“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.

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Welcome to September, everybody!

Depending on what part of the world you live in, this means a number of different things: if you live in Johannesburg, it means that Spring is finally here. If you live in Kunming, it means you’re gearing up for the nicest couple months of the year – sunshine, clear skies, mild temperatures. If you live in Singapore, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t mean very much at all – but that’s what you get for living on the equator, homies.

And if you happen to live in a very particular place called the Northeastern United States, you’re about to get something spectacular: Autumn.

I am a person of the transitional seasons – I get depressed and fidgety after only a few cold Winter days, and cranky and sunburned after only a few hot Summer days. (So I’m really a JOY to be around 6 months of the year.) I’ll take Autumn over Spring any day, and not just because my birthday is in October.

I have been thinking recently about my affinity for this most beautiful season, not only because Kunming won’t have it, but also because the feelings that come over me at this time of year are so very specific. I want:

  • the leaves to change color
  • the faint smell of cold coming on in the air
  • days where the sunlight is (gulp) golden, and where the night comes on just a little early
  • back-to-school items, specifically: a new backpack, a new pencil case and a new 5-subject notebook

I can’t stop these sentimental images from flashing through my head – yellow school buses, patterned sweaters, warm apple cider for god’s sake. The anticipation of Halloween and Thanksgiving – the great American holidays. All too soon, Autumn is swallowed by the absolutes of Winter, but it is glorious in its brevity.

You’d think I grew up in suburban New Hampshire for how strongly I crave these things, but I didn’t – I grew up in London where there is a kind of imitation of these seasons without actually getting it right. In London, Autumn means waking up every morning to a cement-colored sky – and it doesn’t clear up until April. By Halloween the sun has set at 4pm and you begin to question if the feeling of warmth on your face was just a fantasy of your own creation.

(Side note: I remember one Halloween in London when my older sister dressed up as a piece of coal. You’ll have to ask her to explain that one. But even though we went trick-or-treating in the late afternoon, we kept losing track of her because IT WAS SO DARK that her black-on-black costume just blended into the background. BOO!)

We did have Guy Fawke’s Day, a gruesome holiday celebrated with giant bonfires on which you burn the treasonous Guy in effigy, but by its celebration on November 5th it was generally so cold that you sort of wished someone would toss you on the bonfire as well.

My point is that even though these syrupy notions of halcyon Autumn days feel like a childhood memory, they are actually not something I really experienced as a child. Fortunately, London had something more powerful than the drizzle and gloom: AMERICAN. TVSHOWS.

The impact of these shows that so classically depict the changing of the seasons in suburban America (Is it Spring? Let us picnic among the daffodils and butterflies. Is it Autumn? Let us carve pumpkins among the gently falling leaves) was apparently enough to blot out the memories of my actual life. For I am here to tell you that if you watch these programs regularly, you will begin to believe that Kevin Arnold is about to show up at your door to toss a football in the backyard and that AC Slater wants you to be his date to the Halloween dance.

Alright I think this is getting into a weird area, so I’m going to leave off here. But I’ll just say that I’m trying not to think about it too much, since it’s sort of getting me down. Last year for my birthday, RP took me on a great camping trip in the Berkshires. It looked like this:

This year I have a feeling it’s going to look more like this:

I know – boo hoo for me and my stunningly beautiful surroundings.

It’s just not the same, that’s all.

In Like a Lion

This is what it looks like in Brooklyn today:


You’ll have to forgive the graininess, but I’m not venturing out – I know you can’t tell, but it’s bucketing down with snow, blizzard-style. When I moved myself and my boyfriend RP to New York for my job, it was scenes like the above that I had in mind, climate-wise. Real East Coast seasons! (Not like in California, where we were living at the time.) Real winters with snow that I love!! (Not like London, where we lived before California.)

What I forgot was the fact that winter is a whole season, not just a nice week of snow around Christmas (or March…). This winter has been a big smack in the head for me – so reminder to Self: Jessica, you do not like winter. It is dark and freezing and oppressive and forces you to wear this hideous thing every day:


What you like, Jessica, is going away somewhere cold for a week to ooh and aah at the pretty snowy landscape, to stay inside and drink hot chocolate, and then to return to temperate climes. Duly noted.

Fortunately, this is a temporary problem; not only will this probably be the last gasp of this frigid season, but RP and I are moving to Kunming (the capital city of Yunnan province in southwest China) in a few months.

And that’s what this blog is all about.