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Archive for July, 2010

I came to Thailand because my Chinese tourist visa only allows me to stay for 30 days each trip. Thankfully, Thailand offers visa-free entry to Americans. I hadn’t really ever had much interest in visiting Thailand, so this is the first time I’ve come here. I came as late as possible so as to maximize the amount of time I get in China before making another visa run, and I didn’t really plan the particular day I’d be here at all.

It turns out I was incredibly lucky. The one full day of my trip in Thailand happens to be the one day of the entire year that the lucky Buddha statue is open to the public. It’s also the one day that the big Buddha is free to visit. Ditto for half a dozen other places. I woke up with the sole goal of finding a place to buy size 12 running shoes, but after learning about my good fortune, I turned this into a tourist trip after all, visiting half a dozen temples.

I didn’t really have any idea what to expect before coming to Thailand, but all in all it was pretty nice (aside from the tuktuk drivers). I even found the shoes I was looking for! I hear that the internet is censored here, but unlike China, it didn’t have any effect on me. It may have bothered me if I were really interested in reading about controversial religious topics or things related to the Thai monarchy, but I didn’t even notice it. Youtube was accessible. So were Facebook, dropbox, blogspot and all the other sites I can’t get at in China. I might come back someday to visit again.

Due to the horribly expensive and horribly limited visas China offers Americans, I’m going to have to leave the country and make a visa-run. Or maybe I should say, passport-stamp run. I spent over two hundred US dollars getting a visa from an agency in HK and despite my previous visitor visa to China, the best they were able to get me was a 6 month, multiple-entry visa. Unfortunately, while it’s good for six months, I have to make a pointless trip out of the country every thirty days. As a nice additional FU, nearly half the price of a plane ticket to do so is from taxes on international flights.

Living at my friend’s place in Kunming, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam are the closest options. Vietnam is also a pain in the ass about American visas and unlike China I don’t want to go there enough to put up with it. Laos is where my old teacher and friend PR lives, but it’s a pretty rough border crossing and I can’t find a cheap flight.

I’m going to Thailand. It’s not going to be for tourism at all, but hopefully I can find some size 12 running shoes there.

Now that I’ve been in Kunming for a couple of weeks, I think I’ve got a decent idea of what the city would be like to live in for six months to a year. I’m still not sure whether if I want to stay here that long or go somewhere else, but here are my thoughts so far.

Costs

Kunming is cheap. My friend and his roommate are staying in an awesome apartment, far better than any I ever lived in in Taiwan and they’re in the middle of the city in about the most expensive part of town. They only pay 1400RMB (about 200USD) each. They also have a maid come by to clean each week, a water jug delivery service, reasonably fast internet and all the other amenities that go with a nice place in China.

Kunming is deep in the interior of China, though, and any imported goods have to be shipped across thousands of kilometers of poor roads to get there. Things like imported fruits or cereal are really expensive. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a lot of locals eat more noodles and fewer vegetables for monetary reasons. It’s not that poor in the city at least, but the incentives are definitely set up in a way that encourages a poor diet. Electronics prices don’t seem to be affected.

Language

This is a bummer for me. Mandarin is less dominant of a language here than it was even in Taipei. I’ve met well off, well-educated college students and found them really happy to talk to me in Mandarin… but they still talk to each other in Kunminghua. I don’t mean to be a language elitist, but it’s juts not a language I feel like dealing with my whole time here. Yes, I was interested in learning Hokkien and Cantonese, but both those language have 50+ million speakers and Taiwan and Hong Kong each have all kinds of TV shows, songs and movies to learn from. Kunminghua would be much harder to learn and it just doesn’t do much for me.

Transportation

Busses are uncomfortably crammed full of people, but they’re really cheap– like 1 or 2 RMB. All in all, the small size of the city is a big help. Cabs are ridiculously hard to get here. I’ve actually had to wait 30 minutes to find an open one on a few occasions.

It’s nowhere near as crazy as Taiwan was, but a lot of people here own scooters. They’re in their own traffic lanes which are physically divided from the cars! It’s a wonderful system that could probably save thousands of lives if implemented in Taipei. The scooters are all electric, too, which is very cool. They’re not the noisy, smelly beasts I’m used to. On the down-side, though, they can approach very rapidly and quietly. Pedestrians beware!

Another consideration is that I were to live in the center of the city like my friend, I could walk to a lot of places.

Environment

Kunming is not the relatively city I had expected. Pollution is seriously bad. The sky may look blue compared to Beijing’s, but I get a headache walking by the street. Busses smell foul. Things might get better once the subway opens in a year or two, but that doesn’t really help my decision for this year.

Conclusions

It’s kind of hard to decide. I think Kunming would be a great place to get a lot of programming done. I could live on very, very little, even splurging a bit on good food. On the other hand I do want to take my Chinese to the next level, too. It’s not my main goal, but if I were to ever use it professionally back in the US, I’m sure I’d be better served by a standard mainland accent and the ability to read simplified characters comfortably than by my current Taiwan-style Mandarin.

It was already midnight when I got to the Kunming train station. Unlike other train stations I’d seen in major Chinese cities at that hour, it was mostly dark and deserted. Fortunately, my friendly cabin-mate from the ride in was kind enough to call my friend Ben and let him know I was in the city and on my way to his apartment. Thanks to a recent party, the apartment was a disaster, messier than any place I’d set foot in in years. I didn’t care one bit. My friend from Taiwan was there, the wifi worked and there was an actual bed to sleep in.

By the time I got onto the train to Kunming, I was exhausted– exhausted from lugging a backpack and two suitcases around the Guangdong Railway station while looking for a bank, exhausted from getting offers for overpriced services, and most of all exhausted from from sleep deprivation. In the end, though, I did manage to get done what needed to be done. I changed my HK dollars to RMB (losing 100HKD to a slight of hand artist first), I made it from Guangdong Railway Station to Guangdong East Station via the subway for 4RMB instead of the 50-100 that taxis kept offering me, I got my ticket and I stayed awake long enough for the train to arrive.

When I was finally able to board the train, it was an immense feeling of relief. I stowed my luggage, climbed up to the top bunk and fell asleep before the train even started moving.

An interesting travel companion

One man I shared a compartment with was particularly out-going. At first after hearing all the r sounds in his Mandarin, I thought he was a northerner or maybe from Kunming on his way home. It wasn’t a terrible guess since he had, in fact, spent the first ten years of his life in Beijing, but after that he’d lived only in Hong Kong. As far as I could tell, his Cantonese was the same as a any other Hong Konger, but he’d never felt the need to alter his “standard” northern Mandarin into the heavily accented HK version. I suppose that’s pretty understandable. Anyway, the guy was full of stories. He told me about a ruthless gold-digger from Guangzhou. He talked about how he got into EFL teaching dispite having questionable English skills himself. Most surprising were his plans for after he got to Kunming.

On Chinese Police

“Be careful about Chinese police,” he told me. “They aren’t like Hong Kong police. You really don’t want to make them angry.”

“Why?” I asked. “What happened?”

“Well, there’s this one time I was on a train. It was a long distance one like the one we’re on now. In one of the compartments, there were four or five off-duty police officers, and they were smoking!!!”

I didn’t understand. “Lots of people smoke on the train,” I answered. “What was so bad about them?”

“There was a no smoking sign! They were police! I went into the room and said, ‘How dare you!!? It is your job to uphold the law and you break it yourselves! Have you no shame?”

“Uhh… what did they do then?”

“They continued smoking! And they spoke to me very coldly and told me to leave.”

“That’s it?” I couldn’t believe this guy. I wouldn’t ever talk to police like that in any country.

His plans for Kunming

“So, what are you going to do after you get to Kunming?” he asked me.

“I’m going to look for a visa-granting Chinese school for foreigners. I’ve got a friend to stay with. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m just traveling. I’m going to get a hotel room and go the supermarket to buy some paper underwear.”

“Paper underwear??!”

“Yes. It is available.”

It was a bit easier than with Southern Min, but it really wasn’t that easy for me to find Cantonese learning materials. I found online dictionaries, but none with audio. There are some very basic youtube videos, but only a few. I emailed a few people with blogs that mentioned learning Cantonese, but nobody had any suggestions of use.

My friend David did tell me of one podcast to help people learn Cantonese, but unfortunately I didn’t know about it until I’d already left Hong Kong. Other than that, the only resources I know of are Pimsleur and the FSI course.