Travel And Adventure In Kunming, China

Kunming, China—Not Ready For Retire Overseas Prime Time

Vicki and I are in Kunming, China, for two months. We walk around a lot, mainly on crowded sidewalks. But, unlike in much of the world, here in China, locals use the wide, airy sidewalks to park cars, park motorcycles, repair mufflers, load and offload trucks, and blast music from loud speakers. Others sell food, clothes, shoes, or towels. And all the while hundreds, thousands of motorcycles drive through the same sidewalks, honking people out of the way.

To walk down sidewalks, you run an obstacle course and play dodgeball at the same time. Cross the street in a crosswalk, with a green walk sign, and cars and motorcycles bear down on you from all directions.

At first, we found the traffic chaos a bit unnerving. But Vicki and I have become used to the pause and glide required to get around obstacles and keep from getting crushed by a motorcycle. I figure there must be an intrinsic order here, although I have no idea what that order might be.

The other day, a young man came up to Vicki and said, in English, “Hello, Grandmother, can I take your picture?” We struck up a conversation with this 24-year-old boy from west of Shanghai. He was visiting Kunming for a week-long holiday before heading to his family’s ancestral home for Chinese New Year. He spoke reasonable English and said if we needed any help, just ask anyone his age. All Chinese must learn English in school, he said.

Right. Our experience has been that few young adults speak any English at all. We seldom see other Westerners on the street. With so few of us around, we figure the Chinese have little incentive to learn the language. I’ve picked up a few words in Mandarin from an online course, and I rely on it. Vicki resorts to smiles, pointing, and intuition. That works, too.

We consider China to be hard travel, both because of the language problem and because of the different customs and attitudes. Not for the fainthearted. On the other hand, the different customs, delicious food, and helpful, practical folks explain why we return to China again and again.

We’ve found that, when visiting a hard-travel country, we’re better off trying to adapt and enjoy the differences by staying in one place for a month or more. Local markets, pocket parks, and old neighborhoods tend to pop up only after we stick around awhile.

After a few weeks living here, we know how to cross busy streets, to take the buses and subway, where to get local food without needing to read a menu, how to use public toilets, where the Chinese go for fun, where to shop for groceries, and which cafes offer the best coffee and Wi-Fi. We feel at home.

As we walk around Kunming, locals seldom pay attention to us. I like that. We can wander into a quarrel, mah-jongg game, tea parlor, market stall, whatever. No one notices. There are the rare occasions when mothers bring their babies over to stare at us or their young children say hello. Teenaged girls sometimes want to pose pictures with us, especially with Vicki. They figure we’re good for a Facebook moment. But that’s about the extent of our popularity.

Six years ago, I wrote that Kunming might be a great place to retire. Eternal spring, low living costs, crime free. But I figured we’d have to wait just a few years more, until the locals learned more English and for the Chinese to offer a retirement visa.

Neither has happened.

Conclusion: Kunming works well for short-term living in China, an introduction to Chinese manners, customs, and attitudes. Come and enjoy yourself for a month or two. You’ll point a lot, guess a lot, and maybe get lost, confused, or wind up eating something you wonder about. Take it as part of the experience.

Learn as much Mandarin as you can.

Paul Terhorst

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