Letters Home Archives

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 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 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 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.

About Letters Home

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Beyond Beyond Well Being in the Letters Home category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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