A weekend in Tianshui: a tour of Mai Ji Shan, and Ms. Mi’s wedding

Back in August when we took the train from Chengdu to Lanzhou, a teacher from another college, Ms. Mi, told us that she was getting married in a month. The waiban reps and I were all excited for her, and she casually mentioned we were invited to her wedding in Tianshui. Now, a lot of times I will hear people say things like “I’d love for you to come!”, “We’d be happy to have you!” “You’re a great fit for the team!” for dinner or parties or work but most of the time they hope I don’t actually follow up with them, probably because they hate my guts, but are too faux-polite to tell me this. Chinese people are not like that though, at least not here in Gansu, and last week I received a weChat message from Ms. Mi formally inviting me to her big day!!

fateful meeting on our train ride up, back in august. They are teachers from 4 different colleges sent to pick up the volunteers. Brian (in blue) is my school rep and good friend. Ms. Mi is on the far left

Friday evening I took the train four hours from Lanzhou to Tianshui, and made plans with my dearest friend Jess (a PCV in TianShui) to see Mai Ji Shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain about an hour bus ride from the city. On Saturday we packed some snacks (including a blueberry grape milk drink, yuck), switched three different buses, and got to the mountain. Mai Ji Shan is famous in China for its thousands of mountainside Buddhist carvings and murals, some dating back to the Qin dynasty (400 AD).

Mai Ji Shan from afar- can you see the three,gigantic standing buddhas?
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Jess and another trio of large buddhas in the mountain

The highlight of Mai Ji Shan is several enormous Buddhas and their attendants carved into the cliffside. It must have been breathtaking for monks to see these figures, after traveling hundreds or thousands of kilometers by horse and camel some 500 or 1,000 years ago. I’m pretty jaded and I’ve seen a lot around the world, and was still thoroughly impressed with the size and detail on their faces, hands, and generally strong posture that has helped them stand tall overlooking the valley for 1,000 years.

Buddha and bodhisattvas. originally male, over the centuries bodhisattvas became females

Equally impressive was the wall of one thousand buddhas- I didn’t actually count but I’m sure there were at least several hundred mini buddhas sitting on top of each other!


Another short climb up and we reached the top; there was a series of caves carved deep into the mountain, with gods standing inside. Outside was a rather ferocious, red skinned guardian watching over the site- he probably keeps the evil spirits and sinners away! Im surprised jess and I weren’t blasted off the mountain by some mystic force when we entered 🙂

angry statue keeping watch

Each cave was similar; Buddha sat in the middle meditating, and was flanked by three lesser gods on both sides of him. We also noticed that the man on his left was always wrinkly and old, probably a sign of wisdom.

sketch list? yes!

The level of detail put into the statues is incredible- I love the positioning of the hands, the floral pattern on her sleeves, the phoenix on her dress, and just the way everything drapes and flows like real clothing.


It was definitely worth the one hour bus ride (5 RMB), and 90 RMB entrance fee to check out Mai Ji Shan. I also paid 10 RMB to burn incense at the base of the mountain- kind of a rip off, but if my dreams come true I’ll be grateful. Also, the view was spectacular! (priceless)

fresh air in China, always appreciated

The next day we are joined by Dariush, the PCV at Ms. Mi’s school, and we head over to Ms. Mi’s big day. The wedding took place at a local Chinese mosque with a beautiful courtyard.

quiet courtyard of the mosque

We sat around for a short while, drinking tea, cracking open peanuts and sunflower seeds, taking selfies with the little kids curious to see Americans. The kids were mostly interested in Dariush – token white guy – because I look like a typical Chinese, and Jess (Mexican American) apparently looks Chinese too! People thought she was a Uighur from Xinjiang province because of her darker skin, strong nose, and large eyes. (We are in north-west China now, so it actually makes sense, and we do see a lot of Central Asian/ Middle Eastern Chinese folk in town) Ironically, Dariush is half Persian and grew up in Germany so he shouldn’t really be the token American guy either.

HELLOOOOO! mei guo ren! (american!)

Then Ms. Mi came out to greet us, dressed in breathtaking, deep red wedding attire (like a qipao, but longer, and with a head scarf) with gold flower patterns laced throughout her dress.

OMG! beyond excited to celebrate with Ms Mi!
Jess (the “Uighur”) in the front, myself and Dariush in the back. Brian (my Waiban rep) could not attend but later said “wow you all dress up so much for weddings! we normally wear jeans.. if we don’t know the person well, we might even wear flip flops)

Ms. Mi’s grandfather was very happy to take part in the wedding, and I got a poignant photo of the two of them with my DSLR camera.


Ms. Mi’s second dress was equally stunning, this one was a white bridal gown (western style) also with a head scarf. The little girls and I were going nuts, haha.

dress #2!

There was no formal reception at the mosque, the Chinese describe this type of gathering as 流水席, liu shui xi, which means the guests are like water in a river- people will come and go as they please, to say hello, eat lunch, stick around for a little more and then leave.

so we did the same- we met some of Ms Mi’s friends (many wearing jeans, thankfully no flipflops), ate a delicious mutton and beef heavy lunch (with sprite, alcohol is not allowed at the mosque) and then headed out to catch the train home. The groom was fashionably late to his own wedding- yikes! – but we did get a chance to meet him and hand over a red envelope (money) for taking part in the festivities.

Quite the memorable weekend, and I’m so, so glad to be in this part of China, at the crux of the old silk road, a mishmash of cultures that have still managed to retain their unique customs after 2,000 years of war, conquest, revolution… and now globalization!


finding my scene in lanzhou

Peace Corps warned us early on that volunteers tend to get really lonely and depressed if they don’t integrate well into the communities they live in. It can be rough being the only blond hair- blue eyed (or black american, etc) individual in a smaller city in China, and the language barrier will prevent you from making friends that you can truly communicate with, beyond expressing what you want to eat for dinner and fulfilling other lower tier items on maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

can i reach self-fulfillment in China? isnt it what i came here for?

the great news is, i look like everyone else here, and more or less speak like them too (albeit with a heavy new jersey- taiwanese accent!) that’ll knock out the lowest green and purple layers in the pyramid. still, i was initially nervous i couldn’t find a fun crowd to hang with- are there cool kids in Lanzhou?

Gansu’s provincial capitol is not particularly famous for its social scene / nightlife; there are only two streets where people congregate to go for an afternoon coffee or late night drink – Gannan Road, and MaiJiShan Road, both in downtown Cheng Guang district. The upside to limited options is that the who’s who of Lanzhou all tend to congregate in the same areas and you can meet a number of great people in a very short amount of time. i decided to check things out for myself…

Dr.INK, where all the magic happens 7 nights a week

My favorite cafe in town is Dr.INK. Every time I visit, there’s always a giddy crowd of a dozen perpetually (structurally?) underemployed/ funemployed young adults playing the ukulele (yes, seriously!), writing lyrics, and generally enjoying themselves over cups of iced, slow-drip coffee. Lucky for me, Zhang- the barista and shop owner- has welcomed me into his circle of friends with open arms, showing me firsthand the famous hospitality of China’s north-westerners.

latte with Zhen Meng. They call him “professor” but im not sure what he teaches, maybe a course on beer, cigarettes, and swagger

The first afternoon I visited Dr.INK, Zhang told me he was having a party later to celebrate the one year anniversary of his coffee shop’s existence. Sure enough, over the next several hours a parade of friends came for a hotpot feast, bringing a portable gas stove, stock pot, cutting board, chili peppers, onions, mushrooms, vermicelli, meatballs, lotus root, sesame paste, tofu, chive sauce, and BRICKS of frozen sliced lamb and beef for the craziest impromptu dinner I’ve ever had.

hotpot in a cafe? sure, why not!

The stereotype in China about people from the Northwest (Gansu, Qinghai, XinJiang and Inner Mongolia) is that they are vulgar, wild, and rough, with more machismo than their coastal counterparts. Whereas people from Beijing and Shanghai are refined and cosmopolitan, the Chinese of the west haven’t forgotten their nomadic, horse riding turkic/ mongol/ central asian roots – and like to let it show from time to time. this can be seen in their meat and wine heavy meals, their love for music, and carefree easy going attitudes.

“this is how we do in Lanzhou” an entire slab of pre-sliced mutton goes in for a swim

Apparently having two names (Harrison and 程欣浩) is not enough, and I’m given the nickname Youssef as well, to honor my Lanzhou roots. Now everyone calls me Youssef, and i casually respond like I’ve been a Youssef forever (on WeChat I added Youssef to my username since people couldnt figure out who Harrison was)

Youssef, this is your textbook? its for a six year old, right? oh my lady gaga

At night the guitar, ukulele, and conga drum made an appearance and we sang off-key renditions of songs about being young and free, such as Mayday’s 恋爱-ing. My friends were excited to have a native english speaker among them, and I tried to impress with Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” but the falsetto was just a bit out of my vocal range.

rehearsing after dinner

Mayday’s L-O-V-E! song

Other evenings I’ll have dinner beforehand, drop by for a latte, and follow the gang to a late night KTV session. At KTV people are focused on two things- either honing their singing skills, or dominating a drinking game to get everyone else drunk off cheap beer.  A couple of the guys are surprisingly good singers and can belt out really fun Qinghai – western Chinese folk music inspired – rock songs

“我不是狗,我不是猪,我是人” after 10 rounds of this you will be drunk for sure
friday night with the bad boys of Lanzhou

if these first few weeks are any indication of whats to come, its going to be a really fun, really wild two years with this crowd! Self-actualization, here i come!!

group photo at Dr.INK to celebrate 365 days of imported caffeine! Zhang, the shop owner, hilariously appears three times in the photo

stories from the classroom (first two weeks of teaching)

Oral English: I teach oral English to three sophomore classes a week, twice a week (so a total of 6 sessions a week, roughly 30 students per class, 90 individuals in total) 5 sessions are taught in a computer lab (great for powerpoints), and 1 is in a traditional classroom. Each class has a distinct personality; Class 3 is chatty and welcoming, and there are a lot of eager personalities in the class willing to answer questions and laugh off mistakes. Class 2 is deathly quiet and drains all my optimism within the first five minutes of stepping into the classroom; NO ONE SPEAKS. Class 1 falls somewhere between the two. Almost every session there’s some hilarious misunderstanding or mistranslation of sorts.

typical day in Oral English. Teacher Cheng’s classes are fun- posters and markers make a regular appearance

Example 1, favorite food: I asked the kids to introduce themselves, with a focus on things such as favorite food, singer, color. One student said her favorite food was “hot hot hot.” I thought she misspoke, so I laughed and let it slide. Then another student got up and said he liked to eat “hot hot hot.” Weird, but I ignored him. After the third girl said “hot hot hot” I stopped the class.

Me: what what what?!
Alina: hot hot hot?
Me: what what?
Alina: hot.. hot..?
Me: …what??!

As I later find out, there is a dish here called 麻辣烫 (ma la tang), which literally translates into “numbing, spicy, hot”. There’s no noun in ma la tang, just adjectives- that may be a first. So, the kids weren’t that far off when they said they like “hot hot hot.”

this is ma la tang.. and its really, really delicious!

Example 2, poetry: The second week, we discussed some common themes in poetry: love, regret, friendship, heartbreak, revenge, innocence. I had my students write a short poem and then share it with the class. Camil wrote a poem called “Appreciated Enemy” and said these words to the class:

“Death to those who have not been good to you”
“Death to those who used to hate you”
“Death to those who have hurt you”
“Because they teach you the meaning of growth, but also to become more excellent”

Whoa! Pretty harsh words, but I was glad I could evoke such deep resentment from Camil. Afterwards, I went over to applaud her for sharing her unfiltered feelings. She handed me her poem, and I re-read it, and realized she wrote “thanks” and not “death,” and just had a funny way of pronouncing “thanks”.

death to the world!

Another student, Lorin wrote these words:

And so we talked all night about the rest of our lives
Where we’re gonna be when we turn 25
I keep thinking times will never change
Keep on thinking things will always be the same

But when we leave this year we won’t be coming back
No more hanging out cause we’re on a different track
And if you got something that you need to say
You better say it right now cause you don’t have another day

Cute… except i instantly recognized these words to be the lyrics to Vitamin C’s Graduation (Friends Forever) song from 2000! I lectured Lorin on plagiarism and he had to write an original poem for me.

nice try, Lorin

Example 3, school map: I break the kids into groups and give them a poster and marker to draw me a school map, which they will later present at the end of class. I was so, so surprised that they all correctly labeled the dance studio as “experimental theatre”! but oddly, the track and basketball courts were “playground” “big playground” or “small playground” (they also say ‘this weekend I will play with my friends’ a lot; in Chinese 玩 , wan, literally means play and its used to describe having fun with friends, even for adults)

some classrooms, a library, dorms.. PLAYGROUND!!

I explained playing is for kids, and as college students we should stop using the word play for everything, and instead say “hang out” or “go out”. Still, I get the odd text from time to time, “teacher do you want to play with me?” or “We can play together in Lanzhou this weekend!” No, I don’t want to play with you!

Dean Jiang: the dean of the English department; he’s a nice guy, speaks perfect British English despite never stepping foot in the UK, or any other English speaking country for that matter. He has a … reputation of sorts, for making volunteers do favors for him left and right. Several years ago, PCVs would have had to tutor his daughter in English; luckily she has since moved on to college. The volunteer I am replacing had to edit a book on education policy for one of his friends. I received my two year sentence already… and I kind of love it!

Dean Jiang translated 50 ancient poems into English from the early Qin Dynasty – Qing Dynasty related to Gansu, and I’ll have to clean up some of his wording and prose, to ensure the passages are lyrical and have good flow. Bobby the PCV 21 was horrified at my task, but this is actually a great chance for me to read dynastic poetry and learn more about China, and maybe get my name put into a footnote somewhere, when these poems are published.

my notes in red, did i use allure correctly?

Modern dance class!:  My Waiban contact (Waiban department is in charge of foreigners at the school), Mr. Zhou is good friends with one of the dance teachers at our school. She’s a young woman a few years older than me and when I first met her, she walked into Mr Zhou’s office wearing cat ears and a cape. She didn’t have an English name so I named her Ciara, after the singer-dancer/ princess of Crunk (and now mrs. Russell Wilson!). Ciara invited me to join her modern dance class! It’s the type of four credit class my parents wouldn’t waste $5,000 on at NYU but here it’s free… and I had a great time walking backwards and crawling across the floor on all fours. Its mostly girls, but there’s two other guys in the class who definitely look like they’ve taken pointe ballet for several years in the past, so im currently the worst dancer.

werk werk werk

The End of Training, The Beginning of Peace Corps Service!

from 8/21 – 8/27

I’ve now graduated from Peace Corps Trainee, to Peace Corps Volunteer! This past week was a busy one- I moved out of my host family’s apartment, but not before witnessing China’s female volleyball team win gold in Rio against Serbia (lots of screaming and celebrations in the house, which delayed my packing, so all my clothing was shoved into random pockets of empty space in my suitcases)

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Mr and Mrs Ma! Goodbye, for now!

We had a cheerful goodbye and I was dropped off at one of the swankier hotels in Chengdu for a final, exhausting four days of training. We sat through a parade of sessions on security, how to use a water distiller, further language training, various policies regarding travel and leave, and other related courses.

The highlight came the final evening, when we were sworn in as one giant group of PEACE CORPS CHINA 22 VOLUNTEERS! The American Ambassador to China, Max Baucus, came to make a heartfelt graduation speech of sorts, in English. Later, Khyle (From my advanced language class) got up and made an excellent speech in Chinese. Luke (from the beginner language class) also got up and.. uhh… said a few words, in what sounded like Chinese but I’m not 100% sure what I heard 🙂  加油, Luke!!!

Peace Corps China 22

It was our last chance to bond with friends we made over the summer, some of whom I’m sad to part from, others less so. Just kidding. Loved them all. I doubt any of the PCVs will ever read this blog, but here are my highlights and shout-outs from two months of training:

Advanced Chinese Class: 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, 10 weeks. We spent way too much time together and know way too much about each other 🙂

Khyle, Brian, Henry, Zach, Katie – best of the best

Site Manager Cheng Yu and Language Trainers Guo 老师 and Dora: sorry for drawing Pokemon, and then pretending to draw Digimon (who were actually still Pokemon) instead, when I was told not to draw Pokemon in class. And sorry for never turning anything in on time, to the point where multiple, angry Bubble Pup emojis were sent my way before I began work on the assignments. And sorry that my host mom did most of my homework for me.

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my program manager and 2 of the 4 language teachers that had to put up with me all summer 🙂

Paley: WANG PEI!! PEI PEI! The man and legend, the most kick ass surrogate host brother we never knew we needed but couldn’t live without. Hope you continue showing American volunteers the good life, through Peace Corps China 50.

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the only photo we took in daylight. lol

And finally, my 绿茶友: Iliana, Jess, Greg. Thank you for a wild summer- neither words nor selfies could paint a worthy picture of our misadventures in Chengdu. Its so rare to find good company these days, the type that you can share endless moments of inexplicable/ nearly irrational joy and laughter with, night after night. On our escapades I felt alive and carefree, as if I were 17 again (but this time around, I’m finally the cool kid, comfortable in his skin!! Being 17 is SO much more fun when you’ve had an extra decade to learn to love everything about yourself). Miss you all and wish you the absolute best for the next 24 months

okay, just one selfie! love you guys