An American Abroad

Nighttime at Yuxi Beach

There is a large park in Yuxi called Nie Er Square which features, among other things, a small lake with a sandy beach. I went there two nights ago and met up with my colleagues David and Daniel, David’s girlfriend Xulu, and our mutual friend Emi. Emi was shooting black and white photos in the fading evening light and captured these images, which she thoughtfully sent me:



David brought a Frisbee his mother had sent him, and we had a great time playing on the beach. It reminded me of when I went backpacking in Europe many years ago and packed a Frisbee. Bringing it out often helped me to meet people. I think I’ll take one to Tunisia.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2

[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1.]

Further along the canal was a beautiful wooded park with a few pavilion-type buildings.

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There were some temples and shrines there dedicated to a god I couldn’t identify.

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By this time it was mid-afternoon and we were all hungry. We found a lakeside restaurant that was devoid of customers; the tourist season here opens with May Day. The lake was window-clear, though the skies were hazy there due to the numbers of field fires that the local farmers had set to clear their land.

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After a delicious lunch of fish and pork, we saddled up and headed back to Yuxi.

Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 1

I had such a good time last week motorcycling out to Fuxian Lake that I thought I’d do it again.

This time, I narrowly managed to avoid going to the hospital and going to jail.

And I took photos at some of the villages that are built on canals that run into the lake. It was another great day.

My colleagues Paul Rushton and Daniel Dugger accompanied me. Our first stop was a motorcycle supply shop here in Yuxi to get Daniel a helmet. This proved to be a wise investment.

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It was a beautiful windy day. We got out of Yuxi quickly and zig-zagged our way up and down the switchbacks and into the countryside. The villages we passed were alive with people drying straw on the roadways, with families breaking up huge slabs of coal into usable-sized pieces, with farmers tending their fields, and with trucks hauling produce, boulders, coal, building supplies and foodstuffs along the narrow village roads.

We were going through the second village, me driving and Daniel riding bitch, when two trucks converged on us from both directions. I was forced to the side of the road where there was a lot of loose gravel and sand. Once I’d cleared the trucks, I pointed Zippy back toward the center of the road.

At that moment, the rear wheel slipped out from under us and down we went. Daniel jumped clear, landing in a crouching position. I fell onto my right side with the bike on top of me and slid across the gravel, picking up some pretty road rash, a few nice bruises, and a severe blow to my pride.

Daniel was uninjured. (Of course, he’s thirty years younger than me. He bounces.)

Zippy broke a front turn signal and had his crash bars bent a little. We hurriedly remounted, anxious to be away from the big trucks on narrow village streets. We stopped at the next village and I cleaned up my boo-boos with a bandana and a bottle of water and took a few pictures.

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At Fuxian Lake, we got onto the divided highway that runs around its perimeter. We hadn’t gone more than two kilometers when a cop at a police checkpoint motioned us over to the side of the road. There was much discussion about motorcycles not being allowed on this road because it “wasn’t safe.”

We were also concerned about potential and multiple irregularities in our licenses and motorcycle registrations. In such cases, the police have been known to impound motorcycles, which would have been pretty bad for us, being 50 kilometers from home. I found myself wondering if Chinese jails have cable.

After getting a stern talking-to by the head cop about how we were in China now and the rules were different, Paul abruptly changed the subject to lunch (a favorite subject for many Chinese). Suddenly, he and the cop were talking about local restaurants instead of local jails, and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. We were let go with a warning and told to get off the divided roadway as soon as we could.

Soon we were riding along a canal that first went through a small village with both a road bridge and a foot bridge over the waterway.

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[Read Return to Fuxian Lake, Part 2.]

Who’s she? She’s my sister.

The assignment given to my students after they finished their final exam at Shane English Yuxi was to draw a picture and write an English sentence or two on it. One of my nine-year-olds, Vicky, is a bit of an over-achiever who loves to draw. Instead of doing just one picture, she drew ten. I think her artwork and design sense is amazing, especially considering her age.

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Jissbon Condoms

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I guess the name “Cumgood” was already taken.

By Motorcycle to Jiangchuan

On the map, the town of Jiangchuan looks to be only about 20 kilometers east of Yuxi via the Yujiang Expressway.

But when you avoid the expressway and follow the back roads through a dozen villages, ride up and down mountains, and savor the twisties of rural Yunnan, the distance is easily twice that. I rode there yesterday with my Shane English Yuxi colleague and boss Paul Rushton, who after seven years here knows the geography of the region in great detail.

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Zippy struggled up the hills and topped out at 70 km/h on the straightaways (and makes disturbing noises at that speed), but he floated over ruts and potholes and was very sure-footed on sand and loose gravel.

Out in the countryside, farmers worked their land by hand, oxen grazed in the wetlands, and rural graveyards stood silent on the mountainsides.

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In one village we discovered an ancient outdoor theater that’s been converted to a restaurant and junked up by more recent additions — but I can still imagine what it must have looked like back when it was the only source of entertainment for miles around.

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At another hamlet, we were welcomed by a group of older men who here hanging out outside what looked to be an old temple. They were friendly and curious; I doubt they see many laowais (foreigners) there.

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Jiangchaun stands on the shores of Xingyun Lake, a pretty body of water that’s being developed into a tourist area. We skirted Jiangchuan itself and opted instead to loop around the lake. Some of the villages that dot the shore have old canals running through them, with houses built right to the edges.

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We passed by steeply arced stone footbridges faced with dragon gargoyles, but by that time we were headed back to Yuxi for dinner, so we didn’t stop. I hope to explore these at a more leisurely pace next time.


Although Beicheng is a village just 20 minutes north of Yuxi, I’d never been there before yesterday. I now regret not seeing it earlier.

The buildings there are lower and older than those in Yuxi. Apparently the Chinese mania for tearing down their architectural history has not made it there yet.
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There is a large pagoda in the center of town. It was originally built in the Ming Dynasty, but was rebuilt more recently during the Qing Dynasty and it now bears the colorful excesses of that period.
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That large sign on the second level with three Chinese characters helpfully identifies the structure as “old tall building.”

I climbed up into the pagoda and was struck by the Escheresque internal views.
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Other details, such as the wood carvings on the shutters and the temple bell, made this pagoda one of the more interesting ones I’ve been to.
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Qingming Festival

Today was the last day of Qingming, otherwise known as Tomb-Sweeping Festival in China. On this day, family members and friends go the graves of their deceased friends and relatives to pay their respects. Rachel, one of my Chinese friends, invited me to go to the graveyard with her and her family.

It was a beautiful spring Monday. We drove about 15 minutes out of Yuxi into the foothills that surround the town. We parked and walked up a hillside into the cemetery. Graveyards here are generally built on hills and presided over by a mountain god.

Our first stop was Rachel’s mother’s grave. Rachel’s father filled a bucket with water and wiped down every surface of his late wife’s headstone and the recessed box where her ashes lay. He arranged flowers in large vases. He carefully laid out a variety of foods — fruit, fish, meat, tea, rice, and cakes. This is food for his wife’s ghost to eat. He lit some sticks of incense, bowed, and put them in a bowl. Rachel then approached the grave, knelt, bowed three times, and also put incense in the bowl. Then, because the food is to be shared with the ghost’s family, Rachel and her father gathered up about half the food they had put down on the grave to take home to eat.

I asked if I could take a photo, but Rachel said it would not be appropriate. I did, however, sneak a picture of one of the graves next to her mother’s.
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We then went to the grave of Rachel’s husband, who died in his early thirties just a couple months ago. About a half dozen of his friends were already there, laughing and talking. Rachel told me that although funerals can be serious, people are jolly at Qingming as they remember the good times they had with the deceased. Since I knew Rachel’s husband, I got some incense to put on his grave. I started to kneel and bow, but Rachel stopped me, explaining that you only bow to the graves of older relatives, not to peers.

As we descended the hillside, we stopped at a large smoking pot-shaped fire pit and put “money” in the pot to burn. The smoke sends the money to the people’s ancestors for use in the afterlife. A little lower down the hillside, people were lighting firecrackers to scare away any evil spirits that might be in attendance. (At least that’s the official story; I think Chinese people just like any occasion to light firecrackers.)

Afterward, we went to a restaurant for lunch. Rachel’s father brought out some homemade baiju (a powerful hooch that is between 40% and 60% alcohol by volume), and before I knew it we were drinking and toasting at 11:30 in the morning. From the look of me in this picture, I think it’s possible that I had more baiju than I should have.
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Having eaten and drunk way more than usual for me at lunchtime, I went home and took a nap.

Strange to say it, I enjoyed Tomb-Sweeping. (True, we didn’t actually sweep any tombs, but tomb-wiping doesn’t sound as good, does it?) I don’t think Americans have anything quite like it. Sharing a family meal with a ghost seems like a psychologically healthy way to remember the dead. The laughter at the graveside, the firecrackers, and the big meal afterward prevent the event from becoming too somber. And the holiday says much about the power vertical connections among generations of Chinese family members.

Daniel’s Welcome Dinner

A Shane English Yuxi tradition: every new teacher gets a welcome dinner. On Sunday night it was the turn of our newest colleague, an American from Denver named Daniel.

Outside the restaurant, JJ and I tried our hands as laundry detergent pitchmen. Note the bride in the background.
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Inside, the arrangement was as usual: a large round table with a floral arrangement in the middle and a revolving lazy Susan for the food.
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And here is the Man of the Hour himself:
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Final Exams in Two Classes

Students in two more of my classes at Shane English Yuxi had their final exams last week — and now I have a stack of tests to grade.

My twelve-year-olds have come a long way. Months ago, this was my most challenging class because of the widely varying ability levels among the students. But on the oral test, everyone rose to the occasion. Summer, my TA in this class, deserves most of the credit for that.

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The other class I tested was a group of wonderful eight-year-olds. We have a lot of laughs in this class, but there is serious learning going on as well. Emma, my TA in this class, was just terrific and enjoyed working with these students as much as I did.

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