Wai Go Ren

Kunming Travel Blog

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Chain Email

So it’s been a few days now living across the world and I’ve finally summoned enough focus and energy to sit down and right an extensive chain email.  For those of you I have been in less contact with, I am currently Kunming, a city in the Yunan province of China.  I am spending three months in China on a semester program called Where There be Dragons.  There are three other students in the group, as well as several guides.  Kai, the leader of the group is an American guy who’s really interested in Chinese healing techniques.  Julia is from New England and is our academic coordinator.  Frank is one of our Chinese teachers, and he’s a former farmer from the country of China.  Jen is also from China, and has some of the most incredible stories of overcoming adversity as Chinese minority.
    Kunming is a small city by Chinese standards, but it’s actually quite large.  In the middle of the city is Green Lake Park where everyone goes in the morning to practice Tai Chi or other exorcises.  Everyone smokes.  Everyone stares at us when we travel in a group, especially the older generations who are perhaps not so accustomed to seeing westerners because it is only so recent that people have been able to travel in China.  The children on the other hand are not as shocked because they have grown up seeing curly hair and blue eyes.  Every now and then a young Chinese girl or boy approaches us on the street and says the few English words he or she knows.  It’s hard to find a cold drink here because the Chinese believe that since your stomach temperature is so high, it is unhealthy to drink anything that isn’t hot.  So for meals we get green tea or warm water.  The tap water is undrinkable so we are forced to either buy bottled water or boil water to drink.  The city is in constant destruction and reconstruction.  Twice now our guides have brought us to a place for lunch only to find that the building had been demolished and new one was being erected.  They aren’t lying when they say China is a dynamic place.  It truly is a different world every time you wake up in the morning.

    In two days we set out for the Miao province, where our leader Jen is from.  From there we go to several other smaller country side destinations, including a region that is the most recent to open up to foreigners.  After that we end up back in Kunming for a six week homestay, and then one final trip before returning on May 12th.  I hope all is well with you and yours and I hope that I hear back from people every now and then.  I won’t always have email access but I promise to do my best at writing these long emails when I do have internet access.  If you get this email and know of someone who didn’t get it please send it on because I don’t have everyone’s email address.  Dad please send this on to the girls because I haven’t put their addresses in my contacts yet and I don’t have much time right now.  I will write again in a few weeks when we get back to Kunming!

Crazy Day
Right now I am in a city called Kai Li where one of our leaders, Jen, is from.  This is a region of the Miao peolpe, who are an ethnic minority in China.  Today we went to a tiny village outside the city and it was altogether one of the craziest experiences of my life.  First, to get there, we took a bus up into the mountains.  The bus we were on was literally overflowing with people, and at times it felt as though the sides of the bus might flop open sending everyone tumbling down the mountain side.  Most of the roads were dirt, muddy and rutted, barely holding on to the side of the mountain. If the road was paved it wasn't much better because there were these giant craters every ten feet that the driver of the bus did not, repeat: did not, slow down for.  It was hard not to choke on the smell of burning breaks and diesel exhaust.  All the while bigger buses would overtake us, either on the right or the left, depending on how they were feeling, blaring their horns.  The same applied for these giant, gothic, diesel trucks bearing coal.  They must have all been at least fifty years old.  It felt like something you would see in WWII movies or perhaps something like Soviet Russia.  It's not something you would expect to see in the world's fastest growing nation, but I suppose that is the paradox of this nation:  bursting at the seems with potential yet still anchored down in the past.

When we finally made it to the village we got out of the bus and began the now usual stares from the locals.  We walked around for a bit, looking for the bull fight that we came to to the village to see.  We didn't get far before we were basically attacked by a crowd of ten or twelve drunk (really drunk) women, covered in their traditional Miao garb, colorful garments and silver headware and neckalces.  Their faces were smeared with red paint and they kept trying to force us to drink this sort of moonshine mixture they were carrying around in a Sprite bottle.  Chinese New Year you see is a giant festival, lasting for days after the actual New Year. Jen later explained to us that the reason the women were wearing the red paint was because a daughter of the village had returned home unexpectedly for a visit on the chinese new year.  SO the women, who are pretty well segregrated from the men, invited the neighbors over to get hammered.  The fact that there were foreigners there made the event even more special.  They kept forcing these shots into our faces and since we refused (we are not allowed to drink on the trip) they responded by throwing the alcohol all over us.  They kept tugging at our clothes and oferring us chunks of cucumber, all gestures that we were afterward told were great signs of respect.  Right before we left them to party in the streets they through a string with a dirty towel tied to it around our necks.  To say the least, it was a surreal experience.

After that we walked out into the rice patties where the bull fights were being held.  It was a croud of men around two giant bulls tearing each other apart.  It was just in the middle of a field so sometimes we had to run away to stop from getting trampled.  When one bull would finally give up, it would run away across the field and the other one would chase after it, with all the men from the village in suit.  Every now and then there would be a deafening blast as a child would light a firecracker.  In fact, no matter where or when you are, you always have to be prepared for some sort of explosian.  The chinese believe the loud sounds fend off bad luck and evil spirits, as well as one's hearing ability.  I got the entire scene, the drunk women, the bull fight, the bus ride, all on video so expect to see it when I get home, or maybe if I can figure out how to get it on the internet you can see it before hand.

I bought a batterie of firecrackers today, as well as one giant one, about the size of my fist.  In the states, most firecrackers are ilegal and the ones you can get are about an inch long and the width of a pinky nail, so this one is quite large.  It cost one yuan, which is equivalent to about 13 cents.  This country is a perfect playground for mischievous teenager.

It was a pretty special day, and I'm sure theres more to come, but life is still tough at times.  The group has already had a few issues, but I am becoming increasingly close with two of the students individually, which is really nice.  I'm missing home a lot, with all it's snow and cozy fireplaces.  We are not living uncomfortably, staying in pretty nice hotels and eating well (new and strange, but well), but hotels lack the coziness of home and the warmth of close friends.  I hope you are all well and strong. I miss everyone dearly and I hope to hear back soon so get off your butts and write me a letter.

Describing Kunming
Describing Kunming.  There is always smog, a thin film over everything in the distance.  The cars are modern, mostly Volkswagon, Peugot, or small Chinese brand cars.  There are bikes everywhere, most in bad condition, with wobbling front wheels and creaky brakes.  The city is in constant motion, with everyone’s business going on primarily in the streets.  Noodle restaurants are usually on every street, white tile floors, red signs with white Chinese characters out on the street.  There is a bike lane but it is only a suggestion, usually littered with pedestrians and the occaisional horn blaring taxi cab.  There is trash everywhere but it doesn’t stay in one place very long because there are also street cleaners everywhere, with straw hats, extra sleeves over their shirts, black slippers with white soles.  The buildings are nothing special to look at, but the people are.  There are the street venders, selling fried tofu, pineapple quarters on a stick, fried dough wrapped in a flat rice wrap, or meat sticks.  There are little corner bike shops, with three or four men standing around a stand with a key carver, bike tires and locks hanging off their stand, everything covered in dirt, oil, and grime from the air.  Young Chinese couples walking arm and arm, the girls dressed in polkadot sleeveless shirts with baggie capris, hair straightened, stylish.  The boys wear black tank tops and trendy jeans, smoking Honghe brand cigarettes.  Middle aged women cruise around on mopeds with short high heels, khakis, black blouses, giant red tinted visors over their faces.  Children dressed in ratty old sweaters with dirty faces play in the streets and giggle at the funny looking waigoren.  Old hundred names, the common people, the poor, the peasants, have dark tanned skin, bad teeth, always a bit of stubble but nothing more, cheap suits, oily hair, a cigarette in hand.  Business men don’t get out of their jet black Audis, just lay on the horns in pedestrian only areas.  Women carry their babies on their backs, either in embroidered baby carrying bags or just with their arms behind their backs.  Camoflaged soldiers walk around in the crouds, but never seem to be doing anything, eating, talking, waiting, going really anywhere, they are just being.  There is too much to describe it all.

I can really barely understand my home-stay parents, and most of the time it's only about the important stuff like when I will be back or this tastes good or can I use your washing machine.  When my teachers dropped me off at my home-stay that told my family that I play guitar and then my mom asked if I wanted to learn to play any Chinese instruments.  I was like hell yeah, that would be sweet. So my host mom plays an instrument called the Hulu, which is a quintessential Chinese instrument.  It’s the kind of thing you see dirt covered street venders carrying a bag full of them.  “Hollo!  Hollo!  Hulu si.”  Then they play a bar or two and thrust one into your face.  It’s essentially just like a recorder, the instrument every kid in America is forced to play so as to spark his or her interest in music.  I tried remembering Hot Crust Buns. Anyways last night after dinner my parents kept asking me about it, and I wasn't sure how to tell them that I had to talk to my teachers so I could arrange for them to pay for the lesson and that one of them should probably come along to interpret.  I fumbled with my mini Chinese-English dictionary. Before I knew it, we were out walking on the street.  The dictionary was as usual, unsuccessful.  I didn't know if we were going to a concert or a lesson or what but all I knew is that my host mom kept mimicking playing a flute so it had something to do with the hulu.  We walked along the highway. My nose was desperately buried in my dictionary, and I kept tripping over curbs or stepping in puddles (puddles in China are usually made up water, and some other organic material usually very stinky and most likely quite harmful.)  We wondered around a small residential area, seemingly hundreds of little Chinese children jumping and running around us, stopping only for an instant to stare at none other than the portly foreigner with wild curly hair and blue plaid shorts, dumbly following a well-dressed Chinese couple.  
    We finally hooked a left into an apartment complex, and my host mom pointed into a window where I saw a dozen or so Hulus hanging decoratively on the wall.  She mimicked the flute again and pointed towards the door. The teacher wasn't home at the time but his wife was and she greeted me with the utmost politeness.  She beckoned me to sit down, after the confusion of whether or not to take off my sandals, something I have become rather used to by now.  She ducked into the kitchen and came back with a plate full of pipas, a fruit shaped and colored like a pear, but far more sour and juicier to boot:  delicious.  They chatted for a bit and I obviously assumed it was about me, though there was no indication of this fact.  I just sat and watched Chinese television, until the teacher arrived.  I could immediately tell I would like this guy.  It was obvious to me, even without being to able to speak the language, that he was the type of guy that you would love to have at a party, making even the most mundane subjects deserving of a big belly laugh.  He tried to talk to me a couple of times but he was one of those people that instead of slowing down for me to understand he just spoke louder.  Of course this didn't work so I just had to say "Wo bu dong." "I don't understand."  And he would throw back his head and blurt out something in Chinese at which everyone would laugh and his wife would look at me kindly and say "Mai shi, mai shi," "No problem, no problem."  At one point he asked me, "Ni hui bu hui hulu si?"  "Do you play the hulu?"  I nodded and said "Hui," "I play."  My host dad laughed loudly.  "Ta bu hui."  "He doesn't play."  I had thought that he had asked if I wanted to learn, not if I had already learned, but it was too late, Hulu teacher was holding one of the instruments in my face with a big grin.  I backpedaled and they erupted into the largest laughing fit of the night, which says a lot, believe me.  

They talked for a while, at lightening speed and thunder volume, and I knew they were talking about me, whether or not I would be able to take lessons from him with my poor Chinese and his minimal English (Like everyone here who has not really studied English, he knew "Hollo", "Sankyou", and "OK!")  After a while my host mom finally convinced him to give me a try so he handed me the hulu and showed me how to do a simple scale.  I nailed it on the first try.  It was like I was back in third grade and taking recorder lessons.  I don't know, I guess that kind of thing sticks around.  Anyways everyone was pretty impressed and I got a round of applause. He pulled out this songbook with a picture of Bob Dylan on the cover.  He said it had American songs in it.  Every time he found one he would point at it, tell me how to say it in Chinese, ask me how to say it in English, then hum the tune to see if I knew it.  "Zhi dou bu zhi dou?"  "Do you know it?"  "Bu zhi dou."  "I don't know it." It went on like this for about twenty minutes.  Find a song, Chinese name, English name, ""Zhi dou bu zhi dou?" "Bu zhi dou."  He kept pointing at the songs and saying "Mei Guo!  Zhe shi Meiguo!  Ni shi bu shi meiguo de?"  "America!  This is American!  Are you American?"  Until finally he flipped onto You are my Sunshine.  Jackpot.  Not only did I know the song, but like every other graduate of the Shrewsbury Mountain school, the tune was permanently entrenched in my skull.  "Zhi dou! zhi dou!"  He began humming the notes, not knowing the words, and then he told me to sing it.  So I sang You are my Sunshine with this guy in the middle of China, and everyone was simply amazed at my singing abilities.  Who can't sing You are my Sunshine?
    I played it piece by piece, with the occasional slip up of one finger, but rather smoothly for a beginner if I do say so myself.  Every time I got a section right he would give me a big thumbs up.  “OKAY!”  I would reciprocate and we would go on to the next section.  Every now and then his wife would ejaculate some sort of expression of being impressed.  In twenty minutes we were playing together, You are my Sunshine.  I wonder if there is some sort of equivalent in China, one of the first-ever pop hits turned legendary folk song.  Of course, things like that are skewed in a country with a five thousand year old history.  All that matters is that I knew what it meant, and that they liked to hear me play.
I have a bike now.  One of our leaders sprung and bought ten sweet mountain bikes and we are all renting them from him for our time here in Kunming.  It’s really a lot of fun biking around the city, to and from my house and just all around.  I haven’t really had any free time to just go out for a good long ride yet but I’m planning on it.  It’s fun, but incredibly dangerous.  In general, getting around the city, whether it is by bus, car, bike or on foot, is in itself an adventure.  The Chinese have no concept of orderly single file lines.  It’s all about who can stick their hand out the farthest or who can push the hardest with their shoulder.  There is a bike lane in Kunming, but that doesn’t mean that you have right of way.  In fact, I don’t believe right of way is a recognized concept in China.  The bike lane is always packed with people, whether they are on bikes or not.  Some people have these giant carts that pull behind a bike, usually filled with vegetables or live chickens or god knows what.  You can hire these guys to move things for you and if they can put it on their bike they will do it.  Today I saw a guy with a cart bicycle carrying a giant water tank, probably 8 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter, laid on it’s side and placed on top of steel supports that supported it about two feet over the guys head.  Sometimes you see people with donkeys pulling a cart behind them in the bike lane.  Other than that, there are the usual seventy five thousand bicyclists and motorcyclists, all cutting one another off, taking right turns when they are stacked three deep to the left, all the while balancing a passenger on the back tire, talking on the cell phone, or smoking a cigarette.  Nobody wears a helmet.  Apparently a red light does not mean stop in China, it means: you can still go for three, four, maybe five seconds, and then it would probably be a good idea to stop, but if you don’t feel like it no worries man.  But if you do hit the light late and you feel like stopping, you better get to the front of the pack, and when you start up again you better get a good push because you don’t want to be in the middle of the pack when it bottlenecks back into the bike lane.  The worst thing is that all though there is a bike lane, it’s just a painted line on the side of the road, and when someone in car wants to turn through the bike lane, they blow their horn once or twice, twist their steering, and blast right on through.  They don’t stop unless they absolutely have to, and neither do the bikes.

With all this mayhem, I was simply amazed for the longest time that I had not already seen a horrific accident.  But all was explained a couple of days ago when I saw young woman riding her moped with her five year old son, give or take, squatting on the foot pad of the motorbike, sheltered above by his mother’s legs with nothing supporting him on either side, playing with something in his hands, all the while traveling at thirty miles an hour.  Every child in China is brought up this way; their days punctuated by a death-defying trip to school and then back again at the end of the day.  It’s cyclical.  It is what it is because it is what it is.  If you are raised on the foot pad of a moped or the back of a motorcycle you have a very different concept of danger in traffic than in America, where along with the golden rule and how important it is to eat your veggies, children are taught the absolute peril of all fast moving things.  In China, they don’t worry about it as much.  As a result, they cut people off in traffic.  They pile four people onto a motorbike made for one.  They ignore traffic signs with no concern, even for getting a ticket.  But they’re good at it.  It’s their system and it’s the way it is.

Took a Tai chi lesson today with the group.  Yesterday I had my first full-fledged Hulu lesson (the gourd and bamboo instrument).  Before that we had a Canadian guy living in Kunming come in and talk to us about Chinese trade and the current status of the economy here.  It’s incredibly interesting stuff.  Some of you may have heard about the sudden ten percent drop in the Shanghai stock market a few weeks ago, and how it caused major problems around the world.  The interesting thing is that here in China it barely made the news.  There are two reasons for this, one speculative and one considered by most to be true.  The first being that it was bad news, and bad news is rather hard to come by in China, especially if it reflects badly on the government.  The second, and more widely excepted theory, is that people in China, as a whole, are far less economically attached to the stock market the way people are in the US.  I think I heard some where that 70 percent (give or take) of the population here is still considered rural.  Now rural in the US could mean living in say Shrewsbury, Vermont, where we have high speed internet, maintained roads, and cars that get us to the supermarket in 15 minutes.  Rural in China means outhouses, cold running water if you’re lucky, and growing most of your own food.  Not only do most Chinese not have money in the stock market, most people don’t have a bankcard, even in the city.  This place is supposed to be the fastest growing economy in the world!  I can look out of my window and see donkeys pulling a cart full vegetables!  If you go to Shanghai, they have some of the world’s most technologically advanced high speed trains.  It’s exactly the kind of environment you would expect in a country that holds a quarter of the world’s population (think about that, a quarter of the world’s people in one country) and thus plays an extremely important role in the world of today, but yet for so many years was held back, cut off from the rest of the world, not only by the communists but also by the Qing dynasty that collapsed in the early 1900s.  China stopped moving forward in any way shape or form for three hundred years, longer than the entire lifespan of the United States.  They missed out on the entire span of history in which colonialism made Britain into the world’s superpower, despite the fact that 90 years before Columbus sailed to America, a commander in China named Zhe Heng had a fleet of (a fleet) of ships that was probably three times the size of the Santa Maria.  Weird.

Waigoren on a bus
    I take the number ten bus to and from the Where There Be Dragons program house on weekdays.  I usually have to wait for a long time and then all of a sudden three number ten’s pull up in a row, and all three are overflowing with passengers.  I step down onto the street with six or seven other prospective passengers, let everyone else fight for first in line and follow the last passenger, dropping one yuan into the change slot and step up on the first step, basically cuddling with the ass of a Chinese woman or man who takes a furtive glance at me and looks away.  It’s a half an hour ride, and by the end I have to somehow make it to the back of the bus, trying not to gain too much more attention then I already receive with my curly hair, blue plaid shorts, freckles, and stubble.  But it’s impossible because every movement is studied, every shuffle noted, every accessory noticed.  I feel like there should be one of those scientific studies that every one knows about no knows who did it, that says that whenever you hear two people talk in another language, you assume they are talking about you.  This is especially true on a place like a bus, where you are forced to become intimate with strangers, reaching behind their heads for the handle on the ceiling, your forearm occasionally brushing their hair when you go over a bump.  You start thinking about the last time you put on deoderant and to what extent have you been sweating since then, whether or not that extra la jiao in your noodles is going to send invisible but oh so tangible signals to the other passengers, what will happen if you, God forbid, sneeze.  These are worries on any bus, but in China, a waigoren feels as though he or she is under constant scrutinization, even in a city like Kunming that has a rather sizeable infestion of foreigners, a waigoren problem.  Perhaps in a city like Kunming it can sometimes be worse because there are so many and the locals have come to expect them to act in a certain way.  Sometimes you may be able to see a certain expression in the eyes of a local that says, huh, another one.

    Once the busdriver slammed the breaks to avoid an old guy on a bicycle and I felt gravity suddenly betray me, yanking me forward and down.  My sweaty hands nearly lost grip on the stainless steel bar above my head and all I could think was Oh my God this is going to be bad.  I am going to hit the floor and knock the purse out of the hand of someone nice Chinese woman and no one will laugh but tonight everyone on the bus will tell their whole family about how the clumsy waigoren can’t handle riding the bus.  This is going to be bad.  It wasn’t until I regained my balance and heard a man yelling at the bus driver and the bus driver laying on his horn that I realized that I wasn’t the only one on the bus who felt the lurch.  Huh.  Nothing happened.  But everyone around me shot the glance in my direction and turned away.  I couldn’t help but think that they were still going to talk about me at dinner.

    The worst is young Chinese couples sitting together in one seat on a nearly empty bus.  Flirting is easiest when you have someone to make fun of.  


    I had dinner with one of my leaders the other night, Wu Jian.  Her English name is Jen.  We went to a hot pot restaurant, her favorite, at least for that day.  Other days she will say her favorite is a spicy bowl of rice noodles, or a plate of snails, or duck feet, or chicken feet, or maybe just a skewer of tofu, you get the point.  She is 25, half miao zi, an ethnic minority in China.  She stands at just barely five foot, but don’t mention her height to her.  She almost always wears a smile, except when she hasn’t eaten in a while.  She looks like she could be from America.  She dresses in hip, earthy clothing, carries a Diesel shoulder bag, and has a stud in the shape of a tiny flower on her left nostril.  When people describe her, they usually just smile and gesture with her hands fervently.  “She just…she’s a lot of fun.  Wait until you meet her just wait until you meet her.”  I had heard her story, the cliff-noted version, a few times over, both from her and the other leaders.  It sounded remarkable to begin with so it had never really occurred to me that there was so much more.

    The restaurant was crowded of course, the floors dirty, cigarette ash dropping on your shoes as you squeezed through the chairs, the open side on the street had panhandlers trying to sell napkins and cigarettes to the people in the restaurant.  It was nothing for Jen.  She shouted at the waitresses, announced our arrival to the whole restaurant, pointed to an open table when they said they didn’t have room, grabbed my hand and pulled me through the crowd to a table situated right against the railing.  She ordered chicken hot pot, with tofu, chicken blood, and “You know Papai?  Papai  he eat the vegetable and he get strong you know?”  She flexed.  “Spinach.”  “Yeah I ordered that!”  Some times I don’t think of Jen as a leader, as opposed to a friend who happens to know a lot more about where I am and how to live here.  Working with a bunch of spoiled American kids is as much of a learning experience for her as traveling through poverty stricken villages is for us.

    I don’t really know how it started, but we started talking about the differences in our cultures, especially the economics.  She asked me about my home, my family, my friends, the other students on the trip, my money.  “Are you rich?  Is your family rich?  Are you a rich person?”  How do I explain?  It is true that in China salary is not such a hush-hush issue.  You may ask these questions freely and receive an accurate answer.  The fact is though that I didn’t even know my parents’ salary over the years, my own parents.  But even if I had given her a number she would have registered it as a positive, yeah, he’s rich, no matter what cushy disclaimer I put around it to protect myself from the inevitable.  I am rich.

    I took a deep breath.  “Well yes I suppose I am.  I live a comfortable life, more comfortable than a lot of kids in America even.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean that my family has a lot of money.”  She nodded and I could tell that she was thinking about tuition for Dragons, thinking about my computer and my brand new backpack.  “You see my family puts certain things, like education for instance, as a priority.”  I thought about my iPod, my digital camera, the ’95 Camry, the little conveniences I had.  “My parents both are really capable people, and they could have gotten jobs that made them a lot more money, but they chose jobs that were fulfilling.  And my house, it’s a beautiful house.”  She had seen the picture that I so proudly displayed to the group.  “But you see my dad inherited it.  He got it from his mom who bought it really cheap.”  I had explained this so many times to my friends in the states, and it was true, the big old farm was a blessing, something my family could have never afforded.   I definitely am not as wealthy as the other kids on this trip though, especially right now, what with my parents divorce and all.  Like I don’t know after my parent’s divorce money has been a pretty fucked up issue.” Jen’s expression didn’t change.  Every now and then she dropped in a “Really?”  or an “Oh I see.”  I wanted to get to the end of this as soon as possible.  I asked her about her family.  I knew that her mother had passed away but I didn’t quite understand the circumstances.  “Jen, if you don’t mind me asking, what happened to your mother?”
“She passed away.  Cancer.  Yeah it was cancer.  Well we don’t know if it was cancer.  We don’t know what it was.  Basically it was her lungs were shot.  It was in her lungs.  You see I remember my mother eating all the dirty food with all the mud in it because she gave the good food to me and my twin sister.  So we don’t know we think it was cancer.”

    She was 12 when it happened.  She and her sister were the only children in the family born after 1979 when the one child policy was enacted in China.  They were number 13 and 14 to be born.  Now there are only six of them that are still alive. Jen said that their parents had thought about an abortion, but in the end decided to keep the child, boy or girl.  They got two girls, the worst of luck in a society that heavily favors males.  That didn’t mean that there was a lack of love for Jen and her sister. The one child policy in China destroyed the lives of Jen’s family.  They were taxed heavily, not given extra food tickets for the young girls.  Jen’s father lost his job just before he was going to be promoted.  Jen’s mother went to the mountains to grow food for the family but her crops were cut down.  There’s more and more.  The girls couldn’t go to school.  They went to one school and the head master asked them to touch their left ears with their right arms, reaching over the head.  When they couldn’t do it, they were denied acceptance.  They tried for another school.
“I still remember the woman.  I was six.  She was a fucking bitch.  She was just yelling at my mother.  Take them home and give them a shower, give them a bath!  So my mother took me and my twin sister home and she gave us a bath and she was just crying because of the way people treated us.  The third school we went to we got in for primary school because my father was a security guard at the train station and he was you know very humble and very nice and I think someone helped him out, because of the guanxi, you know the connection.  I couldn’t never go to kindergarten though.  No I couldn’t.

    After her mother died her father decided that he had enough and that his children deserved better.  The girls had never been registered, had no birth certificates, so he had fake ones printed out that said they were born in 1979 and were not Miaozi, but Han, the dominant ethnic group in China.  The girls attended school but before long were forced to drop out and make their own money.  “Do you know stinky tofu?  Stinky tofu that they sell on the street?”  I knew it all to well.  The stench from one of these stands pollutes entire city blocks.  One girl in our group says the smell makes her physically sick.  “I sold stinky tofu on the street.  And then I got a better job cleaning the bathroom in the bus station.  The best job I had though was in a VCD and video tape shop.  I made 150 quai a month.”  About twenty dollars.
    There was a girl who came into the shop frequently, was not a friend of Jen’s, in fact to this day Jen resents her.  She began talking about a foreign teacher at her school, a woman in the Peace Corps who had golden hair and blue eyes.  Fifteen-year-old Jen begged the girl to bring her to the school.  The girl laughed and pointed out Jen’s shabby clothing and dirty hands.  Jen persisted and finally the girl agreed to meet Jen the next day and bring her to meet the woman.  When they arrived the people there laughed at Jen in the same way the girl in the VCD shop had the day before.  But the foreign woman approached Jen with a sympathetic tone.  She gave her an English name, which Jen has kept to this day.
“That’s when I decided to learn English by myself.  I wasn’t in school so I learned by myself and in two years I had learned middle school, high school, and college English.  The reason I wanted to learn English was not to go to another country or to get a job or anything.  I just did.  I just did because of her, that woman that I met.  She made me want to study English.”  
    Jen studied hard for two years, always along with no one around.  It wasn’t until she met a foreigner on a train after two years of studying that she was finally able to speak English with someone else.  “She thought that I was from America!  I couldn’t believe.  I did not know that I could speak English until I met her and then I found out that I could!”  

    Jen offers me a chicken head out of the pot.  “You can have it.  I like the parts that have meat on them.”  I thought about my own story, the worries that wrack my mind on a day to day basis.  They still seemed real to me because sooner or later I have to go back home and face them.  There was a certain amount of comfort though, sitting at the table with her hearing her story.  I tried to relate.  I told her the story of my own father, how when he was fifteen the idealic childhood life he was so used to was taken from with the death of his father.  How he idealized his patriarc and how he was pre-med at Brown, before being forced into the business school when all of a sudden he had a family and couldn’t go to school for ten years.  How the first marriage had gone sour and then the second.  How it was better now that my parents were apart, instead of in the house together, yelling, with me listening through the doorways.  “Did your father remarry Jen?”
“Yes he married this crazy woman.  She was crazy.”
“What do you mean?”
“She was just a crazy bitch.  She put dog shit on my pillow.  I don’t know because she didn’t like me.  And she tried to get my father to sleep with me.  She just said you won’t sleep with me so fuck your daughter!  She had her son and his friends try to kill my brother because he’s the only boy in the family and in China the oldest son is you know, control the family.  And if he is dead then she could control the family.  So she had him tried to be killed and I got a call at the middle of the night and he was in the hospital and he had bricks smashed in his face and he almost didn’t live.”
    There was a man who came into the VCD shop a lot and always saw Jen reading her English textbooks and literature.  He asked her to tutor his daughter 150 quai a week, just two hours a day of tutoring.  “I said yeah!  Why not?  I can make so much more money and I can have more time to study?  You know what happened?  She became the best student in her class and then all the other parents wanted me to teach too to their kids.”  She set up a makeshift schoolroom in the apartment where her family lived.  When the numbers became too many, she taught her twin to teach English as well.  One day she got a letter from someone at Habitat for Humanity saying that her name was mentioned as someone who could speak English and had an amazing work ethic.  Jen wrote back.  “I said that I didn’t know the job, like I didn’t know how to do it, but that I wanted to and if I can just show you how hard I work you will like me.  She said ok and I got a six month internship and then I worked there for two years and that was when I first come to Kunming.”  
    Jen worked hard at Habitat for two years, and only left after a new manager came in and treated Jen badly for not ever having a proper education.
“I went into his office one day and I said to him, that he treated me badly, and since we were both Christians I told him that he should treat people the way that he wanted to be treated.  I was so angry at him but I was very nice and I told I was going to quit and then he stood up and tried to hug me, but I backed away and didn’t let him!  And because of that I didn’t get my pay for that month!”  She laughs loudly.  I tell her that she made the right move but she insists it was bad because she never got her pay.  I wonder if she will ever know how much respect she deserves for her bold move.
    She moved to Shanghai where she worked as a translator, checking English on makeup products.  From there she got a job teaching English at a school back in Kunming, and then she began working with dragons.
    “What about your computer? Did your parents buy your computer for you?”
I blushed.  I had been enthralled with Jen’s story, barely able to think of anything else, but suddenly we were back on the money issue.  I tried again to scoot around the fact that I was a member of middle class America, which compared to China would be the Mount Everest class.  Somehow Jen made my problems seem a little less pertinent.  They were still real, after all, I had to return home to them, to face them head on.  But for the moment, I was in a hotpot restaurant, navigating my way through chicken feet in a bowl of broth, listening to someone who’s life had been so much harder than mine will ever be, and who is a constant source of enjoyment for those around her, smiling excitedly and hopping up and down when she talks about where the group will eat lunch, or screaming in ecstasy on the amusement park rides where the group had gone a few a weeks earlier, and things seemed ok with my world.  
I sit on a big blue suede sofa, with a vanilla colored cover that looks like a forest of underwater sea-sponges.  The arm wrests are covered in identical dishtowels.  The room is lit brightly by two fluorescent bulbs inn the middle of the ceiling.  The wallpaper is a dull tope with shiny flower decorations.  To my right is a family member, my Chinese host uncle, on what side of the family he is, I have no idea.  He is staring at my computer screen but I know he can’t understand what I am writing.  To my left is his wife, who sniffles constantly.  To her left is Wu Li Ping, my host mother, she is knitting a sweater for Sun Qian, my sister.  They are watching a Chinese soap opera, based in a far off time.  A woman has come to the door of an old friend, perhaps a former love interest, judging by the look on his wife’s face.  He was happy an instant ago and now that he has opened the curtain on a caravan to see another woman he is very stern.  Commercial break. Before me is a square table about a foot high with a glass top level.  On it sits the cha tai, the tea platter, a one by 3 foot tray with ocean waves and a beautifully carved dragon with its tongue sticking out bordering it.  There are small teacups, a towel, and a few terra cotta figurines that my host father pours the first batch of tea over before serving the second.  Six identical jars decorated ornately with flowers and Chinese characters hold six distinct teas.  The jars are punctuated on either side by containers of cheap Chinese instant coffee, Wu Li Ping’s.  The soap opera is back.  One woman consoles her friend who seems to be thinking about a man, or a lost daughter, or perhaps a dieing father.

On the table there is also a jade jar carved to look like a cabbage that holds various tools, tea tongs, tea knives, pens, a paintbrush.  There are apples and bananas still in the bag they brought home in, a yellow plastic bag of sunflower seeds and a dish for spitting the shells into, a tissue container with cover made of cloth made to look like a little house, tiny porcelain cartoony pigs, a pack of cigarettes with only three left (despite the fact that my father doesn’t smoke, it is expected that men at least have cigarettes in their house), and of course my father’s cell phone.  Beside the table is a mat made of giant multicolored puzzle pieces, the one’s you see in day care centers.  A man with a scar on his face is now arguing with the woman he saw in the caravan.

Behind the widescreen television sits a stuffed Winnie the Pooh.  Behind Pooh there is a light fixture that doesn’t work with two upturned lamps.  One holds a stuffed panda, and the other holds a stuffed pink koala bear.  The three and half foot tall speakers on either side of the TV serve as a podium for identical dolls with blonde hair and silver dresses.  From where I sit I can count three jade dragons and two jade lions, matching mint green of course.  In the back corner to my left there is a pot of fake flowers, next to a globe, next to a statue of a gloved hand holding a falcon.

All in all, the entire scene, everything from the soap opera to the stuffed animals, is enough to make Dolly Parton say “Oh that’s just tacky!”  But if you take a moment to observe the way they are watching the show, the way Wu Li Ping is constantly counting her stitches under her breath, the way they chat more frequently when the show is back rather than during the commercial breaks, the way they often flip to another soap, you can see that it’s really all just…whatever.  They like watching something stupid because it’s easy to watch (or not watch if they feel like it) and take it easy.  They like the big tacky colored sofas because they’re good for putting your feet up.  They like Winnie the Pooh because…well really who doesn’t like Winnie the Pooh?  Or little pink koalas and panda bears?  And jade carvings are pretty cool too.  So what if the color scheme doesn’t really work and who cares about the blinding intensity of a fluorescent bulb?  After all they do have only two lights on in a big room and they are saving a lot of electricity.  I’m not really saying that I like the Chinese sense of interior design, but I guess I have come to realize its sense of ease and practicality.  

We drove about two hours south last weekend to Tim’s beach on Fuxian Hu, the biggest lake in Yunan.  An American guy named Dan run’s a small sailing school there with boats he has built himself, because sailing is not really the recreation of choice for the Chinese and boats are not quite readily available.  He had two trimarans that could fit two people comfortably, and four people uncomfortably, with two people on the platforms reaching out to the outside pontoons.  On the way there we drove on a small dirt road where had farmers had laid bundles of wheat for the cars to drive over in order to thresh the plants for the next year’s harvest.  The beach was a small fishing depot and as we approached the recognizable stench of shore-side living welcomed us.  A few people milled around and stopped to watch us as we prepared for the trip.  There was a guard dog that showed its teeth as we walked by him, as well as a strange looking puppy and an orange cat that wrestled together.  There were wicker baskets full of the mornings harvest, tiny strips of white fish flesh.  It was a short concrete building with some of the days harvest dried on the wall, blown there by the 20 knot wind we were about to set out in.

    Despite the high winds, the boat was relatively calm because trimarans barely ever heel and we were sailing as far up wind as we could.  The only disturbance was the occasional wave that shot up over the side of the upwind pontoon, usually landing squarely on the person sitting in the front cockpit.  I was amazed to see that Fuxian Hu was relatively undeveloped.  All around me I saw wilderness.  I thought about Lake Winnipesauke where I taught sailing last summer and how we had to constantly deal with the piercing roar and jarring wake of cigarette boat that would scream past us at forty plus miles an hour.  On Fuxian Hu, there were no cigarette boats.  There weren’t even any motorboats, just a handful of yanans, long skinny fishing boats powered by two men with long oars on either side.  They would stand in the boat with their oars anchored to the gunnels, and heave their bodies into propelling the boat forward, battling the high winds and gigantic swells of a big wide-open lake.  Every so often a makeshift marker, usually just a bag of trash or a bundle of empty plastic bottles tied to a fishing net, would slip between our pontoons.  Once the boat slowed considerably and hooked downwind.  One of the fishing net markers had gotten caught in the rudder and we had to release the downhaul to free ourselves.  For the most part, that was the most exciting part of the day.  Despite the chilling winds and wet conditions, the trip was smooth as silk.

    We camped alongside a dirt road on sandy beach that was, for all intents and purposes, a dump.  I could have found a whole new wardrobe on that beach, granted that most of the clothes I saw had seen far better days.  There was an old broom, soda bottles, cylindrical coal burners that street venders use to cook with, a broken chair, dog shit, human shit, bones, barbed wire…it felt as though you might get tetanus for just breathing too deeply.  The ground was bone dry and every time a giant truck drove by, which during the day was about every fifteen minutes and during the night on the hour every hour, a giant cloud of dust would float it’s way to our tents, our food, our hair.  By the end of the trip I couldn’t even run my hand through my hair and when I finally got a hold of shampoo my hands were covered in brown gritty suds.  Despite all this, the atmosphere was pleasant.  

    The group totaled 12 persons, but since the boats were small four people had to sit out each day, so the four of us who hadn’t been sailing arrived before the sailors and pitched our tents.  Dan had three Chinese employees that proved themselves to be indispensable, collecting arm loads over fire wood when everyone else had been unsuccessful, transferring a pile of coals from one fire to another so that we could continue to grill chicken kebabs, at one point one guy realized that he had forgotten his chopsticks so he whipped out his giant knife and carved a beautiful pair of chopsticks, cylindrical and symmetrical, out of a piece of broken bamboo.  We were four students, two leaders, our Chinese language teacher and his 15-year-old son.  Dan brought a cooler stocked with veggies and marinated chicken, as well as a few chocolate bars and a bag of homemade oatmeal cookies, a real treat in the middle of China.  We grilled kebabs and eventually went to sleep, and when no one really got good night of sleep because of the trucks going by, no one complained.

    Day two we sailed to a beach down the lake where we had lunch.  From the water we aimed for a beach where there was a gazebo with a pagoda style orange roof.  As we got closer I could see other buildings all around it with matching orange pagoda roofs.  It turned out to be a failed development project, probably some sort of resort for tourists in Kunming.  The buildings were all finished looking on the outside, but we couldn’t get in because of the pad locks.  The gazebo turned out to actually be on the water, but the bridge that reached it had either fallen down and swept away right at the beach, or the beach itself had eroded away from it, leaving the beginning of it about six feet away from land.  One building had an awning where we rolled out our sleeping pads and had a siesta.  The entire wall was all doors, all hand carved doors, depicting gardens and ancient Chinese beauties.  The only people around were the children who came to go swimming and ended up watching the foreigners, and the guy who came to wash his van in the water.  The courtyard had become another dump, with more or less the same accoutrement as our campsite.  What happened here?

    The government was building a road around the entire lake, a big road, flat, and paved.  But they ran out of money, the kind of thing that happens more often than not in China, because politics, business, even schools, all operate under a system called guanxi, or personal connections.  What that means is, if you know a guy in the highway construction department of the government, chances are you are more likely to get the job to build the road, even if you’re not the most qualified.  The other thing that happens in China a lot is spec building, where someone will take out a loan, buy some land, and build something, with the expectation that it’s just going to work.  As a result there are expensive apartment buildings all around Kunming that are more or less empty, and there are things like this failed development all over the place, “ghost resorts.”  So basically when the road began to be built someone had the idea to make a nice resort on the lake.  When they ran out of money for the road, all work on the resort just stopped, and the weeds grew up through the concrete.

    After our siesta we said goodbye to Dan who left with his boats and we walked about a mile along the shore to the nearest village where we were told we could find a ride back to Kunming.  We walked on the dirt road and peasants stopped their wheat harvesting to watch us go by.  How they would do it is they would hold a bundle of wheat in their hands and shake it, releasing the seeds and dropping them into a basket as the wind carried away the access organic material.  The houses on the outside of the village were made of red brick, clay from the earth, probably not far from where the bricks now lay.  It was hot and dry and I wished they I had my sunglasses out instead of in my bag.  I could live here.

    We got a van in the little village and the locals stopped to watch us pile in with our backpacks.  Right as we got the last backpack wedged between someone’s legs, a big comfy bus with no one on it, direct to Kunming, rolled up, and our driver through his van into first and flipped a u-turn before we could decide whether or not to take the bus.  Oh well.  We traveled at about sixty and hour along the lake road, sliding on the gravel around each turn.  Every time another car went by we shut the windows to avoid the dust and then promptly reopened them so we could breath.  We passed several more ghost resorts with names like Fuxian Hotel or Hotel of the Lake.  At one point we were driving through what seemed like a fairly modern suburb development, except for the complete lack of people.  It wasn’t until about an hour away from the shores of the lake that we started to see people. Not only that, but we drove a busy market in midafternoon...IN CHINA, so our van driver had to hold down his horn basically until we got onto the highway.  Then it was just mile upon mile of government farmland, long iron skeletons wrapped in plastic.  After that more highways, bigger highways, toll booths, patches of grass where migrant workers knapped (they have no where else to sleep), buildings, bigger buildings, railroad tracks, intersections, ignored traffic lights, taxis, hordes of bicycles, street vendors, everyone blowing their horns.  I’m glad they ran out of money.
The Noises
Up until just now I never really knew how I felt about the noise in China.  Sometimes it made me irritated, walking at night when it’s almost not loud and a slight sense of peace has settled around you, only to set off the alarm on a moped and ending up with a dazedly ringing ear drum.  Sometimes it made me laugh, like the day after when I told the story.  Sometimes it was only noticeable when it was just not as loud as usual.  Sometimes I barely noticed it.  But lately I have been trying to hone in on it, listen to it slowly, try to grab on to things, a sentence, a recognizable alarm system, a pop jingle, children crying, laughing, a diesel engine, a bird in a cage in an apartment, an argument, deep fried bread crackling in oil, a man going by with a loud speaker on his bycicle, squeaky brakes, a wobbly back wheel, an old lady hocking a lugie, ringtones, spice girl ringtones, backstreet boys ringtones, the “maya hi, may who, maya haha” song, the arhu, the Hulu, a man singing into a microphone in the park, old people hollering for exorcise, Tai Chi music, millions of car horns in all shapes and sizes, chickens, fish flopping around on a wet tarp, a dog barking, a siren, an accident, everyone on the bus on cell phones, the murmuring hum of the masses.

I feel the same way about the language as I do the noise in general, up and down.  Sometimes when my tongue just can’t bend that way, and if it did this person would finally understand me, I am frustrated.  Every now and then I have a good conversation with my host parents, about what tastes good, if I ever will come back to China, if I ever will come back to this house, and I feel the utmost feeling of accomplishment.  The ease of this language hides itself well behind confusing tones and ornate characters.  In all actuality, these difficulties make the language fairly easy in many ways.  For example, the word isi is the verb to mean.  The word shenme means what.  Shenme isi is, literally, what mean, as in “What do you mean by that?”  Four out of six words in one sentence can be eliminated from the English translation, and the meaning is still clearly understood.  Even Chinese characters have a sporadic pattern to them.  For example, the character for man is the characters for strong and field smushed into one, li tien, strongfield, because man is supposed to be strong in the field.  The character for scenery is the characters for mountain and water, shan shui.  These occurrences are rare and often unhelpful in finding an actual system for learning the language, but a lot of times it just makes you go “Huh, that’s kind of cool,” and you’ll never forget how to say scenery, mountain, or water in Chinese.

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photo by: eefab