I jerk my rollerbag through the Yangshuo hostel to leave for the bus station, and find a litter of smiling expats sitting in the oval wooden lobby chairs, waiting for me. Mike the Greek, Blake the Aussie, and Lucky the Parisian. I am Kawika the American. I can speak hints of Chinese, just enough to tether these travelers to me. Hoping to build my travel karma, I order train tickets to Kunming for all four of us.
Circling the Cuihu Lake park near the hostel in Kunming, we pass a man wearing a shirt that has the Communist sickle crossed out, and an American flag next to it. In large red letters the shirt states: “One evil empire down, one to go.”
“Glad to see not all of us have yet closed our eyes,” Blake says. “No offense Kawika.”
I make up some B.S.: “My grandfather used to say that excuses are like eyelashes, the more you have, the easier it is to keep your eyes closed.”
At a hot pot restaurant I ask a waiter to throw in whatever he recommends. The waiter, dark skinned and fat, loads us up with Halal goat. Before we eat I say: “My family always said prayers of thanks before eating meals together. Can we?”
The travelers nod, I continue. “Thanks go to the planter, the farmer, the transporter, the grocer, and the chef.” I make all of this up. How else do you start a new tradition?
“Why you come here?” The Muslim waiter asks (nevermind why he’s here).
“I am a level three traveler,” Blake says. “I’m trying to level up to four.”
“I level five trekker,” Lucky states.
“Level twenty expat,” says Mike, who has not been back to Greece in seven years.
“I’m a level ten flaneur,” I add.
“What the shit is flaneur?” Lucky asks just before stabbing a piece of goat meat with his chopstick.
“It’s French, you French imposture. It means travelers who observe, who go through shops to watch but not buy, who pierces through the social mileau, with a cool, curious eye.”
A pause. “Ah, flaneur,” Lucky says. “Flaneur is rich man with too much time on his hands. Annoying social parasite. We use it as an insult.”
“To be a flaneur,” I say. “You do not make immediate judgments. You observe, try first to understand, and if you feel enough outside of yourself, then you start to empathize. Think beyond good and evil.”
We stumble upon a trendy night-time youth district, the aura of inebriation complemented by the smell of sewage seeping from an open manhole. A child follows his mother with his hands under her skirt, latching her butt.
“That is a child,” Lucky says.
A woman in a royal blue dress decorated in silver spherical ornaments spits sunflower seeds on the side of the road. She crunches slowly, snapping the seed shells with a loud “CRAK.”
“That is a seed,” Mike says.
Stalls selling motorbikes colored as British flags block our stroll, forcing us into a large fly-ridden sun-spoiling market of pig heads and vegetable mountains. The stench makes Blake dry heave until he coughs out the remnants of his yogurt muesli.
“That is food,” Blake says. “And it’s shit.”
At Yuantong temple Blake rolls his eyes past the 1,200 year-old archway, and wails: “Not one women among these statues! Talk about a patriarchal culture.”
Blake is coming off a three week relationship with some American traveler he met in Malaysia, and decides to take it out on the Yuan architecture. He hocks a lugi onto a grey rock garden. ”When will women learn?” he says. “Man is always the oppressor. There’s no compromise about it. Especially in religion.”
“I’m Buddhist,” I say, and show the brown beads on my wrist. As if that proves anything.
“Obviously. You’re a hippie from the U.S.”
Lucky spots “dog soup” on our lunch menu at a second floor Cantonese restaurant.
“You never had it?” I ask.
“Of course I have, just never seen it on the menu.”
“Should we get it?” I say.
“No.” Blake scoffs.
“Because dog is a winter delicacy, dumbass.”
As self-identified trekkers and expats, Lucky and Mike find nothing to do in a large city. As they say, all large buildings look the same. So it’s just Blake and I strolling south, flaneur-like, towards nothing in particular, but heading down whatever streets seem to have a story.
Soon we pass a river.
“It’s a river,” I say.
“So that means we have to follow it.”
Following the river downstream. Pacing silently for two hours in the cool summer breeze of the 1,900 meter high city. As Yunnan province is known for ethnic minorities, we look out for any signs of the Yi people who established Kunming, but, like much of Yunnan, were overrun by Han Chinese after the Japanese Occupation and World War II. We see little sign of the Yi — only the occasional mural of Yi dancers and marriages.
“What a patriarchal culture,” Blake says again, observing a high mural of Yi dancers.
We sit at a nearby street stall selling “Crossing the Bridge” noodles, which, according to legend, was invented when a scholar’s wife had to cross a bridge to serve him lunch, and the only way to keep the noodles from getting too soggy was to mix in the hot soup after reaching the other side. For Chinese, it’s also the origins of pho.
“And what culture isn’t patriarchal?” I ask, slurping a noodle.
Blake thinks about that. “The Mosuo people, a tribe here in Yunnan. They are the last matriarchal culture still surviving. They are not patriarchy. They have learned–the only way to stop struggling, is to dominate.”
We follow the river to Daguan (grand view) park. A plaque states that the park was constructed in 1696 and has the longest set of Chinese rhyming couplets etched into its archway. As soon as I enter, heads start turning towards me, perhaps guessing what race I am. A young girl in all pink stares at me as she walking down a stairway, slips, and falls. Luckily, her back slams on the stone rail and not the stairs. With her fall, I can feel my travel karma plummet.
“Being mixed race must be hard,” Blake jokes. “Just by walking around you’re imposing imperial violence.”
Kunming locals sing Communist hymns near the Daguan Tower. The tune sounds almost exactly like a Christian hymn. I imagine them singing “praise the [martyrs] in the high-igh-est, all ye angels come praise [the martyrs]!”
“Kind of funny,” Blake says, “if you think about it. These Han Chinese came here to escape Japanese tyranny during the war. What did they do as soon as they got here? Started pushing out the minority cultures, destroying their land and governing them. Fleeing an evil empire to build another. Just a bunch of jerks.”
“Why did you come here?” I ask him. “To find the last matriarchal culture still in existence?”
“Something like that. Why, why did you come here?”
As I’m coming up with an answer, a child in a checkered school uniform points to Blake and tells his friends: “Pang!”
“What’s that mean?” Blake says, pointing at the boys. “Pang.”
“Pang?” I feel thankful for a chance to insult him. “It can mean big.” Forgoing travel karma, I reel in the pain. “But they were calling you fat.”
Another scoff, another hocked lugi. “Never freaking mind,” Blake says, head shaking, his sweat pulsing through his cotton shirt like blood. “I don’t want you to translate anymore.”