Meet the New Year (It’s the same as the Old Year)

January 9, 2018 Comments Off on Meet the New Year (It’s the same as the Old Year)

New Year’s Day in Kunming, 9:00 AM,  and the downtown was dead. There wasn’t a lot left to see or do but head to Changshui Airport to catch my flight to Hangzhou, where I had a 7-hour layover.

After several days I finally realized what it was that made this city sometimes feel like a big prison camp. It was the gates, walls, fences, grates, barriers, and bars that were everywhere. The point of all this design was of course to continuously break people down into their most basic, controllable unit, that is, the individual. A billion-point-three people could do some damage if they ever decided that the mandate from heaven had passed from the Party to someone else.

The streets? Divided not by paint stripes but physical barriers in the middle of the road. Bike/scooter lanes? Walled off. Walkways in subway stations? Divided by aluminum separators. The sidewalks were completely barred off from apartments and living areas with gates, locks, fences, and walls. Every unit, instead of having an open balcony, was enclosed by iron grating exactly like in a prison.

Nothing plays into the hands of control on a person-by-person basis, however, like the data aggregator/tracking device, which is so completely a part of existence that hardly anyone ever looks up. The devices allow the public to be pacified not with threats or generic propaganda but with customized eye and brain candy that is plugged into the purchase-consumption machine. People can’t act en masse without commonality of thought, and it’s hard to say the Party is wrong when you look at their docile charges, channeled and caged, and compare them to ours, who have made a complete mess of the freedoms they once had.

People don’t crave freedom, they crave a painless and brainless way to fill the horrible, aching, empty, yawning chasm of free time. The Party doesn’t tell them they’re free, it fills their time by telling them to work hard so they can afford the things that prove, once you have them, that you are happy.

The American Crudocracy, however, screams that you’re free, or that you would be if it weren’t for all the poor, black, and foreign people who have stolen your freedom from you by kneeling at your football game. The rage and laziness and ignorance are crystallized in the kleptocracy at the top, which insists that you’ll get your freedom back if you just allow a little more, okay, a lot more, kleptocracy and rage. And please don’t bother to vote.

The Party does its job with a lot more honesty, a lot less rage and theft, and with an eye towards helping the many rather than only a privileged few. Like the steel barricades that carefully channel pedestrians, China allows a lot of motion, and even some dissent, as long as you don’t try to hop the barricade. The control is gentle but firm and unresting, like the video cameras that track your every step.

So rather than saying it’s a New Year, it would be closer to the mark to say that it’s a not especially Brave, not especially New World.

Of the many great things that happened since my departure on the evening of December 25, one of the greatest was being cut off from everyone I know. No person is an island, but seven days in China without a data aggregator/tracking device sure makes you feel like one. I saw an American woman walking by, talking with a friend, and it was all I could do to stop from grabbing her arm and striking up a conversation. Luckily I refrained; the only thing that would likely have been struck is me.

Pretty soon it was time for me to take my leave of Kunming and I knew I’d be back, especially since I now had a tour guidebook that included the city’s most interesting destinations not next to a freeway. It’s funny how quickly a city goes from being scarily foreign to morning-after familiar. On the way to the station I even saw my disgusted street vendor lady who had been so mad at me for overypaying at the other vendor for the worthless stamps.

“Hey!” she said as we made eye contact. “I have more stamps! Cheap!”

“Next time!” I promised; she laughing at what she thought was a lie, me laughing because I meant it.

The train to the airport was full, but I was the only identifiable non-Chinese aboard. In a short two-hour flight I was back in Hangzhou, contemplating the miseries of a 7-hour layover and a 14-hour flight departing just before midnight.

Almost seven full days of a technological detox had been incredible. I wondered what had happened back home. How was everyone? Was there still air in my tires?

These long spells of nothing to do had made me appreciate being alone and filling my time with writing, reading, struggling with Chinese, and thinking my own thoughts with no one to bounce them off, no one to share them with, rocks skipping across a pond that left no ripple. The rest of China and the world were hooked on one huge algorithm syringe, and when you take the blue pill it’s astonishing what you see.

Part of China’s drive to become the lone superpower is its new policy of “civilization,” or “wenming.” Wenming is the philosophical vehicle to promote behavior and values that have made China a peer, and ultimately the global master.

For example, spitting. China had a terrible national habit of spitting. Young, old, male, female, toothless, toothy, the Chinese loved a good spit, and they did not GAF where the loogie landed. Somewhere along the way the Party realized that you couldn’t be a cultured superpower, respected by, say, France, if your citizens were covering the Champs-Elysees with a thick layer of yellow spatter.

Of course a lot of the spitting came from the chain smoking and the horrible air pollution, both of which result in throat/lung/respiratory diseases, but no great nation has ever simultaneously been a public spitting nation.

Spitting was just one obstacle to global greatness, but the Party decided that if it were going to send millions of tourist-ambassadors to Paris, Berlin, New York, and Decatur, it would need to also provide some basic cotillion for its spitting, pushing, hollering charges.

Enter the “Traveler Wenming,” or “Civilized Traveler,” a nationally distributed handbook available for free at every airport, in Chinese only. Here is a short list of things that the Civilized Traveler needs to keep in mind when he sashays abroad:

  1. No spitting!
  2. Say “Please,” “Thanks,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”
  3. No spitting!
  4. No grabbing sale items, no shoving to do No. 1 and No. 2, no blowing your nose in other people’s faces, no shoving in line, and NO SPITTING!
  5. Don’t throw down fruit peels, used tissues, or trash.
  6. Don’t smoke in the non-smoking section!
  7. Don’t take pictures where prohibited. Don’t take flash photos in people’s faces by surprise.
  8. Don’t spend all day in the public toilet!
  9. Flush.
  10. Respect old things and keep your hands to yourself.
  11. Stop yelling and hollering.
  12. Don’t eat and smoke in church, and no spitting there, either.
  13. Obey the tour conductor and flight attendant.
  14. Respect other nationalities and customs.
  15. Wear clothing!
  16. No drunkenness!
  17. Where it’s a custom, tip and don’t be a cheapskate.

The Civilized Traveler guide goes on to list a total of 30 civilized “wenming” behaviors to exhibit, and many more uncivilized behaviors to avoid, primary among them, of course, spitting.

But this list is only a quick reference. The guide goes into much greater detail and is 46 pages long, with exhaustive breakdowns of specific situations that require “wenming” behavior, for example on airplanes. The airplane section is broken down into:

  1. Waiting
  2. Boarding passes
  3. Boarding
  4. Airplane toilets (no spitting!)
  5. Airplane equipment
  6. Eating on the plane
  7. Carry-on baggage

As odd as it seems, these booklets are working, because I saw zero spitting, zero pushing and shoving, zero hollering, and probably not much sitting in the public toilet all day, although I didn’t time anyone. To the contrary, if anyone could benefit from a Wenming for Travelers it would be the classy American tourist whose comment in the Kunming Starbucks guest book was, “Maggie likes dick!”

Traveling American behaviors, like American foreign policy ones, are essentially irrelevant to China, though. Get over it, and then get used to it. The New Year is upon us with a vengeance.

END

———————–

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Meet the New Year

January 9, 2018 Comments Off on Meet the New Year

New Year’s Day in Kunming, 9:00 AM,  and the downtown was dead. There wasn’t a lot left to see or do but head to Changshui Airport to catch my flight to Hangzhou, where I had a 7-hour layover.

After several days I finally realized what it was that made this city sometimes feel like a big prison camp. It was the gates, walls, fences, grates, barriers, and bars that were everywhere. The point of all this design was of course to continuously break people down into their most basic, controllable unit, that is, the individual. A billion-point-three people could do some damage if they ever decided that the mandate from heaven had passed from the Party to someone else.

The streets? Divided not by paint stripes but physical barriers in the middle of the road. Bike/scooter lanes? Walled off. Walkways in subway stations? Divided by aluminum separators. The sidewalks were completely barred off from apartments and living areas with gates, locks, fences, and walls. Every unit, instead of having an open balcony, was enclosed by iron grating exactly like in a prison.

Nothing plays into the hands of control on a person-by-person basis, however, like the data aggregator/tracking device, which is so completely a part of existence that hardly anyone ever looks up. The devices allow the public to be pacified not with threats or generic propaganda but with customized eye and brain candy that is plugged into the purchase-consumption machine. People can’t act en masse without commonality of thought, and it’s hard to say the Party is wrong when you look at their docile charges, channeled and caged, and compare them to ours, who have made a complete mess of the freedoms they once had.

People don’t crave freedom, they crave a painless and brainless way to fill the horrible, aching, empty, yawning chasm of free time. The Party doesn’t tell them they’re free, it fills their time by telling them to work hard so they can afford the things that prove, once you have them, that you are happy.

The American Crudocracy, however, screams that you’re free, or that you would be if it weren’t for all the poor, black, and foreign people who have stolen your freedom from you by kneeling at your football game. The rage and laziness and ignorance are crystallized in the kleptocracy at the top, which insists that you’ll get your freedom back if you just allow a little more, okay, a lot more, kleptocracy and rage. And please don’t bother to vote.

The Party does its job with a lot more honesty, a lot less rage and theft, and with an eye towards helping the many rather than only a privileged few. Like the steel barricades that carefully channel pedestrians, China allows a lot of motion, and even some dissent, as long as you don’t try to hop the barricade. The control is gentle but firm and unresting, like the video cameras that track your every step.

So rather than saying it’s a New Year, it would be closer to the mark to say that it’s a not especially Brave, not especially New World.

New Year, newly untethered

Of the many great things that happened since my departure on the evening of December 25, one of the greatest was being cut off from everyone I know. No person is an island, but seven days in China without a data aggregator/tracking device sure makes you feel like one. I saw an American woman walking by, talking with a friend, and it was all I could do to stop from grabbing her arm and striking up a conversation. Luckily I refrained; the only thing that would likely have been struck is me.

Pretty soon it was time for me to take my leave of Kunming, New Year or not, and I knew I’d be back, especially since I now had a tour guidebook that included the city’s most interesting destinations not next to a freeway. It’s funny how quickly a city goes from being scarily foreign to morning-after familiar. On the way to the station I even saw my disgusted street vendor lady who had been so mad at me for overypaying at the other vendor for the worthless stamps.

“Hey!” she said as we made eye contact. “I have more stamps! Cheap!”

“Next time!” I promised; she laughing at what she thought was a lie, me laughing because I meant it.

The train to the airport was full, but I was the only identifiable non-Chinese aboard. In a short two-hour flight I was back in Hangzhou, contemplating the miseries of a 7-hour layover and a 14-hour flight departing just before midnight.

Almost seven full days of a technological detox had been incredible. I wondered what had happened back home. How was everyone? Was there still air in my tires?

These long spells of nothing to do had made me appreciate being alone and filling my time with writing, reading, struggling with Chinese, and thinking my own thoughts with no one to bounce them off, no one to share them with, rocks skipping across a pond that left no ripple. The rest of China and the world were hooked on one huge algorithm syringe, and when you take the blue pill it’s astonishing what you see.

Wenming for fun and profit

Part of China’s drive to become the lone superpower is its new policy of “civilization,” or “wenming.” Wenming is the philosophical vehicle to promote behavior and values that have made China a peer, and ultimately the global master.

For example, spitting. China had a terrible national habit of spitting. Young, old, male, female, toothless, toothy, the Chinese loved a good spit, and they did not GAF where the loogie landed. Somewhere along the way the Party realized that you couldn’t be a cultured superpower, respected by, say, France, if your citizens were covering the Champs-Elysees with a thick layer of yellow spatter.

Of course a lot of the spitting came from the chain smoking and the horrible air pollution, both of which result in throat/lung/respiratory diseases, but no great nation has ever simultaneously been a public spitting nation.

Spitting was just one obstacle to global greatness, but the Party decided that if it were going to send millions of tourist-ambassadors to Paris, Berlin, New York, and Decatur, it would need to also provide some basic cotillion for its spitting, pushing, hollering charges. Wenming for the New Year was gonna need a major push.

Enter the “Traveler Wenming,” or “Civilized Traveler,” a nationally distributed handbook available for free at every airport, in Chinese only. Here is a short list of things that the Civilized Traveler needs to keep in mind when he sashays abroad:

  1. No spitting!
  2. Say “Please,” “Thanks,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”
  3. No spitting!
  4. No grabbing sale items, no shoving to do No. 1 and No. 2, no blowing your nose in other people’s faces, no shoving in line, and NO SPITTING!
  5. Don’t throw down fruit peels, used tissues, or trash.
  6. Don’t smoke in the non-smoking section!
  7. Don’t take pictures where prohibited. Don’t take flash photos in people’s faces by surprise.
  8. Don’t spend all day in the public toilet!
  9. Flush.
  10. Respect old things and keep your hands to yourself.
  11. Stop yelling and hollering.
  12. Don’t eat and smoke in church, and no spitting there, either.
  13. Obey the tour conductor and flight attendant.
  14. Respect other nationalities and customs.
  15. Wear clothing!
  16. No drunkenness!
  17. Where it’s a custom, tip and don’t be a cheapskate.

The Civilized Traveler guide goes on to list a total of 30 civilized “wenming” behaviors to exhibit, and many more uncivilized behaviors to avoid, primary among them, of course, spitting.

But this list is only a quick reference. The guide goes into much greater detail and is 46 pages long, with exhaustive breakdowns of specific situations that require “wenming” behavior, for example on airplanes. The airplane section is broken down into:

  1. Waiting
  2. Boarding passes
  3. Boarding
  4. Airplane toilets (no spitting!)
  5. Airplane equipment
  6. Eating on the plane
  7. Carry-on baggage

As odd as it seems, these booklets are working, because I saw zero spitting, zero pushing and shoving, zero hollering, and probably not much sitting in the public toilet all day, although I didn’t time anyone. To the contrary, if anyone could benefit from a Wenming for Travelers it would be the classy American tourist whose comment in the Kunming Starbucks guest book was, “Maggie likes dick!”

Traveling American behaviors, like American foreign policy ones, are essentially irrelevant to China, though. Get over it, and then get used to it. The New Year is upon us with a vengeance.

END

———————–

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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Hotel dinner challenge redux

January 8, 2018 Comments Off on Hotel dinner challenge redux

It’s funny how when you write everything with pen and paper you entirely forget about using a keyboard. Nothing to plug in or turn on, no socket to search for, no concern over how much battery you have left. You just take out your notebook (those under age 40, “notebook” originally meant a paper pad for writing), and get to work. Takes up zero space and weighs nothing.

It was the last full day of my trip and it turned into another odyssey, this time to a truly horrible place called the Yunnan Wild Animals Park. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line, and then a couple of miles walking along very busy streets, where I got to appreciate one basic design fact: China knows how to pour concrete,

I found the park, which was an animal abuse area masquerading as a zoo. It was all horrible, but the lone sad orangutan gazing out at us while people shrieked and pointed and banged on the glass was more than I could bear. I had never seen an orangutan before and didn’t realize how large they were and how utterly human. This one lay on his steel display bed, so sad that it made me want to cry, his giant black eyes occasionally blinking, and I wondered how many decades he had left inside that tiny little cell.

I had expected some kind of park where there were paths and wildlife, but instead it was indeed “some kind of park,” the hideous kind. I saw only a handful of wild birds the entire time I was in China, less than twenty, despite countless hours outdoors and travel to some pretty non-urban places. The fact is that most of China has no wildlife of any kind left, not even house sparrows. What can be eaten or caught, which is everything, had been.

I found the main road and walked another couple of miles but my feet hurt so badly from the pavement that I couldn’t walk fast enough to get warm. Walking slowly, cold, is its own special displeasure. Another bus stop, another series of complex ciphers, another freezing wait, another uncertain trip, but 32 cents and heating, so there was nothing to complain about. Since the value of one yuan is about sixteen cents, and since people in the markets and on the street will bargain and haggle over one yuan, it gave me pause that despite its incredible wealth, the poverty in China is so profound that sixteen cents is an amount of money worth working for.

The bus seemed headed for downtown, which was a joyous feeling, until we made a left heading out of the city, which was not. I got off and figured I was close enough to find a subway station, and the plethora of scooter cabbies meant I was never really close to being lost. At the bus stop where I alit a woman was making gyoza, so I ordered fifteen. She was surprised but shrugged. I was starting to learn that when people responded to my perfectly mangled Chinese with surprise, I was usually saying something insane, so pay attention. It was fortunate I did, because instead of reaching for the gyoza tray she lifted the steamed meat bun container, fifteen of which would have amply fed a hungry family of, well, fifteen.

“No, no,” I said, pointing to the gyoza.

“Ah, gyoza! Why didn’t you say so?”

I felt like saying, “Because I am a fucking idiot,” but it was so self-explanatory as to have been redundant.

Her husband steamed the gyoza as I shivered and shook on the plastic stool, but when they came it was well worth the hypothermia, which the gyoza banished. I smothered them in soy sauce and fiery hot peppers, took out the reused wooden chopsticks (“Disinfected!” a sign on the wall promised) and got to work. Yum. As I ate I watched the woman do the meticulous work of rolling each gyoza skin, carefully fill it, pinch it closed, and line it up on the tray. Each one took about two minutes and the cost of each gyoza, retail, was twenty cents each. At the end she had small gob of leftover dough, about the size of a pair of dice, and instead of chunking it she put it back in the dough sack and returned it to the refrigerator. And I remembered, sixteen cents.

I was still northeast of downtown and figured I’d walk until I got cold again. It took a few hours to get back to my hotel, during which time I began trying to keep note of all the different things being sold at the hundreds of tiny shops and stalls and on blankets spread out on the sidewalks.

They included vendors who sold only chickens, toys, shoes, vegetables of every kind, guitars, haircuts, scooter repair services, donuts, games, bread, bikes, gyoza, noodles, used books, posters, printing services, silkscreening, tailors, medicine, beauty products, real estate, cardboard recycling, chicken coops with live chickens sold separately, pineapple carving, noodle dough, rag cleaners, garbage pickers, plumbing supplies, supermarkets, convenience stores, Chinese medicine, medical equipment, hairdresser/barber supplies, bags of every size and material, lottery tickets, internet cafes, roast duck, hot pot cafes, smog masks, thermoses, slippers, slipper liners, pots and pans, toilets, jewelry, diabetic foods, smoothies, wieners, nuts, feng shui furniture, gourds, necklaces and bracelets made from beads, safes, educational software, tracking devices, miscellaneous home goods, Playboy brand menswear, eyeglasses, picture frames, batteries, community health centers, blood banks, cigarettes, surveillance equipment, security guard supplies and clothing, uniforms, electric scooters, urns, wedding services, inns, sake, oranges, flowers, and even an old mendicant lying on the pavement in his underpants, thrashing his leg stumps and rolling on his belly while playing a sad song from a boombox and begging for money.

But what I didn’t see were bookstores or magazines or newspapers. The only bookstore in the entire city that I’d seen, Xinhua, was owned by the Party’s biggest “news” organ, and reminded me of East Germany in the days of the DDR. Nothing is deadlier to a police state than books, so you have to vet them with great care, and predictably there was hardly anything in Xinhua worth reading, especially literature or history or biography, i.e. “things with a different version of the possible than that espoused by the state.”

This is the big tradeoff in China, truth for security, and although people didn’t seem very happy or enthused about the prospects of tomorrow, which promised the same brutal toil of today as they battled for profits in 16-cent increments, the knife fight in the mud of selling useless shit on the street or in a cramped rented space, China also felt incredibly safe. And healthcare was available everywhere at little cost. And hundreds of millions were experiencing a rapidly increasing standard of living which included, for some, 100% carbon that was made fully of all carbon, purely.

China has 1.3 billion people and is incredibly heterogeneous, and heterogeneous nations have the potential for massive unrest. Through surveillance, a total police presence, a consumer economy, a corporatist state, and a continually rising standard of living, it offers stability, safety, growth, and a meaningful chance to participate in the global economy, soon to dominate it.

Is that worse than a corporatist state that openly wars against its racial and ethnic minorities, that humiliates the poor, that reserves healthcare for the rich, and that provides primarily for the profits of the richest? If freedom is so important and such a distinct part of our “special” democracy, why do so few people exercise it even to vote? Why is our “freedom” expressed in moronic captivity to football and professional sports? Why is our freedom of speech mirrored by a fundamentally illiterate and innumerate society?

Most importantly, if you don’t like China’s approach, what steps will you take to make sure it doesn’t happen here?

The fact is that free people die young, whereas properly enslaved people live longer. The older I get, the more I appreciate the extra minutes and hours.

Back at Hotel Unhelpful Clerks I collapsed and it was just barely three o’clock on New Year’s Eve. I watched TV for four hours, enjoying the amazing personality cult of the Great Leader. It was done with none of the heavyhandedness of the DDR, DPRK, or USSR, but cult is cult. And to be fair, Xi Jin Ping is a much better, smarter, more thoughtful, more humane, and a better human being than Trump or anyone in the current U.S. congressional majority, and much of the minority.

China spends billions on education, feeds, clothes, and provides healthcare for its poor children, and is continually struggling with how to raise standards and not simultaneously wreck the earth’s environment completely. Best of all, since all TV is run by the state, there is zero screaming on the news, zero attack-dog politics, and no bad news of really any kind. The repeated messages are:

  1. Be happy.
  2. You’re lucky you’re Chinese.
  3. This is our century, our world.

The surfeit of happiness and good thoughts made me hungry, so I decided to brave the hotel restaurant one last time for dinner. They seated me at a lone table again, but this time in front of the cashier and manager’s business desk, facing the rear of his two computer monitors, and boxed in by a refrigerator.

I felt like the orangutan, as the table sat squarely in the entrance so every patron could analyze my menu choices and my facility with chopsticks prior to being escorted into the free range dining area, which was private.

We hashed out the menu thing and they brought a delicious lamb and vegetable dish. My waitress from the first night had ended her shift and was in street clothes, but nonetheless stayed around until I finished eating to make sure everything went okay, i.e. I didn’t leave hungry. Having conquered the mighty Hotel Dinner Challenge I deemed it time to take on the Hotel Coffee and Tea Lounge Challenge, so I removed downstairs to the cafe.

I had little faith in the barista despite the fancy espresso machine, and she was nowhere to be seen, and I had nothing to do, so I grabbed a tourism guide for Kunming and began thumbing through it.

Who knew?!?!?!?

Kunming and its environs are packed with countless amazing travel experiences, exactly zero of which involved miles of frozen tramping along freeway side paths, zero of which involve seven-hour bus trips, zero of which involve haircuts and tea swindles, and all of which look tailored to show you a great time. If only I had known that things like travel and tourism guides existed, hidden as they were in the hotel lobby that I had passed through every day, given away for free, and spread out on large glass tables!

The barista took my order and brought out a beautiful cappuccino with a milk heart in the middle. It was the best coffee I had had since leaving home, and was $1.66 cheaper than Xingbaka. As the coffee warmed me, I thought of home. I missed my friends. I missed my bicycle. I missed my family, and I really missed my wife. Time to call this a wrap. Time to go home.

 

 

END

———————–

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Mid-trip crisis

January 7, 2018 Comments Off on Mid-trip crisis

There comes a time in every journey when you wonder “What TF am I doing here?” which usually follows hard on the heels of “I don’t think I brought enough money” and “Where can I get some diarrhea medicine?”

I was up at 4:30 again and realized that I had been traveling so hard that I’d not had much time to think. Before leaving, a friend who knows me well had prophesied that “This trip will be life-changing.”

First and foremost I realized that travel was largely about fear, or rather about tackling my fears of the known and my fears of the unknown. China had been a great big ball of uncertainty and fear, and each obstacle surmounted left me with an amazing feeling, no matter how trivial the conquest.

Likewise, there were challenges that had gotten the best of me, fears I couldn’t overcome, and each residual disappointment was as acute as the thrill of the tiny victories. What fears? What obstacles? What monsters lurking under the bed? Glad you asked. Here’s a list:

  • Fear of stepping in excrement on the edges of the squat toilet
  • Fear of catching the wrong bus
  • Fear of getting off at the wrong stop
  • Fear of going into a restaurant
  • Fear of menus
  • Fear of having my passport squeeze out of my front pocket and into the squat toilet
  • Fear of asking a question
  • Fear of not understanding the answer
  • Fear of getting lost
  • Fear of staying on the beaten path
  • Fear of ordering food
  • Fear of ingredients
  • Fear of exchange rate arithmetic
  • Fear of overpaying
  • Fear of underpaying
  • Fear of running out of cash
  • Fear of credit card declination
  • Fear of traffic collisions
  • Fear of emergency dental work
  • Fear of failing the subway/airport security screening
  • Fear of immigration
  • Fear of being a stupid tourist (redundant)
  • Fear of being mistaken for a loser expat
  • Fear of dialects
  • Fear of tones
  • Fear of kanji
  • Fear of asking in broken Chinese and being answered in perfect English
  • Fear of souvenir shopping
  • Fear of haggling
  • Fear of foul weather
  • Fear of smog
  • Fear of smug
  • Fear of other tourists
  • Fear of being the only tourist
  • Fear of losing shit
  • Fear of losing fitness
  • Fear of vanishing

There are probably a whole lot more, such as “Fear of running out of instant coffee,” but you get the point. However, this was only part of it. It has taken me a lifetime of travel, and it was only thanks to China, that I realized I’ve never cared for authenticity and have instead enjoyed travel for the solitude that came from brief interactions with strangers.

I began to figure this out when flying into Kunming from Hangzhou, seated next to the women from Oklahoma City. One of them had lived in Kurdistan for several years as a missionary and had learned the local language. She bemoaned the fact that in a few short years she had seen the demise of so much traditional culture, from language to clothing to customs.

“People no longer sat down for tea that spanned five hours,” she said, causing me to thank dog for at least that bit of cultural genocide.

That’s when I started to realize that the authenticity of a culture, whatever that even means, had no allure for me. I didn’t care whether people sat down for a five-hour tea or none at all, because authenticity doesn’t exist, if by authentic we mean that which is true to itself, independent of and unaffected by Starbucks and Wal-Mart. The trends and imperatives of a global consumer economy are irresistible and, with English as the globalizing weapon of choice, they flatten everything in their path.

But it took that seven-hour trip by bus into the farthest reaches of China for me to finally understand that I would never find the mythical authentic culture and that I not only didn’t care about now, but never really had. I was as happy strolling a neon strip punctuated with sales outlets for Apple and Huawei as I had been the time I wound up in the headman’s hut on the island of Sebirut, in the Mentawais.

The thing I sought was all around me, solitude and the oblivion of a strange land. I didn’t need cultural references and artifacts from 2000 BC to make it feel real.

By 6:30 it was still pitch dark and the hotel breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7:30. I hit the streets of Pu’er, which were so silent and pleasant in the darkness. Early morning cleaning crews swept the sidewalks, and they were wearing hi-viz vests with electric red blinking lights … we need those for Team Lizard Collectors! The cleaners’ presence explained in part why Kunming and Pu’er were so clean.

But there was another, more important reason. The Communist Party sees its role as a moral force, and throughout town there were exhortations on signs for people to take responsibility for helping build the new China. One of those jobs was not throwing shit on the ground, and another was not spitting. I saw zero public urination and smelled its residuals nowhere, thanks to effective moral instruction and numerous free public toilets that were cleaned all the time.

Pu’er was even warmer than Kunming, and after breakfast I checked out and did some more walking prior to heading over to the airport. A small hill on the north end of town had a series of morality murals telling people how to live. In addition to being very beautifully painted, the messages were good ones.

“Strong children make strong China.”

“Care for the elderly.”

“Wealth is helping.”

No one seemed to pay any attention to the murals except me.

Like Kunming, Pu’er had its own city bike rental program, which cost about 32 cents an hour. I longed to go for a pedal, but without a data aggregator/tracking device and a WeChat data aggregation/tracking account, I couldn’t rent.

I was now on my fourth day of going everywhere on foot and I wasn’t sure but that I didn’t prefer it. For one, you saw so much more. It’s easy to stop and look and snap a photo on foot, but the imperative of momentum on a bike makes you want to keep going.

Of course you cover a fraction of the territory on foot, but what you see, you remember, and the details are more carefully observed and much less evanescent. I doubt I would have scored that sweet potato on a bike. I wended my way over to the airport and went up to the ticket counter.

“I”m here to pick up my ticket.”

“Passport, please.” The clerk picked up a stack of boarding passes and flipped through them. “Here you are, sir.”

Chinese efficiency was putting on a clinic, and the one-hour flight back to Kunming was a contrast to the Baling Wire Express. My neighbors never looked at me, much less offered me a bag of oranges or took off their pants. In addition to the bus breakdown, which the airplane didn’t emulate, at one point in the bus trip one of my companions had taken off his pants and lounged around in his undershorts. He also cracked the window every now and then to smoke a cigarette in defiance of the ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING OR SPITTING signs in the bus.

My genteel seatmate on Each China Air didn’t spit, didn’t smoke, left his pants on, and never once tried to open the airplane window. Cheap, slow, difficult travel makes a good pengyou and a better story. Fast, pricey, seamless air travel makes nothing but lousy sleep and a stiff neck.

During the flight I had studied my map of Kunming a bit more and decided that rather than return to my hotel I’d strike out by subway and on foot to find Humashan Park. It was a big green glop on the map and I thought it might be interesting, not least of all because it was east of town, far from the city center and therefore new territory.

On the subway a group of students hogged all the space on the benches even though if they hadn’t been spread out like a warm breakfast I could have sat down. An aged man carrying a blue bundle and wearing a ragged coat tugged my arm. “Come sit down,” he said. He turned to the students and gruffly said, “Make room for the gentleman!”

They did and, impersonating a gentleman, I sat next to him. We began chatting but it was rough sledding as his accent was brutal. The crammed subway listened.

He wanted to know all about my travels, how I liked China, where I was from, whether America was as nice as Kunming, why my wife wasn’t with me, and the ages, occupations, and marital statuses of each child. When he learned about my grandson, he was especially happy.

This one kind old man, he was 85, made as much of an impression on me as anything I’d seen or done. When he found out that I was going to Humashan Park he took out his data aggregator/tracking device and began giving me directions. Finally he offered to guide me though it was out of his way, but I declined.

We parted at the station and I began walking up a broken down and rotting street that, after a mile or so, crossed a freeway and became a miracle mile of restaurants. It was two o’clock and I was hungry, but my fear of menus and ordering really came on strong, like hives, plus the lunch rush was over and most of the staff at each restaurant were sitting down to eat.

After passing two hundred yards of restaurants I got disgusted with myself and swore I would enter the next place I passed. I did and of course the staff were just sitting down to eat.

“So sorry!” I said, and made to leave.

“No, no!” said the owner, a younger man in his early 40s. “Come here!”

Everyone stared at me but they were friendly. “This okay?” He pointed at something in the display case.

“Yes,” I said, unsure which of the 250 raw ingredients he had meant.

“Go sit now,” he commanded, donning his apron.

I obeyed and one of the staff poured me a cup of much-needed hot tea. After about fifteen minutes he came to my table, slung a heaping plate of chicken in peanut sauce, ripped off his apron and sat down to watch me eat. I tore into it with a gusto that no politeness could fake; I was hungry and the food was exceptional. Then came the questions and by now I was getting the hang of it, even with the molasses-thick Kunming accent.

Lunch stretched out and he took some pictures, offered me a ride to the park, and refused to take a penny for the massive lunch. When I left, he put out his hand.

“Pengyou,” he said.

“Hao pengyou,” I said back, there on the edge of town a few miles from my home, and it was good.

The walk to Humashan Park turned out to be not good, a bust actually, but it also turned out to be a bus, a local bus. After leaving the restaurant I concluded that my friend was a poor estimator of distances. He had said “about 1.5 km” but two hours later I was still walking, and all pretense of anything remotely scenic was left far behind as I was tramping along a sidewalk along a concrete barrier along a freeway.

After forever plus a long time I reached the park entrance but it was closed and hadn’t, from appearances, been a going concern since Mao was in diapers. The freeway bent off into the distance, and after several days of 8-10 hours worth of walking, my legs hurt. My feet hurt. My everything hurt. And it all hurt in unison, reaching a crescendo at the moment I passed a bus stop.

The local bus system for a city of six million people is complex. This stop alone hosted six different bus routes, each route printed on a small sign. There were a couple of other idiots freezing along with me, and I started studying the routes, trying to figure out which bus would get me back downtown.

After an hour’s wait and a coldness that had permeated my mitochondria, my bus came. I hoped it was my bus.

It only cost 32 cents, and more importantly it was warm, so I cast aside uncertainty and Fear of Wrong Bus and boarded. Less importantly, it appeared to be going in exactly the wrong direction, and even less importantly than that, I couldn’t understand the stops being announced, and the digital sign up front wasn’t working. Wrong bus? Wrong way? No directions? No problem because, heater.

I could have asked someone for help but I was afraid they’d say I had to get off and I still hadn’t thawed. Some of the bus stops had signs and names, and my initial worry gave way to confidence. Soon I’d be downtown, near food, and a mere hour or so walk back to the hotel, two at the most. When I disembarked I felt pleased, like Columbus five or six years after discovering America when he learned that he’d not discovered a new route to India but rather a couple of continents.

I ducked into a restaurant arcade and picked something off the menu that looked ghastly hot and it did not disappoint. Imagine my surprise when, on the tromp home, I passed Kunming’s very own Specialized store! Inside it felt like home! Carbon everywhere, virtually all of it 100% carbon and made all of carbon for silly prices, and salespeople clearly marking the minute until their next ride. We had a lively conversation! They wanted to know all about cycling in California, but all I could tell them was that the Wanky blog was blocked by the Great Firewall. They said that cycling in Kunming was excellent and growing, but the whole time there I saw exactly one cyclist, so I guess if they sold one bike they’d be doubling the cyclist population, and 100% growth is definitely growth. They confirmed lots of hills and climbing, and the presence of a nearby Starbucks meant they had all the ingredients for a Cycling in the South Bay Kunming franchise.

I got back to Hotel Lukewarm Shower late and dead, but it sure was nice to wash off and slap on a clean pair of underpants, my last.

 

END

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Chairman Mao

January 4, 2018 Comments Off on Chairman Mao

I left the hotel at 5:30 and the streets were deserted except for a handful of cars and electric scooters. Whether you like it or not, China is our future, and our future is electric. The scooters were silent except for the sound of their tires, and it struck me that despite the darkness no one bothered to use their scooter headlights, perhaps to save battery run time. Nor are helmets required; it was strange seeing so many bare heads on motor bikes.

But of all the things that were strangest and most disturbing about China, none was even remotely as disquieting as the constant surveillance. The video cameras were everywhere, every sixty or seventy paces, and they were matched by a constant police presence. The public security apparatus was on every street corner or not far from it, and you quickly dispensed with any notion of privacy or unobserved activity of any kind. Although I was traveling phone-and-computer free, I could easily see how total the surveillance becomes once the state has the power to intercept all digital communications, which are your thoughts. I was glad that my paranoia was benign, accepting that the monitoring was constant, but not really caring other than to note how effectively the surveillance modified behavior and thought.

The Chinese goal of total thought and behavioral control, however, wasn’t simply for the purpose of maintaining political power, but to maintain political power through a consumer economy that was constantly raising the standard of living. The vibrancy and energy of China is not easily observable in art or culture, but is overwhelming in its manifestation of consumer activity and the development of financial structures that  enhance and accelerate the growth of domestic spending.

Commerce, in other words, was everywhere, but art and those things requiring independence of political thought, especially dissent, were nowhere to be seen. This played hand in glove with the total ascendancy of data aggregator/tracking devices, which keep a billion-point-three people glued to screens that alternated between carefully tailored political messages, advertising, monitored peer-to-peer and peer-to-network communications, and music. And selfies.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

At any given time in any given crowd, the great majority of people were bent over their data aggregator/tracking devices, oblivious.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

As I made my way downtown, hungry, I passed a woman with a small cart on which she was energetically cooking up what looked like the most extraordinary breakfast burritos I had ever seen or smelled. I ordered one and she began frying an egg and mixing in all manner of ingredients over a flat pan that was heated by coals.

However good I expected it to taste, after going to bed hungry and stomping the streets for an hour to further stoke my raging appetite, it was a thousand times better. It was also filling, fresh, and hot, and set me back a total of $1.20. Before long I had a hankering for coffee, and could not resist my generation’s equivalent of McDonald’s, which is Starbucks, or “Xingbaka.” I swore, falsely it turned out, that this would be my sole stop there, and slunk in, embarrassed, for my tribute to American industrialized food. Nor was I surprised at the incredible price of $7.00 for a grande latte, for which I could have bought five street burritos.

And I have to admit that it tasted very, very good, enhanced no doubt by the deep loneliness that had set in after an entire two days of no contact with family, friends, or news from outside the Great Firewall.

On the way back to the hotel I felt pleased to be able to find my way around a pretty big city with nothing but a map written in Chinese, but I was dispirited at my difficulties in speaking. As it turned out, reading was much more useful anyway.

Along the river I passed an impromptu flea market where vendors, none of whom was under the age of about 70, had spread out the most useless of wares I had ever seen, and for which they had, incredibly, no end of customers. Old blankets, old belts, stained kiddie shoes, ancient underpants with frayed edges, rusted toenail clippers, plastic and glass jewelry of the lowest sort; it looked like a supplemental income program for the aged.

Finally something caught my eye, proving that there is one born every minute. An old woman was selling Chairman Mao pins and old banknotes and medallions. We began haggling. She wanted $1.40 for a couple of tiny pins barely worth a nickel, so I offered her eighty cents. She laughed and we haggled some more until I got them for a dollar. Then she tried to sell me a broken transistor radio. Remember those? I moved on.

Sort of wondering about why I had stopped to buy a memento of one of the all-time mass murderers, I passed another blanket with a similar layout. I made the fatal mistake of pausing for the briefest of seconds, and the old duffer was instantly pushing a collection of canceled Chairman Mao postage stamps into my hand. “Fifty dollars!” he said.

I thumbed through the plastic display case which couldn’t have been worth more than five dollars, probably closer to fifty cents. I offered him two dollars and he said he couldn’t take a penny less than twenty-five for such rarities, so we went back and forth until he put them down and offered me an equally useless collection of stamps bearing Sun Yat Sen. One thing about negotiating in China that you need to learn early and often is that you always lose. It takes time to know the value of useless crap, and to make it worse you know and they know that for you, five bucks is a cup of coffee–except at Starbucks. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they have a mercantile culture dating back five thousand years. Plus, there is national pride at beating Americans, and especially tourists, in any negotiation.

I finally caved per the script and shelled out the insane price of ten dollars. I took no comfort in the happiness he got out of the deal. Then I noticed that the Chairman Mao stickpin lady had been standing off to the side, scowling. She had followed me and monitored the entire transaction. As I left she sidled up beside me.

“He defrauded you. What a rip-off! A cheat! You were burgled in plain daylight!”

“Really?”

“He’s a notorious cheating old man, a criminal, a thief of the worst kind. I would have sold you those stamps for nine dollars.”

“Quite a bargain.”

“Right! That old man is known for cheating everyone. He even cheats his poor old aunt.”

“Aunt? My goodness! How old is she?”

“She’s a hundred and three, totally blind. He steals from her all the time. Look,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out the identical Mao stamp set that the old man had been hawking. “Nine dollars, only for you because you are my good friend.”

Whenever a Chinese person who you don’t know calls you a good friend, you are about to get fucked. The old man had said it about twenty times and here she was, another street thief, calling me a good friend for a dollar less.

“Good friend?” I asked.

She brightened. “Hao pengyou! Hao pengyou!”

“Hao pengyou price is $1.00. Not hao pengyou price is $9.00.”

“$1.00 not hao pengyou.”

“Hao pengyou price is one dollar. Not hao pengyou price is fifty cents.”

She thought about that for a second and saw the way the negotiation was going, and vanished. It was almost 8:30 AM and I had succeeded at my first full morning in China. I had gotten breakfast, walked for hours, had coffee, bought some crap, learned the city layout on foot, and most importantly for cultural understanding and global relations, had made at two hao pengyou.

About the time I reached the hotel I was feeling peckish again and happened to look down a narrow alley filled with carts, each cart the site of a major culinary operation. The tastiest appeared to be the spicy flat-noodles-in-a-paper-bucket guy, and I was struck again at how much skill and actual cooking went on for a buck twenty. He cooked my noodles on the spot and I wandered over to the curb to sit and slurp.

The eating was extraordinary and the noodles were brimming with flavor and brimstone. My eyes and nose discharged immediately but I couldn’t stop eating. I had thought the burrito lady was queen, but decided that the noodles-in-a-bucket guy was king.

Back at the Hotel Celerich I continued having difficulties with the staff, or rather they continued having difficulties with me. The essence of the problem was that they did not give a shit about anything, and my butchery of Chinese combined with their inability to speak English meant that all interactions were to be terminated as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoided at all costs. There was no talk of hao pengyou.

This time I wanted to know how to get to the city of Pu’er, which appeared to be an hour or so away, and is the most famous city in China for tea. You can’t go to tea shops in Kunming without seeing a display of the big round wheels of dried Pu’er tea for sale, wrapped in beautiful paper.

Asking the front desk dude about getting to Pu’er caused almost as much stress and confusion as when I had asked where I could find razor blades. After much back and forth with the other staffer, and repeated searches on his data aggregator/tracking device, he ended with a question.

“Pu’er?”

“Yes. Pu’er.”

Dali is much nicer.

“I don’t want to go to Dali. I want to go to Pu’er.”

“Dali is more famous.”

“I still want to go to Pu’er.”

“Today? When coming back?”

“One day trip.”

This caused another round of consternation and discussion, with no one really believing that I wanted to do a day trip to Pu’er. I knew I was fucked when the manager came over and kept glancing at me with incredulity every time they said “day trip to Pu’er.”

He straightened his jacket. “No train to Pu’er. You should visit Dali.”

“I don’t want to. What about a bus?”

More consternation. “Bus okay.”

“Which bus?”

“Bus stop at train station.”

“Which station?” It was like pulling teeth from an angry tiger.

“Go to subway.”

“Which one?”

“Bus.”

“Which bus?”

He shrugged. Everyone had done their best to give the visiting idiot exacting instructions and they now had better things to do, such as anything but this. I returned to my room, defeated at another negotiation but pleased at having been defeated using only Chinese.

It was also dawning on me that one of my difficulties wasn’t simply my obtuseness, although that did explain a lot. The other problem was that in Yunan Province they speak heavily accented Chinese at best, dialect at worst. Back in the hotel room where the television announcers spoke with a squeaky clean Beijing accent and everything had subtitles, I could understand a lot. Why didn’t the locals walk around with subtitles? It was as if I’d learned English from an Internet teacher in London and made my first trip abroad to Biloxi.

I got cleaned up and went out for my second sally of the morning, hoping to get my hair cut. I passed a decrepit hair salon with a bored hairdresser standing outside with her hands saucily on her hips, daring any passers-by to come in for a trim.

“Haircut?” I asked.

“Of course!”

“How much?”

“$2.50.”

“Deal.”

She sat me down and got work. We chatted and I mentioned wanting to visit Pu’er.

“Pu’er? You like tea?”

“I love tea.”

“Pu’er tea is the best. I have a friend who is from Pe’er. I will introduce you to my friend. My friend has a tea farm in Pu’er. Friends. Okay? I will make you hao pengyou. Come back in half an hour, okay?”

Despite the danger words of “hao pengyou,” I agreed. I didn’t have anything to do anyway, so why not get murdered? I left her excitedly talking to her pengyou on the phone. She had been speaking to me nonstop about the pengyou for about twenty minutes the second I mentioned Pu’er, and I understood basically none of it, only nodding and saying “Hao,” when it was obviously time for me to say something.

She spoke with a crazy thick accent and I was mildly concerned about the friend and what I had agreed to. I thought the friend was perhaps going to drive me to Pu’er and show me around, but wasn’t sure, and then I also wondered about the wisdom of taking off with a stranger who was so sure she had found a hao pengyou, i.e. a sucker. Still, the haircut would have been good for $50, and a Hollywood movie star cut for the $2.50 it actually cost. I wandered around for half an hour and came back.

Meizi was very happy to see me, and a cluster of young men were standing around her, although they turned out to be with the adjacent shop, a motorbike repair place.

“Watch my store!” she said, and they all grinned as she had obviously told them about the hao pengyou, and off we went.

I tried to keep track of the streets and turns as we walked farther and farther from the beaten path, which was hardly well beaten.

“There!” Meizi pointed. Her friend was on the other side of a busy street, raising a hand and smiling. I was relieved to see that the friend was a woman and not another cluster of motorcycle mechanics holding large tools. Maybe we would be driving to Pu’er after all.

“Are we going to Pu’er now?” I asked, but they were talking excitedly and paid no attention to me.

We kept going down side streets until we came to a gate. “This is Xiao Lin’s house,” Meizi said.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “I hope the kidnapping quarters are comfortable.”

We entered and as the heavy iron gate slammed behind me I saw we were in a garden. Against one of the enclosing walls was a small tea ceremony table with a large chair in the center and a carved wooden bench opposite.

Xiao Lin sat in the chair and motioned me onto the bench, facing her. Meizi sat off to my side. “Would you like to try the new tea or the old tea?”

I had no idea what was going on, other than that, at a minimum, tea was going to be drunk. “New?”

“Okay!” Xiao Lin said brightly, and reached into a large wooden crate, taking out a small bag of tea. She and Meizi spoke without pause and I understood nothing, not so much as a word. It occurred to me that they were speaking in dialect. It would take me pages and pages to describe how Xiao Lin prepared the tea, and the tools and accoutrements involved, but suffice it to say it was complex, and what was more unusual, the tea cups were only slightly larger than thimbles. This was a tasting. The teapot itself was quite small, and like the teacups was made of glass so you could see the color of the tea.

Xiao Lin poured my first cup, which was delicious, and then told me to smell the cup as soon as it was empty. The aroma was so sweet and complex, it filled my nose and ran through my palate like a gentle aromatic current. I mimicked Xiao Lin as she tested each sip, swishing and swashing the tea around in her mouth.

She continued to brew and pour and brew and pour until we had drunk I don’t know many cups. “Are you hungry?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Yes, a little.”

She called loudly and a servant appeared. After a minute the servant began bringing out dishes heaped with chicken, sausage, celerich, steamed rice, pickles, and fruit. The chicken was all on the bone and still had two huge black chicken legs with feet attached.

“Country food,” she said. “Healthy for you.” I passed on the claws.

With lunch done she smiled and said “Now let’s try the old tea.” She carefully removed a wheel of dried tea from its paper wrapper and showed me the date, 2004. “It is thirteen years old, very good.” She took out a small screwdriver and rather indelicately hacked off a corner and put it in the teapot.

Xiao Lin’s family has the only CERES certified organic tea farm in Yunan, and she had the servant bring out the certificate. The tea was ready and we drank it. It was indeed delicious, free of any bitterness at all, smooth and fresh and completely clean on the palate with no aftertaste, but I’m not sure I would have waited thirteen years for it.

Plus, no one seemed to be in a hurry to set off to Pu’er, so I kicked back and drank cup after thimbleful of rare tea, water gurgling in the pond, listening to the two women talk endlessly. One of the other side effects of untethering was paying less attention to time. When I checked my watch almost three hours had passed. I had drunk at least a hundred of the tiny thimblefuls, maybe more, and although I had lost count my bladder hadn’t. It stood up and roared.

“May I use the bathroom?” I asked. It was more of a desperate plea than a polite request.

I entered the large house only to see that it wasn’t so much a house as a business office. Along the far wall was a display case filled with round after round of paper-wrapped Pu’er tea wheels. I used the bathroom and when I came out the two women were standing in front of the display case.

“Would you like to buy some tea?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Sure,” I said, relieved to finally know the shot, and even more relieved that she hadn’t called me her hao pengyou.

“Which one would you like?” she asked, a trick question because nothing had a price tag.

“Which would you recommend?”

“You seemed to like the old tea?”

“Yes.”

“Then this one.”

“How much is it?”

“30,000 yuan.”

I did the arithmetic, $500. I had brought a total of $700 cash for the entire trip. “Uh, no.” The whole operation was way out of my league and I started backing for the door, afraid some kung-fu security guard would jump out and demand payment for all the rare tea I’d drunk.

“It’s okay. I have a cheap one for 15,000.”

“No,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out about sixty bucks and handed it to her. “Thank you for the lovely afternoon.”

Both women held up their hands in dismay. “We are friends! Hao pengyou! No money, please.”

At the utterance of the dreaded words, I placed the cash on the desk and turned to go. It had been an amazing afternoon but I was getting worried. Xiao Lin saw me set down the cash and ran off into another room, reappearing with a round of tea, and shoving it into my hand. “Because hao pengyou.” We were at a stalemate, so I took it, smiled, and left.

Back outside the compound I tried to retrace my steps. Somehow I found a main street, too, took out my map, got oriented, and headed back to the hotel as the sun set. I managed to slam a bowl of fiery noodles before staggering into my room. It had taken three hours to get back to Hotel Celerich. My back, legs, and feet ached. I fell immediately to sleep.

END

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I’ll not have the celerich, please

January 3, 2018 Comments Off on I’ll not have the celerich, please

I want to write down my misimpressions while they are still fresh and ridiculous, and before reflection can smooth them out into something reasonable or faintly true.

Kunming was my top travel choice because of its mild winter weather and not having much pollution “for China,” as they say. When I arrived the sky had been smudged over by smog and if I had had to come up with a metaphor for this place when I got off the plane, I would have said that China is a cough, because cough is what I did on and off for my first several hours of wandering around town, not a horrific, torrent-from-the-eyes-and-bloody-sputum cough, but rather a little something stuck in the back of my throat that refused to be hacked, swallowed, or spit away.

I had studied the map of the city before leaving California and committed the city to memory, but like lots of things that get committed, it’s not because they are in tip-top shape, and I promptly forgot everything the minute I arrived. Trouble started at the Dong Feng Square subway station when the exit machine refused to accept my ticket and wouldn’t let me out. I lummoxed from wicket to wicket without success, trying my ticket each time until a machine finally just ate the card but still wouldn’t let me out. It was symbolic. I had navigated the entirety of the trip, unplanned layovers and planned, figured out the trains, but was unable to get out of the damned station.

You know how minor annoyances at home become soul destroying panic attacks when you are ten thousand miles away and untethered to your iSecurityblanket? Yeah, that.

I went over to the ticket office and explained my problem, and the clerk smiled and gave me a new ticket. It was the first smile that had been directed at me, and one of only a handful I’d seen at all. Here’s something to remember, fuckers: The next time you see a foreigner having trouble, smile. They will remember you forever, and go home with tales about the friendly American who smiled at them and helped them out of some completely pedestrian jam.

Walking out of the station, where I was accosted by dozens of motor scooter cabbies, I realized that the dearth of smiles had a reason. China is one hard fucking place. The people look ground down, and the veneer of a first world nation that’s plastered everywhere is belied in the exhausted and harried faces of the people on the street. What’s to smile about when you just worked sixteen hours, ten days in a row?

Kunming itself is a small city of six million, and is charged with the energy of all those people hustling and busting their asses to survive. My plan had been to walk from the station to my hotel a couple of miles away, which began shakily as I stepped around a street beggar with no hands who was doing calligraphy with his stumps.

[Note to self: You think you got problems?]

But things deteriorated quickly and after three hours I was hopefully lost, wandering around on a memory filled with giant potholes, crevasses, and yawning chasms. Each time I asked directions I got either a different explanation or something that I couldn’t understand, or both, and the farther away I got from the center of town, the rougher and more worn things and people looked. They also had zero time for some dumb American mangling their language.

If you’ve ever been lost in Japan you know how kind and helpful people can be to strangers. If you’ve ever been lost in China you will know how you flat fucking do not matter, period. Time is money and you are an expense, and no one is impressed with your shitty attempts at Chinese, either.

At one point I was wandering through a park filled with deaf people signing, at another I was off on a side alley with tiny shops specializing in carved personal seals, then another street filled with shops that framed scrolls and then a cluster of governmental buildings. One corner had three vendors selling sweet potatoes baked on the lid of a steel barrel, and no matter where I went there were police stations everywhere. I would guess that there was a police station every five hundred yards, but don’t think they are there to act as your personal tour guide.

I learned this early on, when I asked a cop a simple question, “Excuse me, where is a nearby public toilet?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

Much worse than the pollution, which wasn’t too bad, and the indifference, which was restorative in the way of an ice bath, was the surveillance, which was nasty. You are watched and followed and traced every second in China, all the time. And although it oddly feels safe because there’s a cop every ten feet, it’s the fruition of what George Orwell prophesied so presciently in 1984. Big Bro is flat fuggin’ everywhere, and you’re the star of your own personal surveillance movie.

I will also say this, and experienced China travelers can feel free to correct me, but solo travel if you can’t read Chinese would be hell. Even if you can read it, it’s rough sledding until you get the lay of the land. In my case I gave up at finding my hotel after four hours of stumbling around, and hailed a cab. We drove forever and it cost less than three dollars.

My hotel, the Kunming Gui Hua Hotel, was a fair deal for $150/night, and the steal of a lifetime for its actual cost per night, which was $33. I got a spotless room, a huge bed with a mattress hard enough to smash ice cubes on, fresh linens, a spacious bathroom, and an efficient if not warm-and-fuzzy staff. Early January is the nadir of the travel season, and the weather is somewhere between warm and chilly.

One of the things most exciting to see were the thousands and thousands of rental bicycles. You needed a cell phone and e-pay account to rent one, but they cost about 80 cents every half hour and were ubiquitous. With the weather pleasantly cool, nothing would have been more comfortable than having a city bike to explore on. But untethered etc. etc.

I washed up and got ready to go to the hotel restaurant. If there were one area where I thought my expectations would be exceeded no how matter how high I set them, it was going to be dinner, and all I can say is that dinner ended up being a complete failure. The death spiral began in the elevator, where I was going down to the second floor along with the very nice lady who turned out to be my waitress. We started talking but I only understood about one of every four words, two of which were “restaurant” and “dinner.” She also said that my Chinese was very good, a vicious lie and what I would learn over the course of my trip was a predictor of terrible outcomes.

She escorted me into the dining area, which had about twenty 10-tops, and the only patron was I. She was so excited to have me there that rather than seat me she began quizzing me about what I wanted to eat, because when she had asked me if I wanted a menu, I told her I didn’t understand. Somehow I had forgotten what “caidan” meant. Actually, I didn’t “somehow” forget it, I was in a constant state of foreign language brain freeze, which is what happens when someone speaks to you in a foreign language and your whole brain turns into white noise and you stand there like a complete fucking idiot waiting for the picture to resolve into something you understand but it just stays white noise and you just stay standing there like a jellyfish.

So she thought we would have to play a game of 20 Questions, or in my case 200 Questions, in order to figure out what I wanted; I still didn’t get why she wouldn’t just bring me a menu. Finally I tried to say I liked everything, always a risk even at home, much less in a foreign land where they serve Fresh Fish Heads in Honey Hot Pot. Here again I made things worse because somehow she thought I wanted tofu.

“Okay!” she smiled. “You like tofu? Okay!”

“No, no!” I protested, imagining a six-course extravaganza of tofu, but this protest put us back to square one of her trying to figure out what to bring me. After more discussion we learned that Seth likes Sichuan cuisine and he likes really spicy food. She dashed off and I began to wait, wondering what I would get and wondering how much of my mouth, gums, teeth, tongue, lips, esophagus, and butthole were going to be incinerated in the process.

After a bit she appeared with an entirely harmless scoop of white rice and some chicken mixed with a vegetable not spinach and not celery that I’ll call “celerich.” She anxiously waited as I took the first bite. “Too spicy?” she asked.

“It’s fine,” I said, unable to detect any spice at all, zero, nix, null. It was however tasty and would have stacked up well against any Chinese restaurant I had ever been to back home, and since it was obviously a prelude to bigger and better and spicier things, I devoured it and waited. A full day of travel and walking makes you hungry.

A few minutes later she returned. “Are you still hungry?”

“Yes. Very.”

“Do you want more rice?”

“No, thanks,” I said, but didn’t know how to say I wanted a couple of more entrees.

She nodded as if she understood. “I’ll bring more.”

She next reappeared with a heaping plate of the celerich, and I grimly ate it, next time determined to ask for a menu, which is when I realized the word for menu was what she had been saying from the outset.

At about this time a large party of what sounded like four hundred arrived, but they were in the adjacent elegant Dragon Room and I remained alone in the Great Hall of Celerich as people laughed and hollered and had the party to end all parties, which obviously took all the time and attention of my waitress. Somewhere between the fiftieth and two thousandth silent repetition of “May I have please have a menu?” I fell asleep at the table, awaking half an hour later to boisterous cheers from the real dinner party and to the twin realizations that no one cared about me and that I would be going to bed fearfully hungry.

I headed for the door, where I was met by a phalanx of four wait staff asking if I were okay.

“I’m fine, just hungry. I want to pay.”

Telling your Chinese dinner host that you are fine but hungry is a cruel insult, like them telling me my Chinese was great when I couldn’t understand the word “menu.”

“We will give you every food you desire,” said one.

“Here is a menu!” said another.

“Chicken or beef?” said a third.

“I’m sorry but I waited half an hour, I’ve been traveling all day, I’m tired and need to lay down but not at the table.”

Just then the distressed manager ran up. “Don’t talk to them!” he said. “They can’t speak English!”

“But I was speaking to them in Chinese.”

“They don’t understand your Chinese, either. What is the problem?”

I could barely understand him, and it occurred to me that if my Chinese were even partially as horrible as his English, then everyone I’d spoken to since arriving had suffered greatly. I told him my story and he only understood “no waitress,” at which he became livid.

“What? No waitress? Where is she!” he commanded, just as she appeared, in great distress.

Now I felt terrible about the prison camp she would be sent to, but not bad enough to eat another platter of celerich, so I signed the check and left. Out like a one-eyed batter at 7:30, I was up like a jack-in-the-box at 4:00, ready for the day. But apparently I was the only one in Kunming so ready, because everything was deathly still outside, and as a peek out the window confirmed, even the good folks across the street at the Liver Disease Center which, judging from the vast quantities of hard liquor on sale everywhere and advertised ceaselessly on television, must have been doing a land office business.

 

END

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