Constructive Criticism

I taught a lesson on how to give constructive criticism, because it’s never easy to tell people what they don’t want to hear. Plenty of adults I know have no tact when it comes to giving and receiving anything other than glowing reviews of their existence – in fact, there are a handful of young PC volunteers that come to mind and could use a lesson or two in (receiving) constructive criticism!

So I draw out a sandwich/ hamburger, with the bread being positive qualities, and a negative trait sandwiched in between. This way, by slipping in a “needs improvement” between two “YOUR’E DOING GREAT!”s, the other person won’t feel under attack, and should be more receptive to your thoughts.Fullscreen capture 5232018 102558 AM.bmp.jpg

Sounds easy enough right? I let the students write constructive criticisms of their roommates, and wait to see the results. My first peek at their writings was a bit horrifying:

“Nancy is very sweet. But she is too short. If she was taller, she would be better!”

What?! Chinese people have a very forward way of talking about a person’s appearance that we would never do in America. We might think they are super rude, or maybe they think Americans are fake by hiding our thoughts behind “Well, I’m sure she has a good personality

In this case, Nancy is being scolded for something she absolutely cannot change about herself, so this isn’t really constructive criticism. (actually height in China can be changed; there was a dangerous [now illegal] surgery where metal rods were inserted into a person’s legs and lengthened by 1mm a day to the desired height. Many customer-facing jobs in China list required height minimums in the job postings.)

But I tell the students to focus on personality traits, or features that they can actually change with hard work and dedication.

“Michelle, you always wake up on time. You should try to lose your weight from 55kg to 45kg. You are clever and like to laugh”

“Jack. You are friendly to our classmates, but you shouldn’t make many girlfriends, deceive their feelings. Of course, have so many girlfriends prove you are handsome”

“Emily, you look lovely. But your hair is kind of oily, so you should wash your hair.”

“Vivian, you are quick and tidy in your daily life. But you have a big temper. However, you take learning seriously”

This was a little better- in general, we can lose weight if we try. We can cut down on the number of girlfriends we have. We can wash our hair if we make an effort to, and we can learn to control our temper over time. (I also forgot to tell them to make the compliments and criticisms related; it does seem strange to sandwich “bad temper” between “being tidy” and “having good study habits”)

I tell them that it is ok to give the teacher constructive criticism. I was curious to see what they had to say about me, and here was their chance! They did not disappoint:

“Harrison, you are tall. But, you are very black. If you turn white you be handsome”

And then this:

“Teacher is smart. But his class has no point”

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Family Affair: a Wedding, the Afterparty

At the end of April I attended the wedding of Ma Jian, the brother in law of my half- first cousin, once removed. He sits on a distant branch of the extended family tree, but we always enjoy running into each other in and around Lanzhou at a relative’s home, or at dinner.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105809 PM.bmp.jpg

Ma Jian’s wedding took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a fancy halal restaurant biking distance from my school. It’s the same restaurant where I met all my relatives for the first time back in September 2016, so it’s only fitting that I’m here again for a final celebration, as my services draws to a close.

I bike there dressed in khakis, a blue short-sleeve polo, and Onitsuka sneakers (the ‘Peace Corps look’ is also the perfect ‘wedding guest look’ in China)! Soon the calm of the morning is scattered by the roaring engines of several rented luxury cars arriving at the restaurant, including a black Range Rover (which ferries the high-spirited 2 year old Ali and his mom Fay), and a black S-class Benz, which Ma Jian and his beautiful wife step out of.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105241 PM.bmp

Two rows of firecrackers leading from the street to the restaurant are set ablaze, and incredibly loud, sizzling popping sounds fill the air. Confetti and glitter are shot into the air from all directions. It’s an entirely noisy affair and we are slowly ushered upstairs to the banquet. I’m tasked with keeping an eye on Ali…Fullscreen capture 5102018 105317 PM.bmp

…as Fay will be busy with her four-month old baby Alara!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105302 PM.bmp

Ma Jian has an enormous family – both of his parents each had seven or eight siblings (his grandparents really took Mao’s words to heart, to go forth and multiply for the strength of the nation), so immediate uncles/ aunts alone make up 15 people, plus spouses, plus kids and grandkids… and it’s a crazy family reunion. There are kids everywhere running around, and I find it hard to keep track of Ali as his cousins and aunts beckon him to play.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105350 PM.bmp

We get settled in, select seats at random, and begin to pick at the dried fruits and sunflower seeds set at each table. Tea is served, along with orange soda and Sprite- following tradition, there is no alcohol on the premise (I’m grateful I don’t have to fight off a token baijiu guy this time around).

Soon the Imam comes and takes the stage, blessing the new couple with his wisdom and words. He talks a bit about the meaning of Islam, says several lines in Arabic, and then ceremoniously knocks over a massive metallic bowl of walnuts and red dates to the ground. The guests rush over and grasp at the dried fruits; I managed to pick up a walnut. Fay tells me these are tokens of fertility and good fortune.  Fullscreen capture 5102018 105255 PM.bmp

The entire ceremony is short, and after just under two hours, guests have finished lunch and head home. I ride back to Fay and Ma Qiang’s home, play with baby Alara, and make plans for the after-party: KTV!!!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105345 PM.bmp


There’s nothing in the world Chinese people love more than singing at KTV, except maybe eating hotpot, huoguo 火锅. Select KTV parlors also serve individual sized huoguo, where each guest receives a small pot of spicy broth over a kerosene burner to dunk raw foods into, to enjoy throughout the night while singing. This is naturally where we ended up – a heaven on earth in downtown Lanzhou – and here we dwelled for the next six hours (3x longer than the wedding banquet itself!)Fullscreen capture 5102018 105331 PM.bmp

The afternoon ceremony may have been a dry wedding, but the KTV afterparty was a completely different story – crates of beer were wheeled in, and a pack of cigarettes was placed next to each hotpot. A wedding is (hopefully) a once in life time experience, and therefore deserves to be celebrated in a monstrous smoky, boozy inferno of camaraderie with like-minded friends and family.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105339 PM.bmp

The guys are playing drinking games, shouting numbers and throwing finger gestures (representing numbers) at one another. Other guests are texting on their phones and making small talk between bites of hotpot. As the sole American and English speaker, I’m busy standing in the corner of the room on a small stage with the mic, checking off a list of songs I was requested to sing: Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Shakira’s Waka Waka, and more…shakira-wakawaka759

…my face gets redder and redder after each song- from the beer, from the lack of breath, from the fumes of chili oil broth and all the cigarette smoke… my eyes are burning and watering, and yet I’m having a wonderful time, drunkenly screaming these song lyrics in a language no one else understands but everyone seems to enjoy immensely, blurrily watching Lanzhou-ren humiliate the newly wed couple with all sorts of hilarious, marginally-sadistic post-wedding drinking games that seem to be the rites-of-passage for a bride and groom to test their love and bond…

…five hours in, no one is speaking Mandarin anymore, and everyone has switched to a Lanzhou dialect I can’t understand… and I’m all for it, knowing I’m likely the only PCV that has gotten this treatment in the 23 years Peace Corps has been stationed in China.

Blacklisted: The Demise of Peppa Pig

From time to time, a topic, celebrity, popular dessert/ snack, or segment of the population can show up at the wrong place at the wrong time and get censored by the central government. The latest – and perhaps most pitiful – victim of censorship in China is Peppa Pig.Fullscreen capture 542018 15359 PM.bmp

Peppa Pig made her debut in China innocently enough, as part of a British children’s cartoon. Soon she became super famous (season 5 was viewed 14 billion times on YouKu!!), and her face was everywhere – in bookstores, on sweaters with her name misspelled, VIVO and iPhone cases in nightmarkets, and on cracker and biscuit boxes.IMG_6690

She even made an appearance in my class last winter, as part of a holiday gift grab, and she was the most sought-after item of the day!Fullscreen capture 542018 15711 PM.bmp

But now, Peppa has now landed in the crosshairs of China’s censorship machine. She has transcended the small screen into meme superstardom, and has become a symbol of shehuiren 社会人 (Society People) or disenfranchised/ uneducated/ unemployed/ tattoo gangsta youth culture. (fitting, considering she is a pig after all)Fullscreen capture 532018 103534 PM.bmp

Sometimes she smokes a blunt, sometimes she wears gold chain, and after clips of this nature grew by the thousands and was viewed by millions, the central government had enough.Fullscreen capture 532018 102850 PM.bmp

A search for #peppapig now yields 0 results on Douyin, a social media site where you scroll through endless short clips of random shehuiren people trying to become famous. This ban may seem like a silly exercise, a bit of paranoia, but it is a symptom of a more serious problem with what happens to anyone who deviates from a government-set norm.


China has ramped up its efforts to build a perfect harmonious society as part of its Chinese Dream (中国梦), and anyone – Chinese or foreigner – who doesn’t fit into the government’s picture of an ideal civilization will get swept aside and erased from memory. This is a terrifying trend that took place a century ago in Europe and it didn’t end so well there… and yet, an increasing number of nations today seem to have modeled their domestic policies off of that era.

Artists, entertainers, are writers are generally the eyes and ears for their respective generations- documenting the joys and struggles of their daily lives through music, photography, writing, dance, video etc. (for the record, I take great pride in being both a writer and painter! I’m at the vanguard of society!!). This also makes them primary targets for blacklisting, starting with the ones that look/ feel the least respectable to the elites.Fullscreen capture 542018 20852 PM.bmp

Earlier this year, rap music was scrubbed from music streaming sites, people with tattoos were removed from scripted TV series, and most hip-hop artists were booted from talent/ music competition shows (those remaining had their bling blurred out).

The State Administration of Radio and Television also banned media from depicting the following:

  • Anything that undermined China’s territorial integrity
  • Anything that harmed national security
  • Anything that depicted fear, gambling, or crime
  • Anything that passed on knowledge of committing a crime
  • Slander/ Profanity/ Smoking/ Drinking/ Violence
  • Abnormal sexual behavior

The first two bullet points are aimed mostly at foreign entertainers. Lady Gaga’s music catalogue was removed from streaming sites after she met with the Tibetan fire-breathing demon from the 9th layer of hell, the Dalai Lama…Fullscreen capture 542018 15414 PM.bmp

And Katy Perry was set to perform in Shanghai for the VSFS, but her visa was revoked. Her crime? Wearing a dress covered in sunflowers – a symbol of Taiwan’s pro-independence movement – at a concert in Taipei.Fullscreen capture 542018 15406 PM.bmp

The remaining bullet points are guidelines for domestic media. Essentially, TV shows and movies become farther and farther removed from reality; we all encounter criminals (cab drivers rip me off regularly), curse, drink and smoke at clubs, and have a little fun in the backseat of a car – and none of that can be shown in China.

Films catering to adults now have the same storylines as cartoons meant for 5 year olds (like Peppa Pig!) All the movies I’ve painfully sampled mostly revolved around teenagers taking college exams, or the dating scene for rich, light skinned, emaciated 30 year old women – who act and talk like 12 year olds, to keep everything G-rated(小时代).Fullscreen capture 542018 15426 PM.bmp

It should be noted the actor I circled in red, Kai Ko, was arrested for smoking marijuana with Jackie Chan’s son in Beijing, so his career in mainland China is effectively over.


Gay characters were also written out of TV shows last year, and homosexuality was thrown in the same pool as incest, pedophilia, and bestiality as examples of immoral relationships. (that is a shockingly hateful and backward statement made by the State Administration of Radio and Television, in 2015!!).Fullscreen capture 542018 22859 PM.bmp

Just last month in April, Weibo (Chinese Twitter) attempted to remove / censor all gay content to better align itself with government directives, but the backlash was so swift and furious from the LGBT community and its growing allies that the ban was reversed within several days.Fullscreen capture 542018 15034 PM.bmp


My friends in Lanzhou (who I guess the government would see as 社会人 “Society People” because they are forward thinking men and women in their late 20s, unmarried, live for themselves, and therefore a menace to society) were thrilled with the ban reversal.

“If they successfully removed gay people from Weibo, we would be next! I mean, look at my tattoos!”
“Who knows? Maybe drinking coffee will be banned on social media – it’s a negative foreign influence”
“…People who can’t afford an apartment will be censored, and lumped together with drug addicts”
“Girls who are unmarried by 25 will have their faces blurred out from movies”

“Thank god for North Korea. North Koreans will always be dumber than us.”
“…But that fatty Kim Jong-un made peace with the West. Soon they’ll have access to Facebook and Youtube”
“What?? Fuck North Korea!!”

Dujiangyan Irrigation System (都江堰)

In early April I set out to visit DuJiangYan, a large-scale irrigation system built some 2,200 years ago, to prevent flooding in the Sichuan plain during the rainy season. It’s the oldest surviving “non-dam irrigation system” in the world, and the levees and artificial channels are still in use today (albeit with some modern modifications), which is a testament to the ingenuity of the project and its brilliant engineer, Li Bing.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91134 PM.bmp

Legend has it that once Dujiangyan was able to tame the Min River and prevent major floods, while simultaneously moving water around when needed during droughts, the people in Sichuan become wealthier and their lives more convenient. No longer plagued by catastrophic hardships, their culture became the most relaxed in China. This is evident today in Chengdu, with its countless teashops and clattering mahjong tiles heard on every street corner, with the blissfully enjoyable pace of life that the city has adapted.


Dujiangyan is just 20+ minutes outside of Chengdu by high speed rail, and I went for a quick overnight trip. I looked through the tourist map a few times, and also studied some scale models they had at the site, but had a lot of trouble figuring out which parts of the structure were natural vs artificial, which parts were used for de-silting the river water, and which channels were used to prevent flooding.Fullscreen capture 4232018 83628 PM.bmp I’m not a hydraulic engineer, and sometimes it’s better to just admit defeat, smile and take selfies.

The site requires a lot of walking, and upon entering I was greeted with a series of fantastic gardens with several koi ponds. The nice thing about Sichuan province is it rains a lot, and the ponds were teeming with life and movement, brimming with moving water, fish, and energy.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91151 PM.bmp

In Lanzhou, most fish ponds are only half full, muddy, and covered in algae or dead leaves. Here, the walkways and bridges that connect the pavilions were almost submerged into the lake. A most welcome and refreshing problem to have.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91434 PM.bmp

One garden had the most picturesque window carved out of a wall, to grant the visitor a perfect view of the waterfall and foliage contained within.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91322 PM.bmp

A perfect expression of fengshui 风水!IMG_6060.JPG

After relaxing in the gardens I headed north to see the irrigation project. I walked past “the bottle neck”, the “flying sand weir” “Golden levee” and Inner River. Again, they each served a purpose but it was beyond my comprehension.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91635 PM.bmp

Eventually, I reached the Fish Mouth, which splits the incoming Min River in two. April is considered dry season, so the water level wasn’t at its peak, but from what I understood, excess water was diverted left to irrigate the Sichuan Plain, and prevented the Inner River from ever flooding.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91956 PM.bmp

The hills to the east provide scenic views of the entire irrigation system. To get to them, you need to walk across Anlan suspension bridge. For centuries, this bridge was held together by only bamboo and rope. Thankfully, steel chains now bind the entire structure together.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91157 PM.bmp

I suppose if the bamboo and rope bridge ever snapped, ancient visitors would be swept into the Flying Sand Weir and spat into the Outer River. But now, we’ll never know.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91212 PM.bmp

At last, I climbed up the hilltop pagoda and was rewarded with an impressive and calming view of the entire irrigation system and valley. Mist was billowing out of lush, green mountains, and the blue waters rushed below… and the birds were singing and delighting in the afternoon drizzle… sitting there, I could not think up a more peaceful or enjoyable way to spend a weekend.Fullscreen capture 4252018 91231 PM.bmp