Yellow

Because I am lazy, here is an email I sent my sisters this week:

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So livejournal, xanga and blogspot have all been blocked as of two weeks ago, and I could only access them to add new posts, not to view comments. Bummer. I will try to figure out a new way to communicate. I’m sitting in another cafe called Salvador’s near the school, since the only way I can get online in the evening without going to a smokey, not-so-pleasant internet bar is to lug my laptop here for their lovely wi-fi connection. It’s a nice place to get an overpriced bite to eat and finally communicate with the rest of the world. I’m sorry that my cell phone hasn’t been working for the past few days, there was something wrong with the simcard so I bought another one so my new number is:

My new cell# 13577151427

If you can, let Mommy know. I will call her tomorrow tonight, which is Monday morning when I get out of here and buy another international calling card.

This weekend, I bought a ticket very last minute to go to the Xishuangbanna region of Yunnan province to accompany my friend Alissa Greenberg from Wesleyan on her research/spring break trip. It was exciting, and adventurous the entire way through. I have never done anything like that before, we sort of flew by the seat of our pants all through the countryside, but don’t worry, we were careful not to do anything dangerous and the area is quite safe. We even got invited to a Dai minority wedding banquet at the foot of a hill in a tiny town called Menghun. The uncle of the groom was very kind to me, and showed me all the tattoos (some of which he did himself at the age of eight) on his arms, legs and back. The food was interesting to say the least, and included raw beef stomach and bai jiu, extremely strong liquor that feels like fire going down your throat. We also met a Vermonter backpacking through Kunming who works for an international environmental NGO. Turns out he grew up in Flushing, on Beech between Bowne and Kissena. It was surreal to say the least.

I got Ma’s letter this Friday, and it nearly made me cry because 1) I’ve never gotten a letter from her before and 2) It was very sweet and made me miss everyone a lot. Still having a great time here though, and will talk to you all soon.

Love 1000x over,
D

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Alissa came up with the term VietNOT. Banna feels so different from Kunming, the palm-lined roads, tropical weather, and Dai lettering on all the street signs alongside the Chinese. We also officially entered the phrase “monks on a motorcycle” into the linguistic canon. There were young Buddhist monks everywhere in Jinghong and the surrounding area. Apparently it’s a bit like serving in the army for boys in Banna, so we saw teenage monks in their saffron robes hanging out on street corners, smoking, and of course, riding the ubiquitous scooter/motorcycle. At an 8 sided pagoda we went near Menghun, a 12 year old monk gave us incense to burn inside the small temple. To me, he looked closer to 8, and I couldn’t help asking him how long he had been at the monastery–2 months. Outside the temple nearby, another young monk was sleeping on a bench under the shade of a tree, yellow robes hung out to dry on its branches.

Being here has been such a challenge to my health…injured foot, continual issues with food, fatigue. I will never take good health for granted again. I never expected to have such a problem with the food here, since we grew up on pretty much this kind of stuff, albeit under more sanitary conditions. In any case, I’ve been careful to eat mostly fresh bananas and other relatively non-offensive items recently, and have been getting better with it. Suffice to say, eating boiled river eel/snake thing and mysterious wild vegetable with those Dai villagers in Banna was probably not the best idea.

VietNOT!

Hello from an internet bar in JingHong, the main town of the Xishuangbanna region in southeast China. Xishuangbanna borders Thailand, and about 1/2 the population here from the Dai ethnic minority group which have their own distinctive traditions and practice a different type of Buddhism than most Han Chinese. I flew out here after class on Friday from Kunming and am flying back tomorrow. The atmosphere here is unlike anything I have ever seen before in Yunnan, more southeast Asian than anything else. Alissa and I got on a bus yesterday from Jinghong to Ganlanba, a village about 1 hour up into the mountains inhabited mostly by the Dai people. We rented bikes this morning, got on a ferry across the Mekong River (Banna is that close to Thailand and Laos) and biked for 5 or 6 hours through the villages on the other side. We even got invited to have some watermelons by some Dai people who happened to be sitting in a watermelon field cooking lunch under a makeshift canopy. After having some river eel, mysterious wild greens, rice, and a shot each of bai jiu which the oldest man in the group insisted we have with him, we got back to Ganlanba and on the bus to Jinghong again.

In conclusion, I am bone-tired, but got to watch the sun set over the Mekong River today. Amazing. More soon when my brain is functioning properly, but much love all the same.

Imagine

Yesterday some of my program mates and I went to Stone Forest and Lunan, an area about 1.5 hours away from Kunming by bus. We were about 5 minutes late for the bus, but the driver was nice enough to wait for some foreigners who were foolish enough to forget the ultra-punctual Chinese bus system rarely is so kind to late-comers. Kunming’s main railway and bus station is an enormous plaza crammed with people, entire families camping out right on the floor with their suitcases piled beside them, complete with pillows, blankets and little makeshift tables for card or chinese chess playing. Our little group attracted stares wherever we went, and it was really an overwhelming experience. It looked as if some people had been waiting there for days, an experience I can’t even imagine, and made my demand for traveling in comfort seem very foolish.

We reached Stone Forest and caught a ride to Lunan, a small town nearby, in a rickety old van. With eight of us squeezed inside, every bump in the road felt huge. There doesn’t seem to be much of a suburb here in Yunnan, the division between urban and rural is quite clear. We passed by fields, terraced mountainsides and horsecarts that looked a hundred years old. The market in Lunan was an adventure. People lay out everything from vegetables, hardware, yarn, cloth, to every animal part known to man on the ground or on tables to sell. There’s also a large number of the Sani ethnic minority in Lunan, since many of the women we saw selling things were dressed in traditional Sani clothing and headdresses. Two old Sani women looked at me and Phil, one of my programmates, and laughed. A lot of people seem to laugh or smile when they see young foreigners in our group especially in the outer areas, as if they were seeing something like a strange baby animal. They seem to get pleasure from it. It made me smile to see that kind of reaction, and reminds me of something the Shaolin monk at Prague Cafe said to us the other night, that the people in this region are very “shan4 liang2”, relatively innocent and naive. It was an interesting thing to say, and I’d like to think that in general it’s true. I haven’t encountered much that would indicate otherwise. Kunming is a provincial city, and the general attitude here of the people is laid back and friendly. It’s easy to get people to smile at you here.

My language partner is such a sweet, easy-going person that I’m almost in love with her. We meet twice a week for an hour at a time so that I can practice my speaking skills and she can correct me. I tried to explain to her the movie “Science of Sleep” the last time we met, and we ended up talking about the connection between dreams and language. All in Chinese! It was wonderful.

That’s all for now. I will be meeting with my weekend host family today at 4pm. They have a 16 year old daughter who’s thinking of studying abroad in the States and I’m looking forward to making friends with her. I find myself getting tired pretty easily here and I’m not sure if it’s because of the amount of work we have. Reading and writing Chinese takes a lot of energy out of me since it takes so much concentration, so having to do our history readings even when they’re in English also becomes a burden. I’m re-reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being at the moment though, and I think as long as I keep reading things I love in English I won’t lose that part of me while being constantly submerged in another language.

Alive!

So in my second weekend in China, I went on a bike tour with a group of hardcore Chinese bikers into Golden Temple Mountain in the outskirts of Kunming and nearly broke my toe after executing a beautiful double flip over the handlebars of my bike going down what locals like to call a “trail”. This trail is actually somewhat of a myth, since along the 15km path that twists up the side of the mountain, there are near vertical downhill/uphill slopes, unfinished foot wide paths through thorn bushes, and road obstructions that can be described as boulders. Basically, it was a bicycle obstacle course of death. Our history prof., that 72 year old ball of energy, invited us to this “beginners'” bike tour, and 3 of us showed up expecting a leisurely tour of hills, trees and flowers. It was actually a marathon led by a troupe of suicidal, chain-smoking, neon-spandex wearing Chinese bikers. It was by far one of the most physically demanding and emotionally taxing things I have ever done in my life. After braking too fast and falling with the bike on top of me, I am ashamed to admit I was ready to give up and camp out on top of the mountain rather than endure the rest of the 15km back. I have never felt such an interesting mixture of horror and exhiliration. The view from the very top of the mountain, and the twisting trail through trees blossoming with purple flowers, when we could see through the pain to notice it, was beautiful.

I had to get my foot X-rayed the next day since I was convinced my toe was broken, but turns out it was just sprained, and after a week it’s healed up nicely. If it isn’t already clear to most people, Chinese hospitals are not fun places to be in, especially when you actually need to be there. It would not be exaggeration to call them large concrete edifices of unhappiness. Fortunately one of the lovely language teachers Sun laoshi was there to help me walk the multiple treks across the courtyard from bone injury dept to emergency entrance to account office to x-ray dept and back.

We have a tremendous amount of Chinese language classwork and homework every day, with daily quizzes and end-of-week tests. My Chinese is improving rapidly, and I’ve discovered that my language skills are such that I can defend myself in an argument with a native Chinese speaker. Last night, I was sitting in a cafe with Alissa and her friend Theresa practicing vocabulary for the next day when a bald-headed Chinese man suddenly struck up a conversation with us, asking what we were doing in China, etc. It seems he was a Shaolin monk from Hong Kong who has been living in Kunming for some time. He noticed that Theresa spoke Cantonese fluently, and that I spoke some as well. He proceeded to criticize our knowledge of Chinese culture in Cantonese, called Theresa a failure because she didn’t know the principles of Yin and Yang, and said I was boring and useless for practicing my chinese vocabulary with pinyin, the pronounciation system for Chinese which uses the English alphabet. I have rarely been so angry in my life and asked him who the hell he thought he was (loudly in Cantonese, I’m proud to say), but Theresa said it was common for Cantonese people to say things like that, especially to people they feel familiar with. In the end, despite all his attacks and complaints against our ignorance of our Chinese heritage, he said he felt “chin chi gan”, a feeling of kinship with us, particularly with Theresa since she spoke Cantonese, and called us both “mei mei”, little sisters. When we got up to pay our bill, we discovered that he had already done so for us. I was pretty shaken up by the experience, both by anger and a little bit of shame, since I had been worried from the beginning since coming here that my identity and Chinese authenticity would be questioned. I didn’t expect it to come so forcefully and bluntly. In the end, I examined my feelings and found no hard feelings against the man. I feel like I have known people like him before, who’s friendship is blunt and borders on an offensiveness made possible only by familiarity and a need to protect others.

All in all, every day seems like an adventure, and my senses are always bombarded with new information, new experiences. Hope all is well with every one, and write back =). My number here is 13699127170, and mailing address is:

Yunnan Normal University Institute of Chinese and International Study,

#298 121 Street,
Yunnan Province, Kunming
PRO China
Diana Shum
Duke Study in China Program

Send lots of mail =)

The Spicy….

Hello to everyone I love. Here are some updates.

A typical class day begins at 9am and lasts until noon with breaks in between. Chinese language classes are tiny–mine, which is 4th year Chinese, only has 4 students one of whom is my fellow Wesleyanite. Despite the difficulty of the material, it’s a lot of fun since our language level is advanced enough to discuss more complex and interesting topics, our professor is energetic and makes the funniest faces when he talks.

My daily schedule seems to revolve a lot around food, which is wonderful =). Yesterday I ran into a few friends while taking a walk through what the locals call “Foreigner’s Alley”. We took a rickety old bus with two other guys to another part of town for one of the best and cheapest buffets I’ve ever had–dumplings, noodles, veggies, Yunnanese sweet bean pancakes–for 15 yuan (less than $2). The Thai graduate student, Kevin, is a great guy and has been in Kunming for 5 years (!) so he knows all the cool little corners. Today all the Duke in China students went out with our teachers for lunch at a local restaurant. Our history teacher is an old white-haired American who’s been all around China and Taiwan since the 1960s. You can probably tell by the fact that he ordered a few rounds of beer for everybody at the table what kind of an energetic teacher-type he is. It was a fantastic time.

I’ve been taking lots of long walks after classes, and am continually struck by how crowded all the streets are at any time of day. The city is just packed to the gills with people. Crossing wide intersections can be nerve-wracking since vehicles don’t really yield to pedestrians, but I’ve discovered that going with the crowd is generally the safest bet. My Chinese is improving rapidly since the program’s language pledge went into effect. We can only speak Chinese on weekdays, English permitted on weekends. The stilted conversations that my fellow int’l students and I have in Chinese are ridiculous to listen to, but I think we’re all having a pretty good time with it.

Anyway, till next time I can get my butt to a computer, all the love from Kunming.