Bird Flies, Bird Fails: Love List in Transit

Beijing is a cold place. A frigid, dark-at-4pm, kind of place. I can tell you this because I am currently in Beijing, holed up in an airport hotel.

What’s that? You’re wondering why I’m not currently sailing over the Arctic Circle, due to land at JFK in 7 hours? That would be because I am an idiot, and due to various things that are completely my fault, I missed my connecting flight in Beijing to NYC and am now stuck here until tomorrow.

Being that I am feeling particularly annoyed with myself about this, and due to the fact that I had completely forgotten that Beijing is a gloomy ice box (the last time I was here in the winter it was with my then new-ish boyfriend RP, and I think the love glow might have blocked out the Siberian winds) AND due to the fact that I just had the worst Chinese food in history at the hotel canteen downstairs – what better time for a tardy Friday Love List?! Ahem:

  • Air China. Ok, I know they have a bad reputation…due largely to a 2002 crash in South Korea that killed 128 people…but they were exceedingly kind to me today in a situation where I was the one who had screwed up. They got me on a plane to Beijing with about 5 minutes to spare, they had a lady with my name on a sign meet me at the other end when it became clear that I wasn’t going to make the NY flight (and she endured my hysterics with a lot of understanding, let me tell you), they rescheduled my flight for free, and shuttled me for free to a hotel for the night, WHICH IS ALSO FREE. In the morning they’ll pick me up and take me back to the airport (for FREE) so that this idiot can finally get on a plane to New York. Above and beyond, Air China! (Note: I think you may have to speak Chinese in order to get this service…they’re not so good with the English.)
  • Beijing accents. I’ve been in Kunming for almost 6 months, and have gotten used to the Southern brogue common to those parts. That is to say, I have gotten used to straining my ears and catching every 3rd or 4th word. Despite Beijing’s version of this, which is the addition of a strong “r” sound at the end of many words, northern people speak a Mandarin that puts me in mind of my classroom Chinese days. Ah, “我听得懂!”
  • The anticipation of home. I may be getting there later than expected, but I’m on my way back to NYC. (Knock wood – please finish soon, giant New York blizzard!) I am going to eat 86 pounds of smoked salmon and soak up some family time. I will be fat and happy and I CAN’T WAIT.

I may or may not post while I’m in NY, since I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be seeing oh, say, everyone who reads this blog while I’m there. But I may.

Either way, I’ll be back before the new year – wish my luck on my way across the planet.

Quick hit: Khanike in the Himalayas

There’s nothing like arriving home at 5:45am after a 23-hour trip to make you feel like you’re ready to head to the office for a vigorous day of work. Right?

I’m back from visiting RP; an idyllic couple of days in a tiny town, perched in a lush corner of the southeastern Himalayas that is home mostly to Nu and Tibetan people – bookended by a slightly hellish couple of days getting there and back. The nights were freezing, but the days were warm and clear. He’s got the pictures, so I can’t yet show you proof that we lit Khanike candles at 11,427 feet – but we did.

So I dare you to explore the map of where I was this weekend. If you really want to give yourself a headache, check out the “Terrain” view.

And now, off to work…

Back Next Week

I’m setting off after work today for northwest Yunnan to see RP for a few days, so I won’t be posting this weekend.

I thought I would leave you with some pictures from an epic day trip that we took a couple weekends ago, to the “Stone Forest”, a geological wonder of craggy peaks about an hour and a half outside Kunming.

The secret to Stone Forest – should you ever have occasion to go there – is that there is a nicely curated, charmingly old-fashioned section of the park close to the entrance where most people stay. There you can wander among little paths and sit at stone benches and marvel at the rock formations rising around you – it’s a bit like seeing exotic animals in a zoo.

But for the real adventure you have to keep going, keep walking past the crowds of people and get yourself out of the maze: beyond there lies a vast area of open land with rocky outcrops and tangles of “karst honeycombs” to get lost in for hours – like seeing exotic animals on safari.

We were the last people out of the park as the sun was setting.

Click photo below to see more.

Friday Love/Hate List

It has been brought to my attention that what with all of my grand revelations, little exotic jaunts to here and there, and general lovey dovey-ness, life seems just swell for me over here – really just hunky dory. And isn’t it soooo fantastic to be me.

Sorry if I make you all roll your eyes sometimes with my Marveling at the World, but seriously – I could easily write a Friday Hate List. I could write a 2pm Every Single Day Hate List. For example! An item on today’s Friday Annoyance List (let’s call it that instead):

  • Coughing, Sneezing and Spitting in China. You may have noticed from some of my previous posts that I kind of have a thing about this: coughing and sneezing without covering your mouth, and spitting all over the place, is a pretty regular part of public life here in Kunming. Indoors, outdoors, in restaurants, on buses, wherever. Particular culprits in this area are men, for whatever reason. I know that a big part of my problem with this is just at a visceral level, because I (like most Westerners) was taught from a very early age that these behaviors are not only disgusting but unsanitary.

    But here’s the thing: IT IS UNSANITARY. Allow me to lay some knowledge on y’all: every year in China, 1.4 million people are newly infected with tuberculosis. Every year, a quarter of a million people in China die from TB. To put this in perspective, that’s 5 TIMES more people dying of TB in a single year in China than have died here of AIDS  – EVER. In all of history. And you know the main ways people get tuberculosis? You guessed it: coughing, sneezing and spitting.

    I know that I work in public health, and so am perhaps slightly more sensitive than most, but: THAT, China, is what’s called hitting the goddamned trifecta. GET A TISSUE, MORONS.


Sadly, the thing about a Friday Annoyance List is that it actually doesn’t make me feel better, it makes me feel angry and stressed. One of the unintended happy consequences of keeping this blog is that it gives me an excuse to mark great moments and joyful insights – they carry me through what are sometimes very long days, particularly when RP is away doing fieldwork, as he is now.

So here’s a Friday Love List bullet point to balance out the irksome issue above:

  • Power failure dividends. My office is real cold. As in, I-don’t-know-why-I-bother-wearing-different-clothes-every-day-because-I-never-take-my-coatscarfgloves-off cold. And when we try to plug in space heaters the power shorts out.

    But while we were waiting for the power to come back on earlier this week so that we could go back to work, a couple of my colleagues sat on a couch with me and taught me various tricks and games from their childhoods involving random office supplies – twirling pens around in their fingers, elaborate magic knots with defunct headphone cords, tongue twisters. It was silly and sweet and gave me a reason to laugh for a solid 45 minutes in the middle of the day.

    And I don’t know why it is, but everywhere I go in the world, women know how to play Cat’s Cradle.

Happy weekend, loyal readers! Stay warm.

Working in the Oasis

Yesterday, December 2, was World AIDS Day.

When I left my apartment at 7:30pm tonight, I thought I was going to a little celebratory activity in belated honor of the day, hosted by a local NGO that works with gay men (or, in development parlance, MSM – “men who have sex with men”). Our condom sales coordinator at the office had tossed a few hundred flavored condoms at me earlier in the day, and my boss told me to go check it out since we may be starting programs with MSM in the future.

I was tired and a little cranky and not especially looking forward to handing out business cards with one hand and banana flavored condoms with the other. I’ll go for 45 minutes max, I told myself.

Four and a half hours later, I am now back in my apartment. I should have known this wasn’t going to be the evening I anticipated when I entered the hotel at the appointed hour only to have a six-foot drag queen in a crystal-encrusted blue ball gown skitter across the lobby towards me and hustle me into an elevator, “So you don’t miss the opening number!”

What followed was three and a half packed hours of full-blown Chinese extravaganza…only hosted by all gay men. There were melodramatic modern dances ironically echoing the militaristic performances of the Cultural Revolution, classic Peking opera numbers, scores of glittering drag queens up and down the aisles of the grand auditorium decked out with banners and posters promoting HIV testing and condom use.

There were skits depicting how to make healthy choices in tough situations, a set by a rock band of gay teenagers, and a somewhat unintentionally tragic interview with a young man who had recently tested HIV positive, but was so scared to show his face – even in a room full of activists and allies – that the whole interview was conducted behind a bamboo screen.

The audience of hundreds cheered, no one judged, and presenters talked sincerely about equality among all people. Plus they gave out some raffle prizes of rice cookers and kitchen knives – because this is China, and nobody’s told them it’s not the 1950s anymore.

I sometimes forget what the work I’m involved with here is really about. My organization mostly does HIV prevention work in Kunming, and we mostly work with injecting drug users (IDUs) because until recently that was the most prevalent transmission mode of HIV in China. And I have to admit: working with IDUs, even when you’re not doing the direct work, can get a little depressing. They have as much right to be free of HIV as anybody, but addicts are sick in body and mind. They relapse often and there is as much despair as there is hope.

Tonight I remembered that what we are doing here is really about social justice, and that I am in a rare environment in what is still a very conservative society. When those men I met tonight went home, almost all of them left their “gay” identity in the auditorium, out of necessity. Almost nobody in China gets to work in a place where staff talk about marginalized people like they are human beings, where people don’t think anything of having condoms and sachets of lubricant stacked on their desks, where gay staff members are out of the closet.

I get to live in a progressive little pocket of this country where, for all of its problems, people are striving to make something good and just. And tonight was thrilling.

Not ready to go home directly after the celebration was over, a wandered for a while in Kunming’s empty back streets in the cold, clear night. I followed a yowling cat in and out of a few dark corners before heading home.

World AIDS Day 2009: "We are together with you"