From Xining to Zhangye

Xining: Tibetan Medicine Museum

Earlier this autumn I made a weekend trip to Xining, taking the 70 minute bullet train. Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, and the gateway to areas of China with heavier Tibetan influence.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM.bmp

I was there to visit the Tibetan Medicine Museum of China to see the Great Thangka. A Thangka (tangkasnet) is a Tibetan Buddhist painting done on cotton or silk. In this style of art, there is always one large figure in the center, surrounded by dozens of smaller demi-gods, animals, and monks depicting a Buddhist story. Here is an example, courtesy of Wikipedia:Fullscreen capture 11212017 62554 PM.bmp

The thangka is always colorful and ornate, meticulously painted with layers of blue ocean waves, deep red temple facades, and gold or silver lining saved for clouds and deities.

What makes the Great Thangka special is its sheer size and length – this is a scroll painting 618 meters (2,000+ feet!!!) in length and 1,000 kg in weight – which took 300 artists over 25 years to complete. Walking into the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14042 PM.bmp

Wall after wall, room after room, was this never-ending scroll painting as far as the eye could see. Every square inch of visible surface-area was covered in colors and stories- there were elephants, tortured human skeletons, vultures, blue-skinned fire demons, dragons, and historical figures important to Tibetan Buddhism.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14029 PM.bmp

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I had the entire exhibit to myself. In retrospect I should have requested a guide to help me further appreciate the artwork, to better understand the major themes and fables depicted. Fullscreen capture 11212017 14035 PM.bmp

Had it not been for the green arrows on the floor guiding visitors through the museum, I definitely would have been lost at some point. The experience was similar to wandering through a corn maze, only slightly more artistic and lacking screaming children.

Here is a floor map of the exhibit; from above it looks a bit like our large intestines (I drew a yellow line to helpfully indicate the thangka snaking through the museum).Fullscreen capture 11212017 62604 PM.bmp

I am really curious about the logistics of outlining, painting, storing, transporting, and installing the Great Thangka. Researching this might just be my Peace Corps secondary project, instead of fixing up the dreaded “Book Nook”.

Zhangye: Danxia Geopark and the Giant Buddha

Several weeks later I again headed north-west from Lanzhou for three and a half hours via bullet train, this time to Zhangye.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM_1.bmp

Zhangye is famous for the Danxia National Geopark, a rock formation landscape similar to the Grand Canyon. With good weather and angled sunlight, the rich colors of the earth streak through the mountainside in reds, yellows, cream, and every color in between.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14301 PM.bmp

Danxia is about forty minutes away from Zhangye downtown by private car. After arriving at the geopark, I hitched a ride on the park bus that came every ten minutes or so, stopping at each viewpoint to admire various rock formations.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14253 PM.bmp

Chinese love giving ridiculous, long-winded names to odd shaped rocks on mountains and hills- the Danxia Geopark is no different. Below are some fancy titles for the sculpted landscape, and if you squint hard enough, maybe you could see a scallop or monkey, but I honestly just saw dirt-colored cliffs.

  • Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus
  • Colorful Meeting Fairy Deck
  • Spirit Monkey View Sea
  • Supernatural Tortoise Looks at the Sky

Also worth noting that every image on Google has been photoshopped and saturated beyond reality, and what I saw with my eyes looked nothing like what a visitor may have expected, if they were to believe Google.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62548 PM.bmp

The other must-see landmark in Zhangye is the Giant Sleeping Buddha (张掖大佛寺). This slumbering sculpture is the largest of its kind in China – and thankfully, has barely been touched since its creation in the Western Xia Dynasty 900+ years ago.02-20121111-08_cn-sleepingbuddha-sml

The Buddha is held together by a hollow wooden frame coated in a layer of clay, and painted over. A panorama shows its true scale: 157 feet long x 24 feet wide at its highest (shoulder to shoulder). He is guarded by ten disciples behind him, and two on either side of his head and feet.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62530 PM.bmp

No photography was allowed inside, so these are Google photos. Behind the statue on the wall were Ming Dynasty murals retelling scenes from Journey to the West (interestingly, the wall paintings were completed before the book 西游记 was written, so many of these tales about the Monkey King existed along the Silk Road well before they reached the rest of China!). There’s also a legend that Kublai Khan was born here, but so far there’s little evidence of this.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14214 PM.bmp

The temple exterior is unadorned and unpainted. There are banners along the entrance pillars with a beautiful poem, written in traditional Chinese characters:

Sleep Buddha, long may you slumber
Sleep 1,000 years
Slumber forever, do not awaken
Those who ask, question forever
Question 100 centuries
Never ask, and you will never know

Of course I made a sketch of this too, with the poem written in gold ink glimmering against a black midnight sky, overlooking Zhangye’s Giant Buddha. May he sleep for another 100 centuries!Fullscreen capture 11212017 62540 PM.bmp



Halloween “Party”

The English Association hosted its annual Halloween party Tuesday night! First, it’s important to note that all school “parties” I’ve attended thus far have never included dancing or socialization; in actuality they are talent shows. In most of China, there are no Middle School dances or High School proms- just a lot of studying for the College Entrance Exam; it’s a real pity an entire generation of kids never learned to relax and get loose and have a good time.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84630 PM.bmp

The Halloween party is an event that’s most enjoyable if the adult attendees (AKA me and my site-mate Michelle) show up moderately drunk. I learned my lesson from last year, when I made the fatal mistake of sitting through 90 minutes of student performances completely sober.

My costume this year is “Masque of the Red Death”, the titular character from Edgar Allen Poe’s infamous poem, where a diseased spirit enters a patrician party uninvited, and murders everyone attending the masquerade at the stroke of midnight.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84635 PM.bmp

There’s not a lot that goes into my costume except a red mask, and several large gulps of beer are enough to turn my face blotchy-red, which was just the look I was going for!

Anyway, we walk into the Halloween talent show, and the Dean is sitting in the front row, smiling. We quickly join him and take our seats, and I feel like we are judges on American Idol or the X Factor. Dean Jiang is Simon Cowell of course, so I guess that makes me the non-threatening, overweight black producer, and Michelle gets to be the unsuccessful crossover-Latina popstar.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84622 PM.bmp

The show does not disappoint.

The first performance is a hip hop dance. The music turns on, and the instantly recognizable – nay, iconic – shouting of Lil’ Jon blasts through the auditorium.


Michelle and I laugh uncontrollably. Dean Jiang is genuinely curious about what we find funny [he speaks perfect English, but can’t quite pick up on these cultural niceties the same way we can]. I feel like these kids choose songs without even bothering to check the lyrics, and in that sense their irreverence is pretty awesome… a part of me hopes they intentionally picked Lil’ Jon to see what they can get away with – which would make them way cooler and more rebellious than I imagined.Fullscreen capture 1132017 84643 PM.bmp

A while later, Michelle and I have to perform our duet (Peace Corps volunteers are always expected to participate): we are singing “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana, which is basically the poor man’s “Let It Go” from Frozen.“ How Far I’ll Go” unwisely uses the word ‘island’ at the end of a verse, and since nothing rhymes with island, the word is used again and again, which ruins the flow of the song. Fullscreen capture 1132017 84909 PM.bmp

Michelle does a good job singing her part, but I was way out of tune and missed the best lines of the chorus where I should have belted out some big notes (and I practiced in the shower for this too! Sad!!).

But in the end we all had a good time, and I saw some cool magic tricks performed by a magician, and a solo “Indian Bridal Dance” from my bravest freshman student, Candy. I’m not too bummed about my poor singing this time around, since I already know we will have to sing at several other events through the end of the year. This was just a warm-up – I may pull out my drunk Whitney Houston for our next “party”!

Short Stories: Table Setting, New Names, English Moochers


I put together an entertaining lesson on American dining etiquette – the highlight was asking students to come to the chalkboard and fill in a “Formal Table Setting”, drawing and labeling each item as requested.FullSizeRender (1).jpg

This was also a way to test their ability to differentiate left from right, upper vs lower, etc. (“Directly above the dinner plate, please draw a small cake fork, pointing right. Good.. no, your other right.. no, that’s a spoon.. I need a fork.. thanks!

I actually learned a lot from this as well- the difference between the salad and dinner knives, or that the white wine glass is to the lower-right of the red wine glass. (I cant remember the last time I had both wine glasses filled during dinner, and this is probably for the best its unbecoming for guests to be jumping on the table at a wedding or charity event, anyway…)

My best advice for going to an American wedding: NEVER EVER wear white, or the bride will hate you forever!!!


Earlier last month, I provided a list of names for my freshman students. Over the semesters, I’ve had so many Nancys, Graces, and Susans… pleasant names by all means but also very Brady Brunch, very 1960’s textbook English names. So I spiced things up a bit this year: I looked up a list of all the Victoria Secret models’ names on Wikipedia, and asked the girls to pick from there!Fullscreen capture 10162017 82910 PM.bmp

Finally we have many more Russian, Portugese and Spanish names in class – there’s a Gisele, an Alessandra, a Karolina, and Adriana! Guys, I’m promoting ethnic diversity in the classroom!alessandra-ambrosio-adriana-lima-gisele-bundchen-models-angels

Now you might think, “Teacher Cheng! There’s nothing empowering about naming an entire cohort of students after women who are valued solely for their bodies and not their brains! This is a huge step backwards for feminism!” To which I will response, “You’re absolutely correct! But in 2017, to point out the obvious would automatically open me to being labeled a slut-shamer, a misogynist, an illiterate, sexist troll.” (Earlier this year, a fellow PCV accused me of living in the 15th century, when I discussed with her my hopelessly archaic views on female empowerment)Fullscreen capture 10162017 82904 PM.bmp

To be fair, the Victoria Secret is enormously popular in China (a 16,000 sq ft store opened in Shanghai this year), and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the names of my list above became popular baby names in the coming years – so if anything, I’m just ahead of the curve!

English Moochers

The worst thing about being an American volunteer English teacher in China is when parents with young kids find out your occupation – their brains immediately pick up on “American” “English” and “Teacher” (and skip over volunteer, probably because they don’t know what it means) and start pleading with you to teach their kids English.

I’ve been accosted countless times by parents who are friends of a friend, and somehow feel entitled to pass off their English-starved child into my possession for a tutoring session. Chinese people are notorious for being very indirect if they need something from you– they will make small talk, ask about your health, your family, your apartment, your dating life, gun ownership in America, and after 10 minutes, maybe bring up they need a favor from you.

But when it comes to English, these parents are ruthlessly direct. Recently, less than a minute after I was introduced to a woman here in Lanzhou, she immediately pulled out her iPhone and showed me photos of her daughter doing ballet, her adorable, oh-so-eager to learn English offspring. Then she basically demanded that I teach her daughter every week. Bribed me with red envelopes (cash), dinners, gifts…

Normally, I provide an indirect answer about being too busy, or not being allowed to take side jobs, or something else to soften the disappointment of not teaching their precious itty-bitty child. But this woman rubbed me the wrong way and deserved a response equal in magnitude to her offense

Me: 我讨厌教英语!也讨厌小孩!最讨厌给小孩教英语!I hate teaching English! And I hate kids! Most of all, I hate teaching English to kids!

Mother (clearly stunned by my unexpectedly direct reply): 好尴尬啊SO AWKWARD!

Labrang Monastery བླ་བྲང་བཀྲ་ཤིས་འཁྱིལ and more: the Chengs reunite in Lanzhou!

Mid-September my mom visited Lanzhou to check I was alive, 15 months into my Peace Corps service. In addition to cleaning my apartment from corner to corner (“its so dirty! Its so so dirty!”) we took a short weekend trip down to Xiahe, which is home to Labrang Monastery and the Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80638 PM.bmp.jpg

Labrang Monastery and Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80436 PM.bmp

Founded in 1709, Labrang Monastery is Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred complex outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. At one point it was home to over 4,000 monks but this number has been cut by 2/3 since the Cultural Revolution. Today it is also a functioning school for studying Buddhist law, religion, medicine, etc.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80647 PM.bmp

We were admitted into some of the temples and halls when prayer sessions were not being held. I was most impressed by the boxes and boxes of centuries-old scrolls and sutras housed inside, lining the interior walls up to the ceiling (like a scene out of Beauty and the Beast, when superficial Belle is blown away that the Beast is actually literate and not just an animal-thug)

Some of the exterior murals on the temple walls were phenomenal with incredible detail and colors. The frescos depict various guardians/ gods/ demons battling for dominanceFullscreen capture 1092017 83356 PM.bmp

The entire perimeter of the complex is made of a 3.5 km continuous corridor of prayer wheels – lifelong Tibetan Buddhists have traveled hundreds of miles to come here to pray and receive blessings. The most devoted will not simply walk and spin prayer wheels- instead, they bow and prostrate themselves on the ground every step of the way around the entire Labrang complex.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80445 PM.bmp

I attempted a sketch of this (leaving much of the image black and white- a new style for me, perhaps!)22277892_1694771400554991_6830050048584187904_n.jpg

The day was generally cloudy and even rainy, but for half an hour the sun came out and gave us perfect blue skies.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80455 PM.bmp

The Sangke grasslands were rather underwhelming. I imagined a vast field as far as the eye could see, with the spirits of wild horses and Tibetan/ Mongol herders soaring freely across miles and miles of wild pastures. In reality, most of these lands have been fenced off into small squares by the owners, so the grasslands have been tamed in some sense.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80236 PM.bmp.jpg

Still, I got a wonderful photo of the family that stayed on the particular plot of land (they were Tibetan for surethey did not speak mandarin Chinese). The baby is impressively unimpressed, and the young man is ruggedly handsome in a way that comes so naturally for Tibetans.

He wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for Hermes or Prada (see below) but instead of being a moody, pretentious prick, he’s just living his life…Fullscreen capture 1092017 113025 PM.bmp.jpg

Gansu Museum

Back in Lanzhou, we visited the Gansu Museum in the Qilihe district. The highlight here is the Bronze Running Horse- crafted some 2,000 years ago, it was rediscovered during the Cultural Revolution, and (thankfully!) not destroyed in some crazed political movement shortly after. The horse is no ordinary horse- it is a Celestial Horse, a prized breed of beautiful and fearless warhorses from the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80605 PM.bmp

Personally, I was equally as impressed by the “Tiger-Devouring Sheep Pedestal” made some 2,500 years ago! Both the horse and tiger are on my sketch list… stay tuned!Fullscreen capture 1092017 80711 PM.bmp

The Vegetable Lady

Outside my school there is an indoor market that sells live chickens, fish, and fresh vegetables. I go to the same lady to buy groceries (she’s friendly and always gives me free parsley and chili peppers), and sometimes I have difficulty understanding her heavily-accented Chinese, so I brought my mom along for support.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80830 PM.bmp

The following (pleasant, at least initially) exchange occurred.

Vegetable Lady: Hi! So… is he your only child?

Mom: No, I have an older daughter. She’s 3 years older than him, shes 31

Lady: 31! Is she married? 你的姑娘结婚了没?

Mom: No, she’s not married.

Lady: WHAT? 31 AND SINGLE?Fullscreen capture 1092017 82054 PM.bmp

Mom: yes.. it’s quite normal in America and in New York.

Lady (shocked, and feeling extreme pity for my mom): BUT… YOU DON’T HAVE GRANDKIDS?

Mom: Yeah… I mean its not a big deal… I’ve lived in America for 35 years, it’s really not as important as it is in China…Fullscreen capture 1092017 82104 PM.bmp

Lady (speaking as if our entire family was a failure): NO GRANDKIDS? No grandkids to hug… no grandkids to hug… (没孙子抱! 没孙子抱…)

*later, as we leave the market*

Mom: Oh my god… even the vegetable vendor is hounding me about grandkids!!!

Weekend in Lanzhou

My dad and sister finally made it to Lanzhou, just for the weekend (they were busy touring Beijing and the ancient capital Xi’An – the schedule was packed) so we did a quick tour of the must-see things in Lanzhou:

The night market at Zhenging Road. There is a line around the block for 牛奶鸡蛋醪糟, a hot, frothy milk-egg-cereal drink. kind of loud, kind of crowded- sums up Lanzhou nicelyFullscreen capture 1092017 90235 PM.bmp

Lanzhou Beef Noodle Sampler (I have an entire post dedicated to these beef noodles)Fullscreen capture 1092017 82025 PM.bmp

Mine turned out to be a single strand of noodle, much to everyone’s amusementFullscreen capture 1092017 80800 PM.bmp

San Pao Tai Tea by the German Bridge/ Yellow River (best view in the Lanzhou, also home to some of the dirtiest toilets in the city as my mom found out.. which is why I always just pee in the bushes)Fullscreen capture 1092017 80748 PM.bmp

And of course, a dinner 涮羊肉 with our relatives here in the city. After 55+ years (I won’t reveal my mom’s age!), she finally meets her older half-sister. About time!Fullscreen capture 1092017 91954 PM.bmp