From Kunming to Taiwan

Photography by Leslie Chambers

Before coming to Taiwan, I lived in the city of Kunming, in southwest China. There are many things I miss about my old life there; in particular, I miss the warmth and fire of Chinese people. Compared to Taiwan, people in China are much more assertive, and much more talkative towards foreigners (no matter how broken the conversation was). It was common for strangers to start conversations with me, and common for them to pay for my meal or invite me to join their drinking. Whereas, in Taipei, although I have several great friends, and have many places where people know me well, the average person in the street still gives me the wide eyed “Borg stare” – as if they think that talking to me would be a very serious, possibly even dangerous activity. I miss the hearty Chinese welcome and curiosity, and the big dreams they had for their country’s gold rush age.

I also miss the incredible scenery of Yunnan province: the heroic mountains of Lijiang, Dali and Deqin; the huge, colourful Tibetan houses on the windy highlands around Zhongdian; the man-made wonder of Yuan Yang in the south – where rice terraces have been carved into mile after mile of hill and valley, making the land reflect the sunlight like a broken mirror. And while Kunming itself is not as pretty as it used to be (the Chinese government has cleverly destroyed most of the old streets), it has nearly perfect sunny weather. Aside from three or four cold weeks in winter, and a bit of rain in the summer, the rest of the year has daily flawless, non-humid sunshine.

However, there are many things I definitely don’t miss about living in China. One problem was that Chinese people’s lifestyles were simply very different to mine. Take cafes, as one example: Kunming people typically didn’t go to them, and so the only places offering both coffee and a place to relax were set up for foreigners. And this little case was true for all kinds of things, from how people imagined their lives to how they wanted to socialise with you, their new foreign friend. It seemed possible to have either a very harsh, very Chinese life, or a very comfortable, very foreigner-centric life, and after trying both, I found that neither made me happy. Taiwanese people’s culture is very different to mine, but at least in the cities, the way they live (drinking coffee, for example) is much more familiar. If there are still vast cultural differences, there is a lot of common ground to discuss them on.

From Kunming to Taiwan 1

More importantly, living in China is a tough experience. Taiwan is actually a far more traditional place, especially in terms of religious festivals and mystical beliefs; China felt like a country that had lost something very important. Rather than being an ancient civilisation, China is brashly, hideously young, and is busy tearing down anything old that it hasn’t already finished off.

Businesses appear, make wild claims and then vanish. The police seem to do nothing, and no one I knew had any idea how the government operated. Little acts of trust, commonplace in wealthy societies, are impossible in a city like Kunming: the family I lived with couldn’t believe that, back in London, my parents lent a copy of the house keys to our next door neighbours.

From Kunming to Taiwan 2

And maybe as a result of this chaos and suspicion, the level of casual rudeness is astounding. Many Chinese people take the view that in the crowd, or waiting in a shop, you mean nothing to them. Give a little space, and you shouldn’t be surprised if someone shoves right past you. If you react angrily, you’ll be ignored. Or, if you go to a sweet family restaurant and eat without asking the price beforehand, the laoban will frequently triple the final bill for you. If you shout and scream, he or she won’t flinch. Life is too hard to worry about other people’s feelings.

Living in China also involves some very unappealing hygiene. Spitting in the street is universal; non-smoking sections in restaurants unheard of; nowhere in Asia have I seen worse toilets. Arriving in Taiwan, I was stunned by how refined the country was.

One final big difference between life in SW China and Taiwan is the price level. Actually, if you didn’t mind the sensation of being ripped off, you could avoid haggling altogether in Kunming, as most things were incredibly cheap. I shared a room in a Chinese hostel for 19 US dollars a month (150 RMB), and after that, two Israeli friends and I rented a beautiful modern apartment for 75 US a month. This makes life great if you come with some savings, as then you can study Chinese for a long time without needing to work, but if you want to teach English, it’s a mixed blessing. You can live nicely without doing much work, but you cannot save money or travel far.

This article first appeared in Taiwanease magazine in September 2006