Only Dongguan: Who Changed Whom?

0614_Only dongguanI came to work here as a radio and TV host, and a journalist, but I wasn’t sure how long I would stay. How the city grew on me and what followed after my first impression was a true surprise. I have been living in this city for 15 years. During that time, I have witnessed a small county grow at a developing pace; observed its industrial transformation and upgrade; perceived the increasing diversity of a population in transition and improvements in citizen civility. The city is changing too fast. The patterns in the kaleidoscope change again before you can absorb what has happened in front of your eyes.

My first close connection with Dongguan started in 2000. At that time, Dongguan was a vigorous and somewhat chaotic. The motorcycles scooted around town like a locust swarm. You couldn’t see real taxies, motorcycle taxies were all it had. People were so carefree about how they dressed, they would go grocery shopping in pajamas.

People knew little about being polite either. Once they heard a northern accent, there was a tendency to become proud and arrogant. Sometimes even if you spoke mandarin politely, they would brutally yell at you with a local dialect. Factories, either big or small, were all doing primitive processing with an intensive labor force, exporting large amounts of goods at low prices. The spiritual life was almost zero; the theaters were worn out and there were no decent bookstores or libraries. Making money was the only thought on people’s mind.

This is a strangely special city. It attracts people from all over the country, who bring their own personalities, languages, culture, cuisine and life styles. On a normal-looking street, you are able to try authentic food prepared by people from Guangdong, Hunan, Sichuan and the Northeast, or specialties from small villages of other provinces. They come all the way to Dongguan with their hopes and dreams to exert every last parcel of their strength
and ability.

These changes were unthinkable 20 years ago, but now it is happening every day.

Life as a concept is multi-dimensional, you can never be sure if you are influencing the environment or if the environment influences you, especially in my occupation. I have much more profound insights in the mutual influence between myself and the environment. For example: speaking mandarin. Many old Dongguanese can’t speak mandarin. They grew up in a typical Guangdong countryside with outdated culture, even the teachers in school taught in dialects. You can imagine how closed their minds were and how exclusive their language was. But gradually, Dongguanese started to notice this shortcoming.

About seven years ago, I was invited to teach mandarin for a class mostly joined by government officials and leaders. They studied very hard. It was a trivial thing, but it showed that the city’s closed personality had started to disintegrate and people were looking for reform as more and more migrants came to the city. Recently, once again a local parent asked me to teach his child mandarin.

He wanted his son to take the mandarin exam for broadcasters and to study in the north. These changes were unthinkable 20 years ago, but now it is happening every day. It all results from the mutual influence when the people from different places come and live in the city for a long time.

Talking about mutual influence, I’ve learned to drink the “cool tea” here. This drink is a necessity for Guangdongers and similar to traditional Chinese medicine. Upon season changing, some ailments such as light fevers or a cough might occur, which are too small to see a doctor but too uncomfortable to be left alone. In this situation, the “cool tea” plays a big part due to its minor healing function with less property of proscribed medicine.

On the other hand, almost every Guangdonger is skillful at making slow-cooked soup. I have learned lots of techniques from an old aunt as well. The most magical part is they all have a little bit of Chinese medicine knowledge, which season to cook which kind of soup with which kind of Chinese medicine. Even the illiterate old ladies can name a few.

Over the past two decades, the inflow of immigrants, together with locals, built a new Dongguan where different cultures, lifestyles and perceptions merged together. Today’s Dongguan has accidentally shaped its own distinctive figure and its own melting pot cultural mechanism that is inclusive and has been depositing through the dynamic economic tide. No matter where you come from, you can always find your space here where everyone gets comfortable in their familiar life style.