Chinese Corner

Chinese Corner teacher demonstrates counting to ten using your fingers. The hand expression of numerals six through ten mimics the Chinese character, instead of directly expressing the numeric amount.

Chinese Corner at South Seattle Community College. The  teacher is demonstrating counting to ten using  fingers of one hand. The expression of numerals six through ten mimics the written Chinese character, instead of directly expressing the numeric amount.

 

Chinese Corner . The standing folks include Chinese language high school students helping out. The teacher is against the wall. Note the clock. I liked it so much I bought one for my home office.

The standing folks include Chinese language high school students helping out with Chinese Corner.

 

Clock in Chinese Corner room with Chinese characters for the numerals

Clock in Chinese Corner room with Chinese characters for the numerals. I liked it so much I bought one for my home office.

Chinese Corner is the all-purpose name for gatherings where students of Chinese gather to practice or learn usually with native speakers. They run the gamut from sophisticated presentations to casual meet ups. Recently I’ve been going to the Chinese Corner at Seattle Central Community College near the Chinese Garden. This one is for beginners, with an emphasis on Chinese culture, but I have the chance to speak and listen, which is great. A critical problem I have trying to learn Mandarin in Seattle is lack of folks to speak with and listen to. So I come to this Chinese Corner whenever I can, even though its late afternoon time is often not convenient.

Among the attendees this past quarter were John and Viola, who hadn’t one word of Chinese between them. Ni hao, I said. Why do you want to come to Chinese Corner? I asked.

“We are adopting a baby from China,” they explained. Why from China? I asked. Several of her family members had Asian babies, Viola said, adding it was a practical decision based on an factors like cost, access to medical records and how many weeks you had to stay in the country when picking up the child.

“It’s very complicated,” she said. “We’ve been trying to adopt for a couple of years.”

“We could hear as early as Monday,” she continued, “but certainly over the quarter.”  Gong xi gong xi (congratulations).  But as it turned out their smiles turned to frowns, as of the last class still no adoption.

Another person, Leslie, was there with her two daughters, the older a freshman in high school who was “wild for learning Chinese.” Chinese was one of her school’s language electives and she started this year, for no special reason. Now she loves it. “She wanted to be an exchange student this year but I was nervous about her going to China and said no,” said mom. “Maybe next year.”

Stephanie was there with her 2-year-old son. The toddler was going to daycare three times a week, speaking Spanish in the morning and Chinese in the afternoon. Stephanie said her son loved to sing in Chinese and she wanted to be able to help and maybe sing with him.

“Doesn’t that confuse him, having three languages in a day?” I asked. “Spanish, English and Chinese?”

Yes, it does, she said, but the principal said by the time he graduates preschool it will all straighten out, and he would be truly tri-lingual.

With all these Seattle youngsters on the path to learning Chinese,  students of the future should have plenty of people to practice with.

Red Underwear in the Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year of the Snake

Happy Chinese New Year, which began a few days ago on Sunday, February 10th.

If you are a snake, born in the lunar year of 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, CONGRATULATIONS! People born in the Year of the Snake are said to be intuitive, extremely intelligent, and to have good luck with money.

The Chinese New Year begins on a different day each year, typically in February but sometimes January, according to the lunar calendar. So the place mat under your soup at the local diner may not correctly identify your zodiac birth animal if you were born in those months. You have to Google your birth date to be sure. You might discover you are not a snake after all, for example, but a dragon.

Whatever your zodiac animal, there are also five elements – earth, air, fire, water, wood – that temper characteristics and add complexity. My Mandarin teacher was born in the year of the earth dragon, for example, and earth dragons are said to be practical and level-headed, not as combustible as fire dragons (advice on earth dragon personalities and other zodiac characteristics in this guide).

I was surprised to learn that Chinese people consider your zodiac birth year (in Chinese běnmìng nián, 本命年, literally “root life/destiny year”) a time of bad luck. So, if you are a Snake, expect some challenge. Even more disheartening, the bad luck continues past your běnmìng nián into the following year. When your běnmìng nián year is at hand, Chinese mothers advise their daughters to wear red underwear, and jade necklaces, to ward off the malicious forces.

Besides year of birth, birth weight is also an important indicator of personality and fate. Your birth weight can predict your “whole lifetime fortune.” Time of birth is additionally significant.

Such beliefs reinforce the perception of Chinese as superstitious, though superstition is hardly a rich enough word for the millenniums-old folk and cultural traditions that situate them in the world, and give birth years, names, and colors special meanings. Red for example is famously auspicious, corresponding with fire, and symbolizing good fortune and joy. Red lanterns and red signs are found everywhere on holidays and especially during Chinese New Year.

None of this should be surprising, really, as societies everywhere have all kinds of credulous traditional practices; last month my business partner wished me happy New Year but moaned that he’s worried. “This year is 2013. Thirteen. That’s unlucky, right? It’s the only year in the entire century with 13 in it. We’re going to have bad luck.”

I’ll have to buy him some red underwear. And since I was born in the year of the snake, yikes, a couple of pair for myself. And start wearing a jade ring. The world’s a dangerous place. There’s a lot to watch out for.

Seattle’s International District wasn’t the only local place bathed in red over the New Year weekend. The Pathfinder school located in West Seattle had its first annual Chinese New Year performance, and red lanterns made from construction paper festooned the hallways and stage so everything glowed. Pathfinder, an alternative kindergarten through 8th-grade public school, has a special teacher from mainland China who teaches Middle Kingdom culture to grades K-5, and Mandarin to grades 6-8. Half his salary is paid by China and half by Seattle Public Schools.

The Pathfinder Chinese program is a fractional aspect of Seattle’s international education ambitions, manifested in a dozen special International Schools around the city where students enjoy language immersion and a global perspective on all content.

You can enter an International School in kindergarten and continue all the way through graduation, though the project is only about 10-years-old and so no students have quite done that yet. Preliminary metrics suggest the program provides a superior education. The International Schools started out with Japanese and Spanish but Mandarin was soon added, in large part due to parent demand. The business community, Gates Foundation, Confucius Institute of Washington State, Asia Society and others have been willing partners in the international education effort, and sometimes instigators.

About ten-percent of Seattle students will be in International Schools, according to Karen Kodama, the International Education Administrator.

On Friday evening the youngest Pathfinder students poured tea and folded red construction paper into lanterns, while the older students performed folk stories, did Tai Chi and wished everybody xin nian kuai le, happy New Year. And parents looked past the stage to see titans of the globalized 21st century world.

Parents watch as students perform the first annual Chinese New Year celebration at Pathfinder school, a K-8 public school in Seattle.

 

About the “Happy Chinese New Year” image at the top: I drew the snake and characters using traditional brush and black ink, then scanned the image and  edited it with Photoshop Elements

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

about the image at the top: I drew the snake and calligraphy using traditional brush and ink, scanned the image into the computer, edited it and added color and English text with Photoshop Elements

Making Noodles

Noodles are ubiquitous and delicious in China. I took this 2-minute video of a chef stretching a wad of dough into soup noodles. But I couldn’t upload it while in China. Video sites like YouTube, as well as social media sites like Facebook, are blocked in the Middle Kingdom.

Great Wall Shopping Center

 

I was speeding down state route 167 outside of Seattle when I spotted the Great Wall shopping center. The name conjured up something exciting. I imagined dragons and upturned roofs, and roast duck. I quickly exited. While looking for a parking spot close to the bevy of pan Asian stores, I translated Great Wall shopping center into Chinese: Changcheng shangchang.

What a startlingly horrendous mouthful! Great Wall shopping center falls off the tongue so nicely in English. Not so in Mandarin! I had discovered a Chinese tongue twister right off highway 167. A garble of ch’s and sh’s, ang’s and eng’s, with the consonant and vowel sounds both shuffling and scuffling like tango dancers.

I could hardly follow the verbal dips and twists. Of course you must say it with the correct tones – as if the oh so similar sounds weren’t already tying my synapses in knots. Cháng is said with the rising or second tone, and chéng also is said with a rising tone. Two consecutive rising tones can be tricky, because you have to quickly return to a lower starting point in order to once again make a rising tone sound. So saying cháng chéng is more deliberate than easy.

I had encountered cháng chéng, Great Wall, before, but had always immediately forgotten it. This time around I was more familiar with the component words and their meanings, which helped the task of remembering.  Cháng means long. And chéng means city, town or city wall, as for example with zhong guo (China) chéng (town), the word for Chinatown. So cháng chéng, or Great Wall.

Besides cháng and chéng I was able to recall the term for shopping center: shāng chǎng. Shāng, first tone, means commerce. Chǎng, third tone, means large place used for a specific purpose. Thus for example there is fēijī (airplane) chǎng, place for airplanes, that is, airport; or in this case, shāng chǎng, a place for shopping, in other words, a shopping center.

I drove around the bustling parking lot saying aloud, cháng chéng shāng chǎng. It sounded like babble even in my own ears. Cháng chéng made me think of Cheech and Chong, which was no help.

I couldn’t say chángchéng shāngchǎng fluidly. Rather I had to break it into parts and reinvent production each time. First I had to say cháng, remembering to use a rising tone, pause to establish the next consonant, the hard ch, and then say chéng, again with a conscious effort to use the rising tone. Shāng was a little easier; then pause and reestablish my mouth shape to pronounce the hard ch and the third tone ang, stressing the third tone dip I often overlook: Chǎng. But when I tried to say the whole thing as a simple whole my brain froze. I couldn’t utter a word. I had to reboot my seized brain and start again.

Pitfalls like this keep me amused studying Chinese. I was exhilarated to have discovered the tortuous phrase all by myself in the Great Wall shopping center parking lot. I sat in the car, like a boy who just tumbled into an abandoned well, stunned at the predicament, yet also a little thrilled. Tongue twister hidden in plain sight! I could freeze my brain at will!

Turns out there’s some poetic revenge. The proper name for the shopping center was Great Wall Mall. I’ll have to ask one of my Chinese native friends to try saying that five times fast.

MY FIRST CHICKEN FOOT [City of Lijiang]

Naxi woman tends the grill at one of the late night eateries that are ubiquitous and popular.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They weren’t bad. It helped I was drinking beer. And that I had no choice but to dig in, as I’d been invited to join a table. I’d stopped at one of the late night hole-in-the-wall eateries that tempt with meat and vegetable skewers grilled over a charcoal fire. It was busy even though 10 PM on a Tuesday. In fact late night is when these neighborhood hangs get rolling.

I sat down outside, at a low table near the grill. A funky bit of cloth served as an awning against the threat of drizzle. Inside the tiny restaurant, no door, just an opening and down a step to a room, was a lively scene, some people playing cards, a small group devouring a tray piled high with skewers, like a strange game of pick-up sticks, and a couple slurping noodles. Ratty cardboard at the entry provided a shoe wipe due to the wet weather. No décor, and a small TV playing in the back. Plenty of empty beer bottles on the tables. Clientele was young, guys in T-shirts and women in tight jeans or glittery skirts and brightly-colored shoes. You’d think the dressed-up ladies would seem out of place in this beat-up hole of an eatery, except that kind of contrast isn’t uncommon.

The proprietress was a stout Naxi ethnic minority woman with a ready smile, in constant motion around the restaurant, and her rail-thin husband attended the equally narrow long grill. He turned skewers, slathering them with oils as they cooked, and sprinkling them with salty chili powder before sending them off to their destinations. Orders came in constantly, from tables who suddenly wanted something more, from new customers, from passers-by who made requests to go. He managed the fray while fragrant smoke billowed upwards, and kept a running tab on a clipboard.

The proprietress handed me a plastic container as she bustled by. Oh, I suddenly realized, you go to the big glass-door refrigerator near the entrance and pick out what you want. So I went to the refer. I saw neat piles of skewers:  chicken wings, sausages, mini hot dogs, dumplings, meat wrapped in hot peppers, sliced potatoes, mushrooms, whole eggplant (split after cooked soft to become a bowl for ground pork in sauce), tofu, brains (whole not skewered), big shrimp, tiny shrimp, small whole fish, and something that looked like cubes of spam. And plenty of things I couldn’t identify.

I put some chicken wings and squash rounds in my basket. Crispy chicken wings and grilled vegetables seemed like a good way to start.  I handed my basket to the cook, and sat down again.

At the table next to me were with three Chinese men and one woman. One fellow immediately poured beer into a glass, pushed it towards me and insisted on toasting. He downed his in a gulp, so I downed mine likewise in a show of cross-cultural good faith. The woman motioned me to join them for food. They were ordinary working folks, not like the well-dressed well-heeled Chinese tourists enjoying pretty Lijiang old town just around the corner. They didn’t speak English, and we carried on one of those disjointed, simple conversations. As we waited for the food, fragrantly sizzling just a few feet away, the man kept chugging beer, shouting this and that, louder and louder. His companions gave me resigned looks, but oh well, what was there to do?

The tray arrived steaming hot, just off the grill, mahogany-colored and dusted with chili/salt powder. There was no mistaking the identity. The claw-like shape; the toes each a different length, ending in little nails; the stout ankle; the bumpy skin. The woman pushed the tray toward me. She probably never imagined that this is not a favorite treat in America, since it is so universally popular in China. For that reason I’d been thinking I had to try them. The way you eye a distant mountain and think, someday I ought to see about hiking that. Yikes, suddenly I was at the trailhead. My moment of truth had arrived. Chicken feet.

So, under cover of darkness, importuned by beer, I picked one up and nibbled. I discovered skin, fat and cartilage, with a bit of meat, wedged around many small bones. Not much to sink your teeth into. I felt like like a squirrel chiseling away to get a tidbit.

Into my mind came images of where this foot had stepped. Chicken pens are not the most sanitary places. I stamped that thought down, had a swig of beer, and continued nibbling down the chicken foot, millimeter by millimeter. I was as cautious as a teenager making moves on the couch, yet driven on toward the unknown. I couldn’t help feeling grossed out as I carefully worked my way down the footpad towards the more intimidating toe and nail (the chef had ceremoniously clipped the nails after cooking, with a scissors). The others at my table were busy chewing on the bones and cartilage like they were gum and spitting the hard stuff onto the floor. I gathered vigorous nibbling and gnawing was half the point. The woman kept pushing the plate towards me, urging me to eat more.

All I can say is, what fun! The smoky salty flavor was tasty, the texture (not surprisingly) similar to a chicken wing tip. Perhaps not an ideal meal, but relaxed and human. It reminded me of a crab feed on Chesapeake Bay, a pile of just-cooked crabs dropped onto butcher paper, everything dusted with spicy salty seasoning, everybody cracking claws, sucking out meat, picking through shells and generally making a mess while drinking beer and licking fingers.

The fellow across from me was bellowing now, leaping up to make another toast, and when he knocked over his bottle and a foamy rivulet of beer headed my way across the table I asked for my maidan, the check, paid 20 yuan, about three dollars, said xie xie and went on my way into the night.

Coda

The entire world exports chicken feet to China, where they cost more per kilogram than frozen chicken breasts. They are available in many different preparations, including vacuum-sealed and requiring no refrigeration, ready to eat. Those packaged chicken feet, flavored with rice vinegar and chili, were my language teacher’s favorite snack.

Each chicken foot has 16 small bones. But unlike many birds, no webbed toes. I can vouch for that.

Skewers of chicken feet and squash on the grill

Ancient Music in Lijiang (Naxi Orchestra)

Lijiang old town is a warren of curved narrow streets, attractive stonework and two-story buildings in traditional Naxi ethnic minority style, nestled in a mountain–ringed valley in northwestern Yunnan. Wall-to-wall stores fill the old town, turning the setting into a theme park for scarves, silver jewelry, knickknacks and Congo drums (made in Thailand).  One and a half million well-heeled Chinese tourists flock in annually to eat, drink and spend money.

Lijiang old town

One bit of culture amid the merchandizing hoopla is the Naxi Orchestra, which plays music preserved from the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan Dynasties every night. It is Chinese music before it was changed by the Mongolian conquest dynasty. Several of the musicians date from the era. Who can blame them for nodding off while the narrator spoke and introduced songs?

Large hanging drum and musicians in formal clothes

Okay, there were only a handful of octogenarians. But once this scowling, yawn-stifling group of thirty musicians started playing their pipas, erhus, huqins and sugudus it was a mesmerizing waterfall of sound, a shimmer of strings punctuated by bells and gongs, whistles, drums, throaty vocalizations and flutes. It was more like a gamelan than what you think of as Chinese music, capturing the rhythms of birds and wind, society and social order. A Tibetan soprano soloist and a clowning bit of Yunnan opera rounded out the evening which left me transported.

Naxi orchestra playing music from the 14th-century

In Naxi culture women are the shopkeepers and business-oriented, the men tend toward music, gardening and child rearing. When Kubulai Khan came through to conquer this part of China with his fierce cavalry and novel tactics the Naxi read the writing on the wall and simply acquiesced. Their society was spared decimation and in their cultural bubble preserved the music of the era, which over time was lost in greater China. They preserved it for centuries and once again during the “crazy years” of the Cultural Revolution, apocryphally burying the ancient instruments.  Whether this marvelous music will survive Lady Gaga and disinterest among the young is another question the band director openly pondered.

Thirty member Naxi Orchestra plays ancient music every night in the Naxi Music Academy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Kunming

Leaving Kunming tomorrow for the small towns of Dali, Lijiang and Xianggelila aka Shangri-la. After five weeks in Kunming you might think I’d be ready to move on, but no, I’ve grown quite fond of the city and language class. Even the nightime noise isn’t such a bother, and I no longer wear earplugs every night to sleep, as I did for the first two weeks.

Dali is strongly influenced by the Bai people, Lijiang by the Naxi, and Shangri-la, at 11,500 feet elevation, by Tibetans. In Shangri-la I am fortunate to catch the annual Tibetan horse racing festival. Not much religion, just people coming from hundreds of miles with their animals and finest new dress for three days of horse racing and partying.

To wrap up for Kunming, below are some slice of life photos with captions:

Convertible BMW

BMWs are the status car of choice. They are called bao ma, precious horse. That’s the actual name of the car. A more colloquial expression is Bie Mo Wo, don’t touch me.

Badminton court

Badminton is very popular. I played a few times, it is aerobic and fun. People take lessons. I was quite amused to see birdies piling up like snow around the feet of a student practicing her backhand, fed to her by the facility’s badminton pro.

umbrellas to ward off the sun

Umbrellas to ward off the sun

When the sun comes out so do the sun umbrellas. Women want to keep their fair complexions. High heeled shoes are the fashion now.

Solar water heating on the roof

Every apartment building has solar heating for hot water. Kunming is fairly sunny. Forever spring, they say.

Crispy whole sweet/hot and sour whole fish

 

This fish was turned inside out, and all the bones removed, before frying and turning crispy.  It was called something like fish squirrel-stye, referring to the appearance.

Discount cards for frequent buyers. Kunming folk have lots of them.

Some of discount cards belonging to my teacher, for bread, dumplings and the like. Some people have so many cards they carry them in special bags. Typically you buy the card, say for 100 RMB, and receive 110 or 115 RMB worth of merchandise,

English language signs are sometimes pretty funny.

Live fish for sale at Walmart

Walmart in China offers lots of unfamiliar things, but at a very good price. Live frogs and turtles for food consumption, dried Yunnan mushrooms, clothing, cosmetics, handbags and shoes are some of the merchandise. There are at least three multi-story Walmarts in Kunming.

Shopkeep pouring water to make pu'er tea

Yunnan is a tea growing region, and there are innumerable small tea leaf sellers. Go into any shop and they will make pots of tea for you to try. I greatly enjoyed the ritualized brewing and presentation. Some tea places are just for drinking tea, though, and friends while away hours enjoying different brews and talking. Besides green and black tea, in endless varieties, Yunnan produces pu’er tea, a unique but not especially well known tea made through special processes.

 

Western Hills (Xi Shan)

I made an early start for Xishan, the Western Hills, to make a weekend day of it. The forest preserve on the outskirts of Kunming is the city’s preeminent landmark and favorite destination, with wooded paths, pavilions, the famous Dragon Gate and panoramic views over Dian Lake to the city.

 Pavilions dot the wooded preserve.  There are five mountains, the tallest about 2000-feet above the lake.

 

Despite my best efforts to communicate correctly in Mandarin the taxi driver took me to the cable car station instead of the main entrance: I had wanted to walk up the mountain, a pilgrimage. But I went with the flow and took the cable car, 70 RMB roundtrip, about $12.

View from cable car

The cable car crossed Dian Lake, picturesque with water flowers and channels, then ascended directly up the mountain. A fast way to gain elevation. The cable car was the most reliable-looking thing I’ve seen in all of Kunming, where infrastructure generally seems a little shoddy and rundown, albeit functional. Fully automated, gleamingly clean, made in Switzerland, the mechanism chugged with reassuring smoothness and the gondola was as red and shiny as a ladybug.

Exiting from the cable car halfway up the mountain I found a visitor center with shops, hotels, street food and restaurants. There was a building housing another chairlift to go further up the mountain. I kept telling the young man at the info booth I wanted to hike up the mountain, not take the chair lift.  He kept directing me inside the building.  No, I said in my best enunciated Mandarin, I want to hike. He directed me by words and gestures to the chair lift. This was repeated several times over the course of fifteen minutes.  Finally I realized he was telling me that to go to upper half of the mountain you had to pay an entrance fee, and by the chairlift was where you buy that ticket. I am indeed an exasperating foreigner, but fortunately the Chinese are very friendly and forgiving.

I paid my 40 RMB entrance fee, declined the chair lift, and ascended on stone stairs. I arrived at the chair lift terminus after 25-minutes of pleasant walking through the woods.

Many of the Xishan’s paths are well-crafted stone steps

From here I had the choice of going to the Dragon Gate, the summit, or into the Xishan woods where ghosts may linger. I decided to go first to the Dragon Gate and to my surprise the way now steeply descended. Despite having read several guidebooks this point of orientation had escaped me.

The steps, wormed into the cliff face, were worn smooth and slippery by countless feet. At one point the path went through a perilous tunnel that seemed more like a toboggan chute. Taoist monks created the path and honored their beliefs with grottoes along the way filled with bright gold and blue religious statuary.

Taking pictures by one of the grottoes cut into the cliff face

The Dragon Gate itself is a small painted doorway, and a well-used photo opportunity with expansive views out toward Kunming and the lake 2,000-feet directly below. However the narrow path easily becomes crowded, and incense and cigarette smoke hung outside the grottoes.

The Dragon Gate, center

 

So, back up the twisting stairway to the Dragon Gate entrance, then to the mountain summit. Since I’ve been eating so many noodles and dumplings the sweaty exercise was welcome. At the top was Lingxu pavilion and panoramic views.

Pavilion at highest summit. It was a little cloudy, so moody views

I took some pictures and then explored. So nice to hear birds and see almost nobody. There were occasional signs in the woods in red letters, some directional, others I suspect saying, do not enter, but I couldn’t read them. That was unnerving in a fun sort of way.

Mysterious signs

On the way down I bought a peach from an ethnic minority woman and her son sitting quietly in the shade. The white flesh was memorably sweet. I wondered if she had grown them. I also worried I had overpaid. You don’t want to feel taken advantage of, and there’s plenty of stories of prices doubling because you are a waiguoren, a foreigner. But later I found out the price was more than fair, and felt bad for being suspicious.

A distant pagoda in the Western Hills

It was mid afternoon when I exited the upper pay area of the mountain, and discovered many people young and old at the visitor center and nearby greenery, playing cards, eating and enjoying a relaxing day out of the city.

There is a road to this point, closed except to buses and minivans, but you can also walk from the main entrance through the woods via the Taihua Ancient Passage. This was the route I had originally planned. I walked down the road to find the Ancient Passage terminus. I was a bit confused, so everything was a discovery and seemed a little dodgy. That’s pretty much the constant state of affairs for me here in the Middle Kingdom. I’m never quite sure if I’m being understood, if I truly understand, and where exactly I’m going. A cloud of mystery hovers over every activity. It’s like a permanent state of quantum physics uncertainty.

It was now 3:30 PM and the ticket woman had been at pains to write on my ticket the cable car stopped at 5:30. That at least was quite clear. So I only had time to visit the first temple along the ancient passage. Rundown in places, the Taihua temple main building was spotless and two workers were touching up freshly-painted statues.

Taihu temple

The temple had extensive well-tended gardens with old camellia and magnolia trees, and stone chairs and tables. There was a pond, and amaryllis in bloom. So serene and peaceful.

Pond at Taihua temple

I lingered as long as I dared and then returned to the cable car, riding down with a older man and his grown daughter. He was diminutive, worn and dark, a laborer, with a big smile and yellow teeth. She was tall and smartly dressed, and visiting from somewhere distant. Their affection was plain. They sat across from me in the gondola, our knees almost touching, and symbolized for me the great changes in China in just one generation. As we dropped down the cliff and then across Dian lake we spoke in Mandarin, following the standard script, how long in China and where was I from, but the dad also wanted to know much my language school cost, and did I have any American money I could show him.

Amaryllis at Taihu temple

Seven snacks of Kunming

 

Skewered snacks ready for the grill. Hot and sour, as with this marinade, is a ubiquitous Kunming flavor.

 

I was walking with my teacher in Cui Hui park, in the center of Kunming.  We were strolling around the emerald-colored lake, among the old willow trees and colorful pagodas. We saw several large ornamental carp. “Hmmm, big fish,” she said. “Big enough to cook.”

How a nation as obsessed with food and noodles, breads and snacks stays so skinny is beyond me.

When hunger strikes, whether in the park or anywhere in Kunming, here are seven popular snacks readily available:

Sani woman cooking corns cakes on a rolling grill/cart

 

1. Yumi bing, fragrant corn cakes, here at a small market. Only 1 RMB apiece, about 15 cents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grilled flat bread with sweet or salty sauces

 

2. Er kuai, a grilled bread made from rice flour, a little spongy and tangy. Comes slathered with your choice of sauces, either salty or sweet, including ground peanuts, and folded. Also can be ordered folded around a fried dough cylinder: a doughnut sandwich. 2.5 RMB.

 

Dou jiang: "bean juice"

 

3. Dou Jiang, described to me as bean juice. Hmmmm. Amazing how important names can be. I tried it anyway. It was simply sweet soy milk. I thought it tasty and on weekends drink a cup with a baozi, for breakfast. Can be had warm or chilled. One dou jiang and one baozi, together 3 RMB.

BTW, I couldn’t get the straw to puncture the top, and made a spectacle of myself jabbing the plastic lid over and over. Finally a passerby showed me the trick. Oh, aim for the edge.

 

 

Rice noodles, mixian, are popular in many different forms, and is served hot, cold, with sauce and in soup. This is cold rice noodles with various vegtables and a little meat.

Cold rice noodles with vegetables, a little meat and spicy sauce. You're supposed to mix the noodles thoroughly with the sauce before eating.

 

4. Rice noodles, mixian, are a favorite Kunming dish, served hot, cold, with sauce and in broth, in dozens of variations, by innumerable storefronts spilling onto the street. The noodles are uniformly delicious. One bowl, liang mixian,  8-12 RMB.

 

 

 

Man buying grilled chicken wing

 

5. Grilled meats, tofu in several flavors and vegetables make a yummy snack, or order as an extra with your noodles.

Chicken feet in a hot sauce

 

 

 

 

6. Chicken feet are indeed very popular, but I haven’t worked up to munching them yet. All in good time. You can also buy them in the store packaged and ready to eat.

 

Fruit seller at night. They use a hand scale to weigh purchases.

 

 

 

7. Fruit is a tasty and healthy  snack, and street carts are loaded with bananas, watermelon, durian, lychees, Asian pears and mangoes, from tropical and semi-tropical regions just a little south of Kunming. You buy by the kilo, although in Kunming ordering a kilo gets you a half kilo. If you order a half kilo you get [and pay for] a quarter kilo. It’s just the local way.