Yesterday we met with Megan, the former ESL teacher at XIS, and two of her friends at a beach south of the university. (We had to take a taxi — with Bismarck — to the beach, which was surprisingly not difficult.) The fun part was that Megan and her friends all had dogs. Chinese dogs, to be sure, but they were foreign size: two golden retrievers and a collie puppy. The day filled a couple of emotional necessities for Bismarck: canine socialization and the beach. Of course, five foreigners and four giant foreign dogs are the Xiamen equivalent of the circus. So by the time we quit the beach for a beachfront restaurant we had drawn quite a crowd.
The beach in Xiamen has potential. There is heavy shipping in and out of Xiamen harbor, and we’re at the mouth of a huge silty river, so the water is brown and full of debris. Despite which it didn’t smell like anything other than seawater, and was a lovely warm-but-not-too-warm temperature. Some locals swim in it, and the dogs didn’t seem to mind in the least. When I’m feeling braver I’ll swim in it, I’m sure, but for now all that debris puts me off.
Other than the water, the beach suffers (if you can use that word) from a lack of development, or rather a knowledge of how to develop it. The brand-new ring road (a fancy new highway around the island) cuts the beach off from the nice-ish housing just inland. There are a few parks, and a boardwalk, along the sandy bits of beach, but they suffer from the usual Chinese haphazardness. Most of the shoreline development is light industrial, or related to fishing, or a kind of half-hearted attempt at seaside tourism. Mixed in, of course, with ramshackle rural settlement (tin roofs, lean-tos, open sewage) that looks to be straight out of Vietnam. On the other hand, it has what Nantucket or Canon Beach or Monterey have lacked for 30 or 50 or 80 years: a functional (non-tourist) economy. My favorite vista was the juxtaposition of tourists, local children, scruffy itinerant fisherman, and clueless foreigners cavorting in front of a (mostly) clean white beach on a channel absolutely packed with shipping, tourist ferries, and farting little fishing junks. China is frequently exasperating, but like all great places what makes it lousy is also what makes it great: there is a palpable sense of things happening here.
After our play date, we retired to a sprawling outdoor cafe (complete with thatched roof bar) along a shoreline terrace, where we had really fresh seafood, kept alive in coldwater pens just inside the entrance. (Check the Flickr stream for more yummy photos). If it weren’t for the sea god shrine, this place would feel like a cabana restaurant in the Caribbean. I let the others pick out our lunch, so we had a relatively tame (but nonetheless fantastic) meal of flatfish, shrimp, and plate after plate of vegetables. All of which were smiling and frolicking only minutes earlier.