Short Stories November Edition: Election, BSB, Black Friday


(Early November, in class 3)

Me: so you have all read what Mr. Trump had to say about women, Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims. Do you think he would make a good leader for ANY country in the world?

Susan: HE’S RICH AND HAS A LOT OF HOUSES!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Recently I was summoned to be a judge at an evening “English Song Contest.” 13 students signed up to sing songs such as “Oceanside, You Are My Sunshine, Lemon Tree, etc”, and I had to critique them based on the following:

  • The Overall Effect (15 points)
  • Pronunciation and Intonation (30 points)
  • Intonation Sound Quality (30 points)
  • Stage Effect (15 points)
  • Show Originality (10 points)

I don’t even know what intonation means, let alone Intonation Sound Quality, but I did my best to give scores that I felt the singers deserved (the highest score I wrote was a 65 – yes I’m a big meanie, but it’s the tough teachers in life that push you to success!) Anyway I also did this to offset the ridiculously high scores other judges were giving out- handing out 95s and 99s like worthless post-inflation Zimbabwe dollars.

The big surprise of the night: Dean Jiang went up to sing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” after all the contestants were done performing. He missed a few notes but I’ll cherish those four and a half minutes FOREVER. Of course I was called up to sing too, and I did my best “I Want It That Way” that I could come up with… and I am proud to say I actually remembered all the lyrics!

“Ain’t Nothin’ But a Heartache…” all in a day’s work of a PCV China volunteer!


My Thanksgiving Lesson was taught along these lines:

  • The Good: turkey, candied yams, string bean casserole, the Mayflower, and pilgrims
  • The Bad: ethnic cleansing of Indigenous Americans that shortly followed and continues to this day (ie. Dakota Access Pipeline)
  • The Ugly: BLACK FRIDAY

For Black Friday, I showed the students a video clip (titled “humans turn into monsters“) of troglodytes  – I mean basket of deplorables – I mean SAVVY SHOPPERS stampeding into department stores at the stroke of midnight, brutishly hoarding anything they could get their hands on: Flat Screen Plasma TVs, Samsung smart phones, B-list straight-to-DVD BlueRay discs, and the “must-have” toy of the season that their brood will only touch two or three times before moving on to the next big thing [as dictated by Kylie Jenner or whoever the fuck sets pre-teen trends these days].

My students were STUNNED. The expressions their faces developed while watching the carnage were priceless. “天啊!” (“My God…!”) I asked my students to come up with a game plan to survive Black Friday. Highlights:

  1. bring a portable gas burner to eat hotpot while waiting in line (this is actually brilliant)
  2. helmet and shield
  3. be “fast, accurate, and relentless!”

I clarified that I have never gone shopping on Black Friday

“I’m not materialistic, I only believe in real wealth – friends, family, and education. And so should you”

“But Teacher you have an iPhone!”

“No Misty, I have a Xiaomi phone that’s just really good at pretending to be an iPhone.  下课了! CLASS DISMISSED!”


Chasing FengShui: YanTan Bird, Fish, and Flower Market

A while back I wanted to bring up the Feng Shui level in my apartment- the living room was a bit drab- and could use the lift that only live plants and goldfish could provide. I asked around and eventually was told to visit the YanTan Bird, Fish, and Flower Market, which was walking distance from my old apartment. So I paid a visit… It was INSANE. TOTAL CHINA CRAZY


YanTan market was in a small alleyway hidden from the main traffic that flows through the district. The entire street was lined with shops selling an endless variety of fish, birds, and live plants. As with all things in China, it was CRAMMED. I mean THOUSANDS of fish were splashing around in Styrofoam boxes placed on the street, pleading to be saved, some choosing suicide and leaping out to their deaths instead of cohabiting an open air coffin with 500 other finned comrades.


There were goldish, guppies, tetras, angel fish, koi, beta fish… basically anything you could find at a PetCo but all outdoors, and 10x in number.


There were assorted turtles as well, baby turtles slightly larger than a quarter, to full grown snapping turtles, which seemed dangerous to keep in tanks that kids could easily stick their fingers into.


future mutant ninja turtles!

The bird section was also pretty wild – three dozen parakeets stuffed into a cage meant for two, lovebirds, canaries, and those singing birds that the Chinese have kept for centuries, in round bamboo cages.


There was the occasional hen ready to be snuffed out and turned into someone’s dinner. It was a noisy and colorful affair; lots of squawking, chirping, quacking, singing, and feathers of all shades floating through the dusty mid-afternoon air.



The plants were all kept indoors, and the plant market was really a wonderful, serene sanctuary in comparison to the chaos outside. Every plant imaginable was up for sale: non-vascular ferns and moss, cactus, succulents, peace lilies, spider plants, bamboos of all sizes, and philodendron (I had to look up the name of the last one online!).


I spent a very long time, maybe an hour or more, just walking through all the aisles looking at all the vegetation. Lanzhou is almost a desert (i mean everything outside – streets, hills, mountains, are just yellow and brown), so its a rare treat to see so much green.


I left with seven plants and two betta fish (these YanTan market trips were done pre-bankruptcy FYI). the fengshui in my apartment has been through the roof ever since. within two weeks of arranging all the flora and fauna in a fengshui-garnering manner, i got a call from Brian the Foreign Affairs rep, telling me I was moving to the brand new, glossy high-rise on-campus apartments!!

my beautiful fish!


Teacher Cheng is GOING BROKE.

More accurately, I’m extremely illiquid at the moment, as one of my American bank cards expired and it’s no longer capable of pumping out a waterfall of pink 100 RMB bills on command at the local ATM.

my new life: saving these 1/10 RMB bills for a snack..

This means I’m reduced to surviving off of the Peace Corps stipend, something like 50RMB ($7.50) a day. Now that the unthinkable has happened (a lot of unthinkable things happened recently!), it’s time to cut back on spending. I’m at the point where every Kuai and RMB counts; here’s how I’m coping:


I had taken the public transportation here maybe five or six times during the past two and a half months. Almost all of those times, I was with a local teacher or some other responsible adult, and didn’t want to be rude and hail a cab for myself while watching the rest of them wait in a long-ass line for the next bus.

public transport selfie! a humbling experience

Now, I’m forced to learn the bus routes (subway still under constriction), and it’s harder than I imagined because I’m still largely illiterate and street/ bus station names are beyond my level of comprehension. The Bus App (车来了) is useless as well; I need maps and colored lines connecting the bus routes from Point A to Point B, not WORDS I CANT READ. Let’s call it a work in progress

Cab prices: 15 – 20 RMB

Bus fare: 1 RMB

Savings: 14 – 19 RMB per trip


Meals with Friends:

Group dinners with the coffee shop gang used to be a 3x a week thing. I would head downtown after class on Tuesdays, Fridays, and also on weekends to join the guys for hours-long hotpot and other fancy dinners.

Typical dinner with friends. the green strips of vegetable hanging from the metal frame are ostentatiously called “fire tree, silver flower” 火树银花
closeup of the glorious fire tree, silver flower. the strips of a dehydrated vegetable, when boiled in the hot broth, have an amazing *crunch*. expensive, but we order it every time, just for the CRUNCH

Hot Pot Dinner: 70 – 100 RMB

Now, if I head to DR.INK Café for the evening, I’ll frequently say I’m *STARVING* and that I can’t wait the 45 minutes it will take for us to head out for a proper dinner, get seated, order dishes, etc. So, I convince the gang to go to the night market around the corner to pick up a noodle stir fry, a wrap, or rice dish. It’s super cheap and the wrap in particular is delicious, but you also run a 25% risk of getting diarrhea half an hour later.

night market around the corner. bring imodium

Night Market Meal: 15 RMB

I also recently moved to on-campus housing, which means I see my students walking around campus all the time now. The outgoing ones are pretty proactive about getting lunch or dinner with me, and I’m genuinely happy to have their company.

one of the cafeterias

The cafeterias are always noisy and crowded, and food is mediocre at best, but they’re also really inexpensive, and it’s kind of fun to get to step into the life of a Chinese college student for an hour or so.

Tina, Maria, Nancy. they are my favorite students- sarcastic, mildly conniving and self-congratulatory, just like their Oral English Teacher!

Cafeteria Meal: 10 RMB

Savings: 55 – 90 RMB per dinner


A self-imposed KFC ban has been the biggest blow to my ego. I LOVE KFC. Maybe it’s the smell of partially hydrogenated oil, or the upper middle class dream they’ve sold to me and a billion Chinese people- either way I love, love, love KFC. I love it when im sober, I love it even more when im drunk. But it’s a luxury I can no longer afford.

My sitemate Bobby and I hitting KFC hard after a night in town

KFC Combo Meal: 30 RMB

DICO’s is the best KFC knockoff, but even that is out of my budget at this point. I’m eating at the lowly ABZ Chicken, which is a knockoff of DICO’s (it’s a KFC knockoff !!! Is that even possible?) the meat is squishy and perpetually pink- in the undercooked, non white-meat kind of way, but its also the only chicken sandwich that fits in my budget these days.

sad sandwich, sad harrison

ABZ Chicken Sandwich: 7 RMB

Savings: 23 RMB


This is probably the most unusual and desperate way I’m trying to save money. I have a habit of buying this very specific type of red watermelon: it is compact in size, perfectly round [aesthetically pleasing], and the flesh is crisp and sweet. Unfortunately, it’s also imported from somewhere far away and expensive.


Red Watermelon: 18 RMB

Now I buy the Gansu grown “seed melon” which is larger with yellow flesh. It’s less round, less sweet, and slimy in texture. But since it’s locally grown, the price is lower than that of the red melons, and im in a liquidity crisis so…

ugh, disgusting

Seed Melon: 12 RMB

Savings: 6 RMB!!!!!! Per melon

Even my foreign affairs rep has noticed the difference in my lifestyle as of late, when he visited my apartment.

Brian: why are you eating seed melon? I thought you hate it


Weekend in HeZuo to see Milarepa Monastery

Last week, Zhang Ze (café owner) says he’s going to Gannan and invites us to join him. He is a quarter Tibetan, and he makes an annual pilgrimage to HeZuo to pray at the Tibetan monastery complex there. Though it’s freezing now in Gansu, I’m always up for an adventure, and the weather is set to be sunny so I’m happy to go. Two guys dropped out last minute, so it was just three of us meeting at the bus station Saturday morning at 9:30AM

We arrive in HeZuo, Gannan around 1PM and are picked up by two of Zhang Ze’s friends, De Ji and Zhuo Ma. Zhuo Ma is one of the most badass girls I’ve met in China. She drives up to the bus station in a Land Wind, which is an identical knock off of a Land Rover. She hops out of the car to greet us and is wearing a black Adidas track suit, with matching Adidas sneakers, and has all sorts of Tibetan prayer beads/ coral/ turquoise stones hanging from her necklace. Though her English is pretty much limited to “Hey, Man!”, when we get in the car and she is blasting RICK ROSS. True HeZuo BADASS.

Land Wind selfie, Zhuo Ma in shades

De Ji and Zhuo Ma have been to the Tibetan temples a million times so they drop us off and will meet us for dinner. Zhang Ze, Wu Qian and I walk up to the Tsoe Gompa and Milarepa Lhakhang monastery complex.

Milarepa monastery

It is incredibly impressive- a set of deep red temples built into the hill, each topped with a glimmering gold roof, and some surrounded by ornate walls of gold and red with white and brown stripes. The tallest temple is anywhere from 9 to 13 stories tall (Zhang Ze says 9, wikipedia says 13; I didn’t bother counting). Most of the temples have been restored after the destruction of the Cultural Revolution.

close up shot

We followed Tibetan customs and circled around Milarepa temple three times [clockwise] before entering (shoes off, and no photos allowed) The interior was lined with bronze cast Tibetan gods- most with fierce expressions to ward off evil spirits. The air smelled like salty butter, since all the candles burning inside were made of yak butter.


Outside, we spent two hours walking around and I took some neat photos with the dSLR camera. A lot of elderly men and women were here to pray, and some were happy to pose for photos.

a young boy and his granny, i assume

Afterwards we hiked up the hills behind the monastery. At some point there was a wire fence covered in Tibetan prayer flags, left behind by worshipers. Whenever the wind blows, the scriptures written on the flags are lifted into the sky and bring peace and blessings to the surrounding land.

hills behind the monasteries
snow capped mountains in the distance!
a LOT of prayer flags left at the top of the hill



We head back down to the temple complex and Zhang Ze tells me more about Tibetan culture. For example, there is a specific Tibetan flute made out of the leg-bone of 14 year old girls. Zhang explains that for religious Tibetans, the body is merely a vessel for their spirit, so if your 14 year old daughter happens to die, it’s an honor to have her leg bone turned into a flute for lamas to use. Also, when Tibetans die, there are “sky burials” where their bodies are hacked into small pieces for vultures to eat; it is a way to share your body with other living beings.

other buildings in the complex

Zhang also says some monks will have their bones turned into jewelry, like bracelets or necklaces, and these can be worn by other high ranking men of religion. (At this point Zhang is throwing shade at our friend Jerry, who loves showing off his Tibetan bone bracelet, despite being secular Han Chinese. Cultural appropriation and microaggressions reach Gansu!)



At sunset the girls come and pick us up in the Land Wind SUV. For dinner we go to a courtyard home and head to a room on the second floor, which has been converted to a restaurant. We get a D.I.Y. appetizer: a big bowl of flour, a medium bowl of yak butter and a small bowl of sugar. Zhuo Ma mixes the ingredients together with hot milk tea, and then uses her hands (“I just washed my hands, okay?”) to form them into logs of sorts, for us to eat. Tastes like salty nothing.

a rather unappetizing appetizer

I’m glad the main dishes were stronger in flavor- roasted lamb, sliced cow stomach, and some root vegetables. We spent the night drinking unsweetened milk tea and san pao tai tea, and the girls brought out a Bluetooth speaker and we enjoyed Bob Marley and the Beatles (I swear, everyone is cooler than me…)


The next day Zhuo Ma takes us to lunch and then drops us off at the bus station. She tells me she will add me on weChat and I tell her to come visit us in Lanzhou. Later on the bus, I get a friend request notification on weChat. User name: “JAMAICA BIG MONEY