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.

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"

“Spring City, My Ass…”

This past week we had a college friend visit us from the States. You had to feel bad for the poor guy – he thought he was coming to The Spring City (as Kunming has managed to market itself), and instead it dropped to freezing temperatures and even SNOWED, for crying out loud.

Snow outside our window

While the temptation was strong to stay bundled in our apartment and drink all afternoon (for warming purposes, of course!), on Saturday we braved the cold with no winter coats and walked up Xishan – the Western Hills – one of Kunming’s beauties and the place that RP proposed, incidentally.

 

View from the side of Xishan - the Western Hills

Xishan is dotted with temples for thousands of feet up, and is full of little treasures left over from a time when monks went there to pray and meditate. One enterprising holy-man carved winding tunnel in the mountain – and it only took him 14 years!

It was great to get out and be really active in the cold, but man – what a difference a couple months makes. For comparison, below is a photo of me and RP, taken by a friendly Chinese soldier-in-training, just after we got engaged:

Here is the same location not even two months later, with me wearing everything warm I own, namely: a long-sleeved shirt, two sweaters, a jacket, a fleece and a windbreaker:

Nevertheless, if there had been a Friday Love List last week (sorry about that…) Xishan would have been on it. Having a beautiful mountain to climb only a bus ride away from your apartment is a great thing.

Autumn, I Hardly Knew Ye

Today I made a very scientific discovery about Kunming people: not a single one owns a hat. Except one old guy wearing a Houston Rockets baseball cap. The reason I know this is because it has very suddenly dropped to freezing temperatures in Kunming – something that I was not entirely prepared for – so I got to see a display of how Kunming people deal with this while scurrying between my office and my apartment.

(My theory is that this hatlessness relates to Kunming people’s vanity over their hairstyles – which are, in fairness, elaborate. In a sea of extravagantly teased bouffants and bird’s nest-like explosions, I am a ruddy-haired anomaly. But at least I know how to keep my ears warm.)

To give you some perspective, cold in China is not like cold in America, because there is no central heating. You may not appreciate the role that central heating plays in your life, but I will put it to you this way: I know several burly and macho Canadians who boasted about their ability to survive in their underpants in the frozen Yukon, only to be reduced to tears by a single winter in Shanghai. And Shanghai is hot.

So now all of my plans for making it back to America without buying a winter coat are now shot, as are the fuses in my office ever since we tried to plug in two space heaters at once so as to avoid frostbite.

The reason this cold snap is doubly cruel is because I was just getting ready to write a post about how I finally found Autumn! I got my dose of fall colors by going to Kunming’s Botanical Garden in the far north of the city over the weekend. So let us now bask in the warmth and glory of only a few days ago, as we sit and shiver in our fleecy blankets!

Act I: The Botanical Garden has a great walkway lined with trees that gloriously change colors before dropping their leaves. On the left-hand side of this photo you can see some of the giant camera gear that people hauled out to take photos of the leaves, leading me to the following further realization about US-China differences: Americans act like tourists only when they leave home for somewhere new; Chinese people act like tourists EVERYWHERE THEY GO.

Act II: In addition to photo-taking, there are lots of other pastimes to enjoy in a park if you live in Kunming, namely: putting on your frothy wedding dress and taking dramatic photos among the trees (sadly I do not have a photo of the woman who lay tragically among her swirling skirts on the ground, in the manner of the Lady of Shallot); and dragging your shiny new tent out to a crowded clearing and camping out until the park closes. Chinese people have a new-found fascination with outdoorsy-ness, and appear to express it by buying a lot of random neon exercise clothing and expensive woodsy gear.

Believe it or not, this is also part of a wedding shoot. A new engagement tradition in China is a day-long series of photos of you and your spouse-to-be dressed in absurd outfits, kept for future reminiscing and humiliation. But, you know, no judgment.

Act III: In keeping with my theory that children are the same everywhere in the world, the younger set may occupy themselves with the age-old activity of slaying the bad guy.

Goodbye, Autumn! Goodbye, feeling in my extremities! See you next year.

Friday Love List

So I’m late again – so sue me, I’ve had an exciting weekend. Anyway. The Love List:

  • Kunming by night. During the day, Kunming is a far-above-average Chinese city: the crowds are not too bad, the weather is mild, the food is good, you can see mountains in the distance. On the other hand, the traffic is awful, a lot of the architecture is grungy and there are a lot of people noisily spitting at your feet. But at night all the ratty old buildings (which would be any building more than five years old) fade into the darkness, you have the streets to yourself, the air is mild. My favorite time to talk home around Cuihu park is midnight – Kunming is suspended in a quiet dark that calms and heals the stresses of the day.
  • Moon cakes. Ok this is kind of a lie – moon cakes are actually extremely disgusting. A moon cake is the traditional snack given as a gift and eaten to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in China, coming up this year in the first week of October. A moon cake is a pastry with any number of flavored fillings – red bean, fruit, nuts, meat, etc. It is about the size of a very thick hockey puck and approximately twice as dense. On the more expensive varieties, the top of the pastry is quite beautiful and intricately decorated, but there also exist ones that you spend about 50 cents on. The cheap-o ones with the traditional Yunnan ham filling look like this (purchased from a convenience store across from my apartment):
    Blech.

    Blech.

    But the point is that even the expensive and tasty-looking ones are gross – not to be harsh or anything, but all the flavors are appalling, you will chew them until your jaw hurts, and they sit in your stomach for a week afterwards. It is an error to get drawn in to trying to eat them, which all of your Chinese friends and colleagues will make you do, because it is tradition.

    But I’ve gotten away from why this is on the Love List instead of the God Awful Disgusting list: the Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the two most important holidays in China (the other being the lunar new year in February). The government has made it a week-long holiday, and in the period leading up to Mid-Autumn Festival moon cakes are sold everywhere, on every corner. New shops and markets spring up just to sell these things. They come in a million flavors and are packaged in elaborate boxes and gift baskets. (The way they are presented is MUCH more important than how they taste when you give them as gifts.) Everyone buys moon cakes for one another and you see people staggering around the streets with towering piles of moon cakes in preparation for going back to their hometowns to present them to their families.

    It’s a great gift to be able to witness other people’s holidays and traditions knowing that you are an outsider; it allows you to really observe with no preconceived notions and none of the pressures of your own holiday seasons. Plus you get to take lots of pictures and when shopkeepers protest that you are just taking photos and not buying anything you can say “But we don’t have moon cakes in my country!”

Oh yes and in other news, why my weekend was so exciting: RP proposed. From a cable car sailing over Dianchi Lake (Yunnan’s largest lake) up to the top of Kunming’s Western Hills at over 8,000 feet. When we came back down in the cable car I managed to pull myself together enough to take a picture out the window – it looked like this (the windows were tinted slightly blue):

AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING

AMAZING AMAZING AMAZING

GUYS I’M GETTING MARRIED!!

Tardy Friday Love List

Sigh – another Friday Love List on a Sunday! Sorry, I’m a little behind this week. To make up for it I posted a whole bunch of new pictures on my Picasa album. And now to the list:

  • My fellowship*. As you all know, the reason that I have my current job is because I applied for a fellowship that eventually got me access to working at this organization. I’ve never been moved to contribute financially to any of the institutions that I have been a part of, but I realized yesterday that when I’m done with this year or two I will write them a little check to help other people have the kind of opportunities that I’m being offered here. The shot I’ve been given through this fellowship is probably in the process of changing the whole direction of my life.
  • Jin Dian. Today RP and I went to Jin Dian (the “Golden Palace”) which is a temple at the northern tip of Kunming’s lush and enormous Expo Gardens. It was a perfect Kunming day, and I was thoroughly impressed by Jin Dian’s range of towering tree and shady spots for relaxing. I will admit to having a serious moment of schadenfreude thinking of how they must be suffering through the sweltering August weather in Beijing and Shanghai, while here we were strolling through flowers with the breeze on our faces.

  • Har gao. There is a Cantonese-style neighborhood restaurant around the corner from our apartment, the nearest place to get decent dim sum. I swear, har gao must be laced with crack or something because I could eat a pile of these things any time – first thing in the morning, middle of the night, after just having consumed a giant meal of something else, etc. YUMMO.
(Image courtesy of lemonchicken)

(Image courtesy of lemonchicken)

Hope everyone has a good Sunday! If you’re in a place that serves brunch, please do it up properly in my honor. I miss smoked salmon like it’s my business. But hey, I’ve got camels over here, so we’re about even.

Rando camel outside Jin Dian

Rando camel outside Jin Dian

*I know, it’s silly to keep up the pretense. Eventually I’ll give up this thin veil of anonymity.

Words fail me…in Chinese

This was going to be a Friday Love List post, but it turned out to be a list of only one love: language fluency. For me – sadly and of course – this means only English. This is enough of a big deal in my life right now that it gets its own post. Love List of charming trivialities to follow.

***

Today I went out to lunch with an extended group of coworkers – that is, not only people who work in my office, but staff members who work in our drop in center for drug users. These other staff members – unlike my office buddies who are from all over China and can speak Mandarin – can all understand standard Mandarin, but they don’t like to speak it, feeling more comfortable in their own dialect (generally, the Kunming dialect).

I can barely understand anything that’s being said when people speak the Kunming dialect, although I now know a handful of words and little retorts that are specific to this dialect. (These amount to knowing how to say “to go shopping”, “potato”, “mushroom”, “really?”, the Kunming version of an interjection that has no translation in English, and a general term for addressing people you don’t know. Not very useful so far.)

It was halfway through lunch when one of my office buddies leaned over and asked me if I understood what was being discussed at the table. When I said that all I understood was that people were talking about a very fat person and the particular qualities of his fatness (I’ll save Chinese feelings on fatness for another time), she whispered: “Only some of them are speaking Kunming dialect – the others are speaking Honghe dialect.”

SIGH. Honghe is an area south of Kunming that has it’s own dialect – apparently intelligible to Kunming people, but a total mystery to me. It’s kind of discouraging. I was just starting to get the hang of having to speak Mandarin regularly, but I can see what a circumscribed little world it is if you want to have a richer life around here.

Even having to speak Mandarin all day is like being forced to walk on crutches – going out with English-speaking friends after work or on the weekends is like throwing off the crutches and going dancing. I relish complex conversations in English. I engage in verbal pugilism. I purposely select the more obscure term for something when I have the choice. I speak more quickly than normal and hack off the final consonants of words just because I know I can get away with it and still be understood. I’m punny, for god’s sake. Be glad you don’t have to have dinner with me these days.

Now, all of this is not to say that I have any big plans for learning another Chinese dialect; I think it’s probably still more important for me to get my Mandarin in order. How else am I meant to deal with the situation I faced yesterday at lunch when a colleague asked me why the Germans hated the Jews in WWII, and wanted to know if Jews consider themselves to be a shao shu minzu (the Mandarin term for the concept of Chinese ethnic minorities)? I will admit that it was difficult to get through this in Mandarin or rather, that I got through it giving a much less complex answer than I am capable of in English. My curious colleague seemed satisfied with my response, but I was left feeling like my explanation had been so simplistic as to be almost meaningless.

So. English fluency: I love you. You are my constant and faithful companion.

And what else is there to say really, but:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-
ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-
nuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later
on life down through all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the
offwall entailed at such short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan,
erse solid man, that the humptyhillhead of humself prumptly sends
an unquiring one well to the west in quest of his tumptytumtoes:
and their upturnpikepointandplace is at the knock out in the park
where oranges have been laid to rust upon the green since dev-
linsfirst loved livvy.”

Eclipse!

In case you hadn’t heard, there was a solar eclipse today (the longest that will occur in the entire 21st century!) that was viewable across parts of (mostly) India and China. In Kunming, there was never totality, but the sun was about 80% eclipsed just past 9am here. I stood on a bank of the Panlong River and watched.

The universe is amazing

The universe is amazing

You really need to go look at my photos in full screen to get the full effect. They’re all uploaded to my Picasa account here.

By way of explanation of some of them: it seems that many people in Kunming don’t carry around sunglasses, or even own them at all. So people were looking through every manner of shaded thing trying to  look at the eclipse: tinted bits of glass, strips of camera film and – most popularly – x-ray films. I don’t know if everyone raided a clinic this morning or if people just keep these around, but it was a hilarious sight.

Whatcha lookin at, doc?

Diagnosis: Solar Eclipse

Diagnosis: Solar Eclipse

Friday Love List

There are a lot of things about living in China that annoy me in a minor way, or that bother me in a serious way. But I don’t really feel like focusing on them here (although one of them explains why my posting has been kind of infrequent recently: the fact that WordPress is censored makes it either difficult or impossible for me to post sometimes). So here is a brief list of things that I really like today:

  • MY BIG SISTER IT’S HER BIRTHDAY TODAY HAPPY BIRTHDAY M I LOVE YOU!!!!

Not nearly as good as my big sister, but still noteworthy are:

  • Cuihu (“TSWAY-hoo”): the big lake in the center of Kunming. I frequently go walking around it; it’s full of huge lily pads and always has interesting street life being played out nearby.
  • Baozi: steamed stuffed dumplings. These can be filled with a sweet paste or with various savory things. The one in the picture below is filled with mushrooms. I could eat these things all. day. long.
Mushroom baozi

Mushroom baozi

CHOMP

CHOMP

  • Kunming traffic controllers: True, they are 100% ineffective. But they take their jobs super-seriously, and this one guy is always shouting at people in a heavy Kunming accent to “KWAY ZO! KWAY ZO!” (Hurry up!!). They are totally humorless, which I find humorful.
Lady in red sash = traffic controller

Lady in red sash = traffic controller

  • My new bed fluff: Chinese beds are HARD. It’s like sleeping on a box spring. So you have to buy lots of fluffy stuff to put on top of them, and I think I recently achieved a decent amount of fluff given the amount of money I’m willing to spend on this ridiculousness. I finally woke up yesterday without my back aching.

Ok I think that’s it for now. I know it’s a short list, but I’m a little grumpy today. 🙂

Here are some additional photos of the view out my office window (so you can see what “downtown” Kunming looks like from above), and the minor charm of my neighborhood, the Panlong River. (In real life it is black and sludgy and not charming, but it came out alright in the photo.)

Out my office window

Out my office window

Panlong River

Panlong River

Quake!

I had an extremely stressful day today, after which I got home, collapsed on the couch and thought, “Ok, what can I do to relax?”

Then the whole apartment started to sway back and forth.

I sat dumbstruck for a few seconds before grabbing my keys, locking the apartment door (nice one, Jessica; 安全第一!) and running down the hall. I was joined by other people thundering down the emergency stairs; while I had been freaked out before, it was seeing how scared other people were that really make me afraid.

We all hung around outside for a while and then, since no one told us what to do, eventually we all went back in. I might have gone for a walk around the city or something, but I had no jacket, was wearing plastic shower shoes and was feeling the need to collapse into a little ball.

My favorite website, USGS.gov, informs me that it was a magnitued 5.5 earthquake with the epicenter over 100 miles WNW from Kunming.

This wasn’t my first earthquake; when we lived in San Francisco we had maybe 10 seconds of shaking one night. But I have to admit: whereas my first thought in San Francisco was, “Ooh, how exciting! The kitchen is moving!” my first thought here was, “Shit. I can’t believe my last meal on this earth was those crappy fried noodles.”