Kunming was thousands of miles away from Louisiana, a three-day airplane journey, and a million cultural miles from North America. China. The middle kingdom. I felt I had landed on a new planet.
"Did you see the new airport in Bejing," Ruby my assigned interpreter asked politely, wanting a compliment. "Yes," I answered from my time zone change haze, "the Chinese are great builders. And the view of the wall was fantastic, I can see why it is the only man made structure you can see from space."
Kunming was modern enough; the city had pulled down most of the old stuff for the floral festival years ago, and had tried to emulate the West, in appearance and in dress. Yet it was different, there were so many of them, all the same color and all black haired. I felt the pilots of the American Volunteer Group could walk around a corner at any time and not be out of place. A lot of American and European tourists did walk around corners, unfortunately. They stuck out by their long noses, and way of walking. Nor did they spit or squat like the Chinese. They were not insouciant enough to pass for old China Hands.
Later, I met some of these OCH's; the ones who could blend into China, sinologists, who had taken China in by osmosis. When I garden I try to squat like Fu Li used to, as he smoked his hundredth cigarette of the day, smiling at me, at my foolish Western pride. His eyes crinkling up till his acanthal folds completely squeezed his eyes shut. Fu would then hawk and aim a bit of spittle at a bug walking by in the dust, hitting it straight on. On its back the beetle would make this funny upside dance, till it righted itself, divest itself of the spit and keep on trucking. Like the Chinese, the insect was unfazed by adversity.
My first night in the garden city I frequented a few western style discos, with their inevitable Koarke rooms, filled with the newly rich Chinese and fat Westerners, many of them on the prowl for something other than culture. New York or Paris. It was depressing to see so many vapid faces. So much wasted youth trying to emulate westerners. I reflected on the pilots who came on that clunky Dutch steamer out of San Francisco, were probably not much older than these folks. (I had interviewed a few of the surviving AVG pilots, wizened and white haired, still cleared eyed, especially when they mentioned the Old Man; their backs seemed to stiffen to attention and their eyes filled with the mist of time, thinking about the good times in Kunming.)
Around two in the morning I met Seigfried Schneider, my nemesis. He was hitting on two good looking bimbos, Americans by their looks, but they were not enjoying his attentions. His leering face was looking down their cleavage and his hands were going for the gold when the taller one turned around to him and spat in his face, "Listen jerk, I already have one ass hole in my pants, I don't need a second one."
With her laughing girl friends in tow, she left Seigfried sputtering. I over heard him mutter, "God damn lesbians." Seigfried noticed me, measure my reaction to his rejection, and filled it away in his Teutonic brain for a later final solution. With no women to focus on, he turned his blue eyes onto me.
"You are Amerikanish, yah? I like you, when I was boy in Garmish Partshiketen, we used to go to mountains together. I did my first climb with Colorado after, the Zugspitz and Weiss Berg and the Materhorn. Winter, bad time, but we made it." As if I could make out heads or tales of what he said he continued with numbers and places and words I had never heard before; it was a gibberish, an esoteric language like legalize or medical terminology. He did offer to buy me some more beer and we ended up good buddies. We left the bar together, two new friends.
In our inebriated state we weaved around down town Kunming till I felt like relieving myself of my beer. A dark side street beckoned. Once in it I noticed the earthen wall had grass growing on them, they were adobe style. Doorways had crescent holes cut into the wood. We had stumbled into the Muslim section. Lilly told me no one dared tear it down.
Siegfried said something about Turkish swines, and joined me adding his copious stream. He had a hell of a bladder. Both feeling better, we headed towards the lights. I felt close enough to him, having micturated together, to ask him what he did for a living. Siegfried answered me with a gleam in his eyes, "Let me show you," and before I could say anything he leaped onto a pile of rubble next to a huge concrete wall and proceeded to go up it like a spider.
He yelled back to me before he was lost in the dark, "Louisiana man, come see me at the Me Lee café, you can buy the drinks next time." And he was gone, leaving me perplexed and disturbed; did China bring out the weirdness in people? Had this crazy German just climb a vertical wall in front of my drunken eyes?
Next the day, I wandered the city nursing a hangover but feeling like a kid in a candy store, enjoying the spring like weather, the oriental faces that smiled and stared at me as if I was a zoo specimen that had gotten loose. Drier than Louisiana, probably because the air came down from the Tibetan highlands, the city was higher, not at sea level or below sea level like New Orleans. Flowers were everywhere, so was a graceful feeling of friendliness. They admire Americans, maybe they remember the big faced pilots, who had saved their city, or their ancestor's city - it was so long ago now. Rose did find some venerable elders for me who remembered that time or pretended they did.
Over rice wine, I would try to understand their sing song English. Rose was a help, but she had another group to take care of in the afternoon. Rose was not her real name, a lot of Chinese took Western surnames, but it was appropriate; she was always blushing red. She eschewed the Mao jacket, as did everyone else, except some of the die-hard old comrades. Rose was modern, the new China, opening up to the west. I soon was to find out how open she was.
We had just found an old woman purported to be one of Pappy Bowington's many mistresses, and who still had a picture of him. As it turned out, it was a picture of the actor who played him in a TV series, one that had been translated and aired on State TV. Rose, who invited me to her small room, picked up my disappointment. Who was I to refuse?
My departure from my now former girl friend had been abrupt and cold. She never forgave me for her bad hair day. The evening of governor's ball, she had been cold as steel her magnolia face white and distant - she kept tapping her foot when I approached her. Any time a male of the species passed by, she turned hot again, flashing her whitened teeth and leaning forward to show her cleavage. When we returned to me hotel afterward, she had been indisposed. Out the door she went to find an all night drugstore, and I never saw her again. Not even at the airport the next day. On the take off my eyes filled with tears of longing reflecting the bayous my airplane flew over as I left my native land, off to a place I had only read about. Janice could have shown up to say goodbye. She wrote me later and tried to call, but by then I understood.