Monthly Archives: December 2012

Exploring Kunming: The Old Second Hand Market


James, another Fulbrighter, and I decided to check out one of the second-hand markets for bikes. “Second-hand” in this case may actually mean either “third+ hand” or stolen wares. We found the old second hand market beneath a highway overpass and behind a large cement wall. The stalls had about everything: half-broken refrigerators, dusty rugs and carpets, dirty mattresses, and rusty bikes! We tested out bikes up and down the thin pathway. That day we did not buy a bike, but the next day we went to the new second hand market, which was gigantic. It was maze riddled with small alleys that led to more shops. We both found what we were looking for and biked back home.

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Exploring Kunming: Yuantong Buddhist Temple

I visited the Yuantong Buddhist Temple today. It’s placed smack-dab in the middle of urban Kunming, but when you enter it, you forget you’re in a city of 6 million people. It’s still active with Buddhist monks who I saw hanging outside of their dorms and using power machinery to renovate the run-down buildings.

Photo Tour


Large Gate Before Entering the Temple


Beautiful Shrine in the Middle of a Pond


Ryan, James and I


Look out from the South Eastern Style Dai Buddhist TempleOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Dai Temple

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Wishing You a Merry Holidays from Kunming

At around noon, a group of friends and I set off by bus to the Western Hills outside of Kunming. We got off at the wrong stop and found ourselves in a suburb (which in China is considered poor and undeveloped). We asked around as to how to get on the hiking trails, and the villagers directed us down the street. As we walked along the gutter, we stumbled upon what looked like a temple. We decided to take a quick look before adventuring on the hiking trails. It turned out to be a memorial for a Chinese geographer-徐霞客 (Xu Xiake: 1587-1641). It was a peaceful household turned-into museum. In the other section of the place, the courtyard was surrounded by four separate rooms, with multiple fall-colored trees. There was a fruit tree bearing large, yellow fruits. We politely asked the police guard to help us get one. He said, “Why do you want to eat that? They are too sour, not sweet like a pomelo, and less sour than a lemon.” We helped us pull two off the branches anyways. With much effort, I pulled the thick skin off the core, which turned out to be very small. It was like the guard said, not sweet and not as sour as a lemon. I thought it tasted okay.


Entering the Courtyard of the Memorial

The guard led us to a set of stairs that would bring us to the path (and avoid paying the entrance fee!) We said goodbye and headed up the mountain. We first stopped at the Magnolia garden and took a break. Ryan, Phillip, and I decided to take advantage of the “fengshui” and did Taichi. Our CET Harbin gym teacher would be so proud! We had a crowd of older men and women gaze at us curiously and humorously as we messed up the moves. I plan to continue practicing!


Performing Taichi in the Magnolia Garden

Afterwards, we continued our way up. We went off the beaten track and took a steeper route up the mountain. When we reached the top, unfortunately the view was blocked off with trees. But, that didn’t stop my friend:


Ryan Climbing to See the View

The hike was fun and a good workout. I kept forgetting it was Christmas because it was nothing like Christmas–no snow and no family. I am very lucky to have had friends in Kunming during this time of year, or else I would feel very homesick. I am so thankful!


View of Kunming from the Western Hills

We hiked back down to pick up a bus back to the city. We ate pizza that night to celebrate the holiday and stayed up late talking. I had an enjoyable Christmas…but I of course missed my family. This is my first year away from home during the holidays. I hope everyone had a happy holiday and look forward to the coming TWO new years (Western and Eastern). Merry Christmas!

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Visiting My New Campus (Chenggong) and Celebrating Christmas Eve

This morning, I met my professor at the gate of Yunnan Nationalities University and then took an hour long bus ride to Chenggong city, where my classes will be next year. When we got off the bus, I felt like I entered a suburb in the arid parts of California. The buildings were new, as well as magnificent (Chinese and Western mixed architecture), and the foliage felt out of place and small. I forgot to take pictures while walking around campus. The large buildings were made of the same colors; brick red, blue, white, and charcoal black, and materials; tile, stone, and brick. The campus was large with so much space separating the buildings. While we walked to my advisor’s office, we passed through large outdoor halls that were desolate. This place was so big, but where were the students? I later found them outside of the dorm building.

My advisor had to attend a meeting, but two of her students escorted me around and showed me the Ethnic Minority Museum on campus. The top floor was a history of the school, as well as pictures of ALL the administration. In one of the dozen rooms, there was a large portrait of Chairman Mao with the Wa people of southern Yunnan province. One of the students mentioned that Chairman Mao admired the Wa for their beautiful dances. However, he confronted one of their traditional customs with an iron fist, that custom being the sacrificing of humans to the gods. He viewed this as backward and it contradicted his mission to develop the nation. He made that custom illegal and it still is to this day. I thought that story was interesting. I’ll have to ask Dr. Wu more about that later, her research focus is on the Wa people.

I met Dr. Wu after her meeting and we headed back to Kunming city. I planned to meet friends that night to have Christmas Eve dinner. We met up at Salvador’s (a popular Western bar and restaurant in Kunming) and had a feast of Western food: Spaghetti with pesto sauce (x2), Spaghetti with tomato sauce, Cheese Quesadilla, Tuna Quesadilla (leftover from another table), fried goat cheese sticks, nachos, and Belgium waffle with ice cream and maple syrup. Not like home, but it was a nice change from the spicy rice noodles and pickled vegetables that I’ve been eating lately.

From there, we heard of an epic snow fight that was happening in the city center. We decided to check it out and found ourselves in a crowd of youth that were shooting fake snow from aerosol-like cans at random bystanders and participants. At first it was fun…


Fake Snow Battle in City Center

but my friends and I are foreigners, we became prime targets. People would shout “laowai! (foreigner!) and  shoot fake snow foam at the back of our heads, but the most traumatizing part of the experience was when some young prankster would scream from somewhere around me “MERRY CHRISTMAS” (in a poor accent) and shot me right in the face and eyes. That’s when I decided, I needed to get out of the war zone. We had to run through the epicenter to find sanctuary at a hostel.

I was not expecting to celebrate Christmas Eve like this. When we got to the hostel, I looked from the balcony and watched the cacophony continue. People were laughing as they shot foam and hit people with balloon maces and others screamed by being attacked by a mob of young Chinese boys with puffy hairstyles. I suspect they don’t know what Christmas is about. Supposedly Kunming is especially unique in this aspect, very few cities have this kind of two-day Christmas celebration.

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Preparing Fulbright and Getting to Know Kunming

The past week has been a very unorganized, but exciting part of the year. I moved into a hostel, called “The Hump,” and have been slowly structuring my new life here in Kunming. I first met with my Fulbright advisor, Dr. Wu, who is absolutely wonderful. She was my advisor two years ago during my study abroad program in Kunming, so we already have a close relationship. She would like me to begin my fieldwork in February. I’ll be busy reading fieldwork manuals until then.

I have also been apartment hunting for more than a week. One day, I was lost trying to find an apartment off of  Hong Mountain East Street when a very friendly foreigner came out of nowhere and asked in perfect English, “Do you need help?” Of course, he was a fellow Minnesotan! Go Minnesota nice! Turned out I planted myself right in front of “The Slice of Heaven Cafe,” where he just came out of. When he heard I was looking for a place to live, he mentioned that the owner of the Slice of Heaven is looking for a temporary roommate. After I checked out the first apartment, I came back to the cafe and talked to the owner. She was busy and just gave me her keys. She said in a New Zealand accent, “You can find it yourself. Not too difficult.” I used the keys to enter a nice, tropical forested complex. I found the apartment building and took an elevator to the eleventh floor. I opened the door to find the nicest apartment I have yet to see in China. The view from the living room showed Kunming cityscape and a tall, red mountain in the distance. I opened my room to find a queen sized bed and a spectacular view of Kunming and the distant mountains…I’ll take it! (Also, I’m paying the same amount that I would be paying at the hostel every night. Good deal!)

At the end of each day, after meeting my professor or looking at multiple apartments, I often spend the rest of daylight walking around Kunming. I’m trying to get to know it, understand the bus system, and meet people:


Visiting the Bird and Flower District


Selling Birds


One of the Gates in the City Center


Visiting Cui Lake, The Seagulls are Back


My New Neighborhood, Hong Mountain District

One of my favorite moments so far this week, is when I got lost looking for the police station in Hong Mountain District. I literally hiked up the “mountain” (considered a tall hill) and went through a maze of alleyways to finally find the station in a quaint part of the neighborhood. Through this experience, I got to know my new neighborhood. I also ran into a delicious gaifan restaurant and had lunch.

Since I don’t have many friends in Kunming at the moment (except for the other Fulbrighters), I have been quite eager forming connections with people who live in this district. For instance, I visited a bedmaker to help me sew a new bed spread. During this visit, I got to know a women and her mother, as well as the bedmaker. We talked about what spread they should choose for the baby (who was going to be born in 9 days!). At the end of the visit, the bedmaker said, “You made a new friend, so here’s a discount for your sheet!” I took that as an endearing comment. I hope to run into that women again and her new baby!

I also found a frisbee group here in Kunming. After ultimate, we met up later and played boardgames. I’m slowly finding my place. I think I’m going to like it here.

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Journey Begins: Saying Goodbyes and Flying to Kunming


Saying Goodbyes to Roommates…OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto Fulbrighters…



to classmates…

I finished my finals at CET Harbin, said goodbye to some really great friends, and headed off to Kunming with James, the other Kunming Fulbrighter. I begin my journey to the west. My blog’s title is “Journey to the West” because of two reasons: the first one being, I am literally moving from the East part of China to the West. The second reason is that my path and the journey that the Monkey King, the monk, and their companions followed in the Chinese epic, Journey to the West, are similar. At one point in their fictional adventures, the group found themselves in a Kingdom of Women. The women tried to seduce them and stray them away from their mission. My research will soon lead me to Lugu Lake, an ethnic minority area that still hosts a matrilineal society. Because of this trait, the area, Lugu Lake, and its people, the Mosuo, have adopted the nickname “The Kingdom of Women.” The fictional kingdom has become a reality.

From Harbin, the CET Harbin crew took a train to Beijing. I woke up the next morning on the train with a severe stomach ache. It felt like my stomach was tied, I didn’t want to eat anything. Even though I felt sick to my stomach, I still had a day’s worth of traveling ahead of me. James and I took a cab to the airport, got switched to an earlier flight, and first flew to Xi’an. When we got our next tickets, the flight was delayed for 6+ hours and wasn’t going to leave until 11:30pm. My stomach urked in pain…I looked outside at the polluted, soot-filled Xi’an air and then back at my ticket, I was not going to be sick here! I persuaded James to join me and try to change our ticket.

The man at the ticket assistance desk looked at our tejia (special price) ticket and immediately said “gaibuliao,” or “it cannot be changed.” James and I were persistent in a friendly/pathetic/jokingly way, but they kept on saying “no, no, no.” At that point, they were letting people go ahead of us. I became desperate. I looked at the woman who was then dealing with us and said, “Do you see his face? Do you see how pathetic it looks?” I said it half jokingly, half earnestly. James wasn’t expecting this approach, but went along with it.  Suddenly, I finally got some sympathy…or they may have just gotten annoyed at the laowai who wouldn’t go away. We switched tickets and found our friend (who was planning to meet us in Kunming) at the gate. It was perfect, except for the occasional bouts of nausea.

I thought this experience highlighted the unpredictability of the Chinese “system.” For our situation, it was the arbitrary switching of ticket times. In Beijing, we also had a “special price ticket,” but the attendant just switched it without any hesitation, but in Xi’an, it was a completely different story. You never know when someone will or will not follow the exact rules. I will definitely run into more of this in the future, especially with getting permission to do research in northern Yunnan. Will it be easy? Will the government official simply stamp a document and say, “O-KAY!” or will I run into a ton of mafan (trouble/nuisance)?

As for now, that is later matters. I have to first register at my University, meet with my professor, and find a place to live. We safely arrived in Kunming (I didn’t eat for 24 hours). But, now I am feeling just fine. I’m happy to be in Kunming again.

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Weekday Excursion: Gazing at Geminid Meteor Shower

The night before my last two finals, my roommate invited me to join her and some classmates (8 in total) to a suburb outside of Harbin to observe the Geminid meteor shower. In Chinese, meteor shower is liuxing yu, or “raining shooting stars.”I thought that was neat. We met up at around 6:00pm and took a train to Yuquan, a suburb outside of the city known for its skiing. It was an hour and a half of me going back and forth studying Ancient Chinese and talking to the old Chinese man that was mumbling to me in Russian and Chinese. He was impressed by my Mandarin language abilities, but also surprised that I (a white person with blue eyes) could not understand a lick of Russian.

We were shooed off the train and were glad to see a clear night sky above. A van picked us up and sped across icy roads to a ski resort where we planned to stay the night. We were shown into a room that had two kang (a lifted floor that is heated by fire underneath) along opposing walls. However, before settling in, we immediately set our things down and went out to encounter the bitter cold to see the stars! I clumsily hiked up the ski hill with my layers upon layers of clothing and finally reached the top. The sky was so clear and there were so many stars. I saw my first shooting star fly by Orion’s bow.

The shooting stars were endless. Every minute I saw 2-3…I ran out of people to wish for! As Mengnan’s classmates were fiddling with telescopes and taking pictures, I remembered the good old days when my Minnesotan friends would go star tripping. That is when you look at one star in the sky and spin around, after spinning, someone shines a light into your face. I didn’t have a light, but I began spinning around and around. The sky began to rotate quickly, but its rotation felt natural. As I spun, I saw pairs “raining” stars shoot across the sky. In total, I saw more than 40 shooting stars that night. Spinning, spinning, spinning–I heard the train crack along the distant tracks as it passed by the sleeping town. The train came from Harbin. If you looked into the distance, you could still see the metropolis’ smog and its diluted city lights.

[EDIT: For those who want to know, I did well on my finals. Also, I did not take good pictures this night. I am waiting on Mengnan’s friends to send me photos.]

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Everyday Life in Harbin: Winter has Arrived


Harbin–A Chinese Urban Winter Wonderland

For the past month, it has gotten cold…real cold. But! If I look on the brighter side, one cannot truly experience Harbin without bearing through its frigid winter. Harbin is called the “Ice City,” after all. For the past month, my classmates and I have taken a liking to: checking out tea houses to play Mahjong, watching movies (“Life of Pi” “Fists of Fury” “It’s a Wonderful Life” “Rio” whatever is in the activity room’s DvD collection), build snowmen that later turns into a snowball fight, go to massage centers (we were given a cup treatment), try out new restaurants, and enjoy Harbin life with the snow white scenery. And, of course, studying as well as preparing for finals that are next week.

Before I move to Kunming (which is in a week!), I have given myself a new goal: learn how to ice skate! For the past three days, I have taken time between classes to go to the campus rink to practice. I rent a pair of skates for 15块 ($2~) and wobble on the ice for about an hour.

Today, I went ice skating with classmates and Chinese roommates. Though the picture doesn’t show it, I have improved a lot!


Looking Good on the Ice

I have really enjoyed my stay here in Harbin. I feel more prepared for my Fulbright research, have made new friends, and got to experience more of Northern China. Each time I come to this country, I am surprised how much there is to experience and to learn. In these four months, I have gotten acquainted with Harbin city life, experienced Inner Mongolia’s ethnic borders and winters, traveled to beautiful Dalian, learned about Northwestern Chinese modern history, and tasted local cuisine. There are also the small things that have impacted me: daily conversations with my Chinese roommates, long walks around campus (warm and snowy), random conversations around town (on buses, trains, restaurants, street, etc), getting lost around the city but learning something new through the experience.

This has been my time in Harbin…Let’s see where my life leads me when I move to Kunming.

(I also recommend checking out Dare’s blog to see more of what I have been up to.)

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Thoughts From an “Old Foreigner:” Sense of Having Privacy in a Crowd

“Old foreigner, or laowai (老外), is a somewhat derogatory term that describes a foreigner in China. For most expats, we play with this identity by calling ourselves, laowai. Might as well embrace how Chinese view us, because this perception won’t change…our physical differences will always separate us from “being Chinese.” At times, this sense of separation hurts, since I want to understand Chinese culture, immerse myself in the everyday life of Harbiners or Kunmingers…but this separation also brings about understanding of difference (foreignness) that protects me from being judged. For instance, I took off a pair of pants the other night in a restaurant because I was wearing a dress underneath. That action of taking clothes off in public is “weird,” but no one really took notice or cared. “It’s a foreigner thing.”

If a person approaches me that I do not want to talk to, I can pretend to not understand and go on my way. I can make funny faces, laugh loudly, and joke around without worrying about being “graceful and subdued (婉约).” This is a popular behavior that men like in Chinese girls, also can’t forget the cuteness factor ( that often leading to ending sentences with “a” “o” “bei” “la”). I don’t need to worry about these expectations, I am free from Chinese cultural norms because I am different. In this sense, I feel free.

This brings me to my other observation: Sense of Being Alone in an Endless Crowd. When an American thinks of China, one of the few things he/she thinks of are “the crowds:” The streets that are crowded like sardines, the outdoor super-sized pools that are filled wall-to-wall with inflatable tubes, the beaches are also a mad-house of colorful umbrellas and beige bodies. This perception of China, is at times trues–train stations during the Spring Festival, morning/night markets (see picture below)–but the crowds are not to that extreme. However, wherever you are in Chinese cities, there are always people around…a lot of people. The most common phrase I hear Chinese people say is “人太多” “There are too many people.”  And it is true.


Picture taken in Dalian, Liaoning Province: Crowd at Morning Market

Though there are ALWAYS people around, I have noticed that it has made Chinese people more distant from each other. From the pushing/shoving/pumping on buses without any care of the person you pushed, to singing loudly on the street without anyone giving you any notice. Even though you are always surrounded by people, a Chinese person still has privacy in public simply because everyone is in their own little bubbles, surrounded by a billion of other little bubbles. At least, this is what I have observed.

Since I am not Chinese, I get a completely different experience here. EVERYONE stares at me and I feel like I don’t have any privacy. People are curious about what “the foreigner” is doing, what is she saying in Chinese, what is she buying, what is she reading? I’ve gotten used to it. But, sometimes when I’m walking about campus, I observe a college student walking by himself around campus (maybe to his dorm or class), singing a pop tune loudly to himself. He wears a thick winter jacket, his eyes are looking down to the snowy sidewalk as he sings. His notes freeze into the frigid air. I feel envious for his privacy. He isn’t different, he is simply another face in the crowd, and thus is ignored by the others. I will not feel that kind of freedom.

What does it feel like to live in a country that has “too many” people, to the point that its leads to everyone distancing themselves from each other. I only experience the outer layer of it all as a foreigner.

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