Group Update from China
We have grown to love the city of Kunming. Our large city, with a population of six million, fascinates us with its rich culture, which is a blending of modern developments and ancient traditions. We decided to each write about a different road in the city, and reflect on how these roads have contributed to our experience.
I am lost.
Well, the group is – we’re trying to get to the bus stop, but we’ve turned the wrong way and now we’re wandering around in circles between apartment complexes. These winding alleys aren’t true roads, and I’m not sure what their names are. I can feel that everyone is flustered; we want to make the bus on time but it seems as if we have entered a maze.
I, too, share their frustration, but I am distracted by an overpowering sense of déjà vu that hits me as I look around.
The apartments around us are three, maybe four stories tall, and old. The look of the place reminds me of Seoul and the small alleys in which I grew up. To my right, I can see into a small kitchen with woks sizzling on the stove, and to my left, a string of clothes hanging from someone’s window. Various doors are decorated with red, for Chinese New Year and good luck. I can feel a sense of home here.
For a few minutes as we wander, I find myself imagining the lives of people here as my mind mixes images of my own home with those I’ve seen throughout my stay here. I can feel the warmth of the laughter that fills that kitchen as the family chats about the awful Kunming traffic; I can see how a grandmother must lovingly hang up the clothes of her grandson so they won’t wrinkle, and how family, friends, and neighbors all come together before the New Year to tape those red posters to their doors, an act that brings them together as Chinese.
Unbelievably, as if the universe is pleased with me, there is an erhu playing classical Chinese music not far in the distance. I fall a small distance behind the others, enjoying simply being in this place. China manages day after day, month after month, to take my breath away with simple yet refreshing beauty.
“We’re so lost,” someone comments, and that pulls me out of my reverie.
I like being lost, I decide.
We tend to stigmatize being lost as a greatly undesirable state of being. But being lost in the moment here in the crevices of Kunming, I wonder why we think it is so bad to be in the unknown. I want to argue that being truly lost isn’t about being in the unknown, but rather about being unaware of oneself and one’s environment or situation.
And there are so many moments in life when I am lost in the unknown. In China, I’m lost on a nearly daily basis: I get lost while biking to a meeting point, I get lost in the conversations carried in the Kunming dialect, and I get lost at meal time when people are constantly making sure I have overflowing amounts of food by piling it all into my bowl.
In these moments, I can choose to feel frustrated at the unknown, or I can choose to enjoy being aware of what is – of who I am in this place. When I get lost biking around, I can still appreciate the new part of town that I’m discovering; I can pick up bits of Kunming dialect and make people laugh with my horrid version; and I can learn to be more selfless and generous from Chinese meal habits.
“Over here!” Someone says as I catch up with the others. We have managed to find our way out of these little streets and we get on our bus on time. It drops us off at a corner of another unknown road, and we are lost, yet again.
I laugh a little at the irony, but I’m ready and excited for whatever lies ahead.
There are several ways to get to Puji Road from my home. You could bike (the way I do most mornings). You could take bus no. 1 (the way I do when it’s raining). You could walk, I suppose (although it might take a while). If you wanted, you could even go by car—though if you own a car, it’s more likely that you’d be driving over Puji Road (on the elevated Second Ring Road) than driving along it.
That final assertion is not meant to suggest that Puji Road is difficult to drive along in a car—it’s not. The road seems practically new, has three lanes running in each direction, and is separated from the motorbike lanes by rows of (carefully maintained) palm trees and floral plantings. But once you move past the relatively nice apartments, once you pass under the Second Ring Road, the color scheme becomes increasingly muted—a result of the combined effect of the pervasive dust (which whirls into the air—and also your nose—when large dump trucks pass by) and the dull gray of industrial metal (which fills the hardware shops and mechanic yards lining the sides of the road). The considerable width of Puji Road stretches on forward, with not much to entice you to stop you along the way—for while the area around the road seems to have become poorer, the road itself is well maintained. Look, you say to yourself, look at this road. Development.
What is not easy to see from the road, unless you’ve already been told, are the villages which hide behind the shops. You can’t get to them by car—their twisting alleyways are too narrow, restricting passage within them to foot or motorbike. These villages are fragments of the countryside transplanted to the city interior, and their atmosphere is influenced by both. Apartment buildings only a few stories high and traditionally-styled houses wrapping around courtyards are juxtaposed at odd angles, and all are populated overwhelmingly by migrant workers. Hidden within these villages are schools and markets, temples and mahjong parlors, parks and chickens and at least one rather good restaurant. Inside these villages live the children who attend the school I work at—the children whose worries range from loneliness (when their single father must go away to work a temporary construction job for a couple of days, leaving them in their one-room apartment with only the television for company) to having to deal with the obnoxious kid who now sits behind them in class and is constantly annoying. These hidden villages contain life, life which is at times hard and at times happy, life that likely built the conspicuous road outside, life that is, in many ways, the driving force behind China’s “development,” yet at the same time serves as a reminder of all that is yet left to be done.
While living in a foreign country, I have found that it is often easier to continue my way along those wide, smooth roads, rather than to turn aside and take the time to explore the details hidden beside them. Perhaps I notice the immediate appearance of my surroundings, perhaps something in those surroundings nags at me a bit—there’s something there I feel I don’t quite understand—but it’s so much easier to ignore all that. When someone uses words I haven’t learned, the easiest choice is just to smile and nod and pretend I know what they’ve said. When I meet someone new, the easiest option is to, after introducing myself, let them move on to talk with someone else. If I wanted, I could even choose to view my temporary host family’s maid as simply a symbol of China’s development and growing wealth.
The choice to take the easy path or to instead go a step farther is one I’m faced with every day. Realistically, going that extra step and asking questions and being actively involved in one’s surroundings is something that’s rarely ever required. In most cases, it takes more effort than doing nothing, especially when inquiring using a foreign language. But what I’ve found is that through a sense of conscious inquisitiveness I can actively enrich my own experience here in China (and throughout my life as a whole). Through questions, I now know how to say “uvula” (among other more useful words), am basically knowledgeable about what it takes to become a pilot in China (thanks to a conversation with a family friend over Chinese New Year), and have, in general, begun to develop a deeper understanding of China’s culture and everything that I see around me on a daily basis. Through questions, I’ve learned about my homestay family’s maid’s own family—her son who lives with his grandparents back in their hometown, her husband who works at the airport and moved here with her to find work to pay their son’s school fees, her multiple siblings and the rice farm they grew up on—allowing me to view her, rightfully, as a person rather than merely a symbol. Inquisitiveness goes beyond asking others questions—it includes asking myself questions, such as “what’s a different way I could get to this destination?” leading me to find better (in other words, less hilly) routes through Kunming and at the same time explore and become more familiar with this city that is, for seven months, my home.
Inquisitiveness is a mindset, one I’ve chosen to adopt. Maybe you will too. If so, the next time you’re traveling down Puji Road, ride slowly, look around you, and maybe even stop along the way.
Strewn between Dongsi and Shulin is an unnamed, stone lane that extends only about one, maybe two city blocks and takes refuge between two pagodas: the Western Temple Pagoda and the Eastern Temple Pagoda. Both are remnants of the old Nanzhao Kingdom of 1,100 years past. The street itself, though not even a considerable fraction of the age of the two pagodas, shelters the remnants of Old Kunming, but seeing it so belittled by the towering buildings all around it, I can’t help but wonder if this is one of the few last pieces of tangible evidence of ancient China in this modern city?
A couple of days ago, a guest speaker came to give us a short introduction to Chinese history. She said something that really struck me then and has obviously stayed with me till now. She said that for the Chinese, it is hard to change quickly because they have had such a long history in which change has never happened at any conceivable fraction of the speed it is happening at now. I thought to myself, well how are the Chinese so reluctant to change if the country’s already made a record for itself precisely as a worldwide poster child depicting change?
She said, for Americans it might be particularly easy to innovate, to reform, and to change as quickly as change becomes available because so much has happened and changed in a country with a history as a unified nation of less than 250 years. What struck a chord in me is that yes, as a western-educated person, I’ve been bombarded with platitudes and now-trite statements on the priority of the future.
People don’t say you have a bright past or a bright present though if you think about it, it would actually be a much more logical statement to say, seeing as you can’t really divine the future. People say “don’t look back at your past”, people say “always look forward”. In China, even with all the change that’s happening now, people say “don’t forget your ancestors as you’ll become a river without a source, a tree without roots”. No wonder every other soap opera on Chinese television is based on one of the dynasties past. Here, all stand on the foundations of their ancestors. Their history is preserved in Chinese language, where for example, the word for “immediately” literally translates to “on a horse.” Their traditional knowledge is preserved in the continued practice of Chinese Medicine and though Western Medicine has gotten a much stronger foothold in China than Traditional Chinese Medicine has been able to get in the West, you won’t easily find pills lying around in a Chinese home. In fact, you will have a much easier time finding several kinds of tea, each meant for a different medicinal purpose; you will find mixtures of herbs prepared to boil every Saturday as “stay-healthy” medicine, and even some interesting insects, which I can personally attest to not tasting bad at all.
Yes, China is changing quickly, but as China rises, its history and traditions will not be uprooted, but will instead grow to accommodate a renewed nation. With an over 4000-year history of song, of painting, of medicine, of architecture and of innovation that have all spread to influence other cultures, how can the Chinese not look back at their past in awe and search in it for inspiration? Yes, like all other countries, China hasn’t had a smooth, concrete-paved road to where it is now, but just like the unpaved road, that’s exactly what gives it its attraction and its aesthetic value. Now, I can’t help but think why do we indict the past as we do? Sure, we too look at our countries’ histories as something to be proud of, but what about individual histories? I have learned that the Chinese people have suffered and gone through a lot collectively on their unnamed road leading to sanctuary, but if you ask anyone about their past, they only see it as a source of pride and experience. I think that as humans, we need to more often reflect on our past, on an individual level and in the many levels that constitute society, on moments that blight our constitutions and in our moments of bliss.
Off of 121 Avenue, Wenhua Alley—or “foreigner’s street” as it is often called-- stretches to Wenlin Street, near Green Lake. It hosts a number of restaurants, ranging from Indian to American cuisine, as well as bakeries, bookstores, and shops that specialize in foreign items. At night, this narrow street is transformed into an intensely crowded market, where many fake goods are sold on the sidewalk. It is a generally bustling part of town as bicycles, cars, and pedestrians all compete for space on this supposedly one-way street.
Foreigner’s street was one of the first places that I could find without a map. It was where I felt most comfortable because the food, people, and goods were innately more familiar. The rest of Kunming presented a different beast entirely. Everything was so completely different from anything that I had ever experienced. People eating with chopsticks, old nainais, grandmothers, dancing in parks, schoolgirls linking arms down the street, people in diandongches, electric scooters, honking their horns like crazy. I heard the songs of life around me; the sizzling of vegetables being barbequed on the street, the salespeople with their megaphones shouting throughout the city, the speakers outside every store blasting music, and the people who enthusiastically chat on their cell phones. I saw the bright red lanterns that hang in the streets, the busy movements of the traffic. It was exotic at first, but also completely bewildering when I realized that it would become every-day. My life so far had an entirely different tune, and I felt like I had to navigate through the complete unknown. I was culturally lost, so Wenhua Xiang, literally translated “Culture Alley,” became a welcome refuge.
I am undoubtedly Western; my sense of humor, the stories that I have remembered, and the songs that I consider “classics” are all Western. Here in China, I automatically stick out as different, irrespective of the fact that I have blond hair. I can listen to the songs that I hear on the streets, but I don’t know the lyrics. I can watch the people dancing around Green Lake, but I don’t know the rhythm. There are parts of the culture that I will never be able to understand without the native mindset. I cannot fully understand the people’s relationship with the government or the sometimes extremely indirect communication. After a certain point, the roots that I have set down can in no way fully penetrate the cultural fabric of the life here. I can explore the culture through my observations, but I do so from my own perspective, which is ultimately shaped by my cultural DNA.
Time has given me the opportunity to explore some aspects more deeply. I am studying kung fu and some clients at work are trying to teach me the local dialect. The group and I have learned about Chinese philosophies as well as some histories of the region. My homestay mother loves to read history books, and through her summaries, I’ve picked up a bit more of Chinese history. By looking at China through a traveler’s eyes, I can see intrigue hiding around every corner, which sparks my curiosity to learn about this country. The four months I have spent living here and exploring the city have given me the chance to search for answers to my questions, and have provided more insight about the place that once seemed so unfamiliar.
Kunming is now my home; I am no traveler anymore. The smells from the street vendor’s stands are standard (but no less enticing) and my interactions with the locals have become smoother. I am no longer only comfortable on foreigner’s street; I know my streets well. Life in Kunming has become normal. But my sense of foreign-ness hasn’t faded, and I don’t think it will. My understanding of what it means to be Chinese is aided by learning, observations, and experiences, but it is limited in essence. In China, I will always and forever be the foreigner in a very ethnically homogenous country. I am both an insider and an outsider, but most importantly, this doesn’t mean I cannot be a part of this dynamic city.
Xiaoximen is the transportation heart of Kunming, pumping an endless stream of cars, busses, bikers, electric scooters, and pedestrians in and out through its asphalt valves. Situated in the northwestern area of the city’s inner circle, Kunming’s “Small West Gate” is two layers of intersection lined with an assortment of both the most hip and most obscure shops. Seen from afar, the crossing rises up from the surrounding roads, a small mountain testament to the planners of the Kunming road system. The pair of roads that cross here carry heavy car, bus, bike, and electric scooter traffic. So, to make life safer for everyone (bikers especially), cars and busses were built their own raised intersection. Whenever I ride my old squeaky small-wheeled single-gear bike into this nexus, the automotive traffic on my left lifts above me and I am spit out into a cave-like hive of two-wheeled activity. The pervading subtle hum of electric scooters builds to a constant buzz, the conversations of pedestrians overlap, and that one bike with a worn down brake that always seems to be just within earshot is letting off echoing screams every time its rushed pedaler has to check their speed. Down here, the rather loose Chinese rules imposed by stop lights and cross walks have no authority; everyone must look out for themselves as they traverse the central roundabout.
I’ve learned that the only way to bike in Kunming is to go with the flow. As long as you stay within the mass of other bikes, scooters, and the rare motorcycle, there is a certain strength in numbers that will buffer you across roads with as much security as you could hope for. Bike traffic is a stream that will take you where you need to go, the more parallel to the current you travel, the quicker you shall arrive. This is on normal roads. Xiaoximen is where your stream meets four others and then dives into a whirlpool. To enter, you must first dodge the bikes trying to exit perpendicular to your path, cut around the circle to your desired outlet, and then perform the equally difficult task of exiting yourself. The already turbulent flow of bikes is broken further by pedestrians that either see their opportunity and dart across the road, or meander through the chaos, leaving you to dodge about them. It is no help at all that bikers will sometimes decide to oppose the established flow down these thin paths. In a word, the intersection is chaos.
It is thus fitting that China should be the source of Daoist philosophy, as the Small West Gate has been one of my many teachers on the application of these values. One of the pillars of Daoism is the principle of wu-wei, commonly translated as “effortless action”. It is to put your will in harmony with the natural flow of the universe, or, as I have come to apply it, the flow of traffic. It would be easy to let yourself be frustrated when a scooter cuts you off, or a wandering pedestrian blocks your initial path. If instead you can stay aware and see the subtle openings in the turbulent flow of bodies, leaning your bike to drift around them as a leaf rides the current around rocks in a stream, there is no conflict. Chaos is order waiting to be perceived just as the intersecting paths of bikers are avenues waiting to be found.
When I first arrived in China, I found myself in a novel atmosphere. As someone new to the language, new to the culture, new to the food, and new to this more independent style of living, I could only see the chaos that covered the surface of the new. The language was an incoherent stream of syllables that I couldn’t pluck individual words from. I strained my brain to organize the information, sorting it into a hill I would be able to climb. This hill of mine became a sheer cliff. I had approached my task with wei: effort or strain. I soon learned that I wouldn’t understand until I began to let go, sit back, and saturate myself with the ebb and flow of the voices without losing my awareness. After five months of this, Mandarin has soaked itself into my life here, becoming a welcome stage and backdrop for my every activity in China. Now, the sound of Chinese is comfortable, a rhythmic flow of consonants and vowels that even if I cannot understand, I can recognize within the larger structure of the language. I know I am still far from fluent, but my speech has become quite a bit more fluid than a straining brain could produce.
Chaos never leaves our lives. I know Xiaoximen will never miraculously organize itself, and as I am still on my trek towards Mandarin fluency, I will not be able to understand everything. All I can do is use patience and relaxed determination to surrender to the rhythms of the universe, finding security in things once insecure, and paths through channels once closed.
Every morning I leave my house riding a bicycle on my way to work. I turn around Green Lake for a short minute before heading south into the city. Sometimes, I’m still only half awake, and can’t help considering that my legs would hurt less if I had slept more or simply decided to ride less the previous day. I exit through the gate of my apartment complex and turn left on Cui Hu Dong Lu, Green Lake East Road, the street where my days in the city of Kunming begin and end.
Whatever the weather or temperature may be, there are always people on the large sidewalk situated between the water and the street I ride on. As it can be inferred from the name, Green Lake is a lake and is located close to the center of the city. However, it does not consist only of a big water pond. The color in its name comes from the shade of its waters and from the maze of pathways, small gardens, squares and a few buildings full of trees and plants. Every time I leave or come back home, I am amazed by the number of people I see in Green Lake and the diversity of activities they participate in. In the morning, I can hear the loud repeated “Haiya!” of badminton players smashing the birdie towards their partner or the sound of people shouting from the other side of the lake, in order to clear their throat I would guess. One can also listen to the music accompanying groups of dancers, who seem to follow choreographies learned by heart. More discreet are the people practicing martial arts, such as Kung Fu or Tai Chi, alone or in groups. In the evenings or on week-ends, when the number of people and cars around the park make it very difficult to ride back home, there are many musicians performing as well as street vendors selling breads, meat or flower-shaped cotton candy to a crowd of families and individuals walking along the edge of the lake.
Now, riding my bike quickly twice a day, trying to get to work or home in the shortest amount of time, I rarely take a moment to observe what surrounds me. And on week-ends, the first thought that comes to my mind is how dreadful it is to navigate between so many cars and people before finally reaching my destination. After riding on Green Lake East Road every day for a few months, this place that seemed so lively and intriguing, different from parks I had encountered so far, became slowly dulled by routine and habit. Hurrying on my bike along the lake, I started to simply notice that a particular badminton player was absent that day, or that the number of people feeding the birds appeared less than usual, perhaps because of the colder weather on this particular afternoon.
I do not think I have become unaware of the lively lake buzzing from the activities of people right outside the gate of my apartment complex. The seemingly little attention I give to badminton players, Tai Chi masters, singers or street vendors does not denote a lack of interest for the discovery of their habits and culture. I am merely not surprised anymore by that which was so new to me a few months ago. This Chinese “park culture” is now part of everyday life, an unquestioned reality that I meet riding along as part of my daily movement through the city.
I recently talked with my homestay mother about this particularity of Chinese culture and asked her if she could explain why so many people spend time at Green Lake doing so many different activities. She told me that in China, many households are composed of three generations and that the grandparents often go to parks in order to take care of their body, meet with friends or simply get out of the house for other reasons than buying food. She also explained to me that people have so much more free time now than they had a few decades ago, and they use it to walk in green areas, dance, sing or do exercise. This knowledge is interesting, but such information can also be found from the United States in articles about China. What living among a culture and passively soaking it up is really about, I have discovered, is to consider a group of women dancing in the cold with a strange racket they use to throw and catch a ball a perfectly normal occurrence, while riding to work early in the morning.
As far as initial impressions go, it doesn’t get much worse than the one I was left with after negotiating Beijing Road for the first time. It was early afternoon on a dark October Saturday, and I held a perpetual grimace as I sliced my way through the chilling rain on my newly-purchased bike. Self-pity was on my mind as I pedaled east along the First Ring Road, cursing my decision to try and find the swimming pool on that particular day. Ahead lay the intersection with Beijing Road, the point at which I had earlier that day planned, in blissful ignorance, to turn right en route to the pool. I turned right.
The road surface instantly deteriorated into what might as well have resulted from the combination of carpet bombing, a massive cheese grater, and the eruption of a somehow geographically-displaced Mount St. Helens. I instantly questioned my decision to buy a road bike— “there aren’t any bumps in Kunming! Who needs shocks? Or wide, knobby tires?” I had told myself earlier. Down into valleys of rubble and standing water I went, fender-less back tire drenching my backside with mud. Across metal plates whose edges loomed a number of inches above the pavement, over sections of road contoured (more serrated, really) surely as a means of testing Humvee suspension in worst-case scenarios.
I doubted a day would ever come when I would voluntarily take Beijing Road again, but months later, I was proven wrong. Happening to ride a route that crossed paths with my old nemesis, I discovered that the original abomination had been replaced by the most gloriously smooth asphalt I ever laid tires on.
China is a land of change, both in terms of its constant physical and social development and the personal transformations I have undergone in adapting to its culture. China’s change can come at the most breakneck or the most ponderous of paces. In the case of the former, I could give the example of a restaurant that appeared one day near my apartment complex. I believe “appeared” aptly describes its arrival: cycling by one Saturday, I noticed the innards of a store being dismantled. Two days later, I could hardly believe that, in the place of the ruins, a shiny, clean, completely new restaurant had been built. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though construction and personality are two different realms, there is my Nainai (Grandma), who I didn’t have a proper conversation with until approximately a month ago. I still remember the first time she just told me something (“I’m going to go buy food at the market,” she said, leaving the apartment), I found myself irresistibly smiling.
As for personal change, the same rule of speed applies. Some changes came on quickly out of necessity, such as learning how to use chopsticks, remembering not to flush toilet paper, and deciphering the enigmatic rules that govern Kunming’s hectic roadways. Other transformations—for instance, my newfound interest in cooking, lack of inhibition when interacting with strangers, abilities in co-raising a three-year-old, and language proficiency—have developed at a comparatively slow but constant rate. The once-mysterious and seemingly endless streets of Kunming have become familiar, the city mentally shrinking in the process. I can still remember the feeling of traversing uncharted territory as Luis, Youri, and I rode in a taxi back to the Program House following the scavenger hunt during the first week of the trip, a route I can still mostly recall today. And of course, there is the “big picture”: the questions and realizations our experiences—both with Chinese culture and within our group—have evoked, whose effects take the longest to be realized.
Beijing Road reminds me of a Chinese idiom I learned during my Mandarin studies in high school, Saiwengshima. The four-character phrase invokes the story of an old man and his horses, which, through an alternating series of misfortunes and serendipities, advises that disasters may be blessings in disguise—and vice-versa. I have often been reminded of the story’s lesson. During my recent bike trip around Dianchi, the lake on whose shores Kunming rises, I experienced my own Saiwengshima tale when, following the contours of the lake’s edge, I experienced alternating periods of infuriating headwinds followed by elation-inducing tailwinds.
As for the change being inspired in me as a product of my experiences here, its full extent and the multiplicity of its facets are something I have yet to fully perceive. Such revelations must wait until the first footsteps, meals and conversations; the first minutes, days, months, or even years following my homecoming. Until I am delivered home, reincarnated, and rediscover familiar things with my China-calibrated mind and senses, many of my transformations will remain hidden in plain sight, invisible amidst the culture that inspired them.