Pogs are pretty popular throughout the district; wherever I go, I see small groups of little boys squatting and playing with them. I wish I had known about that earlier…maybe I could have dug out my old collection of Pogs from the 5th grade and brought them over here. Not like I’m doing anything with them now anyway.
There are less and less people in the district every time I go as more families leave to return to their hometowns for Spring Festival. Today, it seemed like everyone who was left was busier than usual, perhaps because of an increased amount of customers looking to purchase last-minute presents for their families.
I spoke with one woman today who operates a small store that sells things such as rice cookers and water jugs. She told me that she barely makes enough money to live on because she has the bad luck to be in very poor health, so a good amount of her money has to go towards health care. Since migrants are not eligible for social services once they move to the city (they don’t possess an urban residence permit), she has to pay out-of-pocket for any medical expenses. She seemed pretty downtrodden and kept repeating that her current situation was awful and that there was no way to improve it. A man I also spoke to was in a better position – he sells furniture and has three children, one of whom is a college student studying English. However, he was still bitter about the difficulties of life and work and constantly struggling to make enough money, a sentiment that is shared by everyone I have talked to. At the end of the day, I presented the guesthouse owner with a small gift to show my appreciation for all her help, as is customary in Chinese culture.
Now I didn’t want to talk about meals too much, which is why I didn’t really discuss them regularly. But this dinner I had tonight begs to be described. I arranged to have dinner with Xiao Sun to thank him for his help as well – I also had a gift for him. He took me to a nearby hotpot restaurant. Hotpot is kind of like fondue, but with a Chinese twist. It’s basically a giant pot of soup that is kept at a constant boil while raw vegetables and meat are thrown into it to cook. Then they are taken out, dipped in a sauce, and eaten. It’s pretty par for the course in China and immensely popular during the colder winter months, but this restaurant offered a different type of hotpot that I hadn’t seen before. Just a warning for any vegetarians out there, you might want to stop reading here. The hotpot contained at least ten gigantic pork leg bones, I think they were femur bones. Each one was easily at least half the size of my face. We were each given a pair of plastic gloves and told to wear them while gnawing on the bones. Yeah, that’s right, gnawing on the bones. I totally loved it, an entire place devoted to barbaric eating styles. We went to town on those bones, gnawing through tendons, ligaments, everything. Not only that, but after each bone was picked clean, we were given straws to mash and suck out the bone marrow. Talk about using every part of the animal, right? Probably one of the most enjoyable meals I’ve ever had, especially since there was absolutely no need to even attempt to stay clean throughout the whole experience. Definitely a good way to end my time here.
I’m flying out of Kunming tomorrow morning. I can’t believe two weeks have gone by so quickly, yet I also feel like I’ve been here forever. Blame it on the weird time warp phenomenon that seems to take over whenever you travel. All I have left to do now is pack up my things, pay for my accommodations, and then go to the airport. It’s crazy to think that pretty soon, I’ll be back in NY, halfway across the world not only in terms of geographical distance, but also in terms of mindset and culture. To anyone who might have read this blog, thanks for the interest and I hope I didn’t bore you too much. Or scare you away from China – it’s intense in an awesome kind of way and definitely deserves a visit if you get a chance.
The guesthouse owner’s washing machine broke this morning and it took a while for her husband to fix it, which meant that she had loads of dirty sheets to clean in the afternoon. Dryers are scarce around here so most people hang their clothes and sheets outside to let them dry. The local liaisons for the outreach organization were busy arranging a dinner for next week to discuss future activities. One woman brought her 2-year-old daughter to play on the front stoop. She was absolutely adorable and said nothing aside from unintelligible gurgles and imitations of dog barks. She was also clad in a pair of pants with a handy slit in case she needed to go to the bathroom, which is pretty common for Chinese children. Out of nowhere, she squatted on the front step and proceeded to defecate – her mother immediately moved her two feet away to the curb so she could finish. That was probably one of the more shocking aspects of China to get accustomed to, the fact that children freely defecate on city streets and it’s considered perfectly acceptable and normal.
At one point during the day, I looked up to see a mass exodus of fruit vendors running down the street with their carts. In the background, I could hear other people yelling, “Police are coming! They’re coming!” Which explained the panic. Street carts reside in a shady legal area and sometimes, the police perform raids – when this happens, the vendors all race for the nearest alley to hide in to avoid being fined. Strangely enough, the police that normally patrol the district don’t seem to care at all about the street vendors, but I guess sometimes police come from elsewhere to do these raids. I wonder how often this happens, if they constantly have to keep an eye out and stay alert in case they might suddenly have to wheel their carts away.
As the Spring Festival draws closer, most children have finals this week before they go on vacation. At the same time, masses of people are traveling to all parts of the country to see their families – traveling during this time is pretty crazy because everyone needs to go somewhere so people will wait in lines by the thousands to purchase train and bus tickets.
I wandered through the alleys of the houying today, well aware that I was purposely getting myself lost. I must have turned in at least four or five circles before finding my way out again. There seems to be much less police presence in this area of the district, as opposed to the main streets, where cops regularly patrol. I wonder, then, if that’s why most of the prostitutes that I’ve seen in the district have been in the houying.
While I had some free time today, I went to the Bird and Flower Market to shop for some presents. This large market is located in the old street of Kunming, an area which, if I remember correctly, is scheduled to be torn down in the future. But right now, it still draws large crowds of people looking to purchase anything from camping equipment to flowers to pets. That’s right, pets. There’s a whole section where vendors sell turtles, hamsters, even dogs – that might be the saddest part, actually, because most of these puppies are kept in small boxes, waiting to be purchased.
Bargaining is a huge part of Chinese culture and many people actually enjoy the back-and-forth confrontation between seller and buyer. I am not one of those people. Bargaining is not one of my strong points, but it has to be done to avoid paying four times the actual value of an item. So what basically happens is the seller states a price, then the buyer says something along the lines of, “That’s too expensive! Can you make it a little cheaper?” Or “I’m just a poor student. I don’t have that type of money.” If it’s particularly heated, the buyer could end up pretending to walk away several times, only to be dragged back by the seller, who will continue negotiations. You can bargain for pretty much anything here. In the past, I’ve even bargained for hotel rooms.
So apparently, the outreach organization that Xiao Sun works for will lose their funding in July of this year. Qinghua University has been funding the organization from its creation 2 ½ years ago up until now. After July, it is uncertain whether the organization will still be able to survive – there will be no funds available to pay rent for the community center or to pay for activities and training. If it is unable to continue, then DaShu Ying could very well lose its help and outreach.
Today, the district was filled with more people than usual, most likely because it being a Sunday, children did not have to go to school and some adults didn’t have to go to work. The streets were filled with children running around, playing games and shooting toy guns at each other. Older children hung around in small groups, many of them gnawing on giant sugarcane sticks.
The guesthouse owner took me for a walk today – we ventured into the maze of alleyways that comprises most of the district outside of the main streets. We went into the houying (back section) and honestly, I don’t think I could find my way around in there. Even though I’ve wandered through the narrow alleys many times, I still always manage to get somewhat lost and have to keep walking until I come out somewhere that looks even the slightest bit familiar. Despite the fact that this area of the district is incredibly confusing and could be said to induce claustrophobia, many residents still operate small businesses here, though the density is nowhere near the bustle of the main streets. One woman seems to make her living by buying empty bottles that other people pick out of the trash – her small room is dominated by a large pile of these bottles and I can only assume that she turns them in to recycling centers as a way to generate income. While I was speaking to another woman, her small son was toddling around happily, climbing on plastic stools every now and then. At one point, I saw him pick up something from the ground and put it in his mouth. His mother didn’t seem too worried about this, but in my opinion, that ground is so dirty that whatever falls there, should stay there, and most definitely, does not have any business in anyone’s mouth.
We spent some time with one family that owns and operates a small laundry store. I spoke primarily with the husband, who seemed a bit nervous at first about talking to me. However, his wife turned out to be good friends with the guesthouse owner, so when she vouched for me, he warmed up pretty quickly. The whole time we were talking, their three children were rolling around in their small store, clearly used to entertaining themselves while their parents worked. I’m not sure what it is they do differently, but they make a lot more money than the other laundry woman I had spoken to before – is it location? That seems counterintuitive because this store is hidden in the houying while the other woman’s store is one turn away from the main street.
This morning, I was on a bus by 8 am on my way to DaShu Ying. At that hour, most places aren’t open yet so the streets are strangely peaceful. But this is also the time when you can see one of my favorite sights, which is early-morning calisthenics. And by that, I don’t mean the odd person stretching. No, a lot of the stores here require that their entire staff stand on the sidewalk together, dressed in whatever their uniforms are, and engage in group calisthenics. Which is pretty entertaining to watch. Seriously, if any of my past bosses had said, “Okay, everyone get outside. It’s time for group stretching,” I think at least half the staff would have quit right there.
We waited at the guesthouse, where we had told people to meet us if they were interested in going on the outing. However, nobody showed up. It was still really cold today, which played a huge factor in discouraging people to walk around a park. This just shows the difficulties involved in outreach, as you can never be sure if people will actually show up. What made things worse was that the organization suffers from a lack of volunteers so the outing will have to be pushed off for several weeks until people come back from Spring Festival and are able to give their time again. Also, many of these young migrants came to Kunming alone and so have nobody to push them to participate in these activities. Add to that the fact that they have to somehow support themselves. No wonder these activities are so hard to organize.
We decided to wait for a few hours anyway, just in case people decided to come later. During this time, I watched TV with the guesthouse owner’s young daughter. She insisted on watching a channel showing what was essentially the Chinese version of Power Rangers. The show was….bizarre, to say the least. I don’t really have the words to adequately describe it, but suffice it to say that there was a lot of jumping around and flashing lights.
Afterwards, I went to eat across-the-bridge noodles with Xiao Sun and the other volunteer. These noodles are a Yunnan specialty and come with a background story. Back in the day, a woman would have to cross a bridge to bring her husband lunch every day. But by the time she got there, the soup as well as the vegetables and meat in the soup were cold already. Eventually, she thought of a way to overcome this. She would bring the hot soup in a thermos in order to keep it warm and carry the raw vegetables and meat in a separate container. Once she reached her husband, she would dump everything in the still-hot soup, which would cook everything in minutes. Nowadays, across-the-bridge noodles are immensely popular – the soup still comes separate from everything else. Once you get your bowl and the plates of vegetables and meat, you dump everything in and let the hot soup cook everything at your table. Pretty ingenious, huh?
Last night, the temperature dropped and rumor had it that it would snow again in Kunming, an occurrence that still remains rather rare. Not entirely happy about the change in weather because now I half freeze to death every time I want to take a shower. Everyone has bundled up in many layers and many of the district residents huddle around small metal bins filled with warm coals. Surprisingly, this method actually gives off a lot of heat and I spent some time crouched over a bin, surrounded by other people trying to keep warm.
The young migrant outing is set for tomorrow so a lot of the time I spent in DaShu Ying today was focused around getting the word out and enticing people to come. The importance of guanxi came through again, as news of the outing was spread through word-of-mouth. Xiao Sun informed me that he couldn’t just go up to the many young people walking the streets and invite them to this activity – they would find it strange and wonder not only what his intentions were, but also whether or not it was a trick of some sort. I spoke with two college students today who are temporarily living in the district until they can regain access to their dorms. One girl is residing with the woman I mentioned before, the one who washes clothes for a living. They come from the same hometown, so it’s no wonder that they managed to work out this situation. I can’t help but compare these two students to a couple other migrants I have met – they are not more than a year apart in age, yet these students are lucky enough to have the opportunity to pursue higher education while the other people I spoke to already have young children and sell fruit all day. It truly is a matter of circumstance.
The guesthouse owner told me that an old woman was staying with her. This old woman had come all the way from Beijing to try to convince her wayward son (33 years old) to come home. They had tried to drag him out of a nearby Internet café, but he ran away and in the process, the woman injured her ankle. She is so upset that she can barely make herself eat. The saddest part is that this is her 11th trip to Kunming and all of those trips had the same purpose of trying to bring her son home. But for some reason, he keeps refusing. I guess for some people, the importance of family in Chinese culture doesn’t resonate as deeply as it does for others.
Later on, I joined Xiao Sun and another organization member on a shopping trip to Wal-Mart, where they purchased a number of snacks for tomorrow’s outing. Keep in mind that these are the Chinese version of snacks that for the most part, have little to no resemblance to American snacks. For a while, they were considering buying cans of pork leg, but then decided that it was too expensive. Preparations for the Spring Festival are well underway, as the place was packed with people purchasing decorations that would bring their family luck for the New Year. The upcoming year is the Year of the Bull so there was an abundance of stuffed bulls available for purchase. Also roaming the store was a man dressed in an inflatable costume designed to look like a bag of milk (yes, they sell milk in bags here…you poke a straw in the top and drink it that way, kind of like a Capri Sun). I wish I had gotten a picture of that.
Spent a few hours with the guesthouse owner today. Her cold hasn’t gotten any better and I keep telling her to take some medicine, but she says that it doesn’t work. So she’s toughing it out. Her front stoop seems to be a kind of hangout place for nearby residents, who come and go throughout the day to sit and chat for a little bit. I think it’s interesting how she regularly sweeps her front stoop area so it looks clean (this is after throwing pecan shells and orange peels all over it), but does so by sweeping everything into the gutter…which is essentially a foot away from her front stoop. Does that really make a difference? I spoke to several new people today, including a woman who sells goldfish for a living. That can’t be the most lucrative occupation and she confirmed that – after all, how many goldfish does one person really need? She bikes around on a cart carrying bowls and bowls of these fish all day. When she parks it for a while, she keeps herself busy knitting clothes, a pastime that is quite popular amongst the female district residents. While I was speaking with her, a policeman wandered over, but soon left after a brief conversation with the guesthouse owner. Apparently, he had seen me there before and was curious about what I was doing – I couldn’t help but feel a little bit nervous when I saw him walking up, even though I’d done nothing wrong. Still, it leaves me skeptical about whether the increased police presence in the district is actually meant to protect the migrants (as it is said to) or if it is truly meant to keep a closer eye on members of the floating population. My instinct votes for the latter.
I spent some time talking with a group of fruit-sellers who were gathered behind their carts. For some reason, my presence there sparked a good amount of interest, as more and more people kept coming over to ask who I was and what was going on. Which was fine with me, as I’ve found that speaking with groups can be rather useful – it creates a different type of interaction as they speak, agree, and disagree with one another. Afterwards, I listened as the guesthouse owner and two other women people-watched and gossiped about passersby and neighbors. One of the women had her young daughter with her, who was allowed to run about wherever she wanted. At one point, she dropped an orange seed into my hand as a present and I feigned great gratitude.
But now I want to talk about the chicken man that I saw while I was there. This old man biked up with a huge wicker cage strapped across his handlebars. The cage was filled with live chickens, squawking all over the place. I watched as people came over and grabbed the flailing birds out of the cage – a couple hours later, they then proceeded to fill foot-washing tubs with boiling water and threw the birds in. While they were still immersed, the people plucked them and cleaned them while squatting on the side of the road. Bearing witness to this, all I could think to myself was, THIS is China.