An American Abroad

Terrorism’s Aftermath

In the five days since the horrible attack on people at the Kunming train station just 70 miles north of here, I’ve seen how the Chinese government and people react to terrorism. The current death toll is 33, with 130 injured, of whom 70 are in critical condition. It’s a little early for me to try to spin grand theories about what all this means. What follows is more of a notebook of observations.

  • I’ve seen detachments of police (or soldiers?) decked out in full body armor and carrying machine guns around Yuxi. Two days ago, they were near a construction site where a crowd of people had gathered to watch workmen put a temporary bridge over an excavation site. Last night I saw them standing outside Walmart. Today they were at a local public school. This is in addition to an increased unarmed police presence on the streets. And is it my imagination, or are those police sporting new uniforms?
  • I also saw a group of six Communist Party cadres dressed in civilian clothes and red armbands, carrying long thick wooden sticks, and walking in a somewhat ragged line around the public school. They were all men and all over fifty: not a particularly intimidating sight.
  • My passport was checked at the Mengzi train station on Sunday.
  • I interpret this as a big show designed to convince the people that the government and the party are going to keep them safe. Shows of police power and irregulars with big sticks makes me and my British colleagues feel less safe. The reaction of my Chinese colleagues and friends, though, is just the opposite. Here is a cultural impasse; I don’t understand the Chinese reaction and they don’t understand mine.
  • Chinese news stories are heaping lavish praise on the heroism of police on the scene at the time of the attacks. Stories in the western media, however, quote Chinese people as being less than pleased with the police response.
  • Rumors abound. I’ve heard that a bomb went off in Chengdu on the same day as the knife attack, that all the Muslim restauranteurs vanished from the streets of Kunming after the attack, that people wearing shirts with Turkic writing on them have been attacked, and that people with brown skins have been chased by angry mobs. I doubt most of these stories, but the point is that the state media’s refusal to go into detail about the attacks creates fertile ground for wild rumors.
  • Speaking of Uighurs, it’s been reported on American news sites that the Chinese government and news media have yet to use the word “Uighur” in any articles about the attack, referring only generally to “terrorists” and “separatists” and “the Xinjiang region.”
  • Atrocity photos of people injured or killed in the attack are circulating on Weibo and Weishin, pictures that are much more horrific than anything shown on TV.

Terrorist Attack in Kunming

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received many messages from friends and family expressing concern for my safety in the wake of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack in Kunming. I appreciate all those communications; it’s nice to feel looked after by friends half a world away. Let me assure everyone that I’m fine and unharmed and so are the people I know there.

Kunming is about 70 miles north of where I live in Yuxi. Fortunately, I was nowhere near there when the attack occurred. I’ve been to Kunming about ten times, either passing through en route to other places or shopping for things (e.g., coffee) that are hard to find here in Yuxi. I know the area around the train station where the attack occurred. It’s a transportation hub that includes the bus station I use and the place where I get the shuttle to the Kunming airport. I have two friends there, former colleagues of mine who were among the first to welcome me to China.

I share the worldwide revulsion at yesterday’s events. I am shaken by the news photos of people fleeing the attack and running down Beijing Nanlu, a street I’ve walked every time I go to Kunming. Having just taken a train trip, I can well imagine the horror that the people at the Kunming train station felt as maniacs with two-foot knives ran through the station and indiscriminately stabbed, sliced and hacked away at innocent travelers. My heart goes out the victims and their families.

Bangkok 1

After playing Santa to the Shane English Yuxi Christmas party, I change into my civvies and take a hired car to the Kunming airport.
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In the departure lounge, I become an object of fascination to a group of Chinese tourists from Shenzhen. It starts when one of them asks if I’d pose for a picture with her. Then four or five more had to have the same: every laowai’s a rock star. They’re a fun bunch—nervous and excited. None of them have traveled outside China before, but now here they are about to board a flight to Thailand. And so am I.

(Ahead to Bangkok 2)

Flooding in Kunming

I was in Kunming on Monday and today the city is underwater. This photo from a series by a local news agency shows what it looks like now.
It rained most of the day here in Yuxi, but so far we have not had any flooding. However, as noted earlier, the forecast is for rain every day for quite a while.

Daytrip to Kunming

I spent Monday in Kunming, the city of 6.5 million people that lies about an hour north of Yuxi. I’d been there twice before, once when I first flew to China and again when I had my visa physical, but I’d never even started to explore the city. I wanted to do that–and to buy coffee.

Coffee is not popular in Yuxi. The local stores stock Nescafé instant, but buying either whole-bean or ground coffee is very difficult. I’d been drinking Yunnan Arabica, a very nice brew indeed, but the store I bought it from when I first moved here no longer stocks it. When I ran out on Sunday morning, I knew desperate measures were called for. Hence Kunming.

I rendezvoused with Owen and Matt, two of my new colleagues, at 9:00 in the morning and together we walked to the Yuxi bus station. There we arranged to take what is essentially an intercity taxi to Kunming for ¥55 (about $8.80) each.

The first order of business when we got there was to go to Salvador’s Coffee House, a well-known establishment in a part of town where there are many stores that cater to backpackers, college students, and Kunming’s expat population. We were here:

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Salvador’s turned out to be a charming place that serves Mexican and American food, has a small lending library of English books, and sells its own coffee (which they ground for me on the spot). It also has sketchy plumbing, but Mr. T is there in the bathroom to help out.
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We had lunch up in the loft, overlooking the front door.
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I had spaghetti with meat sauce, my first American meal in almost four weeks. It was comforting to hear the burble of American-accented English again. Much as I didn’t come to China to hang out with expats, it seemed like an incredible luxury to be eating my native food in a familiar environment in the presence of other Americans.

After lunch, we went back to the center of Kunming so Matt and Owens could do some shopping. All three of us stand 6’1″ or taller and the stores in Yuxi simply don’t stock clothes that large. I sat down to rest while Matt went to the ATM.
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Owen and Matt did find clothes that fit, though prices at the foreign stores they patronized were no lower than they would have been in the US or the UK.
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Kunming is not a beautiful city, nor an easy one go get around in. There are throngs of people everywhere and transportation is hampered by a massive subway construction project that has much of the central city walled off, dug up, and rerouted. Many of the streets are closed to both automobiles and pedestrians on one side, which funnels both motorized and foot traffic into half the space the roads usually provide. It’s going to be great when you can zip around the city underground, but right now it is just chaos. With nowhere else to go, scooters, bicycles and motorcycles take to the sidewalks, further adding to the stress of simply walking down the street. Fortunately, I found respite in a nice shady pedestrian mall in the middle of the city, which was undoubtedly the prettiest part of town I saw.
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Near this was an enormous residential and retail complex, a multi-level indoor/outdoor mall connected by multiple walkways to three 30-story apartment buildings. The mix of indoor and outdoor spaces was nice, though again the architecture and construction left me cold.
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We all gorged ourselves with dinner at Papa John’s. This was the first pizza–in fact, it was the first cheese of any kind–I had eaten in almost four weeks. As Willy says, “The art of our necessities is strange / That can make vile things precious.” I’d have to review the text, but I’m not sure Lear had pizza in mind when he made that remark.

Pushing through the thousands of people going home at evening rush hour and stepping over open manholes, piles of sidewalk pavers, and construction debris, we made our way back to the bus station to catch an intercity taxi back to Yuxi. These cars hold a driver and four passengers and they don’t go unless they are full. The three of us got in and waited for a fourth passenger. A Chinese woman came up to the car and put her luggage in the trunk. Then she walked around the side of the car to get in, but changed her mind. Another Chinese woman approached and the same thing happened. The driver later told us that neither woman wanted to ride with three foreigners, though whether out of fear or embarrassment I could not tell. Finally a young Chinese man got in with us and off we went. We arrived back in Yuxi twelve hours after we’d left.

And this morning, I was once again able to enjoy my two morning cups of joe.

Rewind: My Journey Here

A couple of friends have suggested I write about my journey from Detroit to Kunming and the unexpected situation I found myself in upon arrival. I’m not sure it was particularly blogworthy, but by popular demand, here goes….

On June 19, I flew from Detroit direct to Shanghai on a Delta Boeing 777-200. Back in economy, we were all packed in like chocolates in a box, but without the pretty tissue paper. Flight time was fourteen and a half hours. I walked around and did knee bends every hour or so to keep the circulation going.

On arrival at Shanghai Pudong airport, immigration was routine. An official looked through my passport and my Chinese visa, took my picture, and stamped me into the People’s Republic. Customs were nonexistent as far as I was concerned; I simply followed the line of people with nothing to declare and walked right through without being searched or even questioned. The whole process was remarkably streamlined.

Since my connection to Kunming was a domestic flight on China Eastern under a code-share with Delta, I had to take a shuttle bus to the domestic departure terminal. I was a little surprised by the Shanghai airport. I expected something shiny and high-tech, like Hong Kong. This was not the case. In fact, the parts of the two terminals I saw had the ambiance of a bus station. That might be unfair; I was laden with two heavy suitcases, a heavy overnight bag, and a laptop, and consequently was unable to go exploring.

When my flight was called, the passengers were bused out to the tarmac where we boarded a very modern and nicely appointed Boeing 737-300. The flight to Kunming was three and a half hours. China is a big country. By way of perspective, Kunming is closer to Calcutta, Dhaka, Kuala Lumpur, Rangoon, Singapore, Saigon, Bangkok, Vientiane, Phnom Penh, and Katmandu than it is to Shanghai.

The Kunming airport was impressive, new, and gracefully designed with a richness of materials that seemed to be lacking in Shanghai. It quickly became clear, however, that I had left the heavily-touristed cosmopolitan world where English is widely spoken as a second language. And though that was frustrating, it was also exactly what I wanted.

Due to a mix-up in the interpretation of my itinerary, a representative from the school I was to work was not at the Kunming airport to meet me. After two hours of waiting, by which time I had been awake for 36 hours straight, I succumbed to the importuning of a tout who promised a hotel room and transportation thereto for ¥188 (about $31). These arrangements were carried out almost completely in pantomime and via numbers tapped into cell phones. I was packaged into a van with a driver and three other touts. It was after 2:00 in the morning and everyone was going home for the day.

After we left the airport complex, the van turned onto an unlit road. There was nothing but scrub on both sides of us. The van stopped, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and for the first time I wondered if I had made a mistake: was I about to be robbed and dumped by the side of the road? However, one of the touts was merely getting out, presumably to go home. We continued on into what looked like a poor, tangled, hodgepodgey part of town, turned onto a narrow dead-end street, and finally pulled into a garage adjacent to the lobby of a small hotel. As I checked in, I picked up the hotel’s business card in hopes of figuring out just where exactly I was. No luck: the name of the hotel and the address were all written in Chinese.

The room was Spartan—certainly nothing like the picture the tout had shown me—but clean. The window had neither glass nor screen, just aluminum bars. I looked out onto the back of a neon sign advertising a KTV club (karaoke TV, a popular diversion here). I put off worrying about where I was and how I would get to Yuxi until morning and gratefully hit the bed.

When morning came, I was able to get in touch with the school in Yuxi. Since I had no idea where I was, we decided it would be best for me to return to the airport and be picked up there. While I waited for the van to fetch me, I stood in the lobby and watched the NBA finals on a flat screen TV with a young Chinese guy. We shared a few words of basketball. An older guy came into the lobby with a three-foot tall bong that appeared to have been made from soup cans. He stuffed the roach of a hand-rolled cigarette into the bowl and fired it up. I politely declined a hit.

The van took me back to the airport, where I was met by apologetic school officials. We rode south about fifty miles in a hired Volkswagen Santana to Yuxi, where I was checked into the Hongta Hotel. I stayed four nights in that large, modern, full-service business palace until I got my own apartment.

Looking back on it, that first experience in mainland China was a confidence-builder, despite the missed pick-up in Kunming. It taught me that I can get by here even without a common language, that by and large this is a safe country for travelers, and that even when things do go awry, I am resourceful enough to set them right.

First Encounter with the Chinese Health System

I was out the door of my hotel at 7:30 this morning accompanied by my employer’s bilingual welfare officer. A hired car took us to Kunming, about an hour north of Yuxi, so that I could have the medical exams needed for my work visa.

I was directed to the “International Epidemic Consulting Room,” where I was given a simple one-page health history form to fill out. Then I went to another window and paid the round-eye premium fee that was three times what people of other nationalities are charged.

Once the preliminaries were out of the way, the system pleased me with its efficiency. I had an eye test, a general physical exam, an EKG, blood work, a urine test, a chest X-ray, and an abdominal ultrasound all in the space of about an hour. All this would have gone even faster had the ultrasound tech not been puzzled by finding neither my gall bladder nor a big honking belly scar. After wanding my right lower gut for ten minutes, she was about to proclaim me a freak of nature before I explained laparoscopic surgery to her.

All those procedures done in the States would have cost many times more than the ¥420 (about $70) I was charged and would have taken days to complete. Of course, a certain amount of comfort and privacy was sacrificed for speed. The examinations took place in rooms with other applicants present or watching from just outside the door. And though the nurse didn’t give me a Band-Aid for my arm after drawing blood, she did give me a Q-tip to press against the puncture site once the blood started trickling down my arm.

The only comment made by any of the medical professionals examining me—at least, the only one I understood—was made by the doctor giving me the general physical, who gruffly told me I was overweight. How much did I need to lose? “Ten kilograms,” he barked. And he’s probably right.

Oh, and apparently I do NOT have syphilis. I don’t know how these ugly rumors get started…