Building Karma in Kunming

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.

Near Cuihu Lake
Near Cuihu Lake

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.”

Rock sculpture at Yuantong Temple
Rock sculpture at Yuantong Temple

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?

Entrance to Zhengyi Shopping Road
Entrance to Zhengyi Shopping Road

“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.

Dongsi Pagoda
Dongsi Pagoda

“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.”

Street stalls
Street stalls on Xianyong Street

“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.”

Piles of old cabbage at Zhuantang Market
Piles of old cabbage at Zhuantang Market

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.”

Yuantong Temple
Yuantong Temple

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.

“Why?”

“Because dog is a winter delicacy, dumbass.”

We use rifles in our carnival games. But that is a cannon.
We use rifles in our carnival games. But that is a cannon.

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.

Daguan River
Daguan River

Soon we pass a river.

“It’s a river,” I say.

“So?”

“So that means we have to follow it.”

Elders by Daguan
Elders by Daguan

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.”

Crossing the Bridge Noodles
Crossing the Bridge Noodles, before the soup is added.

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.”

Daguan Park
Daguan Park

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.”

Rock sculpture at Daguan
Rock sculpture at Daguan

“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.”

Punk rock guardian lion
Punk rock guardian lion
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Yangshuo Muppets

In Guangzhou, a Swedish man squeezes himself into a taxi with myself, Mike the Greek and Blake the Aussie. While leaning into his knees to settle the spinning in his head, the man tells us that Yangshuo, only a six hour bus ride from Guangzhou, is the most beautiful place on earth.

We all groan.

“Great,” Blake says as he exits the taxi, his glasses fogging up from the humidity. “I guess we have to go there now.”

Villages around karst peaks, on the bus to Yangshuo
Villages around karst peaks, on the bus to Yangshuo

I must be the most talkative foreigner in Yangshuo. My mouth runs in the ecstasy of being able to talk to locals who, two years ago, I could not have asked the time of day from. It turns out, being a barely-literate foreigner is the best way to cop deals. The woman making fruit shakes who thinks grapes in English are “purples” is impressed enough to comp me a mango shake. After hearing me order in mandarin, the hostel manager requires no service charge for the train ticket to Guilin. The female foot masseuse, after I practice Chinese on her for a good hour, gives me a bonus (back massage of course).

Karst peak up close
Karst peak up close

Yet, as I learned in Guangzhou, little good can come from speaking Chinese in front of other foreigners. I wander for two hours around West Street, the main tourist drag, dizzying about, until a shirtless French blonde man, Lucky Stroobandt, glides into my arm from the corner of a convenience store and asks if I can lend him my compass.

“Rang yi rang” I tell an old hawker flashing a campy Yangshuo map in my face.

“You can speak some Chinese?” Lucky says through his afternoon stubble.

West Street
West Street

So Lucky sticks with me for the next eight hours, giving me cigarettes in exchange for me ordering food and alcohol in mandarin—I pretend to smoke, he’s for real. I feel so stuck in Seattle politeness that I let him follow me like a lost calf until 4am and the last rooftop bar, “Mojo,” gets shut down by a policeman with a bushy mustache. The fuzz approaches Lucky and I, asks where we’re from, I respond in Chinese, and the cop smiles and leaves. The lights go back on.

Lucky: “Well, I feel un-intimidated.”

Yangshuo River, view from East Street
Yangshuo River, view from East Street

Lucky and I are joined by Mike and Blake, who we find at another rooftop bar, along with two Chinese travelers from Guangzhou, Rachel and her sister Xiao Ming, who also board at my hostel. We all eat beer fish with two other strangers (new friends [新朋友] we call them).

            “Why you travel here?” Xiao Ming asks. She doesn’t bother to explain why she has traveled here.

            Mike shrugs. “To hang out.”

“To study,” I say.

“I have less power here than in other Asian countries,” Lucky says. “Few people care. Few care I speak English. Few care I am from France. No special attention. Just feel—like I born naked, like everyone else.”

“Yeah,” Blake nods, as if he had said it himself. “We come for that too.”

From the Mojo rooftop bar
From the Mojo rooftop bar
Same view, day
Same view, day

Blake the squat Aussie, Mike the bearded Greek, Lucky the tired Parisian, and I; together we take our Flaneurily stroll through the stalls and outdoor Chinese bars around West Street. At 2am we stride sexily up a hostel stairway and hit Monkey Janes, another snazzy rooftop bar where foreigners and Chinese seem casually separated. We four Anglophones settle in like band-mates on an album cover, and I chat with a Chinese group who has traveled through Tibet. Nothing beats Karla’s travel story, which lasts for three hours as she reveals her week-by-week journey from Kunming to Tibet. On foot.

“That is so incredibly brave,” Mike tells her.

“We Chinese not as brave as Americans,” Karla says. “American men are the bravest.” She lands the phrase with a cigarette drag.

“What crap,” I say in English. “You just traveled to Tibet on foot,”

“American men not brave,” Lucky rants, unleashed by my own disagreement. “They sit at computer and press button to send bomb and sit in front of t.v. and say Mexican men do no work and sit in front of spouse and say oh me dick no working tonight.”

The frazzled French man goes to order another gin and tonic, while Blake, Mike, as well as the nearby Aussies, Europeans and Chinese, all stare at me, the only American in the hostel (as always), expecting me to mount a defense.

“What is bravery anyway?” I soliloquize. “The present is the rhythm. It’s a river. What’s bravery, but setting anchor?”

“Is that why Americans never travel outside of their country?” A drunk Aussie comments.

“Or their suburban homes!” A woman joins the drumbeat.

“Or their couches!” Mike says, perhaps just to bug me.

“What happens,” I say with that teacherly pause. “If we just stopped using the words ‘traveler,’ and ‘tourist,’ and ‘backpacker’? We can just stop. Then what happens? What happens once we really unleash ourselves?” I repeat this in Chinese, badly, which does the work of buying more time while making even less sense.

Monkey Janes
Monkey Janes

I’m rescued by one of the black women at our table, Yan, who claims to be from France but speaks as if she is from New Jersey. “You know who’s brave?” she says, landing the phrase with a shot of hard rice wine, baijiu. “Edward Snowden. Now that’s a brave American.”

“Yes, that is who I mean,” Karla says, “Thank you! I just could not remember the name.”

With that, Yan takes her shirt off, exposing a white bra purchased from a convenience store. It’s not an invitation—it’s just hot even at night.

Beer fish and others.
Beer fish and others.

Just as we’re going back to grazing at our Sichuan style peanuts, some of the Chinese from the veranda above us start saying “nigga…nigga…nigga” and all the foreigners look quickly toward Yan, the somewhat French somewhat New England black girl. We bite our lips.

“Shit, I taught English in Beijing for a month,” Yan says. “Hearing that every day. I know it’s just a way of saying ‘well.'”

We remain silent as the man on the second floor continues: “nigga…nigga…nigga…”

“I’m not offended!” Yan shouts. “Seriously!”

Yangshuo19
Morning view

I don’t see Lucky again until the next morning, at the hostel, slowly stirring a cup of congee.

“Last night I fall in love,” he tells me. “Beautiful Chinese girl. Crazy in love. We talks all night, until sun come up. But—nothing. She want nothing with me. I think…I think she just want to practice her English.”

Karst up close.
Karst up close.

I figure I must be getting some kind of good karma for these foreigners following me, so I begin to welcome Mike, Blake and Lucky as if we had planned our little travel tribe. The next day we rent bikes and ride out to Yulong River Valley, to Dragon Cave, to Moon Hill, the Karst mountain peaks watching us along the way.

Yangshuo13

“Those hills are like big furry monsters,” Blake says.

“They are muppets,” Mike says.

“They are tits,” Lucky says.

“You know that scene in Jurassic Park,” I say. “With the Triceratops shit?”

View from Moon Hill
View from Moon Hill

At Moon Hill, we spend an hour trudging up the mountain. At the top are exhausted foreigners, many with their shirts off or unbuttoned to unleash the pudge beneath. As soon as we reach the peak, Lucky stands in shock, staring at the landscape like he was knifed in Counter Strike for the tenth time in a row. He takes no pictures, just gapes in surrender to the beauty in front of him.

“We did nothing to earn this,” Lucky says to no one in particular. “This is it. Right here. And we do not deserve it.”

I notice Chinese tourists staring at him, so I translate his words best I can. They laugh so hard one of the women starts slapping her husband’s back.

Moon Hill
Moon Hill

Yangshuo21

Beatboxing in Guangzhou

On the bus through the Pearl River Delta, where 1/3 of all Chinese exports are assembled and shipped from. From Hong Kong to Shenzhen to Guangzhou, city never stops. Just city—buildings and parks and towers and buildings and more towers. For five hours, city passes. Going sixty miles per hour, it feels like being caught in a time loop. Signs display that we have been in Guangzhou for over two hours. So why hasn’t the bus stopped? I ask a local in Chinese.

“Because we haven’t reached the center yet.”

View from the hostel at Zhongshan Ba Lu
View from the hostel at Zhongshan Ba Lu

Shot down in Zhongshan Road. Walk around to see old people exercising all over the parks, in slow dance, tai qi, hip hop grinding. Locals slug muddy yellow and green burlap sacks that split open whenever a truck passes too close. Libraries full to capacity, with kids and teens reading on the floor, sitting back to back, pinching each other’s hands to keep from falling asleep like soldiers in a trench.

On Shamian, the island reserved for foreign nations after the Opium Wars.
On Shamian, the island reserved for foreign nations after the Opium Wars.

In the hostel I meet Adam from Portland, Oregon, doing pushups on the hostel floor. He works in outsourcing. The Brazilian man Gaupo also works in outsourcing, helping run a factory that assembles leather from Brazil into shoes and seat covers. Mike, a Greek who has escaped the turmoil in his homeland, helps build houses in China using solar energy. But he’s done with that noise—outsourcing, he says, is where it’s at.

Guangzhou Library
Guangzhou Library

Three drunk Germans arrive at the hostel at 4am. I just woke—jet lag and all that. The sky is blue but I can still see the Big Dipper. “There’s no lower class in this country,” one says after poking his belly and chanting “I’m a fat fat tubby tubby” in the key of C (so he says). “What is lower class? Lower class is the guy you blame for the fart stink even when you’re the one who dealt it.”

At Liwan Lake
At Liwan Lake

This Australian man who cannot remember his name has lived in Thailand for over a year, and loved it, but the child prostitution killed it for him – seeing children just like his English-learning students try to woo him off the street. One day he attacked a child molester on Soi Cowboy, beat him pretty bad, but woke up in Thai jail and was told never to return to Thailand. He claims to know Thai near-fluently. He does not work in outsourcing.

The man finds his passport. “That’s right,” he says. “My name is Blake.”

View of the Pearl River from Jiubaijie Street
View of the Pearl River from Jiubaijie Street

I take Blake the squat Aussie and Mike the bearded Greek to a 清真(Halal) noodle-house. Since I speak ok Chinese, travelers tend to latch onto me. Blake shares his disdain for how Aussies are perceived overseas. “The laws for alcohol in Australia are draconian,” he says, slurping the noodles I ordered in my passable Chinese. “So when Aussies travel to Asia, they get drunk in legions. I’m sorry in advance for everything my countrymen will do to you while drunk.”

“What about all the things they’ve already done?” I ask. We’re both unsure if that was a joke. In my fiction writing, drunk Aussie tourists have played convenient antagonists. So far I haven’t received an angry letter.

Mixture of Chinese and European architecture at Shangxiajiu Shopping Street.
Mixture of Chinese and European architecture at Shangxiajiu Shopping Street.

The next day Blake and Mike follow me around the city, perhaps, simply because I can speak some Chinese. We stand in line for a train ticket, and all the haunting memories of Shanghai lines spark back to life (see pai dui). We spread our legs to keep people from passing us. After the first hour, we try to outsmart the line.

Mike: There is science to this line. Two people go quick, then one extremely slow. Can we take advantage?

Blake: I met a bloke in Bali who gave me the secret to Chinese lines. Always go to the teller on the far right. Chinese hate being on the right side of things.

Kawika: [spaced out]

Canton Tower
Canton Tower

We leave the train station an hour later, having watched the line move slower than grass grows.

“This is an adventure,” Mike says. “Part of travel.”

“Clearly we are not on an adventure,” I correct him. “We are on a quest.”

“A sexy quest,” he corrects me back. “There is something about angry commie women.”

Apparently, Mike has a thing for red China. “Something about commie women,” he says. “Something about the red sash around their arm.”

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We look for one of the fabled train ticket stalls inside the city. Two hours later, after a quick trip to UniQlo, we find one.

“Three tickets to Guilin,” I tell the teller in Chinese. None available. The next day? None. How about Kunming instead? Nothing. How about…

As the line behind us grows, a petite female Buddhist monk from behind us offers to help. She talks to the teller for about ten minutes, until we realize that the monk just wanted to cut us in line.

Blake shouts though no one seems to understand: “That head-shaved liar is buying her own ticket!”

Watching the monk talk to the commie teller makes Mike give a strange grin—the grin of a man in the back of a strip club, gin in hand, bar stool at a cool 30 degree angle. Blake, on the other hand, loses his shit. He turns toward an old guy squatting in the street, picking his nose, and screams: “What’s wrong with you?!”

I tell Blake: “Lower class is the guy you blame for the fart stink even when you’re the one who dealt it.”

View from Canton Tower
View from Canton Tower

Back in the hostel, one of the German men starts snoring like crazy. Mike beatboxes to the rhythm. I start singing a Chinese song. Blake makes squeaky bell-noises.

The New City from Canton Tower
The New City from Canton Tower

We agree to wake up at 7am the next day, but after I shower at 7:20 I’m the only one up. So I head to the bus station without them, use my savvy Chinese, and get a ticket to Yangshuo.

Some things are easier done alone.