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.