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Location: Hattiesburg, Mississippi, United States
St. Cuthbert and Disciples in a Boat


Arrival in China

My trip to China began in Jackson, from whence I flew to Atlanta and Los Angeles, and then to Hong Kong. Along the way I met up with the other members of my group, two of which had traveled in China before. There were ten of us in all, mostly from the Deep South, with one guy from Illinois. We arrived in Hong Kong at five o'clock in the morning, and were there for several hours, wandering about the stores, using the free internet portals, and watching Chinese music videos.

We then flew from Hong Kong to Kunming, the capital city of the province of Yunnan, which lies in the southwest of China, bordering Burma, Laos, and Vietnam, with Tibet to the northwest. Hong Kong and Kunming are quite different places, and upon walking out of the airport and boarding the bus I immediately began to have the so-called sensation of "culture shock." As I noted below, even Kunming smells rather bad. The nearly five hour bus ride to the town of Mengzi, where Honghe University is located, was rough and nauseuous, at least for someone not yet used to Chinese bus-riding. The scenery seemed rather drab for most of the ride, and the roadside architecture and industry depressing and decripit. Upon reaching Mengzi it was night, so everything was terribly dissoriented to me. The main highway from Kunming to Mengzi is decent until Mengzi, at which point it devolves into an under-construction track. Under-construction does not mean re-routing; it means really bumpy dirt road with big buses and trucks. To reach the college it is necessary to turn off of the main highway and down onto an even rougher one and a half lane road that leads onto campus.

It was quite late when we arrived, but we were still ferried to eat dinner in a private room in the cafeteria. The food was excellent, but I was feeling rather nauseous. I managed through dinner, but ended up spending the night in general agony. I slept but little, and became aquainted with the bathroom fairly quickly. The dorm itself was not too bad: more than large enough for only two people, with bunk beds (you sleep on top) with desks and a closet beneath. The beds were spartan- wooden planks and a quilt with a mosquito net about it- but I soon found myself sleeping just fine. There is no air conditioning, but the weather was rarely hot. My roommate from North Alabama thought it too warm at times, but I found it more or less fine, coming from South Mississippi where we get excited if it drops below ninety. The squatty potty doubled as the shower drain, which is really quite economical, so long as you use the grate and don't drop your shampoo bottle down the drain like one of my comrades did... Our room rounded out with a sink. The day after we arrived one of the facets decided to turn on and not stop running. We had it fixed, but it repeated its performance two more times. The water, of course, is not drinkable, so we were provided with a drinking water dispenser in one corner, which the front desk would refill for six yuan.

I got to feeling better by Monday afternoon, and got up and walked about campus for the first time. Honghe University is small, only about five thousand students, but is very nicely landscaped, one of the most attractive campuses I have visited in fact.

Our Chinese classes began later in the week, and were taught by several people from the Foreign Affairs Department. We attended class most days from 8:30 to 11:00, with breaks in between. I cannot boast too mightily of my Chinese skills. It is a difficult language to aquire for an Indo-European speaker, as its overall dynamics are so different. However, through both class and continually being in a Chinese-speaking environment I was able to pick up some basic sentences and words. We also had various classes on elements of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy and painting and dance. I am not cut out for dancing of any sort, I am afraid. Neither am I much of a calligraphist, though I find the art of Chinese calligraphy quite fascinating and beautiful. I love Chinese painting, ancient and modern.

It was not long before we ventured into town. Honghe's campus lies a few kilometers from Mengzi proper, and is most easily accessed by the venerable No. 4 public bus, which, despite attrocious roads, is very dependable. The bus ride into town was always an adventure. In the first place, our little band of Americans was the object of continual staring, since Mengzi has only a handful of Western residents, and we were very much a novelty. Then there is the bus ride itself. The first half is fine, and the road is actually semi-paved. Upon reaching Mengzi city limits is degrades into what looks like a bombed-out track. Riding felt more like sailing on a boat in choppy waters. But you seldom had to worry about falling on the floor, as the crush of people that crammed in prevented that. We quickly learned that there is almost no limit to the number of people that can get into a Chinese bus, particularly on market day.

The ride into town passes at first through pomegranate orchards and rice fields, the former being something of a speciality of Mengzi County. It then meets a sort of low-grade industrial area, with various factories and, um, recycling centers, if that is the proper name for enclosed massive piles of rubbish. It then comes into town proper, where the streets are a continuous line of vendors and stores, selling everything from Coke to farming appliances to fruit and vegetables to men's suits. China is an immensely capitalist nation (though this does not of necessity translate into a true free market at all), and stores and business seem to exist everywhere, even in the public library. The road was always busy with buses, bicycles, motorcycles, taxis and cars, pony-drawn carriages, and three-wheeled contraptions the Chinese call sanlanchu. In addition there are many curious open-air engine trucks employed in Mengzi, and I would often see them on the roadside pumping water in a field.

The 'main drag' of Mengzi lies a quick walk from the final No. 4 bus stop, and on it one can find the main Bank of China, where we exchanged our dollars for yuan. Further down are numerous stores, bakeries, restaurants, and two large supermarkets. I was somewhat surprised at the ease we had in finding Western, or at least Western-style foods and products. Many things, such as the pastries I regularly consumed from the bakeries, had a certain Chinese flavour to them, but were still very much in the vein of Western treats.

Speaking of food, we were treated to a steady supply of excellent meals. A few things were somewhat odd, but I tasted very little I did not like. Yes, I did eat dog on one occasion: it is rather tough but not bad, I have to admit. However, it is very expensive, and I talked to relatively few people who liked it. My favourite dish was a Yunnan specialty, over-the-bridge-noodles, which consists of a big bowl full of broth and coated with a hot oil surface, into which are dumped meats, vegetables, spices, tofu, and of course, noodles, all of which cook beneath the hot oil. Ah...

My first week in China was a continual process of adjustment, to different food, social mores, living conditions, language, everything. But right from the start I loved it. The people we met were wonderful, extremely courteous and helpful. Getting accustomed would have far more difficult without the aid of the students and staff who befriended us.

In my next post I'll describe some of the people I met, and try to tackle some of the cultural differences as well.


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