An American Abroad

Goodbye Yuxi

Goodbyes are hard. I tend to make them brief and not to linger.

In the last week of June, I said farewell to many good people. I can’t list them all here, but I do have photos to remember some of them by.

I’ll miss Rachel for her spirit, her generosity, her insight into culture and psyche, and her family which she so generously shared with me in Xishuangbanna.

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I’ll miss Xulu for being my tattoo angel and friend, for playing frisbee on the beach, and for all the help she gave me as I tried to navigate in an unfamiliar culture.


I’ll miss Sunny for being so much like her name: someone who is always cheerful, who puts a smile on my face every time I see her, and who’s a terrific TA as well.

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My student Anne was the sweetest six year old imaginable. It was lovely coming into class and seeing her so obviously glad to see me.

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Paul is a fearlessly verbal student, a young man who constantly brought new words and phrases to class to try out. At his suggestion, I took the whole class to see Godzilla before I left town. And as a parting gift, I gave him a book about the Marvel Comics universe, something he knows a great deal about already.

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My colleagues at Shane English Yuxi held my goodbye banquet on my second-to-last day of teaching. It all happened so quickly — it seems like only a couple months ago I was attending my own welcome banquet. I will very much miss my teaching colleagues, who were my friends, mentors and teachers.

Paul, my boss, taught me how to teach and the connection between instruction and performance.

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Matt taught me to love Swansea soccer.

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JJ showed me that music is an international connector; some of my happiest evenings in Yuxi were spent listening to him sing and play guitar at a local music bar. Luciana taught me to understand her strange Yorkshire dialect (which apparently has a critical shortage of consonants) and how to make a comfortable home wherever you are.

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David was a terrific friend who regularly reminded me that the world is full of the bizarre, the wonderful and the fascinating.

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I didn’t get good banquet photos of Daniel and Silas, but the former renewed my own idealism while the latter taught me how important it is to have a quest.

24 hours after my farewell banquet ended, I was on a plane bound for Vietnam thinking of all the good people I’d left behind. I hope very much to see them again.


This is NOT a new pair of shoes.

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They are actually about 18 months old and have seen much use. They were stained with mud, tar, road dirt, and food (from where I cleverly dropped a bowl of greasy noodles on my feet).

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I was on the verge of getting rid of them and shopping for a new pair when a friend told me about a hole-in-the-wall store near Yuxi People’s Hospital where an old woman worked magic on old shoes. So I gave it a try. This is the result.

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The cost? ¥3, or about $0.54. Sure beats laying out 100 times that for a new pair!

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.


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.

Yuxi In Bloom, Under Construction, On Guard

Spring has arrived in Yuxi and the public gardens are in bloom.

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Other parts of town are considerably less scenic right now. There is a new mayor here, known to everyone as “Mr. Finger”: he points at a building and BOOM, it’s gone the next day. There are enormous highrise shopping and residential complexes being built in two different locations and an underground shopping plaza being put beneath one of Yuxi’s major commercial streets. There is a new outpatient care building being added to Yuxi People’s Hospital and numerous other medium-sized buildings sprouting up all over town.

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Meanwhile in the wake of the Kunming terror attack two weeks ago, there are still armed police and soldiers stationed around the schools and near shopping centers. They aren’t keen on being photographed, but I managed to snap this pic of them near a school.

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After the Funeral Procession

I was working on one of my MOOCs this morning around 10:00 when I heard a lengthy round of firecrackers going off down in the street. I peered through my window and saw that the firecrackers were being tossed off the back of a three-wheeler. Behind that were people parading down Zhuge East Road. They were carrying floats decorated with a model of a Chinese house and many flowers. By the time I got my shoes on, grabbed my camera, and took the elevator down 18 floors, the parade was over and the floats were being packed up into a truck. The people stood around and chatted, many of them with their heads wrapped in white turbans and their bodies covered with white tunics. They seemed to be in a good mood and gladly acquiesced to my request to take their photos.

Later I learned from some Chinese friends that this was a funeral procession. White is the color of death and mourning in China, which explains the tunics and turbans.
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(I was cautioned never to give white flowers to someone outside of a funeral.) The model of the house and the flowers are to symbolize the possessions of the decedent.
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If the person who’s died is old, then the funeral party is generally a more festive one.

Daytrip to Mengzi

Today I took my first-ever train trip in China and, at the suggestion of a Chinese friend of mine, went to the town of Mengzi. I was about two hours southeast of Yuxi:

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The train was old and a little worn, but it was right on time and and traveled at a good clip. I was accompanied by Silas, a new colleague of mine at Shane English Yuxi.

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When we got to Mengzi, we took a taxi to Nanhu Lake, which lies in the center of town. The lake is supposedly the place where over-the-bridge noodles were invented. It has a beautiful park around it that features many classic Chinese buildings.

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After walking around the lake, we went into the older part of town. Today was market day, which brought throngs to the town center. At times, the narrow streets were so crowded with foot traffic that it was impossible to move. Many of the people there were Yi and Miao people. I was reluctant to take their photographs as if they were some kind of exhibit, but I did snap these candids:

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Mengzi has many more older buildings than Yuxi does. They’re not in very good repair, but they provide a glimpse of the China that was:

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Now that I have some train experience, I may do more daytrips around Yunnan. It’s a pleasant way to travel here.

An Old Man & His Retriever

I’ve seen this man and his dog at least twice a month since I moved to Yuxi.

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The Retriever reminds me of my own Sophie back in the States. Neither the man nor the dog speaks English, and the man speaks a Chinese dialect I can’t understand. Still, whenever I see them I come over and pet the dog while the old man beams and proudly runs the dog through all her tricks. I feel like they’re friends of mine even though we’ve never spoken.

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