My host family, the Ma’s!

I cannot say enough good things about the host family I have been living with for the past month (I’ll spend a total of almost two months with them throughout the summer). For most of my stay the family consists of Ma Shu Shu (father), his wife (Ayi), Tommy/ Cao Cao (the 4th grader son), and Snuggles, the cat. The past week has been extra exciting since Ma Yan (22 year old daughter) has returned from America from her studies to live with us. I took her room 🙂 Also, Ma Man, their 21 year old cousin has been staying with us as well, and she is also returning from America. So its quite the full house we have right now.

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the whole extended fam!

Ma Shu Shu– he’s in his late 40s, works in tech/ IT. A really nice guy and always curious about housing prices, health insurance, retirement allowance, and public/ private university tuition in the states. He always hints I need to marry soon and have kids earlier so it will not impact my career later. After dinner he will normally smoke a cigarette on the balcony to relax after a long day.

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Mr Ma on the weekend

Ma Ayi– she’s also in her late 40s, a housewife. Unlike the housewives of new jersey, Ma Ayi takes pride in doing everything by herself- the laundry, the cooking, the dishes, the constant washing and sweeping of their already spotless floors. She is an AMAZING cook and makes sure that we are eating “cooling” foods in the summer- cucumbers, mung beans, bitter melon, and other light greens according to Yin-Yang principals.

Anyway, she’s super friendly and will wake up early to make me hand rolled baozi/ dumpings/ pastries. We always talk about housing prices in Beijing and Shanghai, and even about prices here in Chengdu. The family has hosted volunteers for half a decade now, and each year she can name the volunteer she hosted and the value of their house in that year.

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Ma Ayi biking downhill

Tommy/ Cao Cao– hes a fun, talkative and lively little boy, a 10 year old. He loves making jokes, playing Clash of Clan and other games on the ipad, and watching movies. His childhood and personality are slowly being sucked out of him by China’s rigorous education system. Even though it is summer, he still takes classes for several hours a day to improve his math, Chinese literature, and English skills. On top of that he plays clarinet for an hour and a half each day in the hopes that a medal or award in some local/ regional competition will help him get into a better middle school, (to get into a better high school, and later a better college, etc etc).

I can tell he HATES playing the clarinet. He will beg and plead and lie that he already played 30 minutes in the morning, or make false promises of playing later in the evening. I have witnessed more than one screaming match (tommy vs parents) over playing clarinet, and I hid in my room each time. Several times a week he will also head out to play badminton with friends- im not sure if badminton is just for getting into college or if he actually enjoys it, im afraid to ask. Either way I feel bad for him because the next 8 years of his life will be non-stop cramming for the Gao Kao exam.

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tommy in his natural state

Snuggles– snuggles is the vicious house cat. He is not as cuddly as his name suggests- he will scratch and bite whenever someone tries to pet him, so most days I ignore him. One time snuggles took a POOP in the shower! I opened the door and it smelled so bad and saw cat poop, and I freaked out. I was also scared the family would think I missed the squat toilet and took the poop in the shower by accident, so I made a big deal about how Snuggles did it. Snuggles is smart and knew he was in trouble, and knew by my HUGE smile that I was the one that told on him, so he took a swipe at me when I walked past him.

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snuggles, my frenemy

Ma Yan– shes 22 and heading back to America this fall to start a PhD program in chemistry! She is so smart and poor Tommy will have to live up to her impossible standards when he gets older. With this PhD program, Ma Yan is at risk of becoming a sheng nu, or “leftover woman” as they say in china. Too educated, too successful, too worldly studying abroad, will never marry (and therefore be single forever) because no man wants to date a girl smarter and richer than him.

(this is actually a serious problem in all of East Asia, and many of my female coworkers from Citibank in New York City REFUSE to return to South Korea/ China/ Taiwan/ Singapore etc because they are not married.)  Luckily for Ma Yan she met some Shanghainese guy in her undergrad chemistry class, and now they will get their PhDs together! Whew! Sheng Nu syndrome averted.

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Ma Yan, Ma Man, and Ma Cao (behind the watermelon)

Ma Man– she’s really cool and likes to go to KTV, though last time we went I was singing Rihanna all by myself and she just laughed at me the whole time… She’s newly single, so I gave her the best advice my high school students gave me, which is “BE PATIENT, LOVE IS WAITING FOR YOU! BE BRAVE!!”

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Ma Man, still slightly bitter about her ex, and MAHJONG

Anyway as a family We’ve done so many amazing things together- make dumplings by hand, go on bike rides, get stuffed crust pizza at Pizza Hut, have long talks about Donald Trump and Hillary over dinner, talk about Shu Qi and whether her lips are fake or not (apparently they are real), talk about Han dynasty history up to more recent events, etc. this week we started playing Sichuan Mahjong and I am OBSESSED! Cant get enough.


cultural (classy) things to see and do in chengdu

I have been living here in Chengdu for a month now, and have had the great pleasure of exploring the city and its outer boroughs on the weekends and occasionally weekdays after class. Some of this is done with my host family (more on this amazing, welcoming family later), some with my program or friends, and other adventures take place on my own. Here are the highlights thus far:

San Xing Dui archaeologic site: 70RMB entrance fee

This is about an hour by drive outside of the city center. It is located at the site of bronze age ruins from the mythical Shu dynasty of china, which flourished some 3,000 years ago. This doesn’t fit neatly with the traditional narrative of Chinese history of one dynasty succeeding another (was this after the Shang dynasty? Before the Zhou? Or coexisted with one or both??), and records are spotty from 1,000 BC.

The bronze relics are most interesting to me for their non-chinese-ness. The gold plated heads don’t look han Chinese! There is something almost mayan or Olmec looking about them. Everything else in 2,500+ years’ worth of Chinese art is impeccably covered in dragons and phoenixes.. and these are just very otherworldly and beautiful in their own way.


Bailuwan Wetland Park: free entrance, 20RMB bike rental fee

This is a massive park best traversed by bicycle, located on the outskirts of Chengdu city. There are all sorts of lily filled lakes, bird watching hotspots, tourist watching hotspots (the fashion here is really enjoyable!) and flower beds to meander through for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately I went on a day that was probably 90 degrees at least, and the humidity made breathing difficult. To make matters worse, I was still hungover from the night before. oops.

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hot, humid, and
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chengdu fashion

WenShu Monastery: free entrance, it is a working temple

Beautiful temple complex in central Chengdu! Walking around, I didn’t feel like I was in a city of 14 million people at all- the chaos of the city melted away and the complex is tranquil with all sorts of pagodas, temples, ponds, and trees. It was originally built in the Tang dynasty 1,000+ years ago, but renovated by the Qing Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century. I try not to ask how much of what I see is actually from imperial china, because a lot of times it turns out that everything was destroyed 60 years ago, and rebuilt in the past two decades when foreigners began flocking to china. So to save myself the disappointment and misery of the truth, i prefer to not look online for the facts, and instead imagine that what im stepping into is from 500 AD or 1500AD and not 2005.

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Ming Dynasty Mausoleums 10 RMB entrance

This is a secret of Chengdu that even my host family had never heard of. Apparently in the park across from Chengdu University, a bit outside of central Chengdu, there are the tombs of the Shu princes from the Ming dynasty. I went to take a look, and was really impressed at what I saw.

No photos allowed inside (i was tempted to take a shot but freaked out at all the video cams inside), but: imagine walking a series of steps until you are deep underground, and the air is much cooler (though equally humid), and inside the tomb there are facades of temples carved in stone, and on the ceiling of the tomb a swirl of dragons and phoenixes (of course) are carved out of a massive, single slab of stone. A stele is located in the front of the tomb explaining the significance of this particular prince, but it was way too advanced for my comprehension

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this is the mausoleum entrance, once you enter you walk down to an underground chamber

Jinli Street (free!)

Lots of old style buildings line these streets, and the shops downstairs either sell inexpensive, small snacks, or really expensive artisanal souvenirs (hand crafted tea pots, premium silk scarves jade bracelets, hand picked organic jasmine tea.. you get the idea) the highlight was a small red-walled walkway on the edge of the neighborhood, with bamboo groves towering overhead, swaying in the gentle wind, filtering out the sunlight. a most relaxing stroll

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Anshun Bridge (also free)

I biked here one night, during the week that the G20 was in town for a meeting. International development/ economic forums are always good news for the Chinese- this means the lucky city hosting the event is guaranteed to have blue skies for a week or so, since the government mandates that half the cars are removed from the road everyday (normally determined by the odd or even number on the end of a car’s license plate) and nearby factories are shut down as well, all for the sake of providing picturesque skies for the overpaid foreign diplomats and their underpaid entourage.

So yeah, we had beautiful blue skies for a week! And the night photography for anshun bridge came out STUNNING! Marco polo *allegedly* crossed this bridge in his travels, though Wikipedia told me this current version was built it in – get ready – 2003. 😦

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emotional bridge selfie
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the most glorious, iconic bridge in chengdu, rebuilt in 2003

model school!

Survived my first week of model school! This is a two week program for us Peace Corp TEFL trainers to try lesson planning and teaching, to give us some experience before we head off to our universities to become full time English teachers mid august. I’ve already been warned that the level of English I will see here in Chengdu is much much higher than what I would get in the smaller towns we are placed in. I had a class of 24 rowdy high schoolers, though their numbers dwindled with each class.

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my first class, ever! started with 27 students…

They all speak pretty advanced English and some have lived outside China in the UK or USA for a couple years. a few are also planning on taking the TOEFL exam to do university in America, since the competition is way too intense in china. (ie studying from 8AM to 9PM or midnight everyday since middle school!) overall the kids are charming, funny, and I have enjoyed planning lessons for them. In particular, they (like me!) love to make posters with markers and express ideas through flowery art. A minor scuffle between two female students (I hope they were good friends prior to this incident) broke out over who gets to use the red marker. as punishment no one was allowed to use the red marker for the rest of class.

I gave my first two lessons, first one was about countries. We discussed wealth, population, religion, capital city, prime minister, GDP, GDP per capita and tourist sites. I asked the students where they would live outside of china if they had a choice. Surprisingly (To me at least), japan had more votes than any other country. I guess this new generation of Chinese born in 1998 – 2000 (wow, I feel old!) are much more forgiving than their parents and grandparents for the events that led up to and occurred throughout WWII, and they are eager to move on, and refuse to be mired in the past. They love the food, the cherry blossoms, spirited away and other miyazaki films, and friendliness of the Japanese. Many have visited japan and enjoyed their quiet and non-chaotic vacations. The next favored group of countries were all scandanavian or from that region (Sweden, Finland, Iceland) for the spectacular landscape, clean air, and low population density (one student commented ‘there is no food- we only have beautiful scenery!’).

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theres nothing good to eat in norway, but at least we have fresh air and a childhood!

new Zealand made an appearance on the list, for being the country where lord of the rings was filmed, and for ‘good quality milk’. i think most americans would dream of living in a country with a sandy, sunny, beach as the only criteria. for these kids, growing up with the intense pressure of a competitive education system + other social issues have impacted what type of life they want to seek. I later made the kids present on some of these countries (and threw in turkey and brazil into the mix, for middle eastern and south American representation. One student asked if the national food in turkey was turkey. No.)

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jason (left) is insightful,; he asked if turkey was a sunni or shia country, something i couldnt answer until well into college. but then he followed up with “do people in turkey eat turkey?” so im not sure what to think of him

It was a great lesson. The next one was about American holidays. The high schoolers were dying to have their first Halloween party. They want candy, they want costumes, they want fake blood, and loud music. They want Christmas for the presents, for the tree with blinking lights, and for the white, powdery snow outside. And one group was assigned Valentine’s Day, and I requested they have two scenarios- for those who are dating, and those who are single. The team came up with a FANTASTIC poster, explaining that “the most important thing for the people (whether couples or singles) is just BRAVERY!”just be patient.. love is waiting for you!” for those who are single, “be brave to invite your dream lover!” and hold some parties for single friends so they could meet their future boyfriend or girlfriend on valentines day. so cute! and innocent, since none of them have dated, or their parents would probably ground them for life. one girl tried to act cool and said her parents wouldn’t care if she had a boyfriend in high school but i am 110% sure she was lying to me 🙂

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“be patient.. love is waiting for you!”

on pandas and losing face

First things first:

A week into our program we visited what is officially called the “Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding” basically for non-scientists, panda heaven! Live pandas of all shapes and sizes were on display, from little pink week old hairless pandas in incubators to full blown adult pandas chomping down bamboo with gusto. There must have been several dozen pandas sitting around in this facility, probably too domesticated and helpless to ever to be released into the wild, and perhaps destined to be gifted to other nations’ premier zoos as a gesture of goodwill in times of diplomatic need.


A few years ago I read some criticism of this program because the number of pandas bred here is completely unsustainable in the sense that china’s current natural bamboo forest coverage could never keep up with such a sudden spike in pandas if they were sent back into the wilderness.. or something like that.. but it doesn’t really matter because these pandas were SO FREAKIN CUTE!! Environmental Ethics be damned

requisite panda selfie

Now onto a funny story, one that inevitably involves lots of alcohol (because this is china and all interesting stories involve some amount of beer or baiju in china). After class one evening, I head to a local bar Savage that has great deals for foreigners (50% off drinks, though an instructor later told us Savage is notorious for its use of fake alcohol… omg gross..) with my new BFFs. We get a mint hookah to share and some 5RMB Tsingtao beers, which is the ultimate bargain! after a few beers, Hugo and I get up and dance around to the euro-pop music (the girls were wisely too self-conscious to look like idiots so early in the evening). This dancing attracts the attention of a table of 20something year old Chinese kids, and the guys there get up and start a bit of a dance off.

new (jiu rou peng you)

The situation escalates quickly when they approach our table with four beers and insist we drink. We drink and buy them beers to return the favor. Several rounds of beer chugging later, things are starting to get wild and we lose face (mianzi, kind of a concept of ‘honor’ in china) in record amounts in a very very short span of time. Arm wrestling match? Hugo lost, we lose face. Clapping push-up contest? I lost, more face down the drain. Female vs Female beer chugging? Jessica and Iliana took a few sips from their bottles, whereas their female chinese counterpart emptied hers in approx 15 seconds. American face dragged by the weave to the ground. SNATCHED. Edges showing and whatever.

team china v team america!

On the upside, this guy we met was really cool, and he was a Sichuan opera singer!! He showed us some photos of him in costumer and makeup and invited us to see his show the next night- what a nice guy! We exchanged weChat information and were able to get in touch with him the next day to see his show, gifting him a pair of headphones (mianzi restored!). The opera was great- as with Opera at the Lincoln center in NYC I didn’t understand a word of the story, but the costumes and scenery were of the highest quality. In summary: Bizarre 24 hours, total loss of face, nice recovery with the $50RMB headphones but unforgettable memories nonetheless. Welcome to china!

sichuan opera! we never figured out which character our friend portrayed, unfortunately