Stories from Xinjiang!

In the beginning of January, my Juniors who were sent to Hetian in Xinjiang for a semester to teach Chinese came back to our Lanzhou campus. I had dinner with a small group of them to catch up on their journey, and as expected they had unforgettable memories (and photos!) to share.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63556 PM.bmp

Let’s backtrack a bit to better understand the context of their teaching internship. Xinjiang is considered an autonomous region, and it is the westernmost province in China. It is culturally more similar to Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan) than to Han China, and roughly 10 million people living there identify as Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic-speaking group. uyghur-Hotan-april2013

Uighurs also don’t look Chinese! This sounds incredibly racist coming from someone who is regularly told he doesn’t ‘look American’, but… it’s totally true! Many people in Xinjiang have blue-green eyes, light hair, and strong noses and jaws. They could pass for Russian, Persian, Mexican, Egyptian, or Greek… but definitely not Chinese in the Jackie Chan/ Mulan sense. Here’s an article from NPR about Uighur models, and a photo from Bing Images:Fullscreen capture 1312018 115317 PM.bmp

Throughout the centuries, the area has fallen in and out of control of various Chinese dynasties- sometimes completely independent from China, sometimes as a tributary state, sometimes a loose alliance of tribes – but by the end of the 19th century, Xinjiang was fully conquered by the Qing Dynasty (battle depicted below).Fullscreen capture 1312018 70528 PM.bmp

However, the Uighurs have been slow to assimilate to Han Chinese customs- everything from writing/ language to religion, holidays, customs, and dress/ attire, meals, etc has remained distinctly non-Han for the population. This has inevitably led to violent clashes in recent decades, as more and more Han Chinese permanently relocate to Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has been eager to send Chinese language teachers to Xinjiang as well, in an effort to help the Uighurs better integrate into their country and – in theory – obtain better work opportunities down the road. PC volunteers are banned from traveling to the region during service- there are many reasons for conflict in Xinjiang beyond what I write in my blog, and I encourage you can look this up independently.

Fullscreen capture 1312018 63549 PM.bmpAnyway, back in Lanzhou I was eager to see my students and recognized them one by one as they made their way to the North Gate of our campus.

William was the first to approach me – a student who feasibly could have passed for deaf-mute the first three months I taught him since he refused to participate in anything– grabbed me out of sheer exasperation and was entirely sympathetic to my plight this past year and a half.


It took a while for me to stop laughing. As it turns out, he was assigned to a large class of 70 third graders, who didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I can only imagine the wall of chaos he faced on a daily basis.Fullscreen capture 1312018 52040 PM.bmp

Other students came over and aired their grievances.

“William didn’t even learn their names. I memorized all of my students’ names! SOME HAD NAMES THAT WERE 12 HANZI CHARACTERS LONG! (12 syllables long, omg!!!)

“I had to teach from pinyin (foundations of Chinese language)they didn’t even know the alphabet

“…no one paid attention in class”

“I couldn’t understand a word of what they said to me”

“… they couldn’t write characters or memorize stroke order…”

“everyone wanted to take my picture”Fullscreen capture 1312018 63602 PM.bmp

This was starting to sound like the experience of every Peace Corps China Volunteer, except instead of teaching English to college kids who don’t care, they were teaching Chinese to elementary school kids who didn’t care… and quite honestly, I’m not sure which is worse (the stakes are higher for them though– these Uighur kids will very likely need Mandarin Chinese later in life, whereas my students can get by fine without English)

I asked if my students had played charades, telephone, or Pictionary in class, as we had done in our lessons. They immediately ruled that out, since any whiff of “game” or “fun” would cause the young students to explode into a mass of uncontrollable energy.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63641 PM.bmp

Overall they all appreciated the opportunity to live in a completely foreign culture, while still staying in China. Inevitably they became close with their students and fellow teachers. A couple of my students admitted to crying when they packed their bags and said goodbyes. A few said they would return to Xinjiang when they graduate, since salaries tend to be higher in desolate places that require strong survival skills.

Looking through the photos the juniors sent me, I can safely say our college campus is much nicer in comparison. It looks as if their rooms were heated with coal stoves, and there was next to no technology in class, apart from electric lights. While Gansu as a whole is quite poor, the incomes in HeTian might only be a fourth of what they are here in Lanzhou.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63809 PM.bmp

If anything, my students’ experiences in HeTian were much more similar to the typical yurt/ mud hut Peace Corps adventure than mine, and in some ways I’m a bit envious of them!  


Semester Three Sketches

Happy 2018 y’all! To celebrate the new year – and the beginning of my final year in Peace Corps – here is a collection of sketches from the third semester of teaching.

San Xing Dui Bronze HeadsFullscreen capture 1102018 51127 PM.bmp

RoosterFullscreen capture 1102018 51146 PM.bmp

Prayer WheelsFullscreen capture 1102018 50050 PM.bmp

Tiger and SheepFullscreen capture 1102018 50121 PM.bmp

ShanghaiFullscreen capture 1102018 50207 PM.bmp

Hairy Crab SeasonFullscreen capture 1102018 50247 PM.bmp

Sleeping Buddha of ZhangyeFullscreen capture 1102018 50357 PM.bmp

ChessFullscreen capture 1102018 50313 PM.bmp

GraduationFullscreen capture 1102018 50327 PM.bmp

PandasFullscreen capture 1102018 50335 PM.bmp

As usual, the sketches are accompanied by elegant and refined poetry, courtesy of my uncle. All of the sketches are based on places I visited, many from this semester: Gannan, Zhangye, Xi’An.

Some are from trips I took last summer, and others even from Pre-Service Training (San Xing Dui, and the Chengdu Panda Reserve, back in the summer of 2016)! The sketch of Pudong is inspired by a trip I took to Shanghai in October and didn’t have time to write about; but rest assured – it’s the most cosmopolitan city in all of China.

Here are links for Semester One Sketches and Semester Two Sketches.

For the final stretch of Peace Corps I will try to focus on drawing people and their expressions, rather than architecture. this is a bit of a challenge as its always easier to draw a building than a person’s face, but I’m going to try my best!!


A Non-Christmas Celebration of December 25th, Fake News, and more

The war on Christmas has arrived, and for the first time in nearly a decade it has nothing to do with Barack Obama! (I jest, I jest!). According to various news articles written in both English and Chinese, Christmas this year has been cancelled by the central government. Some sources described the holiday as a wicked, Western influence on the malleable youth of China, and made strongly worded allusions to China’s darkest days during the Opium War / European colonization.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120306 PM.bmp

It was strange that this edict went largely unnoticed in the parts of China I had visited in the past two months- there were giant Christmas trees in every shopping mall I entered, and the red-and-white peppermint motif was seen in many storefronts throughout Lanzhou. There is a saying in Chinese, 天高皇帝远 (the sky is high, the emperor is far) which means you can do whatever you want, especially the further away you are in proximity (and power) from the central government.Fullscreen capture 12312017 121506 PM.bmp

I erred on the side of caution though, and decided not to show the music video for the Mariah Carey / Justin Bieber remix to “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. This was probably for the best, as it ultimately spared my students from having to see Mariah dressed as Santa’s little hooker flaunting her cheap wares at the Herald Square Macy’s.Fullscreen capture 12312017 113630 AM.bmp

But it was too late to cancel the Christmas gift grab, which I had told my students about well in advance. So, the party was changed to a 冬至 Winter Solstice Gift Exchange Celebration instead. Last year, it got read awkward when the students who didn’t bring gifts had nothing to do, and sat in class with their headphones in staring at their phones. To avoid these uncomfortable moments, I got a few extra gifts this year for each class just in case – chocolate for everyone! Cavities for Christmas, yay!!!Fullscreen capture 12312017 120246 PM.bmp.jpg

I could use a little help in the gift wrapping department though, and made good use of several pages from the  quarterly Peace Corps TEFL Magazine to create a festive – albeit unassuming – exterior for my chocolates.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120252 PM.bmp

Anyway, the Winter Solstice Gift Exchange Celebration was still a fun treat for my classes. The students who opened the Hershey’s boxes were nice enough to share the candy with their classmates- I’m not sure I would have done the same…Fullscreen capture 12312017 120456 PM.bmp

The non-Christmas December 25th Celebration continued with KTV for a group of Freshman from Class 1. My student Joan, in particular, was an excellent singer and nailed songs from Adele, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez. She told me her English used to be terrible, but through singing English songs repeatedly, she improved in pronunciation and confidence. I couldn’t agree more- she was the star of the evening.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120316 PM.bmp

On a separate night, Michelle (the PCV 23 at my site) carved out time for the sophomores to make some festive decorations, such as little green non-Christmas Christmas trees, and an intensely difficult 3D paper snowflake.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120834 PM.bmp

We gorged on sugar cookies made by Michelle and struggled through the snowflakes. This arts and crafts night turned out to be a great way for the students to take their minds off their upcoming finals.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120334 PM.bmp


Out of curiosity I wanted to see if the other teachers knew about the ban on Christmas. I showed the anti-Christmas news articles to a staff member of our school. He studied them carefully (suspicious that one was written in traditional Chinese – AKA likely from outside mainland China) and laughed.

“I haven’t heard about this at all- it’s a fake article. This must be written by western sources that want to make China look bad, and look unreasonable to the rest of the world. That’s why it’s important you guys can come here for two years with Peace Corps, to understand the real China. So you won’t believe these things next time they appear on a website”

OMG! I was duped into believing fake news, yet again!! (Reminds me of the time I got in a heated argument with a med student that vaccines cause autism… oops.) Now I need to know who wrote those articles: Fox News? RT America? Putin? Erdogan?! Quasi-Turkish goodwill ambassador Lindsay Lohan?


Our year end banquet had ten extra guests this time around- they are a group of ten young and friendly male students from Tajikistan. I’ve seen them around campus but rarely speak to them, besides the cordial “ni hao” and “hello”. We have language barrier issues: though they speak upwards of five languages (Russian, Tajik, Arabic, Turkish, and Uzbek), I speak none of those, and their four months’ worth of Chinese classes have yet to yield fluency in Mandarin Chinese. But they are super nice and told me they like Eminem, Rihanna, and Shakira– truly global superstars!   Fullscreen capture 12312017 120504 PM.bmp

I joked with our department that we need to get some Tajik girls next year to balance things out a bit. I was told that studying abroad for 4 years would put the young women at a huge disadvantage: by the time they return home at 22 years of age, they will have missed the opportunity to marry and start a family.

Michelle and I exchanged a wtf?” look, with some light chuckling but general feelings of pity, to think that girls in some countries feel pressured to marry by 18 or 19, and completing an undergraduate degree would actually do them a disservice in life.

Or perhaps, if I could ask those Tajik guys their thoughts on the matter, they may laugh and tell me that this too is FAKE NEWS.

Longmen Grottos (龙门石窟) and FutureLearn

In early December I took the high speed rail to Luoyang in Henan Province to see the famous Longmen Grottoes. This was one of the furthest weekend trips for me so far, one that required spending the night in Xi’An first, before heading further east to Luoyang the following morning.Fullscreen capture 12242017 100301 PM.bmp

Luoyang is one of China’s four great ancient capitols- the others being Xi’An, Nanjing, and Beijing. Interestingly, Luoyang itself doesn’t have massive city walls, palaces, and temples that could still be seen today in the other three. The capitol was likely burned to the ground several times in the past millennium, and hit particularly hard during the Cultural Revolution. However, it is home to some splendid rock carvings, collectively known as the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) Grottoes.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92506 PM.bmp

These Buddhist grottoes were carved from the Northern Wei period 493 AD onward, and work ceased at some point in the Song Dynasty (around 1127 AD). Over the 600+ years, some 2,300 caves and 100,000 (!) Buddhist figures were dug out of the cliffs in various scale- many minuscule, and some enormous.

The one cave everyone comes here to see is the Fengxian Cave, the true masterpiece of the Tang dynasty. In this expansive, open-air grotto, there are nine carved statues, with Vairocana Buddha seated in the center. The five central figures are serene and calm- the outer four guardians are clearly ferocious warriors. This is a political work of art as well; all power radiates from the Emperor and Emperor only!Fullscreen capture 12242017 92450 PM.bmp

It was during the reign of the enormously powerful and wealthy Wu ZeTian – the only female emperor in all of China’s history (crazy mother-in-laws don’t count!!) – that this set of statues was carved. The effortlessly beautiful central Buddha was modeled in her image, and has distinctly feminine features – the high eyebrows, slender nose, pursed lips, etc. Her earlobes are 2 meters in length, so I would still come up 10 cm short if I were to miraculously levitate and stand next to her earsFullscreen capture 12242017 92901 PM.bmp

From across the river you can get a better sense of scale for the Fengxian cave, and you can also see the many, many stairs I had to climb to enjoy this World Heritage Site.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92443 PM.bmp

Back in Xi’An, I revisited the Wild Goose Pagoda which was much more impressive this time around, with clear blue skies instead of a polluted grey backdrop. I got someone to take a photo of me pinching the tip of the pagoda, as if I were lifting the precious lid off a seven-tiered dessert platter.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92536 PM.bmp

Later I came across a group of old men playing chess, just outside the Ming city walls. This sort of hobby – chess, and the crowd of back-seat chess drivers that gather – is common across all of China, especially on a lazy weekend afternoon.Fullscreen capture 12242017 102457 PM.bmp.jpg

A moment like this warrants its own sketch:Fullscreen capture 12242017 110501 PM.bmp

I also witnessed a blazing sunset while waiting at the platform for my train back to Lanzhou the following evening, a sure reminder that another weekend trip has come to an end.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92436 PM.bmp.jpg

FutureLearn: The European Discovery of China

I’m taking full advantage of my free time by traveling through China, but to gain a deeper understanding of many of these sites and how they are connected, I needed more background information than what was provided in brochures, audio-guides, and WikiTravel.

There are several sites offering free online courses on almost any subject you can think of – and after some digging, I found “The European Discovery of China” through FutureLearn.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90634 PM.bmp

This is an eight week course (each course requires the learner to finish viewing a dozen or so short videos and an optional quiz at the end – all videos can be downloaded as PDF text as well) that explains interactions between the East and West for the past two thousand years.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90641 PM.bmp

The course has a heavy emphasis on the analysis of ancient maps, paintings, and letters, all of which I enjoy. Did you know life in the royal harem was boring as fuck for most of the young women living behind palace gates, many of whom might never even see the emperor in their entire lives?Fullscreen capture 12242017 90816 PM.bmp

It also clears up some rumors “Did Marco Polo ever reach China?” (Answer: yes, but it is strange he never mentioned the use of chopsticks, or the complex writing system!)Fullscreen capture 12242017 91225 PM.bmp

Usually I will download all the videos of a course onto my tablet and then watch them on the train rides during weekend trips- this is an efficient way to make use of time, on the already efficient high-speed rail!

The European Discovery of China has really added depth and context to all of the traveling I’ve done in the past year and a half, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see Lanzhou/ Gansu pop up every now and then in a lesson.