Thursday, March 29, 2007

Vietnot Part 2: The Olive Plain

As I write I'm back in Kunming, having hopped a 50-minute airplane flight (as compared to the 11 hour bus ride...) with Lee the day before yesterday. We've moved into our homestays and everything seems to be getting back in gear. But that subject matter is for another time-- I still have 5.5 action-packed Xishuangbanna days to tell you all about.

My first two days in Banna were sort of "warm up" for the rest. I made friends with Zoe and Alex, as previously mentioned, discovered the traditional Dai village hidden inside Jinghong, walked Jinghong's palm-fringed streets exploring, and tried some traditional Dai food (sticky rice in a hollowed out pineapple, SO good; pork and fried banana flowers, intense but excellent.) Diana was scheduled to come meet me on the second day, so I took my time relaxing, planning, and eating breakfast, and then rented a mountain bike from the shop down the street from my hostel. They gave me a map of a good places to bike in the surrounding countryside, and I set off.

I didn't really go where I tried to-- the map was outdated and my sense of direction is famously terrible-- but the ride was great nonetheless. I discovered another Dai monastery (my Bulang friend, Alex, told me that a small period of monkhood is compulsory for all boys in Banna, kind of like the army) and headed out of town, ultimately ended up on a dirt road winding ominously down into empty rice paddies. Before I got too lost I started asking for directions, unfortunately forgetting that they don't call the Mekong River by its Vietnamese/American name in China-- they call it the Lancang. Therefore, asking where the Mekong was was no help to me. I ultimately retraced my steps, but not before enjoying some beautiful countryside views. I next stumbled into a large park on the very south tip of Jinghong, a park filled with flowering trees and more Buddhist temples. My favorite of these temples involved a Buddha whose head was flanked by a flashing neon halo. Taking pictures of Buddha is forbidden (something about pictures stealing souls or taking away hallowedness), but if I could have taken a picture of this crazy collision of tacky modernity and exotic religiousness I would have.

I ultimately tired myself out and took a rest before Diana arrived in Banna at 5 PM. I had been incorrectly informed that there was only one bus to Ganlanba (roughly translated as "Olive Plain" during the day and had thought we would have to invest in a pricey taxi ride, but we successfully purchased bus tickets and, with some difficulty (again, bus stations in China are incredibly confusing and chaotic) found our way onto the minibus (really more like a van) going to Ganlanba.

A word about public transport in China: real busses only go to the largest and most significant Chinese cities. All other public transportation is in mini-buses, essentially shortened and mini-fied, or micro-buses, glorified mini-vans. These busses often take very rural routes and peasants and farmers can stand out on the roads and hail them at any time. It's... unique.

The minibus to Ganlanba was about 45 minutes, and it followed around directly down the Mekong (Lancang) River, as both Jinghong and Ganlanba are Mekong ports. The view during the ride was breathtaking, and we barely noticed that our butts spent more time in the air than on the seat. Getting into Ganlanba, I actually turned to Diana and said, "You have got to be kidding me." The place was way more South Asia than China. Swarms of people ate at roadside stalls, traditional Dai houses lined the street, the air was warm and humid, and palm trees stood everywhere. I decided then and there that a better name for Banna is Vietnot-- It's not China, and it's not South Asia so.... I'm so clever. I know.

We found a clean hotel with bathroom for Y60 for both of us (a little skeezy, though, with rooms available by the hour, special in-room pink mood lighting, and refillable condom dispensers) and set out to explore the town. We had some more traditional Dai food at a restaurant recommended in the guide book, and relaxed. A party was going on in the restaurant, and everyone was already drunk when we got there. As expected, men from the party started coming over to chat with the foreigner and her translator (Diana was, of course, not my translator, but seeing a Chinese face everyone assumed.) We were toasted with bai jiu and asked about American life continuously. One man informed me that "Americans have no love in their heart. Oh, but you do. Everyone else though, they don't." Soon after, he decided I had no love in my heart after all, and then he informed me that Chinese people don't get fat because they drink soup, and that Americans should drink more soup. Diana and I spent an hour or so wandering around nighttime Ganlanba before we turned it. It was awash with spotlights lighting up outdoor pool, poker, and majiang tables; flickering TV sets surrounded by children from the neighborhood; and shifting shadows of palm trees blowing in the slight breeze.

The next day we got up bright and early to find breakfast at a traditional food market, after which we rented bikes and found our way to a ferry point across the Mekong (an amazing minute and a half.) The guidebook had said to go up the hill, turn left, and ride, and that is exactly what we did. From 11:00 until almost 5 we road through the countryside. We passed through many villages, banana plantations, rice fields, watermelon fields, and stopped for a lunch of peanut butter and biscuits in a stand of rubber trees with a fantastic view looking out over the plain. We went through entire villages of traditional Dai Houses, discovered resevoirs coming from tributaries of the Mekong, and saw pigs so huge gray and wrinkly that they looked like baby elephants from the back. My favorite part was the country Buddhist temple we ran across, entirely by accident. I recognized the water serpents ubiquitous in Buddhist temples in Thailand and Banna, and we automatically got off our bikes to investigate. The temple was simply built but still breathtaking, and it felt like a true treasure, a discovery, something just ours.

I was starting to get really tired, so we headed back to the ferry, but on the way we were hailed by some Dai people eating lunch in a lean-to by a watermelon field. They asked us to eat with them, serving us the freshest watermelon I will ever eat-- I watched them use a machete to hack it off the stalk and serve it to me, dripped with juice and cool inside. They also gave us rice-- which I ate, figuring it was safe-- and offered us some of their meal, wild greens and water snake from the local stream. Diana ate, I declined. I did assent to some Guo Jiu (liquor made from watermelon), the strongest liquor I've ever tasted.

Diana's meal was probably not the best idea-- she began feeling sick not long afterwards, but we still had to make the long bike ride back. We had checked out of our hotel, but on the way back we decided to check in to a room for one hour so Diana could rest and I could shower. It was a wonderful idea, well worth the Y20-- I became clean, and Diana had a place to be sick.

Next time: the Menghun market, the temple, and our own personal South Western Chinese Amazing Race.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Vietnot, Part 1: Preview

Wow. Just wow. I can't even start to talk about the past 5 days. Exhausting, wonderful, fantastic, intense. Instead of diving in, I will provide for you a checklist of this weeks gorgeousness. Then, "man man yi dian" (as they say here-- it means "slowly but surely") I will fill y'all in with recountings of my adventures.

Eating sweet rice stuffed in a pineapple and fresh coconut juice from the source: check check
Watching Diana eat wild river eel and greens with Dai villagers in a watermelon field in the countryside: check
Eating the freshest watermelon of my life with said villagers: Check
Travelling 2 hours to a country market with 4 kinds of minorities: Check
Discovering a countryside Buddhist temple 15 kilometers from anywhere: check
Climbing a small mountain to find a Gold Burmese Pagoda on top: check
Sunrise over both the Mekong River and the Chinese jungle: check check
Sunset over the Mekong River: check
Seeing wild monkeys: check
Holding a baby monkey: check
Sleeping in a treehouse in the middle of the Chinese jungle: check
Going on a wild goose chase through the most remote countryside to find a famous pagoda: check

Coming soon: Part 2, Ganlanba (and an explanation of the term 'Vietnot')

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Going Banna-nas

Take that, China's internet censoring system, I have triumphed again? Little buggers think they can up and block blogspot on me (well, the truth is they can and now Emily's, Janie's, Dan's, Annalisas's, and Cedric's blogs are inaccessible to me.) However, after some extended finagling I found a loophole in the system that allowed me to write in my blog. Score.

So, we left off at my adventure in Lunan, which seems silly to write about now since I'm in Xishuangbanna at the moment and, despite an unfortunately timed gan mao (catching of a cold) I am pretty psyched.

So, Lunan in brief so that we can get to the good stuff. At least, the beginning of the good stuff because the good stuff is also right now and I should probably get back to letting it happen.

So, the whole program went to the Stone Forest last weekend. I'd been before with my parents but this was still as amazing as I remembered. The Stone Forest (Shilin in Chinese) is this unique geological phenomenon that happened because Yunnan used to be an enormous sea. This tall rock formations, some of them hundreds of feet tall, were under that sea, but when the basin the sea was in rose during a time of a lot of earth quakes the sea disappeared but the rock formations stayed. It's truly something that you need to see to understand. I can't post pictures because blogspot is a loser, but I urge you to google it yourself.

Anyway, I read about a cool market town 10 km away from Shilin and so John, me, Mike, Tania, Diana and some other Duke kids took the early bus down, which was an adventure in itself (Chinese bus stations = pure chaos). I had a wonderful moment on the bus looking down from a mountain into a valley below and seeing two horses galloping playfully on a village path-- I wrote my next Argus column about it, and I'll post that when I'm back in Kunming. From the bus station we took a minibus (shockabsorberless box on wheels) a terrifying 8 km into the Chinese dustbowl, then wandered around town garnering stares until we reached the Sunday market, one of the most foreign feeling places I've ever been. Minority peoples from the whole area come there to do their shopping, the place was teeming with brightly dressed people in silver jewelry, bright headdresses, the works. We took a LOT of pictures.

There's more, but really, let's get to the good stuff. Our 5-day Yunnan Exploration Project is in full effect, and Lee and I caught the overnight sleeper bus to Jinghong, approximately 10 hours south of Kunming, last night at 8 PM. I'm not sure what we were expecting (My tripmate Sophie described her idea of a sleeper bus as "very Harry Potter") but that was not what we got. It was more cattle car than boy wizard. Picture a regular-sized tour bus-- now picture it with three columns of 4-foot by 2.5-foot berths and two aisles, a moving set of bunkbeds gone horribly wrong. There was a whole to-do because they thought I was too wide to be in the top birth (hearing everyone say 'ta ne me pang, ta ne me pang' ("she's too fat") didn't feel so great) but in the end I got a better berth so it wasn't a huge deal. Lee, on the other hand, seemed like he was going to have a coronary. His berth was even smaller than mine, and he's a pretty tall guy. In the end we both got comfortable enough to sleep at least a little bit. I also watched a really terrible horror movie that they showed, with hilarious English subtitles. The bus didn't have a bathroom, but we made a few stops during the night to stumble out and pee. I didn't drink much water.

We got into Jinghong, the capital of Xishuangbanna Autonomous Prefecture, at about 7:30 AM, just as the sun was coming up. Exhausted, I caught a motorcycle taxi to the road where I thought I might find a hostel I saw in the guidebook, but once I got there no one knew what I was talking about. I started walking again, feeling more tired by the minute, and incredibly conspicuous with my big suitcase and complete lack of Asian ethnicity. Just when I realized that I was looking at the wrong part of the guide book, it started to rain (wah wahhhhh.) I pulled out the poncho I brought along and started walking again, finally giving up and getting a taxi whose driver promptly cheated me out of money driving me for about 2 minutes and demanding an exorbitant Y5. I didn't care, though, I found the hostel and, with some trouble, opened the gate, found my room (it's supposed to be a dormitory but there's no one else staying there at the moment), and collapsed for 4 hours.

The hostel seems pretty wonderful. The rooms are in Dai-style bungalows, all bamboo and wood, with banana trees in the courtyard and a solar heated communal shower (I didn't bring a towel though... that might be a problem.) I'm moving on to Ganlanba tomorrow, but I'll probably come back here to stay one more night during my travels around Banna, as the locals call it.

I've done some exploring today, as well. I made friends with two kids about my age at a backpacker cafe, when I realized I hadn't eaten in 18 hours. Over an omelette and coffee (I'll try Dai food tonight) they told me about the various things to do in the area. I ended up giving them an overview of American history while showing them some American change, and gave them both English names, which they were very excited about. Aixin became Alex, Zhuang became Zoe. I'm supposed to come back and hang out with them tonight at 9.

After returning to the hostel to get my poncho (it started raining again, natch) I did some wandering in the neighborhoods around Manting Lu, a very traditional Dai village. It was enchanting. At one point I wandered into a monastery, completely on accident. The monks all bowed to me (there's a better name for that that I'm forgetting) and I got some wonderful pictures. Now: back to exploring. Hopefully this loophole will keep up, and I'll update you all soon.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Changed My Mind

I've decided that if I leave this internet cafe not having completed either of my objectives (write in my blog, download Skype) but having been online for a signficant amount of time, that just won't do. So I'm going to write at least part of the entry the internet just sucked into oblivion and I'll write the rest in the next couple days.

So. This week hasn't been that interesting, but it has been very busy, which is my excuse for not updating my blog in so long. Also, one of the internet cafes I go to regularly refuses to load blogger, which makes writing difficult. Anyway, there is a definite routine in the pipeline. Lots of work, lectures, occasional hanging out. I spend most of my time with Tania, John, and Diana (it's so wonderful to have her living down the hall from me.) This week we had our first test, on religion and history, but it was take home and our collaboration was expected, so it was nothing too strenuous. My Chinese class went from being just me to having 3 people in it, but I'm not complaining. I'm learning lots and my teachers are adorable and very sweet. This next week is only a part-week because on Wednesday we set off on our 5-day "Yunnan Exploration Projects." I'm going to Xishuangbanna, a subtropical area at the very southern tip of Yunnan, bordering on Myanmar. I'm pretty nervous, as I'm travelling alone, but it will be good practice for May when I'm alone all the time. And I'm getting excited planning the trip-- if it works out, it should include a bike ride along the Mekong River through minority villages and a stay in a treetop hostel above wild elephants (This last part will set me back some moneywise, but I'm willing to sacrifice for wild elephants.)

For our Day Out (we have one every week) we went to a Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospital. We saw doctors performing acupuncture, cupping (more on that in a minute), and massage, and got to see the enormous herb vault where they make up prescriptions (they use cicada shells! And ground up lizard skin!) I thought the most interesting part was the complete lack of privacy in the hospital-- it seemed to be the norm. There were lots of patients being treated in one room and no one batted an eye when 17 foreigners trooped in to watch them being worked on.

John, Diana, and I came back to the hospital the next day because John has a bad back and he wanted to try out acupuncture. It wasn't the best way to spend a Friday afternoon, but it was an interesting cultural experience. John had to jump through a bunch of hoops, going from floor to floor to different offices, before he could get treated. The doctor then interviewed him for awhile and determined which part of his qi (body energy balance) was out of whack. He then applied about 7 or 8 tiny acupuncture needles to John's lower back and the back of his knee, attached some herbs to the needles and lit them on fire (a la incense), and left him there for awhile. Diana and I entertained him with funny stories. After awhile, they took the needles out and did some cupping-- a practice wherein the doctor lights the air inside some glass cups on fire, sucking out all the oxygen, and then applies the cups to the skin, creating a vacuum seal. This part was very entertaining, because whenever Diana or I said something funny, John would laugh, his back would jiggle up and down, and the cups would clink together, making us all laugh more.

After the hospital trip, Tania and I wandered around Old Kunming, an area that has escaped the rapid modernization of most of the city and looks very traditional. We made friends with an artisan while he made Tania a homemade seal for her boyfriend's birthday present, looked at lots of stalls and a street market. At one point we stumbled on a street full of people selling tiny kittens and puppies in cages. In a way it was very depressing, but personally when I'm faced with a cardboard box full of 7 squirming, cuddly, mewling puppies small enough to hold with one hand I can only think about the enormous amount of cute.

The other exciting thing about this week was our trip to the Stone Forest and our previous trip to the Saturday market in Lunan. That will have to wait until next entry, but stay tuned for stories of beautiful minority costumes, the colorful chaos of market day, the rickety-est pedicab ever, new Thai friends, anoxia (altitude sickness), and incredible geological phenomena.

Damn you, internet

I just wrote a really long entry and lost it.


I promise an entry soon, but I don't know if I can do that again today. Gah.


Monday, March 12, 2007


Will wonders never cease? It's only 8:21 and I'm almost done with my homework. We didn't have class or an activity until 6 PM, requiring a rushed dinner followed by desperate homework completion, character memorizing, and a late bedtime. Today, we were supposed to have a lecture from an Assistant Professor who teaches here at Yunnan Normal University (they call it "Shi Da" for short) he got about 20 minutes into his prepared two-hour power point presentation, but Lu Laoshi kept asking him to hurry up a little bit or skip over parts we had already learned. Then all of a sudden he lost his temper; yelled, in a torrent of Chinese, that he didn't feel like talking, we could do it ourselves, and he wasn't happy; and walked out, slamming the door behind him. This is a very un-Chinese display of temper, and we all didn't really know what to say. But it meant that once we watched the half-hour movie afterwards (a cool trippy/artsy memoir-documentary by a Beijing artist who was at the Tiananmen Square massacres) we were free to go and it wasn't even dinner time!

I don't mean to sound bitter, I'm learning a huge amount here, even if it can get exhausting. As mentioned in a previous entry, we have Chinese lessons from 8-12 every morning with a half hour break for Taiji (you probably know it pronounced as "tie chee".) After a lunch break we have a lecture on some topic or we go somewhere and have a lecture there (recently we went to a Kunming mosque. The Hui minority is Chinese people who practice Islam. It was really really interesting, seeing and hearing all the Arabic mixed with Chinese.) We've also been watching a lot of movies about Chinese history, and I'm starting to get how modern history shaped up the way it did, exactly what the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were and why they were so horrible, and what part China has played in all the stuff I already knew about (WW I and II, the Korean War, etc.)

After we're done with all that and maybe some side trips-- we walked to the Minority Students University last week and met a bunch of students there, I made some new friends-- we have to find a place to eat dinner and then dive into homework (grammar, character memorization, reading comprehension... since we're only studying intensively for 5 weeks, they're working us hard.) And by the time we're finished, it's time to go to bed to get up at 7 AM again. But I have found time to do some cool things on the side, and the wonderful thing about this program is that they work in a lot of cool stuff in for us. For instance, today, instead of staying in the classroom the A, B, D, and E classes went to this huge food market right across from the gate to campus. I had no idea it was there-- I've walked past the tattered entrance at least 5 or 6 times, but there's a long pathway that leads to the market, and I never would have guessed that down that graying sidewalk were teeming stalls selling everything from live rabbits to pre-skinned pig trotters, from laundry hangers to chili peppers that are probably illegal to eat in the US. Our teachers came with, and Ashley and I taught them the English phrase "sensory overload"-- because it truly was. Too much to see, smell, hear, touch everywhere. I didn't bring my camera, but I'm definitely planning to go back.

We also went to the Western Hills on our day off from classes last Wednesday (a merciful break.) I'd already been with my parents in high school, which was wonderful because my stomach was acting up and I wasn't feeling up to climbing a mountain. Instead, I took the slow, stately cable car (I just code switched! More about that in a minute) and enjoyed a magnificent view of metropolitan Kunming and Lake Dian, which is freaking huge and stretched out pretty much as far as the eye could see. While on the cable car I saw what I swear was the world's cutest dog. He (I've decided it was a he) was sitting calmly next to his owner with his paws on the hand rail just like a person. So. Cute.

I've also had some adventures on my own. My tripmate John and I went to play Majiang (mahjong) with our expat friend Kevin (the Thai who lived in Oregon-- and to answer your question, Kitty, he has an Oregon sweatshirt). We were, of course, the only Westerners in the place, which was filled with old men and women and a few young people smoking and drinking tea. The most complicated part involves an intricate ritual of dealing the tiles, which still eluded me when we left. Otherwise the are similar to gin rummy with some strange twists thrown in. I even won a round! My favorite part is yelling "Pong!" when you can steal tiles from your opponent. Also, John and I were fascinated by an automated majiang table that will shuffle and redeal your tiles for you on its own.

I also ventured into the University Canting (cafeteria) last week. It was a complete madhouse, with gobs of Chinese people rushing everywhere. My confusion must have showed on my face, because a nice Chinese graduate student appeared at my side, asking, "Can I help to you?" He introduced himself as Jacky, an M.B.A. candidate and we spent the rest of the lunch talking, after he helped me get my food. I got sick over the weekend, but Jacky, Diana, and I had lunch yesterday as well at a restuarant near campus. We talked a lot about cultural differences (Jacky refused to believe that the drinking age in the US is 21) and taught each other some new words. It was quite fun until my la duzi started acting up again.

I've been making lots of Chinese friends, actually, which has been nice. The program set up a "language partner" program for us, which is really just "a huge pool of Chinese people who are curious about you and can speak English at least a little." We had a meet and greet on Ashley's birthday (there was cake) and after a flurry of cell phone number exchanges we've been on a number of outings. Diana, Tania, and I had dinner with a number of our new friends one evening, and they were extremely helpful and friendly, very interested to hear about American culture, telling us about what they learned of US History and their favorite cartoon characters (Winnie the Pooh, usually.) On Saturday Tania and John went with two Chinese girls to Green Lake Park, but I was, alas sick. Too bad: I missed John creating a scene trying to go in one of those plastic bubbles you can walk on water in. I think they're probably illegal in the US but they're huge here. Tania told me that all sorts of people were crowding around to see the wai guo ren (Foreigner) make a fool of himself. John does that a lot-- he bought this crazy pair of pajamas and has been wearing them around. He also has a bright pink iPod stocked with Disney songs. He goes to Tulane and was in New Orleands when the hurricane hit. He is also a National Merit Scholar. Strange kid. But nice: he's been lending me his computer to watch movies on while I've been sick. DVDs here are insanely cheap, and it's just a matter of time before I give in a buy my lot. Tania came home with 15 great movies for Y90 (less than $11), and I've been making my way through "Before Sunrise," "Love Actually," "My Neighbor Totorro," "Little Miss Sunshine," and "Almost Famous" ever since.

One more notable thing is the Chinese we speak as a group. I've been noticing that more and more we speak Chinglish together, which is really interesting. Conversations are peppered with questions like "Does anyone mei you kuai zi?" (does anyone not have chopsticks?) or "My pigu hurts" (my butt hurts.) This afternoon I was trying to conjugate the verb to drink unsuccessfully (my English is in fast decline) and Tania suggested "drink le"-- the "le" being the way one indicates past tense in Chinese. My Chinese is improving similarly-- I've now code switched twice during my time here. ("Code switching" happens when your brain reaches for a word in one language and comes up with the word in another. In my case, the words wore "impression" and "cable car"-- just two minutes ago.) I'm considering this a good sign. Also-- I ate a meal tonight and it didn't go right through me! Hurrah! Good signs everywhere.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Up in smoke

I was all ready to write my big entry but then I got caught up in other internetty stuff and now I'm light headed again from the damn smoke. Silly China, smoking itself to death one internet site at a time.

Basically: getting sick is no fun and continues to be so, this weekend has been very quiet except for going out to lunch with my new Chinese friend Jacky (yes, like Chan), and I'm dying to know who was looking at my blog from Italy.

More later. Promise.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

La duzi

The title means "spicy stomach." I'll let you all guess what that means.

I've been out for the past couple of days sick, but I'm feeling more stable and less awful tonight so Tania, Diana, and I went out to Foreigner's Street for some Western Food and now I'm checking my email. The smoke in the internet cafe makes me feel even more nauseous than I already am, so this is a short "preview" sort of update.

In the next entry you will hear about:

Learning to play mahjong (ma-jiang), negotiating a Chinese cafeteria, Chinese classes one-on-one, cultural exchange activities, going to the Minority Students University, my trip-mate John and his crazy crazy antics, the cutest dog ever and his ride on a Chinese cable car, our visit to the Western Hills, my second time ever code-switching, and how to buy 15 DVDs for Y90 (about $10.50.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Settling in (for now)

Classes have begun, affording to us at least a shadow of a routine. We study Chinese for 3.5 hours every morning-- from 8-12, with a half hour break at 10. During the first period we focus on Yufa (grammar structures) and shengci (vocabulary.) During the second period we focus on kouyu (spoken Chinese.) Lisa was in my class for the first day, but she was in Beijing last semester studying and found the subject matter too easy. Today, Sophie moved up from the level below me to try out something harder, but was struggling a bit. I could very well end up with my own class, which would be intense. I was placed in level D, out of A-F, which was a nice ego boost given how many of the people above me have lived in China for some amount of time-- actually, now that I think about it, it's all of them. I've been enjoying kouyu the most, because we have to speak for five minutes every day in front of the class about something, and I've discovered that I can discuss more sophisticated topics and ideas than I thought. Yesterday I was able to explain the smoggy mountain concept from my Argus article. Today I talked about approaching Chinese strangers at Salvadore's last night (I had to ask Chinese people about their opinions on something for homework, they were actually quite nice about it and we ended up exchanging phone numbers.)

During the break between classes, the program has found a Taiji master to teach us, and we go out and make fools of ourselves in the bright blue morning. We learn the slow,fluid movements as well as some more martial-arts flavored routines on a plaza in the middle of campus where University students are free to come gawk and laugh (and they do.) It's only been a few days, but we're already getting better, and the Taiji is a great way to relax between classes. Makes my knees hurt a little, although that could also be the walking up 6 flights of stairs 3 times a day (elevators are a rarity here.)

In the afternoons we do something cultural or education-related. Yesterday we walked to the Minority People's University and met English major students there. One of them is from a village near Xishuangbanna where three different minorities live--I can't help but think how interesting it might be to study how they interact and live together. Today we watched a fairly interminable movie all about modern Chinese history, called "The Mao Years." It was fairly interesting, I learned a lot about the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward that I didn't know before, but the movie was so long and I've been getting little sleep, and I ended up napping against my will.

Tomorrow we get a reprieve from classes-- we will visit the Western Hills of Kunming (a place I have actually already been) and hear a lecture about Buddhism, then get to explore the Daoist temples hewn into the rock. We won't get a reprieve like this every week, though: this newly established routine will last for another three weeks before our five-day "Yunnan Exploration Project" (where we choose a place to go in a small group and are responsible for getting there, finding places to stay, eating, and then writing a paper about it. We can go wherever we want and the program will pay for everything except airfare. How psyched am I???) After the project, we will continue with classes during a two-week homestay. The routine seems like it might get a little suffocating, but it's only 5 weeks, and nothing, at least in my experience, can stay boring in China.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Smoggy mountains

For those of you who don't know, I am writing a column in the Wesleyan paper this semester, from abroad. Here, for your amusement and intellectual betterment (or whatnot) I present to you my second Argus Column. I forgot to post the first one. Oh well.

A rusty van, filled to the brim with eager American college students, hurdled along a southern China expressway, whipping past fields full of musturd seed crops flowering yellow and farmers in old-fashioned woven straw hats tilling land for new plantings. Inside, I baked slowly in the hot sun and stared out the window, trying vainly to see the mountains surrounding this fertile plateau through the smog.

For the orientation period of my study abroad program in China, the group leaders took us to the rural city of Tonghai, located about three hours, or 200 kilometers, south of Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. For three days we bonded, drinking bai jiu (extremely strong Chinese rice wine) with the local officials. We explored, ate new foods, climbed mountains with 800 year old Buddhist temples tucked among the trees. We learned to get lost and find our way again.

Once, on the way back to the hotel, my roommate and I found ourselves in an unfamiliar part of town. We stopped to ask an old man by the side of the road for directions, but he didn't speak Mandarin. During the painstaking process of written conversation that allowed us to get directions (Chinese dialects, while pronounced differently, are written the same), we noticed people stopping to look. During our first few days in Tonghai, we had seen not a single other Western face. Now, people
stopped to stare in full-out curiosity or paused and pretended to be interested in something nearby. One or two called out, "lao wai, lao wai," a Chinese slang word for "foreigner." Tonghai introduced us to China's difference, but in this way it also taught us about our own foreignness, through China's eyes.

I thought about all of this as we travelled from place to place in the Tonghai area, taking in the sights. But the image that kept returning to mind, almost of its own volition, was that of the smoggy mountains. The farmland on the way to Tonghai had been picturesque on its own terms, with horses, and donkeys wandering on terraced hills, but it had felt incomplete without the mountains that I only recognized by the faintest grainy outlines in the gray-blue air. Wanting to take in as much as
possible, thirsty for more landscape, I strained to see the land humping up into peaks on the horizon, but the harder I tried to see the more frustrated I became. I felt that with this smog China had, in some way, let me down. Why wouldn't she let me see her? I was here to understand, to experience. Even though I knew full well about Chinese overuse of coal, about the proliferation of cars, about how rarely the sun comes out in Beijing, my ideal of China had no room for air pollution.

During my first week in China I saw and experienced a great deal, and in my state of confusion and sheer sensory overload I became aware of an interesting parallel between my attempts at cultural processing and my frustration at the smoggy mountains. The most pressing question in my mind this first week as I "re-Oriented myself" (pun intended) became: What is the real China? Is it the students I met who told me their favorite shows were "Friends" and "Prison Break"? Is it the ethnic groups who are paid to wear their traditional costumes to draw tourists to particular
destinations or entire cities? Is it the naked glances of curiosity I got while walking to buy water in Tonghai? Is China in its history-- is it among the Buddhist temples in Xiushan park, where an old man taught me to play a scale on the Erhu (Chinese violin)? Or is it in the representations of itself, in cultural "performances" like the Tibetan dinner dance I went to, where tradition lives on? Perhaps it is the excitement of the Tibetan waiter, Dlma, with whom I made friends and promised to have dinner. Maybe it is in the internet cafe where I'm typing this column, surrounded by teenagers playing World of Warcraft. Can I experience the real China as a "wai guo ren" (foreigner)? Where can I find her? Where is she hiding?

Here is where I come back to the van ride to Tonghai. I knew those mountains were there, but try as I might, the smog hid them from me, much to my disappointment. I felt I was missing something of the landscape, not seeing those mountains, the equal and opposite response to the alluvial plain below. I think perhaps those of us seeking to learn about another culture encounter this same problem. The smog is there, rendering everything hazy, gauzy, and vague. It keeps we, the interested and
intrigued, from reaching out and touching it, from seeing the "reality," if there is one to be seen. Instead of seeking to see the mountains, perhaps the goal of cultural studies is to keep on looking in hopes of occasionally catching a glimpse of a peak or a verdant mountain flank. Maybe the object is not to see but to continue to try to see.

On the return ride from Tonghai to Kunming, the weather had improved some, and I discovered that what I had thought was all smog blanketing the mountains had been, at least partially, haze. I still couldn't see the mountains clearly, but they had color and depth that had been absent on my first viewing. Sometimes, I think, things can become clearer when you least expect it.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Dropped Off

So. Back to the elephant, eh?

I suppose I should give some context. The Day Of The Elephant was also the day of our Drop Off, an SIT tradition. During this activity, which lasts most of the day, the group is divided into small clumps and given some money and a piece of paper with mysterious Chinese on it. Each group must use all the skills and resources available to them to find out what the Chinese is, go to that place (it's usually a place), and learn all about it. Then everyone comes back at a preset time and reports on their experiences.

My group consisted of Ashley, Monty, and I. Ashley, I think I mentioned, is this very loud, incredibly gregarious girl who is writing her Master's Thesis on matrilineality in China and so has spent several months studying in Zhongdian, which is on the Tibetan border. She is going to do her Independent Study in Lake Lugu, which is really cool because I just read a book about the Moso people who live there. I'm going to try and visit her. Monty is a very tall, handsome black guy, and so he gets a lot of attention (probably unwanted) in China, but he's very patient about it. I was a little upset at first about being with Ashley for the drop off since she's already so adept at being in China, but it turned out to really be wonderful.

The place we were assigned was called "mingzu cun" or "Ethnic Minority Village," which I later found out was a conscious choice on Lu Laoshi's part because all of us are interested in minority culture. We took a taxi there and spent the whole day exploring. The set up was a park with little mini-villages devoted to all 25 of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. A little schlocky if you don't go too in-depth, but Ashley made sure we didn't. The first place we went was the Dai village, which was supposed to be in Xishuangbanna, an area of Yunnan very far to the south where I would love to go. They were selling whole coconuts for coconut milk (coconut + machete + 3 straws = delicious.) That's also where I got lifted up by the elephant. There was a painted elephant there with its handler and none of us had ever been really close up to an elephant before. Then we realized that for Y10 (about $1.25) we could take a picture with the elephant. We thought we would ride on it, but Monty went first and before we realized what was happening he was up in the air, cradled in the elephant's trunk. We started to draw a crowd, understandably-- a bunch of Westerners riding an elephant must be a strange sight to the locals. I was pretty nervous but decided it was a priceless opportunity. It was pretty scary being so far up in the air, and occasionally feeling unsteady like I might fall off, but in the end it was amazing. The handler let me pet the elephant, too. Of the crowd we drew, we met a couple that Ashley (being her gregarious self) started talking to. Turns out they were from Kunming, too, and very interested in us. The gave Ashley their phone number.

We went to the Zhuang village next, and when we went in to explore one of the houses we discovered some of the Zhuang workers sitting down for lunch. They insisted that we come eat with them, although I had to decline because I was still worried about my stomach. We drank tea with them and talked. One of them, a handsome guy about our age, was flirting with Ashley a lot, and they ended up exchanging phone numbers (as Ashley does with pretty much everyone she meets.) All the Zhuang girls wanted to take pictures with Monty, too.

After that came the Hani village, where we went on some enormous swings and I mistakenly told a Hani girl I liked her cat (mao) instead of her hat (maozi.) Oops. She did have a really pretty hat, though. Ashley was telling the Hani girls about her "shuai ge" (handsome fellow) and one of them asked if she had pictures. We showed her, and she said, "That's my boyfriend!" (in Chinese, of course.) Much drama ensued, through texting. The Zhuang guy told Ashley he hadn't gotten married yet and loved her more. She said that was wrong. He asked why. Etc. Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our Chinese lives.

Before lunch we stopped at the Wa village, where 5 or 6 o the most beautiful girls I've ever seen offered us lunch (we declined, as home-cooked food can be dangerous to fragile American stomachs). We promised to come back for a 2 o'clock dance performance. Then came the Tibetan village, where Ashley really came alive. She was talking in Tibetan dialect with all the workers, and got yak butter tea (which was less awful than I was expecting) for Monty and I before running off to do a couple of traditional Tibetan dances with one guy from Lhasa. I got it all on video.

After lunch we went back to the Wa village, where the girls were performing traditional Wa dancing, involving much flipping of their (very long) hair and a lot of crazy drumming. They all smiled widely when they saw we had kept our word and come back, and they pulled us up on the stage in front of the rest of the Chinese tourists to do one last circle dance with them. I felt a little foolish, but it was still very cool. Post-dance they sat us on low woven stools and gave us homemade fermented rice whiskey to drink. It was sweet and pungent and oddly carbonated. We talked to them a little about themselves and about America and exchanged phone numbers. They each have one day off a week, and they were all so sweet to us that I hope we can see them again.

At that point it was almost time for us to leave, but the Kunming couple from the Dai village had texted Ashley to offer us a ride back to Kunming, an extremely generous act. We had some difficulty meeting them, but ultimately got to their car and had a lovely ride back, chatting. They were both retired policemen who met on the job, and they invited Ashley to live with them for the homestay portion of Kunming, invited all of us to their house for dinner, and told us that we should think of them as parents and to come to them with problems since we were so far away. So incredibly sweet! I've been completely shocked at the welcoming friendliness of Chinese people so far.

This weekend has only been occasionally eventful, as I've been fighting a nesting instinct that tells me to stay in Tania's and my room organizing and getting ready for classes, which start tomorrow. We did laundry for the first time, went grocery shopping (I found peanut butter! Miraculous!), bought some school supplies. Diana also introduced me to Kevin, a Thai student whose English hints at the fact that he lived in Oregon for awhile. He introduced me to both a group of expat friends from America, Switzerland, and Columbia, and an expat hangout called Salvadore's that services omelettes, quesadillas, and ice cream. We spent Friday night eating ice cream and playing cards there, and I can tell it will be useful when the cultural difference becomes too much.

The other remarkable thing about this weekend was the Tibetan dinner/dance I went to last night. The woman Ashley stayed with in Tibet, whom Ashley calls her Tibetan nainai (grandmother) and with whom Ashley is extremely close, came down from Zhongdian to visit Ashley and her son, who lives in Kunming. The son performs at a cultural center and so a huge group of us went to see the performance, eat the food, and generally learn about Tibet. We ate Yak, brocolli soup, mountain carrots-- very interesting. Afterwards, there was a lot of circle dancing, which was confusing but fun. Ashley and her nainai's relationship touched me a lot-- she told me in the cab that her nainai is her best friend and that her only request for graduation was for a plane ticket so her nainai can come visit her in the U.S. If I can get even a fraction of that in my Independent Study Period, I'll be thrilled. I made a step forward, though-- I made a Tibetan friend, one of the waitresses! She kept giving me curious looks and then started a conversation with me. I pulled a leaf out of Ashley's book and asked for her cell phone number. I hope that we can have dinner together later this week or next weekend. Her name is Dlma.

The night took a turn for the worse then, though. The bai jiu the Tibetans (and Koreans and Chinese at the other tables) had been toasting us with was much stronger than other bai jiu the group had drunk. Things got scary very quickly, and one of my trip mates became alternately violent and unconscious. We ultimately had to send him to the hospital, which was a hard decision. Luckily, today he's okay. The whole thing is a tough situation, since drinking here means enduring pressure to have more and more alcohol from both Chinese (whom you don't want to offend) and Americans (whom you don't want to disappoint.) That makes for a pretty intense situation. I think everyone learned their lesson last night, though, and I was glad that I was around and enough of us were sober to be able to deal with everyone who was having trouble. Culture shock can't be all sunshine and daisies, after all.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The disappearing elephant

Today an elephant lifted me up with its trunk. No, really. I have the fairly unflattering but still excellent pictures to prove it. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Some important things to note about that past few days:

Firstly, I forgot to talk about the Mongolian lunch we got in the village near Tonghai. We were given a traditional Mongolian welcome, which involves an enormous amount of a food, special tables, and a performance by Mongolian girls. They sang us songs in Mongolian, and although there were only 4 or 5 of them, their voices were incredibly piercing and quite loud. The sound of their plain but powerful melodies made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. At the end, we gave three ceremonial drinks of bai jiu-- one was flicked into the air as a sacrifice to the sky, one was touched on the forehead as an honor to the ancestors, and one was kicked back a la traditional shots, for the here and now. It was a very cool ceremony to take part in, and the sound of those voices will be hard to shake.

Yesterday marked the beginnings of our independence. We were rationed out food money; a lunchbox, spoon, and fork for the cafeteria; a student ID card; and a bicycle (which is the most exciting.) Then we were set free. Several of us opted to go with Charles, a Chinese English student who is a program assistant, to the English Corner (where Chinese people go to practice English) near Green Lake Park. First we went out to dinner, where we ate Crossing Bridge Noodles, a traditional Kunming soup with a story behind it. The story says that there was a scholar and his wife living hear a large lake with an island in the middle. The scholar liked to study there, and every day his wife would bring him a lunch of soup across the bridge, but it was always cold. Then one day the wife was too busy to make lunch and when she remembered she just grabbed a pot of broth and some vegetables and raw meat and hurried across the bridge. When she put the fixings in the broth, she found that it was still hot enough to cook them-- the layer of fat on top had insulated the heat from escaping. That's how the dish works too: they bring you a big bowl of broth, vegetables, spices, meat, and noodles and you make them yourself. Delicious.

The English corner turned out to be just a given spot where lots of people gather, and those of us on the program who went were immediately the object of much attention. As one person told me "We can practice whenever we want, but we don't often have a chance to speak with foreign friends." During my time at the English Corner we talked about American college life, finances, many cultural differences between China and America. They asked me a lot of questions I didn't know the answer to, but in general it was nice to dispel some assumptions about Americans. One man, who is of Bai minority descent, told me he had watched over 400 American movies and proceeded to pull out a notebook full of idioms. "I got cold feet," he recited stiffly. "She is so hot;" "You made my day." At one point, when I had about 12 inquisitive Chinese faces looking eagerly at me, I started to feel ominous stomach rumblings. Luckily, I was pointed across the street to a gorgeous hotel with immaculate Western toilets and toilet paper (a luxury here, you generally need to bring your own.) It was basically the best place possible I could have gotten sick.

Sorry to be a tease, but I'm with Diana at the internet cafe and it's very smoky, so she's feeling nauseous. The story of the elephant will have to wait until next time (thus the title of this entry.)

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Lean on Me

Resuming my recounting of strange, strange times in Tonghai:

Our second day in Tonghai was just as mind-blowing as the first. After another traditional Chinese breakfast we walked up a hill to an English school owned by a friend of the program, whose English name is Albert. We did some more orientation discussion and took an oral test to place ourselves in language classes-- I found out today I will be sharing a class with Lisa, who goes to Wellesley and has red dreadlocks (brave in China.) We actually had to struggle to choose our textbooks because Lisa was in Beijing studying language last semester and I haven't studied for a whole year, so I'm rusty and she's still very fresh. But I think we came to a good compromise. We will have two teachers (that's a 1:1 ratio, jeez) for grammar and speaking. They are not much older than we are.

Anyway, back to Tonghai-- after the placement test we were allowed 5 or 6 hours to wander in Xiushan Mountain park, which is home to an entire complex of Buddhist and Daoist temples anywhere from 200-900 years old. It also has a sacred spring (which the complex is built around) and saw a lot of people carrying jugs of water on sticks a la oxen yokes, going to get water. The park was incredibly beautiful-- most of the temples are still working, and there were people praying and flowering trees everywhere. I spent my afternoon mostly with Tania, who seems very sweet and thoughtful but with an alternative side-- she's studying gender at Hampshire and this morning I noticed she has a tattoo of a mountain on her back. We spent all of our time on the mountain, although some people opted to go back to Albert's to play with the kids there. The temples and gardens were just breathtaking. At one point, an old man playing an er hu (Chinese violin with two strings, yes Marianna, like the guy in Harvard Square) and we stopped to listen. Before I knew it he had sat me down and was molding my hands to bow correctly. It took a lot of effort, but after 15 minutes I was able to play a scale. Another thing I never thought I would get to do, learning er hu from an old Chinese man who didn't speak a word of English.

The er hu player had a friend who came over to talk to us for awhile, too, and he offered to take us up the mountain, which was an adventure. It was really good Chinese practice, he kept up a constant patter of conversation and was always asking "Do you know the name of that tree? Do you know the name of that flower?" After awhile when we would stop to look at things and he would wait, we were afraid that he wanted money but ultimately he left us just saying it was wonderful to meet us. I wish I had thought to give him some American change-- I've been giving out dimes and nickels to people and they always are fascinated and excited by "mei guo qian" (American money.) On the way down from the mountain we came upon a family munching on raw sugarcane, and they insisted on giving some to us. It was delicious-- you eat it by ripping off the outside of the big stalk with your teeth, biting in, sucking out the sweet juice, and spitting out the remains. As spitting is almost a national pastime here, I felt very Chinese eating the sugarcane.

We were supposed to meet the group at 6 for dinner with more officials, but Tania and I got lost on the way to the hotel. We had been enduring curious stares and yells of "Hello!" all day, but when we stopped to ask a man for directions to our hotel we legitimately drew a crowd. People stopped and pretended to look at things around us, but it was clear they were watching us. The man we were asking didn't speak Mandarin, so he had to write down the question "What is the name of your hotel?" so we could tell him (although Chinese dialects sound different, they are all written the same.) All the while, more people with inquisitive faces squatted or stood nearby, looking in pure curiosity. I never knew I could be such an attraction.

We finally got back to the hotel in time for Crazy Official Dinner Number 2. We knew what to expect this time-- more drinking, more eating, more crazy Chinese drinking songs. This time, though, the officials also did some Peking Opera dances for us-- I've never heard a man with such a high falsetto. In return, we all got together and sang "Lean on Me" for them. Those of you who have heard the story of my New Years in Hangzhou will remember that I have experience singing to Chinese officials. The rest of the night was spent at a bar Albert owns.

We left the hotel bright and early the next day, and it wasn't until we were on the bus that I realized I had left the necklace I bought in Ireland at the hotel. The odd thing is that I couldn't remember taking it off. I went back with Chen Laoshi and the driver to look and get a ring Tania left, but no luck. I'm very sad about this loss. Maybe someone still in the area can pick me up a replacement... We spent the afternoon looking at a Daoist temple in an area where there used to be an enormous lake. The lake has shrunk over the years, but there are still ancient boat docks everywhere, including inside one of the temples. Very interesting.

More interesting, though, was our trip to the only Mongolian village in Yunnan province. The Yuan dynasty was a Mongolian one (that's Kublai Khan, etc) and when they came to fight the tribal kings in Yunnan for control of China, a lot of Mongolian soldiers were injured, and when the Mongolians ultimately pulled out they left a lot of the injured behind to start this one village. The interesting thing is that it's now been 750 years, and the language and culture have both changed to be different than people who live in Mongolia today. It's a strange mix with local customs and language. As an Anthropology geek, I find that fascinating. I don't know if it's fascinating enough to do my Independent Study Project on it, but we'll see. Anyway, we happened to come to the village, which is picturesquely poor (like most places outside the city here) on a festival day, so everyone was wearing their traditional clothes, very colorfol and sparkly and interesting-looking. I bought a handmade apron and we listened to some performances and then got asked to sing as well. We sang "Lean on Me" again (everyone knows it) and "Jingle Bells." The audience loved it.

The past few days other than that have been mostly preparation for classes, which start Monday. Charles, a Chinese english student who is a program assistant, showed us around Kunming last night, pointing out some coffee shops, an English bookstore, this internet cafe (where internet is Y1 or 12 cents per hour), a movie theater, and Green Lake park, which is beautifully lit at night. There were huge groups of people dancing for fun in the park. Not something you'd ever see in the states. We got a talk about health today and chose our textbooks, and this afternoon we will see an introductory video about Yunnan. Things are slowly grinding into gear.