Chasing the White Rabbit


Rising up, back on the street

Did my time, took my chances

Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet

Just a man and his will to survive


So many times it happens too fast

You trade your passion for glory

Don't lose your grip on the dreams of the past

You must fight just to keep them alive


The eye of the tiger

The eye of the tiger

The eye of the tiger

The eye of the tiger

(survivor, 1982)


I wake up in the morning with this song in my head - is it a sign? Is it my Kunming song? I don’t know. I am flying to Kunming today and will have the interview later this afternoon. I download the song, although I don’t like it, to listen to it on the flight.

I leave my luggage at my friend’s house and will come back to Shanghai in a few days. She lives close to Hongqiao Airport. At least it’s on the way.

The flight is several hours delayed and I am hungry. I am already at the gate and the woman at the desk has been telling me for hours we will be boarding any minute. At the gate there are no restaurants, and other than a vending machine that sells cucumber, blueberry, hot pot or seaweed flavoured crisps in funky colours there is nothing to eat. This is the domestic airport and the snacks are not tailored to please foreigners.

The three and a half hour long flight to Kunming feels like a crazy tea party, everyone is chattering and shouting across the seats while holding the obligatory tea bottle. Every person holds a bottle with tea leaves in it. I am the only foreigner on the airplane and the only one without a tea bottle. All the other people brought snacks and instant noodles. Next to me sits a man in a suit, and eventually he spits into his paper cup. Chhhrrrrrpffft.

I almost have to throw up. The plane is packed, and people stand around the toilet door chatting and drinking tea like on a party. Outside the east coast, China is still underdeveloped and I can feel I am diving deeper into an authentic Chinese experience. Kunming has no Starbucks coffee, no H&M or Zara, no metro and no international banks and the airport is tiny, inside the city.

A young kid picks me up, I am not hard to find in this small airport. He is tall with a perfectly round face, chubby cheeks and buck teeth. Is he the White Rabbit? Or is he the Rabbit’s son? I don’t know and he doesn’t speak English, so I can’t ask. My flight was delayed for four hours, so we postpone the interview till the next day and Chubby Cheeks drives me in slow motion through the warm evening to the hotel I booked online. We are crawling past palm trees and trees with beautiful yellow flowers and streetlights which look like giant yellow pineapples. The buildings have all their windows barred like cages and there are flashing blue lights at junctions. Next to the lights police men sit under a tent. The streets are so lively. There are people dragging pushcarts with exotic fruits on them on the sidewalk. I can see mangos, pomelos, and something that looks like a lemon with fingers. It is called Buddha’s hand. Uncountable electric scooters, most people wearing t-shirts and sandals. And the traffic is slower and even more chaotic than in Shanghai. Cars change directions in the middle of junctions and traffic lights apparently don’t mean much. Kunming rather feels like a laid back beach town than a business city.

We drive past a Buddhist temple with incense shops and beggars without legs on skateboards in front of the gate. We cross a crowded bridge through smoke coming from BBQ stands and the intense smell of stinky Tofu. Stinky Tofu, “chou doufu”, is a certain type of Tofu, which has been fermented for a long time, up to several months. It is comparable to fermented cheese in the West, although the smell is quite different, and something I can’t get used to.

The kid drops me off at the hotel, he helps me carry my small luggage upstairs, and he checks out the room I am staying in. I find it quite nosy, but maybe he just wants to see if it’s all right. I like it. It costs a third of what I paid in Shanghai. It has a kitchen line and some kind of living room. It’s on the 11th floor and from the balcony I have an excellent view over the city. It smells a bit funny but it is only for a few nights, so I don’t mind.

The White Rabbit calls to make sure I have arrived and tells me that I will be picked up and taken to the office in the morning. I pass the phone to Chubby Cheeks, and after a few “Ha, ha, ha, ha” my uninvited guest hangs up, gives the phone back to me and says “baba”, bye-bye, and leaves.

It is Sunday morning and Chubby Cheeks shows up 20 minutes too early to drive me to the office. He keeps talking in Chinese to me, but I don’t understand him and feel awkward. I am nervous before the interview and don’t know what to expect. The office is in the west side of town, while my hotel is located in the east. On the slow motion ride to the office, I get a first daylight impression of Kunming.

The office building is next to an elevated highway, a 25 floor tall tower with a blue glass façade. The architecture office is on the sixth floor. We take the lift and Chubby Cheek walks me through an empty office to a big meeting room with a massive elliptical wooden table and twenty or thirty chairs around. He leaves me there with green tea in a paper cup and I am a bit lost sitting alone at this big table. I have to wait for the White Rabbit. There are several oversized crystal ashtrays as big as pizza plates, a projector, laser pointers and some left over paper cups on the table. Then the White Rabbit rushes in. He is around fifty years old and for a Chinese man relatively tall. He is wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals that show toe nails which are begging for a pedicure. He welcomes me and, instead of asking for my portfolio, he shows me the project he is working on. It sounds like an emergency. He quickly needs to build an international team, because the local architects are incapable of delivering a modern design by international standards and the project is already so far behind.

The White Rabbit himself studied architecture in England and has been asked by the chairman of this office to help him with the project. The project is a 200.000 square meter big shopping mall which includes an indoor theme park and all sorts of other things. He then offers me the job during the interview and I am desperate and have a good feeling, so I say yes. Wow. I have a job. They will give me an apartment and pay more money than I was offered in Shanghai.

Following the interview, we go for a quick lunch to a nearby restaurant. I wouldn’t really call it a restaurant being just the size of a garage, with a shelf where raw vegetables and different kinds of meats and chicken feet are displayed. The White chooses a few things and we sit down on miniature stools. The stools and table are so low, that I am more in a squatting position than seated. My knees hit the table, and I keep them on one side, while the Rabbit spreads his legs. It wouldn’t be ladylike, if I did that, so I try to copy other women. With high heels, it must be even harder. With my knees up to my chest, and the food far away in the middle of the table, we start eating. Everybody picks the food from the same plate with their chopsticks. “Wow, you know how to use chopsticks”, the White is surprised. “Boom tzz boom tzz” his phone rings with a dance floor song and it is extremely loud. And extremely loud he shouts into the phone. Unlike Shanghai, in Kunming it is fashionable to have your mobile phone set to the highest volume. In Shanghai people had their phones in vibration mode and held their hands in front of their mouths when they spoke, while in Kunming one speaks and shouts out freely. I lose my thought about being able to eat with chopsticks and silently continue to eat my bowl of rice. “Hey, I just got a job”, I think, and I am proud. I made it. My dream can go on. Before we can finish our lunch, we leave. We leave three plates with half eaten food behind and take a slow motion city-tour with Chubby Cheeks as our driver to visit the building site. It is a huge area and they are demolishing everything. The hungry dredgers take big bites out of what is left over from the 5-story high concrete buildings and spit them onto the ground. The big pieces of buildings land on the ground with a big “whoosh” and disappear under the dust. Next to us standing behind the fence are a few onlookers following the demolition. I hope they aren’t watching the demolition of their own houses. The White Rabbit catches me looking at them and explains:”These people are waiting for the dredgers to finish and then go over the site with metal detectors to steal the metal pipes and cables.”

After they show me the construction site we drive to the east of town and visit the office of the local architects. Unlike the office where I had the interview, here all the employees are working on a Sunday and the office is busy. The local architects don’t speak English. They are friendly and every single person wants to look at me and say “ni hao”. The younger ones stick their heads together, clap their hands over their mouths and giggle. Yellow, the boss of the local office, proudly makes a coffee with real and fresh coffee beans. He uses an electric mocha maker and the coffee smells fantastic. He is so skinny, that his face looks like a skull with glasses. He smokes at lot of cigarettes while we are here and he and the White are discussing some drawings. The White seems unhappy and the Yellow Skull seems defensive. I don’t understand anything. I just watch them while they talk and smoke and get bored quickly. Finally and a few hours later we leave and I am knackered. I want to go back to the hotel and send emails to my family and friends to tell them the news! Until now, I haven’t been able to talk to anybody and I need to share my excitement. I am moving to Kunming! I found a job!

But the Rabbit takes me out for dinner instead and I am disappointed. I am not in the mood for another spicy and greasy Chinese meal and I need something I can bite into without hesitation. My belly is already making funny noises. We go to a western bar that has salads, pasta and burgers on their menu. I order bread with hummus and a Japanese beer and hope my belly agrees. The Rabbit made arrangements to meet with two younger European guys. They have lived in Kunming several years and are fluent in Chinese. I am jealous and hope one day I will be able to speak and read like they do. They are warm hearted and welcoming. They tell me about life in Kunming so I get an idea. There are a few western restaurants and bars, but approximately only five thousand foreigners in town. Half of the five thousand are from Southeast Asia and among the westerners, there are many Christian missionaries. The Christians don’t go out to the bars, so they don’t know any. The foreign community where I fit, the people my age, without children and working in Kunming, going out and meeting people, consists of apparently only a couple hundred people. The life is that of a village, and not what one would expect from a several million big city.

The White Rabbit listens carefully, but not without constantly looking at his phone and his wristwatch, like waiting for an important date. But nobody calls. Eventually he pays the bill for all of us and leaves. The two guys take me out to another Western bar around the corner in the Culture Street. I feel overwhelmed and tired and still want to send some emails. But everything went so quickly and I am excited, so a few beers with nice people are exactly what I need. They introduce me to a few other friends and I enjoy being around people. It has been weeks since I went out, and I feel so welcome and happy. I stay out longer and drink more Japanese beer than I had planned. It is after midnight when my new friends walk me to a taxi and tell the driver where to go. I enjoy the warm wind blowing into my relaxed and beautifully drunk face, and feel optimistic and lucky about my future.

The morning after, the White Rabbit calls me at nine in the morning, and I regret my last beer. It might be also the altitude affecting me, but I was told this would pass after a week or two. I am exhausted and have a headache. Two thousand meters isn’t that high, so nobody gets real altitude sickness, but one might get fatigue and tired easily.

The Rabbit tells me that my apartment will be ready tomorrow, and right now, I can go and take a look. I don’t feel much cleaner after my shower in the mouldy bathroom and take a taxi to the office, showing the address, which the White Rabbit sent me to my phone, to the driver. From the office the White and I walk together with the HR and another woman to the apartment. We walk through a rather poor neighbourhood. Buildings are five to six floors high and have all barred windows. “Is it dangerous here?” I ask and point out the cages in front of all the windows. They tell me to be careful, and because there are many poor people in the city, people feel safer behind the bars. The little police tents on the streets where invented to make the city safer.

We walk towards two brand new towers. The dark brown paint on the façade has hardly dried yet and the outdoor facilities are still under construction. It is a little strange to see these towers suddenly appearing between all the lower buildings. Chickens run in the street and one woman washes her hair outside in a bucket. We are outside the second ring-road and it feels rather rural. We pass a nuts shop, a fruit shop, hardware shops with marihuana plants outside, and some people we pass stare at me, and say “laowei!” It means old foreigner. The compound is called something that sounds like Jacky Chan Shi. I start making up connections between familiar things and Chinese words, so I can hopefully memorise them.

We take the lift to the 18th floor, and it seems to take forever. The inside of the lift is covered in wooden planks that have a little hole, so you can press the buttons. 23 floors in total.

The apartment is neat and sunny and I can see the lake and the mountains from the windows, which reach up to the five meter high ceiling. The wind blows harshly on the balcony and it is rather scary. I can see the roof-tops of the lower buildings. They have chickens and laundry on the roof and hundreds of solar powered water heaters. I am impressed.

My new home is a studio apartment with a kitchen line next to the entrance and what I assume is a living area. At least there is a wooden bench and a TV. The room is too narrow and has a high ceiling, and upstairs is a huge bed on an interior balcony, with a brand new mattress on it, still covered in plastic. I am told to leave the plastic on, which I ignore and rip it off. For some bizarre reason, it is common here to leave the plastic packaging on doors, scooters, lifts, fridges, water dispensers, mobile phones, armrests of chairs, almost anything. Behind the bed is the bathroom. It is typical for China to have a wet bathroom, which means the shower isn’t separated. And I am lucky to have a western toilet and no squat toilet. The whole building is brand new and empty, and so is the apartment. There is no fridge or bedding or towels or tableware. I do like the apartment, even though it is like a box with windows on only one side, and I am looking forward to having my own home again.

The White Rabbit tells me that the office will give me half of my first salary in advance to do some shopping for my apartment. They send me a cute 40 kilogramme light fairy with freckles and protruding pointy ears and long black hair to help me. She goes shopping with me in an American department store and tries to teach me the Chinese words for fridge and washing machine. After our shopping tour she takes me for lunch in a little local noodle shop and orders some undefined meat dishes which I pay for.

The next few days I am supposed to have for myself to explore the town and visit the stone forest, which is one hour bus ride away. But the Rabbit has no time or patience and I have to go to the office again to start working on the project. It’s not that I am not interested, but my contract starts in one week and I am afraid of not having any spare time once I start working. It seems like it already happened.

I have moved into my empty apartment in the empty building. It seems nobody but me has moved into the two towers yet. Bizarre to me are the “soldiers”. Outside each entrance to the building there are security guards, all in camouflage suits saluting each time I pass. They look like children playing to be soldiers and I have to grin every single time, it is awkward and they smile too.

The lift already doesn’t work, and I can’t imagine walking up to the 18th floor in this heat. I am sweating as it is already. The sun is burning and I can feel the altitude because I get a headache if I walk around without a hat. Upset and unclear what to do, I stand in front of the out-of-order lifts hoping for magic to make them work for me. It’s not looking promising, I think, so I walk back outside. Somebody points up to the roof terrace that runs between my tower and its eastern twin. I take the lift of the twin and go up to where I counted the roof terrace must be. I am wrong by one floor. Chinese buildings start with first floor, not with ground floor. I walk one floor up and cross over the roof through a heavy metal door, then the last three floors up to my apartment. I am wondering about how much I am out of breath, and think, it must be the altitude. All the things that are abnormal must be caused by the 2000 meters which separate us from sea level: weight loss, lower alcohol tolerance, headaches, hangovers and being out of breath. Altitude is the ultimate explanation for everything.

It is finally time to fly back to Shanghai, to pick up my luggage and to do some shopping.

I looked at the clothing shops in Kunming, and it seems like all the clothes here are made for skinny Chinese women without breasts. So I need to buy clothes which will last me for a while and I also want to buy some art supplies, paints and brushes. Who knows if I can buy these things in Kunming?

The White already gave me a bunch of floor plans to work on while I am in Shanghai. He is not happy about me going in Shanghai and I tried negotiating another week there or two. But he didn’t agree even though my friend’s baby can come any day and I would also like to visit the EXPO. I bought the ticket already, but couldn’t go without my passport.

I have the contract with me and it says I am hired as an assistant architect. At the moment though, I am the first architect in the team and there’s nobody to assist yet. A German architect will be joining us, she should arrive by the end of this week, and I am excited. We already spoke on the phone to each other. She is more experienced than I am and supposed to lead the team. It makes me pretty nervous because I haven’t worked in a regular job with hierarchies and strict working hours for years. We will see.

I am back to work, so quickly. I am working on my own plot and there is so much work to do that I am doing overtime every day. All the people in the office are friendly, although I don’t understand a word. Each morning the fairy brings fruits for me. The internet in the office is useless, so slow, and of course they don't use a VPN. A VPN or proxy to break through the firewall is mostly needed for English speaking websites, news, social media and Google. Of course the news from Taiwan or Hong Kong are also blocked, or news about Tibet or anything else the government doesn’t want people to know. People care little about things they don’t know, at least most of the people I met so far. There are Chinese versions of most of the popular websites we like using in the West. Google is Baidu, Youtube is Youku and Weixing and QQ are similar to Facebook. I still don’t have internet at home and feel cut off from my old world.

I wonder if time will help me to get used to the smelly squat toilets in the office and the spitting. Chhrrchrrhcchhrrrpppffft.

The White Rabbit likes doing it, but so does everybody else. The woman next to me, an accountant with enormously long and colourful glittering fingernails likes to blow her nose into the bin next to me. I am lucky that we have a glass screen between us. Every time she does it, I am shocked and so disgusted to see her doing this, holding one nostril and blowing into the bin.

The German architect changes her mind and doesn’t come. She tells me she didn’t agree with the contract, especially with the only 20 days of annual holiday. So Mr. Rabbit is desperately looking for other people to come. I am desperate too. I need someone to share my experiences and to work with. I am used to work in a team, and working on my own bores me. I need somebody to help me understand the Rabbit’s design process and concept and help me to develop a set of digital plans. For now I am just busy tracing the Rabbit’s hand sketches, which are out of scale. Sometimes I carefully ask if we should change something, especially if the design flies against all the knowledge and past experiences of my career. There are two hundred meter tall office towers with a floor plate of eight hundred square meters. Bringing in a core with lifts and flight stairs and M&E rooms, mechanical and electrical rooms, doesn’t leave much office space. It is not economical to build such a thin tower. I suggest increasing the floor plates to a recommended and usual size of two thousand square meters, but “You have no idea, you should just follow my sketches.” He is right, I think, I don’t have a clue how they do things here, but I thought I was hired for my Western input. I did work on towers before, but not in China, and not in Kunming. Kunming is an earthquake zone built on marshland, and who knows, how things are done in Wonderland.

He wants to take me to Shenzhen soon, to visit the commercial consultant and some extraordinary successful buildings. Shenzhen is the border town next to Hong Kong and I am looking forward to a trip to another city. But we must wait for other team members to arrive, so we can go as a group.

My apartment turns out to be unpleasantly loud. Especially at night when the construction work is going on. Rainy season started, and it mostly rains during the night. At least the construction workers can’t work all night long. With the rain it isn’t as hot anymore, and a cloudy day can be even quite cold. Each sink in my flat stinks of toilet and rotten rats and the kitchen vent blows the exhaust of neighbours cooking into my apartment. More and more people move into the Jacky Chan building and some of the shops downstairs start opening. Now there are three pharmacies, at least four tea shops and one shop with daily necessities where I buy snacks and toiletry.

I have a leaking pipe and need somebody to come over to fix it. The HR of the office shows up, with 15 smoking Chinese men and an extra plumber to control the work.

I don’t like to have so many people in my apartment and the HR goes straight to my cupboard and looks at what is inside my drawers. She sits down at the table and looks through my papers. I don’t know if it is an o.k. thing to do in China and I don’t know what to say. It takes the smoking people half an hour, and in the end, they just smear silicon around the leak. Then they leave. They leave their cigarette butts and rubbish on the floor and hopefully fixed the pipe.

On the way to the office there is a little park with sports equipment and full of old people doing weird exercises. Some people slap themselves continuously and walk backwards. Most people use the funny machines. Some of them have hair rollers in their hair or wear pyjamas. Others bring a radio and listen to traditional Chinese music and swing around humming. Some are in groups and dance holding big read fans in their hands and some practise Tai Chi. I like watching the active square in the mornings and evenings, when I leave or come back from work. I wish I could be invisible at times and not be incessantly stared at. Then I wouldn’t constantly hear the word Laowei, and I could enjoy watching the lively plaza.

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