Kunming confessions

I’ve been traveling alone in Yunnan province in southwestern China for the past couple of days, which has forced me to speak Chinese pretty much wherever I go.

I’ve made big strides after two years of Chinese lessons, and I’m slowly trying to come out of my shell and be more chatty. This morning, the cab driver who picked me up from the airport in the city of Dali was quite a character. Continue reading

Fast times call for life in the slow lane

I like walking along the moat that surrounds the Forbidden City because it gives me a feeling that’s hard to find elsewhere in Beijing: peace.

On a clear day the reflections of the trees and towers lining the palace’s outer wall stretch across the moat, their colors preserved in the water. Old men with wooden fishing poles cast their lines a few feet from each other and smoke cigarettes and make small talk as they wait for a bite. Continue reading

Spring, I hardly knew you

The best time of the year to visit Beijing is Spring. The temperatures are comfortable, gusty winds generally keep the skies blue and trees begin to bloom.

Dormant streets come to life, as old men hunker over small tables to watch card games. Vendors pack up their tents and grill barbecue in the open. Children who have been cooped up all winter shed a few layers of clothes and run freely in the warm air.

It sounds romantic, but the truth is Beijing’s Spring is more of an intense fling. That’s because it passes in the blink of an eye. After five months of extreme cold (this winter, which saw the coldest temperatures in Beijing in more than 30 years and long stretches of dangerous air pollution, was especially trying), we get about one month of good weather in May, followed by four months of blazing-hot summer. Continue reading

Small town PRC

By the time the sun set in Anxi, the only noise I could hear outside was the crow of a lone rooster. The streets near the home where I was staying were empty. The skies were dark, lit up only by stars peeking out from the clouds blowing overhead.

It reminded me of home.

I come from a small town in Eastern Kentucky. Small as in population 6,000. Anxi, population 1 million, is a “small” place too, according to the family I stayed with. Continue reading

White male seeking red roses

Finding a flower shop had never been so hard. Then again, this was the first time I’d tried to do it on an island in China.

It was Valentine’s Day, which unfortunately also happens to be my girlfriend’s birthday. I say unfortunate because the stakes are twice as high. Choose a lame gift or a less-than-spectacular restaurant and the consequences are exponentially bad.

We were visiting Gulangyu, a small island off the coast of Xiamen in the southeastern province of Fujian. Gulangyu became a treaty port after the First Opium War (1839-42), and 13 countries — including the US, Spain and Japan — established consulates, churches and businesses. Continue reading

The heart of Ox Street

Many of China’s temples and churches were wrecked during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when communist leaders encouraged young students and workers to destroy symbols of “old China.”

Fortunately for preservationists, Beijing’s Niujie Mosque survived. The mosque was built in 996, during the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), and is the oldest temple in the capital. It’s even older than the Forbidden City imperial palace, which began construction in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Continue reading

Oh, what an ominous morning

I really wanted to go running outside this morning.

I’ve got a Chinese lesson in two hours, and my brain seems to function better after a long, hard run. I’m also making progress in losing weight, down more than 15 pounds from a year ago.

But when I peeled back the curtain to check the weather, my hopes for a quick workout were dashed. After a couple of blue-sky days last week, the pollution is back. Buildings a couple of blocks away from my apartment are barely visible from my ninth-floor window. The air is a grayish white.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The view from my bedroom window this morning.

The latest message from the US embassy, which monitors air pollution and releases readings hourly through its Twitter feed, said the air today is hazardous. The embassy rates air quality based on the amount of PM2.5 in the air – fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and smaller. Common sources are power plants, industries and automobiles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I’m used to this by now: this process of getting up, looking out the window and checking the US embassy’s Twitter feed – all so I can make an informed decision about whether I can run outside without damaging my health. Continue reading

A jade burial suit? Are you crazy?

The day after my paternal grandmother died, I went to a funeral home with my uncles Jim and Paul to pick out a casket.

The director of the funeral home met us at the entrance and said he was sorry for our loss. We followed him to a brightly lit room, where around a half-dozen caskets were on display.

“This is one of our basic models,” the funeral director said, pointing to a casket with an oak finish. If we wanted to go with something “a little more expensive,” he suggested a coffin with a shiny white exterior that resembled marble.

Not even the most basic casket seemed appropriate for my grandmother. Aesthetically speaking, she was a woman of simple tastes.

“$2,000 for a casket? Are you crazy?” I could imagine her saying. “Bury me in a cardboard box, and use the money to buy Jimmy a new coat for winter!” Continue reading

Knowing when to say give

As tourists file into the Yonghe Lama Temple, a woman carrying a gray sack stops near the entrance and gets down on her knees.

She bows, lowering her head so close to the ground that her shoulder-length hair hangs inches from the concrete. Still hunched over, she extends her hands, palms up, toward a plastic bowl in front of her body. The bowl is filled with coins and a few yuan bills.

Most people walk past the woman without looking down, pausing only to snap a few pictures of a historic arch outside the temple – a Buddhist monastery that is one of Beijing’s most visited tourist attractions. Continue reading

Translations gone wild

When I visit the United States on Friday, there will be a lot of things I won’t miss about Beijing: the air pollution, traffic jams and kids taking a dump on the sidewalk, just to name a few.

But one thing I will certainly miss are the Chinglish signs. There have been days when – after failing to accomplish the simplest of tasks because of my limited Chinese – I’ve felt like swearing off chopsticks, grabbing my passport and catching the first plane out of town.

But when I look up and see a sign for dried fruit that says “fuck fruit,” suddenly the clouds part, birds chirp and all is well. (“Dry” and a colloquialism for “sex” share the same Chinese character.) Continue reading