This morning I was woken by the school bell. I’ve been keeping the small window in my room closed. The window opens to the living room, and the living room’s open windows face the schools building. The electronic sound is not the school bell that I am used to in the US, or even Taiwan (whose schools use that ding-dong-ding-dong melody we all recognize from old fashioned clocks). It is like a national anthem (for all I know, that’s what it is). I looked at my phone. It was a few minutes after 6:30am. I don’t know if the times change depending on the day of the week, or that I usually just sleep through the first one. The blinds over the tiny window keep the light out. I fell back asleep, and slept until my alarm finally got me out of bed.
Three years ago I thought Taiwan would be a good Asian country to get me accustomed to Chinese culture without fully isolating me from the West. I was right: here in JianShui (建水), in YunNan (雲南) Province China, I am much more isolated. I have spotted only three other non-Chinese, two of whom were obviously backpackers. One was a tall, skinny man in maybe his early forties in an orange T-shirt and khaki shorts, who didn’t look like he was travelling. He was just walking down the street in Old Town (故城). I’m used to Chinese food by now, but now I’m finally eating it all the time, without exception. I’m still able to experience a bit of culture shock, which I felt my first week here. My first meal was something called “Over-the-Bridge Noodle Soup” (過橋米線) inside a restaurant whose aesthetics were refreshingly traditional. I did feel somewhat sick halfway through the meal, and got up to walk around the cloister-like small building. The waitresses wore old-fashioned long azure robes, with uniformly tied hairstyles.
I first noticed this the day I walked around Beijing over a year and a half ago; that the buildings and the music emanating into the cold, empty streets in the Old Town were healthier. Unlike Taiwan, where one hears Western pop music and sees ugly buildings in all directions, Mainland China has an enviable unity of style.
Personally, I can eat rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and feel fine, but give me noodles three days in a row and I’m going to get sick of them. The ubiquity of spicy food is annoying, but I’ve learned to forgo anything with peppers in it. One sees baskets of pomegranates everywhere. I don’t think I’d ever even tried one until a couple of weeks ago, and I’ll never get tired of them. There is also a kind of yellow, soft kiwi they eat here.
Beneath much of the beautiful architecture are modern stores with uniformed employees. This is a new phenomenon for this small town of 300,000 people; all this development and these new products have arrived within the past fifteen years. Within my short lifetime, places like these have gone from impoverished countryside towns to developed places with high standards of living. The infamous One-Child Policy having been ended last year, it is common to see pregnant women, or families with two small children. Well-nourished looking kids go to and from school. People are driving cars and scooters (not always patiently). People can afford luxuries.
Above: old men play chess in a courtyard.
Below: a main street in JianShui, near the entrance to Old Town.
As my friend and teacher Alex said to me one day: “Western media love to criticize the Chinese government. They talk about how terrible it is in China. But you look around. Not even Taiwan is like this. People used to sit on the floor with a bowl of food once a day and they would be happy…
“So, they can’t use Google. So what? Who cares? The people here love their government.”
This morning I went for a light run near the basketball courts on the campus. A man walked back and forth on part of the road. A woman with glasses walked slowly and concentrated on a book. The empty gray basketball courts were in mostly good condition, even if they weren’t pretty. I did my run around the small paved ‘track’, and then sat in front of the main building on some grass. Tall tropical-looking trees, tall grass with bees zooming in a pattern around me, flat patches where I stretched. I saw kids walk to and then from the building. Most of them wore a white uniform, but some didn’t. Most of them looked at me while trying not to stare.
It never gets too hot here. The sun is powerful, and I got a slight sunburn on my neck on my first day. It gets cool at night. Rain comes and goes, usually multiple times a day.
While I was stretching I heard the music again. Triumphant music. I wondered what it would be like to be a Chinese kid here, born around the year 2000. Everything has been getting better since the year you’d have been born. Better quality everything. More cars, more construction, more education, a shift away from the devastation of the so-called Cultural Revolution.