Site Placement: Lanzhou

OMG, I GOT MY SITE PLACEMENT!! Site Placement Day goes something like this: 83 PC trainees impatiently mill around in a large conference room, waiting for the site managers to hand out different colored folders that indicate the province at which you will serve. Yellow is for gansu, pink for Sichuan, green for guizhou, and blue for Chongqing. The first thing you look for is the color of the folder handed to you, and then you quickly decipher the name of the city written in large font on the front page, in which you will live (ranging from population 6,000 to 15 million).

My eyes darted around frantically for the first minute or two at a blur of colored folders being passed around… dear god please don’t give me a blue folder – I cant stand 102 degree summers… and please no pink, lots of natural disasters recently, and that tone-deaf accent… green would be okay, nice scenery but no heating in the winter… until I received a YELLOW folder!! I am happy to announce I will be teaching at a university in Lanzhou for the next two years!

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lanzhou on a map. needless to say i am NOT biking there…

Lanzhou was once an important stop along the ancient silk road 2,000 years ago, linking the eastern world to central asian kingdoms, persia, and rome. today, the city is home to 3 million people (medium size, by Chinese standards) and is the provincial capital of Gansu. The culture of north-west China is heavily influenced by Hui-muslim and Zhang- Tibetan religions and customs. We were warned that Gansu and Guizhou are some of the poorest regions of China, but in a provincial capital living standards are drastically different from those in the countryside, and on a day to day basis we will still be living decent, middle class lives.

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a photo of lanzhou on Bing. its definitely photoshopped, the river is called the YELLOW RIVER for a reason, and the sky, while blue, is not THAT blue.

Two days later after all the excitement settled down, the Peace Corps volunteers were sent off to spend three full days at their new sites. For some volunteers this meant a quick, two hour bus ride to check out their future campus and homes- good for them! For us in Lanzhou it was a 20 HOUR TRAIN RIDE (all the hard sleepers sold out, so we were just sitting on our asses, eating ramen, and making small talk forever) in each direction! Some volunteers had even longer rides, up to 26 hours one way. All for a three day stay. But hey, this is PC and part of the experience is *the struggle* and toughing it out.

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typical day at the train station

To be honest, the scenery of the train ride was beautiful, and in the late afternoon sun we passed through rivers and lush, forested mountains in northern Sichuan. When we woke up in the morning, the landscape was completely bare- the hills and mountains were striped with various hues of yellow and brown, carved from a million years of relentless sandy wind, and scorched with little vegetation. We officially arrived in Gansu!

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went to bed in sichuan, woke up in gansu! I WOKE UP LIKE THIS

At Lanzhou, I met up with Mr. Zhou, Mr. Gu, and Mr. Lin (who I later found out was only 21 and I didn’t need to call him “Mr. Lin” all the time). They were men from the university and took me to have the famous handpulled “lanzhou la mian” noodles for breakfast, and dropped me off at my apartment to shower and relax. I checked the map on my phone and realized I was on the outskirts of the city. (first thought: OMG, am I in the Bronx of Lanzhou?!?) luckily from what I understand, there’s no neighborhood in Lanzhou like the Bronx, and being a less affluent city, there’s also no posh Tribeca or Upper West Side either. This city can’t be defined in the context of New York neighborhoods, and I just have to figure things out on my own.

What I do know is I have a shopping mall and super market across the street, a vegetable market right outside my apartment complex, and plenty of (mostly noodle) restaurants in all directions near where I live. This is probably a good time to learn how to cook, and the former volunteer that lived in my apartment left me a rice cooker, which I now have to learn how to use 🙂 there are also a few buses down the block that will take me downtown (about 25 minutes though its only a 3km drive) and to my campus (10 to 15 minutes) depending on traffic.

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fruit and veggie market down the street from me. very happy for the energy and community it brings to my neighborhood

The three days were full of filling out forms, opening a bank account (I now have 200RMB, or roughly $31.00 USD, deposited in the bank of china!!), inspecting my apartment to ensure it is up to Peace Corp standard, meeting the Dean of the English Department- Mr. Jiang, who speaks perfect British English – to learn about my classes (freshman oral English, with extremely low level students, almost all female), and learning the three important rules of the classroom (1. no talking about politics, 2. no talking about religion, and 3. no dating students. Since 1. I’m progressive but apolitical, 2.  I am apathetic toward organized religion, and 3.absolutely do not date younger, I assured him that I would have no problem with these restrictions).

Later I took a tour of the city, near the downtown area. I did some hiking to get a good view of the city, which straddles the mighty yellow river and is surrounded by mountains on all sides.

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By the end of my stay I was exhausted, but definitely looking forward to spending two years in Lanzhou.

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a non-filtered panorama of lanzhou. the sky is blue, and that yellow river sure is yellow!

The 4th day I got up early and headed back onto the train leaving for Chengdu. The second time around, 20 hours went by a little faster, mostly because (at my host mom’s suggestion) we figured out a trick where you could stay in the less-cramped, air-conditioned dining cart for as long as you wanted, so long as you kept buying the train’s overpriced dinners, midnight snacks, and breakfast.

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this baby. OMG CUTE

I met THE COOLEST yuppies from Urumqi (Xinjiang province, which we are absolutely forbidden from visiting while in the Peace Corps) in the dining cart. They were being loud and rowdy, smoking/ eating dinner /drinking beer and baiju well past midnight. We started chatting and became quick friends, drinking beer and playing the Chinese card game “screw the landlord” to kill time. They were taking a week off from their jobs – a police officer, entrepreneur, dance teacher, accountant, and a doctor (who I noticed drank/ smoked way more than the others, but whatever, life is short) – heading toward Yunnan, and for whatever reason they collectively felt the need to suffer through a 20 hour train ride instead of taking a short flight to Chengdu.

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bad kids from urumqi. thanks for the beer, guys!

Eventually they found a way to upgrade to the hard beds at 6AM, with five hours still left to go, and we said our goodbyes; I’m grateful we met and will certainly visit them two years down the road!

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LINE café, a banquet, the world’s largest building, and Qingcheng mountain

Been busy these past weekends, here’s a rundown on some of my favorite moments!

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LINE CAFÉ: Line is a super popular messaging app throughout east asia. Everyone uses it in japan, Taiwan, and south korea. I love using LINE for its stickers/ emojis, centered around a cartoon bunny and bear who are dating– the stickers and GIFs show the full span of a modern relationship: dating, hugging, blowing kisses, shopping, jealousy, getting into arguments, physical alteractions, and making up. As with facebook and google, this app is blocked in China and inaccessible to 1.4 billion people.

Still, the adorable bunny, bear, and their friends (a duck, a frog, etc) have become a cultural phenomenon in China DESPITE the fact that no one here has ever used the LINE app! It is so popular that there is a LINE café in the trendiest part of downtown Chengdu selling bunny/ bear t-shirts, pencils, plush toys, hats, macarons and ice cream and coffee.. everything! Kind of funny, that an official LINE store can open in Chengdu, but the messaging app is off limits. CAPITALISM WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS

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me with Brown, the LINE Mascot

My first banquet: My host grandmother celebrated her 80th birthday this past weekend. The extended family gathered for a wonderful banquet at a very nice restaurant- there must have been 20 dishes that came to our table- much of it organs, and pig ear, and mystery minced meat. The highlight was a SOFT SHELL TURTLE. With his head cut off from his body. And the adults at the table hinted at how pricey this dish was when they ordered it (this is the Chinese way of saying “try it.. you must try it.. take a bite.. we may have ordered this just because you are here”) so, I took a small piece of meat from under his shell. The texture was almost semi-cooked squash, with a very fishy aftertaste. I did not take a second piece.

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soft shell deliciousness. NOT

Chengdu New Century Global Center: it is the world’s largest freestanding building by floorspace- 18,000,000 square feet of space!!! Ironically, the billionaire who built this was arrested for corruption right when it opened in 2013.

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There is a monster indoor waterpark inside- with a lazy river, slides, hot spring, Turkish sauna, and massive wave pool. There is also a giant LED screen above the pool, and its content switches between pool safety instructions, clips from Zootopia, and for whatever reason, the 2013 VICTORIA SECRET FASHION SHOW!! (subtitles: wheres Alessandra? I’ve got Karlie! There’s Candice and her $10 million bra! Going live in 3.. 2.. 1..!) I saw lots of parents with their mouths wide open watching these models and their ample, crystal studded breasts bouncing down the runway on a LED screen several stories high. I also got separated from my host family in the wave pool, and it was so, so surreal trying to pick them out of a crowd of one thousand Chinese people with identical life vests, everyone OOOOH-ing and AAAHH-ing as the waves pulsed through the pool, like a scene out of WALL-E or Brave New World

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wave pool, with thousands of people mesmerized by this fake ocean and giant screen

Qingcheng shan: Paley is the host brother of my good friend Zach. Paley (Wang Pei, or as I call him, Pei Pei) lives in a bachelor pad across the street from his parents. He is probably the coolest and trendiest guy in Chengdu, and knows all the right people in town – he has the hook up to anything and everything. On Sunday we got up early to go do something that required neither connections nor VIP passes- we climbed Qing Cheng Shan! It is a sacred mountain in China, and there is a Taoist temple at its peak. We didn’t quite make it to the top, but the view was still incredible halfway up. Great weekend trip, and it was so nice to see nature again.

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a lake halfway up qingcheng shan
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Paley, Zach, and myself at one of the many waterfalls on the mountain

on being irrelevant (getting schooled in model school)

Irrelevant

adjective

  1. not connected with or relevant to something.

“an irrelevant comment”

synonyms: beside the point, immaterial, not pertinent, not germane, off the subject, neither here nor there, unconnected, unrelated, tangential

I was supposed to teach my students a course on persuasion, on convincing others to take your side of the argument. Instead, they basically taught me what it means to be irrelevant (to the point where I wrote IRRELEVANT on the board in all caps), in the sense that my questions and examples were so far removed from their day to day life that it was laughable at how little I know about my Chinese students and their lives

Example 1: your friend Nancy scored poorly in all her classes for the past year, so after 9th grade she has dropped out and become a cashier at Dicos (a local fast food chain) PERSUADE her to come back to class!

Lance: no way! Why would you drop out? This would never happen, her parents wont allow it. Impossible. She would just buxi (self study, extra study, etc) more after school and on weekends until her grades were respectable!

Example 2: your father has found a higher paying job in Harbin and will have to relocate from Chengdu to take the opportunity. How will you PERSUADE him to stay in Chengdu?

Lisa: what? We have no control over this, if he has a new job we will just leave with him. Our parents wouldn’t ask for our opinion if this happened! Why would they want our input?

Example 3: your favorite course in high school, art class, has been cancelled due to budget purposes. CONVINCE your principle that this is an important class to you and it is worth keeping in the curriculum

Jason: but art class was already canceled! None of us have had an art class since middle school, its not in our curriculum for high school.

Me: ok, fine. pick a subject you love

Jason: chemistry

Me: ok, chemistry was cancelled. What will you tell your principle to keep chemistry in high school?

Jason: he would never cancel chemistry! It is a subject on the Gao Kao exam (SAT Equivalent, college entrance exam) so this conversation would never happen

Example 4: All of a sudden, American high schools have decided to shorten their summer breaks from 3 months to 2 weeks. Defend your right to have a 3 month summer break, so you wont end up with just two short weeks of summer!

Linus: actually, summer is the best time to study and prepare for the Gao Kao! If you had a three month break you will never get into college!! How can you get into Peking U or Tsinghua U (the Harvard and stanfords of china) if you only study during the school year? At my high school 57 students went to Peking and Tsinghua U this year, because we worked hard! Even a two week break is almost too long.

So there you have it. model school has come to an end, and I’ve learned that my students are hilarious, creative, innovative, and sharp little monsters. If there were ever stereotypes about Chinese students being dull or monotonous, I can assure you this upcoming generation of Chinese kids is full of energy, enthusiasm, cunning wit, and have the guts to take on whatever comes their way in life!!

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Yolanda, far left, gave me a Ferragamo fragrance on the last day of model school. it was a woman’s perfume, but i appreciate the gesture!