Ethnocentrism, Resentment & Traffic: Conversations on Kunming

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April 21st 2008
Published: May 3rd 2008
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The same day stretches six weeks long, waking, sleeping - it’s the same - denying routine, denying necessity, progress, change, accepting sunlight, escaping cold, watching an apartment block’s shadow creep up the block like a giant sundial tracking the day’s journey. Ants pass aboard buses, crowded into minivans, on three wheeled bicycles laden with boxes. Measuring time with questions. What next? Feeling the victim of circumstances, easier to procrastinate, stagnate, grow weary of a love affair. My lover and I argue, see the less than perfect existence, the differences between us multiply, a beauty once compared to a constant light begin to pulse, interrupted by moments of uncertainty, a Ming vase start to crack. What next?

Late night we cross the road under the green man’s safe passage. Shxpir pulls me back by the coat sleeve. A minivan cuts within a footstep. Instinctively, my shoe raises to meet with the car’s backside. Whump. Shxpir cries out, “What are you doing!” The van stops and the passengers turn round, angered expressions, waving arms, as though I’ve injured them.
“They could’ve hit us, Shxpir. We had the right of way and they should have stopped or at least slowed down and gone around us.”
“This is China. We have to stop for cars.” He is silent. Our walk to the store for some late night icecream continues in a suffocating silence.
“Do you understand what I'm saying? There's no way a pedestrian can injure a car." We argue to the store and all the way home, still longer, expressing opinions between spoonfuls of strawberry and vanilla ice. He speaks of the westerners living in Kunming, how many of them remain unchanged, how Chinese customs impress little upon them. He knows a few westerners who adopt Chinese mentality, immerse themselves in the local culture.
"If I lived in America, I would act American," he says.
"A 100% of the time? Impossible. Sometimes I react with a Canadian's sensibility, whether to negative or positive results. Where I come from a pedestrian's vulnerability is appreciated."
"Yeah, but you're in China. The truck driver probably has very little education and very little experience. He's going to tell his friends in the factory how a stupid foreigner kicked his car. And you're going to complain with your foreign friends how stupid the Chinese are." Usually Shxpir doesn't have so much to say. He continues to rant, "Chinese are stupid. Everywhere China is opening to western ideas but we still don't understand. It's going to take time." It's unclear how we view each other. "You think I'm shallow?" he asks.
"No. A shallow individual has few thoughts, few opinions on matters other than himself and I'd find it difficult to respect him or relate to him. I think you are simple, Shxpir, and a little lazy. Simple because you've experienced little of the world and studied little of its knowledge." But compared to most Chinese he's fortunate. He's been to the big cities and studied art in college. "I'm sorry I shamed us. I can't always respect foreign ways. Sometimes-"
"I'm sorry too."

In the university district, gathered for drinks we seldom complain about China or the Chinese. The waitresses are bumbling fools and aggravate Joan to no end. Athena reminds him how little the fuyan must know of western cuisine. I remark to him how little she earns. There are some fifteen young women serving food and drink at French café but still Manu and Lotte, the owners, are kept busy behind the bar. We love China but not so much the Chinese. Ethnocentrism is a difficult obstacle for westerners to overcome when facing a city full of poorly educated, untrained, ignorant folk, most of them with little material wealth or promise of a brighter future. The city streets are full of characters scraping by, the homeless, leg-less, the child acrobats whose hat is passed among the spectators, the minority women from the countryside, their fingers poking, gesturing to the sleeping babe on their back, the morning and evening gangs of carts wheeled on to the curb to attract commuters; sliced pineapple, roasted chestnuts, grilled wieners, fermented tofu, socks and underpants. One woman squats by the curb on a blue plastic stool, an assortment of flea market odds arranged effectively before her. I’ve seen the same cheap china, teacups, piggy banks, vases in the same arrangements displayed at the Tate Modern. Nobody appreciates her artistic vision lost in the food stalls and bus stops at North Station. At any street corner crouch a half dozen women equipped with a tray of polish and brushes facing empty chairs and calling to passers by, “Your shoes are dirty.” There are few suits and ties. I see them concentrated around government square. It is acceptable to crowd the curb,
babecue at the beachbabecue at the beachbabecue at the beach

3 Norwegians, 2 Catalonians, 2 Danes, 2 Italians, A Brit, An American, A Flemming and I
to set up a table and start a game of dominoes without a thought to obstructing the flow of foot traffic. Motorbike drivers see a short cut through the pedestrians, scooters zip within inches of vulnerable little toes, three wheelers collide without a thought to signalling a turn or sudden halt. I am baffled. I don’t want to be. I want to accept, appreciate, admire how so many beings can live so simply and so close together, swerving one another like so many fish in a pond, weaving in and out of each other’s routine like so many parts in a machine, a growing diversity of daily paths, honking, spitting, slurping noodles, knitting jumpers, smoking pipes, cutting hair, hammering, brick laying, sweeping, pushing, pulling. I am baffled each day from the get go, when the incompetent carpenter arrives to knock down the toilet wall to fix a problem several month’s old only to be left again for several days. Baffled when the lift reaches the ground floor and I cannot exit until the tenants, an old woman, her middle-aged daughter and grand daughter each with shopping bags have entered and squished me against the side. Baffled by expressions I meet in the street as though they were watching a wild animal wandering loose in their neighbourhood. Baffled at every intersection by the complete disregard for one another’s safety. Baffled at the gym with its often circus-like performers, buffed men prancing about in speedos in near freezing temperatures, television sets at every treadmill blasting a dozen channels, young children left to play on the weights, the daily troupe of poorly coordinated young women each decorated in a cheap metal belt worn low on the hips receiving belly dance instructions from a young man slithering on the stage. I want to find some commonality, a behaviour I recognise from back home. The hundreds of thousands of Chinese living back in Vancouver, including those born in China and those only recently immigrated, quickly adapt new manners. I shall no longer consider them truly Chinese.

* * *

Since the end of Spring Festival and Joan’s return from a week of beach bumming in Cebu, Ba’Wan’s temper is different. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t run around the flat, chasing his ball or tearing the furniture. He doesn’t touch his food. Something’s wrong. I know that XiaoLu, the maid, has been feeding him human food despite my instructions against it. He is losing weight rapidly. Within a week his ribs start to show. His hind legs grow weak. He no longer climbs to the second floor and has increasing trouble to climb on to the couch. Before he lies down he circles clockwise then counter-clockwise. He never used to do that. Several of us sit in the livingroom digesting our meal passing around a spliff. Ba'Wan tries to make himself comfortable though he is confused and no doubt in constant pain now. Sergio scoops him up and throws him off the couch where he lands on a glass, the shards shattering. I have lost all respect for Sergio. He is officially the stupidest guy I've met in along while. At the gym I'll smile and wave but no no longer feign affability. Joan buys some salts and proteins from the doctor and dissolves it into Ba’Wan’s water bowl. I walk him once each day but he doesn’t poop and hardly pees. Joan and I take him to the vet, distressing the taxi driver with the canine’s paws on the back seat. The vet takes a blood sample and diagnoses a virus. He is hooked up to an IV for over an hour. Back at home he seems to be a little more energetic but is soon once again exhausted. Joan and I research information on the net about canine distemper virus. Ba’wan displays most of the symptoms, including the strange lost circular motion. I contact my parents who speak with the vet back home. We take Ba’Wan to another vet for a second opinion. I don’t like her. She jumps away from the dog fearing she’ll be bit. Ba’Wan has never bit a soul. She reacts to him like the countless ignorant locals who only recognise a Pekinese as a pet. She says the other hospital is probably trying to make money off the dog’s treatment. She says the dog’s virus is incurable at this stage. She’s speaking in Chinese but I can understand from her body language and Joan’s reaction. I’m reluctant to give in so easily. We help the poor dog down the street to the former vet where he receives a second round of IV fluids but his condition does not improve. He can hardly walk, can hardly balance to lift himself over the water bowl. It’s time, Joan and I tell each other. We take him to a third vet, just around the corner and enquire as to fees for putting down the dog. It seems awfully cheap. Joan then realises that the vet does not take care of the body. “What do we do with the body,” he asks of the vet. The man suggests taking a taxi out to the mountains and burying him there. Joan and I look at each other bewildered trying to imagine ourselves, a dead dog and shovels sitting in the back of a cab climbing into the foothills on the city’s edge like a scene out of a Palestinian film. We hail a taxi and return to the first vet where Ba’wan’s body can be taken care of. We are led to a crowded storeroom off the main clinic where several dogs hooked up to IV sit quietly with their owners. The door is kept open. Ba’wan lies on the floor where I continue to pet him while the doctor fetches a large syringe. “What’s wrong with your dog?” asks a nosy woman by the door. Irritated, Joan answers her. The needle is placed in the dog's side. Ba’Wan lets out a loud yelp and tries to escape. His body twitches, a mound of poop falls on the floor and a spray of urine as his muscles relax. I sit there still petting him. “You’ll be okay.” Joan keeps saying to the dog. The vets seem surprised that a dog’s owners should love their dog so much. I am still crying. I am surprised how little sensitivity and tact are shown by the vets in Kunming. I keep Ba’Wan’s leash when I leave the hospital. Joan and I head to Salvatore’s where a gin and tonic turns into three doubles and the afternoon is made almost agreeable. I feel the closest to Joan in a long time.

* * *

Evening, Joan's apartment, pasta is served. The phone rings, Joan answers. He sounds disagreeable, annoyed, impatient, speaking to his mother. Yesterday he complained to Giorgio and I that she was sending him only 150€ each week. How could he live on this! Giorgio and I look at each other both thinking how in Kunming full time teachers earn less.

Late night, Speakeasy, a low light verging on unkempt night club. I don’t understand Shxpir’s behaviour. “Why did you tell Agnieszka you took naked pics of me?” he barks. Agnieszka approaches us, dressed in a flowing silk aodai, navy top and orange bottoms. Her tone is apologetic. She and I must explain the conversation we’d had, how she’d told me that her ex had photographed her topless, how I had studied the male nude in university and told Agnes I preferred my own photographs of my lovers, how there existed a more intimate relationship between subject and photographer, and how this communicated a more meaningful depiction of the individual, moreso than the typical oiled slabs of meat found in art magazines or coffee table books. I had not mentioned Shxpir. It’s useless though. He continues yelling. It's like him to jump to conclusions, to ignore half the conversation. Karen leaves her game of pool. “What’s the problem? I can help.” Please don’t, I tell her, and leave a drunk’s incomprehensible dialogue dangling in a bar’s dark recesses. Shxpir storms out the hall, his arm waving an inconstant surrender. “You should be with an older guy,” Karen remarks to me. Next morning in a text to Shxpir, < r u ashamed of ur behavior last nite? I really wish u’d just be urself around these foreigners >

Evening, after business hours, I meet him at his shop. His last customers leave and I sit down across from him in the heating fan’s path. “Do you have anything to say?”
I am quiet, thinking. “I’m confused why you acted like that last night.”
“I was drunk.” I repeat the situation, explain that I wasn’t sharing secrets about he and I. Shxpir’s parents arrived yesterday from Guangzhou. He slept poorly and after more than a week his stomach is still upset. He’s stressed. They spent the afternoon together in the second hand furniture market. His father bought a bedframe, a purple and white sofa, a TV stand and a desk for the computer. They didn’t like their son’s simple furnishings.

Young men seldom cry in the company of others but how beautiful, revealing a truer self. “They look so old." It’s been more than a year since he last saw them. His father was recently let go from his job. His mom was trained generations ago to fix gauges in factories, what a computer does these days. They will move to Fujian to the countryside and live at a factory. He picked them up from the station. His mother was lugging a 10kg sack of rice. “She couldn’t just leave it and wouldn’t give it away so she brought it for me. Can you imagine? It’s thirty quai. My father’s shoes cost twenty-five quai. He’s been wearing them for two years. He won’t even pay seventy quai for a nice jacket. They’re so poor.”

I wonder to myself why they put down all the money they had, close to ten thousand dollars, to buy his apartment. They try to give Shxpir all they can. He learned to speak English better than most and his parent’s helped him arrange a year abroad at an art college in France but he failed to secure the position and soon dropped out of college. He’ll have to look after his parents one day. He’s their only son. And what can he do, he’s just an artist, and at twenty-three does not yet understand the necessity to sacrifice his artistic freedom for the patron's commercial needs. His father doesn’t like his mohawk and doesn’t consider the handbag shop real work. A year ago when Shxpir and his boyfriend got together, he dropped all intentions of going to France. Back in Philadelphia prohibited to re-enter China, the boyfriend is offering Shxpir another chance to get out of the country and earn an American salary. He doesn’t love his boyfriend; he depends on him, a different kind of love, desperate and compromising. Shxpir worries his affair with me will be discovered. Occasionally I mention little things about us to my friends and this information finds its way back to Shxpir misinterpreted and out of context. “I want you to protect me,” he says. I am to keep silent about us. Foreigners in town know of Shxpir and his American partner. I am not to enter into their mind’s equation. “Are you mad at me?” he asks.
“No, I’m frustrated but I understand. I can’t keep silent about us. I spend time with you so you’re part of my thoughts, part of my happiness. I ended my affair with my Japanese ex because I was invisible to three quarters of his life; his family, his colleagues, his old friends. I’m not ashamed of who I am or whom I choose to love.”

Shxpir resents the foreigners in Kunming. They didn’t used to be like this but now they just come for the drugs. They don’t worry about their livelihood, about their parents, about life’s necessities. The Chinese don’t have opportunity to take a break, to figure out their path, their career. Westerners are lucky, their money goes a long way. Crying, the world on his shoulders, I can see what a ball of fury he is. He wants to go to America. He wants to care for his parents. Wants his brand made popular and successful, wants me to protect him. Let them eat cake.

* * *

“Lino is free, everyone! Lino is free!” Shawn’s glass is raised, calling attention to the patron’s seated around The Box. His wife Rachelle looks at me, embarrassed. Shawn’s friends try to hush him. Lino had been caught with two kilos of hash and other pills, his pants down, unconscious in his neighbour’s apartment. For obvious reasons he rarely did drugs, himself. He was arrested for possession and attempted rape. Nearly six months later his parents arrived from Italy and paid bail at 30,000€. Were he Chinese, he’d’ve been sentenced to death.

“I’m having a nervous breakdown.” The connection is bad. And Giorgio knows I act uncomfortably with phone calls. I don’t consider them an outright nuisance but I do find them a disturbance, a frantic bell, a Pavlovian response, attention diverted to an invisible presence. “I need to talk with you in person,” he says. We don’t meet, however, and he later suggests that he could not altogether trust me for fear his personal problems would become subject of my travel blog, not that it should matter. No member of our community can presume to speak with another in confidence. Gossip plays an integral role, a lubricant that ensures all cogs continue to turn as they should. I share with a few dozen strangers the trials and tribulations of my own lot, including with discretion where warranted, events trusted to me by individuals who are likewise privy to my affairs.

So, Giorgio's news does not reach me until the next week when, as is usual, he arrives late evening at the tenth floor apartment seated aboard his electric scooter. He walks across the kitchen with a slow limp, his right foot swollen, covered in a plaster smelling of mouldy bread. "uuh, you did not hear what happened." No, I'd returned home prior to a series of unfortunate events at the Hump bringing the party to an abrupt end. Something intangible suddenly felt wrong and I left. Shxpir texts me. I cross the intersection and pace back and forth in front of an iron fenced park feeling too stirred up to sit still. “I need to walk a bit,” I tell him when he finds me. “What’s wrong?”
“But you were fine inside. What's up?”
“I feel myself disappearing. I feel no connection with these people. They’re so full of shit, like they’re still in high school.” We walk back to the bar where I’ve forgotten my gym bag. I tell Shxpir about my disappointment with the job offer in Zhuhai. “Imagine working forty-eight hours per week for less than a thousand each month. And Zhuhai’s right next to Hong Kong. Preposterous!”
“Let’s go to Paul’s,” he suggests. We spend the night together, for my part, embracing the only worthwhile reason to stay in Kunming.

Giorgio got in a fight at the Hump. He'd seemed alright, his usual role as flirtatious somewhat stumbling drunk. He was dancing near the DJ booth with a small blonde. "You can't dance here," said her Chinese girlfriend, the DJ's date. Recounting an unwitnessed bar brawl requires some film editing: various perspectives, several lines of action each travelling to its unique conclusion. It's uncertain who threw the first punch, who scratched whom first, but Giorgio's face bears a cut and it's clear the DJ left his turntables to teach Giorgio a lesson, a skinny Swedish redneck's show of honour. Shortly before Giorgio rode in, Agnieszka called, said I needed to ask Giorgio to pay 100rmb in damages to a Chinese fellow's car he'd kicked after exiting the Hump. In the week, Giorgio meets with the DJ and his girlfriend to apologise only to learn a couple days later that it was in fact Sergio who'd punched the DJ's girlfriend. Joan, Luca and I seated in the livingroom, pause the movie to hear Giorgio's big news. "Lisabeth proposed to me." My jaw drops.
"Who's Lisabeth?" questions Luca.
"The Dane back in Wuhan now." we quickly explain. She spent six weeks in Yunnan with her flat mate Nina. I'd watched Lisabeth fall for Giorgio.
"She'd said to me once in the lift, 'how can you not love him.' I figured she'd be satisfied with a few raunchy nights under the covers - but marriage."
"Kevin, what do you think?" He respects my levelheadedness. His life with Panya discourages further progress or much more consideration. He calls her when he's drunk and lonely and nostalgic of their utopic time together. But back in Melbourne, she is inconsistent, insensitive and demanding of Giorgio. He speaks of fate.
"Oh, spare me, Giorgio." Lisabeth's an analyst back in Cobenhavn and connected with a community of artists through her ex. She proposed to Giorgio that she support him while he works on his art and on managing exhibitions.
"What do I think? Focus on your own life." Joan and Luca are unimpressed with my response. Giorgio is a romantic but if he's going to preach about fate, he has to consider it may appear under more guises than an attractive young woman. I can sense in me a ping of envy, his charm, his looks, his ease with women, his charisma at a party. And yet he complains to me about life, because that's my role, the one who listens.
"I am thinking about my own life. I can work on my art." And he can get over Panya.

* * *

It's late, I should be asleep, after a long day, the last of several running errands about town, shipping parcels off to Surabaya, a thick black dot in East Java, home to 2.5 million and soon to be mine too. Athena asks will I be living south of the equator? Yes indeed, I'm stunned for a moment imagining how I'll stand upside down compared to life here in Kunming. Well not exactly, Matt interjects, Kunming is not that far north. The discussion proceeds to toilet flushing and its direction relative to the equator. Jacob doesn't believe a word of it. It's true, we all say. It was on TV. Matt wonders how will the dirt fall if one were to dig a tunnel right through the earth, when would it start to fall up. We sip gin and tonic at French Cafe.
"What are you looking most forward to and what will you miss most?" Matt likes to ask these thoughtful kinds of questions.
"To feeling settled," i answer
Giorgio & IGiorgio & IGiorgio & I

(this isn't how I imagined being closer to him)
without a pause to consider. I have been travelling or in transition for close to a year now and never grew much attached to Kunming, never really felt an integral part of the scene. I can't tell Matt about Shxpir. " I can't say what I'll miss most. "Shxpir rings me the day before my flight. We've never talked much on the phone. Neither of us spend long with anyone in this disengaged manner. < Miss you, good luck, etc., I love you, Bye bye. > Agnieszka returned from a two week trip back to Poland. Maggie, my manager was abrupt with me, phoned me, asked me to come to class early, and told me Agnieszka would probably take over next day. I took my month's pay and said good-bye. Maggie's actions were abrupt and insensitive in contrast to her praise of my hard work and dedication. I stood in the hall waiting for the lift, fuming that Maggie and Agnieszka stole a week's more of my classes away, and disappointed that Maggie did not offer the slightest bonus despite all the unpaid time spent planning lessons and speaking with students before or after classes. My last night in town, some students treated me to a drink. Sweet, funny, laughing, taking pictures and talking about Indonesia and about their children, young adults studying IR in London or Economics in St Petersburg. It was a good feeling to see I'd touched someone's life. "You're the bet teacher we've ever had," and this from a teacher nonetheless. I felt a little ashamed that I'd taken them for country bumpkins with simple ambitions. You'd never expect it from their dress and manner that they had such far reaching lives and an understanding of the world far deeper, far broader than many sophisticated Japanese or Westerner.

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