Xiamen – Part 1: Then and Now

After a long weekend of teaching my wonderful students, I am back on my blog and ready to finish up my posts about our holidays! Mondays and Tuesdays are my weekend here (I teach 24 of the 48 hours that make up Saturdays and Sundays), so tonight, instead of our typical ‘end of day’ tea, we’ve switched to some Cuban rum! We discovered a Havana Club white rum at Carrefour tonight and couldn’t help but get some. Due to Cuba and China’s communist bonds, the trade prices must be good, because we paid under $20 Canadian for a bottle! It’s closer to $30 Canadian for most other western bevies, so this was a grand surprise! But that’s enough about the rum….onto Xiamen!!

It tastes like our wedding!  It's like drinking happiness :)
It tastes like our wedding! It’s like drinking happiness 🙂

I was fortunate enough to live in Xiamen city 9 years ago. It was the summer of 2005 when I arrived there. I was 19 years old, full of rebellion and wanting an adventure. I can definitely tell you that it was QUITE the adventure. I am a small town girl. I grew up in a farming town, where there is lots of space and where everyone knows one another. I always joke that St. Malo has a population of about 1000; and that includes the cows!


So, when I arrived in Xiamen city in 2005, I was blown away by pretty much everything. The smells made me nauseous, the crowds made me hyperventilate and the heat had me sick and in a constant state of exhaustion. Culture shock hit me hard, and it took about 6 months for me to really appreciate the beauty that is Amoy City.

A view from the River

Eventually I grew to love Xiamen. Since I left 8 years ago, I’ve missed her beauty and her endless potential for adventure. I’ve dreamt of her cobblestone paths, and her abundance of palm trees. I’ve missed the smell of street barbecue and an ocean breeze. I never really believed I’d ever make it back to Xiamen, so when we arrived on a late flight from Guilin on October 1st, the excitement I felt is really difficult to describe. I felt like I was home, in a sense. I felt like I’d returned to the place where I’d found myself, and become the person I am today.

Xiamen 2006
A picture of me at Nanputuo (The South Temple), taken in February of 2006.
Me in front of the same Elephant (well, an upgraded version of the same elephant), in October 2014. What strikes me the most is how much more comfortable I look in my own skin. Xiamen was a big part of that. I grew there. I became the strong, confident individual I am today, because of the crazy experiences I had there then

Xiamen has grown a lot in the last 8 years. When I lived there, the population was just over 2 million people. In 8 years, that population has more than doubled. Because Xiamen is an island, there is limited space, which means that there are 4 million people living on an island one QUARTER the size of Winnipeg, MB. This means that there are very high buildings, and the space here is used very wisely.

Xiamen is off the East Coast of Mainland China. On a VERY clear day, you can see some of the Taiwan Islands from Gulang Island (just off of the cost of Xiamen).

I worked in one building that was over 70 floors high. I taught conversational English to the employees of a company that manufactures hearing aids. We discussed everything from paranormal activity to Chinese traditions during those classes, but the best part about teaching there, was the view. I was up on the 68th floor and in a large room that had windows from floor to ceiling. When the blinds were open, I got a full view of Xiamen City. I’d often go in early, just to see that view. From that floor I could see old, dirty buildings, with rusted tin awning and school uniforms hanging off of balconies to dry (there are no driers in China…everyone hangs their clothes to dry). I could see new buildings, free of the weathering of typhoons and pollution. And I could see the buildings that were coming up. The green netting used to protect the new building from falling debris. I could see countless cranes, building up the city… the city that I was eventually able to see in 2014.

It is common to see several new buildings come up, all at once.  We've seen up to 7 cranes side by side, adding onto Guiyang
It is common to see several new buildings come up, all at once. We’ve seen up to 10 cranes side by side, adding onto Guiyang

Xiamen has changed a lot since 2006. The city is much greener than it was then. More trees have been planted in the medians, and a greater effort has been put into beautification. Like Guilin, Xiamen is a tourist area so it is in the city’s best interest to stay clean and visually appealing. In 2006, people still spit and smoked indoors in Xiamen. Now, it is rare to see someone spit on the street, and many restaurants and stores have ‘no smoking’ signs posted in both Chinese and English. In 2008, Xiamen tackled its traffic issues by building a long overpass that is solely for buses. This speeds up the commute to the most popular places in the city (downtown as well as the big tourist attractions) and removes many buses from the streets. Traffic is hardly a problem now.

Xiamen Expressway
The Xiamen Expressway

Still, some things have stayed the same. The most incredible part of my trip to Xiamen occurred our first day there. I took Dave downtown to see if any of my old hang-outs or apartments were still standing. We managed to find 2/3 of the places where I lived. I spent the final (and most enjoyable) 6 months of my time in Xiamen in one particular apartment, located right behind Wen Ping DaSha (a large apartment complex where many of the other foreigners lived). Amazingly, this apartment was still there! I was able to show Dave where I hung my laundry to dry, and the courtyard where I played badminton with the neighbors.

I lived on the third floor…so the second balcony you see there. I used to hang my clothes out that window. It was so surreal seeing it there again, and knowing that my old bedroom is on the other side of that wall!!

More incredibly yet, we found the small store where I bought my water every morning. These people were unbelievable sweet and always kept water in the ‘freezer’ (basically a fridge) for me, because they knew I enjoyed my water cold. In China (circa 2006), water was mostly served at room temperature, so I really appreciated their effort in keeping me cool. The same people were still working at this store. They are actually the landlords for the building. I remember the morning I left Xiamen, the woman there started frantically trying to show me other apartments that were for rent. She didn’t want us to go. She was so very sweet! And now here she was…8 years later…selling me water. Her husband was sitting on a chair in their house (behind the store). Neither of them recognized me, of course, but I sure recognized them! It was a moment of pure beauty, and I felt more linked to my past than I have in a very long time. I felt that Xiamen was no longer just a cool dream I had. It felt real again…

The small store, that was so significant to me, that it made an appearance in several of the non-fiction pieces I wrote while in University. It looks the same as it did then…

On our way out of the courtyard, I spotted another familiar face. She was around 16 then…the landlords’ daughter. She and I played badminton in the courtyard together several nights a week. She taught me the word for Cat (mao) in Chinese. She was so shy with me at first but we became friends. Friends that couldn’t really communicate, but friends nonetheless. Now, she is much older. She is probably married and may have a child. She didn’t recognize me, but she came up to us to ask if we were looking for an apartment. She’s apparently helping her parents with the business, which is really neat :). I was kind of sad that I couldn’t explain to her who I was because our translator app wasn’t working well in Xiamen. Still, I truly enjoyed the fact that I was seeing a familiar face 8 years later. A very large part of me just wanted to grab her and hug her but I figured that would be too strange…even for a Lao Wei! So, I smiled instead and we bid one another a good day. Dave and I continued on our way to see more of my past.

A tree outside the first apartment where I lived. I arrived at this apartment in August of 2005, at 11pm and walked past this very tree. In that apartment, I found several dead cockroaches (they killed them ahead of time but didn’t clean them up) and dealt with a slow gas leak and several break in attempts. This tree, in 2005, was small enough that I could get it all in one photo. Now, it is so big that I had to go as far back as I could to get the shot, and still couldn’t get it all in the frame. Both the tree, and I have grown quite a bit in 9 years…
The fruit stand where I stopped nightly for a fresh mango; one of the many perks of living on a subtropical island. This is also where I tried Lychee for the first time. It was love at first taste 🙂

In my next post, I’ll be telling you about our trip down Zhongshan Lu, our time at Nanputuo and our night on the beautiful Gulang Yu! Stay tuned, friends!!!

One thought on “Xiamen – Part 1: Then and Now”

  1. What a beautiful story, its to bad your friend didn’t recognize you… wonderful that you did get to see them though.

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