Before becoming a journalist, Caroline Buijs organized trips to China for a living. That’s how she met Chinese travel agent Angie Guo, the subject of her first professional article. Ten years later, Caroline returns to Beijing to see her again.
There she is, on a fine and sunny Sunday afternoon in Beijing: Angie Guo, standing in my hotel garden, surrounded by bamboo, little ponds and red lanterns. Give or take a few weeks, it’s been exactly ten years since I last interviewed her during my vacation to China. I met Angie for the first time in 2002, when she visited our travel agency in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. I was organizing trips to China and she was our woman on the ground, arranging everything from airline and train tickets to hotels and excursions. She was very good at it, because she understood what our customers liked (a guide that takes you to the local market and explains how to prepare unfamiliar vegetables, for example). I liked her immediately. Not only because of her intelligence and sense of humor, but also because she was making her way through the Dutch snow in stockings and shoes without complaining. Her official name is Guo Huifang, but everyone in China is given an English name by their English teacher, so she is called Angie.
For years, we emailed each other almost every day for our work, exchanging news about the weather, our children (one child in Angie’s case), and anything fun we’d been up to. When I was in China, we enjoyed some great meals together of course, because China has the best food in the world.
My fascination with China started in high school in the mid-1980s, when we discussed the country for my favorite subject, history. China’s Imperial past, the Long March, the Gang of Four, and its disastrous Cultural Revolution: I found it all equally fascinating, and I already knew for sure I would go to China one day. More than ten years later, in 1996, I boarded the train in Moscow, Russia, with my boyfriend, now my husband, and arrived in Beijing after a week-long trip through arid Russian steppes and tundras. One of the first things I noticed in China at the time was that I wasn’t attracting any attention. Of course my Western appearance made me stand out in the streets, but people left me alone — very different from my experience in India, for example. Maybe it was more than being left alone, I actually felt that the Chinese reacted to me rather indifferently. I didn’t mind that; it kind of made me feel I was blending in. I was absorbed into the very large masses, and as a result I quickly felt at ease in China.
Angie will forever be intertwined with my first steps in journalism. A day before I went to China on vacation in 2008, I jumped in the deep end by quitting my job at the travel agency to become a freelance journalist. But besides writing a travel brochure, I didn’t have any writing assignments lined up. The interview I did with Angie during that vacation ended up being my first story as a brand-new journalist (for the Dutch magazine Esta). After that, our contact eventually dwindled to sending digital Christmas cards back and forth, but it’s funny how you can immediately feel a connection again with someone you haven’t seen for a long time.
- Read the full story ‘Back to Angie’ in Issue 32.
Text and photography Caroline Buijs