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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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
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!!
Disclaimer: All opinions shared in this blog are the author’s own, and do not represent the views of any outside organization, including but not limited to the United States Government and the Peace Corps.