Thursday, May 31, 2007

Which One of These Things is Not Like the Others?

Yep, it's that easy to pick me out in the crowd here. Kunming's foreigner community (the word expat is not really used here) is anywhere from tiny to huge, depending on whom you ask. I see other foreigners every day, but it's not uncommon for me to be the only one at a restaurant, on the bus, or at the grocery store. And I'm not exactly someone you'd mistake from behind for a Chinese.

I've gotten used to stares and comments. People will say "laowai" or "waiguoren" when I pass; mostly, I think they assume I don't know what they're saying. Schoolboys and grown men (never women) will test out their "Hello," on me. I like to answer in kind, but use American slang, something like: "What up, little homey." Sometimes I hardly notice; sometimes I am amused; sometimes I'm annoyed. It can be a good opportunity to study people. Normally, I'd feel awkward looking directly at a stranger on the street for more than two seconds. But with them all up in my grill, I feel free to stare back and get a good look at their face. Sometimes I respond a little aggressively; a woman or man looks me up and down, and I lock eyes with them, with an almost expressionless look that says, "I see you looking at me." (My tendency to do this seems to double when I'm on my way home from a workout. Somewhere in there is a study on testosterone and aggression waiting to never be conducted).

On the bus one recent morning, I was the entertainment for a little girl who was riding with her father. He smiled at me and said "Hello" in English. Then he tapped her shoulder and said, "Kan (look)," gesturing back toward me. She turned around to stare at me. "Ni hao," I said. When I failed to do anything interesting, beyond being laowai, they moved to a more entertaining seat at the front of the double-decker bus. The next thing that Dad pointed out to her was a giant papier mache elephant erected on the sidewalk in honor of the Chinese special olympics.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Sports Heaven: Installment 3 (I Love This Game)

When I wake up in the morning, the NBA Playoffs are on. Since I'm a student, and soon-to-be student/freelancer, I can watch Pistons-Cavs or Spurs-Jazz while enjoying a Chinese pastry from the shop across the street and glancing at my textbook. Time zones, I love you.
Curiously, there are very few commercials aired with NBA games here. I promise to get to the bottom of this; they seem to pick up in the second half. It might be the time of day that the games are on, a licensing issue, I'm not sure. Whatever it is, the ads for beer and financial services are mostly replaced with playoff highlight reels, set to the track of a Pharoahe Monche song. The commentary, of course, is in Chinese. I don't miss Dick Stockton or Marv Albert, and I get to work on my Chinese oral comprehension. NBA Action in China is Faaaantastic.

Air Quality Control

One of the many reasons that I decided to come to Kunming, rather than head straight for Beijing, was its reputation for better air quality than other large Chinese cities. I was mostly trusting rumor, because I had trouble tracking down a good source of information to confirm.

Today I found this site, which sheds a little light.

A quick look at the numbers for April 2007 show that Kunming averaged a pollution index of 68.5, with a high of 92. For the same month, Beijing averaged 93.7, with a peak of 190. Both cities' primary pollutant is particulate matter, but Kunming has some days where the primary pollutant is sulfur dioxide. I don't know much about this, but I sulfur dioxide is used in the production of bleaching agents, paper and pulp, flotation agents and heat transferring agents, according to pollution information site

I don't know a good way to compare this to New York, but I can say that we do see blue skies pretty regularly here. And the streets in many parts of town are cleaner than NY's.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Literate Laowai

First, some housekeeping notes:

1. "Laowai" is Chinese for foreigner, literally "old foreigner." I don't know why.

2. The photo is not of myself, my teacher, or the Chinese language. I took it on a daytrip this weekend to Black Dragon Pond, about 20-30 minutes from here.

3. I wanted to write really eloquent posts about learning Chinese, as it's been so interesting, but I've decided to prioritize frequency over polish. I apologize in advance for their mediocrity (am I already acquiring a Chinese sense of modesty?? I didn't think it was possible).

Okay, with all of that said, here's my first post about learning Chinese. And the big news is: I'm learning to read and write. Before coming here, I thought I would just learn to speak and understand. I'd talked to Americans who had learned Mandarin for business, and they all told me they were illiterate in Chinese. It was just too hard to learn the characters, they said.

It's possible to learn to speak Chinese without really learning to read and write the language. That's because it's been phoneticized; there are a couple of systems, but by far the dominant system used for this today is the pinyin alphabet. So it is possible, and not uncommon, for anyone accustomed to the Roman alphabet to learn Chinese without understanding Chinese characters. I don't know too much about this yet, so if you want to know more, I suggest you visit and read up.

My first day of class, we opened the book, and there was the first lesson, in pinyin, Chinese characters and English. I was too jetlagged to broach the subject of adjusting my course to eliminate the characters, so we proceeded with the textbook’s prescribed lesson structure.

Much time in my first few lessons was dedicated to learning to correctly pronounce the syllables that are the phonic building blocks of the language. Just knowing proper pronunciation of the Roman alphabet is insufficient, as the pinyin rarely sounds how you would expect. Learning the subtle differences between sh, ch, zh and j, as well as the proper tones for everything, takes practice and time. I felt like a complete moron repeating hundreds of syllables after my teacher, and getting most of them wrong. I also got sore from using new mouth muscles.

Every day, my teacher shows me how to write about 25 new characters, and we read a dialogue and do exercises that use them. My second day in class, she opened by saying to me: "We learned 20 characters yesterday. Can you write them on the board." I most certainly could not. Every time you learn a new character, you are learning the character's appearance, the order of the strokes to write it in (important-- more on that later), the pinyin spelling, the correct tone to pronounce it in, and when and how you can use it. For one- and two-stroke characters that look exactly like what they denote such as yi (one) and ren (person), this is relatively easy. But it gets harder for words like rongyi (ironically, the word for easy, which is a 10-stroke, 2-character word) or duanlian, a 12-stroke, 2-character word for physical exercise. Add to this the genetic blip that is my failure to inherit the visual art gene that the rest of my family has in abundance, and you have one struggling laowai.

Despite my struggles, I'm fully on board now with learning to write and read as well as speak. There are several reasons. For one, I find the meanings of the characters fascinating (more on this in another post). For another, I am a writer in my own language. How can I learn a new language and be illiterate? Seems like that might be hypocritical. Also, I think if I'm going to learn characters, the time is now. It would be much harder to change my mind later and try to go back and learn to write. And as I travel around China, I may not be able to understand the many dialects, but if I can read, I should be able to get by. Finally, it should improve my overall understanding of the language and contribute to my ability to speak and understand.

So I'm still basically an illiterate laowai, but I don't plan to stay this way.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Well-Fed and Entertained

Keats School has done a pretty good job of keeping us fed and entertained. My first night here, the school treated the students to a delicious dinner featuring local dishes. Then about two weeks ago, Xue Feng, who runs the school, made us dumplings. At first, there were only five of us sitting at the table, and I didn't think anyone else was coming. Xue started bringing out plate after plate of hot, scrumptious vegetable dumplings. My mother raised me to be a polite guest, and polite guests do what they can not just to finish what's put on their plate, but to eat as much as they can of whatever their gracious host has prepared. I proceeded to eat about 30 dumplings, just to be polite. Of course, after twenty minutes, half a dozen other people showed up. There was still enough for everyone, which is good because that means I'll still be invited to school dinners.

Last week, we all went to a crazy restaurant down the street from here, that serves a variety show with dinner. Everything was in Chinese, but you don't need a translation for flamboyant costumes, exuberant dances or performers putting flaming torches down their pants, against a fake "pastoral Yunnan" background. Good times were had by all, and again, I misjudged how much food would be coming out and ate entirely too much of the first course.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cotton Candy Cycle

I'm writing a post about learning Chinese. In the meantime, enjoy this short video of a very resourceful street vendor.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sports Heaven: Installment 2 (Blind Soccer!)

Saturday was the end of China's National Handicapped Games, held here. It was hard to find games, but I made it to Blind Soccer and shot some crummy video with my digital camera. These kids are amazing! The game is played on a smaller pitch, maybe half the size of a full field. The players all wear blindfolds because some of them have a little bit of sight. The goalies can see. All of the players yell "Wei! Wei!" all the time so that their teammates know where they are. The ball makes a rattling sound when it moves, and there is someone behind the goal constantly hitting it with a stick so that the goal makes a ringing sound and the players can find it. The field is bounded by a blue wall to help the players feel their way around.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Ping Pong Qiu

Last night, I was walking to the bus stop after sharing a couple of beers and a bite to eat with emily and Alvin. We passed a place I had wanted to check out-- Speakeasy Bar, which I thought I'd read about on GoKunming. We climbed up three flights of stairs, past giant stickers on the wall of the hot, animated, warrior girl type (when I say giant, I mean about 10 feet tall), past stickers on the floor that said "Netwoike Connection." On the third floor was a big Internet lounge, with probably 100 people at stations (not as big as some places I've seen here), chainsmoking, drinking, and playing online games. Anthropologically intriguing as this was, it was not what I thought I would find at Speakeasy. We turned to go out, but I realized there was one more floor.

"Let's go up there," I said.

"Oh, you don't want to go up there. That's just a ping pong club," Emily said. What?!? That is exactly what I wanted! We went upstairs, to find probably about a dozen tables in a dingy, high-ceilinged room. At the near end, there was a bar and a table with a few people sitting around playing cards; at the far end, there were old guys playing ping pong so hard they had taken their shirts off. New York Athletic Club, watch out.

Alvin and I rented two paddles and a bright-orange ball, 5 yuan for half an hour. He was pretty good (as an Indonesian-Chinese guy, he should be), and proceeded to destroy me. I handed my paddle to Emily. If you have any doubt that ping pong is a sport, you need to watch how the Chinese play. They keep focused on the ball, volley, volley, volley—and then with a really angry look on their face ZING! shoot one right past you. It is awesome.

After about 60 minutes, they told us our half hour was up. We left the place at 11:00 and games were still going on. On the way out to the street, I noticed that there was another entrance to our right. If we'd taken that direction, I would have found the Speakeasy club I expected. I'm so happy we made wrong turn.

*****Having a little trouble posting photos. I've got some good ones for this, though.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Sports Heaven: Installment I

Sometimes in this city, I feel like I've landed in some kind of sports heaven. Over the past two weeks, I've discovered, one-by-one, great things this city has for athletes.

It started with the sporting goods stores. It is as if someone took all of the Starbucks and bodegas in New York, and transplanted them in Kunming, except that due to the climate here (good weather all year round, sun most days from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.), they all grew up to be sporting goods stores. Some of these stores are three stories high, with bright lights and big displays of bags, balls and gear. In some places, small shop after small shop lines the street. This one specializes in badminton, that one in boxing, and another in skateboarding. There also are a fair number of hiking/outdoors shops, where you can pick up basics such as jackets, sleeping bags, shoes and water bottles. They sell some global brands like Marmot and Columbia, but the local brands also seem of decent quality.

I asked a Chinese friend, Harvey, about the shops. Why were there so many? "Because they are profitable," he answered. "Really?" I replied. I'm no expert in retail space usage, but it seemed to me that whenever I was in one of these stores, I had at least 300 square feet and three employees to myself. And based on what I've gleaned about local salaries, young Kunming can't afford to buy very many sneakers at 600 yuan a pair. And while I like the prices, I have yet to make a purchase in one of these stores myself; nor have I seen the backpackers who come through Kunming loading up on this stuff. Harvey thought for a minute and revised his explanation: "Maybe the government wants to encourage people to be active." This seems to me a more plausible explanation. I have heard that as China has become more prosperous and has imported Western food as well as some Western habits, the country has become fatter. According to one book I'm reading, the number of overweight teenagers tripled in China in the nineties.

In 1995, the state started the Nationwide Physical Fitness Program, encouraging people to engage in sports activities often, learn more ways of keeping fit and get regular health exams. In 2001, China launched a sports lottery for the purpose of funding new facilities in small and medium-sized cities. The goal is to have 40 percent of the population getting regular exercise by 2010. Is it working? According to the state's most recent study (done in 2001), life expectancy has increased and children in rural areas are healthier. But in Kunming, the sporting goods stores still don't seem to be attracting big crowds. But many people do bike to work (this I believe far predates the national program), which should give them a leg up on most suburban Americans.

A Reason to go to Myanmar

I expect my time in Kunming to include some travel throughout Yunnan and other parts of Asia. Heading west should get easier as progress proceeds on the Stillwell Road connecting China and India:

Anyhow, the real point of this post is to say that I'm going to let my hair grow until I get around to going to Burma. A couple of pounds of hair should be able to pay my rent for a few months: As you can see from the photo, I've got some growing to do.

p.s. Sorry about putting in the whole URLs. My Blogger managing page is still in Mandarin, and I can't figure a lot of things out, including how to create links. Also, I should be able to continue posting; I just can't view the blog. I also can't view your comments, so if you have something to say to me that you'd like me to hear before my next trip out of here, e-mail me at

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Blogger Goes Dark Here

It turns out I can post, but can't view my blog from here. I don't know when or if this will change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Our Notebooks

Hanging out with three students of Chinese (each from very different English-speaking backgrounds) and two Chinese trying to learn English, conversation takes lots of odd turns. Much of our time is spent explaining idiomatic phrases, slowly sounding out proper pronunciation of words and correcting one another's grammar and spelling.

We all carry little notebooks to jot down words and phrases and their meaning, intending to study them later. Mine includes the Chinese for things like "Have a drink," "Water polo," "Where is the bathroom?" Emily's and Harvey's (Harvey is a young Chinese guy studying to work in IT) notebooks have phrases like "Are you down with that?" "Let's scoot," and "Blimey goff!" Harvey starts his list of English phrases each day at #1, and on a recent day had written down more than 30 phrases. We were all walking around the city last night, and stopped every two minutes for him to record something that he'd heard. It would be annoying if his dedication wasn't so darn impressive.

Alot of people here are working very hard to learn English. Emily, as I mentioned earlier, hangs around the pub to work on hers. She told me yesterday that there is an annual English competition for Chinese students. It includes reading and oral comprehension, delivered in numerous different accents. Last time the contest was held (which I believe was just months ago), Emily placed third. There will be another competition in July. Stay tuned to find out how she does.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Death by Teambuilding

Every morning this is going on at 9:30 outside my window. It puts a smile on my face every time. I hope it never gets old.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Crew. . . For Now

I've recieved a lot of questions about friends here. I have already met some great people. Of course, most of them won't be around long. I think you can figure out who is who in the photos, which were all taken in the restaurant/pub outside the school. I have most of my meals there; the menu is extensive, food is good and the price is right (about 20 RMB for a meal; 30 if I have a pint).

Brendan is a British actuary, on his first vacation in a few years. He arrived one day before me and has been studying like mad, in the classroom eight hours a day. He leaves Wednesday to galavant around Yunnan, something I intend to do a lot of before leaving Kunming. He is really funny, and not shy at all about trying out his Chinese.

Alvin is a 19-year-old Indonesian with Chinese parents. He's just completed community college in Seattle, and will be studying business at Cal State Fullerton in the fall. His parents sent him here to study Chinese. He's very outgoing, especially with the fuyuan, or waitresses, wherever we go.

Claudia is a New Yorker who relocated to Shanghai six months ago. She's in the jewelry business. Without knowing it, Claudia saved me from the panic I felt in my first 24 hours here. She's smart and adventurous and ambitious. On her last night here, we discovered that we were both born in the year of the goat, and we were both born in Belgium. That plus New York plus the fact we both wound up here, definitely made me feel that we were meant to meet. She reminds me a lot of my friend Donna--someone who is discerning and knows what she wants, but is open to new experiences and people. Claudia has left already, to tour Yunnan and then return to Shanghai. But I'm sure I haven't seen the last of her.

Emily grew up here in Kunming. She hangs around the restaurant, Ao Ma, downstairs, to practice English with the Westerners who come by. Her English is good and improving, and she's helped all of us with our Chinese. She is a 21-year-old medical student. Yesterday Alvin, Brendan and I went to her home. She played the guzheng ( for us (traditional Chinese instrument); it sounded like a kung fu movie. She is also the captain of her school's volleyball team.

Finally, the young girl in the photo is Helen. Her parents sent her to sit down with us to practice her English.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Getting Egged

Lest you think that I'm roughing it here in Kunming, I am walking distance from two huge Wal-Mart-like stores. One actually is a Wal-Mart. You'd recognize the big smiley faces and the big price tag signs, but you would be surprised to find a huge produce section with live fish, and a service that will help you send a letter to the president.

The other store is called Carrefour, and I was there one recent morning to pick up school supplies. There were lines of shoppers snaking all over the second floor. My first thought was that I didn't need pens and paper bad enough to wait in this checkout line. But then I looked at their baskets, which were all empty. I followed the line to its end; it turned out there was a blowout sale on. . . EGGS! People were losing their minds loading up with eggs. If you look in the foreground of the above photo, you can see some people getting their eggs; in the background you'll see everyone else waiting. They had to wait in one line to get the eggs, another line to have them weighed and still another to check out of the store; people waited very patiently and the process seemed to be running pretty smoothly.

My first thought was, "How funny and Chinese." But then I realized I've seen New Yorkers wait for hours for a deal—Shakespeare in the Park, free cone day at Ben & Jerry's, preschool admissions. I have a feeling if Fairway was selling eggs at 10 cents a dozen, it would look a lot like Kunming Carrefour, except maybe more chaotic.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The NBA in China: A Sneak Peak

Shane Battier wreaked havoc on my fantasy basketball team this year. After a string of dreadful games, I dropped the former Duke star (that should have been my clue) in favor of Denver's Nene. Well, it turns out that being the 28th-highest scoring guard in the NBA (and Yao's teammate, I guess) is enough for a major shoe contract in China. Battier is the spokesperson for Peak basketball shoes, a surprisingly ugly brand given the Chinese love of trendy sneakers. He and Dirk Nowitzki are the only two NBA players with big posters in Sunshine Sports of the City, the awesome sporting goods store next to my school.

Incidentally, with the playoffs going on, I've been asking some people here about their interest in the NBA. So far they (like me) are ga-ga over Steve Nash. And when I bring up the Pistons, they just want to talk about former Ben Wallace, who of course is a Bull now. Now those guys could sell some shoes here.

A Chinese Bank Account

Today, one of the teachers in my school helped me open an account at Bank of China. It was about a 15 minute walk from the school, in a massive building with lions outside that were about two stories high. Outside are hustlers asking, "Change money? change money?" Can you imagine Citibank putting up with that in New York?

The teacher, Eric, is from Harbin. Without him I would have been helpless; although the teller spoke English, the forms are all in Chinese. The teller informed me that there was a 40 yuan minimum to open an account—that's about $5 U.S. Eric assumed that's what I would be putting it in and put that amount down on the form. I was very grateful for his help, but it was a very awkward moment when I corrected him and wrote down the amount I wanted to deposit; it was very modest by out standards, but it was four times his monthly salary.

On our walk back from the bank, Eric informed me that very few Chinese have bank accounts. They are paid for their work in cash, and have no savings; it's the government's job to take care of them in their retirement or if they are disabled or sick.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

I Went for a Two-Hour Walk and All I Got Were These Lousy Pictures

I woke Thursday morning and decided to go for a walk and find some breakfast. I had a very optimistic hope of finding that some expat had opened a French pastry shop, and I would enjoy a croissant and cafe au lait. I'm not always that bright. Anyway, about five minutes from my school is the city center. As you can see from this photo, it's a big, modern city with skyscrapers. There were a lot of people out, and I especially liked these old folks playing badminton:

And this week is the May Day holiday, or Wu Yi, so there were a lot of shows and dances going on:

I never found the pastry shop. Instead I had an icre cream cone for breakfast, 4 scoops for 3 yuan, or about forty cents.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

I'm Here!

You know, 27 hours of travel could be worse. After clearing out my apartment, which was a little bit sad, and saying a few more goodbyes, I was off and now here I am.

Representatives from the school met me as promised. My teacher and the woman who runs the school were waiting with a big sign with my name. I was very glad to see them, but they were appalled at my luggage--three checked bags, including two that were approaching the 70 lb. (32 kg) weight limit. I tried to explain that I had to bring all the shoes that I could, as well as lots of different drugstore/medical supplies, but I don't know if it made much sense to them.

The school is on a pretty busy street with lots of stores. There are a few bars and restaurants nearby that cater to a Western clientele, but so far that clientele seems a little old. I am really looking forward to finding the crowd that runs this Web site: (sorry for not putting it in as a link, but Blogger thinks that because I'm in China, I want all my site directions in Chinese. I will figure it out later).

Last night, after 2 hours to set up my room and go out and buy some necessities, I went to dinner with the other students and teachers. I was guiltily relieved to meet a woman named Claudia from New York. She's in the jewelry business and based in Shanghai, and will unfortunately only be here until Sunday, but she's shared some important information with me, and helped me decipher the school's often confusing communications.

Anyhow, the dinner was delicious—we ate family style and enjoyed a lot of local dishes, some of which were really quite good. However, I enthusiastically tried the pig's lung, only to quickly discover that it was, er, really not my style. After dinner, I went and shared a drink with Claudia and her Chinese teacher, who we're trying to give a good American name. Some cruel person has been calling him Larry; we are leaning toward Lance, which I know is odd, but it suits him.

Today I have class at 1:30 p.m. before then, I guess I will walk around town and buy a cell phone. Also, pictures coming soon.