Spring City

Lie back and think of Kunming – by Brent Crane


The same security guard sits in his office by the door to my old university dorm. “Remember me?” I ask him. He studies my face. “I studied here three years ago. American.”

His eyes light up.

“I remember! I remember! American! Three years ago!”

His name is Tang Zao’an and he has worked as a security guard at Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming for eight years one at the front gate, three at the male dorm across the way, and four at the all girls foreign students dorm. He’s tall and wears a silver suit with grey slacks, his hair slicked back. He has aged a bit – some more wrinkles and worse teeth – but his mannerisms and general air are just the same.

"Look, we have a new road! That wasn't there when you were here.” He speaks excitedly, with a grin, and has a tendency to repeat things. “Hey!” He gestures to a group of co-eds walking by. “This guy studied here three years ago! He's from America." He exhales dramatically. "America, America, hahaha, America."

”I remember you guys,” he goes on. “You always went out and drank alcohol.” They used to shut the front gate at midnight, and when we came back from the bars we’d have to scale it and knock on his window to wake him up. "The current students don't do that," he laughs. "Lately there haven't been so many exchange students.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because of the terrorist attack at the train station,” he says, and makes a stabbing motion. “Next year there should be more. Should be more.”

"Because people will forget?”

"Yeah, people will forget.”

We talk about how Kunming has developed, and how great the weather is here. I tell him it's my favourite place in China, which pleases him. He hates on Beijing. "Too many cars, too many people, and the food’s not good.” His office doubles as his sleeping quarters and hasn't changed a bit. There’s a single bed with unfolded blankets, a radio with a talk show playing, and a cigarette burning in an old tin carton that serves as an ashtray.

At night I walk to Salvador’s Cafe, a popular bar for foreigners where I used to go as a study abroad student. It was exactly how I remembered it, with the bar open to the street, a dangerously low ceiling upstairs, and “NO POOPING” posters all over the bathroom walls.

I sit down at the bar and order a Tsingtao. A pair of middle aged men walk by and linger behind me.

“Do you know where the Irish pub is?” the taller one asks with a thick British accent.

“I know there’s one close but I couldn’t tell you how to get there,” I explain.

“We’re gonna go look for it,” he says, and walks away.

There’s an Asian guy sitting next to me with, a white carafe of something in front of him.

“What are you drinking?” I ask.

“Sake!” he beams.

He is wearing light-framed glasses and a flat brim hat, and has a turquoise digital watch.

“I am from Osaka!” He speaks in sporadic bursts. He had arrived in Kunming three days earlier to study Chinese as part of an exchange program. He couldn’t remember the name of his university.

“My Chinese is a-very bad. I can only a-introduce myself. Wo shee er-ben ren. Wo shee Yoeji.”

He was trying to say “I am a Japanese person, my name is Yoeji” but he had butchered it.

“It is a-very hard for me to speak-a Chinese. My English is a-much better. Here, we a-drink!” He passes me a cup of sake, yells “Kampai!” and we down it and then another.

“Do you want to watch me practice my Chinese?” he says, gesturing to the female waitstaff behind the bar. His face has reddened considerably.

“Go ahead,” I tell him.

He turns towards the bar girls. “Ni hao, wo shee erben ren. Wo shee Yoeji.” One of the waitresses corrects him in Chinese, “You should say jiao, not shi.”

“What are they saying?” he asks me. “I don’t understand. What are they saying?”

I feel a tap on my shoulder and turn around. There’s a short girl with glasses standing there grinning. “Hello, my friend would like to drink with you. Will you join us upstairs?”

“Sure,” I say and the three of us climb the cramped staircase. She leads us to her table where a guy and a girl are sitting. The girl is beautiful.

“My friend has never met a foreigner before. She is very happy to meet you.” The beauty smiles coyly and nods. They are all in their early twenties. The guy is a private driver, the short girl a teacher and the angel works in a bank. Yoeji introduces himself.

“I am Yoeji. I am Japanese,” he says before bowing. He is very red now. They respond in Chinese which makes him frantic. “What are they a-saying? I don’t a-understand. What are they a-saying?”

“They are saying hello.”

“It is a-hard for me to tell what they are a-talking about,” he laments.

We talk for a bit while Yoeji looking dazed. The Britons from earlier sit down at a table behind us.

“We couldn’t find the Irish pub”.

“Nothing wrong with this place,” I say.

“Yeah, except there are no girls here,” the taller one complains.

His name is John and he’s from Cornwall. He works as a golf pro at a high-class resort outside of Kunming. He has a tight, narrow face with a long nose. His friend Neil, originally from Edinburgh, is in town visiting from Malaysia, where he works at another branch of the golf resort, entertaining big spenders from Singapore and Shanghai.

“Malaysia is a great place man,” Neil says brightly. “But don’t go to the Muslim side in the West. Go to East Malay. Cheaper alcohol, cheaper food and nicer people.” He lives in Sabah, near Brunei.

“Crazy place man, Brunei. I have an Aussie friend who used to be a body guard for the Sultan. He said the guy used to have dozens of Russian models flown in every Friday. All blondes they were. The ones he didn’t choose they’d pay $5000 and send ‘em back. Crazy place.”

He knew someone whose young son had played on a soccer team with the Sultan’s boy. “One day they were waiting for him to arrive, to start the game. Suddenly they heard the sound of a helicopter. It lands right there on the pitch and out comes a group of cheerleaders. With music and everything! Then the Sultan’s son comes running out onto the field and they start the game.” He takes a sip of his Tsingtao. “Crazy place man.”

John’s been sulking across the table the whole time. I’d nearly forgotten his presence. He buys a round for everyone then says, “Let’s get out of here,” and stands up. “Come on, let’s go.”

The Chinese trio doesn’t want to leave but Yoeji is revived by the invitation. He introduces himself to the Brits. “I am Yoeji. I am Japanese,” and bows, twice. He has become a caricature of himself.

The four of us bundle into a taxi to pick up a white Zimbabwean friend of John’s, with Yoeji squeezed in between Neil and John. John says, “Who’s this guy?” and Yoeji reintroduces himself. Back on the main strip, we find a new bar.

“What the hell? There’s no girls here either,” John complains. I point to a table of girls across the way. Yoeji stumbles straight over to them, and starts gesturing wildly. They look confused. He comes back to the table. “They a-don’t understand me. I a-didn’t know what they were a-talking about”.

The Zimbabwean has disappeared. John calls him. “He’s gone to another bar. Let’s go.” This bar is down a dark street with no sign. I belly up to the bar to order a beer, where I meet an Irish guy I played music with in Dali three years ago. We go into a back room to jam, where there’s an electric drum set, two guitars, a bass, some amps, and a long haired American called Jake. My Irish friend pulls out a mic stand, starts playing power chords and yelling obscenities into the mic.

The next morning, I wake up late in my hostel dorm. I try to remember the night before but it’s just a collection of watery memories. I open my backpack to pull out clothes to change into, and am hit with a putrid stench. Emptying my pack item by item, I feel a lump in a folded pair of underwear. As I open it, I reflexively throw away what’s inside with a shudder. It’s a dead mouse, now lying on the floor.

I stare at the smelly thing. It had died in my favourite pair of briefs, hungry and alone. I recognise it as the same mouse that when I was staying with friends in Hong Kong would dart along the wall as we’d sit out on the porch. It must have crept into my bag before I got on the twenty-nine hour train to Kunming. Like my liver, it had become another casualty of expat life.

Brent Crane is a freelance journalist. You can follow him on Twitter @bcamcrane

Also read Brent's previous dispatches for the Anthill, The Sage and the Sales Pitch and Ramadan in Kashgar