I realize that last time I was here, I didn’t really give Haikou a proper introduction. Or perhaps you could also say that I wasn’t familiar enough with this city to say too much about it. It took us a while before we could get used to our surroundings, the culture, and the pace of life.
This time around, one of the first things that someone said to me upon my arrival was that “you’re probably familiar enough that I don’t need to say anything else”. And yeah, she was right. I knew exactly where my hotel was, how long it would take to get to the classroom every day, what to expect for lunch… I felt like I knew Haikou already. And somehow, five days after arriving here a second time, I’m already seeing things in a very different perspective.
Let’s start again, this time with a map. I realize that many people don’t even know where Hainan really is, let alone Haikou. Most people will have at least heard of Sanya, but even then, not everyone can locate on a map.
So here it is. Haikou is just an hour away by air from Hong Kong, and I’m sure that one hour could easily be shortened to 40 minutes if it weren’t for the long line-ups for landing. Sanya is a little bit farther, and to be honest I’m not even sure how much longer it would take by air, but I’d guess maybe an extra 20 minutes. These are the two major cities in Hainan, and probably the only two you would ever visit for any reason at all.
Zooming right into basically where the dot of Haikou is, here’s the actual city. The ‘A’ is placed at People’s Park, which is a 5 minute walk from where my hotel is. That’s also where I like to go for my runs, and where all that Chinese opera and public table tennis takes place. ‘B’ is the Meilan International Airport, also the location of the training center which I report to every day. Our classes aren’t at the actual airport, but a training center next to the airport. Just imagine a 3 km airport runway, with the airport on one end and our training center on the other end.
‘C’ is 海甸島, an island on the north side of Haikou that I never really explored until last night – more on this later. It used to be a very small island, but then just like how Hong Kong likes to ‘reclaim’ their territory (ie. fill in the ocean to make more land), Haikou apparently likes to do the same thing as well. It has slowly evolved into the island it is now.
‘D’ is East Haikou Station, and also the place where you would go to catch a train to surrounding cities. Our trip to Wen Chang started here.
‘E’ is the location of Holiday Beach, which I had previously visited already. I found myself there again today with another friend. There still isn’t that much to do, but the cooler temperature of November made it a lot nicer to walk through and spend a lovely afternoon.
And finally, ‘F’ is the location of the convention center and also the Marriott Hotel we randomly walked into 2 months ago. After analyzing the map, I realized that there is also a Shangri-La Hotel nearby. It seems like that area is ready for any large exhibitions and expos when events come along.
When I arrived in Haikou the first time, my life was pretty much confined to the area within that blue rectangle and the airport. We would go to school every day, come back and have dinner nearby, and then stay at the hotel. Our entertainment consistent of karaoke (right next door) and mahjong (inside the hotel building). We went out to explore a bit, but we went to very specific tourist places, or maybe even a completely different city. We never actually walked around the actual city of Haikou. To be honest, I really thought that was it. That blue rectangle was pretty much the city center of Haikou, and then it just dies down as you go away from there.
In actuality, Haikou occupies a pretty large area. And it’s not just occupying empty space, either. There are buildings everywhere! It’s counter-intuitive, because the buildings are not very high, and you think that it must be not quite a metropolitan. In a sense, you are right… there is no way you’ll ever be able to compare this city to Shanghai or Beijing. But just because you don’t have high-rise buildings all around, doesn’t mean that this is any less ‘big’ of a city. Buildings cover every inch of this place, and that’s also why they needed to fill in the ocean for more land on the northern island.
Speaking of which, I went for a walk around 海甸島 just last night. In Chinese, they call it “徒步”… it’s not really a leisurely walk, because they actually go with the aim of exercise. But it’s not a difficult walk either. It’s just a paced walk, at just a bit faster than your average walking pace.
We started at the East Gate of Hainan University, which is the major university of this province… kind of like the UBC of Vancouver (except I guess it’s not directly comparable, since UBC is ranked among the world after all). From there, we went all the way east to the edge of the island, then walked along the outer perimeter next to the water. The northern side was lined with beautiful apartments. It’s quite evident that they want to make this island a rich and expensive residential area. Among the houses, there was also Baishamen Park. I stumbled upon this place when Googling things to visit in Haikou. It’s kind of a kiddy amusement park – probably comparable to the Centreville Amusement Park on Toronto’s Center Island. One of my new friends told me that it’s not really worth a visit.
When we got to the southern side of the island, we stopped to take a picture at the 世紀大橋, literally called ‘Bridge of the Century’. I suppose it does look quite nice.
We passed under the bridge to make our way back to the West Gate of Hainan University. This university is huge! It probably took us 20 minutes just to walk from the West Gate back to the East Gate.
I had a great time. Unfortunately, I didn’t take many pictures, because my phone camera doesn’t do too well with pictures in the dark, and my DSLR has been left in Hong Kong. But I’ve love to revisit this island during the daytime, and see what else I may have missed.
Amazingly enough, I’ve already made more new friends here in 5 days than my total of 3 weeks during my previous visit. One of the most obvious differences is the language barrier. Despite having spent 4 years of my high school learning Mandarin, I never really had the chance to immerse myself in a community where I was forced to speak it. Even when I arrived in Haikou back in July, I was hiding myself in a hole once again, and always avoiding conversation rather than actively seeking it.
Just before I left Haikou in August, we finally started meeting some local friends and got to know one another. I had more of an incentive and motivation to try to speak to them. Once you get yourself started, you realize that you’re not really that bad at Mandarin after all. Having learned pinyin back in high school, I find that my pronunciation is a lot more accurate than most of the ‘Hong Kong Mandarin’ you might hear. The area which I am lacking is not so much pronouncing the words correctly, but knowing what vocabulary to use. There are many phrases that you would use in Cantonese, but are much less common or maybe even unused in Mandarin – things such as 菜單 rather than 餐牌, 鑰匙 rather than 鎖匙. It’s just a matter of trial and error, and getting familiar with the similar-but-different vocabulary. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s really how you learn.
It took a while to get my inner Mandarin fired up again, but I currently feel completely comfortable sitting in a class by myself as the only student from Hong Kong. It takes a lot of focus to stay awake, especially when the material is boring and not in a language you easily understand, but I’m getting there. And for sure, I do feel like my Mandarin has improved a lot.
The best part is, these conversations that I’m having with my new friends open up a lot of my mind. That’s how you truly get to know a city anyway – it’s through the conversation that you share. No matter how much you walk through it and try to observe the culture, you’ll never understand as much as if an insider shares their thoughts and feelings with you.
It’s interesting to see the different perspectives that you might find around this city. In general, people see Haikou as a good trade-off between work and relaxing. The average person works five days a week, with quite regular hours (around 8-9 hours a day), and pretty much zero overtime. But one of my local Hainanese friends challenged me, “這真的是他們想要的辛福生活嗎?” Some people are content with having a simple life. Others think that this life confines them to a mundane life, and want to experience more of the world. Yet others feel like it’s a stable life, but too stable – they will never ‘make it big’ if they just continue on with this life. And yes, she understands the concept of “being content with what you have”, but that’s like telling them to stay in their current state for the rest of their lives. And so many people in Haikou are too young to be okay with that.
Honestly, I just didn’t know what to say to her. I think the statement “being content with what you have” is not really for her, but for me. In comparison, I have had so many opportunities to experience different parts of the world, and I know my opportunities in the future will likely be more abundant than her as well. You feel guilty to tell others that they should be grateful for what they have, when you clearly know you are more privileged than them, and yet you still take your own things for granted.
Everything that I’ve been experiencing over these few days has been both eye-opening and humbling at the same time. I think being so familiar with Vancouver and Hong Kong has allowed me to see many of the cultural clashes between Chinese people and the respective locals in those areas. I’m a bit ashamed to say that yes, I have my biases towards these people as well. But my time here in Haikou has been met with very decent people. These are people that I would have never imagined could be so polite, or nice, or willing to help others. They shared with me many of their inner feelings, and their personal stories. And that’s when I thought, wow, we really aren’t so unlike after all. We are all just human beings, each with our own backgrounds and differences. Who am I, or anyone for that matter, to say that one is better than the other?