Last weekend the other foreign teachers and I went on a fantastic adventure. The kind I never thought would happen whilst living in China. I had naively only imagined smoggy crowded cities interspersed with tacky tourist traps clogged with coach-loads of Chinese tourists. But lo and behold, we went to a beach; a beautiful sandy beach with clear blue waters.
We took the bus from downtown Shenzhen and an hour later we arrived in the town adjacent to the beach. The air was noticeably cleaner and there was a wonderfully refreshing breeze. I could already feel my skin starting to breathe again. We stopped for dumplings in a little shack and then bargained with a matatu driver to take us to the beach. The beach was a vast stretch of golden sand, with tall crashing waves all set to a backdrop of tree-covered mountains. It was like we had stepped onto some tropical island and had left the daily grind in our wake. The sigh of relief from the foreign teachers as we sat down under a straw umbrella on our plastic chairs was almost deafening. We hastily threw off our clothes and jumped into the sea – things felt almost normal again…almost.
We laughed and joked as we dived into the giant waves and were carried and thrown against the seabed by their force, tumble turning as we went. It was so liberating and so fun. This was the kind of experience I had signed up for. We soon became quite the spectacle and many Chinese people gathered on the shore to watch the group of 7 foreigners frolicking in the waves. They watched in amazement and of course the cameras came out. It’s hard enough trying to make sure you don’t expose your dignity whist being thrown about by the waves but it’s even harder when there is a line of 20 cameras watching you try to subtly fiddle with your bikini! It was like being followed by the paparazzi but instead of ending up on the cover of Closer Magazine our bits and pieces would be given pride of place in their family albums.
Part of the spectacle was the fact that all of us, men and women, had jumped head first into the water. We soon noticed that women did not enter the water but rather remained fully clothed under the shade of the umbrellas. In China, the perception that white skin is close to perfection is widely held. The billions of dainty umbrellas made to protect the bearer from the sun’s rays, the cosmetic surgery posters in the metro that advertise nose jobs and the shelves of every pharmacy rammed with a hundred different types of skin whitening products all suggest that many Chinese women aspire to look Caucasian because that is believed to be the definition of a beautiful woman.
Swimming in the sea, therefore is a male dominated activity. The men band together and play in the waves hugging and pushing each other just as they did as boys although they are now about 40 +. Regulation dress is speedo type shorties not board shorts. They spend the majority of the time together in the water, leaving their wives and girlfriends on the beach for most of the day.
The majority of beach goers, however, are not there to relax in the sun and swim in the sea. Most have come with extremely snazzy SLRs and tripods to take staged pictures of themselves as they pretend to have a fun day at the beach. Couples and families alike take pictures of themselves striking various poses in front of the water such as jumping in the air or looking dainty waving a piece of decorative material.
There are also places for barbequing and you can pitch tents directly on the beach as well. The beach was at its busiest in the late afternoon as several families arrived to take sunset portraits and bed down for the night in a tent.
My boyfriend is busy chasing his dreams on another continent so my ‘China Bestie’ admirably stepped up to the plate for my Chinese style beach photo shoot:
For dinner, a Chinese friend took us to a floating restaurant. On the way there we picked up some roast chicken from vendors on the roadside that we were allowed to eat in the restaurant. It was dark by this time and we soon arrived at a small harbour. Floating in the water were several square wooden rafts with tables and chairs, housed in a gazebo. They glittered like tea-lights bobbing up and down in the vast darkness. We piled into a dubious looking wooden boat with a motor and the driver took us across to one of the restaurants. He was stood in a rather awkward position I imagine that this was to prevent the rickety boat from capsizing. The food was fantastic and extremely fresh. At one end of the raft they had nets immersed in water with live crabs, fish, clams, sea urchins, prawns and the like. We pointed to what we wanted; they took it out of the water, weighed it and then put the little creature to its death in a pot of boiling water behind a screen. Cruel perhaps, but incredibly tasty.