Monday, April 9, 2007

A Day in the Life

The past several entries have been devoted to my (considerable) adventures in Xishuangbanna but I've now been back in Kunming for about a week and a half and am settled in nicely to a modest homestay about 3 minutes' walk from campus. Very convenient. I thought I would talk a little bit more about my day to day life here instead of the Extraordinary Adventures (although I have my share of adventures just here.)

I'm living with a little old lady (well, she's actually not really old, only 59, but she very much exudes an aura of little-old-ladyness) and her 24 year old daughter in a little apartment with a nice park in the middle of the complex. The daughter, whose name is Su, recently graduated from the University where I take classes and is looking without success for a job. That's a fairly common issue among educated young people here.

I wake up every morning at 7 AM to get to class by 8. There isn't really a sink in the bathroom (which has, glory be, a Western toilet) so I brush my teeth in the sink overlooking the little park. I get dressed and my Ayi (that's the word for "Auntie") insists on making me breakfast. On the first day she made me rice noodles, but although I was polite about it I think she could tell I wasn't a big fan. Since then she's made me oatmeal and, on alternating days, this odd bread stuff and cakes stuffed with red bean paste. I like the paste, but the bread is laced through with this weird fuzzy brown stuff that tastes terrible. I tend to spread lots of honey on it and then eat lots of oatmeal. Lately she's also made me these strange gnocci-type dumplings stuffed with coarsed brown sugar and soaked in something sweet, with what she says are flowers floating around. Every day is a culinary adventure in that house, and I've (of course) never eaten so much homemade Chinese food. They've finally come out and admitted that they're trying to make me as many different foods as possible so that I get to experience all China has to offer. We also eat a lot of homemade fried rice, which is delicious. On the first night, they teased me because I hold my chopsticks wrong, but I've been getting better.

My relationship with my Ayi is very cute. She always has a smile on her face when she sees me (I wonder if I amuse her somehow) and we've gotten a nice little routine down. When I come out of my room (which is modest but comfortable with a biggish bed, a desk, and a closet) in the morning she says "So you got up?" to which of course I say yes. Then she asks me how I slept and what time I got home last night-- when I want to go out with my friends at night to do fun things or homework at a cafe, I take the keys with me because Ayi goes to sleep before 10 and Su, although part of the family really, has her own apartment in the building next to ours. During breakfast I usually (for lack of better topics) ask Ayi what she's doing today-- she's retired and so usually the answer is "not much." She cleans the house, watches TV (Su and Ayi LOVE to watch TV, especially this one American Idol type show where Westerners sing Chinese songs), goes to the vegetable market next door to buy produce, and has lately been travelling to the other side of Kunming to help her younger sister move. When I'm full she'll tell me to eat more until I have assured her that I'm really done, and then she'll usually tell me that I should be wearing more clothes because it's cold out (regardless of the fact that usually it's 65 degrees outside. Actually, the past several days it's been pretty cold and rainy, but that's beside the point.)

I walk to morning classes through our apartment complex, passing people doing morning exercises outside and sometimes an en masse English class (Teacher: "Repeat after me: do you have any cigarettes?" What sounds like 80 People: "Du yu have an-ee cig-rets.") I come back and have lunch with Ayi and Su, which is always homecooked and a great majority of the time is delicious. I've been lucky, because other people's host families have made them very spicy food (it's the local palate here) but they've been very understanding and only chided me gently when I say something is too spicy-- most of the time it's delicious. With every new food they ask me "Can you eat this?" and I finally figured out that that really means "Do you like this?" but that it's not polite to say you don't like something someone else has made for you. Mostly I've been able to remain flexible. They haven't cooked me cow stomach or whole frogs like Tania's family has.

I've been really interested in the cultural differences and similarities I've found while living in my homestay. Some things are very much the same-- Ayi says "Su! Dinner!" and Su responds "Coming!"... only to be repeated thirty seconds later. And Ayi follows me around turning off the lights I forget and leave on, just as my mother does at home. I've explained that it's a bad habit and that I'm not forgetting on purpose, but I still feel bad about it. And then again, the differences are also pretty very significant. For one thing, there's the issue of slippers. One doesn't wear shoes in the house, something I knew before I came. However, one also doesn't wear slippers in one's room but leaves them outside the door. So I've gotten very good at taking my shoes on and off quickly. I've also gotten really good at stairs-- we live on the third floor and that's actually pretty easy in comparison to John's enormous 4-floors and Tania's 5-floors. Glutes get quite a workout here. When I come home at night all the lights are sound and motion sensitive so I have to clap my way up the stairs.

Dinners are interesting in my homestay, too, because we often get into cultural exchange discussions. One night I ended up explaining the racial relations situation (in simple terms, of course, my Chinese isn't that great) in the US. Another night I spent the meal assuring Su and Ayi that Americans don't eat chicken feet, pig ears, tails, or stomachs. "But that's the best part! What a waste!" they kept saying. Su speaks some English, which I thought was going to be a problem because I want to practice my Chinese as much as possible but as it turns out it's just been a boon because she can translate when I don't understand something. I teach her new vocabulary, too, as our conversation transitions from English to Chinese and back, and Ayi often repeats the words too. Her accent, as condescending as it is to say, is adorable. Having the first thing I say when I get up in the morning be Chinese has been an interesting experience, and I've started dreaming in Chinese sometimes, which feels pretty cool.

I've had some adventures in Kunming without the aid of exciting travel. One weekend Tania's host family drove us to a hot springs in the countryside of Kunming, a beautiful and relaxing getaway. Another day they took us to the bird and flower market which actually is mostly animals and plants. That was kind of depressing because they had so many really beautiful dogs that we were not allowed to cuddle. John's family, however, has obtained an adorable seeing eye puppy, so we met our animal cuddling needs there. John's family also has an automated majiang table, and one night his mom schooled us in the art of majiang (I needed a refresher.) I think I can actually play, although I'm fuzzy on a few of the rules.

Last weekend I also had adventures-- on Sunday morning I did aerobics/dance with my two Chinese teachers who are 27 and 28 respectively but with whom I've made friends. I thought it was going to be terrible and conspicuous but it was actually a lot of fun and the gym was way nicer than the one I use at home. It had a juice bar and internet cafe inside! Later that day John, Kailey, and I went and taught English for two hours to 12-15 year olds. We taught them simple games like Telephone and Simon Says and got paid Y150 for it. Great fun.

We're leaving tomorrow for a huge adventure around the province. I feel sad (I'm leaving my teachers and Diana behind) and anxious and excited. The next time I write will be from the road.

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