Postcard from Yunnan

Part 1 in a series.

My parents are immigrants. They came to the U.S. to make a living, to make me and my brothers. They’ve spent more than two thirds of their lives away from where they grew up, where they had their family and their roots and the culture they understood best. So after they retired, they’ve returned regularly to Hong Kong, and more recently started traveling around China. I might be tempted to say that this travel is a project of cultural reclamation, but I guess that would be a little like someone from Manhattan trying to get back to their roots in New Mexico.

And so I find myself rumbling around the province of Yunnan in a massive tour bus with my family, my camera at the ready, listening to my mother worry about the conditions of the public bathrooms. This is hardly a cultural homecoming, but it is a good time.

I’ve always heard that the Italians have nothing on the Chinese when it comes to edge-of-your-seat car control, but our driver is really putting on a clinic. I asked my brother, an auto racing enthusiast, “Have you been noticing his style?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s called, ‘I drive a huge bus and you can get the hell out of my way.’” No speed limit is to be heeded, no mountain curve is to be respected, and no time is a bad time to pass. Our guide told us that this guy is the best their company’s got, and I believe it. The fact that he’s still alive is testament to his unparalleled skill. Our man is honking mercilessly and making his own third lane, blowing past old men in jury-rigged trucks made out of motorcycles with flatbeds on the back, threading the needle between other buses, and arcing around the occasional couple taking a stroll on the highway. We just swerved around a woman walking a pig. I swore we were going to get some spareribs out of that deal.

The old city of Dali, behind a fortress wall, is tight, packed to the gills with the evidence of an ancient society, with maintained but just-worn-enough classical architecture. Pagoda roofs curl sharply up at the edges, in conversation with the peaks of the mountains to the north. In a China that seemingly places ultimate privilege on the new and the fast, it’s lovely to see, stately and wondrously beautiful.

But on Christmas Eve, Dali is totally bananas, some weird and awesome combination of New Years Eve in Times Square, a Spanish foam party, and a Renaissance Festival. Through the night, cheesy but irresistible techno pumps out from bars and cafes, and more young people than you knew existed pack the streets in Santa hats, absolutely bombing each other with fake spray-on snow.

The pavement is slick with it, the entire city smells sickly sweet from the chemicals, and everywhere you turn you hear the vaguely threatening sounds of ball bearings rattling around the insides of spray cans. I caught a faceful of the stuff. Laughing hysterically while the kid was spraying me, I ended up swallowing enough of it to make sure I don’t live past 33. It was, if you’ll forgive me for saying so, totally surreal. I’m never spending my Christmas Eve doing anything as lame as opening presents again. I think next year I’ll have people over my house and shoot bleach at them with a watergun.

Next week: eating ham off a roof tile, a blood feud, and where you should have your wedding.

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