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LAST WORDS: Tribute to Tianjin (Part I)
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Tribute to Tianjin (Part I)
By Leoni Botha

BT 201910 LAST 06If you are new to Tianjin and China, you are probably a little culture shocked and overwhelmed by your new environment. Don’t feel alone. Even the bravest among us are testament of the road it takes to adapt and accept and finally, surrender to this beautiful city.


We all have our different stories and reasons why we chose to leave behind our safety nets, families and all that we knew to embark on a journey into the unknown.


BT 201910 LAST 07When I arrived in Tianjin less than two years ago, I had no idea what was lying ahead, which was, with hindsight, maybe for the better. I might otherwise not have come at all. After two and a half days of flights, lay-overs and airports, I finally landed at Tianjin Binhai airport late in Saturday afternoon. I was met by Ginger, whose job was to meet and take care of the newcomers. Without delay I was booked into a hotel and immediately taken on a whirlwind trip to have a look at apartments, as I had to report at school on Monday. Ginger and the estate agent took me to a late night dinner at an authentic Chinese restaurant and treated me to a feast of traditional Chinese food, which I unfortunately could not enjoy as much as I would have liked to, because I was so utterly tired. The apartment that appealed most to me, through a haze of fatigue, was right in the middle of the city, next to Joy City. I come from a really small town in South Africa and thought that since I was going to live in a big city, I might as well do it properly and stay in the city centre.


BT 201910 LAST 05Tianjin is listed as the 6th most populated city in the world - I did my research. But it is not really true. It is the 6th most populated area, with more than 26 million people living in the area that stretches from the Port of Tianjin to the mountainous area of the Huangyaguan Great Wall. Tianjin is widely considered to be the second capital, and there are plans to develop the city in such a way that it will relieve Beijing from its duties as capital.

天津世界上人口最多的第六大城市 - 我做了研究,事实并非如此。它人口超过2600万,从天津港一直延伸到黄崖关长城的山区。人们普遍认为天津是第二大城市,并且计划以这样一种方式发展这座城市,这样可以减轻北京作为首都的压力。

One of the first things I noticed about Tianjin was the magnificent river Hai He, meandering throughout the city so quietly and serenely. Of course, I was also entranced by all the tall buildings, festively lit in all colours at night.


BT 201910 LAST 02The first few months I was here, were anything but a walk in the park. I have been thrown into the deep end and had no choice but to learn to swim, and fast. The biggest problem I, and I am sure most of you coming here for the first time, encountered was the language. No-one speaks English! One of the most difficult things for me was not having anyone to talk to over weekends. My colleagues hail from all over the world and they are wonderful. But for months they were the only people I ever spoke to and that was only during the week at school. For the first time in my life, I experienced a devastating loneliness. At that time, I was more than once, ready to pack my bags and go home. I yearned to do that, even asked my principal to send me home. He just laughed and said: “No way”. But deep inside I knew I would have to see it through, as I am just not the kind of person who would break my word and signing that work contract was my word. Today, I am so glad that I gave myself a fair chance to make it work in a foreign city and country.


BT 201910 LAST 04Fortunately, I had incredible support from my children, family and friends at home. I spent hours talking to them, when the four walls of my very empty apartment threatened to swallow me alive. Everyone had lots of advice, from doing yoga and getting a skipping rope (both which I did) to going out and mingling with people. What they did not understand, is that even when I went out, I could spend a whole evening with people and still not say a single word, because they don’t speak English.


Moving and living in a strange city is not so easy when you are older. I just could not see myself going to bars and clubs on my own to meet people.

Ginger gave me a card with the school’s address and my apartment’s address, so the first days I used a taxi to get to school. Even that was daunting at the time. I had no idea in which direction the school was, and seemed to always get a taxi on a street going in the opposite direction of the school. I had no experience with taxis or subways. For days I walked a few blocks to get a taxi, not knowing that I could walk just up the street from my apartment to get one. One day I decided to be brave and take the subway. I knew the name of the stop where I had to get off, but had no idea that it was in the basement of Joy City Mall. It took me two hours to get out of the mall and to my apartment. I had a landmark which I could see from my apartment and I knew it was part of the mall. I just could not find it. Every exit I took was unfamiliar and even if I walked around, I did not see anything that I recognized. It grew dark and I grew desperate. I envisioned myself sleeping in the mall and just go back to school from there the next day. Finally, I found someone who understood when I said Burger King and they directed me. What I did not know at that time, was that Burger King was on the other side of the road that runs underneath the bridge in the mall and I just never crossed the bridge.


640Taking the subway was a completely new experience for me. I made sure I always had a subway map with me. Oh, how many times did I get on a train going the opposite direction I was supposed to go. Now I am a pro and can go to any place in the city by subway. Even Ginger was impressed when I showed her a shorter route than the one she knew. It is one of the things I enjoy and appreciate about this city. The subway system is so efficient and easy to navigate. When my daughter came for a visit last December, I was secretly proud that I was able to go everywhere and knew the lines and stops and which exits to take. She thought I was totally cool!


Autumn Festival and a week off school gave me a chance to explore my new city and the area I lived in. I accidentally discovered the Food Street with the stalls offering all varieties of food and delicacies. I learned the quickest route to the subway in the mornings when the mall is still closed. I found parks with inviting little benches and vibrant splashes of late autumn flowers. The river eluded me, though. I so wanted to find the river and spend a few hours there. Whenever I took a taxi, the river was everywhere, smooth and wide. But when I went in search of the river on my many walks, it seemed as if I walked in circles.


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