All my friends in China know only too well (much too well) how much I love Kunming. As I get ready to leave China in a few weeks, it’s the one place I feel I absolutely must go back to one more time before heading home.
I had only one very brief experience in Kunming that I’d have to classify as not entirely delightful, and I always wanted to get it down on “paper.” It was brief, only a few seconds long, actually, but I still think about it.
It was in February, and I had just enjoyed a large bowl of Jiang Brothers cross-bridge noodles with the black chicken served alongside in a tiny clay pot. For about 28 kuai you get a swimming-pool-sized bowl of rice noodles in soup and a stack of little plates and saucers filled with different items you scrape into the soup – thin sliced chicken, pickled vegetables, cashew nuts and several things I could never identify. If Taiwan’s signature dish is beef noodles and Chongqing’s is hot pot, then cross-bridge noodles is Kunming’s. (Jiang Brothers is a chain, and there are even a couple here in Beijing, which I highly recommend for cheap, delicious semi-fast food.)
This Jiang Brothers is located on a tricky intersection where some busy streets converge, making it something of an island. There’s only a small spot where taxis can stop directly in front of the front doors, and if you don’t want to get your taxi there you’ll have to cross the street and walk a block or two away. This little space had in effect become a taxi stand; there always seemed to be people waiting there for cabs. So when I was done with my dinner and needed a taxi to get back to my hotel, I waited there, too. A couple of people were waiting ahead of me, and within ten or 15 minutes I was the next in line.
Then along came six relatively well-dressed guys, probably in their mid-30s. They looked like typical nouveau riche Chinese, most of them a bit overweight, carrying the small black purses you see so often in Shanghai and Hong Kong and wearing gold rings and watches. And all smoking, of course. I was now the only one waiting up at the front of the informal taxi stand, and they didn’t line up, instead stopping a bit further up the road.
What happened next is something we’ve all seen, and something I wrote about way back during my first few months here, namely the every-man-for-himself attitude that is among the first cultural shocks for any newcomer here. (And here I have to say that in Beijing this has improved tremendously over the past few years, and people have gotten much better about honoring lines and letting you out of elevators before they plow in, etc. ) A taxi approached and I hailed it, and the group of young men hailed it too, and instead of pulling up to the front where I was waiting the taxi stopped in front of them and three of the group of six got in.
Okay, I’ve been in China for a few years now, so this didn’t faze me at all. Sure, it’s a little irritating, and it might have been nice if they’d said, “This guy was here first,” but it’s definitely not worth fighting about. They had to split up, and now the other three were waiting for their taxi, and I thought that even if they get the next taxi and I have to wait a little longer, so what? And so I waited, and when the next taxi came a couple of minutes later the same thing happened – I hailed it and so did they. Only this time the taxi pulled right to the front and stopped in front of me. As the taxi approached and it was obvious it wasn’t stopping for them, I heard loud grumblings from the Gang of Three about the laowai stealing their taxi.
At first I didn’t think much of it. Even if they somehow thought they were next in line for the taxi, this isn’t exactly a place where line etiquette is religiously respected and fervently observed. People often cut lines and do what they can to be first. And I wasn’t cutting. I was next. So when I heard the word laowai being spoken more loudly and more harshly, and when I saw the Gang of Three walking over to me indignantly, clutching their black purses, I began to get a little nervous. But not a bit less determined to stand my ground.
“Laowai!” shouted the heaviest of the three, who seemed to be the one bent on making a stir. He said I was stealing their taxi. I said I had been waiting several minutes before they came, but it was clear they didn’t want to discuss it. I stepped into the front seat, shut the door and looked up at “the leader” from the window. I didn’t look angry or scared or triumphant or happy. I just gave him the coldest, most dispassionate, most expressionless stare I possibly could, hoping to convey that I had done absolutely nothing for which I needed to account to him and that there was no way on earth I was getting out. The three men were now all shouting, “Laowai!” The second syllable cracked like a whip. And then they started to slam the roof of the car, adding percussion to their eerie chant. “Laowai! Laowai!”
I looked at the driver and asked if he wanted me to get out of the car. He said no. And then “the leader” went a bit too far and opened the door to the front seat. He was actually going to start a fight because he wanted the taxi. I truly admired the taxi driver at this point. He simply reached across and grabbed the door handle, slammed it shut, pushed the lock down and shouted something at the group. And then he sped off. He waved my apologies away and said it didn’t matter.
As I said, this incident is in no way your typical evening in Kunming. Quite the contrary. The people there are so laid back, so friendly and welcoming – but then, maybe that’s why I found this so unnerving, and why it caught me off guard. Those shouts of “Laowai!” are so vivid, even now, four months later. It took the rest of the night for me to completely shake it off, and it’s definitely “one of those moments” that will be with me as part of my mosaic of China memories.
(And to repeat yet again, it will be with me because it was atypical. Fighting for a taxi may be a common occurrence here, but what happened that night in Kunming was not.)
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.