快要回美国

I am writing this from Starbucks, where the person at the table across from me just blatantly took my picture on his phone, using flash, without trying to hide it at all. Ironically, right before he did that I had planned to write a post on the things I will and will not miss about China. Randos taking my picture is probably number one. So without further ado, the things I will and will not miss about life in Kunming/CET:

Things I will not miss:

1. As previously mentioned, random people taking my picture. I understand that I look different than most people in China, and if they really feel that it’s imperative to take my picture, they can ask. If a Chinese person asks me to take my picture, I usually say yes. I’ve even held a toddler, and if you know me you know I don’t easily hold strange children. But just putting your camera 4 feet from my face and pretending like that’s a normal thing to do is overwhelming.

2. Chinese walking etiquette. Many Chinese sidewalks are crowded and narrow, so it would really make sense if people were to stay to the right and, when it’s especially crowded, walk single file so everyone can pass. What doesn’t make sense is walking at a snail’s pace, arm in arm with four friends and making it impossible for anyone else to move.

3. Worrying about food sanitation. In China it is not uncommon for cheap restaurants to skim oil off the top of the trash, gutters, or even the sewer and re-use it. Enough said.

4. No bathrooms. There are public bathrooms in China, but they cost money and often it would be more comfortable to pee in your pants than use these disgusting toilets, if you can even call them toilets.

5. Drinking Nescafe or Coke Zero every morning to wake up after only 6-7 hours of sleep.

6. Trying to get a taxi during shift change time; calling the taxi phone number and having them say “There aren’t any taxis near you, sorry, no solution.”

Things I will miss about Kunming:

1. The food. While Kunming is no Chengdu, the food here is still spectacular and cheap. I will especially miss the restaurant we call “Zui Xihuan de Fanguanr” or “Favorite Restaurant.” We went there so often the laoban (boss) recognized us after a while. When we would walk past his restaurant or even just see him around the neighborhood, he would always smile and wave. I’ll also miss the regional specialties at KFC and McDonald’s, like the Beijing roast duck flavored chicken wrap and the special chili garlic McNugget sauce. Of course, the ice cream and beer on every street corner, nearly always costing less than 1 USD, goes without saying.

2. My friends here. I was lucky enough to have a group of awesome friends and classmates. Especially because our academic pressure was so high, we all bonded really quickly and became really close. Adapting to life in a foreign country is difficult, but having a group of friends also going through the same things makes it so much easier. Especially after a month on my own, I was so happy to find such a great group of friends right from the start of CET.

3. My roommate. According to numerous sources, my roommate Sha Sha was one of if not the best roommate in all of CET. In addition to being kind, funny, and a considerate roommate, she went above and beyond in terms of fussing over me (that’s how a lot of Chinese people show affection). If it was below 75 degrees and I wasn’t wearing a sweater, she would always advise me to “duo chuan yidiar” (wear more clothes), and she would always make sure I ate enough cookies every day. She would even bring my clothes in from drying outside if it started raining and I wasn’t home. Most importantly, though, she patiently helped me study Chinese, repeating words over and over when I forgot them and dealing with my complete lack of tones when I speak.

4. My teachers. This could probably fit under the “friends” category, since we all became friends with our teachers, but they deserve their own category because they were all so great: patient, understanding, and most importantly, fun.

5. Endless opportunities to practice Chinese. Since I got here three months ago, I’ve been speaking nearly only Chinese, and the impact of that on my Chinese level is very obvious. I can’t believe how much I’ve improved, not just from class but from talking to my roommate and even my fellow foreigner friends in Chinese. I’ve gotten to the point where sometimes I have to think for a minute about how to say something in English. I apologize in advance for accidentally speaking Chinese when I get back to the states.

6. Those hilarious things that can only happen in China. For example, going on a tour of a cave and coming across a KTV place inside the cave; discussing your love life with your teachers as a means of practicing vocabulary and grammar; impeccable service and cleanliness at McDonald’s; laduzi (diarrhea) being a socially acceptable dinner table conversation; babies pooping in the street; hearing the birthday song in Chinese and English every night at a ritzy nightclub; the list goes on and on. Every day in China is really an adventure, and that’s probably what I will miss most when I get back to America, where things are definitely more comfortable but also a little more boring.

Weekend in the Laojia, pt. 2

The next morning, Dai Laoshi and her mom took us to a mixian (rice noodles, a Yunnan specialty) restaurant for breakfast.  Normally I’m not a big mixian fan, but these were really good.  We each got a bowl bigger than my head and got to add our own spices and extras!

Next we got back into our comfy van and drove a while to a small historical village.  One of Dai Laoshi’s friends gave us a tour of the village, which was tucked into beautiful green farmland and those quintessential Chinese mountains you always see in pictures.

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After returning to the city and eating lunch, Dai Laoshi took us to a famous cave in the park near their restaurant.  I am a big fan of caves and have visited kind of a lot of caves in America, but nothing prepared me for a Chinese cave.  It was more like Disney’s pirates of the caribbean ride than a natural cave environment.  Everything had colored lights and there was a boat ride within the cave.  Pretty awesome.

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Weekend in the Laojia, pt. 1

After graduation, a few of my classmates and I went to visit one of our teachers’ laojia (hometown).  Dai Laoshi (our teacher…Laoshi means teacher so her surname is Dai) asked our class who wanted to go and said she would make all the arrangements, we just had to meet her on Saturday afternoon to leave.

When four of my classmates and I arrived at our classroom building, we waited a few minutes and soon a really fancy RV/van pulled up.  When we saw Dai Laoshi’s glittery high-heeled foot step out we knew we were in for a very plush vacation.

She introduced us to her “older brother” who was driving (actually a cousin or family friend, she calls cousins and family friends brothers and sisters…we were really confused at first because we probably met like 7 brothers and sisters of hers) and her younger sister (actually her sister) and we all piled in the most comfy van I have ever been in.

It looked like a yacht inside.  There were massage chairs, 5 TV screens, a bar stocked with Johnnie Walker, and surround sound.  We all decided it was the comfiest any of us had ever been in China, and we would have been content to just live in the van overnight.

Aside from a near-asphyxiation incident due to a traffic jam in a tunnel, the ride was relatively uneventful and of course, ridiculously comfy.  When we got to Dai Laoshi’s hometown, we were a little late because of the traffic so we went right to her family’s restaurant for dinner.  It was her mom’s birthday so lots of family members and friends were all eating there to celebrate.  We were at the “kids'” table with Dai Laoshi, some of her cousins, and her little sister.

This was the first time eating a formal dinner with Chinese strangers, so we were all really nervous.  Luckily Dai Laoshi and her family were all very gracious and if we made any huge faux pas they didn’t mention them!  We had yangrou (goat/sheep) hot pot.  The meat itself was delicious, but since in China fat and skin are considered delicious, we had to pick the meat away from hefty fatty skin bits, which proved difficult since all we were working with was chopsticks and teeth.  We all ended up with little piles of skin and fat on our plates, but soon the waitress came around and changed our plates for us!  Every guest also had, in addition to a glass of wine, a small pitcher of wine to refill their glass after toasts.  True luxury.

After eating our fill of hot pot, snacks, wine, and cucumber juice, we had birthday cake!  And in true Chinese form, it was decorated with tomatoes.

 

That evening we went to a celebration of the Torch Festival.  The Torch Festival is a Yi ethnic minority holiday, but it appeared to be popular with everyone in town.  When we left the restaurant to walk to the park where the festival was being held, we began to see people carrying torches.  Most of the people carrying torches were babies.  Literally kids still learning to walk were carrying torches two or three times their size, with a little help from their parents.  I asked Dai Laoshi why kids carried torches, and she said it would be embarrassing for an adult to carry one.  Sort of like trick or treating?  We decided to call the festival Baby Torch festival and I have determined that it definitely has to go on my list of China’s Safest Things, second only to an outhouse barely clinging to the edge of a mountain in Tibet.

After the festival Dai Laoshi told us we were going to go to a bar.  The bar turned out to be opening night of a ridiculous nightclub.  Of course, she knows the owners.  We were ushered in to our own table laid with beer, Hennessy, french fries, a fruit plate, and popcorn.  Some of her cousins came with us, and lots of her high school classmates also stopped by to say hi and meet us.

When we told Dai Laoshi we wanted to go to the dance floor, she made us wait a few minutes for our private security guards to escort us and make sure creepers didn’t dance with us!  We felt like celebrities!  My favorite part of the night, though, was when Dai Laoshi’s younger sister (probably like 12 years old) came in to hang out for a while, but after sitting and covering her ears for a few minutes I think she went back to sing karaoke with her parents.  There were actually quite a few young looking kids at the club (like 15 years old), and when I asked Dai Laoshi if it was allowed she just said, “If you have money, it’s fine!”  Oh, China.

 

Graduation!

Today is officially the last day of CET Kunming, and the past few days have been a whirlwind of final exams, graduation, last-minute souvenir shopping, and trying to fit in as many fun activities as possible before we all leave.

My 300-level class with our teachers at graduation

Our graduation ceremony was last Friday afternoon, and it also marked the end of our Chinese language pledge.  During the days leading up to graduation, we spent a lot of time trying to think of things we wanted to say in English, but it was hard.  We had all become so accustomed to speaking only Chinese, so basically anything we needed to express we could express using Chinese.  In fact, sometimes I would find myself forgetting how to say certain Chinese words in English!  I think this says a lot about the positive impact the language pledge had on our studies.  As soon as we sat down to our graduation dinner and got the okay to speak English, it was actually a difficult transition.  Even now, after a whole weekend of being allowed to speak English, there are still words and phrases we all say in Chinese.

After graduation, we all met up to go to KTV (Karaoke) to celebrate the end of the semester.  In China, KTV is incredibly popular.  KTV is nothing like karaoke in America.  Every group gets a private room, so you don’t have to worry about singing in front of strangers.  Depending on how fancy your KTV venue is, sometimes there is even a stage and private bathroom in each room!  Since everyone from CET went (students, staff, teachers, and roommates), we sang a fun mix of Chinese and American songs.  It was a great way to blow off steam after the academic intensity of the semester, and a fun opportunity to hang out with our teachers outside of class.

All of China’s a Stage…

…if you’re a foreigner, that is.  Sometimes it makes me feel like a movie star when people take my picture as I walk down the street, but of course it gets old fast.  It’s usually pretty easy to forget how obvious our foreign-ness is here at CET, since our neighborhood is the center of the expat/exchange student community in Kunming and the frequency of unsolicited photo shoots and people saying “hello, nice to meet you!” as we walk by is relatively low.  However, last weekend we went on a field trip to Fuxian Lake, a tourist spot where our foreign-ness was very much evident:  we were a group of probably about 30 people, mostly foreigners, and just to make ourselves more obvious we performed skits and sang songs in Chinese at our evening bonfire in the middle of the town square.

Fuxian Lake is about two hours outside of Kunming.  The lake is miraculously clean and thus is a popular destination for tourists looking for a relaxing weekend on the beach.  The town we stayed in was basically a giant fair, with bars, midway games, and even a mechanical bull ride!

First, we piled onto big paddle boats to get away from the lake shore to swim since there wasn’t much of a beach.  The boat company made us all wear blaze orange life preservers, so we all looked great.

It was a Friday afternoon, so the lake was pretty crowded and as soon as people noticed that there were three boats with foreigners on them they pulled out the cameras and headed toward us.  We were also all wearing American swimwear, which as I discovered at Fuxian Lake, differs very much from Chinese swimwear.  In the US, it seems like women’s swimsuits are designed to cover as little as possible while men’s swim trunks are more modest.  In China, the opposite is true.  Some of the women’s swimsuits I saw could be dresses, and most of the men wore tiny Speedos!

Later in the evening, we gathered in the town square for our bonfire.  As soon as other people saw us setting up, they also began to gather around us to see what was going on.

Our teachers had told us to prepare performances with our classmates, but none of us expected it to be in public!  My classmates and I prepared a Chinese version of “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys, complete with costumes and dance moves.  Other students played guitar, did Kung Fu, and danced.  The 200-level class did a hilarious skit where the students played their teachers and the teachers played the students and the 400-level class changed the words to “The East Is Red,” Chairman Mao’s anthem, into an ode to our academic director.  As I watched other people perform, I could hear some of the comments spectators were making, which were mostly about how impressed they were with our Chinese.  After our performances were over, we plugged an ipod into our speakers and had an impromptu dance party around the bonfire, yet another case of us being put on display since our dance moves probably looked pretty crazy.

While I’m usually not a huge fan of being put on display, especially in China, it was flattering to hear they thought our Chinese was good.  They were also impressed that we knew Chinese songs, idioms, and jokes.  Many foreigners in China cling to the expat bubble, don’t get very immersed in Chinese culture, and don’t speak Chinese 24/7, but hopefully we were able to change that perception of us at least a little bit.  If not, we still had a very fun and relaxing weekend, a perfect break before our upcoming final exams!

Chinese Cooking Class

One of my favorite parts of CET so far has been our weekly Chinese cooking class.  Every Tuesday after we finish Chinese class, a few of us stick around to learn to cook our favorite Chinese dishes.  Not only do we get to expand our cooking repertoire, we also get a free dinner!  Our teacher is from Chengdu in Sichuan province, which is arguably the province with the best (and spiciest!) food in China.  
 
This week, we learned to make Kung Pao chicken and the Chinese version of sweet potato fries–absolutely delicious!  I was especially excited for this week’s class since Kung Pao is one of my favorite Chinese dishes.  Since most of the food we cook is Sichuan style, we use a lot of Sichuan peppercorns.  These are small, innocent-looking peppercorns that look a little like flowers–their name in Chinese translates into “flower pepper.”  When you eat Sichuan peppercorns, they make your tongue slightly numb or tingly.  It’s a very strange sensation and definitely surprising the first time you try it, but I have found that having a numb tongue helps with the extreme spiciness of Sichuan food.  

To make our Kung Pao, we started by flavoring some oil (LOTS of oil…this is authentic Chinese food after all) with peanuts.  Then, we fried small chicken pieces in the peanut-flavored oil.  One of the things I’ve learned about Chinese cooking is that you always have to have an empty plate or bowl ready by the side of your wok.  Most dishes require you to cook certain ingredients for a while, then set them aside and add them back in later.  Not surprisingly, we had to set aside the peanuts, then the chicken, and even the peanut oil!  Sort of troublesome, but completely worth it for the delicious final product.  Next, we put new oil in the pan and flavored it with Sichuan peppercorns, hot chillies, spring onions, and garlic.  As that cooked, we added carrots and some sort of Chinese asparagus.  To finish it off, we added the chicken and peanuts and thickened the sauce with starch.  
 Ready to eat our Kung Pao chicken

The sweet potato fries were surprisingly simple.  First, we deep fried slices of sweet potato in a huge amount of oil (of course).  Then, we set them aside, poured some of the oil out of the wok, and added sugar to the remaining oil to make a kind of syrup.  Finally, we put the sweet potatoes back into the wok and tossed them in the syrup–an especially healthy snack!  When I get back to the states and have full reign of my kitchen, I fully intend to make these fries a lot, perhaps with ice cream and caramel on the side!

Online Shopping, China style

One of my favorite ways to procrastinate at school in the US is to buy things online.  In China, due to my lack of a Chinese credit card, I usually procrastinate by chatting with my roommate, watching TV, or eating.  However, lately some friends and I decided to buy things from Taobao, China’s Amazon/E-bay hybrid with the generous help of my roommate and her credit card (we paid her back of course!).  Online shopping in China is ridiculous, just like everything else in China.

First, just like in the US, you browse for hours finding the best quality and cheapest price.  However, everything on Taobao is in Chinese, so it takes twice as long.  The prices also change seemingly arbitrarily…a pair of shoes can be 60RMB one minute and 200 the next.  You can buy fake designer items for a few dollars or the real thing for a lot more than a few dollars.  My friend was even able to find real Minnetonka moccasins!  

Taobao has official stores as well as private sellers, like Amazon and E-bay.  One of my favorite things about Amazon is that you can buy things from different sellers all in one go.  Taobao hasn’t quite gotten ahold of that concept yet.  So my dear roommate painstakingly helped us buy things from about five different stores.  She warned us that we would have to pay separate shipping fees for each store.  At first, I considered buying fewer things, until she said shipping is less than 2USD–incredible.

The other incredible thing about Taobao is that it only takes like three days for your packages to arrive.  Picking up packages is an experience in itself.  We don’t really have an address at CET, but I don’t even think that matters.  When you order things in China, you don’t get them delivered to your house or pick them up from the post office.  Instead, a dude on a motorcycle stops at a nearby location and calls you.  We gave Taobao my roommate’s phone number, so over the past few days she has been texting me from work to let me know what has arrived and where the guy is.  

The first time I picked up a package, I asked him if he had a package for my roommate, and he said, “Yes, but I don’t think you are her!”  Thanks, Captain Obvious.  Some other packages were dropped off at the front desk of the hotel that manages our dorm, and another was in a classmate’s dorm room (I think her roommate picked  it up?  But I really have no idea).  We still have a few things on the way, so I look forward to seeing where I will get to pick them up from.  What an adventure!