This Day, Again

For the past few years I’ve been seeing the 10th anniversary of 9/11 coming, wondering what it would be like when it arrived. Now here it is – and doesn’t it feel terrible?

Anything that happened less than 10 years ago can seem recent, but when you hit a decade you have to admit that, somewhere in there, a new era has dawned. In the past, I’ve referred to 9/11 as the most significant single event to happen in my lifetime, and I still believe that. But it has been eclipsed by all of the terrible events that have come since, in its name, with it as an excuse. The declaration of an ideological war that has created more enemies in the Muslim world that the West ever had previously, the massive and ongoing loss of lives. The implosion of the American financial system, the Great Recession.

It does feel as though we’ve been hiding out over here in China as the West eviscerates itself – there has been a certain blissful distance in this, and some guilt as well. I never know how to mark the more ordinary anniversaries of 9/11, let alone the passage of 10 years. RP and I talked about that day again; where we were; what it has meant for New York and New Yorkers; what has happened since for New Yorkers, the country, each of us personally. I don’t feel a decade older.

How do you mark the day?


Despite all of this, you will be glad to hear that the bad spirit following us around seems to have departed. Thanks to all of you for your excellent suggestions on how to get rid of it! Now that it has gone, what’s left is the sense of being done with Kunming – so done. Beyond done. Let’s-get-on-a-plane-tomorrow done.

As an illustration: if you follow the Chinese human interest news, you may have read that China is becoming more culturally liberal, with such hallmarks of alternative youth culture as multi-day music festivals springing up around the country. RP and I have always been curious about what these music festivals might be like, wondering if these were the places where real Chinese youth culture and coolness could be seen – and, as luck would have it, the first such giant music festival in Kunming was held over the past couple days. Today we went to the last of it, all prepared to have a good time, and particularly prepared to see Cui Jian, the headlining act and most famous rock musician in Chinese history.

Well…Cui Jian was pretty good. The rest of it was sort of disastrous.

It was actually a great venue, a beautiful night, and a hilarious crowd for people-watching (old ladies bopping around – check. Wannabe Kunming hipsters – check. A healthy sampling of goofy Kunming foreigners attempting to dance with the cops – double check.)

But China just doesn’t know how to do this kind of thing. The music was mostly terrible (because no self-respecting Chinese band stays in Kunming for very long). The whole festival venue was submerged in corporate advertising of a kind I have never seen before: giant screens showing ads on a loop for Mercedes-Benz and Budweiser while the bands played in front of them, occasionally cutting off the bands’ sounds systems so that the ads could play with sound for a few minutes. The crowds stood there, mesmerized, watching the screens.

When Cui Jian finally came on at people cheered and hollered – he’s a big deal. It’s kind of like seeing Bruce Springsteen play, if America hadn’t produced another rock star since.

But the overwhelming feeling that came over me was that it’s time to go. Kunming and I are done with each other. I’m like that random guy still hanging out on the college campus a couple years after graduation – not cool.

Fortunately, my ticket is purchased – I’m on a plane to Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, to begin almost two weeks of a very happy tour guiding opportunity: my mom is coming to visit! She’s playing ambassador for my family, an emissary from Manhattan, here to check up on China and what on earth I’ve been up to for the past couple years. I’m totally thrilled.

And after that – the open road, as it were. Taiwan, Xinjiang. The great beyond.

Don’t you worry (weren’t you worried?!) – I’ll be keeping you all regularly updated with tales and photos. First up (tomorrow) pictures from our awesome trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge and Shaxi. Stay tuned.

Kunming Fake Apple Stores Shut Down

The local authorities have reported their findings from the investigation they conducted into the fake Apple stores in Kunming, and a couple pieces of information have made it into the news.

The first is that they found five fake Apple stores in Kunming, not just three. I’m actually only surprised that it’s so few – the three that RP and I found were just the ones we happened to come across while walking home from dinner.

The second piece of information is that two of the five stores have been shut down – not for intellectual property rights violations, but because they didn’t have business licenses, the bare minimum necessary for a commercial retail operation.

What this means, of course, is that three of the five stores (coincidentally, the three that I put photos of on this blog) were issued valid business licenses by authorities who were, to give them serious benefit of the doubt, asleep at the wheel – and those stores continue to operate.

What this also means, I assume, is that by putting up that blog post, my husband and I are indirectly responsible for some number of people losing their jobs as employees of those stores. How do we feel about that? Terrible.

I want to explain again: when we photographed those stores and put up that blog post, it’s not because we found it shocking someone had ripped off Apple in China. I’ve been coming to China for almost eight years, and RP has been coming here for 10 years – we’re well aware of the prevalence of shanzhai goods and stores in this country. Even the street that the main fake Apple store is on has what we assume are numerous other ripoff stores – it has two shoddy Nike stores alone, and this is supposed to be the main upscale shopping street in the city.

We photographed these stores because they were such detailed and complete ripoffs that they almost rose to the level of artistry, if you look at them in the right frame of mind. And I put it on my blog because I thought that a few people outside my normal readership of, say, six people, might find it amusing too.

We’re not shills for Apple – we’re just appreciators of absurdity. And the idea that people might lose their jobs over a blog post seemed ridiculous. We hadn’t foreseen the fact that this story would sit perfectly at the intersection of Americans’ Applemania and Sinophobia and, as one article I read put it, “blow up the internet”.

This is not to say that I have no feelings about violations of IPR in China. I hold the prevailing Western opinion that a total disregard for IPR seriously hampers innovation. Given the extent to which IPR is ignored in a city like Kunming – and, I imagine, numerous other similar Chinese cities that you’ve never heard of, each containing millions of people – if I were a Chinese businesswoman, I would open a fake Apple store tomorrow. What’s the point of coming up with your own business idea if you can just lift an existing one wholesale that you know will be successful and won’t be shut down by the authorities?

I think it is a fair criticism that social injustice is being propagated by a system in which the workers who actually produce Apple’s products in China are unable to afford to purchase them. (Not that the Chinese people complaining on this blog about the price of Apple products are factory workers – let’s get real. You’re not labor activists, you just want Apple products as much as anyone, anywhere.) Indeed, an Apple product in China is likely to be more expensive than purchasing one in the US, or even Hong Kong. The reason for that, however, is because the Chinese government slaps a massive import tax on these and other such products, making it even less likely that people will be willing to buy the real thing and support enforcing IPR laws.

Shutting down these couple Apple stores in Kunming doesn’t represent a move to enforce IPR laws in China – they were shut down in a little show-trial move on the basis of having been so shady as to not even have business licenses. But if such stores were to be shut down en masse on that basis, despite the loss of retail jobs, I admit that I would support it. I think that supporting such a move represents the hope that China could be a thrilling country of innovators on a scale that the world has never before seen – and it certainly represents a blow to the insulting insinuation that shanzhai crap is China’s major cultural contribution to the planet.

If France can enforce smoking bans in bars, China can enforce IPR laws. Agreed?

Updates in Photos

Warning, if your internet connection is slow: this post features lots of pictures, because I’m WAY behind on posting photos I’ve been hanging onto for a while…

I’m writing from a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where RP and I fled a few days ago after he emerged from behind a landslide and a particularly grueling period of fieldwork in NW Yunnan. Desperate to get out of the province during China’s National Day holiday, we hopped over the border to Vietnam. I’ll be posting stories and photos from China’s southern neighbor shortly (aren’t you curious to know what it’s like when  city is celebrating its 1,000th anniversary?!) but for now, catch up:

  • I stayed for the midwifery conference and explored Qingdao for another day before heading back to Kunming. I was particularly interested to hear Ngai Fen Cheung speak – she is a Scottish-educated Chinese midwife who has written a number of great papers about returning normal birth to China. So I followed her around for a while like a little midwifery groupie, then headed to downtown Qingdao to the museum (closed, but beautiful)…
    …and to eat some seafood, which was plentiful on the streets and complemented by a healthy helping of bugs!

    With the few hours I had before catching my plane back to Kunming, I walked around the former German colonial area and stopped by St. Michael’s Cathedral, built only in 1934, a scant 8 years before the Japanese took it over during WWII…

    Yes, I blew a lot of cash going to Qingdao for the weekend. But it was totally worth it. Click the little naked boy below for the rest of the weekend’s photos…

  • Since my own wedding, I’ve been to two more (which is a 300% increase in the number of weddings I’ve been to in my entire life). One was the charming white wedding of a friend in Massachusetts, the other was a wedding in Kunming that I think was trying to be the wedding in Massachusetts, without actually knowing it. It was the wedding of a coworker who is very interested in all things Western, and whose wedding reflected an attempt to have a Western white wedding, Kunming-style. In case you’re wondering what has made it into the Chinese version of a Western wedding, it includes the bride wearing a frothy white dress, walked down the aisle by her father…A cake-cutting during the ceremony…And the big finish of the ceremony – the bouquet toss! Caught by one of my male coworkers!There then followed a reception during which the groom serenaded the bride, clips from Pixar movies were shown, the bride and groom went up in a froth of bubbles, and the groom drank a disgusting mixture of whatever was on the dinner table, as is traditional.I would like to point out that my coworkers, upon seeing the photos from my and RP’s wedding, with all of the color/musicians/dancing in the streets, exclaimed, “Oh! It’s like a village wedding!!”For the rest of the Kunming white wedding photos, click the customary plate of candy, sunflower seeds and cigarettes below…

I think that’s enough photos. OH, but I didn’t even mention that the Mid-Autumn Festival has passed again! I actually managed to secure some nice moon cakes this year – ones that weren’t quite so disgusting! I was given them as a gift by my HR department, who offered them to me in pity, saying they were giving them to me because I am a foreigner, and it’s very sad that I was alone and not in my home country on this special day. They said it was to give me “a warm feeling”.

I told you last year that the packaging is more important than the cakes, right?

Also, because I work in public health, I got mini-moon cakes packaged with complementary condoms! So cute!

Enough! My next post will be Vietnam-related. Hope you’re having a good weekend!

This Year I’m Springing for Wellingtons

A peaceful weekend.

The rainy season is in full force here, but that didn’t stop me and RP from taking a much needed break from work and our little city to spend the weekend hanging out in the hot springs of nearby Anning – I challenge you to name a better way to relax than sitting in an overly hot pool of lime green water vaguely scented with mint. We get the stupidly cheap package that allows you to sit in the springs all day, get your feet massaged and then get a VERY vigorous scrub down in the changing rooms by a kindly woman wearing exfoliating gloves. (You will be all red, but very soft, at the end.)

A quick detour here to discuss nakedness in China (I’m sure you’re curious!): As modest as the sexes are around one another in public, when things are gender segregated in a locker room people let it all hang out. I actually find it very comforting; people stand around naked, a little towel thrown over their shoulder, laughin’ and scratchin’ (as my dad would say). No one tries to hide their bodies, and no one appears to be embarrassed, unlike similar situations in the US. (Why is it that I know how to change from street clothes to a bathing suit without baring any skin?! So unnecessary.) Take note, America: it’s really so much nicer when you’re not ashamed of your body.


The weekend was made all the better since we got to stay in a mysterious and empty hotel (hotels in China are often empty – the mysterious part was the suit of armor guarding the rickety wooden staircase lined with faux-Euro oil paintings) totally free of charge. Something about the father of one of RP’s friends having good guanxi with the hotel owner. My new motto in China is: Don’t question it, just say thank you.

On top of that, RP and I took out an entire barbecued chicken basically in one sitting, walked through the woods in the pouring rain, and zipped back to Kunming in time for a home viewing of Reds and a very rare dinner meticulously cooked on our hot plate. (Have I mentioned that we don’t have a kitchen so we never eat meals at home? Seeing me stirring a pot over here is like spotting a jackalope.)

I’m sorry I haven’t been posting very much – life has been quiet and busy. I’m working hard and RP is writing his book. In between we’re hosting visiting friends and making wedding plans, and I’m realizing that I’ve seen this season before, which means that soon I’ll have been in China for one year. More on that as the anniversary approaches.

In the mean time I’m enjoying the many new and strange sights brought on by the damp weather, like this guy, who didn’t think a lightening storm was any reason not to tote a motorcyleful of inflated balloons through the streets:

Happy Father’s Day everyone! Dad, all of these are for you:

Caution: Haiku Ahead

In honor of the end of a very long week, I have composed a spot of poetry for your enjoyment! This is inspired by a tea break that I spent staring out the window of my office while it rained today:

A Kunming rainstorm.
Is that thunder I hear? Nope.
Buildings being chai’ed.

Oh, Kunming. Happy Weekend…

Staying Married

Today is my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. In case you’re wondering what they looked like celebrating their engagement, wonder no further:

When I was a small child, I didn’t understand how I was meant to celebrate their anniversary and didn’t quite know what it had to do with me. Now that I am getting married myself, I see the fact that I didn’t understand their anniversary’s significance as really good sign: I never thought that there was any reason that they shouldn’t be married. I assumed that marriage was their normal state, as was staying married forever.

It so happens that I don’t think that simply having been married a long time is a great reason to stay married if things are truly and irredeemably terrible. I do think that to get married you have to be an optimist, and to stay married you have to be a fighter. I count myself lucky that I come from people who value fighting for their marriage over fighting in it, and who know what real commitment means.

(And in case you should think it’s only on my side: RP’s parents just celebrated their 34th anniversary! If they would like to supply me with a fresh-faced photo of themselves from the late 1970s I would be happy to post it here as well…)

So today I’m raising a glass to another 30 years for my parents, congratulating them, and wishing I could celebrate with them. Love to you, Mom and Dad!


And now for the interactive portion of the show: today I’m also taking that advice that you’ve always wanted to give but worried might make you seem overbearing and self-righteous! I’ve heard lots of advice on what it takes to stay married, ranging from “Don’t go to sleep angry” (which I totally don’t subscribe to…I believe in the healing effects of a night of sleep) to things that are not fit to print on a blog that my parents read.

Tell me, dear reader: what do you think it takes to stay married?

Mid-term Review

I have now been in China for almost seven months and I think it’s time for a review of my time here thus far.

First up: culture shock update. I’m really not sure what stage of culture shock this is. The last stage of culture shock is meant to be “The feeling that everything is fine. The stage where the visitor has adapted to the culture and in some ways is embracing it as their own.” Whereas I have an overwhelming sense of everything being fine, and I have adapted to the culture of my immediate environment, I am definitely not embracing it as my own. In fact, I am more clear than ever that Chinese culture is not my culture and that there are significant cultural gaps between me and the Chinese people who I know and interact with.

As for my experience of and interaction with Chinese culture, I find myself at something of a standstill at the moment. My opinions of the culture as represented in Kunming seem to be divided into two categories: the things I like and feel that I always will, and the things I can’t stand and feel I may never be able to accept. Among the things I really like:

  • the food (even though it makes me ill at least once a week)
  • speaking and listening to the language (by this I generally mean Mandarin, even though my skills are still lacking, and even though the Kunming dialect regularly flummoxes me)
  • my coworkers
  • the beauty of Yunnan
  • the professional opportunities I am being afforded (and the sense of wide possibility that China offers Westerners)
  • the feeling that I am involved in truly progressive work in a very conservative society

The things I can’t stand mostly relate to living in a country with an authoritarian government (the lack of freedom of information, for instance) – these things may seem abstract, but in fact they bother me every day. As I mentioned in a previous post, there are some common habits of many Chinese people that bother me, such as constant smoking in enclosed spaces, and spitting. Again, I know that seems a little nuts that these things rise to the level of bothering me so seriously, but at the moment I can’t seem to help it.

I am also deeply bothered by the seeming indifference of average people to the welfare of strangers (which may relate to a civil society in its infancy, but is disturbing nonetheless). This is really not a joke: I have several friends who have seen people die under cars in the street while passersby did nothing, or perhaps stood by to watch. Society as I experience it here is pretty dog-eat-dog; it makes me feel edgy about even the people I know and have good relationships with. I have the sense at times that if anything were to go really wrong here for me – if I became very ill, were injured or were caught in the middle of civil unrest, for instance – that I would be very much on my own if RP were not around.

In general, life at this point seems very normal – even luxurious, at times. I have a regular life here; I work, I have good friends. I go shopping and do laundry. I also eat at great restaurants for cheap and take exciting trips to other places.

I find that Kunming, as a large city in a middle-income country whose national language I can speak, is not a difficult place to be a foreigner. People do stare at my Western face and shout “Helloooo!” at me every day, but I live at the same standard as a middle class Chinese person and am not usually treated as some foreign goddess, as might be the uncomfortable case if we lived as expats in a very poor country.

I try to remember that my time here is limited – I purposely try to remember the strangeness of things, to travel to new places and have real conversations with strangers, so that I don’t normalize my experience here so much that it passes me by.

And finally: during the orientation for my fellowship last spring, we did the classic grade school exercise of writing yourself a letter that will then get mailed to you later on. I have yet to receive the letter, but I remember the goals in it that I stated. Here is a rundown of how they have gone so far:

  • Finally be comfortable speaking Chinese professionally: B+. I’ve gotten a lot better, but am still only basically competent in Chinese at work. There is much room for improvement, and far to go until being impressive
  • Initiate at least one project in my job of which I take ownership (i.e. impress my boss): A-. This is not really a problem; I’ve got more projects than I know what to do with. Work is stressful, but is basically going well for me at the moment.
  • Take interesting trips, at least one without RP: A-. I admit that this goal could have been a little more specific, but I went to Burma in October, am going to Laos in February, and India in April. I would love to do some traveling within China, but don’t have specific plans at the moment. Having not done a significant trip without RP since meeting him, I thought it would be good for my sense of my own competence to do one without him (achieved: Burma).
  • Make at least one real Chinese friend, with whom I only speak Chinese: F. I do fail on this one so far; I don’t have any real friendships with Chinese people conducted in Chinese. To be totally honest, I still value my social time as being somewhat removed from Chinese culture. I admit that it is a relief, that operating in Chinese all day at work is tiring. I hope to grow out of this stage.

In other (not particularly unexpected news), I have informed my fellowship program and my boss that I will be staying for another year beyond my initial contract, meaning through July 1, 2011. So I guess things must be going well enough, right?

The Panlong River in Kunming, looking north

Friday Love List

  • My new camera. All the photos you see on this site from now on will be taken with my amazing new camera (thank you Mom and Dad!). It will look like I have taken some kind of crash course in photography and become massively skillful. In fact, I am just as much of a photo-dolt as ever, but my new camera makes me (and everyone else) look goood.

    Handsome even without the fancy camera

  • Dongfeng Square. My office overlooks a large, open Soviet-style square. Every day of the week, any time of day, the square is alive with all manner of spontaneous activity – particularly impromptu performances of Beijing-style opera, accompanied by a minimal orchestra of an erhu and maybe some kind of small drum.Today there was another solar eclipse (what?! again?) so the neighborhood was out in full force in Dongfeng Square to witness the event, of which my new camera took very abstract photos. (The sun is actually located where the bright light is, but it was refracting the image of the eclipse off to the right. The large black areas are actually buildings.)

    After the eclipse passed, I walked around the square taking a photos of the afternoon activity. A few men, who appeared not to know one another, began a hypnotic circular dance in the middle of a large crowd after someone put on some creaky tunes:

    In another corner of the square, the fellow below was entertaining an audience of appreciative onlookers with popular classic songs:

    …until he was spontaneously joined by this dancing gentleman (to warm audience applause):

    I went back to the office for my last hour of work, full of smiles.

  • Laobaichic (that’s “lao-bye-sheek”). This is a word that I have created to describe the style in which a certain section of Chinese people dress. The etymology of this word is laobaixing, which literally means “old one hundred names”, and is the term that is used to refer to Average Chinese People.Laobaichic is a determinedly un-hip sense of fashion, eschewing Western trends, that manages to make particularly older people look killer cool. It is a hard look to describe, but immediately recognizable. Today I took the plunge and bought a padded jacket – very laobaichic.

    I’m like the coolest old lady in Kunming.

Have a great weekend! Everyone should have a delicious brunch this weekend, much like this one that RP and I consumed greedily last Sunday:

Welcome back to my blog

(It’s time to get back on the wagon here, I think we can all agree.)

At the moment I’m on a business trip in Guangxi province – the province immediately to the east of Yunnan. I am in a hotel in Nanning, the capital city, and am so far enjoying the trip principally because the hotel has a bath tub (and oh, how I miss having a bath tub). You will understand what I mean when I show you pictures of this city.

Guangxi is the province that I lived in when I first came to China six years ago, and the strangeness of being in geographic proximity to that distant period of my life, along with the fact that this is my first post of 2010, has me fending off the temptation to do a classic “highlights of the last year of my life” blog post.

I will only say that 2009, particularly the latter half, contained many of the high points of the past six years of my life, and moving to China has brought me a clarity and sense of direction that would have been hard to imagine a year ago.

I will do a proper midterm review of my time here thus far in the near future, but for the moment here is an overview in pictures of the whirlwind route I have travelled in the past month:

1) Kunming

Kids in our neighborhood

2) Bingzhongluo

Khanike in the Himalayas

3) Kunming

Woman selling bird in the Bird and Flower Market

4) New York City…Ok I’ve got no pictures for this. It was a blur of wedding location hunting and rabbis. The only thing I can remember clearly is the delicious breakfast served up by future in-laws M & S. Yum.

5) Mattituck

Sister G on her snow hippo

6) Kunming

Christmas a la Kunming (I guess "reindeer" doesn't really translate)

7) Dali

Dali's Old Town courtesy of klinsii (it was a joyful New Year of no photo-taking for me)

8 ) Kunming

Public health propaganda

9) and finally…Nanning!

What does a world class city need but haze and overly rapid construction?

I’ll be going to an other city in Guangxi – Ningming – tomorrow. Apparently the two-hour ride is beautiful — reminiscent of the Guangxi town I used to live in, surrounded by karst peaks. Here’s hoping.