Sunday, June 13, 2010

Market day in Butuo

Today was a two-interview day (my second in three days), so I'm too tired to post a real entry. Interviews are probably the most interesting but also the most exhausting part of fieldwork--as much as I enjoy speaking Chinese (well, sort of) having long, fairly technical conversations in Chinese and trying to simultaneously write a comprehensible record of the conversation makes me want to crawl into bed. Although a given interview rarely lasts more than an hour, the whole process--setting it up, getting to and from the interviewee's office, doing the interview, writing up my notes after the interview--usually takes somewhere between four and six hours. At the same time, I've gotten to meet a lot of bright, idealistic people who are doing their best to make this enormously complicated country a little better, and that alone can make up for the isolation, self-doubt and frustration that seem to be unavoidable parts of fieldwork.

I never got around to writing about the time Devin and I spent in southern Sichuan province, and I still hope to do that at some point. In the meantime, though, here are some photos from the market day in the county seat. Notice the many Yi minority women wearing "liberation hats"--blue cloth military caps. Apparently Yi women in this area used to wear extremely expensive, ornate headdresses that were so heavy they literally had trouble getting up once they sat down because the extra weight on their heads was so great. After the Communist victory in 1949, Yi women started wearing these blue caps instead. Having a particularly tall cap is trendy among teenage Yi girls, so many girls stuff their hats with toilet paper to make them sit higher on their heads. As much as I wish liberation caps were a widespread practice, it seems like they are limited to this one county--even in the next county over Yi women wore a totally different style of hat.




Also note the bizarre blanket-capes that many people, especially older people like the woman below, are wearing. These are homemade and are worn in cold weather instead of coats.



Thursday, June 10, 2010

The requisite Chinglish post

I'm sorry, I know people get huffy about the Chinglish craze, but this stuff is just funny.

From Green Lake Park:


What, you don't think of 'organism' and 'recycled' as opposites?

Hotel room items are usually a good source of hilarity. For instance, I'm pretty sure this is a toilet-seat cover:


It's a bit hard to see, but that yellow sticker in the corner says "uncomplimentary." Seriously, these don't look good on anyone.

Of course, using pictures instead of words doesn't necessarily make things any better:


I take it there are a lot of things that toilet does not like to do. I can't really tell you what they are.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

You should study a foreign language. No, really.

Maybe the most desperate call for foreign language study I've ever seen:


Seems true enough, if kind of depressing. Unless the language is Chinese, in which case I'd say it's more struggle than weapon...

Sunday, June 6, 2010

old city, new digs

Yesterday I was kicked out of my hotel to make room for the hordes of high school students who have come to take the gaokao, the Chinese college entrance exam. I've moved to a perfectly serviceable hotel close to the largest Buddhist temple in Kunming (see some photos of the temple here). Unfortunately it's a bit of a hike from this hotel to the provincial library, so I will probably move back to my original hotel in a few days once the gaokao madness has ended. In the meantime, though, I'm enjoying exploring a different neighborhood, one that is much less expat- and undergrad-dominated than the one I was staying in before.

For instance, here are some squatters' houses on the roof of the building next to my hotel. Someone explain to me how that works.



One of the things that I like about Kunming is the way that old, kind of falling-down neighborhoods coexist with modern, new(ish) skyscrapers. I took a walk after dinner and stumbled upon a little village in the middle of the city:



(Notice how insanely red the dirt is! One of Yunnan's trademarks). It's kind of hard to see, but this little neighborhood is surrounded on all sides by big hotels and apartment buildings. When I first wandered in, I heard this sort of alarmed, wordless yelling behind me--the kind of sound that often indicates alarm at the arrival at a foreigner and total incomprehension that addressing the foreigner with words might be more effective than just shrieking. I turned around and, indeed, was rapidly approached by the shrieker, who was either an overly concerned retiree or a neighborhood minder (or probably both). I asked her if I could go in and take some pictures, and she was suddenly very friendly and all smiles--its amazing how many people totally change their affect if you speak only a few words of Chinese to them.

We then had one of the Conversations About Extremely Obvious Facts to which I have grown accustomed in China:

"You are a foreigner!"
"Yes."
"You speak Chinese!"
"Yes."

Etc. It gets a little old. But she was very friendly, and continued the conversation when I left a few minutes later ("You are leaving!").

Saturday, June 5, 2010

NOTD#8: ersi

I have a confession to make: I don't like rice noodles. Vermicelli have always seemed so wimpy to me, flavorless and slippery and lacking personality. Last summer, I wasted a lot of time in Guangxi forlornly wandering the streets in search of something to eat other than vermicelli noodle soup.

So I was relieved when a friend in Beijing told me that I need not worry about Yunnan--the rice noodles here were different! I could expect chewy rice noodles here, rice noodles that feel like a meal and not just a way to fill your stomach. She was right. Two of the main kinds of rice noodles here, ersi and erkuai, have a texture closer to mochi, the Japanese glutinous rice dessert, than to vermicelli.

Unfortunately, I'm still not the biggest fan. I guess it's not just about texture. The best thing about ersi and erkuai is getting to order them, which makes me feel like a pirate (er in Chinese is pronounced, roughly, arrrrrrr).

Here are some stirfried ersi from my local noodle shop, along with my single favorite thing about Kunming--the fact that you can get fresh watermelon juice for $.75 everywhere you go:


And here is a shot of the noodle shop:


Anyone else share my rice-noodle aversion?

Friday, May 28, 2010

The plant sculptor

Sometimes living in Kunming doesn't feel like living in China at all--my hotel is in the expat area, so I have granola and coffee for breakfast, pizza (made by a real live Italian) for dinner, even the occasional chai tea or glass of wine. And since at the moment I'm spending all my waking hours at the provincial library frantically retyping information onto my computer (seriously, what kind of library will not allow patrons to use the copy machine?) I've been leading a pretty solitary existence--wake up, walk to the library, walk home at the end of the day, attempt to avoid the torrential rain that is beating down on Kunming. Nonetheless, Kunming seems like a pretty friendly place, and in the past few days I've had a few nice chance encounters with creative strangers.

I was walking around doing some errands tonight and came across this guy sitting by himself on a busy street. The photos didn't turn out great, but the snakes and flowers he was making out of some sort of leaves were amazing (as was his hat).




Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Back in the blogosphere

Apologies for my long absence--Devin was here visiting for a month, and with all of our gallivanting about (Hong Kong, Beijing, southern Sichuan, Kunming, southern Yunnan, back to Kunming) I didn't have much time to write.

I'm still in China, obviously--less than six weeks to go!--but am now based in Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan Province. Yunnan is located in southwestern China, bordering Vietnam and Burma, and feels a bit like a mix of China and Southeast Asia. Kunming is a very green, laid-back city--kind of what Hanoi might feel like if the roads were better, the buildings weren't falling down and the threat of death by motorcycle did not loom at all times. It feels a bit too sleepy for my taste after Beijing and Hong Kong, but it's not a bad place to be based for a couple of weeks. There is even locally grown coffee!

I came to Kunming as a tourist about five years ago, and remember it as one of the first places I ever saw the various wacky activities that go on in Chinese parks--salsa dancing, karaoke, badminton, tai chi, usually all happening simultaneously. Yesterday I went for a walk in the park by the Green Lake, a pretty lake near the provincial library, and discovered a new (to me, at least) innovation--an activity that looked like tai chi, badminton and dancing combined into one. Here's a short video. I might want to be a retired Chinese granny when I grow up.


video