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…

Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part II: In Which Jessica Sees Red, Toasts Granny

Xishuangbanna -> Pu’er -> Mangdongqidui -> Jinggu -> Pu’er -> Kunming

After staying the night in Xishuangbanna, we were back in the car bright and early for what I thought would be a lengthy trip to Jinggu, but one that would get us there around lunch time. And then the roads were terrible again, and then another bus broke down in front of us…and you get the picture.

Here is where I can personally attest to the fact that it is hard to spend four uninterrupted days in a car with anyone, even people you like. Somewhere on what turned out to be a day-long car ride, all of the little annoyances started to get to me. My colleague who I had previously considered just garrulous I now realized NEVER STOPS TALKING NOT EVEN FOR ONE SECOND IN A DAY. Also, I finally snapped and pointed out that candy wrappers, cigarettes, fruit peelings and tissues belong in a garbage can, not tossed out the window into THE GORGEOUS PRISTINE SCENERY, YOU FOOLS.

Most of all, I got tired of all the random chatter about minority ethnic people, a theme that underlay the whole trip.

This is a complex topic that I will not do justice here, but briefly: China officially recognizes 55 ethnic minorities (separate from the Han majority) who make up around 8% of the population on the mainland and closer to 9.5% if you include Taiwan. Part of what makes Yunnan so interesting is that it is home to 25 of those minority groups (in addition to some of the other minority groups and “sub-groups” who are not officially recognized by the government), accounting for over a third of Yunnan’s population. Some areas of Yunnan, like the one in which RP is doing research, have few if any Han people.

The whole notion of what constitutes an ethnic minority in China is both questionable and somewhat slippery, with different groups of people sometimes having been somewhat arbitrarily ethnically defined, and some choosing to redefine themselves as another ethnic minority (or as members of the Han majority) as decades and generations pass.

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

Lahu nationality woman grazing her water buffalo

It is sometimes clear that a person is a member of a particular ethnic minority group by a distinctive kind of clothing they wear or, much less often, by something in their facial features. But it is usually hard to tell if someone has, for example, simply spent their entire life as a farmer and so has darker skin, or if there is something particularly “ethnic-looking” about them. My impression is that many Han people do not know or are not friends with non-Han people, and stereotypes abound.

What do Lahu people do for a living?

They drink.”

I hear that Wa people eat rats!”

These people [grand sweeping gesture] don’t care about anything. They don’t care about money. They don’t care about life.”

And you know what – maybe the Wa do eat rats. I have no idea. The point is that my all-Han colleagues on this trip probably didn’t know either, and seemed content to spout this garbage off-hand whenever it suited them, delivering these pronouncements as mere facts to be recited, like state capitals. And, by the way, a discussion of racial struggle in America in an attempt to open up thoughts on race in China does no good – they are not considered related issues. You will always hear, particularly when you are with a bunch of Han people and even when being stared in the face by the demographic differences that race in China confers, that race is not a big deal in China. That China is unified. That the “Chinese people” feel a certain way about this or that issue. That China has 5,000 years of glorious unbroken history.

I was just winding up to punch my coworker in the face when – deus ex machina! – our car broke down.


The unfortunate aspect of our breakdown was that it meant yet another delay in our trip, but the positive aspect was that we broke down in Pu’er, a city famous for its tea. While mechanics peered at the innards of our vehicle, my mood was softened by our sales coordinator for the area, who, in addition to having a penchant for telling dirty jokes and a predilection for wearing electric blue track suits, also happens to know a lot about tea.

He took me to a tea shop with an area for sampling the teas and encouraged me to evaluate them based on the look of the leaves, the richness of color of the poured tea, and the subtleties of the various flavors. He waxed lyrical on upholding Chinese traditions and, changing gears, took the opportunity to expand upon his personal philosophy on ways in which our organization’s operational model could be improved.

I was just starting to forget the frustrations of the day when NM started calling and texting us from the car repair shop wondering WHERE WERE WE WHEN SHE HAD BEEN SITTING THERE WAITING FOR US FOR PRACTICALLY A HUNDRED YEARS?! “Don’t tell her we’ve been sitting around drinking tea,” I whispered to the sales coordinator. “We’ve been sitting here drinking tea!” he announced with a grin.

And we were off again.


We finally got to Jinggu around dinner time and, to my total confusion, just kept on going. (You may have guessed at this point that keeping me in the loop was not the favorite activity of my coworkers.) As it turns out, we drove another hour and a half to a village called Mangdongqidui (“mahng-dong-chee-dway”), the home of our sales coordinator’s wife, son and in-laws. Just to stop by for dinner, since we were, ya know, in the neighborhood.

I so wish that this had been a photo-taking opportunity, but it wasn’t. Remember the thing about visiting villages in China? Well, this wasn’t quite like that. I was explicitly invited and, as the first foreigner they had ever encountered, they were quite happy to have me. Still – you don’t go over to someone’s house and take pictures of the furniture. But if, by “rural Chinese village”, you’re thinking muddy lanes, random chickens wandering around and skinny old guys in straw hats with giant baskets of crops slung over their shoulders, then you’ve got the right idea.

I did take a couple photos of the surroundings down the road from where people live:

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Looking back from Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

Fishing in Mangdongqidui

This is the kind of place where you really need to adjust your eyes to understand the economic situation; if you were just dropped here from the big city you probably think, Wow, these are some poor people. In a village of 20 families, this “house” was home to perhaps four adults and two small children, who all slept in basically one large room with informal partitions. Their other major space was a kitchen/dining area, a three-sided room with bare concrete walls and floors. Their electricity consisted of one naked light bulb hung in the kitchen that was only turned on when it was basically pitch black outside. They didn’t have a toilet.

But if you looked more closely, it was clear that these people were relatively prosperous, particularly compared to some of the villages we had seen outside Lancang. Here they had large tracts of land on which they grew sugar cane, tobacco and corn (not exactly subsistence crops, but that’s another matter). They had a few pigs, a couple water buffalo, a small flock of chickens and ducks. I was told that the sales coordinator’s son attends school in far-off Xishuangbanna during the year – something that I’m sure requires a small chunk of cash.

And, to contradict my earlier declarations, the best meal of the whole trip wasn’t at the Dai restaurant in Menghai – it was in that bare concrete kitchen. While the rest of us were banished to the cement courtyard in front of the pig pen, the sales coordinator’s wife and her sister concocted a ridiculous feast for 10 people, which I ate with satisfaction as the daylight faded.

There was some minor toasting, but it was pretty light-hearted and I just took sips. I even toasted someone’s little old grandmother (her idea, not mine) with some kind of apple liquor. I would have asked her what it was but, sadly, almost no one there spoke Mandarin. Those who could translate into Mandarin did and, otherwise, there was just good cheer.

Fat and happy, we eventually piled back into the car for the ride back to Jinggu. All the way back I was saying little thank-yous in my head to Ma Laoshi, Liu Laoshi, Wang Laoshi – all the Chinese teachers who encouraged me to keep up my Mandarin. While being in China is mostly an exercise of kicking myself over the fact that I didn’t work harder in my Chinese classes, that I didn’t study abroad for a solid year, that I haven’t managed to achieve fluency – this was a little moment of seeing the rewards of having learned Chinese.

How else would I have access to these places without Mandarin, even though not everyone can speak it? How else could I see the way in which regular rural people live? And, more importantly: how can I come back to this kind of place? What minority language do I have to learn? What aspects of life here can I explore further? I suppose some people figure out from a distance that they have these interests – but for me it took interacting in person, ever so briefly, with some people in a southwestern Chinese village to see this may be the locus of my interest in China, rather than some office in a big city like Kunming.


As I was experiencing it, the next and final day of this trip in Jinggu seemed very significant. Interestingly, it has now faded in my mind compared with dinner in Mangdongqidui. Still, it was definitely the most challenging day of the trip, seeing as I not only needed to put my Big Washington Boss hat back on, but needed to use it to intimidate the director of the local CDC into getting his act together and selling our mosquito nets like he had said he would.

My preparation for this consisted of practicing all the ways in which I was going to speak to him ever-so-seriously about how his office had been screwing up (handily translated by NM, of course), practicing my most stern and boss-like face in the mirror, putting on my least stained pants and trying to arrange my hair into its most intimidating state in attempt to look older. (Unfortunately, my hair takes tropical climes as an excuse to channel Dale Chihuly, so – intimidating, yes, but not really in the way you’d hope.)

It’s difficult to bully someone when they use the time before your little speech is translated to pick their nose, but I think the guy was impressed by the fact that I had come “direct from Washington, DC” to see what was going wrong in his town. Plus, there seemed to be an established set of behaviors for losing face by being yelled at and then lightening the mood by taking everyone out to lunch afterwards. No hard feelings.

I don’t want to hate on poor old Jinggu, but oh man was the food vile. Nicely presented, but well – there’s only so much you can do for fried bees (yes they still have the GIANT GROSS BUG EYES when you eat them) and cow stomach simmered in what was described to me as “stomach juice”. It’s a good thing we were only toasting with wine – which, around these parts, is likely minorly alcoholic grape juice – or I might have lost the ability to keep a straight face.

We were sent off with several bottles each of local produced mango juice (the CDC director proudly informed me that Jinggu was “The Home of the Mango”) and, as a final mango juice toast, he had this to say:

Thank you for coming here from Washington to see our town and thank you for caring about the health of the local people. It is a great shame that you don’t speak Chinese. I hope that you will come again – if I succeed in our project, then you will come back and eat food like this every day! If not, then we don’t deserve another visit.

I rejoined that I was certain, then, that I would see him again.

Not Your Father’s Business Trip, Part I: In which Jessica plays boss, Black Jack

Kunming -> Xishuangbanna -> Lancang -> Menghai -> Xishuangbanna

Last week I got to go on my first business trip since starting my job in Kunming. I had been told that the purpose of this trip was to visit some of the field sites for our malaria program, in order to provide “support and supervision”. In summary: it was amazing. Unique in my life. Possibly even transformative. More on that later.

It was absolutely certain that this trip was going to involve going to areas where people did not speak Mandarin and, even when they did, that they would speak it in an accent incomprehensible to me. Of course, no one would speak English. So I was both nervous about being unable to understand anyone other than my colleague from the Kunming office, NM, and also confused about what useful role I might be able to play in the whole affair. This would all become clear soon enough.

The flight from Kunming south to Xishuangbanna (XSBN) only takes 45 minutes. What could we possibly being doing with the rest of the day, such that we had no meetings planned for the afternoon? It turns out that our first stop was to be at the CDC in Lancang, a 5- or 6-hour drive from XSBN in a 4×4 truck. On a guess, I would say that if there were real roads between XSBN and Lancang, this trip would take maybe 2 hours. Ninety minutes if my Dad were driving the car.

As it stands, the roads are awful – appallingly pocked with craters and strewn with boulders. The kind of roads that lift you out of your seat and have you clinging to your coworkers for dear life for hours at a time (which they do not appreciate). Not only are the roads bad, but you periodically have to stop because there is a random crew of people using minor explosives to excavate rock from the side of the road. Or a group of peasants felling bamboo. Or a giant bus that has collapsed in a giant ditch right in front of you, and now people are pouring out of the bus like ants and swarming around the tires trying to figure out how to get the thing moving again.

So you wait.

I should stop here and apologize: I have almost no pictures from this trip – a trip that took me through southern Yunnan’s breath-taking scenery tropical scenery – because my colleagues never wanted to stop the car so that I could take pictures, and a lot of the areas we were in otherwise were deemed “sensitive” by the CDC and I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything. But on some of our breakdown stops I got to snap a few pictures that will give you an idea of what the scenery looks like:

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

We wait for trees to be cleared from the road

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

On the road between Xishuangbanna and Lancang

All of this driving and waiting left plenty of time for me to consider my surroundings and current situation. In the truck with my three Chinese colleagues, chatting about this and that, singing along as the radio alternated between blaring operatic nationalistic ballads and tunes by, as NM put it, “The Spicy Girls”, our merry band of public health pranksters rolled along through mountains and valleys.

I can’t believe that someone is paying me to do this, I thought. I can’t believe that I managed to con someone into giving me this job. How lucky am I?


We pulled up to the Lancang CDC before dinner that evening, and suddenly my role was made clear to me, 5 minutes before we were to meet with the local CDC director. “Ok,” says NM to me, “you’re the big boss from Washington. You’re like our boss’s boss’s boss. And you don’t speak or understand Chinese. Just speak English and I’ll translate for you. Be serious and impressive.”

Let that sink in for a minute, bearing in mind that I was wearing a slightly stained t-shirt and wrinkled pants. Also, if you are reading this blog it means you’ve met me, so you know that I don’t look old enough to be anyone’s boss.

Of course the CDC Director had not been informed that I would be there, and when he found out who I was he is falling all over himself to impress me. (This is all relative, by the way – it does not mean that he stopped picking his teeth or answering his cell phone in the middle of my sentences.) This guy turned out to be a good friend to our organization and an all around nice person – in addition to being a serious character, given to making grandiose proclamations like “I am the eighth most handsome man in Lancang!” Incidentally, he would not explain who numbers 1-7 were, so don’t ask. (This was also a lot funnier in Chinese, for those of you who speak the language: “我是澜沧第八帅!”)

He hustled us all over to a Wa nationality restaurant nearby and – surprise! – announced that, before dinner, we would be playing a Chinese version of Black Jack, with mysterious rules that kept changing. Also, it was the drinking game version of Black Jack, and the drink we would be consuming was the local corn liquor that was finished being made not half an hour earlier in the kitchen.

A little note about drinking and doing business in China: this is extremely common, and is both a show of hospitality and respect to your guests, as well as being something of a open challenge to your business partners. Women can often get out of these drinking games and endless hard liquor dinner toasts by demurring from the outset, but I figured Hey! I’m the big Washington boss. I will drink with this guy.

Now don’t go getting all upset – I managed to hold my own and didn’t even embarrass myself. (Which is more than I can say for the CDC director, who ended up complementing me loudly on my “excellent figure,” and poor NM who finished the night by throwing up.)

Lest you should think you can escape without a description of what we ate for dinner, I will just say that much of the Wa food we ate was extremely tasty – fish soups, a kind of steamed corn bread, an interesting potato porridge.

And then there were the water buffalo ankles. (Ankles? I checked with NM. Like, between the leg and the foot? She nodded.)

The CDC director conveyed the bowl of ankles to me grandly, informing me that I was to eat four of them, for some unknown reason. And yes, they were crunchy and cartilage-like. And ridiculously spicy. And all I could think of for the rest of the meal was that some poor water buffalo was staggering around a rice paddy on little stubs because I ATE ITS @#$%^&* ANKLES.


The next morning we went with the CDC director to visit some of the villages where we have doctors selling mosquito nets. NM informed me that I was to ask them some questions, as the interested foreign boss. “About anything in particular?” I asked. “Whatever, just make it up.”

After thinking about it for a moment I realized that since I know so little about public health in China, this was an opportunity for me to educate myself about the health problems of this area and what kinds of challenges the village doctors face – so it was actually fantastic to be the one getting to ask the questions.

They told me about why villagers don’t use mosquito nets, about their areas’ endemic diseases, about what the differences are between the health situation in China and just over the border in Burma. (That’s why I wasn’t allowed to take pictures, by the way; this place was about 75 miles from the Burmese border and if I had been seen taking pictures the police might have hauled me in for questioning.)

In case you’re curious, the general health picture is much worse on the other side of the border. Malaria prevalence, nutrition levels, life expectancy – there’s no comparison between the stable state of China and Burma, whose infrastructure remains in a shambles.

We visited one last village before leaving and spoke with some villagers whose situation seems to have improved markedly over the past 5 years due to increased grants from the government, but who are still very poor. They grow only corn, which they harvest once a year and the stores of which must last them all through the winter, spring and summer until the next harvest. If these people need to go to the doctor for something minor like the flu, it is covered 80% by a kind of insurance from the government and they must fund the remaining 20% themselves. If it’s something more serious, well – they’re SOL. Not enough money for anything else.

After lunch at a Lahu nationality restaurant (the first of two meals at which pig brains were served) it was back on the road to XSBN, by way of Menghai to meet with the CDC over dinner there. This was a friendly and brief meal, during a sudden tropical thunderstorm, where we toasted with a grain liquor of much lower alcohol content such that all of the women drank. Plus, we ate Dai nationality food and folks, let me tell you that as far as I am concerned, the Dai are the clear winners in the cuisine contest.

Perhaps it’s not fair – I am hopelessly in love with Southeast Asian flavors. Does your dish involve sticky rice? Pineapple? Coconut milk? Peanut sauce? Something steamed in a banana leaf? You have my heart. Dai food wins on all counts.

This meal was to-Dai-for. SOMEONE STOP ME.

This meal was to-Dai-for. (SOMEONE STOP ME.)

And how else to end an exhausting day back in XSBN but with a cold treat?

Pineapple chunks over ice

Pineapple chunks over ice

Good Gsught, everyone! More coming up in Part II of the story.

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-
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-
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.”

Jessica vs Fish: Tussle in Jianshui

After you’ve had a bad week, you can do several things: a) Go home and pass out, b) Go out, drink large quantities of grain alcohol and then go home and pass out, c) Catch the first bus out of town. On Friday evening I opted for C, and next time you have a bad week I recommend you do the same. Even if it’s a bus to a random Chinese town. Even if the bus will get you there in the middle of the night. Even if you have nowhere to stay. Like I did.

Nooo! You’re probably thinking. She’s going to get stabbed and killed and murdered! Not to worry – that’s not how the story ends, because this is China. In China this story usually ends with you sipping weak tea with a weird old man with bad teeth in his auto parts shop at midnight while his daughter ambles over to her friend who works in a run-down hotel to see if there are any rooms available.

But, in this case, it just ends with me wandering around for an hour in the dark trying to find a hotel, which I eventually did. It was being staffed by two 14-year old girls (I asked) who literally dropped their jaws when I walked in the door. Possibly because no one had ever ventured into this alley and asked for a room before.

Lesson #1: It is important to occasionally wander off on your own to a strange place, without friends or family, just to remind yourself that it’s really not that hard to get by in the world.

Anyway I woke up the next morning in Jianshui, a diverting and kitschy little town with a few beautiful sites to see, including a 700-year old Confucian temple and a lovely Qing dynasty house/garden complex.

Main Gate, Confucian Academy, Jianshui

Main Gate, Confucian Academy, Jianshui

It was a good change of pace and was full of ancient buildings and gateways, and reminded me immediately of…

Lesson #2: When living abroad, remember that you are a tourist, albeit a long-term one. Because I live in Kunming, and have an apartment and a bank account and get up and go to the office every morning, it would be easy to forget that this will not be my life for all that long (in the scheme of things). This is not like living a regular life in New York City – I won’t live in China forever. This is an opportunity to go see what it’s like around here.

I spent a good chunk of a day walking around Jianshui’s old town (since the rest of Jianshui is basically an unremarkable, podunky little Chinese city), before hopping a little yellow bus out to a nearby village. I had heard that Tuanshan village was a nice place to visit, with a history of 600 years, interesting architecture and a mixture of Han and Yi people.

The reality is that the streets looked like this:

And some of the doorways looked like this:

But a lot of it looked like this:

It turns out that the place was chosen for “preservation” by the World Monuments Architectural Foundation a few years ago – oh, how the Chinese love their international ranks and designations of dubious repute! – and now you get the privilege of paying 20 yuan at the bottom of a hill to go bother a bunch of people who live in this village (857 people, if you believe the sign outside – but all I saw were a few old peasant farmers and a few children scampering around whose parents probably work in Jianshui). This village grew mainly chili peppers, corn and pomegranates (which were delicious).

It turns out that going to a village like this is like going over to someone’s house without being invited. Or, in this case, like the government inviting you to go over to someone’s house without the occupants’ permission. So you go, and there’s nothing to really see exactly, and all the people who live in the village try to ignore you, except that you brought your giant camera around your neck and your backpack and your sunglasses and your umbrella (for extra sun protection) and your big white face, so you’re kind of noticeable.

After some hemming and hawing, this guy let me take his picture:

Yi Nationality Farmer, with giant smoking aparatus

Yi nationality farmer, with giant smoking apparatus

But he seemed a little annoyed and I felt bad. Then, while I was waiting for a bus to go back to Jianshui, a bunch of tourists from Shanghai showed up, surrounded me and started taking my picture with giant lenses, paparazzi-style, while I protested weakly. I think this is called karma.

The rest of the weekend can be told in pictures over at my Picasa album (photos will have captions soon). But, for those of you who are interested in such things, I had some tasty meals in Jianshui. I heard that two things were big there – barbeque and grilled things on sticks served by Hui people. Et voila:

Barbecued squid, cold cucumber with parsley and soy sauce

Barbecued squid, cold cucumber with parsley and soy sauce

Me, content after eating squids

Me, content after eating squids

Fish on a stick, big noodles

Fish on a stick, big noodles

For some perspective, that fish was the length of my forearm. And that red stuff on top is chili. And I asked for the smallest bowl of noodles they could make. Leading me to…

Lesson #3: If you are going to be eating in China, remember that Chinese people don’t do “a little” in the kitchen. If you don’t want it spicy, don’t ask for it to be just a little spicy. If you want noodles, you’re getting noodles. No half-caf, low fat, soy egg whites here. CHINA: NO SUBSTITUTIONS.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering who won the tussle with the fish: me did.

I leave you with these dudes, an orchestra of old monks who were playing outside one of the buildings in Jianshui’s Confucian temple. Unfortunately I didn’t film the introductory singing by the guy who wanders off screen at the beginning – you’ll just have to imagine it for yourself.

Watch the video here: Orchestra of Monks Outside Jianshui’s Confucian Temple.

P.S. Apologies to those of you who preferred my previous bird banner; I had stolen it unattributed from National Geographic. This one I took myself – it’s a detail of a carved door in the Zhu Family Gardens in Jianshui.

Happy 1 Week to Me

I have been feeling sort of quiet for the past few days, hence the lack of posting.

However! Celebration is in order because I have officially finished a full week of work (6 business days, even). Hooray for me. I am beginning to settle in to things here, I think. I have yet to cook myself a proper meal at home yet (my hotplate is not very inspiring and, in Kunming, the economic arguments for eating at home don’t really hold water), but I have done all of the following normal life things:

  • Successfully bargained (with a key-copier to make a key for RP). This is kind of a dumb story, but here goes: There are these guys all over the streets of KM who sit under giant umbrellas. Their business is key-copying and bike-fixing. The key I wanted to copy is really big and heavy, and I was going around from guy to guy getting an estimate on copying this key. Finally I get to a woman who says she’ll copy the key for 7 yuan (basically, a dollar). This is outrageously expensive! She claimed that it was because the key was so large, and that smaller keys cost less to copy (even though it takes the same amount of time and effort for her…). She was not in a bargaining mood. No dice. So I move on to another guy.
    “10 yuan,” he tells me. “10 yuan?!” say I, “That lady back there will do it for 7!” BIG MISTAKE. I should have said that the lady back there would have done it for 4 yuan. Because guess what I ended up bargaining the guy down to? That’s right, 7 yuan. So I felt slightly triumphant because I had bargained with the guy, even though I could have just had the damn thing copied with no hassle from that lady. In addition to which, that lady works right across from my building entrance, and now gives me the stink eye every time I come out. Great.
  • Ordered water over the phone: Since you can’t drink the tap water in China, most people have water coolers in their apartments and use a delivery service to bring them a giant top-up of water periodically. I had never done this. The delivery guy had an accent on him like you wouldn’t believe. But hey, I’ve got water now, so I must have said something right.
  • Taken a city bus somewhere successfully: I took it to the southwest part of the city, half an hour from the center, to the Yunnan Nationalities Museum. This was a classic Chinese museum experience, featuring me as the only patron of the museum. At all. It is a museum devoted to Yunnan’s ethnic minorities, and was mostly handled in a decent way (although when a group of people is classifiable as belonging in a museum, I get extremely anxious. I’ll talk more about China’s relationship with its minority populations some other time). The best thing about it was the textiles section. These were my favorite examples of dress, a Lisu woman’s outfit (sorry for poor pic quality):

    …and an Yi woman’s outfit.

    They also had some mentions of the T’rung, the group of people on whose language RP is doing research. These two placards were it in terms of representation for the T’rung in this museum:

And apart from these things, I attended a meeting at work today in which I actually understood most of what was said, and even contributed a few things myself. YES.

Finally: the apartment is still not in good enough condition to show you here, but I will show you the view out our window – a garden/courtyard that is accessible for walking and contemplating by going on floor down. If I ever see the sun, I’ll be out there in a second.