Kunming, China Archives

September 23, 1997

One Night in Bangkok

Al posing with Colonial Sanders. Al posing with an old friend, long removed from the current KFC chain, Colonial Sanders, at the Bangkok airport.

With a name like Bangkok, this Thailand city has received a lot of press regarding its liberal attitudes toward sex and the industry that surrounds that understanding. Our flight brought us into the Bangkok airport at ten o'clock local time. We rented a room within the airport for the night as we had until ten o clock the next morning before our flight into Kunming. It was a cold but clean room with a shower and toilet. We didn't know at the time what a luxury that would soon be considered.

The next morning, we awakened feeling refreshed and optimistic about the next leg of our journey. We even had a couple of hours to kill and so we decided to go upstairs where they offered Thai massage.

Both of us have had experience with therapeutic massage, we looked forward to seeing what Thai massage would be all about. We arrived and were immediately led into separate massage areas, though the room dividers didn't go up to the ceiling, and so we could still talk to each other. Linda's massage therapist came in to see how I was doing. She seemed to be the boss there. She asked me if Linda was my wife. I told her that we were just friends. I later figured out that she was determining our relationship to decide on how to "upgrade" our massages.

My massage therapist was a young, 20 something Thai girl. Linda's was a little older and heavier. I was given a pair of red silk pants to wear, which I put on after the massage therapist left the area. When she came back, she started on my back, with a lot of interesting strokes that included her tugging on one part of my leg, while pushing on my thigh with her foot to increase the amount of stretch.

It wasn't a bad massage thus far, though I couldn't feel any particular sensitivity on the massage therapist's part. A good massage for me includes a warm, caring vibe. This massage felt pretty mechanical.

As she finished up my back, she told me to roll over. Up until that point, it was an interesting massage, but she pinched my butt in a way that seemed a little strange. She pinched it right at the anus. I wasn't sure what the motivation was on that, and I didn't think about it again since I was turning over.

While working on the other side, she began talking in Thai to the massage therapist who was working on Linda. My massage therapist then commented to me on the hair on my chest, mentioning that Thai men don't have that, and that its so sexxxxyyy. She called in Linda's massage therapist to take a look...

The boss came in and rubbed my chest in agreement. On the way out, she gave the other massage therapist a look that I later came to understand was permission to attempt an upgrade on my massage. My massage therapist them began to make little mistakes with the placement of her hands in order to obtain a sexual response from me.

She then offered to upgrade this massage to include what I can only describe as a hand-job. The price was 50.00 extra dollars, and I declined the offer.

As the massage went on, the price came down to 25 dollars. I guess the price wasn't as "firm" as the response that she was attempting to create in the other item in question.

October 1, 1997

Chinese Workers' Day 1997

October first seems to be the Chinese National holiday. It begins a five day weekend. Actually, because of the fact that October First falls on a Wednesday, and workers are only allowed to have a maximum of four days off, they all have to go back to work on Sunday.

I asked my host what the workers do on Workers Day. He said "they rest." Of course, I found that to be wholly untrue. Those who have salaried office jobs rest, those who own their own business or are paid by the hour, continue to work on what I can only assume is China's equivalent of the USA's Labor Day. Construction all around our house continued, even though we were looking forward to a break in the racket.

A  picture of two singers on t.v..

The night before, there was a star-studded gala television extravaganza taped along the banks of the Yellow river.

This program felt like a cross between a Bob Hope USO special and the Academy Awards. And it was all for the workers of the Yellow River. The program sought to romanticize the work and the workers of the river in much the same way as USA's programs seek to deify entertainment personalities.

Behind the set were a few huge trucks used for pushing dirt around the banks of the sand bar.

At first, I thought this program was kind of stupid. Just as silly to me as all the entertainment awards programs that we live with in the USA, and the industry that many of us can't ignore in Southern California. Everybody in the audience there on the Yellow River knew that their work was not at all glamorous. And here were these singers, dancers, comedians, all sent to add glory to an otherwise filthy job. How could anybody buy this, I wondered?

But then, I compared it to what we, in the USA romanticize, the entertainment industry. These positions have become the most coveted and worshiped of all social positions.

I'm glad that the Chinese government, or whoever was behind this program, set out to romanticize the river workers. Perhaps it is wrong to romanticize anything, but if you're going to have a gala television extravaganza with big stars in shimmering gowns, then let it be all be for the men and women in the trenches. Let them know how special their contribution to the greater society really is. I liked the idea after I compared it to the things that we worship in our culture. It reminded me of a song by Alabama called "40 hour week". Listen to it sometime, if you get the chance.

October 11, 1997

Welcome to the Holy Land

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, I'm finally in the holy land! That's because the shower has a hole in the bottom that doubles as their toilet...

After two weeks of less than perfect circumstances, things are finally beginning to settle down and look up! The weather was unseasonably cold and wet when we arrived and we had to scramble to get the necessary warm clothing and raincoats for bike riding around the city of Kunming. However, in my already weakened state of getting used to a whole new viral culture, I got sick and was kind of out of it for about a week and a half. I'm still sneezing and blowing my nose a lot due to either an allergen, or the dust in the air from the construction nearby our apartment.

This apartment was built in the 40's I think. It lacks the charm of those buildings that were built in the USA, like the do-wop backgrounds of New York. In short, its like a federally funded housing project, as most are here. However, there is a charm in that there are many planters, and there's a real sense of community here. The entire city is always animated with some sort of activity.

Construction is going on everywhere. There isn't a city block without something being torn down, or rebuilt.

The construction sounds begin at 9 in the morning and end about 1 in the morning. Its amazing to us what the Chinese put up with.

One of the more challenging aspects of our stay here is the "squat and drop" bathrooms. Fortunately, we're getting used to our bathroom's outhouse ambiance. As I mentioned earlier, the squat and drop is in what amounts to a shower. There's a cheap plastic shower head with pipes all around in a cement lined room.

We had some friends from the hospital over last night, and they agreed that it was an okay apartment. They wanted to see it just to make sure that we weren't being ripped off for our rent money which is $ 200 a month. That includes meals which are pretty good when they don't smother everything in this stinky orange oil. Other than that, I've been eating well, and have begun a serious diet to gain weight.

The couple with whom we live are really nice. He's a retired forestry service civil servant and she's a salty old Chinese lady. They're very sweet to us and we feel like their children. I tell them that Linda is their favorite because she is the "good" daughter and I'm the "bad" son. The gentleman speaks a little English and the lady speaks none, however, her communication is always very clear and whatever she's saying always has a context that we can pretty well understand after a few trials. Linda has a bedroom that is about three times as large as mine. That's because she's the good girl. However, I get the window. There is also a window between our two rooms. We haven't had a pillow fight or anything yet, but I'm sure we will sometime.

I'm working out again. In the afternoon, if I have time off from the hospital, I walk over to a nearby park. There are always a few hundred people there and so there isn't too much room by your self. But, I take a little corner and do my Tai Chi, or some martial arts practice.

They'd stop and watch anybody who was good at Chinese martial arts, but the fact that its a tall thin white guy, I can draw a crowd in 30 seconds. It motivates me to really get the stances right and do the moves with the appropriate intent which is easy to lose if your mind is wondering. On the other hand, it is difficult to discover new things in the moves if you're focused on how you look rather than what you feel.

Which leads me to a very difficult point here, that being that you're always the center of attention wherever you go. It is very disturbing after a while. They've all seen foreigners, but it is rare in these parts. The moment you stop to talk to a vendor, a crowd gathers to see what's going on. Very disturbing.

Sometimes, I'll turn and stare them down, pushing them away with my eyes, and they'll walk away, but not really. They're just behind me, then they'll walk to the other side of me and watch what's going on from that side. NO personal space here... NONE. Add to that the fact that, everytime you leave your house, you're surrounded by what amounts to a rush hour of bikes and taxis that honk more than they signal, and you can get very claustrophobic, very quickly.

A couple of days ago, I needed to have my bike's pedals replaced, as my new bike's Chinese-made quality didn't allow the pedals to last more than two weeks. I have a friend near my apartment who knows the word "Hello". That's qualifications enough to work on my bike, since that's what he does for a living. He put the two pedals on without a problem. When it came time to pay him, we joked around a bit about the price. Within 20 seconds, a crowd of ten had appeared, since their are people EVERYWHERE ALL THE TIME. After I was done paying him, there were 30 people watching me.

I looked around at them, and gave them my very best Shakespearian bow, telling them that "Wu hui zai ba dian, xie xie, wo ai nimen!" Which was basically what a Vegas stand-up comedian would say at the end of a show. "Thank you! I love you all, the next show's at 8, see you then!" And I left chuckling to myself. I saw a couple of the Chinese people laugh. Its the only way to deal with this silliness of them watching us all the time. It is REALLY weird.

The hospital is a real experience too. The first thing that you notice is that it is the most filthy, dingy, dimly-lit, depressing place in Kunming. People here hack up phlegm and spit it on the ground in many restaurants. So, what I'm saying is that the hospital is even worse, even though they actually have spittoons strategically placed in the hallways. Once you get past the Turkish prison atmosphere and wondering if they keep it looking like this to prevent people from getting sick, you begin to see the people suffering from a wide variety of really serious pathologies. This is an amazing opportunity for us to learn the depth of our medicine.

In the acupuncture clinic in the states, we don't see too much Bell's palsy, congestive heart disease, or other things of this kind of nature. But that's all we're dealing with all day here. Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, we're in the Acupuncture department. We, being Linda and I. She was one of my study partners from a neighboring school in Santa Monica.

We have an excellent translator who's warm and funny and really enjoys his job as a doctor here. He is the anesthesiologist in their surgery department. He has been trained in both Western medicine and TCM. (Traditional Chinese Medicine). He does a lot of acupuncture anesthesia, and he has promised to let us do it when surgeries take place while we're with him. I hope to really get a lot from him specifically.

We've also been placed in the Bell's palsy department. There is a lot of this in Kunming, the city where I'm at. Nobody knows why. Anyway, we've got a lot of people with no muscle control on half of their face. And its being fixed with acupuncture.

Tuesdays and Thursdays, we're in the Internal medicine department which means Chinese herbal therapies. We are currently apprenticing under a Dr. Mo who's specialty is in diseases of the Liver, Gall Bladder, Stomach and Spleen, or Pancreas depending on how you look at the physiology. Digestive system, in short. He's retired, but the government talked him into taking on two apprentices so they could benefit from his experience before he no longer worked.

Our translator there is one of the two apprentices. We'll be with him for one month. This translator isn't as good as the guy in the acupuncture department, but fortunately, he's beginning to warm up to us, and understand our needs. That's good. The lines of communication are open and I feel very good about my future at this hospital.

My internet connection was a long time coming. Let's just say that there aren't a thousand AOL sign-on discs floating around here. In fact, there's only one company that I've found that serves Kunming for the Internet and the woman with whom you have to deal with to get on-line is like a DMV person on a really bad day. So, it took a while to get on-line. Now that I am, I find that ChinaNet's modem is only 14,400 bps (compared to the 28,800 that is standard in the US) and the connection is very unstable. Getting my e-mail used to take about 2 minutes, now its a fifteen or twenty minute job.

Love from the only guy with a laptop for hundreds of miles around.

October 14, 1997

The Blind Tui Na Massage

There are quite a few public places in Kunming where Chinese congregate. One is in front of the park devoted to the numerous ethnic nationalities that all share the province of Yunnan.

A couple of (likely Moslem) Tui Na massage therapistsTwo Tui Na massage therapists doing what they do, there in the park in Kunming.

In front of these locations, it isn't unusual to see massage therapists set up for a massage on a little stool. They wear white lab coats, most of them, and there's an air of authenticity about it all, unlike the other massage parlors that we've visited.

We decided, after our time in the hospital one afternoon, to visit these massage therapists. We gravitated toward the two blind ones. After a little discussion as to price, ("20 Yuan from head to toe") we got started. Incidentally, this twenty Yuan is just under three American dollars.

The massage began at the head. My massage therapist, as well as Linda's had obviously been trained in Tui Na since we recognized most of the strokes and the points on the body used with those strokes.

Unfortunately, with any massage in Asia, apparently, there is a price to pay. A couple of young men soon began to congregate around us trying to sell us stuff. I had my massage therapist stop so I could sit facing the opposite direction, where nobody could sit right in front of me and disturb my enjoying this massage.

The two young men with the wares to sell soon left, but following them were other people, all of whom apparently had never seen a foreigner get a massage, or something, because as usual, we were the center of attention.

It would have been a really great massage, but it is difficult to both relax your defenses, which is required when receiving a massage, and keep them up which is required when you have thirty Chinese people gawking at you from all sides.

There is no personal space in China, maybe in the bathroom, that's it. Or perhaps the Chinese have a developed their own personal space on the inside. They must have, nobody could live in such close proximity to so many other people and not have a little room inside of their hearts to return to from time to time.

As a personal mission, I've been working on just that. The fact that China has brought out an immediate need for me to create, furnish and move into this personal space is probably one of the more useful skills that I'll be able to develop during this time in China.

By the time the massage was over, Linda and I decided that it wasn't a good idea for both of us to open our wallets. There are a great many pickpockets in this area and we didn't want everyone knowing that we both had money and where we had it. I offered to pay for us both, but I only had a 50 Yuan note. Our two massages was only 40 Yuan. I told the blind man that I was giving him 50 and he thanked me very deeply. I guess he thought that I was giving him 50 instead of expecting 10 Yuan change.

I asked Linda if she was cool with paying 25 Yuan each instead of 20 Yuan, and she was. There was no way that we were going to dicker around with these two massage therapists for 5 Yuan in front of a growing crowd that were really beginning to cramp us. We got our things together and left.

It was a good massage, but as with every massage we've had so far in Asia, there's a price to pay.

It may have been silly for us to expect a little privacy while getting the massage at a public square, but it is still beyond us what it is that people are looking at. There are many massage therapists giving massages to others, but no one looks.

As I was leaving, I took a good hard look at everyone who'd stopped and gawked at us. They looked to me like the kind that would cross the street to look at an accident victim. Not the kind of person I readily respect.

These traveling Tui Na massage therapists also congregate in front of a large department store near our hospital on weekend evenings. We might try going there next time. Generally, at night, we look less like foreigners and we might be able to get a massage without being on stage at the same time.

The other option is to have someone charging money to watch us. Now that's a thought.

The Holiday Inn Massage Parlor

In the USA, Holiday Inn is a name as squeaky clean as Sears. It may not be the center of luxury, but its a reasonable place to stay if you need somewhere to spend the night.

The Holiday Inn in Kunming is, for us, a wonderful diversion. It has been cold and rainy, and after a day out and about on our bikes, we like to stop in to the Holiday Inn and sip some coffee in their quiet warm, dry dining room.

They have a massage service that operates out of the top floor of their hotel there. The space isn't actually a Holiday Inn business, but a concession rented out and owned by some other company. In fact, the hotel isn't really even a Holiday Inn, but they have given the ability to use the name, for some reason.

We knew that, going in for our sauna and massage, but that didn't deter us. For 200 Yuan, about 25 dollars, we could feel like kings for an afternoon, especially when we don't have access to really clean baths or showers, or an abundance of hot water. Let alone a professional massage offered by one whom we presume will have been trained in the finer points of Tui Na.

As soon as we arrived, Linda and I were separated at once. I was led into a locker room with a burning cigarette hanging out of an ashtray nearby on the floor. Two young men proceeded to assist me in getting undressed. I was wearing a lot of clothes because of the weather. Everything that I took off, they carefully hung up or folded and placed in one of two lockers reserved for me. I was given a robe and some flip flops and led into a bathroom that had about five showers and a few urinals. They gestured toward the showers, but I chose instead to make use of the urinal. It was right up against a full length window that looked down on the crowded streets of Kunming. I felt a little funny urinating within full view of a million or so pedestrians, but that feeling soon passed as the feeling of fullness in my bladder became more intense than my bashfulness.

I followed one of the attendants who remained in my constant proximity into a room with a big Jacuzzi. I was expecting a sauna, so I was a little confused by what I should be doing next. I put myself into the hands of my attendants. They gestured to the Jacuzzi, so I got in. The warm water was very welcome after the day I've spent navigating the muddy and wet streets of this Chinese town.

After a while, I got out, and was led toward the Sauna. I was handed a cold wet hand towel. I didn't know what do with it until the door to the sauna was opened and I was hit strait in the face with a furnace blast of heat for which I was wholly unprepared. I sat down in there for less than a minute. It wasn't especially comfortable for me, so I got out.

The young man in the Jacuzzi room then gestured to me to lie down on the massage table. He first rolled up a wet towel and scrubbed down my back with it in a manner that presumably removed a lot of dead skin. It was a good experience. There was no sexuality involved, but he didn't shy away from any particular part of my body, either. The crack of my butt has never felt cleaner.

He then gave me a percussive massage on my back and legs. Pretty good too, but that only lasted about fifteen minutes, and the sign at the front desk said that the massage would last 45 minutes. Again I was confused, but he gestured that I should get back into the Jacuzzi, and I did exactly that, enjoying it once again.

A few minutes later, I got out and my massage therapist and his partner brought me back into the room with all the showers. My massage therapist got into the shower and turned it on for me, fine tuning the temperature before I even got into it. He pointed to the soap and shampoo, and I looked forward to a nice shower. But then HE picked up the soap and sponge. I thought that this was going just a little bit far, but since they obviously were working hard for me, I thought that it wouldn't be good for me to object, especially because nobody spoke English here anyway. He gestured for me to turn around. And I did, and he began to scrub me down. I felt very silly. I hadn't had this done since my mother bathed me as a child. Again, there was nothing sexual going on, but I was generally uncomfortable with a man lathering me up and scrubbing me down.

As I turned around and saw myself in the mirror, I looked like a king who was so incredibly rich that he had servants to wipe his ass, which they gladly would do. I was disgusted with the thought of someone not seeing to the most basic of one's own grooming needs. I wasn't disgusted with myself, but the thought of someone living like this. Don't much care for it, but since I had put myself into their keeping, I just went along with it.

Once out of the shower, I wasn't surprised when they took some towels and dried me from head to toe. I was presented with some shaving creme, which I used with the razor that was there for my benefit. I was glad that they allowed me to shave my own face, even though I had allow them to wipe off my face when I was done.

At that point, I was presented with a piece of paper to fill out to tip them. I filled in 40 Yuan as a tip for them. That's about five dollars. I thought it strange that I should be at the tipping stage before I got my forty five minute massage, but I was pretty confused anyway, so it didn't matter to me.

They led me out into the waiting room and asked me if I wanted a massage. Apparently the fifteen minutes that I received in the sauna room was not the actually massage that I'd booked. I said "yes" and was led into a small room with two massage tables. I noticed that there were handles in the ceiling that resembled parallel bars. I thought about what they'd be good for. I assumed that the massage therapist would hold onto them as he or she walked on the back of the client. Seemed reasonable to me.

Then, in walked in the most sexy Chinese women that I've ever seen. The full length black silk dress, the breasts that would get her signed to her choice of major studios, the red lips, the slit up the leg. You know the type. She told me to lie on my stomach, and I was happy to do just that. She jumped onto me, basically sitting on my butt, while massaging my back. She didn't seem to have too much training in the massage, but I wasn't complaining.

Soon, after, however, she asked for a tip. A tip of 200 Yuan, which was the cost of the massage. That seemed a little excessive and since the massage had just begun, it seemed a little premature as well. At least in Thailand, they'd kind of done a little qualifying before offering me an upgrade. She hadn't. She told me to turn over, and I offered her a tip of 50 Yuan, presuming that she would indeed, finish the massage. But then she touched my genitals, then touched her own, and told me that the price for that is 800 Yuan. I told her "Bu Yong" which is my pigeon Chinese for "I don't do that."

Had she done a little more for me, my body might have over-ridden my heart, but at that point, though she was looking good, I didn't really have any desire to have sex with her, and I wasn't going to double the price just because she was so sexy. She left in a huff.

I sat in the room for a few minutes with my thoughts. I figured that they'd send in another girl who was actually there to do a massage. I figured that this must happen from time to time, and that they'd have a contingency plan for clients who'd actually come for a massage. But no one ever came in. I considered just sitting and meditating, I liked the irony of it all, but I knew that ultimately, Linda would be looking for me and so I left the massage room to get some help. In the waiting room, there was a bar. I told the bartender that I wanted "Tui Na" or Chinese message, not sex which I expressed with a gesture of putting my index finger into my clenched fist. He said "Ahh, ya ya, Anmo Shiatsu." Okay, I don't care what you call it, just as long as I'm not jeopardizing my health, or honor, or whatever. I just want a massage.

A few minutes later, another beautiful Chinese woman comes into to the room. She is wearing some athletic style warm ups. That's better, I thought. She's here to do the massage. She was very strong, and knew some strokes. It wasn't the best massage I'd ever had, but she was the best I'd had in Asia.

When she turned me over, we talked a little bit. She knew no English, but I had a few words with which I could communicate in Chinese. She finished the massage, when someone called to her from the outside waiting room, apparently she had reached the 45 minute mark.

She showed me her tip paper and I put down a 50 Yuan tip. She said "No, 200!" I wasn't sure, but it seemed like she was saying that the 200 Yuan charge was to be paid in the massage room, not at the front desk as was my assumption up until that point. I scratched out the 50 and put in 200. I knew that if there was any argument as to where the 200 Yuan was to be paid for the massage, I could simply explain myself and give her the 50 Yuan tip instead of the 200. When I agreed to put down 200, she got very happy, and hugged and kissed me. That seemed a little excessive for someone who was expecting that anyway, so I got even more suspicious, assuming the worst at the front desk.

She was all smiles as we left the room. She even had her arm around my waist. I had a fleeting thought that she wanted the other employees to see that she'd gotten the most out of me that anybody could. There wasn't so much a pride there, but more of a desire to show the others that she'd done her job.

I found my way back into the locker room where the first two attendants were busy with a blow dryer drying my sneakers that had been wet and muddy from the day's bike ride. Even my sox were warm and dry. What a wonderful surprise! I knew, of course, that the only thing that could happen at this point was that they would show me to another tip sheet to fill out. Which I did, giving them 25 Yuan. If I were to do it all over, I would have given these two boys the most, and the two massage therapists the least. They really went the extra mile in a way that really meant something to me.

When I got out to the front desk, I saw the receptionist adding up my bill which was now in the area of 700 Yuan. I laughed, recognizing the huge con that was gong on here. I picked up the paper and started itemizing things as I saw them. 200 for the sauna and massage, plus the three tips. She pointed to the 200 Yuan tip and I pointed to the 50 Yuan tip for the massage that had been scratched out. I told her that the number was 50, not 200, now that I was sure that I'd been conned. She kept looking at a man who was sitting in the room watching all of this take place. He would nod agreement to everything that I suggested. He was the man in charge, and I'm sure that he'd seen this five times per day. In fact, they tried to charge Linda twice for her massage too. She only ended up paying once. As we were leaving, a tall Rutger Hauer look-alike came out. He solemnly looked at the man in charge and uttered just two words. "Bu Hao" Not good. We understood that to mean that he was as unhappy as we were.

However, it might not have meant that at all. When I was being massaged by my "good girl" massage therapist I learned how to ask for a massage versus sex at the Holiday Inn's massage parlor. For a massage, you ask for "Anmo Shiatsu". For Sex you ask for "tui na, bu hao" which kind of translates to "naughty massage." So, I don't know if he was asking for naughty massage, or he was angry about the pricing structure.

The Kunming Holiday Inn Massage Parlor, if you're into it, its a nice place to go, however, I found the presence of a prostitute/massage therapist to scatter my Qi rather dramatically, and it took me a long time for it to settle down again. I think that's the result of competing needs within me. One need is purely physical, and the other need is more emotional. They don't quite agree, and so there is a conflict of interest inside the self. One says "yes!", the other says "no!" It leaves me feeling a little drained.

At least it didn't cost an extra 800 Yuan ($100) for this drained feeling.

October 15, 1997

100 Herbs, 50 Kids

Being the "laowai" (foreigner) is often times a problem. However, sometimes even problems enjoy their own special brand of absurdity.

When I got to the Kunming Botanical Institutes's Chinese Herbal Medicine garden, I found myself alone for the first time in the week I'd been in China. I sat down in a beautiful pavilion overlooking a pond full of lilies and rested for a few minutes, enjoying my dried mangoes, a Pepsi, and a bag of potato chips self-described on the package as "the flavor of pungency".

At the time of this trek, I was just on the tail end of a really bad cold/flu. I was still suffering from profuse nasal drainage, red eyes, and a general desire not to be looked at. Having just finished my hourly sneezing fit I leaned back beginning to plan out my day of photography in this so-called "100 Medicine Garden."

Just then, I see some 8th grade children running in through the main gate of this garden three hundred yards away from me. I know that it is a matter of time, a short matter of time before I am spotted. Yep, it didn't take long at all. In minutes, I was surrounded by about fifty eighth graders.

There was nothing I could do. I couldn't be cold and ignore them. They were all around me. Each one waiting silently for some pearl of exotic wisdom to come spurting forth from me like a guru at the top of a mountain. Just to add some drama to the moment, I said absolutely nothing until one of them spoke. The bravest of them came forward, and in a decidedly British accent said "Hallao".

"Hello, how are you?" I countered, and the pavilion burst into laughter.

"What is your name?" A tall girl asked, being prodded by two of her friends.

"Al." I responded.

In unison, suggesting to me that this was part of their memorized classroom dialog, the two friends followed up with "can you spell that slowly for me?"

I opened up my left hand to use as a writing tablet, and with my right index finger, drew an "A" and an "L" on my hand. I asked one of them what her name was.

"Tian, Lin Feng."

Wow. That translates to "Heavenly wind of the forest." She wins that one.

Young man exploring lily pond.

The young man who was the first to speak to me, was also the first to actually walk on water, or so it appears as he peers into the lily pond.

A man that seemed to be in charge of the children arrived in the pavilion. I made my way over to him and asked them if they (the children) were his friends. He said "yes", and even said that their English teacher was here somewhere though I never did find her. We were having this dialog in Mandarin. We really couldn't understand each other too well.

I decided to go ahead and scout around for some good pictures. I was being followed, step by step by fifty young people. They were milling around me like I was an oxygen tank and they were all under the sea, needing me for air.

Again, I was sick. I didn't feel well, and I certainly didn't feel presentable, given the constant sneezing and dripping nose. Yet, there was absolutely nothing I could do, so I gave into it and took some pictures of the children, and even had a little fun with them.

Two girls in herb garden.

Two girls, spooked away when they saw me taking their picture. Chinese students wear team uniforms. Schools are organized into teams.

I used the children's ability to read the Chinese characters dangling from many of the medicinal herbs to determine just exactly what they were, since my experience with Chinese herbs is in the pharmacy, after the herbs have been dried, processed, and generally altered in appearance.

Huo Xiang, an herb

Here's a nice shot of Huo Xiang (Patchouli).

Huo Xiang is used for nausea and vomiting among a few other things.

I attempted to tell the kids about Huo Xiang by mimicking a headache and nausea. I must admit, that I enjoyed mimicking the dizzy retching, that's the eighth grader inside of me, but they weren't really too interested in the medicinal herbs.

To them, the real blossom of this garden was the one plant they've never seen before. The tall one with the white skin and round blue eyes, the one with all that stuff coming out of his nose.

The Taihuasi Monastery

The Taihuasi Monastery

Here's yet another monastery at the West Hills near Kunming. Mostly, the warmth of this location comes from its trees and park-like setting. Its comfortable, and there's a sense here of a lack of boundaries.

Throughout much of the day we spent in the West Hills, I kept looking off the road for a small trail to follow to a mineral deposit or hidden mine, as I'm accustomed to doing while hiking in the San Bernardino Forest of Southern California. However, at each of the tourist destinations in the West Hills, it is difficult to get past the fence or get off the trail. This monastery doesn't have much of a fence in its back and so it isn't difficult to quietly walk out into the neighboring hillside. Someday I'll return to do that, taking these tours with others who don't share your love of the "outback" makes it difficult to get off the beaten trail.

This monastery was originally built in 1306. Yadda yadda yadda. It was a warm year as I remember. Really good corn that fall. Navy beat Army. That stands out, too.

There's a really big Gingko tree here (that's Bai Guo or Yin Xing for those of you with Chinese herbal training.) According to legend, it was planted by Emperor Jianwen of the Ming dynasty who came to Yunnan after dethronement in 1402.

One of Four Heavenly Kings

This is the first of the Four Heavenly Kings in the entrance hall. The colors are really quite vivid because the paints are made with graphite, malachite, azurite and other traditional pigments.

One of Four Heavenly Kings

Here's another Heavenly King. I think this one's a tenor.

One of Four Heavenly Kings
The third and final Heavenly King. I could have taken a picture of the fourth, but to be honest, at the time, I didn't know that these Heavenly kings only come in groups of four. I figured that taking pictures of three was enough.

Buddha holding Bible

Okay, this is really cool. In the Majestic Hall for Great Siddhartha, there is a sign that hangs from the entrance that says "absolutely unchangeable eternal truth". That got me to thinking. The way in which a Buddhist might describe that truth is not the same way a Christian or Jew would. I was musing on that when I came up to this Buddha holding a book. Asking my Chinese teacher to read the characters for me, it turns out that this Buddha is holding the Old Testament Bible. Wow.

Just a bunch of Buddhas Not-Being

Here's a bunch of Buddhas just hanging out not-being.

Looking into their faces you can almost sense their conscious compassion.

More Buddhas

How many Zen Buddhas does it take to screw in a lightbulb?


One to screw it in and one not to.

Bathrooms this way!

A good hostess can help the foriegn visitor feel right at home, especially when looking for a restroom.

June and Jie Jie

On the left is my Chinese language teacher, June. She's sitting with her sister and our host for the day. This picture among the stupas or burial monuments of former abbots of the monastery. The two sisters are holding a couple of fresh blooms from the Gui Hua tree. The night before, I'd had some wine flavored with these very blooms. When we tried to leave with them, they were confiscated, no doubt to discourage people from picking the blooms off of the trees and flowers within the monastery.

The Kunming Street Artist/Begger

The begger and his characters on the sidewalk

This picture was worth a thousand words, or Chinese characters, depending on how you look at it.

I happened upon this man, actually, a teenager, drawing Chinese characters on the sidewalk. They were very well written and organized.

I couldn't tell what the characters said, but I figured that they were poetry. At least I hoped that they were. I couldn't communicate well enough with the others who were reading it to ask them. This took place during my first week in China and my pronunciation seemed to be sorely lacking.

I decided to take a picture. Which required of me that I get off my bike and hold the camera down above the characters to get a long shot toward the artist.

Within 20 seconds I had a crowd of ten people staring at me. After I took the first of two shots, I held my digital camera up to the crowd to let them take a look at what I'd shot. I decided to get in a little closer and straighten out the angle. I was more focused on the shot and the composition of it than on the crowd that was gathering around me, but by the time I took the second shot, I had about thirty people crowded around me watching my every move.

It was really bizarre. Linda and I are getting used to being looked at, and even ogled as an occurrence that happens about once per minute, but to draw a crowd so easily, without even trying was a special treat that I didn't exactly care for too much.

I kind of wanted the focus of the crowd to be on the artist whom I was taking pictures of, rather than the photographer. I felt a little bad for him. I tried to bring the conversation back to the characters on the sidewalk by asking those around me what the words said. Nobody understood what it was that I wanted, and they just continued to watch me.

I asked if they were the words of his heart, meaning poetry. But again, they were only watching me, there was no other interaction, other than looking at my digital camera as it displayed the last shot I took. I later discovered that this young man was a begger. His words were likely describing the circumstances of his life and why one should give him some money. In Santa Monica, we'd call him either a street artist or homeless. Perhaps he is both. Although it isn't very clear in the picture, his legs were kind of deformed. The one that extends to the right of the picture ends at his ankle.

The most disturbing part about being out among the Chinese is their ease with staring, pointing, giggling at foreigners. To someone from Southern California, where multi-ethnic interactions are the norm, it is very difficult for me to get through this.

Where we, in the culture that I was raised in, might make notice of someone very different, we would not stare. For us foreigners, it is a constant affront. Of course, it isn't meant that way at all. But after a while, you just naturally put up a wall. With all the eyes staring at you, wherever you go, you just can't make eye contact with anyone. What you get coming back is not very often a friendly connection, but a sort of gawking. You get the sense that you are as real to them as if they were watching you on TV.

I see other foreigners from time to time on the streets. At least once or twice per day. Those who are walking in pairs are a little more at ease. Those who are alone, have a very thick wall put up around them. They look exceedingly inaccessible. I notice that I too get a little cold to my surroundings after a short while on the streets.

Its the most difficult thing about living here, the feelings that you are subject to while walking among the Chinese. Crowds are especially difficult to pass through. Nobody puts you down, or does anything, but treat you like a freak. Perhaps that's enough of a put down, perhaps its all in the way in which one interprets it.

October 31, 1997

How to Speak Chinese, With Your Hands

Dear Mom and Dad,

At the five week mark of my journey into the mysteries of the Orient, it seems that I've figured out how to get what I need, even if that includes various gestures and pantomimed movements. Whoever said that funding for public schools' drama departments is a waste of money never had to go overseas and try to communicate without the luxury of words...

The pushing against hurricane force wind mime move has yet to truly pay for itself, but that's only because I haven't yet needed to purchase a fan.

Of course, the president of China is schmoozing with the man that the Chinese call "Ka-lin-ton" right now. I see the pictures on the news. They devote at least fifteen minutes of coverage to this event every night on their national news. Fifteen minutes isn't anything unusual here, they do most stories at about that length. I can't really understand what's being said, but I did see a smiling Newt Gingrich getting some attention from the Chinese President today. It was a photo-op, and Newt's very adept at really holding that smile as long as necessary. Amazingly, the Chinese president did as well. It was amazing to watch how quickly they both fell into that whole act. I guess they took high school drama too...

Hey, its cold here. Its probably in the 30's outside, overcast and intermittent rain. I've got a heavy coat, gloves and a plastic parka for use on the bike when its raining. Taxis are cheap here, about two bucks to get across town, but its kind of politically incorrect. Well, not as politically incorrect as, say, speaking your mind... let's just say it isn't "hip."

I ran into my first Tai Chi master yesterday. There were some people playing push hands in the park yesterday as I rode by. I knew that they were trying to push each other off balance using Tai Chi principles. I got close enough to be invited into their little competition. They brought forward the guy whom I hope was their teacher. I hope he was, because he kicked my ass over and over again. Actually, those are stronger words than are appropriate. We were trying to make each other lose balance and step away. He was great.

When sparring with others, there is always an open door somewhere. Everyone has a weakness in their system of combat. I couldn't find any doors with this guy. Not one. Whenever I tried to take him, he slithered out and turned it on me. This is the first time that I've ever truly been witness to real Tai Chi in the martial arts context. He was incredible. We sparred for about fifteen minutes.

Occasionally, he'd get a little slap to the face in, and the audience, which grew to about 40 would all laugh. I could never get him to lose his balance, but I could get some facial slaps in without too much of a problem. When I slapped him, I got just as much support from the crowd.

I told him that I'd love to study with him, but knew that it couldn't be, because whenever I'm in public doing anything other than riding by on a bike, I get a crowd surrounding me very quickly, and its impossible to do any serious practicing of martial arts under such circumstances.

I really can't work out very well here. Too many people watch. It's a hassle. However, it was a pleasure to really be put in my place by this man who said he was 62 years old. He looked like he was in his early fifties, maybe late forties. I really wasn't humiliated or anything. Whenever either of us got a strike in, there was always a salute and a bow afterwards. The vibe of the contest was very warm.

My Mandarin is coming along in leaps and bounds. I'm able to express myself better and better every day. However, I'm still unable to understand the locals very well. Very difficult, especially considering the thickness of the local accent.

I tell people to speak clearly and slowly. It is very difficult for most. I don't know why, but they just can't communicate with any consciousness regarding their speech. I think that Americans have the same problem. Former radio announcers don't have that problem. We're used to keeping one ear on our voices to constantly monitor the pacing and clarity.

I've fine tuned the hospital experience to better suit my needs. I still hang out in the Bell's Palsy acupuncture department, but I'm free to leave with my translator whenever there's something else better going on. In fact, because my translator is so friendly and popular in the hospital, We're pretty much welcome wherever we go...

We've already done two surgeries. One, including acupuncture anesthesia. Pretty cool. The translator is also the hospital's anesthesiologist.

There are many interesting departments here, but the trick is to find one that you like where the doctor is open to you being there and will talk with you, teach you what he or she knows. The other trick is finding a doctor who knows something. We were in the dermatology department last week, and although I did learn a few things, the doctor was not someone whom I felt was going to add to the way I look at Chinese medicine.

However, in the orthopedics department, there's this salty old gentleman who seems to really enjoy having us there. When I ask questions about his treatment principles, he takes great joy in writing down diagrams in explaining the answer to me. These diagrams are in his scribbly Chinese characters, so I have to ask a lot more questions once he does write things down, but its an excellent experience for me. He teaches like I like to learn. I'm not so focused on specific herbal formulas that he writes, but the principles that take him to that formula and then guide its creation. That's the important part. And he's well versed in those principles. His knowledge of TCM theory is excellent.

I'm hoping to apply these theories to sports medicine. He does a lot of work with the kidneys too. Very interesting stuff.

What has really gotten me the most excited is the psychology department. For the last month, I've been doing what I do with patients. When I take their pulse, look at their tongues, I make a psychological diagnosis as well as a Chinese medicine diagnosis. This is quite surprising to the translator, as they really don't take into effect, the mental health of the patients here. The doctors do ask about the "Shen" or "spirit" in the diagnosis phase, but the answers are usually something like "I'm tired." "I don't sleep well." Nothing too in depth.

Today we visited the psychology department and talked at length with the psychologist there, a spittin' image of a Chinese Joyce Brothers. She was very interested in my take on Chinese medicine applications in the discipline of psychology after we discussed one of her patients.

We're going to get together starting Monday on various cases. I feel validated.

Now, if I could just convince the warm weather to return. None of the houses have heaters here. Its always cold. I hang out at the Holiday Inn and drink a cup of three dollar coffee everyday. I'm getting my money's worth. I'll spend a couple of hours nursing it and studying in their warm, clean, quiet restaurant. Its the only thing that keeps me sane here.

Finally this...

Its amazing to me how different cultures have different standards of beauty. It turns out that in China, fair skin and deep set hazel eyes are considered quite attractive. Body hair is exotic and exciting. A receding hairline is a sign of intelligence and people have been known to have their noses enlarged to look Western with plastic surgery.

Whereas, in the states, I'm a balding Jewish geek with a huge nose and too much body hair. In China, I'm Mr. Universe. Is it any wonder that I'm beginning to warm up to this place?

Love from your wickedly handsome son.

November 14, 1997

Wang Dai Fu, Man About Town.

Wang Dai Fu's Gang. From left to right; Dr. Wen, our translator and the hospital's anesthesiologist, Al, with his head finally not cut off at the top during a group shot, Wang Dai Fu, without a smile, he doesn't have to, and Linda with a smile, she doesn't have to either.

Wang Dai Fu. That means Dr. Wang. Dr. Wang is the man in charge of the Bell's Palsy ward at the Yunnan Province Hospital of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Linda and I are spending a month with him.

Nobody is as cool as Wang Dai Fu. Dr. Wang wears black shirts with lightly colored floral ties. He's got this Mafia thing going on in his appearance.

Wang Dai Fu smokes and looks pretty damned good doing it. He uses his cigarette like an orchestra conductor's baton. With a trail of smoke he can direct his interns toward the greatest mysteries of acupuncture therapeutics. And he makes no excuses for it either. He doesn't have to. He's Wang Dai Fu. He's got the cool of Cleavon Little riding through the desert in the early scenes of Blazing Saddles, with the Duke Ellington orchestra swingin' in the background.

Wang Dai Fu with his trade mark oral moxa treatment.
Wang Dai Fu with his trade mark oral moxa treatment. Wang Dai Fu is the Bodhisattva of style, the Marlboro cowboy of Kunming, the Jack Nicholson of acupuncture.

And as for his therapeutics? Yeah, he's pretty good at getting results. There are many many people in Kunming who get "Zhong Feng" or Bell's Palsy. Nobody knows why, and to my knowledge, there hasn't yet been a study to determine this.

I began to put together a bit of a research project regarding lifestyles and environmental factors to try and come up with a common denominator, but our translator said that it was like not being able to see the mountain because you're inside of it. That is the Chinese equivalent of not being able to see the forest for the trees. There is so much Bell's Palsy in Kunming, its hard to get a sense of what the common denominator is to produce this, other than living in Kunming.

So, Dr. Wang's good at Bell's palsy, but what makes him special is his almost evil cool. He often works with a cigarette in his mouth. Rather than condemn it, we now say that he works with a moxibustion stick in his mouth.

The young man that he's working on in this picture came in to the clinic having suffered from Bell's Palsy for three months. He was unable to close his right eye, among other muscular pathologies on the side of his face. Two weeks later, at the time of the writing of this article, he can now close his eye. This, with an acupuncture treatment five days a week.

Al emulating Wang Dai Fu with Dr. Wang's trademark Moxa stick hanging out of his mouth.Al emulating Wang Dai Fu with Dr. Wang's trademark Moxa stick hanging out of his mouth.

Of course, I want to emulate the genius of all my teachers at the Yunnan Hospital, and the cool of Wang Dai Fu, so here I am helping with the diagnosis of a patient, with a (tobacco) moxibustion stick in my mouth.

Acupuncture Anesthesia

Acupuncture Anesthesia has been dreadfully under-utilized in the West, however, at the Yunnan Province TCM Hospital, in Kunming, its a common occurrence. Its a safe and effective means of inducing anesthesia without the dangerous side effects of Western drugs.

Dr. Wen Dr. Wen is our translator at the hospital. And he's also the anesthesia department

This isn't what he looks like in surgery, this is what he looks like at the Jin Dian monastery.

Acupuncture anesthesia is based on both Western neurological understanding as well as the traditional Chinese medicine paradigm. Some needles are inserted close to the nerves that travel to the area of the body that is to be worked on. Other needles are inserted for their therapeutic functions in accordance with traditional Chinese medical theory.

In the case of the surgery in which the picture below was taken, it was the knee cap that was to be repositioned. We use acupuncture anesthesia most often for orthopedic surgeries, though it is also used for surgeries on organs above the diaphragm.

The nerve through which the pain signals travel from the knee area to the brain is called the tibial nerve. It travels from near the groin down to the knee. We applied needles to two points along that pathway. These needles were attached to an electro-stim machine. This is a small little electronic unit that emits very slight bursts of electricity to the needles.

Al doing acupuncture anesthesia Here I am, smiling for the camera, while inserting a needle into an acupoint on the hand.

These little electric signals over stimulate the nerve without any pain. When the nerve is over stimulated, it is unable to transmit any other sensations, such as the pain associated with the surgery. Its a little bit like when there's loud music in the room and you're trying to talk on the phone. The nerves in your ears are overstimulated by the volume of the music, and so you can't hear anything on the phone. Once the music is turned down, you can hear again. That's pretty much the reasoning with needles inserted along a nerve pathway for acupuncture anesthesia.

Other points used for this surgery included two on the arm. Their function was to both stimulate additional endorphin release in the body which is an action based on Western medical theory. Endorphins are one of the body's many pain relief chemicals. The other point that we used on the arm was Pericardium 6. This point was chosen for its traditional Chinese medicine therapeutic action. This point calms the spirit. This enables the patient to feel calm during the surgery.

And this patient was remarkably calm. By the end of the surgery, he remained in good spirits.

This was the second surgery that I took part in. I hope to continue my education in this exciting area of acupuncture therapeutics.

For more information on Acupuncture Anesthesia, written for TCM practitioners, please see: Acupuncture Anesthesia.

The Dragon's Gate Monastery

Each step arduous and in danger,
Steadfastly you have to stand your ground;
Being high up in the firmament,
You had better set at ease your mind.

Those are the words you'll find outside one of the many caves at the Dragon's Gate monastery, which isn't exactly a monastery as much as it is a series of caves high in the West Hills near Kunming. Many of the caves feature a Buddhist deity and a plethora of vendors providing you with enough incense to choke an ancestor.

Its a beautiful walk up the side of the mountain. There's a real sense of ancient China there, though it is difficult to really get it because of all the new China in the area, namely the thousands of people that you're sharing this moment of sanctity with.

I wasn't too impressed with the Dragon's Gate, even though it features the best views of Kunming and Dianchi lake a couple thousand feet below. The fact that it is such a popular tourist destination makes it an unpopular destination for anybody who really wants to sense the subtle spirit of China. It just can't be done when you're pressing against so many people.

After we walked through many of the catacombs and saw all the painted figurines suitable for praying to, we finally got off the beaten trail just a bit to have some lunch that we brought.

The mountainous area featured many stones that had the ancient subtleties of many of the kinds of rocks that you'll find in bonsai gardens. We really were in a bonsai garden, except for the fact that nothing was in miniature.

There are many monasteries in the West Hills, and in other articles I'll describe them. This is the most famous, and for that reason, I kind of suggest that you avoid it, if you're in the area. Either that, or avoid the weekends and special holidays.

It is said (by whom, I don't know. I suspect a travel agent...) that "Once on the Dragon Gate, your fortune will be made." And it is also said that "Visiting Kunming without ascending the Dragon Gate is as regretful as visiting Hanzhou without seeing the West Lake." Well, that goes without saying, doesn't it?

Sorry that there's no pictures of this site, but the fact is, there were so many people everywhere all the time, I just couldn't get a clean shot of anything at anytime. A bit frustrating, really.

The Huatingsi Monastery

If you're going to spend some time in the West Hills, outside of Kunming, and you really want to take in some ancient culture, fabulous artwork and just a hint of honest-to-goodness divinity, this is the place to go.

The Huatingsi Monastery isn't the highest location in the West Hills, in fact, I believe that its the lowest, but from the depths of the mud comes forth the lotus and if it is the beauty of Chinese Buddhism that attracts you, you've come to the right place at Huatingsi.

Apparently, it all began in the year 1063. King Arthur was arguing with his carpenters regarding the shape of his kitchen table, the abacus was still high technology, and Vikings were discovering that America had already been discovered by the Indians who looked a little Chinese...

In this year, a high ranking official from the nearby Dali kingdom was made the marquis with the power to rule over the Kunming area. He chose this location for his palace. In the year of 1320, a local Buddhist monk built a temple here and one thing led to another until the most recent of its incarnations, built in 1920 by another monk. So, there's some history here.

The wrathful giant General Heng

Here's a picture of the wrathful giant, General Heng. This guy's about 15 feet tall. I couldn't help but wonder what would happen to these statues in the event of an earthquake. It wasn't the first time that I thought about earthquakes in China. Nothing appears to be tied down. Perhaps its just my California mentality coming out, but a three pointer would bring this city to its knees... Anyway, this is one of two wrathful giants who stand at the gate to the Hall of the Heavenly Kings.

Medicine Buddha, Buddha of the Eastern Glazed World

Here's my Chinese teacher (the figure in black) about to bow and pray to the one whom I think is the Medicine Buddha, Buddha of the Eastern Glazed World. In the foreground is a monk and another temple visitor. This is one of the few temples where there really are monks on the grounds. I paid special attention to their spirit just to get a sense of what they were all about. There were three that I found there, two young men and one elderly women. The two young men were amused by a Western woman's intense interest with them and their life. They view themselves as nothing special at all. Which, of course, is the Buddhist way. It wasn't an attitude that they put on, it was truly their spirit. The elderly female monk that I met there was all smiles, I wanted to sit and talk with her, but my party was leaving and there wasn't time.

Arhats of Buddhism

The two lateral walls of this temple were filled with clay figurines that seemed to be alive in the dim shadows.

Arhats of Buddhism

As our eyes got used to the dim light, colors began to appear out of the shadows, and details of the faces and groupings became more evident.

Arhats of Buddhism
These figures are the 500 arhats (holy men and disciples of the Lord Buddha), a blending of Indian Buddhism and Chinese mythology.

Arhats of Buddhism

The richness and detail of each figurine made me wish that they hadn't made it against the rules to take pictures...

Keep off the grass

A sign outside the temple suggested that visitors "keep off the grass". The words that they chose in English were "Please respect trees and flowers." There's something very Buddhist in that.

There are also a couple of art stores on the grounds of this temple, and a few touristy shops run by local ethnic minorities. They call these stores "Ethnic Minority Stores" which I think is supposed to lend value to the uniqueness of the tacky touristy stuff you'll find inside.

The art shops are really pretty good, though a little more expensive than you'll find in town. On the other hand, you'll find a lot of original art, rather than the usual prints that you can find anywhere.

In one of the art stores we were treated well with respect and interest. In the other we couldn't help shake the feeling that we were being hustled.

The Jin Dian (Golden Temple) Taoist Monastery

We finally got to visit a real live Taoist Monastery. I was actually a little saddened by the reality of this monastery. It was just another tourist trap. Sure, there's lots of pretty buildings with colorful paintings and more than enough really big statues of Taoist deities, but the spirit of the temple is lost in the glamour of it all. Perhaps the spirit was lost when they built the temple in the first place.

The story of how this monastery came to be is actually kind of interesting. During the reign of Wanli in the Ming Dynasty, Chen Yongbin, the governor of Yunnan, believed in Taoism. One day, or night or something, he dreamed about the immortal Lu Dongbin making an appointment to meet him the next morning at the foot of Yingwushan Hill. Shortly after the rooster crowed the next morning Chen Yongbin stood there waiting, only to find an old herdsman leading some sheep tied up with a rope down the hillside carrying an earthen pot with another pot as the lid. As he took a step forward to have a closer look, the old man, the sheep and the pots suddenly disappeared.

Naturally, this was completely baffling to Governor Chen. As it would be to probably most public servants. But, it eventually dawned on him that the two pots put together shaped the Chinese character "Lu", alluding to the family name of the immortal. Besides, the character for rope is homonymous to the character for purity and the character for sheep is homonymous to the character for Yang (as in Yin and Yang). The immortal Lu Dong-bin also styled himself as Pure Yang. It was obvious that Lu was intentionally indicating to him that the scenery of Yingwu Hill was wonderful and that it was as good as an earthly paradise. Thereupon Chen Yongbin began to recruit workers to build an ideal temple there.

The touristy stuff was added only in the last four years.

If the eight immortals were alive today, uh, I mean if their presence were a little better understood, I think that they'd be the first to knock down the monasteries and let plants grow in their place. They'd burn the statues for warmth and invite the hundreds of tacky touristy stuff hawkers to leave their wares behind to enjoy what this mountain really has to offer.

The real spirit of this monastery is found elsewhere on the mountain upon which it is situated. Finally, I was able to get away from the crowds long enough to sense the spirit of the area. The energetic patterns that remain following hundreds of years of intense meditations and a joyful approach to life in its simple rhythms of yin and yang. Taoist archetypes that still echo from unseen mountain tops, rustle in the forest's leaves on a windless day and trace playful patterns onto the surface of an algae ridden lake.

A colorful hallway

This is a typical hallway in the temple area. The paints that they use for all the colors are very vivid and beautiful. It wasn't captured well in this picture, but the ornate art on each and every horizontal beam was something to really behold.

Some Taoist Statue guy

This was the central statue among three that were found in one of the many little shrines. I don't know who he is, but I'd like to meet his stylist!

Close-up of bronze work

The reason they call this the Golden Temple is because it has one of China's largest bronze temples. This is a close up of one of the doors. Nice ornamentation and bronze work.

Linda in Forest

Linda is translated to "Lin Dao" in Chinese which means Path-in-the-forest. Here she is, on that very path.

This specific area was my favorite of all. You could almost hear the rolly-polly drunken fairies.

Magnolia Xin Yin bud

Some of the areas of the mountain were well manicured gardens. I didn't care for them too much. Taoism isn't about well-manicured anything. However, there were some areas where plants and trees grew with a little bit more random beauty. Here's some of that beauty in the form of a traditional Chinese herb called "Xin Yi" or Magnolia bud. Its the Dristan of the Chinese herbal pharmacopoeia.

Elsewhere on the mountain, there were many park like settings were people could just go to spend the day. Lots of open grass, and little forests to get lost in. The spirit of this mountain really was special. Warm, relaxed, fun. The monastery was more of an amusement park than anything that would elicit a spiritual awakening. However, elsewhere on the mountain, it seemed that people everywhere were getting caught up in the special vibe of their surroundings.

Lake Pavilion

Pictured here is a small pavilion overlooking a lake. Inside, people drank tea and played Mah Jong.

There are some great places to see and things to do at Jin Dian, however, the monastery is not one of them.

November 15, 1997

The Kunming Opera

The Beijing Opera (formally known as the Peking Opera) is a world renown expression of all things Chinese. It's a mixture of singing, dancing, drama and martial arts. I've seen it a bit on television, and I really like it. The music is accessible in a way that makes you want to hum along once you get it. The way in which people move on stage, their gestures and staging is quite different from the way in which Western actors use the stage. The set design rivals the finest Italian operas. The make-up reminds me a bit of kabuki theater in Japan. The musical instruments used are classically Chinese and the songs are as familiar to them as the best works of Rogers and Hammerstein are to us.

I asked some of my friends if they had any Beijing operas playing in Kunming. They said that there was some of that here, though it is a little different, since we're in Kunming. Good enough, I figured, and so one afternoon we made our way to a small structure a top a big one in Kunming's public square.

Inside, this room, I found the Beijing opera equivalent of a Karaoke bar. Nobody was paid to perform that I can tell, members from the audience came up to sing as they wished, and the musicians seemed to come and go as well. In short, this was a Chinese classical music jam session.

Everyone seemed to know all the songs. My host could even hum along since she seemed to know the songs as well. Interestingly, there were times, when the audience, in the middle of song would clap with appreciation. Occasionally this would happen after a singer held a note for a long long time, so I understood that they were clapping for the singer's abilities however, at other times, they would just clap for no apparent reason in the middle of the song. I never could figure out why. Perhaps the singer was adding some extra words that complemented the crowd or something. I don't honestly know. But I did make it a point to clap knowingly whenever the audience did.


Here are a couple members of the audience jamming to the oldies. Their singing was pretty well drowned out by the music. I saw speakers on the walls, but there were no microphones to be found. The large object in the right foreground is a guy with a pair of small cymbals that he would crash together right after each song. And I do mean "crash".


The guy in front is the drummer. With his left hand he worked a couple of sticks that slapped together, and with the right hand he would strike the drum in front of his legs.

His drumming wasn't used for rhythm purposes. But as accents to thoughts. In Beijing opera, whenever something happens that requires emphasis, the drums go to work. In the West we call this a "rim shot" which is used to designate the punch line of a Burlesque stand-up's jokes. The drums and cymbals are also used for scene changes. Or as we would say in the American musical... "A little traveling music."

When exiting a room in the hospital that I'm working at, we've gotten into the habit of mimicking these percussive effects and the dramatic walk of Beijing opera actors, this, to the amusement of some of the doctors and the irritation to others.


Two Erhu players and a lute player. I don't think the proper name of the stringed instrument in the back is a lute, but that's the best word I can use to describe it. All three instruments played in unison, though the two Erhus were separated by an octave.

The music is very subtle in its pitches. Lots of quarter tones, rather than the half and full tones that we're accustomed to in Western music. To put this in layperson's terms, instead of the music being limited to the black and white keys on the piano, they have notes in between that we don't use in the West.

One thing that they don't seem to have, at least among these players, was volume dynamics. There was just one volume for each and every song, loud.

Behind the musicians are a couple of men removing a board from a window. The sun had recently come out and they were opening the windows, or at least removing the boards that had been tied in front of the windows with wire.

the crowd

The average age of the members of the audience was 55 years.

As per usual, they sat me down in front of the crowd and as I walked through the room to take my seat, I was the subject of intrigue which I haven't yet fully come to appreciate here. On the other hand, we all had something in common in this room, a love of music, and so, the "thumbs-up" sign that I got from some of the people was well taken. They were happy that a foreigner would come and listen to their classical music.

About 80 percent of Kunming's population have embraced Western fashion (though not necessarily Western fashion sense, but that's another issue), however, you'll see that among the older folks, they still wear the navy blue garb often associated with chairman Mao's revolutionary days.

Chinese classical music is a wonderful thing. If you have a chance to witness Beijing opera, I highly suggest that you do. I haven't yet been able to see the real thing for myself, except on TV, but it looks great. The fun part is finding meaning in the words that you can't understand.

Since, as in Shakespeare's days, there are no female actors, the men who play female parts have truly mastered falsetto singing. I've found many hours of enjoyment performing Beijing opera in falsetto voice here. If you're one of those who know me, reading this article, be sure to have me do some Beijing opera for you when I get back to the states.

Though you might have to buy me a drink first.

November 27, 1997

Western Food That'll Curl Your Hair

Dear Mom and Dad,

The halfway point in my adventure has come. It's been two months. To me it feels like about a year.

The holiday spirit is conspicuously absent here. I kind of like the absence of holiday obligations, but I miss seeing the churches and temples here. You'd think that in a 5,000 year old culture such as China that there would be reminders of Buddhist, Taoist, even Confucian thought everywhere. However, the reminders are limited to the plastic icons found in the gift shops near the hotels and at the tourist trap monasteries.

The three million some-odd people here still stare and gawk at me, the foreigner, everyday, everywhere, all the time. It really bothered me for the longest time. But there's a lot of construction going on near my apartment and I've been watching the "Gong Ren" (day laborers) work with primitive hand tools building the foundation for this 20 story high-rise. They work hard for little pay. And they work until about 1 in the morning. These guys are the backbone of China's labor force.

They've got a hard life. I figure that if I provide them with a little entertainment because of my appearance, its a minor pleasure in their day that I'm less resentful now for providing. I still don't like it, but I can't hold it against them anymore. Besides, they never really understood the hateful gaze I would return. I always felt like I'd gotten angry at one who had absolutely no malice in their heart. They'd just smile and laugh more.

I had another run-in with "Western food" a couple of days ago. We went to a cute little Italian restaurant. It smelled really good inside, and the interior design was a reasonably successful attempt at European decor. By this time, I've learned how to determine the quality of the food before ordering.

"What's the nationality of your chef?" I ask.

"Oh, he's American." I'm told.

"Is he here, now?" I return.

"Yes, would you like to meet him?" I'm asked.

"Sure, I used to do some cooking myself, you know." I add.

We walk back to the kitchen. I find no Americans. Just Chinese. Okay, no problem, perhaps the Chef taught the cook what to do. That's fine. But then, I see another problem. Pizza on the menu, and there's no oven. Uh-oh, just a wok with oil, a rice cooker and a few other typically Chinese cooking tools.

I discover their pre-made garnishes, some vegetables cut into the shapes of flowers. They look nice, but I also see some room temperature French fries and realize that these fries are also used as a garnish. I lift one up and ask my translator to explain that fries MUST be served within a couple of minutes after coming out of the fryer, uh, I mean wok full of oil.

I guess "shelf life" doesn't really translate well, because when our dinner did arrive, they came with the nice veggie garnishes and a couple of rock-hard fries...

Anyway, they asked me to show them how to cook something. I chose something simple like garlic toast. I searched for a French loaf or something appropriate for garlic toast, but could only find a square white bread that was sweetened with something. It tasted kind of like a pound cake in the shape of a fat Webber's loaf.

Well, I'm a guest, so rather than give them a dose of real American moodiness, a chef who "CAN'T WORK IN THESE CONDITIONS!!!" I chose to create with what I had available.

I buttered up some of the bread and toasted it, face down, in a large frying pan with some diced up garlic. I turned it over, sprinkled on some mozzarella and a little rosemary. I cut the squares into little triangles and placed them artistically onto a plate explaining that presentation is everything. "We eat with our eyes before we eat with our mouths." I added, much to their amusement.

The toast wasn't sampled by the cooks and waitresses who all witnessed the cooking, but rather it was taken out to the owners who were having a small party in the dining room. I felt a little kinship with the restaurant workers, having done it for so long myself, so when the food was taken away, I felt a little bad. Oh well. That's pretty much universal for restaurants, I guess. The grunts go hungry.

We ended up ordering a pizza with "pig" and "pineapple". I hoped that meant Canadian Bacon, but it ended up being some kind of pork cubes. They weren't even smoked. And the pineapple tasted like it came from a Libby's can of fruit cocktail.

Not very good. I shudder to think of what the Chinese must think of Western food after eating at a restaurant such as this. We ate one slice each and left about ten. We called a friend who lives nearby hoping that she'd have a taste for pizza. However, she was no fool. She didn't even finish her one piece. Oh well, nice friendly atmosphere, anyway.

There are a couple more foreign students at the hospital who study with me, now. One is an M.D. from Thailand. She has no traditional Chinese medicine training, and so I spent much of this morning explaining Yin/Yang theory and how it relates to the human body. She's interested in taking back some acupuncture understanding to incorporate into her OB-GYN practice in a town of 40,000 in Thailand.

The other student is a young man from New Jersey. He's here with the School for International Training doing a semester abroad. He's come to the hospital to do a research paper. When he learned about the work that I'm doing in the psychology department, his interest was piqued and has begun to work with me in the psyche department as a topic for his research paper. It turns out that his undergraduate major is in neurobiology. Kind of the point in which biochemistry meets psychology. (Ben S. went on to create

It's interesting to see the different psychological pathologies here. In Santa Monica, the patients whom I see tend to have stress-related disorders. In short, there are many things that they want, that they work hard for, and this takes its toll on the mind and body, especially when there are obstacles to their goals. In China, the pathologies tend not to deal with them not being able to achieve, or get what they want, but rather the pathologies tend to have more to do with a lack of personal initiative.

An example of that need to be told what to do came up recently in the hospital. Ten people were in a small doctor's office earlier this week. When the doctors went outside the door into the hall to confer about a case, a woman described as looking nervous and probably a drug addict sat down in one of the doctor's chairs. Some of the ten in the room thought that was a little strange, that she should sit in one of the doctors' chairs. The woman reached into one of the doctor's bags and removed the wallet, and rushed outside. When the doctor returned five minutes later, he found his doctor's bag was open and the wallet was missing. Of the ten people standing around in the room, only five had even seen the woman. Of the five, three had witnessed the theft, but not one of them had the personal initiative to either stop the woman or even tell the doctors talking right outside the door what had happened. Mind you, this wasn't the psyche department, this was orthopedics.

The woman got away with the wallet. Fortunately, American credit cards are almost impossible to use here.

That's it for now. Happy holiday shopping! Just remember, the massive crowds you're witnessing now, are an everyday occurrence here...

Love from your third born, but favorite son.

December 14, 1997

Cancer Treatments with Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Yunnan Province Hospital of TCM has a "sister city" relationship with one of the major TCM hospitals in Shanghai. For one month, a number of distinguished doctors from Shanghai come to Kunming to share with our doctors their unique perspective on a variety of specialties including cancer.

A child with a brain tumorA seven year old boy has been suffering from slow growth (he looked to be about the height of a five year old) and frequent bouts of nausea. With Western testing procedures, it was determined that he has a small brain tumor.

From left to right is the cancer specialist from Shanghai. Next is the little boy's uncle. Standing above the boy is his father. The boy sits in the lap of another uncle who was kind of in the driver's seat regarding this young man's medical care because he had some education whereas the father had none.

There is an entire category of herbal medicines in the Chinese pharmacopoeia that treat cancer. Of course there are many different types of cancer, many locations, and many different causal agents. All of these need to be taken into account to arrive at a therapy that is safe and effective.

The doctor was not very forthcoming regarding this case nor the therapeutics that he was prescribing and so we left none the wiser. Some doctors are like that. However, certainly, this young man gave me something to think about.

Jia Tang Jia (Home Sweet Home)

Jia Tang Jia (Home Sweet Home)

One Sunday morning, Linda and I decided to just go for a little walk around our neighborhood. We talked to our neighbors, or at least gestured wildly with our neighbors and everyone seemed to have a good time misunderstanding each other.

Soon after however, Guang Qin, the lady of the house in which we are guests, decided to take us on a grand tour of all of her friend's apartments. The pictures that follow are what we saw.

Linda and Locals

Here's Linda talking to the locals. It was still overcast and very cold when this picture was taken, however, the weather report called for clearing skies, the first in about five days, and so everyone had done their laundry that morning and you can see all of it drying outside. There are no dryers here. There are some small apartment size washing machines though. Most people seem to wash their clothes by hand, in the kitchen sink, which is, in our neighborhood, often times the only sink in the house.

Guang Qin asking us to follow her.

Here's the lady of the house asking us to follow her to her friends' houses. Guang Qin has an amazing ability to communicate with us, even though she knows no English and I have a lot of trouble understanding her Chinese. She does, however, use her hands and gestures when she speaks, and she always expresses herself only when there is a clear context. It's neat to communicate with her. Words only carry the message, they aren't the message.

Wei-Wei in front of Vennessa Williams.

In one of the homes that we visited, the 69th Annual Academy Awards were playing. These are not the current awards, but one year behind those that play in the USA. Here's Venessa Williams singing the song from "Pocohontus." In front of her is the little girl of the house singing a nursery rhyme she learned in school. The sound on the TV is turned down. Interestingly, during the commercial breaks in the television program, they didn't insert commercials, but rather, the played music videos.

View from the sixth floor

Here's what we saw, looking out the window of the many apartments we visited that morning. Notice the really old building that are only two stories tall. Then the kind of old ones, that are up to six stories high. There are newer ones springing up everywhere as they tear down more and more of the two story jobs. You may notice that the buildings don't follow a strict directionality. I have the hardest time maintaining a sense of direction in this city. Especially, when I'm among the housing structures.

Bicycle Station Guy

Bicycles get stolen around here like cars in Los Angeles County. That's why so many people rely on this man, the guard at the bicycle station. For one penny, or so, he'll watch your bike at night, and even lock it up in the garage behind him. We only paid him one jiao, which is about a cent and a half. And apparently, we get to park our bikes in this garage for the duration of our stay. He's a really nice guy. Kind of the town crier for our neighborhood which is fenced off by tall brick fences from the other neighborhoods. These fences make it so that everyone in our ten or so buildings must enter and exit from the same driveway on to the main street outside. We're not sure why they divide up the neighborhoods as such.

December 15, 1997

Back in the Saddle Again, Kunming Radio

Kunming has four radio stations. Through a kind of fluke, I was invited to one of them that features an English language program twice a week called "Let's Learn English Together."

The pictures on this page represent the second of two, so far, programs that I've co-hosted. In the first show, we played some alternative/electronic music that was provided by a friend who was supposed to be on the show that night, but he got sick, and since he knew of my history in radio, invited me to fill in for him.

I was introduced on-air as an American radio announcer. I didn't know any of the music that I played because it was all supplied by my sick friend. With the exception of my old college radio buddies who are probably reading this, chances are you wouldn't have recognized any of the music either.

And that's what made it great. There were no words in the songs, and that allowed me to come up with interesting stories regarding the origin of the titles of the songs that I'm sure had nothing to do with the composer's intent. But then, that's what radio's for, the "Theater of the Mind" as they're fond of saying.

During the second half of the hour-long show, we took calls from listeners. I think we talked to five people. Four of them talked about Michael Jackson. The fifth knew of some other artists.

I gently suggested that there might be something not quite right with the King of Pop, regarding his alleged appreciation of children above and beyond the charity work that he does. But the subtlety of the message was lost, I think. I didn't want to get thrown off the air again, so I kept my observations gentle in reference to the gloved one. For those of you not in the know, I was relieved of my duties as a talk show host in college once because on this show called "Freedom of Voice" I got a little bit too free, I guess. I was not politically correct. China has a very rigid standard of political correctness, and I knew it.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Which brings me to the topic of the second show that I did, the one with the pictures below.

I talked about the emerging interest of Chinese medicine, philosophy and culture in the West, specifically in America. I never got around to talking about David Carridine and the original Kung Fu television series, but I hit all the other bases.

al looking at listeners

A good announcer can really connect with his audience. In an effort to really see who was listening, I employed a long forgotten trick from the early days of radio. By staring into the microphone, you can actually see out the speakers of the listeners.

To my right is Leisl White, the host. People in China who speak English are given, or chose, Western names. Leisl has a Chinese name, but to say it requires that one do things with their tongue that would have made Linda Lovelace blush. So, I called her Leisl. Apparently she got that name from The Sound of Music.

Incidentally, Western guests to China get Chinese names. My name translates to "Blue Diamonds." A reference to my eyes, I'm told.

Al avoiding the paparazzi

"Please, no pictures!"

Liesl and Al talking

Leisl is what I call a "Mao Tse Tung Ren." Ren is "person." I don't know how to say "socialist" or "communist" say I stick with "Mao Tse Tung Ren." Its always good for a laugh too. The reason that I bring this up, is that, off the air, she expressed her disbelief that any non-Chinese person could ever become proficient at traditional Chinese medicine.

I responded with saying the same thing about Western music. Chinese produced music that attempts to mimic the original artists from the West often lacks an edge in their rock or a an understanding of improvisational musical styles such as jazz. But that's not always the case. There's a pianist at the Kunming Hotel who has a better feel for jazz and blues than most I've heard in the states. He understands our music in his heart.

Chinese medicine too is something that comes from the heart. Not the genes.

The Reflexology Girls

In our never-ending quest for a real-live Asian style massage we happened upon this little storefront not far from our home in Kunming. Inside, I saw a couple of women working on the feet of a couple of Chinese businessmen who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the experience.

I asked how much it cost to have a reflexology massage. I was told that it was 60 Yuan, about $7.50. Works for me. Linda and I returned that night around nine for our foot massage.

Once inside, we were given the two chairs to sit in. These chairs were something like barber shop chairs that reclined. The women there put down new sheets for us, and once we were comfortable, brought out some tea for us to drink.

After the previous two massages, we were especially cautious of too much hospitality. We didn't know when or how the "upgrade" would take place, but we were hopeful and accepted everything they offered us graciously.

It got a little uncomfortable for me, when the owner, a middle aged woman and her boyfriend came in and began to describe the virtues of our two massage therapists. The big selling point seemed to be that they were just seventeen years old. I figured that the sales pitch was for my benefit, perhaps I would like to take one of them home with me. Or just support her and visit her whenever I was in town. Perhaps this was just my own projection, perhaps not. I still don't know.

It is true, that they were both attractive, but by this time, I would really have been happy to just get a massage, with no strings attached, just for once.

The massage really was good. It began with the washing of our feet in a warm herbal decoction. They really took their time with it. The 60 Yuan was supposed to be for a one hour treatment, ours ended up taking closer to two.

After the little foot bath, the reflexology treatment began in earnest. These two had obviously been trained in foot reflexology, they knew the points, how hard to push them and when.

But my massage therapist was always gazing into my eyes. Direct eye contact of this nature has a very specific meaning in American culture. This meaning is probably not shared by all cultures. The way that the Chinese people stare at us on the streets suggests that they don't have the personal space issues that we maintain in America.

But I wasn't comfortable with all of her eye contact. Not after her boss' boyfriend's sales pitch. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the massage.

Soon after, the girls from this company's other location, a couple of doors down, stopped in to see the foreigners. They were all beautiful young Chinese women, these girls had a distinct Western flavor in their dress and make-up. They worked at the beauty salon.

They began to tell Linda about the other services available two doors down. We were still a little leery as to what was really going on, always waiting for the sales pitch to turn into a sales obligation. It never came, they were just sincerely interested in telling Linda about their facials, etc... But it was hard for us to really relax in there.

We actually had a little fun, all of us, trying to communicate between really bad Chinese and really bad English.

It was the closest thing, so far that we've had to a really good massage in Asia. After we left, we decided to return sometime, but in the weeks that have followed, I think that our enthusiasm has waned. It was kind of intense in there for us. Being the center of attention while you're getting a massage doesn't allow you to drift away and enjoy it. There's a part of you that has to maintain a social consciousness. It is rude to ignore people. Though, we're getting better and better at it as time goes by.

We ended up tipping each of the girls an extra 10 Yuan. It took a little convincing, because to accept a tip isn't customary for them. It must seem a little underhanded in a way to them. But they ended up taking it at our ongoing insistence. I'm glad that they did. They really worked hard for their money that night. At least, with my size 13 feet.

December 26, 1997

Its a Kunming Christmas!

Dear Mom and Dad,

They've got a word for Christmas, here.


There are a few reminders of the season. The frigid air, a few wreathes up at the Kunming hotel, and a big inflatable Santa atop the Holiday Inn. Other than that, not much.

Speaking of frigid air. All the tourist books, and even the people here all refer to Kunming as the land of Eternal Spring. I think that they're talking about really early spring, like in Siberia.

The holiday season brings us to some interesting observations. I've learned that the word for "Jewish" is Yo Tai Ren. The characters mean "still too people." I'm not sure if they're suggesting that there are still too many Jewish people, and if so, what are they suggesting that we do about it? Can't tell, and nobody seems able to tell me.

It is more likely that Yo Tai is the Chinese tongue's attempt at saying "Judah." I think that Yo Tai is a much better choice than the other option which would be to say it as "Zhu Da." Which means "big pig." Probably, having too many Jews is a step up from being the big pig people.

There's a sizable Muslim population here in Kunming. With the exception of an occasional set of dark green eyes, they don't look any different than the majority Han ethnicity. However, they've got a much better Chinese expression for their religion. They are the "Qing Zhen Ren" or the "clear truth people."

I tell people that I was raised Jewish, but I feel more Buddhist now. They ask me why I eat meat, which Buddhists do not. I tell them it is because I'm a JEWISH Buddhist. Then they ask me why I eat pork. Same reason, because I'm a Jewish BUDDHIST. How's that for clear truth?

Christianity is Ji Du Jiao. Again, in spoken Chinese, the word "Ji Du" sounds a little like Jesus. Jiao is religion. The character used for "Ji" means "foundation". The "Du" means to supervise, or direct. Perhaps in the eyes of the Chinese, Jesus wasn't so much a carpenter as he was a construction foreman. Certainly someone could write a nice little sermon around that theme.

The Hai-Oh's have arrived. These are gulls from Siberia which migrate here for the winter. There's a big festival at their favorite lake in the middle of Kunming on the weekends during December. It's kind of the Chinese equivalent of the swallows arriving at San Juan Capistrano. However, there are so many people that the seagulls get afraid and leave. That doesn't stop the thousands of bread vendors from hawking their wares everywhere. The lake is full of pieces of bread floating atop it, and nary a gull to be found.

The common decoration all around the lake's island where the festival takes place is the umbrella. They have colorful umbrellas everywhere. Even a bunch built up into a small mock-up of Tienanmen square, complete with a picture of Chairman Mao in the middle. People have their pictures taken in front of the Chairman's picture.

It wasn't until the next day that I realized why the umbrella was the symbol for the return of thousands of Hai-Oh's. Its for protection from the bird droppings.

This theory remains unconfirmed by official sources.

One thing that I knew coming into this "excellent adventure" was that patience was a virtue, especially in China. People here wait for everything. They are quick to accept the shopkeeper's suggestion that they "come back tomorrow" for the item that the store lacks.

Upon further questioning from the impatient American, one can often learn that there is no particular reason to come back the next day, such as a shipment, or the manager getting back. That's the part that kills me. People here are very easy going about taking direction from others, but for me, I like to know why it is that I'm supposed to return the next day before I do so.

My Internet access is a little screwed up here right now, so I've got 130+ messages that are waiting to be downloaded. My Chinese isn't good enough to complain about the lousy Internet access here, and my fear is that their pat response will be "maybe we can help you tomorrow." So, I've avoided making a stink about it.

I finally found some decent Western food. It's an Italian place with an Italian chef, and I presume Italian owners, given the funky eclectic decor that is so difficult to imitate without the heart felt understanding of Western interior design that the Chinese seem to lack. There are certain areas in which the Chinese aesthetic is well developed, such as calligraphy and graphic arts, even landscaping, but as far as interior design, even the fancy apartments that I've been in, lack the warmth of "home" that I'm accustomed to seeing in the West.

Probably that warmth is missing because there is no central heating in Kunming. Even the hospital is chilly by anybody's standards. In fact, the best way to describe the ambiance of our hospital is to look at one of the Western hospitals in the 20's. Harsh, cold, dim, filthy. I have nothing nice to say about the physical facilities of the hospitals here, and I've been to more than one. I can say, however, that the hospital that I'm in is a little worse than the others. It turns out that my hospital is kind of the County/USC hospital in LA County. Its where all the poorest people end up.

Love from your "all I want for Christmas is 110 degree weather" son.

January 9, 1998

A New Year in China

Dear Mom and Dad,

On New Year's Day in China I happened to notice three, count 'em, three pregnant woman. I've seen a few here already, but after I saw the second in one day, I thought that it was kind of an interesting metaphor for the first day of the year. When I saw the third, I was really getting kick out of it. A new year, new life, new possibilities. The optimism was short lived, though.

The next day, while using a pedestrian overpass, I found an infant laying on a blanket, alone with a coffee can and a note written in Chinese. I presume that the note said something to the effect that the mother was poor and would you please help her out with some money placed in the can. The mother was nowhere to be found. This isn't a common site, but near the fancy hotels, I've seen many children begging for money on behalf of their parent(s) and so I assumed that mom was nearby watching. But about an hour later, when crossing that same overpass, I saw the same baby, now crying, and still no mother or father anywhere in sight. His crying lacked the energy of a well-fed baby. It was lethargic, and more of a moan then anything. I passed this baby again just as dusk was falling.

Another fitting metaphor for modern day China. This, on the second day of the year.

I recently talked to a man who'd grown up in Venezuela. He now lives in South Carolina and came to Kunming with a friend's sister who was here to buy an orphan. Female children are not held in the same esteem as male children here. This isn't the case among the educated, but among the peasant population the old ways die hard. The problem is, that the new ways say that they can only have one child, or should I say that the government provides obstetric services for only one child. Having a little girl is a real problem for some of the poor people here. The child that was adopted was found abandoned at a train station.

Anyway, this man came to assist his friend's sister in picking up an orphan since he had been raised in the South America and back in South Carolina, they figured that he'd be best at helping this woman, who comes from a great deal of money, find her way through this topsy-turvy world for which she was wholly unprepared.

He had grown up in the third world. With a shrug he referred to China as the "fourth world."

I'm fighting off another flu. It isn't unusual for visitors to a foreign country to lack immunity to a new country's unique viruses, but by the same token, it is frightening to get on the buses here, to touch the door handles in the rest rooms, or to even eat the food at home.

Chinese cleanliness is scary by Western standards. Every apartment that I've seen has had a small refrigerator, But I have frequently seen the peanut butter in the refrigerator, sealed with its air-tight lid, while pork products or commonly considered perishable items are left out or put in a cupboard. Mind you, these are not stored in Tupperware, but left in a bowl and placed into a plastic bag that has been reused after carrying home dirty vegetables.

My hosts at home recently served a store bought baked duck. It was very good to eat, and I looked forward to having some leftovers the next day, but when I saw them put the unused portion into the cupboard with all that other nasty food, my heart sank knowing that I couldn't eat it with a clear conscience. You'd be amazed at how much our subjective interpretations of food effect its taste and wholesomeness.

After another American left last month with severe diarrhea and other digestive issues, I too fell victim to Mao's revenge. Fortunately, it was mild and short-lived. The herbs that I took were effective, but now I am more picky about what I eat.

One thing that I do find very useful in China is the fact that every block has a Chinese herbal pharmacy. Today, as I felt the chills and fever coming on while having dinner at the Holiday Inn, I simply strolled over to the local pharmacy, and purchased some Yin Qiao San tablets. That's the formula specifically for the onset of a flu. I'm already feeling better, sitting at the Kunming hotel writing this. Two days worth of these pills cost me about 20 cents.

I've made friends with much of the staff at the Kunming hotel and they've been asking my advice on how to make their food service more attractive to Western guests.

We began by working on the finger foods menu that sits on every table in their bar area. I explained that although "Boiled Glutinous Rice Ball" is an accurate translation of what they serve, perhaps "Steamed Rice Cake" would help to sell more of them. We'll have to tackle "Hot bean curd milk" later.

We're going through their entire menu, item by item with the same attitude. Of course, to truly understand just what it is that they're serving, I have to go back to the kitchen and sample a little bit of everything.

This is going to be a big project, but fortunately, I'm eating well. Very well.

At home, they cook everything with an enormous amount of oil. At the bottom of the plate is enough oil to more than adequately stir-fry anything in a wok, and that's just what stuck to the food when it was placed on the plate. The problem at home, added to the incredible amount of oil in everything is that they cook at a very high temperature, I'm surprised there aren't more grease fires here. The oil is burnt and tastes terrible for that reason.

I had some Yunnan style fried noodles at the Kunming hotel, with the food service manager sitting with me. They didn't burn the oil, thankfully, but at the bottom of the plate was that quarter cup of oil. I pointed to it, and explained the disgust that a Western guest would have at witnessing the existence of this oil. It feels good being listened to for a change.

Seeing their bacon, I explained that in the West (though this might reflect more of my California cuisine bias) we associate bacon fat with heart disease and do our best to remove fat from the pork products. Thank god I know the Chinese words for medical terminology, though I couldn't resist the temptation of grabbing my left arm and reeling in pain just before I collapsed to the ground. I think they got the point.

All this advice may adversely effect the local economy though, specifically, the emergency room at the hospital across the street.

I pulled the severed head of a chicken out of a bowl of soup and, chuckling to myself at the sheer absurdity of it all, went on to explain that the head and the feet of the chicken were not considered very appetizing to the Western stomach. It really is cultural. There's a lot of nutrition in the brain, and the Chinese consider eating the feet of a chicken, quite a treat. In Chinese medicine chicken feet are said to strengthen the organ that keeps the tendons of the body flexible, this because of all the tendons in the chicken's foot.

I'm not even going to get in to the dietary herbs used for impotence.

In my last update, I talked about Christmas in China. I sent that note out before Christmas had actually come, though. Christmas Eve here, many people go out and wear funny hats kind of like what we wear on New Year's Eve.

My musician friends from the Kunming Hotel had a gig to play at a local nightclub and invited me along to sing a few numbers. The Chinese are always stunned when a foreigner speaks Chinese. The first words I said when I took the stage were "Goaxing Ji Du Sheng Re!" That's "happy birthday, Jesus!"

This was met with cheers from the audience.

I sang "Unchained Melody." The final verse, in Chinese. Again, more cheers, and following the last big note, a few party goers rushed me on stage and covered me with Silly String, to the amusement of everyone there. After I looked more like a mummy than Al, I asked them if this was the traditional Chinese way of saying "Thank you." The response was more cheers and more silly string.

It was business as usual on Christmas day at the hospital, so I kind of figured that New Year's day would be the same. I rode my bike to the Hospital that morning, enjoying the lack of the usual thousands of bikes everywhere, only to find that the outpatient clinic wasn't open. Nobody told me that New Year's was observed.

I thought about all the bowl games going on in the states. I wondered if Nebraska and Oklahoma were matched up in the Orange Bowl. But all I found was that Kunming's middle schools were having some sort of competition at the public stadium here. There were hundreds of kids on all of the main streets jogging by with their banners and flags. It was like the Olympic opening ceremonies minus the doves and corporate endorsements.

I have to travel north to Chengdu for a few days to get my new passport from the American consulate there. The old one was stolen, along with a few other things.

Of course, to get to Chengdu for my passport, I have to fly. And in order to fly, I have to have a passport. Since I didn't have one, the people at the airline ticket counter told me that I'd have to get approval for this travel from the airport police, a 30 minute bike ride away. The airport police told us to go to the police station at the other end of town. When we finally got there, we learned that the offices were closed till the fourth of January due to New Years.

I told my host to be sure to call the fourth of January before we left for this police station. He did, and so, instead of going to that police station, we made our ways on our bikes to another police station a little further away. The police at this station sent us to another station, the one that I reported my lost passport to in the center of town. They finally gave me the necessary documentation.

Nice to know that somethings, such as bureaucracy, are universal.

However, once at the American consulate in Chengdu, I was stunned by their efficiency. I arrived in Chengdu on Monday and flew out Tuesday afternoon with Passport in hand. Amazing. My hats off to the friendly folks at the US consulate in Chengdu!

I only made one observation of interest in Chengdu. I saw a Neon. That's a new car from Chevy, I think. The unique thing about Neons is that they come in some really wild colors. Purple, fluorescent green, etc...

The Neon I saw in Chengdu was white. Yes, white. Boring, conservative, white. Chinese don't like to stand out. A white Neon. That's perfect.

Once back in Kunming, I still had to get an exit visa, and this is where things get a little sticky. Back when I originally lost my first passport, I learned that I wasn't supposed to be studying at the hospital with a tourist visa. I was supposed to have a student visa, and when the police learned that I was here on the wrong visa, they told me that once I got my passport back, I'd have to leave the country, find a Chinese consulate, apply for a student visa, wait a week, and then return to China to study.

I don't think so.

I told them about my web site, and that 10,000 people everyday read my words. I told them that I was famous. The cop that I was dealing with was taken a back and told me that he'd need to talk to his supervisor. I was told to wait for a phone call. But it never came. A friend from the hospital told me that this was a good sign. But while I was waiting, my visa expired.

Fortunately, they have no computer database here with my original statements recorded, or my visa status either. So, I just told them that I need an exit visa, and I got one. I have ten days to get out of China.

Cool with me.

Had it been discovered that I was here illegally with an expired visa, I'd have been sent out immediately, and never allowed to return.

No problem. I'm ready to come home.

Love from your "honest, I had nothing to do with those three pregnant women!" son.

January 14, 1998

Jurassic Park, Chinese Style

Tucked away, in the center of the Yunnan Nationalities Village is a delightful slice of Americana which I like to call Jurassic Park.

It's a little island/park full of dinosaurs made of upholstery foam, under which are located tiny little outdoor speakers spewing out helplessly distorted Godzilla sounds. Most of the dinosaurs made the same sound. This park was a cross between Twilight Zone technology and The Simpsons amusement park clichés. Now this is no Itchy and Scratchy Land, but it does contain all the joy and wonder that you'd expect from a hastily thrown together and severely under maintained theme park.

I couldn't stop laughing once we got here. If you're in Kunming, and you really want to find some old-fashioned fun like you haven't had since the last time you saw a Godzilla movie. This is definitely the place to go.

t-rex without a body

At the gate of the park, a T-rex head looms hundreds of feet above you, uh, well it would if it had a body, but nevertheless, it belches out a horrible scream every few seconds. My host for the day claimed that it was calling out my name, "allllll... allllll"

I think she was right. Incidentally, the eyes and the mouth opened and closed, though not necessarily in sync with the calling of my name.

Not far inside the park, we find a pair of dinosaurs engaged in mortal combat. They're not fighting over anything that I can see. Perhaps it is a philosophical dispute over China's revolutionary past versus their current trend toward reform.

two dinosaurs fighting

When we arrived, we knew that they could fight because of the tracks beneath their feet, but as we watched for a while, they didn't do anything. So, I yelled out "DOU!" which means "fight!" and sure enough, their movements were sound activated and they snapped into action. They slid to within about three feet of each other, and the dinosaur on the right tipped his head forward and back.

It was no Godzilla versus Mothra mind you, but certainly, the next best thing!

The dino-train

True to form, this park had a little kiddie train, with a dinosaur head at the front. It hadn't moved for a few years, based on the amount of bushes that were found growing on the tracks.

There weren't too many people there the day that we chose to explore the Chinese Jurassic Park, so there wasn't anybody to appreciate the "Yippee-i-oh-ki-yay" that I was screaming at the time this picture was taken.

Al riding a dinosaur

You may notice that I don't have my legs straddling the dinosaur as any self-respecting cowboy would have done. Cowboys don't mind sitting on horses because they're nowhere near as dirty as this dinosaur was. Heck, its been standing there for a few million years... What could I expect?

the t-rex at feeding time

We were really lucky to get there at feeding time. Here we see a T-rex munching on some old furniture.

You won't find this Jurassic Park listed in any tourist manual. It isn't exactly embraced by the locals as an important cultural legacy, and there isn't even anything there to buy, beyond the 65 cent admission. But it is, without a doubt the best reminder of home that I have yet to find in China.

The Chinese Top-Ten Western Hits of All Time

Note: This article was written in the Spring of 1998.
References to "nowadays" should be read with that in mind.

Among the things that I miss more than anything here is good music. Certainly, Chinese classical music is a treat for the ears, but just like Chinese food, there grows within you a need for the familiar taste of a burger, fries, and a Coke.

With that in mind, I offer you this Top-Ten countdown of English language songs in China, along with observations regarding the Chinese approach to music that I've found in Kunming.

(insert Casey Kasem voice here)

Rounding out the Top-Ten is the first of three acts that are popular here rather than a specific song. Our Number 10 artist on our Chinese hit parade is Madonna.

Madonna is as much an icon as a musical phenomenon in the USA. In China she is music. However, her music is limited to stores that either sell clothing or audio equipment. I commonly hear "Borderline" and "Material Girl."

The number 9 position on our countdown is held by the welcome sounds of saxophonist Kenny G. His easy-listening sounds are well embraced by the "soft rock" loving Chinese.

They have a Chinese MTV show here. The hostess is a cute young Chinese girl with strange clothes. I guess her fashion is very cutting edge here, but to my eyes, they just look weird. She's kind of a perky little girl. She doesn't exude sexuality like the Spanish speaking MTV V.J. Daisy Fuentes, but I'm sure that she's the dream-girl for young Chinese men.

The reason I bring up MTV here is that, although I haven't watched enough for a truly insightful understanding of their programming, from what I've seen, they limit the music videos to safe images, clean musicians, and gentle music. Kenny G fits this format very well.

In the number 8 position, we find the king of pop, himself; Michael Jackson.

I was a guest on a radio show recently in which listeners were invited to talk to a (former) American radio personality to talk about music. 75% of the callers had something to say about Michael Jackson. They don't know about his ranch in Santa Barbara or his alleged appreciation for "young people" beyond the charity work he does on behalf of the children of the world. I didn't feel it appropriate to tell them either.

The station management liked how I "worked the phones" and asked me back for another show. I'll be talking, this time, about Chinese medicine in the United States. Incidentally, this show is actually designed to help people who are learning English practice their listening skills. I've also heard on this station some bible thumping preacher shoutin' bout Jesus.

Back to the countdown...

Next, we leave the world of individual artists and enter into the realm of specific English language songs that most every Chinese person knows. These songs are among the few English songs that Karaoke bars have in their music selections, and hence, these are the songs I've been forced to listen to over and over.

Number seven is "All Out of Love" by Air Supply.

Now, some observations regarding Chinese Karaoke. The DJ's here seem to have no understanding of how to mix vocals and music. The reason I say that is because many of the singers have no mike technique. They sing WAY too loud for the mike. I don't fault them for that, they aren't professional singers. However, even when they're singing so loud as to cause pain to the ears of the others in the room, the mike volume isn't changed once during the night.

Having worked in more than my share of dance clubs where singers from the audience were allowed on stage to do their thing from time to time, it was common to have one finger on the mike volume to adjust it as is appropriate for the overall audio experience. I guess they just don't get that here. Not that I've seen, anyway. Fortunately, they do at least prefer music to silence, which brings us to Number six on our countdown.

Number six in Chinese popularity is Simon and Garfunkel's "Sounds of Silence."

Ironic, as far as I'm concerned, since "silence" is a favorite response to things that the people don't like about the government here. Tienanmen Square is still a wound that cannot be discussed, but in private.

I met a famous author recently in a hospital. He was of Mao's generation. A revolutionary who has witnessed war after war. His three books all deal with military conflicts and they are autobiographical in nature. We talked a bit about war and what it was good for (Huh!). We talked briefly about how wars took place economically too.

Number Five on the Chinese countdown is a strange song to find on any countdown anywhere, but Auld Lang Syne is very popular here. They know that we traditionally sing it New Year's Eve in the states but still find it hard to believe that I don't actually know the words. In the Karaoke bars, the words that show up on the screen are Chinese characters, so again, I'm at a loss.

That doesn't stop me from making up my own words when I'm forced to sing this song, though. Much to the bewilderment of those in the room who do understand English. Here's some proof of how well Chinese know this song.

Toping out at Number Four on our countdown is "Edelweiss" from The Sound of Music. It's a good song, and I'm happy that the Chinese have embraced it.

A moment to talk about Chinese radio. There are four stations in Kunming and they all use "block formatting." In other words, for one hour, they'll play one kind of music, then the next hour, its another show, and another kind of music.

There are some really good shows here. I've heard Western music on this station that is incredible, but I've haven't a clue as to who they are. On the other hand, there is a lot of music from Hong Kong and Taiwan that seeks to mimic the Western pop-rock sensibilities. To my ears, its like the ill-fated Pat Boone heavy metal album. Feels like they lack a rock and roll edge.

Once in a while, you hear something that is truly remarkable. In recent years, there has been a wave of female soloists in North America who have a general acoustic/folk edge to their sound. Its great music and I'm glad that its becoming popular in the Western world. Well for some reason, this sound translates very well into the Chinese sound, and there is someone who uses this style for her music. It rivals the best of this new breed of female soloists in the states. Sorry, I don't know her name, I can't understand the announcers here. I'm pretty sure that she's from Hong Kong.

On with our countdown.

Still climbing the charts, now up to Number Three is a song from my childhood, that I kind of wish had stayed there. "Feelings" by "Morris Albert."

Again, this being a popular English song at Karaoke bars, I've twice been asked to sing it. I just can't do it. We were making fun of this song a year after it came out in something like 1974. It hasn't exactly been embraced in the West as an oldie either. It got played too much way back when, and we're still sick of it.

Number Two is "Unchained Melody" as interpreted by the Righteous Brothers. Apparently, "Ghost" was a popular movie here, and this song rose to superstardum as a result.

Its interesting, no, not interesting, its silly, the images that I've seen in association with many of the English songs in Karaoke bars in China. There is absolutely no connection between the images on the screen and the words or even the intent of the song. All I've seen is a variety of really bad stock footage spliced together while singing English songs.

An old man reading a newspaper in front of a fish and chips restaurant, an anchor women reporting on something on the beach in what looks like Crete, jet skiers and women in bathing suits walking around in a forest. These are consecutive images mind you.

And that takes us to the number one song in China.

I've had a few friends from China in the USA and they all know this song. Apparently its been big for while.

"Yesterday Once More" by The Carpenters.

Great song and it retains its poignancy.

Okay, that's the current Chinese Top-Ten. Until next time, remember: keep one hand on your passport and keep the other reaching for that visa extension.

January 15, 1998

Chinese Celebrity Look-Alikes

Chinese Celebrity Look-Alikes It is said that if you're one-in-a-million, there are four of you in New York City. Well, Kunming's 3 million people (a mere "berg" by Chinese standards) provide an occasional surprise in the study of genetics. I've, thus far met a few people that bare a striking resemblance to celebrities found elsewhere in the world's great genetic pools. This page is devoted to Chinese celebrity look-alikes. Some of them really do undeniably look like celebrities while others are perhaps my own psyche's attempts to add order to an otherwise chaotic social experience.

Dr. Joyce Brothers: ironically, this is the staff psychologist at the Yunnan Province TCM hospital. That always kind of dumbfounded me.

Joyce Brothers

Garrison Keillor: here's the doctor across the hall from the Bell's Palsy ward. He does a lot of arthritis and "bi" pain. Great spirit to him, really friendly. Speaks some English, too. I couldn't quite explain the whole concept behind the Prairie Home Companion, but I was able to explain public radio.

Garrison Keillor

John Ritter: I met this guy just sitting in an office at the hospital. I think he is an administrator or something. He just reminded me of John Ritter. Can you see that, or is it just me?

John Ritter Look Alike

Tracy Ulman: here's a lady who spent a day with us in the "countryside" to get a better look at rural life in China. She doesn't do characters, no accents that I could tell, and she couldn't sing very well, evidenced by the night of Karaoke that followed the taking of this picture. She certainly does look like fun, though. Doesn't she?

Tracy Ulman Look Alike

Dustin Hoffman: this is one of the student interns at the hospital where I'm interning. He always reminded me of a young Dustin Hoffman ala "The Graduate". Soon after this picture was taken, my "yao bao" or waist wallet was stolen in front of ten people waiting to see the doctor. None of them raised a finger when a "suspicious and nervous looking woman" grabbed it and ran off. None of them knocked on the door to tell us that something had happened. Total lack of personal initiative. I saw that a lot, really.

Dustin Hoffman

Elvis Presley: it's a proven fact. Elvis is alive and living in Kunming. Here he is, getting on his Chinese Harley.

This woman's appearance was quite stunning to me. In California, this kind of look is a common occurrence, among both sexes. But in China, where standing out from the crowd is a cultural phobia, I had to really respect this woman for pushing the envelope with this rockabilly chopper punk look.

Elvis Look Alike

Yunnan Minorities Village

Yunnan Province is very proud of their minority population. There are something like 26 official indigenous minorities made up of everything from Tibetans to some of the tribes from Northern Thailand and Laos.

Not far from town, they've constructed a tourist attraction devoted to all of the minorities, their home life and of course, their crafts for sale.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't one of those terrible monasteries that I've been writing about, there are many many opportunities to buy things, but there's also a reasonably sincere attempt at displaying the unique architectural and cultural legacies of these peoples.

Xia-feng, a nurse at the hospital where I'm interning, and I went there on a whim one afternoon. It was a weekday afternoon and because of this, there was a refreshing lack of crowds there.

Because we weren't constantly fighting crowds, this was one of my better touristy activities that I've had in Kunming.

Close-up of one of the Thai style structures

This structure is an exact replica of a Buddhist temple you'll find in Yunnan's southern Jungle built by the Dai minority. The tips are adorned with wind chimes, bells, actually.

I witnessed this on what was Thanksgiving in the states. I couldn't help but start to hum "Silver Bells", a Christmas carol for the rest of the day.

Bull's head

One of the minorities, the "Wa" people, really had a thing for the skull of the bull.

The bull represents for the "Wa" people, as it does in so many other civilizations, material success.

Wa Dancers

Here are the "Wa" dancers. "Wa" in Chinese means "Wow!" Though, that's more of a coincidence than anything.

I really wasn't too "wowed" by any of the dancers that I saw while at the minorities village. They all had that certain spirit in their dance that said "Oh no, here we go again..."

Wa Gods

The "Wa" people hold the feminine principle to be the creative aspect of the universe. That's the Goddess on the left. Next to her, we find the male principle, in the form of their common ancestor, the first "Wa" man. Kind of the Abraham of the "Wa" people.

Xia-feng on bridge

"You can't be serious!" This is my host for the day, Xia-feng.

She's not too crazy about walking across the primitive suspension bridge. We ultimately did pass through it, though images of Boy Scout jamborees came to mind as the challenge of walking through instantly made us both feel like intrepid explorers.

feminine god

One of the minority nationalities used the gourd as a symbol of the creative principle of the universe. The gourd mimics the female shape, especially when pregnant. Everything that they had, from religious icons to the shape of their land plots reflected the shape of the gourd.

masculine god

Other minorities used other shapes to describe the creative power of the universe.

Dali structures

This is a scaled down version of the Buddhist pagodas found in nearby Dali, the site of the ancient seat of power for this area and home to the Bai people.

Bai girls

The famous Bai girls.

All of the tourist books that I've found seem to feel that these girls are the most beautiful in all of China. The one on the right holds a stick that she used to whack the butts of her friends as they walked by. Perhaps that is part of the attraction?

My time at the Yunnan Minorities Village was well spent. It's interesting to note the apparent appreciation that China has for its indigenous minorities. Kind of like the recent interest in the American Indian culture that has evolved from cowboy and Indian movies into a more healthy appreciation of their culture and respect for mother Earth.

It isn't likely that a guest at the Yunnan Minorities Village will have the opportunity to truly appreciate the depth of the culture that can be found among these peoples, but its a start.

Shi Lin, the Stone Forest

Shi Lin, the Stone Forest

Said to be "the Peerless Scenic Wonder under the sun" (by the travel books), Shi Lin is certainly no pushme-pullyou (the two headed llama from Dr. Doolittle), but not a bad excursion for a day or two.

The remains of an ancient sea floor have long since given way to the uplifting of the continent, or perhaps the receding seas. In either case, what was left was a whole bunch of limestone that ultimately began to erode into some interesting columns to walk through. A likely theory considering the numerous sea shell fossils that are sold in the area's gift shops.

It is also said that way back when, the Gods decided to break up the stones to give lovers a place to be together without being watched by anybody. This is a good theory too, considering all the little Gods available in the area's gift shops.

The crowds at Shi Lin

The very first natural wonder you'll see at Shi Lin is an enormous amount of people everywhere. I have to be honest. I was very deeply saddened and even depressed for most of the afternoon that we spent at Shi Lin. There is a sanctity and rugged beauty at Shi Lin. But its all lost amidst the tour groups and constant reminders of man's commercial interests there.

Shi Lin pavillion

This structure overlooks most of the forest. Its a great place to climb and take pictures. If you can fight your way up against the constant stream of tourists coming down at the same time. The Shi Lin is the best run tourist experience in China that I've seen. However, they have yet to install separate "up" and "down" staircases.

Zhang, Shi Gong amidst the rocks

"No, wait, I know that the map said turn left at the big rock..."

That's our host, Zhang, Shi-gong on the left and his daughter on the right.

Shi Lin tour guides

Taiwaneese businessmen and Romulans are among the biggest fans of Shi Lin, the Stone Forest.

Okay, they're not really Romulans, but members of the local "Sani" ethnic minority that pretty much runs the show at Shi Lin. These young people are tour guides. They refer to the girls as "Ashima." Which, my travel guide translates to "a beautiful maiden with a basket on her back, sedate and graceful." Apparently, Ashima is a legendary woman who sings of her unswerving love for "Ahei", her significant other. Ashima is also a local brand of cigarette. Ironically, the sound of "Ashima" sounds just like the English word of "Asthma." Good name for cigarettes. I can't wait till they try and export them to the English speaking world.

The Shi Lin

According to legend, Ashima also had the power to bestow a certain intellegence upon each of the rocks here.

This kind of Shamanistic approach to nature is something that I enjoy very much, but sitting amidst the rocks, I wasn't able to really get any sort of intelligence beyond realizing that climbing to the top of these columns isn't very intelligent.

That of course, didn't stop me. I was invigorated by the challenge of the climb up and the death defying on the climb down.

Buddha's Lotus

Ultimately, I did find a little peace at the top of one of the columns. Stopping for a few moments atop that rock, which I later learned is known locally as the lotus blossum, I felt the sanctity and peace that I'd hoped to find in China. It was just a few brief moments of repose, but it made the entire day worth the trip.

Shi Lin is definitely something to see while you're in China. Its safe and comfortable for tourists, if they avoid the lesser traveled paths. And for those who want to taste a little bit of the divine, bring shoes that can grip slick rock because in China they don't often prepare for negligence lawsuits and there are many opportunities for a bad step to lead to calamity.

But then again, those were the best moments I had here.

Stray Images of Kunming, Part One

There's a street sweeping truck that comes out and sprays down the main thoroughfares when it hasn't rained for a while, to keep the dust down. It plays music much like the ice cream trucks back home. The song that it plays is "happy birthday to you." Someone must have a copyright lawsuit in all of this.

bikes riding through rain

On rainy days, everyone wears these ponchos that cover the front of the bike as well as the rider. The idea is to cover the basket in front of the handlebars in the rain. The hoods make everybody look like Ku Klux Klan's men. Because of all the colors you'll see amongst the bike riders, I like to refer to them as "The Rainbow Klan."

Honking has become something we don't notice until its right behind us as well. In the states, we signal 100 feet before making a turn. Here, they honk 100 feet before hitting someone. Honking is constant on the streets of Kunming. It is the main communication between those in the autos and those who are not.

Right of way has yet to be determined as far as I can tell. Street lights and signs are guidelines, nothing more. At the major intersections there are guard posts overseeing the traffic. Sometimes that includes a guy in the middle of the street standing at attention and pointing this way and that occasionally.

In fact, traffic in Kunming is the most interesting of all modern phenomena that I've seen here. There's a real flow between the bikes, of which there are thousands at all times, and the cars which are less numerous, but louder, especially the many buses.

Everyone just flows around each other. Just like water. Nobody looks where they're going, there is absolutely no right-of-way. Everyone just goes, and moves through each other without hitting each other very often. Nobody can go very fast since the streets are so congested, but that doesn't mean there aren't accidents. More often than not, its due to someone going the wrong way in the bike lane at night when nobody can see the errant rider. I've seen that a few times.

I wouldn't describe this vehicle ballet as the Blue Angels, but there's a real sense of water flow to it all.

Chinese elderly doing aerobics

Elderly people in parks enjoy aerobics along side Tai Chi and Qi Gong.

Tai Chi and Qi Gong is still practiced in large groups at parks and public places, but amidst all the noise of cheap boom boxes playing tinny sounding classical Chinese music is the sound of a Western beat. Aerobics are taking hold in Chinese parks in the morning.

Its interesting to see how when something as ingrained into the culture as old people doing exercises together in public places can evolve to accept a foreign influence, without really losing its own traditionally Chinese flavor. They did it with Buddhism from India, with communism from Europe, and now, with aerobics from the good-ole US of A.

girl wearing mini-skirt on bike

Something that I have yet to really get used to is seeing women in short dresses riding bikes.

Okay, I apologize if this is offensive to anybody. But I've got an observation that I simply have to get off my chest. Sorry. If you're easily offended by honest feelings of the male gender, please type "Alt+Q" now.

There are some drop-dead beautiful women here. They ride bicycles with their skirts hiked up to areas that we, uh... don't needle without a third party in the room. That's all well and fine. I don't have a problem with that. The only thing that I don't get is why the Chinese men don't seem to notice.

I mean, even if they avert their eyes out of courtesy, and I support that, there are many women here who have gone to great lengths to appear as goddesses. And all I see from the men, is that they're staring at ME!

I'm at a complete loss. I asked around, it turns out that the culture did not, until very recently, support the voyeurism that is part of Western culture. Okay, that's fine. But what I've noticed, is that the women have embraced this new tool, seduction, but the men haven't. The women know what they're doing, but the men, except for a glance now and then, simply don't notice the women.

Something that I do like about China is their concept of beauty. It turns out that in China, fair skin and deep set hazel eyes are considered quite attractive. Body hair is exotic and exciting. A receding hairline is a sign of intelligence and people have been known to have their noses enlarged to look Western with plastic surgery.

Whereas, in the states, I'm a balding Jewish geek with a huge nose and too much body hair. In China, I'm Mr. Universe.

I don't have to understand everything to enjoy it.

Stray Images of Kunming, Part Deux

A few more stray observations and pictures that didn't require an entire article, but nice vignettes.

dubbed Princess Bride

There isn't a comic alive who hasn't done a little bit of mockery of the Hong Kong exported Kung Fu movies, and their terrible English overdubbing.

Well, I've got news for all of you. It isn't half as bad as the English language movies that are dubbed into Chinese. They're edited badly as well.

Anyway, here's a shot of Princess Buttercup and the Dread Pirate Roberts making their ways through the forest of doom, or something like that from the wonderful movie "The Princess Bride" showing on Kunming TV one night.

Incidentally, they've taken to placing all kinds of distracting messages on the screen while the program is on. Not like the subtle network identification that you'll find on CNN, but a huge colorful icon in the upper left hand corner, where your eye is most likely to see it. Additionally, they include a sponsor's message placed vertically on the right side of the screen, so you'll never forget, even during the program, who paid for it. Yuch.

American Architecture in China

At one of the parks in Kunming, they've set up some little villages showing the different architectures of the world. I began to sing Disneyland's "Its a Small World After All" when I saw these little buildings.

I was told that this was supposed to be an American village. I don't know which village it could possibly be. Perhaps my host misunderstood its intent or something. Fact is, I can't figure out what country's architecture looks like this.

A little bit about the parks here. Hey, they're kind of nice! Well laid out with a kind of random sense about how the paths lead about, cool buildings, great gardens. Gotta admit that what the Chinese lack in interior design, they make up for it in their exterior design.

When I say exterior design, I'm certainly not talking about their modern architecture. Here we see one of hundreds of lots currently under a state of demolition or construction. I'm amazed at how young the buildings are that are torn down to be rebuilt. Fifteen year old buildings are torn down daily to build new buildings that will get torn down sooner than later.

Kunming construction

The apartments in the background are probably less than ten years old, though from looking at them, you'd think that they were built in the 50's.

Siberian Seagulls

The Hi-Ohs have arrived. These are gulls from Siberia which migrate here for the winter. There's a big festival at their favorite lake in the middle of Kunming on the weekends during December. It's kind of the Chinese equivalent of the swallows arriving at San Juan Capistrano.

The common decoration all around the lake is the umbrella. They have colorful umbrellas everywhere.

It wasn't until the next day that I realized why the umbrella was the symbol for the return of thousands of Hi-Oh's. Its for protection from the bird droppings.

This theory remains unconfirmed by official sources.

Stray Images of Kunming, Part Three

Eat? Run? Eat? Run?

You're not supposed to eat on the job. And if you must eat on the job, you're not supposed to be photographed by a foreigner while eating on the job. But if you're really hungry while being photographed eating on the job, then you should get up and walk away. Though you shouldn't stop eating.

Architecture in China

Here is a female factory worker playing badminton in the morning while everybody else is doing Tai Chi, or Aerobics.


Note the tiles used on the outside of the building. I always found this a bit strange as in the states we usually use tiles such as these for inside bathrooms not on the outside of buildings. I was told later that the reason they gravitate toward this building material is that it is easy to hose down. Can't argue with that.

A born mimic

Here's a young man who, when I passed, called out to me in the obligatory "hallao" as many Chinese do. But as I passed, he added a coarse, growled "F**K YOU!"

His accent was perfect. His growl and general spirit while saying this told me that some American had obviously taught him this. Not to be outdone, I taught him how to growl "A**HOLE!"

I'm not sure how this is going to effect Sino-American relations in twenty years when this little boy is grown up, but I hope I'm around to witness it!

Xia-feng and son.

That's my friend Xia-feng on the left with her son on the right. This is her apartment window.

Xia-feng kind of kept an eye on me while in Kunming. She ordered food for me at restaurants, quickly coming to understand what I liked, and even sent me away with a jade ring necklace.

We had a lot of fun together. Xia-feng was very practical, courageous in her own way and she understood sacrifice too. She added some comfort in an otherwise difficult environment for me there in Kunming. I felt bad for her when I left. I felt bad for a lot of people in Kunming. Many would like to leave. Xia-feng wanted me to stay.

I hope Xia-feng can someday read this, or perhaps have it read to her. She was a beautiful woman, inside and out.

About Kunming, China

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