting for Cub Foods in Minneapolis to play Chinese music. I'm much too new here to grasp how it is that they indulge themselves in our culture, and conversely, how we indulge ourselves in theirs, such as with the martial arts and some health practices. But the intermingling of cultures is fascinating.

The bus rolled into Zhuhai and I was glad when I saw the car with "TPR English" on the side. We drove to the school and I was treated to lunch.

Eventually, I got the keys to my apartment. After four hours of sleep over a 45-hour stretch, I needed some dream time.

I wandered all over Zhuhai the next day. China is a mix, straddling first and third world. Zhuhai is no exception to that mix. Alleys are filled with people in old clothing riding rusty bicycles and vendors peddling everything from fruit to jewelry to sandals. On the main roads, there are shopping centers and hotels.

I ventured toward the coast -- funny how I went from one Pacific bay to another. Fishing boats filled these murky waters, and along the shore plastic bags and other rubbish decorated the coastline. But there were some nice views.

China is a Communist country. People are restricted in significant ways. I can't go on Facebook here, gamble or say certain things, or practice certain religions -- things we in the West believe are human rights. But in some ways, there is actually more freedom in the lives of the Chinese.

A vending machine containing cigarettes would be judged in the United States as enticing kids to a deadly habit. In China, this type of "protection" has no legs. You can smoke where you want.

For the little things, people are more reliant on choice. Kids are freer to play in the streets, but watch out -- cars and bikes will charge down the alleys. Business owners are "freer" in the sense that they don't have red tape in putting up a stand or an eatery or a dental clinic.

All in all, it's an interesting contrast that makes you acknowledge that freedom is a malleable notion with different facets. The way in which it is demonstrated by a society takes on many forms. In China, it is very controlled at the top, but at the bottom there exists more wiggle-room, apparently. The West is becoming notably rigid from top to bottom.

One night, I tagged along as our school was asked to participate in a celebration of the city. It was 30 years since Zhuhai was designated as a Special Economic Zone by the Chinese government. They celebrated with traditional dances and costumes.

During rehearsal, some Western music came on (some bad techno beat). They told us (three teachers) to go out there and dance. "How?" I asked. "Just dance," they said.

I asked what this had to do with Zhuhai's anniversary. They replied that it was about having fun. I wanted some motivation. I didn't get it and never did understand what we were doing up there.

The festivities were very nice. The choreography and music flowed nicely. The children were adorable, all helping to tell the story of Zhuhai's past.

Brandon Ferdig, who grew up in Blackduck, recently returned to the United States after a yearlong experience teaching and traveling in China. His blog is at newplateaus.areavoices.com.

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