I thought I’d give you a small tour of my new hometown, so you can understand the place that I’m now living. I’ve been here before, way back in 2012, but I had no inkling at that time I’d be moving here, and seeing things as a traveler is very different than a resident. So I’m learning about this place all over again.
The first important thing to know, is Xiamen is an island. It’s connected to the mainland by several bridges, and I live in a part that is right across the bridge (on the mainland, I don’t live on the island.) According to Wikipedia the population is 4 million, with about 2 million actually living on the island. I know this whole on the island/off the island (we say dao nei 岛内 and dao wai 岛外) is confusing, but in reality it’s not. The island is actually only 2 bus stops away from my school, so it’s all interconnected (same city buses) and close.
One of the reasons I chose to come here was for the weather. This place is a paradise. The air is clean (3rd cleanest in china), and in winter the temps are warm and inviting. Summer is another thing altogether though. It is hot as hell, though I’ll admit, living in Hangzhou was hotter. At least here in Xiamen we have the ocean breeze making it a bit more comfortable. (Though the temps are in the 90’s everyday with a heat index in the 100’s. Makes teaching without a/c a bit of a chore.)
Xiamen, called Amoy in ancient times, was, and is, a port. And as such, it has enjoyed a lot of prosperity, and a large influence. In fact, the word tea seems to have come from the local language. They had been doing trade here since the 1500’s. Also, as a rich port town, it had a lot of prosperity, back in the day.
But it’s not all tea and roses. The British took over Xiamen during the opium wars. This had some positive effects. Foreigners poured into the area (while most of china was closed to them) and they built prosperous places like Gulangyu (which was called the richest square mile on earth at one point. It’s still a beautiful pace, a car-free island filled with hundreds of british built mansions. It’s a major tourist attraction now, and even I stayed there for 3 days last time I was here.)
As foreigners came in, Chinese were allowed out. Industrious Chinese left to make their fortunes elsewhere, sending back money to their families left behind. So many Chinese left it was estimated that 2/3rd as many people from this area were outside china as inside.
Of course, not everyone who left found their fortune. Due to the British control, a small sort of slave trade began as well. The chinese were offered jobs abroad (including in America) and their future employers would “pay” for their boat trip. Then the Chinese would need to pay back that money before they were free to work elsewhere, and their employers would make sure that would never happen. Also, they packed the boats so tight that 40-50% of Chinese died before they arrived. And as money was being exchanged it wasn’t technically considered slavery so legally it couldn’t be stopped (though I read one story of a crew so disgusted of their “cargo” — hundreds of young girls– they turned themselves into the government before delivery.)
Then, in World War 2 the Japanese took it over for 7 years. And of course, the nearby “enemy” of Taiwan has put the government on alert. Xiamen is located directly across from Taiwan, and as a result, it was left underdeveloped for decades because of fears of an attack.
Not anymore though. Xiamen is one of those special economic zones now and this place is clearly flourishing from prosperity. It got quite dirty in the “race for prosperity” but they cleaned it up and in 2011 it won an award for the #1 best destination in China.
And if oceans aren’t your thing (they’re not really mine), Xiamen has mountains to boot. The Wuiyi Mountains, a UNESCO world Heritage site is within a few hours reach. As I’m trying to see every UNESCO world heritage site in China, I’ll let you know what it’s like when I go there.
The food here is, you guessed it, seafood. Not my favorite food. I thought I could avoid it, but just about everything here has fish mixed in. I even got some fried noodles and was expecting little pieces of pork, like normal. Only, it was little pieces of fish. Sigh…Something I’ll just have to get used to. Luckily the cuisine isn’t too spicy here or I’s really be in trouble. (Unluckily most of my friends prefer spicy food, so ordering can be tough.)
My impressions overall are quite good. Even though I’ve only been here for 3 weeks I feel like people are friendlier than in Hangzhou. On one of my first nights I was coming back from the store carrying heavy bags. The plastic was digging into my hands so I put them down a minute to give me a break. Two older women were walking by and asked me, in Chinese, if I needed any help carrying the bags. I was flabbergasted! (And refused of course.)
I also love living in a bigger city. Even though I don’t live downtown, there is enough stuff within walking distance to keep me occupied and a trip to the far side of the island is a quick 30 minutes. And there is a ton to do. I played frisbee with the frisbee team last night (I just played for fun), there’s toasmasters, yoga, monthly beach parties, Chinese classes and just a ton of stuff I didn’t have the opportunity for before.
In fact, there only seems to be one major problem about living here. If even half the people who have told me they are going to come visit me, then I’ll be busy entertaining almost every weekend. Xiamen is the kind of place everyone wants to go visit and I’m a sitting duck for visitors. But that’s a good problem to have. So if you’re in the area, stop on by and I’ll show you around.