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Up In The (Smog) Clouds

Welcome fellow InterNations Expats to my regular slot in which I will be sharing with you my experiences and learnings from living in China’s third largest city, Guangzhou.

Living as an expat in Guangzhou, you will probably find yourself living higher than you have ever lived before. I don’t mean the quality of your life, though in comparison to local people, you will be enjoying the proverbial high life. I mean you will probably be living in one of the many sky-scraping apartment blocks that fill the central city. Smog-scraping would be a more apt description.

It takes a few months to get used to being twenty-five stories up, as my wife and I were when we first arrived. We now live on the modest fifteenth floor, but every day, when we ride the elevator and leave the building, we are reminded that we sit amongst steel girders and concrete, suspended up higher than any European cathedral ever prayed to rise. And yet, there are higher apartment blocks around us, so that our view is just more concrete rising up, and behind that the even taller IFC building and its almost complete and probably taller sister skyscraper that has, quite impossibly, a crane sitting at the top of it. How do you get cranes on the top of sky scrapers? How do you get them down again?

Will the buildings wobble, you wonder. What happens in an earthquake?  Will they all tumble like giant dominoes? Looking down over your balcony is the stuff of nightmares. I’ve experimented with drops of water. It takes seven seconds to hit the bottom. That’s a long time for a tiny drop to fall. At night time the illusion takes on a different aspect. In the thick, early darkness, with a view only of other yellow and white window lights, it feels like you are floating on some vast cruise liner.

Living this high up, your life becomes one dominated by sounds. A feast for the ears. The close bunching of big tower blocks creates an acoustic echoing effect that amplifies street level noises so that they sound like they are right outside your window:

The constant beeping of horns, music from the street-level bars, the calling and heckling from the corner street-cart shop owners, some shouting the same thing for hours; in the early hours, the occasional roaring sports car racing down empty streets; the constant banging of building work; that same dog left out on the balcony all day long, barking, barking, barking; Chinese flutes being played for the foreigners (Scarborough Fair, over and over and over again). In the morning, Chinese pop music from other apartments played ridiculously loud you think the owners are hard of hearing.

All of the above is muffled by the guffing air-conditioner you will probably have on half of the year. The shock of a summer storm is exciting and frightening as the thunder clatters down to the street and the lightning flashes reflect off so much glass. The sudden smashing rain drowns out most of the sounds, but they always come back, like the rain itself.

You rarely see other people on their balconies. To look at what view? Just the occasional silhouette behind lights or some arms hanging out washing. We once watched a man climb on top of his balcony, twenty stories up, to fix the exterior air conditioning. It does get hot here.

Is this life we have then some strange punishment? The Chinese are not purposely repeating Babel and there is no official God to insult. It is Nature then that stands surprised and offended. Where you stand emotionally is a matter of debate, but physically you’re unnaturally high up. I’m a dizzy MJF, this is Guangzhou and that’s 606 words.

If you are an InterNations member and would like to contribute an article, do not hesitate to contact us!

David Thyne

"At the first Shanghai Get-Together I met several American expats. I am very grateful that they shared their experience with me."

Diana Anhaus-Brey

"It is just so easy to find other international people and global minds with InterNations. I didn´t know there were so many in Shanghai."

Expat Magazine