One of my first memories of Kunming was from the summer of 2006, when I first came here on vacation after wrapping up my teaching contract in Fuzhou. With a couple of friends I walked into the Camel Bar, the second (third?) edition, and watched a World Cup game with a lively mixed crowd of expats and locals. The friendliness of the scene contributed to my decision some months later to relocate to Kunming to study Chinese. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, it is 2010 and the World Cup has returned. Suitably, perhaps, the Cup will mark the end of my tenure in the Spring City just as definitely as it marked its beginning. In the past four years, the city has changed somewhat. The Camel Bar shut down and then re-opened near its former location.The number of bars showing games has multiplied. But the spirit remains the same- a large, international community watching the world’s greatest sporting event in a frenzied atmosphere.
In citing its internationalism I am forced to laugh at one of my stated reasons for moving to Kunming- that the city wouldn’t have so many foreigners. I was determined to live in a city where I wouldn’t be tempted to spend my free time speaking English in dingy bars, and for whatever reason thought Kunming would be a suitable place for such a purpose. In the end, of course, Kunming’s concentration of foreigners is what likely has kept me here for this length of time.
I used to feel a little guilty now and then about how much time I spent immersed in the laowai scene while living here. Maybe it’s the latent Catholic in me, but I sometimes wished I had made more Chinese friends, had learned more about Chinese culture, and, of course, had learned to speak and read better Chinese.
Thinking back, though, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I now have friends from countries around the world, and have learned much from all of them. I’ve had many wonderful experiences while living in Kunming, from traveling around Yunnan Province by bicycle to drinking and dining in the city with friends. I like to grouse about Facebook, but the fact that more than 200 of my friends are ones I made while in Kunming is a testament to the rich tapestry of people I’ve come across here.
I’m often asked why I chose to live here rather than in Beijing or Shanghai or Guangzhou or Shenzhen or wherever. I will admit that occasionally I’ve asked myself the very same question. Certainly, I’m envious of friends in those places- ok, maybe not in Shenzhen- for the rich array of culture on hand, for the economic opportunity, for the cosmopolitanism that Kunming cannot offer.
My flippant reply is that as a Californian, I can’t live anywhere with a harsh winter. But this only muddles rather than illuminates the truth. Kunming offers something that I find unique- the diversity of a big city combined with the intimacy of a small town. I like being able to walk down the street and run into people I know. I like being able to see all of my friends at an nighttime event, if only because there’s nowhere else for anyone to go. I like sharing in excitement when the little trappings of cosmopolitanism- a good ska bad, a real cappucino- arrive in our town.
So upon further reflection I find that there’s really no reason to feel guilty at all. Growing up in the Bay Area, I had friends from all over the place- something that enhanced, rather than diluted, my very American childhood. And in Kunming, being able to wander to a table and participate in an argument about Italian soccer followed by sitting in while a different table dissects the finer characteristics of Yunnan ethnic minority groups has truly made the past four years special.
And in the end, my fondness and understanding for the Chinese language, people, and nation itself has likewise grown immeasurably. That’s the ultimate issue, isn’t it?
So tonight I shall traipse down to the bar street and watch more soccer, surrounded by screaming partisans of Japan or Paraguay or whomever. And I will think that these nights, in the warm Yunnan air, are almost as good as it can get.…