May 27, 2012
Seated women playing cards in a quiet area on a weekend
Some have asked about my daily routine, so here goes. For now I’m at school taking one on one Mandarin class, four hours every weekday morning. I like my teacher and look forward to class.
The school is located on the 16th floor of a building a short bus ride from the center of town. The school offers living quarters on various floors in the same building, as well as weekday meals. Most students take the live-in, dine in option. It is practical and convenient. The school also offers group classes, which attract foreigners visiting or living in Kunming.
My school and domicile in the building underneath the Eiffel tower
I live on the 15th floor in a monk’s cell of a room. There is a bed, desk, chair and tiny bathroom. Also a television and dispenser that provides hot or cold drinking water.
I wake up early to the sound of traffic and construction, grab my vocabulary flashcards and review while lying in bed. Chinese characters on one side, meaning in English on the other. Jue Ding, to decide. Yu Yue, make an appointment. I run through them quickly. You can’t usefully cram Chinese, it’s the slow drip of repetition.
I get up, qi chuang, and turn on my laptop. The room has an ethernet cable. It is a happy thing, this string that attaches me to friends and loved ones, as well as information such as Kunming bus routes. I drink a cup of hot water, as traditional a beverage here as tea, and prepare for the day.
My desk with laptop and notebook.
Breakfast is served 8-8:30, typically a buffet of fried eggs, sweet rolls, fruit (chunks of the local Asian pear, watermelon), yoghurt in a bottle that you drink with a straw, and bread that you can toast and add jam or peanut butter. There’s fresh-ground Yunnan coffee and loose tea leaves, just throw a few in a cup. My fellow students are an interesting bunch, from England, Germany, South Africa, America, Australia, Kazakhstan and Thailand. They are studying Mandarin for all kinds of reasons. One is a translator, learning special terms for the mining industry; an English fellow runs a resort in nearby Thailand. The college age folks are looking to create careers. Some speak Mandarin, some none. A few of my fellow students are retired and find that 5 weeks of language study, followed by 5 weeks of travel in China, makes a mighty fine vacation.
My teacher is not really shy, but here she is hiding behind the animals of the Chinese zodiac.
Class begins at 8:30. Ni hao, ni hao, ni hao! Everybody is cheerful, carrying books and hot water or tea. We take off our shoes or wear shoe covers. Class lasts until lunch at 12:30, with one twenty-minute break. My teacher is a hoot. A regular ham, but reasonably effective. Lord knows she has her work cut out for her. I’ll describe Dong Chen in a later post.
The school and dining area take up all of the 16th floor, a warren of rooms and corridors. The one-on-one classrooms are tiny, barely hold a table and two chairs, but there’s a window and dry board.
View of Kunming from my classroom window
There’s also a library room, kind of the central hub that leads to classrooms. Artworks from around the world cheer things up. All in all the atmosphere is practical, clean and pleasant. Quite a few students are repeat customers, testimony that the package works pretty well. It’s a fun and lively place to be.
Lunch is vegetable dishes, maybe a tofu dish, a noodle dish with a little chicken, and rice. Most dishes have some heat. Yunnan adjoins Sichuan province and heat is ubiquitous, but also there are sometimes plain platters of cucumber or carrot, or cooked greens.
In the Keats school library. A classroom is through the door to the right.
After lunch I rewrite my notes from the morning class, and do an hour of homework. I might take a walk, buy some small necessities, or have a foot massage. Or I might listen to Bonnie Raitt or Al Green and take a time-out. Dinner is 6-7PM and similar to lunch.
A calligraphy student from Germany, practicing in the dining room. The cook at back is removing dishes from the buffet counter.
Several nights a week I have calligraphy and tai chi classes, which keeps me a little too busy. But the instructors are outside vendors, not part of the school, so it is another way to rub shoulders with Chinese people. The calligraphy instructor comes to the school and we have class in the dining room. He speaks no English, and he is a diminutive man who wears his pants hitched up to his chest and carries a bunch of keys on his belt.
I meet the tai chi instructor in a forgotten courtyard behind a nearby building. He is a young man, a loose coil of silky smoothness and strength. We practice while people scurry about and children stare, and night droops a shroud around us.
Because Kunming is a year-round warm city much activity takes place at night. Restaurants are always busy, and the street life bustling. It’s not uncommon to turn a corner and find 40 or 50 people, mostly women, dancing to music under the streetlamps. Outside the storefront shops people are sitting on makeshift tables and chairs, drinking tea, playing cards, or talking. Scooters, cars, bicycles and pedestrians create a tidal backdrop of motion, while colored lights blink and blare. Shops are open late, till 10PM or midnight.
Weekends there are no classes and no meals, so we fend for ourselves and have time to explore and practice speaking in real life situations. I’m always having to ask directions, usually not understanding the replies. I’ve yet to have an outing go as planned. That can be daunting, confusing and tiring. But the Kunming people are friendly and I always find someone to exchange a few sentences with. That is great fun. My favorite part.
This mother and daughter pulled over on a scooter to talk. The daughter, 13 and wearing braces, was on her way to a Sunday extracurricular math class. We chatted in English and Chinese.