What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Trip to Kunming, China

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ upcoming visit. Kunming, China is a long way from their small Michigan city in the U.S. While it’s important to warn them about the differences, I don’t want to inflate the “foreignness” of life in Kunming. But with their visit in mind, I’ve once again begun to notice things that jarred me when I first arrived.

  • Personal Space. Even when the street is not crowded, people will inexplicably bump into each other. Rarely do you hear someone excuse themselves in this kind of situation. Cars and bikes follow a similar pattern of winding and weaving down an empty street only to screech their brakes at the last moment to avoid the lone pedestrian crossing the road.
  • Smoking. Smoking is permitted in a lot more places here than in the U.S. You can smoke in most stores and businesses. The idea of a non-smoking section in almost any restaurant is laughable. You can’t smoke on the public buses, but sometimes it’s tolerated on long-distance transportation. On trains, for instance, you’ll see people smoking in between cars or sometimes in the cars themselves. In Kunming smoking is especially bad because cigarettes are a local industry. However, it is considered a man’s vice, and when women light up in a public place they get plenty of stares.
  • Spitting. People spit here. And although anyone will tell you it’s rude, you can’t go anywhere without someone making that deep, guttural sound before spitting something terrible on the sidewalk beside you. Often they aim for the gutter, but not always.
  • Watch Your Step! So, of course, when walking down the street, you will have to dodge those spit wads. Also, watch out for dog poo. Small dogs are very popular here, and although people are generally responsible about tending after their dogs, there are plenty of strays without cleanup crews.
  • The Squat. People of all ages can be seen perched on a curb, step, or sidewalk in a squatting position. There is nothing precarious or unstable about this position and it seems to be a comfortable alternative to merely standing.
  • The Mother-Child Squat. Sometimes you’ll see a person squatting with a child hovered over a gutter. The adult is usually whistling a clear, high pitch in attempt to coax the child into peeing or pooing. Occasionally you’ll even see kids of 3 or 4 squatting down by themselves to pee or poo in the gutter. Ew!
  • Sneezing. You do not say “bless you” or anything else after someone sneezes.
  • Coughing. People don’t usually cover their mouths when they cough.
  • Toothpicks. Toothpicks are popular, but are used by discreetly cupping one hand around your mouth while manipulating the toothpick with the other.
  • Ear Cleaning. You’ll see friends helping each other clean their ears. This intimate act is often performed between girlfriends and boyfriends. Usually they use a long metal instrument designed for the purpose, but occasionally they’ll use their house keys.
  • Shoving. Standing in line might seem like the ideal way of waiting your turn, but besides banks (where there is uncharacteristic law and order) people in Kunming don’t like to wait their turn. Mob scenes are common even at a relatively empty convenient store. You’ll be waiting behind someone paying for their items when *bam* someone has reached around you to slam their items on the counter and throw money at the cashier. This is not always tolerated, but it happens. Some cashiers have the magic power of ringing two people up at once, so she can quickly accept the money from the crazy impatient person and simultaneously ring up your items. Shoving also happens routinely at bus stops, where elbowing your way through is the preferred method of getting on board. In any case, shoving is usually rewarded behavior, but expressing shock and dismay can occasionally cower people into waiting their turn.
  • Thank you! In Mandarin, “thank you” is translated as 谢谢. (The pinyin is “xiè xiè” and is pronounced “sheh sheh” with each syllable inflected down, as if you were finishing a sentence.) Although 谢谢 ostensibly means “thank you” the use isn’t exactly the same. You needn’t say “thank you” here as often as you do in the U.S. It can even be considered rude to over-use the word, especially with people close to you. For example, you would never say 谢谢 to your mother for making dinner. The implication is (a) that she’s doing something that’s you didn’t think she could do and (b) that you have a formal guest-host relationship. However, because Westerners tend to say “thank you” to everything, it’s become kind of trendy to use it more often. I still find it impossible to break the habit of saying “谢谢” all over the place.

All that said, Kunming is very good to me and I’m not complaining at all. The people I know here to a greater or lesser degree have similar thoughts about these things — not only foreigners, but also people from Kunming and from other places in China. These are just some small examples of the culture clash I’ve experienced. Sometimes things are annoying or strange or disgusting, but you quickly learn to let go. You become immune. Mostly immune.

Stop Griping Already

This transition period is excruciating!

Classes ended a week ago and this was my first full week of tutoring. A student at Yunnan Normal University, majoring in teaching Chinese as a foreign language, is tutoring me Monday through Thursday, 2 hours a day. It’s such a luxary to have someone’s undivided attention for such a long time. I’m talking a whole lot more than I’m used to, and of course making all kinds of mistakes. She’s already really helping me work out some of my bad habits I didn’t know I had. Hehehe. We are working through the next book in the first year of the Beijing Language University series (汉语教程:第二册 (上), ISBN 7-5619-0747-8). The plan is to get through about two lessons per week, learning to write all of the vocabulary and practicing the grammar points. I’m also writing a very short essay each week explaining something from my own life. My writing is definitely improving. So far so good.

I still haven’t decided what to do with myself for next semester. Classes start up again at the end of February, but I’m still thinking it might be better to find a job and hire a private tutor. Actually, I received a really great job offer, but had to turn it down in the end. I’m still reeling from that a bit — unfortunate, but I’m positive I made the right decision. There are definitely plenty of other opportunities around Kunming. It’s just a matter of seeking them out.

I’m substitute teaching this weekend for a friend at an afterschool center. I went with her last weekend to check it out, and it was a whole lot of fun. I really liked the group of 7-year-olds I met. It was a mercifully small class, only 9 kids, so very manageable. God, kids have a lot of energy! I must make sure I’m well-caffeinated before arriving tomorrow. If I’m not, I won’t be able to keep up with them. But anyway, this opportunity to substitute teach, makes me realize that I should maybe consider a similar gig. Previously, I had totally ruled out teaching kids, but if the circumstances are right I think it could be a lot of fun.

I had another random English job land in my lap last week. It was also only temporary, but good work. A woman approached me outside of the foreign student dorm and hired me to record English readings for some class materials developed for local middle school students. Whoah, it was really a lot of work, but they were a sweet group of people and they paid well. Their hourly wage was a bit of a trick — it was based on time actually recorded, not total time invested. So, I was at their office for two and a half hours, and was paid at their hourly rate for the 1 hour and 45 minutes of material I recorded. I was totally exhausted afterward, but overall it was a good experience.

Yeah, last week was a little hectic. These three gigs (the full-time job offer, the substitute teaching, and the recording) all arrived at my doorstep about the same time and with no warning. The job offer in particular gave me a lot to think about. We’re also planning on moving to a new apartment. It’s so stressful planning out the next 6-12 months of your life all at once. But it would be more stressful back in the US for sure. In fact, the decisions I face here are much easier to handle. And it only feels uncomfortable because I’m usually almost completely worry-free in China. Spoiled. I should stop my griping.

Happy New Year!

Happy new year, everybody! The internet is still a little broken here from the earthquake. Most pages from North America take two to three times longer to load and some of them can’t resolve at all. Google and gmail seemed to run a little slower but never experienced any outage — amazing. You got to love Google.

Today is our third and last day of vacation before finishing up this semester. I went to a different language school this morning to try out the classes. I was there yesterday and sat in on a class that was reviewing their exam. They just completed the same book as I did, so it was a good fit. However, I was really disappointed that hardly any Chinese was spoken during class. All of the students asked questions in English and the teacher responded in English, sometimes repeating what she just said in Chinese.

My classes at 云南师范大学 (Yunnan Normal University) end on Friday, January 12. And then what?

The most pressing issue is that my student visa expires March 15, so I have to either enroll in a school to renew my student status, or I can look for a job that will give me a work visa. Unfortunately, although jobs are plentiful they are mostly (a) teaching English and (b) require at least 1 year contract. At worse, this could chain me to a terrible school that jerks me around because they control my ability to continue to live in China. At best, this could be a great experience that allows me to earn the respect of the people around me and motivates me to study Chinese even harder.

Anyway, it would be helpful for learning Chinese to be in a new environment, maybe I would even have something I want to communicate and have people I want to communicate with. Heh. Yes, any job would give me an opportunity to communicate something new in Chinese.

Of course, what I’m most qualified to do is work in communications and information technology for a non-profit organization. But it seems kind of pie-in-the-sky to find a job like that here in Kunming. From what I can gather, there are more than a handful of NGO’s here in Kunming and they are all either related to HIV/AIDS education or environmental causes. I wish I had more direct experience with these kinds of organizations. My work with labor unions and economic justice groups doesn’t really open any doors for me here. And my language skills are still too minimal to be ready for a job interview in Chinese.

In any case, the resume has been resurrected and I’m looking for work.