Language School Farewell

Some of the good folk we met at the language school saw fit to join us for a farewell dinner. These are some very nice, very smart, and very well-travelled people. Befitting a group of Danes, Norwegians, Finns, Yanks, Frenchies, Aussies, and Canucks assembled in China, we went for Italian food.


More Kunming

Let me boast

When we came to Keats School, we decided to partake in some of the extracurricular activities. Two afternoons a week we went to tai ji (video of our amazing teacher will be coming in a later post), and Lee also opted for two weekly calligraphy classes. It turns out he's a natural at shufa. His teacher, the very kind man pictured above, has had one of Lee's works mounted on a scroll. It will be entered in a provincial exhibition hosted by the Yunnan Daily newspaper in the "foreigner" category. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo of anything other than his first day's work (pictured above), but after the exhibition is over, the scroll will be mailed to Canada. You'll be able to admire his work next summer.


Around Kunming

One more day of classes, then taking the newfangled Mandarin skills out for a month on the road in western China. See how many people we can ask such useful phrases as "Do you prefer classical music or going to pop concerts?" and "Do you have the habit of being a picky eater?"

Safety first

Unintentional humour second.


Realism not required

Excavated in the 1970s in Hubei province and dated circa 400 BCE, this sculpture depicts a crane with antlers. Apparently it was common for animal sculptures to be placed outside tombs to guard the spirits within. Those are all the details I have, so any discussion about why somebody would want a crane with antlers to protect her immortal soul will have to remain in the realm of the hypothetical.


The Duke would be proud

As Lee mentioned, we get three healthy and delicious meals each weekday. I'd like to add, however, that the Howard penchant for sugar and artificial flavour continues to reign triumphant over a well-balanced diet. Those Twizzlers you see in the photo above were off the shelf and in my basket faster than you can say "sweet tooth." My glee could only have been greater if they were black, but even the cherry flavour was rapidly consumed with mindless joy. All 396 grams were gone by the end of True Grit. That little girl's fortitude was nothing compared to the gumption I showed in demolishing that licorice. In my defense, this was the first time I've seen Twizzlers in Asia, so I was eating enough to make up for a few years without.

By the way, I have seen very few Westerns but have never enjoyed one until now. I guess the combination of Matt Damon, the Coen brothers, and a female protagonist overpowered my usual boredom with the genre. I'd suggest they give that youngster an Oscar if I hadn't already seen Natalie Portman in Black Swan. I thought she was fantastic. As you can tell, living in the language school bubble has left us with time to catch up on our movie watching. We'll be leaving next Sunday, but hope to find time for Howl and Blue Valentine before we go.


Et toi, Montreal?

Evidently nous canadiennes held the event a year later. We gotta get on a mailing list.

Who knew?

Apparently, way back in 1999, Kunming hosted the World Horticultural Expo. How that slipped by without us knowing is a mystery - we're usually very up on our international gardening extravaganzas. The legacy of what surely must have been wild times had by all is an enormous amount of well-tended green space on the edge of town.

We initially balked at the price of admission [see also: Butchart Gardens, Victoria 2002 with Bruce, Terri, and Lily; Butterfly World, Kuala Lumpur, last month; in front of our hut, Malapascua Island 2009, some dude's suitcase full of seashells] but since we had walked for over an hour to get there, we decided to pony up the sixteen bucks and go in. It turned out to be a great decision, with no vehicles, no crowds, a dinosaur and a galleon festooned with flowers, a bunch of oldies flying high-tech kites, and a few playful puppies to help us wile away a blue-skied Sunday.


Street food

Kunming makes my stomach very, very happy. As delicious as the food is at the school, I have still managed to sample some wares from a multitude of street vendors. Photographic evidence here of last weekend's breakfast choices and a yammy midday snack. For the sake of propriety, I took no pictures of this evening's carnivorous deluge, a score of mutton skewers. No bread, no vegetables, hey, not even a table to sit at...just twenty sticks of grilled sheep flesh and me.

Eternal What?!?

For those of you read about my cold toes via email, I apologize for the double whinge. At least this time you get photographic evidence of how far we've come from the beach. And of the fact that it's never too cold for the playground.

Some advice my brother gave me once that I ignored at the time but has proven to work in Kunming: if you have a problem, throw money at it. Kunming is called the City of Eternal Spring by the Chinese. Lee would like you to know that's "a large, steaming crock o'shite." I'm pretty sure that name was created by the Department of Propaganda in Beijing to justify not providing central heat to anyone in Yunnan province. The temperature drops to 1 or 2 degrees at night, with highs of 12-15 during the day. Sounds not bad, right? Except that when it's two degrees outside, it's two degrees inside. After shivering through the first two days of class, I decided to take your advice, Chris. I went and bought a jacket and scarf and fuzzy slippers. After a couple more days, I was still cold. Now I have bought a jacket with a zip-out liner that at least says "North Face," a pair of hiking pants lined with fleece, gloves, and thick socks. I didn't think I'd need that stuff until we went to Nepal, but now I'm all kitted out. And I wear it all to class and fill my water bottle with boiling water (known in China as "white tea").

Oh yeah, I bought the scarf at Zara. It cost more than the jacket and fuzzy slippers combined, but it's flannel and like wrapping myself in a large blanket. I love it. Am I the only one surprised there's a Zara here outside of Beijing or Shanghai? It's right next to the Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton stores. I guess it really is the new China.

Let's catch up, shall we?

I'm going back in time to show you a few more pictures of Malaysia. Go get yourselves a cup of tea and enjoy. First up is the bus ride from KL to Lumut. We were accompanied by Jian Ghomeshi and six hours of Q podcasts - highly recommended by both of us if you need to fill time on a long journey. If you look closely in the rearview mirror, you'll see our seriously hot bus driver, who looked as if he might hop off the bus at any moment and run an ultra (though let's be honest, he's nothing compared to Lee).
From Lumut, we took the ferry to Pangkor. We actually spent Lunar New Year on this island in February, 2000. It pains me to type this because Malaysia has always held a warm and special place in my travel memories, but the last decade hasn't been kind to this little place. After the ferry crossing and a short taxi ride, we arrived at the beach where we spent our first holiday to see this:
The giant construction pit on what was once a beach coupled with a pretty severe garbage problem led to a less than sunny first day for me. Fortunately, as you know from the post "Tough Day at the Office," we did find a stretch of sandy beach further down the road to wile away a few days, and ever-affable Lee convinced me that when the prawns in your salad look like this, it's impossible to feel morose.

...and a cot

It makes Green Villa (one of our Seoul Apartments) look positively palatial, but it's cozy and home sweet home for two more weeks.

Photo update: As you can see, after numerous failed attempts, I finally got a picture to load. The blogger help page is full of seething would-be bloggers who have been hamstrung by this glitch. It seems to have been remedied. Lee just told me I have to go outside, turn around three times and spit to remove the jinx I caused by suggesting it was fixed. Be right back...


Three hots

Monday to Friday we eat in the school cafeteria. The food, to understate the fact, has been outstanding. Chef Li has been honing her craft for 22 years, and has received some sort of Master Craftsperson designation from the government. She buys her fruits, vegetables, and meat direct from the farmers daily, and puts out at least ten dishes for each meal. Many of these dishes, to Deanna's delight, are green and leafy. Many of the others, to my delight, are hot and spicy.

On weekends we are left to fend for ourselves. We found an excellent noodle house close to the school, have been for hot pot, and today found Salvador's, opened years ago by an American and now serving up an impressive array of brunch choices. My Mexican breakfast (eggs, potatoes, beans, homemade salsa, and a warm tortilla) and Deanna's Greek omelette were tasty; more importantly though, in a city still without its first Starbucks [gasp], an endless stream of strong dark coffee.


Just Kids

What do Julia Child and Patti Smith have in common? Virtually nothing, except that both are iconic cultural figures who have been famous for decades, and I knew nothing about either of them until I read their memoirs this year. It seems funny that now I'm writing for the second time in a month to say that I loved an autobiography when ordinarily I never read them, but trust me, this is a great book.

Just Kids is Patti Smith's recollection of her relationship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. They lived in New York, in Brooklyn and the Chelsea Hotel, and they were friends, lovers, mutual muses, collaborators, and artists long before either of their work became known.

Smith won the National Book Award this year. In her acceptance speech she talked of books so fervently that I wanted to read hers. In it, she describes the years when she and Mapplethorpe were starving bohemian artists struggling to find their creative voices, and she worked at Scribner bookstore to support them, making extra money by scouring used book stores for rare and vintage books then selling them for profit. She spent days and hours immersed in books and writing poetry long before she became a singer and musician. That poetic voice is highly evident in this story, which at its best is a lyrical elegy to a lost love.

Watch her on Stephen Colbert here.


Photos forthcoming?

Well, we're back in the blogosphere, but for some reason photos won't upload. You'll all have to live in suspense to see Lee eating giant Malaysian shrimp and chasing away little beach snakes for a few more days. Until then, here is some evidence of a cultural difference between West and East to ponder...

Every night, part of my Chinese homework includes previewing the next day's lesson. Each lesson has vocabulary and a dialogue based on a specific theme, things like "Greetings and Introductions" and "Time and Date." Tomorrow we are studying Unit Seven. The dialogue (in English because it seems a waste of time to type the phonetic Mandarin) looks like this:

Visiting the Teacher
A: David, I want to visit our teacher.
B: So do I.
A: When should we go?
B: The teacher says she would be at home in the evening.
A: But I have got something to do in the evening. I have to go to class.
B: What about Saturday night?
A: Saturday night would be all right. I'm free.
B: Shall we go at half past seven?
A: All right. I will wait for you at home and we will go together.

Now bear in mind, this is only unit seven of an introductory-level book. We haven't even discussed such basics as "Weather" or "In the Hospital." This means that whoever wrote this text decided that acquiring the language skills to show up at your teacher's house uninvited on a Saturday night is more pressing than learning how to say "Today is sunny" or "I drank water from the tap and I might be dying of cholera."


Over the wall

We're in Kunming. Unbeknownst to us, the Chinese government has decided OOFALWO, along with Facebook, YouTube, and Skype, is a threat to national security. Wily Internet experts, fortunately, have come up with a way around the cyber-blockade, and our next door neighbour happens to be a software analyst from Dallas who has introduced us to the wonderful world of VPNs. For a mere $69.99 we're out from behind the firewall, barely singed.

All this to say, we're back. We have a few more pictures to post of Malaysia before we get into the China experience.

Stay tuned...