Early December, I taught a lesson on obesity and the dangers of eating too much sugar and fatty foods. In retrospect this wasn’t nearly as relevant for my students as I would have hoped, as almost all of them are severely underweight and many of them have never eaten fast food due to financial constraints. (KFC and McDonalds are considered pricey in China, and Pizza Hut exorbitantly so. Pizza Hut is like the Per Se or Masa of China, seriously!)
Anyway, to make learning about poor eating habits easy and fun, I made up a game called FAST FOOD FRENZY. How do you play Fast Food Frenzy?
First, I reviewed the basic fast food items you find at a McDonalds in a PowerPoint. The funniest comments came from the slide for milkshakes, when I asked the kids to guess what flavors they were:
Next, the game.
Each team has one cashier; everyone else is a customer – roles will rotate throughout the game
Each team has the same exact menu, and 30 orders printed on small papers
The team that gets through all the orders the fastest AND most accurately will win
So this was fun, a chance to listen to the kids say “I’d like to order a large Pepsi… a double cheeseburger… and small fries please!” and the cashier replies “Is that all? Your total is $12.50. NEXT!”
Because it’s the holiday season and I’m no Grinch (and I miraculously found my Citibank card- WOOHOO!!), I took the winning teams from each class to an American fast food restaurant… but first, I preemptively took the guys out to Charlie’s.
The Boys: Charlie’s Burgers
The boys in all 3 of my classes are always being outgunned by their female counterparts. The guys have decent written English but their speaking needs a lot of work. Anytime there is a competition, the teams that are unfortunate enough to have William, James, Lorin, or Coulson are guaranteed to lose.
Class 1 Winners: McDonalds
McDonalds is the gold standard for fast food. Everyone loves a Big Mac, chicken nuggets, and some greasy french fries. Chinese McDonalds also offers peppery chicken wings, which were DELICIOUS.
The girls sent me a photo after we finished our meal, where they inserted the dialogue from Forrest Gump into our lunch. (Forrest Gump has been referenced in all 3 of my classes; like Titanic, everyone has seen it, and it is forever associated with America)
Class 2 Winners: KFC
I picked Alisa to order lunch for the group, but “Two Large Buckets of Fried Chicken” wasn’t on the Fast Food Frenzy menu, so she had no idea what to say. It didn’t matter because the cashier didn’t speak English anyway.
KFC in China comes with a warm corn juice and pomegranate tart, in addition to the fried chicken. Just warning you in advance.
Class 3 Winners: Pizza Hut
Class 3 is my favorite, so I took the winning team to the premier dining establishment of Lanzhou; a Pizza Hut! I got a seafood pizza, an assorted meat pizza, and the New Orleans pizza.
After a couple bites the girls all had similar nervous, repulsed looks on their faces
“…it’s so sour!!”
“…why couldn’t you take us to McDonald’s instead??”
“…can we just eat the crust?”
THEY HATED IT. They’ve never had cheese before, and the tangy New Orleans sauce was too much to handle. I’m a bit disappointed they didn’t love it, since these flavors were specifically built for the Chinese taste buds (none of the menu items have tomato sauce because of how tart/ sour it makes the pizza).
Also interesting: the girls had never eaten with a fork and knife before!! I surely thought they must have used a fork at some point in their lives… but they all said it was their first time. This was evident in the way they held the knife in the wrong hand, and Amanda struggled as she ate the pizza upside down. (then again, who eats pizza with utensils anyway?)
In retrospect the only times I’ve seen a fork/knife in China were in hotel restaurants for the breakfast buffet, and one upscale rooftop brunch I had in Chongqing. Any dining establishment that provides a fork or knife is definitely out of the budget for my students, many of whom are from farming families. They’ve grown up in a completely different world from me, and I could learn more from them than they ever could from me.
But really- of all the restaurants in the world to use your first fork and knife:A FREAKIN’ PIZZA HUT!
Winter Solstice (Dong Zhi / 冬至) marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In China, people make and eat dumplings this evening, to keep their ears warm (there’s a Han Dynasty story for this, but I forgot it already)
Eight girls from Class 3 invited themselves over to make dumplings at my apartment. The nice thing about living on-campus is all these “Peace Corps-ish” interactions are occurring with greater frequently- lunch with students, random last minute side projects, and now homemade dinner!
The girls bring ground pork, ginger, scallions, and a vinegar-chili sauce and get to work. All of them make dumplings in different styles- some round, some narrow, some with fancy twisted edges – and mine were basic wontons. After we boiled them, it was amusing to figure out who made which dumpling (not that it mattered- they all taste the same).
Bobby dropped by after his evening class- it was a treat for the girls, as he taught them last semester and they think very highly of him!
I needed a new hairstyle (Peace Corps is all about trying new things!), so I dyed my hair, but the result was way too K-POP
the feedback was immediate and scathing
“you look like a llama!”
“you match your camels!”
“you match your fur collar!”
“is that a wig?”
Normally on Mondays I’ll have dinner with my students after class ends at 6:30PM but they were particularly hesitant to eat with me this time…
Tina: I mean I guess you can eat with us-
Maria: but you have to sit at the other end of the table, you know?
I needed to fix this ASAP. Bobby suggested I bring a photo with me so our stylist (we go to the same guy) could get a better sense of what I wanted. I got a screenshot of the One Direction member, Zayn Malik.
After another trip to the barber, and things are slightly better… he said he will perm my hair in a few weeks but I might just cut it all off and go back to black. Too much drama. And not worth waking up ten minutes earlier just to wax my hair.
I instructed my students in all three classes to bring in a small wrapped gift, so we could all play Secret Santa (while listening to All I Want for Christmas Is You, on repeat!)
In Class 3, Maria was getting frustrated that I was purposely picking other girls to go before her
Me: I’m doing this so you get the most gifts to choose from. If you are last, you can steal from anyone!
Maria: that’s so awkward, I can’t just steal a gift from a friend!
Me: of course you can, its in the rules. I explained it five times! How come no one has stolen a gift yet? In New York we had so much fun taking each other’s gifts
Maria: That’s America. It’s rude to do that in China! I can’t… I just can’t…
I called Maria up last, and as expected, she went to the front of the room and opened the final box to find an apple inside. She looked pissed off (“I knew it was going to be an apple!”), but when Jack came in late with a huge teddy bear she ripped it out of his hands.
I also left with an apple. Apples are hugely popular gifts to send during Christmas. Christmas Eve is called Peaceful Night 平安夜 (ping an ye) and the first character is similar to Apple 苹果 (ping guo), so there’s a billion dollar industry around putting apples into Christmas themed boxes in China.
Class 1 had the most fun with Secret Santa. They did what my other two classes didn’t dare do: THEY STOLE GIFTS FROM EACH OTHER! Coulson went up first, and he opened a bag with an adorable stuffed Hen. (I suspect he was going to give it to Angelia, his girlfriend in Class 3).
Several students later, Anna hunted him down and went in for the kill.There was lots of screaming and pleading from Coulson, but Anna emerged victorious.
Several other gifts were hotly contested and changed owners: a set of Christmas marshmallows, a giant lollipop, and a crystal globe with Mai Ji Shan inside. (Anna has the hen)
Soon it was my turn to open a gift. I went up and reached for a small lime green box. A gasp went around the classroom.
“no no no no no no!!!!”
Too late. I opened it. Oh shit!Bright Pink Nail Polish! The girls were giggling, some horrified, some amused, but mostly embarrassed that their teacher got a gift he likely wouldn’t use.
“… can we paint your nails?”
I would have said no, but earlier in the week I almost FLIPPED OUT on their friends in Class 2 for not dancing along to a fun, easy, and benign Zumba video of “Santa Can You Hear Me.” I made an effort, but they all stood there, frozen in fear for four minutes (because none of them “know” how to dance) so I shut off the video and lectured them on trying new things, even if it makes them feel embarrassed or out of their comfort zone.
Teacher Cheng didn’t want to be called out for being a hypocrite, so…
This was a crazy week for me: Hair done, Nails did.
Chinese banquets are either really awesome or incredibly awkward, depending on the occasion and the invitation list. A couple English teachers, Mr. Zhou, the English Vice Dean, and the Vice President of our school went to a really nice restaurant for a feast (the few teachers we find insufferable were auspiciously sick, uninvited, or out of town this weekend!). We lucked out and had an amazing end of year dinner.
Also the wine was incredible- its from JiuQuan, in Gansu. I usually get annoyed when we make pointless toasts throughout meals, but the wine was so good I didn’t mind, and made a few toasts myself, mostly as an excuse to drink more. I snapped of photo of the bottle and will try to order a bottle on Tao Bao…
It’s the first week of December, and Dr.INK café’s WeChat group is blowing up with photos of Victoria’s Secret angels. Ah, it’s that time of the year again, when all of humanity sets aside its differences and gathers to watch 50 liquid-dieting models blow kisses and stomp down a blinding LED runway in Paris, girls who are wearing next to nothing except massive, glittering wings clipped to their bony backs.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is the type of shit-show extravaganza that is against EVERYTHING the Peace Corps stands for. There’s just something about the blatant objectification and sexualization of women, and the costumey, fetishy, cultural appropriation aspect of the show that clashes with the goals of Peace Corps: GEWE (Gender Equality, Women Empowerment) and fostering deep, long-lasting, intercultural exchange beyond “exotic” headdresses, necklaces and other disposable accessories.
But as a PCV I’m here to observe, not judge. So I join the guys at the café when they tell me they are streaming the show this year, which is a really big deal to them because FOUR Chinese models made the cut for 2016! Yes, it looks like He Sui, Liu Wen, Ming Xi, and Ju Xiao Wen are joining three dozen white girls and a few other token minorities on the runway.
Victoria’s Secret is clearly making moves to dominate China’s $18 billion lingerie market… ‘cuz the company opened the show with this little gem of a costume:
A pitiful looking dragon, a symbol once reserved for the Emperor of China, is wrapped around Elsa Hosk’s tiny waist (probably to cover her up so she can get past China’s censors). The guys in Lanzhou are eating it up: “It’s a dragon! It’s so Chinese! So awesome!”, not realizing that this is not cultural appreciation, but rather a lame attempt to get them to shell out 700 RMB on bras and panties for their non-existent girlfriends.
I feel a bit better when Liu Wen comes out wearing some “Asian Inspired” whatever, because she’s actually Chinese. I mean it’s still fucked up, but a little less so (similar to how it’s cool for Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj to use the n word, but the rest of us can’t)
But I get off my pedestal and watch the entire show with them, and it is kind of fun. The guys cheer every time one of the Chinese models makes an appearance. Ming Xi made some cute poses at the end of the runway (it looked like she was blowing out a smoking gun, but I can’t be sure), and the rush to see these photos almost crashed China’s WeiBo and social media servers. I think she’s going to be the new “It” girl in China after this, good for her! Cash in on being skinny while you still can, honey!
I must admit, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is oddly addictive. We ultimately watched the entire 2015 and 2014 shows too. And we agreed that 2014 had the best musical guest performers, since Taylor Swift has the height and proportions that could rival any of the other models on stage. Though as one of the guys pointed out, “she acts all innocent and friendly, but you can tell that inside she’s a total 绿茶婊!!”
My phone rings; it’s Brian, the foreign affairs rep at my school.
“Hello Harrison?” “…Yes?”
“The Gansu Bureau of Foreign Experts has invited you to join them next weekend for a trip to see Mogao Grottos, Crescent Moon Spring, and Yuan Guan Pass-” “YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!”
“ok, ok. calm down. I’ll send an email with more details later. Have a nice day”
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, this FOREIGN EXPERT got himself a trip to Dunhuang!!
Dunhuang is located in the far north-west corner of Gansu province. It is part of the old Silk Road that originated some 2,000 years ago, and is more or less the final stop in a Han-majority China before the merchants would head further west into Xinjiang (Which today is part of China), thread through Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, eventually reaching Rome. Dunhuang grew fabulously wealthy through the centuries but after the era of sea exploration 500 years ago, the Silk Road and its camels fell out of use and the city laid in a dusty, sandy slumber.
Thursday afternoon I showed up at the train station to meet the other foreign experts. In total there were 21 teachers from 8 nations (and four Chinese counterparts from the Bureau). Most teach English but a few teach Russian, Arabic, and Physics. It was a good mix of rowdy extroverts and some more contemplative individuals, and the age range was 24 to early 70s maybe – which just goes to show that living abroad and following your dreams can and should be a reality for anyone, at ANY point in life!
We hopped on an overnight train, and 12 hours later arrived in Dunhuang early morning. After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel, we went straight to Mogao Caves.
The Mogao Caves were first carved by Buddhist monks in the 4th century AD. For the next thousand years, local rulers, wealthy patrons, and the Chinese emperors donated enormous sums of money to construct hundreds of grottoes, wall paintings, and massive statues throughout the Mogao Caves.
The murals are brightly painted (some using the deep blue lapis lazuli pigment brought from Afghanistan, which was worth more than gold by weight!) and tell stories of Buddha, his teachings, and also the secular lives and interests of wealthy Chinese through the centuries. No photos were allowed inside, so I grabbed the next few pictures from various museum websites:
By the end of the Yuan dynasty in the mid 14th century, Islam had spread throughout all of the Middle East and Central Asian; the power of Buddhism waned in this region, and the caves were abandoned. This also coincides with the rise of sea-trade, which wiped out the need for the old Silk Road.
THE LIBRARY CAVE
As the tour progressed, a fierce rivalry developed among the Gansu Foreign Experts who hailed from former imperialist / colonialist powers. The Sri Lankan, Egyptian and Filipinos in our group were spared from this misery (historically, their nations were busy protecting their own statues from being hacked headless by explorers) but the rest of us were in a race to see whose country desecrated Mogao Grottoes the LEAST.
The story goes like this: in 1900 The lowly Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu discovered a hidden chamber (the Library Cave) in Mogao Grotto that was sealed off for 1,000 years holding some 50,000 scrolls (written in Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Sanskrit, etc) As news spread , Europeans raced to Dunhuang and the fame-whoring Wang Yuanlu was more than happy to part with tens of thousands of ancient texts for next to nothing in return. He is now burning in the 18th layer of eternal Taoist hell with the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese forever cursing his name for his stupidity and betrayal.
The culprits who looted Mogao, in chronological order:
British (1907): Sir Marc Stein, 20,000 scrolls
French (1908): Paul Pelliot, 10,000 scrolls
Japanese (1911): Otani Kozui, 400 scrolls
Russian (1914): Sergei Oldenburg, 200 scrolls
American (1924): Langdon Warner – not satisfied with scrolls, STOLE A LIFESIZE STATUE of out of the best preserved grotto, and then CARVED OUT A PIECE OF AFUCKING MURAL to take back to the states.
The Russians foreign experts were amused by Mr. Wagner’s actions
Nikolai: that is SUCH an American thing to do
They glanced at me and smiled. I needed a safe space from all the humiliation.
“Guys don’t look at me, I’m from Mexico!”
CRESCENT MOON SPRING
The next day we head to Crescent Moon Spring, an oasis in the middle of the desert that served as a haven for parched merchants and their camels back in the Silk Road era. Our tour guide Lily tells us we can ride a camel for 100 RMB. Everyone cheers. The Canadian is ecstatic. But the lone Egyptian, Mustafa, looks upset. He rolls his eyes and protests; he’s rode/ raised/ kissed a thousand camels in his lifetime.
“Can I ride an elephant instead?!?!”
Lily sensed his disappointment and made a counteroffer.
“if you want, you can fly in a helicopter, for 500 RMB”
500 RMB for a helicopter ride!! That’s ten days of living stipend in the Peace Corps; it’s certainly out of reach for most PCVs. Fortunately, I have some money saved up from my previous private sector job, where I was paid to read Vox and HuffingtonPost: Black Voices work nonstop doing very important things for very important people… Anyway, fuck it: when else in life will I get the chance to ride a helicopter over the Gobi Desert???
“500 RMB? I’M IN!”
An American couple also shells out 500 RMB per person and the three of us pile into the helicopter.
For a short ten minutes we soar above the sand dunes- it was an incredible experience, to see camels as little specks of dark brown against a sea of golden sand.
Not satisfied with just a helicopter ride, I pay another 100 RMB and hop on a camel to trek through the desert for the next hour.
I get off and walk the final stretch to Crescent Moon Spring. It is beautiful. In early December there are no hoards of tourists here in Dunhuang.
The wild grass is golden brown in early December; another treat for coming off-season!
DUNHUANG CULTURE SOCIETY
Later we make a stop at the Dunhuang Culture Society. It’s another museum with relics from the past, but the highlight is an exact 1:1 Replica of one of the best preserved caves in Mogao (Cave 328). We walked into a small room that is shaped just like a grotto, with a meticulously painted vaulted ceiling and wall murals throughout.
There were duplicates of all the statues, including – dear god – what I suspect to be the missing Attendant Bodhisattva that Langdon Warner stole, which is now sitting in a museum at Harvard. I knew what was coming…
Marilou: Americans!! PHOTO PHOTO!
Vita: David should take a photo too!
David (from the UK, with heavy British accent): I’ll pose for you in a room filled with 20,000 scrolls, but we never laid a finger on the sculptures!
We had a banquet at night with local government officials to celebrate the work that Foreign Experts contributed to Gansu this past year. The meal was delicious- and there were images of animals carved on some orange vegetable (pumpkin shell?) to help identify what we were eating. Lots of toasts going around and we are drinking some wonderful Mogao red wine.
But there is no free lunch (dinner) in China. We won’t be paying for the banquet in RMB; the currency of choice for Chinese officials is human dignity. We will be “entertaining” the vice mayor and other bureaucrats with a skit, a song, or a dance. Brett and Olga (American and Russian, but speak far more advanced Mandarin than I do) naturally chose the skit. The burnt out Canadian guy is going to sing. And I opted for a dance with the three Filipino women. We do several toasts and soon it’s our turn to dance…
So now I’m up here on stage with sunglasses and a scarf, with three women in their 50s… Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heartis playing, and I’ve had two glasses of wine in the past five minutes… We spent the 45 seconds doing our tightly choreographed routine. Then the ladies clear out; it’s just me. We all agreed I would have the next 60 seconds to myself.
I’m trying to remember all these steps from my modern dance class which I haven’t attended in two months. I jump around, spin, do some salsa, do some ballet-ish moves, do some things from the 2001 Britney “Slave 4 U” video…
…I’m starting to sweat and after what feels like eternity the three women finally step forward, dance a bit more, and we hold hands and bow. It was a mess. But we were all drunk and had a good time and laughed off the whole thing, and our sponsors were thoroughly entertained
YUAN GUAN PASS
Our final morning we took a bus out for an hour or so, to Yuang Guan Pass. All that is left there today is the ruins of a Han-dynasty watch tower. 1,700 years ago, these towers guarded the edge of China and fires were lit from tower to tower, to communicate messages across the border
Bret and I gave our best Vogue pose
In the Tang Dynasty the most famous poet Wang Wei wrote a poem “Seeing off Yaun-Er on a Mission to Anxi” describing Yaun Gaun Pass:
The morning rain of Weicheng dampens the light dust,
The guest house is green with the colour of fresh willows.
Let’s finish another cup of wine, my dear sir,
Out west past the Yangguan, old friends there’ll be none.
There is desert and barren land as far as the eye could see, until you reach what looks like an impenetrable wall of mountains in the far distance. Standing there, I could hear nothing but the howling wind. And I couldn’t help but imagine how terrifying it must have been to ride into the unknown, some 1,500 years ago.