kunming

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Sep 20, 2013

Kunming: Nerding it up at the Yunnan Cultural Industries Expo

At the anime convention, the cosplayers all want photos with us

Checking in at the Anime Convention
You can buy many weird hatsSome cosplayers wanted to pose with usThere was a small performanceMom as the HulkMore cosplayersMore cosplayers and us

Our time in Kunming coincided with the Yunnan Cultural Industries Expo, a show of local handicrafts, jade, jewelry, clothing, etc., that included a rather extensive anime convention. We had to go!

The anime hall was chock-a-block with booths selling pins, toys, cards, fans, panda hats (of course), cat ears, statues, etc. There was a tiny amount of Marvel stuff (including a Captain America shield that looked to be … unofficial), but for the most part the expo was a celebration of the local. We recognized a couple of cartoons — Doraemon and Pleasant Goat — because our junior students love those guys. Detective Conan, whom I used to watch oh so many years ago on Cartoon Network or wherever, is hugely popular here and was well represented; as was Monkey D. Luffy (gotta love that name!), a roguish pirate that my boy senior students all have T-shirts of. These guys and many others were plastered on all kinds of merch, from T-shirts to key chains.

The main attraction, though, was definitely the other attendees. Almost everyone was in costume, some of them quite elaborate. (The costume competition was fierce!) We took some photos with some of the cosplayers … and then some of them started asking to take pictures with us. We didn’t see any other westerners at the expo, and so we became a de faco exhibition!

Peter said our experience there was a lot like an American convention would be. (Besides the fact that we became accidental stars.) You know, nerds loving nerd stuff all nerdily together. It warms the heart to see that that’s just universal.

Sep 16, 2013

Kunming: Dancing in the park

The old 两个-step

Dancing with the people in Green Lake Park

Here’s the rule: Anywhere there is open space, large groups of dancers will gather. They’ll be mostly women, and mostly older, but everyone is invited. It’s good exercise, it’s group fun, it’s something to do outside of the house … whatever!

Wandering Kunming’s Green Lake Park, we found dozens of such dancing groups, sometimes one right on top of another. Some people were dressed in ethnic costume, but most were in contemporary street wear. My mom and I joined in for a bit, causing — Peter later said — some hilarious double takes.

The key, I realized, to accurately following the moves is to, even though you may be sneaking in the back, watch the leader up front. Don’t try to copy the ladies also hiding in the back with you; they’re as lost as you are!

Sep 15, 2013

Kunming: Returning to Spring City

A gentle landing in China

The temple in Kunming
On the planeDad!Mom!Peter and Emily in Green Lake ParkEating at Heavenly MannaMom and dad at the templeMore temple

Kunming is just truly lovely, and — as we confirmed during our visit in July — a great first destination for a newbie in China. So post-Penang, we ushered my parents back to our former accommodations at the Lost Garden Guesthouse — where the staffers all greeted us with friendly, welcome-back smiles — and ensconced ourselves in the city center.

It worked out really well, because we were able to show them some things that we had discovered last time, and the city is walkable and foreigner-friendly enough that they were able to do some exploring on their own. We were only there for a few days, but we mixed it up with some western food and some local Yunnan cuisine, and my parents checked off their first Chinese temple, 圆桶寺.

欢迎光临中国! Or, Welcome to China!

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.

Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden

Jul 26, 2013

Fast facts: Kunming

A dream vacation in the spring city

Where is Kunming?

Kunming is the capital of Yunnan province, in the way southwest of China, nestled up next to Laos, Vietnam and Burma (Myanmar? If Hillary Clinton doesn’t know, than neither do I). The province also borders Tibet and is home to many of China’s ethnic minorities.

The city attracts tourists from all over the world — especially the SE Asian peninsula — as well as domestic travelers. With its reputation for laid-back fun and gorgeous weather, Kunming is a hit with everyone.

It’s about an hour from Luzhou by plane (direct flight!), and we carved out a week to spend there in early July. Weather: low 80s with short summer showers most days. Vibe: Chill and international. Return trip: already planned for August.

Jul 26, 2013

The next step: A wider world beckons

Or, why Luzhou is a great first home in China

The Tuo River
Luzhou is ChinaLuzhou is ChinaLuzhou is China
Our beloved Luzhou has been good to us, and wonderfully, unrelentingly Chinese.

We had a plan when we moved here. Or a good guess at least. We’d start someplace small and remote, get settled and comfortable, learn the new life skills we need, and hang out with people who hadn’t already seen a thousand expats come and go. From there, world domination!

Two years in, the first stage is going swimmingly. Having put ourselves in a situation where we’re truly forced out of our comfort zones — without the temptation of taco nights and perfect pizzas — we’ve made even greater strides that we’d initially hoped.

We work hard, of course, but Luzhou works us even harder. There are days that I leave the house feeling sick or tired, or lazy or shy; or I don’t want to endure a hundred stares or get my picture taken with strangers; or for whatever other reason want to give myself a break from being a foreigner. But, too bad for me: someone’s going to speak Chinese to me, and I’m going to speak it back. And it’s always amazing.

It’s also difficult and incredibly stressful. In the beginning, we’d only rarely venture more than walking distance from the school because the taxis and buses were too much to handle. Buying vegetables at the markets, I’d just keep putting down money until the merchant said to stop. (I was very lucky that no one took advantage of us!) We ate dinner at the same place every night for an entire year. We’ve gotten braver and better since then, but I’d say that China’s still winning.

Each victory, however, has been worth it: realizing the woman at our bodega was our buddy, and cheering on each new word I demonstrated to her; the first time I told a taxi where to go instead of showing the driver an address someone else wrote; finding a new restaurant other than sticks, and then more new restaurants after that, and only once accidentally ordering chicken feet; recognizing words from my Chinese lessons out in the wild and being able to have conversations; actually being able to read a note a new friend had written to us.

While we’re not quite ready to leave this all behind, we can see that it’s time to start prepping for phase two. We’ve got a good grounding in the basics of living in China, and inoculated against the pleasures and temptations of the expat bubble, we can trust ourselves to mix and mingle in a more international city. Beijing and Shanghai sound like they exist in another universe, however, and we really like being in the wilds of west China, so we looked around a little closer to home.

When we started trying out Kunming — capitol of nearby Yunnan province — as a future destination, our friends here universally cited the year-round great weather and beautiful scenery as pluses. “It’s the city of eternal spring,” every single one of them said to us. That sounded perfect, especially coming off a second winter with inadequate indoor heating here in Luzhou. Further research promised: art galleries, multiple live music venues, fried goat cheese, a clear blue sky most days, good western-style bartenders, a walkable city with beautiful architecture, affordable apartments, plenty of jobs for ESL teachers, pizza …

We tried not to mentally move there overnight. Let’s be realistic, we told each other. We didn’t want to inflate our Kunming of the mind to a cheese-paved paradise that no real life city could measure up to. But we did book plane tickets.

Kunming is also China
Look out, Kunming. We’re coming for you next.