Some thoughts 

It’s a uniquely challenging time to be a Peace Corps Volunteer today – to think that the American Values and ideas we left the comfort and familiarity of our hometowns to promote abroad are now under intense and relentless assault back home.

I spent several weeks this past semester teaching my students about religious tolerance, racial inclusion, ethnic equality, and LGBT rights in America. With my friends that I see regularly in downtown Lanzhou, I have had meaningful discussions regarding freedom of press, speech, and protest in the United States – freedoms that we take for granted back home but are not guaranteed in many other nations, such as the one I reside in now.

I’ve always slept soundly at night under the assumption that the progress we’ve made as a country, and the privileges we’ve earned over the decades and centuries would never be questioned or rolled back.

Enter the Black Swan Event of the century: A Trump Presidency!

Next semester, my slides about the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement will feel empty and pale, knowing what’s heading our way in terms of voter suppression. I’ll have to add a footnote to the Dakota Access Pipeline lesson, that the victory for environmental activists and indigenous rights activists was short-lived, and the final outcome is still pending, but there will be no fairy tale ending.

And my beloved letter writing campaign to Syrian refugees! It’ll be awfully uncomfortable to have my students read their messages of solidarity to Syrian refugees aloud in front of the classroom, when the English teacher’s President has indefinitely turned his back on all people fleeing from that war-torn country.

Simply put, the policies of the new administration have left me with few avenues and a severely limited arsenal to discuss and promote American Values and the American Dream abroad, without me coming off as a complete hypocrite – or as a subscriber of “alternative facts.”

What can we do as PCVs to protect American Values and the American Dream? If I were still in New York I’m certain I would be walking, marching, protesting at JFK airport with thousands of others. But I’m based in Gansu Province for another year and a half, so that’s an unrealistic option. And the privilege of gathering in large groups to assemble and protest is not afforded to those of us serving in China. There will be no marching or protesting for the duration of my stay here.

What I can do to stay engaged while serving in Lanzhou is make a contribution to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This nonpartisan organization is working 24/7 in all 50 states to fight for our rights and freedoms as Americans, liberties that I most definitely took for granted my entire life – until now. I implore all my friends and fellow PCVs to support the ACLU as well (yes, I know our meager living stipends leave little wiggle room for large donations, but it is important to support human rights organizations back home at this time, no matter how big or small the contribution). aclu_logo_best-100221948-large
Now is not the time for indifference, silence, and inaction. If you’re living in America, march, protest, speak – be seen and heard! If you’re a PCV abroad like me, we’ll have to turn to other means of showing solidarity with our fellow citizens back home. Donating to organizations such as the ACLU is one of the most impactful ways to do this. Executive Orders that slowly erode at our most cherished freedoms and rights are just one signature away from being enacted; it’s our duty as Peace Corps Volunteers and citizens to protect everything that has made America the indisputable leader of the free world for so long.



Telephone, Ethics, and Snickers

(from the previous semester)

My students are extremely competitive and love beating their classmates to first place. There’s nothing more satisfying for a teacher than watching your room explode with energy, as the kids race against the clock and trample over each other to emerge as victors.

In Class 1 I played “Telephone” and had three teams of 9 students lined up in rows. I prepared several sentences, and gave the first students slips of paper which read, “Over the weekend, I waited five hours in line to buy the new iPhone 7”.

One by one, they whispered this sentence down the team, and the final student had to run up and tell me the message to the best of his/ her ability. The first time I did this, I was shocked at how accurate their answers were.

On the weekend I waiting five hours in line and buy the iPhone 7

I know the level of English that my students have, and I know that the message – after being conveyed through eight, fairly low-level oral English mouths – should have ended up in a garble of complete nonsense… what is going on??

In Class 2 I paid attention to what was actually being whispered from one student to another.

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

(This weekend, I wait in line for 5 hours to buy the iPhone 7)

OMG! CHEATERS!!! Similar to how deer and other ruminants have multiple chambers in their stomach for digestion (eat first, digest later!) my students have two chambers in their brain: one for Chinese, another for English (win first, learn English later!).

a ruminant, with a multi-chamber stomach

They think and react 10x faster in their native language, and figured out that if they first translate and memorize what I wrote into Chinese, the phrase could quickly be communicated down the line with 98% accuracy. It was then up to the last two students to figure out how to translate this phrase back into English, and run up to me with their interpretation of my sentence.

I pretended to be annoyed, but I was secretly thrilled at how cunning and shrewd these kids were. They will all make great politicians someday. Politicians, lobbyists, or subprime mortgage peddlers with Bank of China and ICBC.

English class is surprisingly easy, when you speak Chinese!

Finally for Class 3, I reminded the students this was ORAL ENGLISH CLASS and I would listen carefully for any non-English sounds coming out of their mouths. The strategy paid off. The kids were struggling with this sentence: “My mother told me to drink hot tea, after I said I got sick this winter”

Amanda forgot the entire sentence.

“My mother tells me…”

“My mother told me… hot …”

“My mother tells me drink.. 我妈说啥??? (what did my mom say?!?)”

Her entire team was screwed. They were panicking. I was gloating. I leave to listen in on the other teams’ conversations. A minute later Amanda’s teammate Emory (at the end of the line) runs up to me with the sentence

“My mother says to drink hot tea because I am sick this winter”

I glare at Emory. I snatch the phone from her hand and see these QQ messages from various teammates:


(My mom said I have to drink hot tea, I told her I’m sick!)


(My mom said I have to drink hot tea, because I got sick this winter!)


(My mom told me to drink hot tea, this winter I’m sick!)

English class is still really easy, when you use your cellphone to cheat


Team: NOOOO!


Crystal (team leader): SO… DO WE STILL GET CANDY??


Crystal: BUT WE WON!


Whoa! Emory had a really good point. If everyone cheats, then no one cheated… technically. Lance Armstrong got away with this for more than a decade; he has since been stripped of all his medals, but objectively he was the fastest (doping) cyclist in the Tour de France, among a pack of world class (also doping) cyclists … and he repeated this SEVEN TIMES … that’s still an incredible accomplishment, right?

Plus, I’m just an English teacher, I’m not here to talk ethics or anything.


Team: YAYYYY!!!

Me: Its chocolate, are any of you allergic to chocolate?

Amanda: No! We love chocolate!!

Me: There’s peanuts in here too. Are any of you allerg-


Syrian Refugee Crisis

(a story from last semester)

In December, I covered the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria with my students. I could limit coursework to discussing college majors, rooms of a house, and going on a date, but my sophomores are mature and eager to learn about global topics that they might not otherwise have exposure to.

I didn’t go into too much detail regarding the proxy war that is tearing through Syria today- the Kurds, Daesh, the Western backed rebels, Pro-Assad forces, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia… the perpetrators of violence change with every war in history, but the victims are always the same.


So the focus of class was the long journey that refugees make to find a new home, and the struggles they encounter when starting a new life. I showed them a very touching, 18 minute documentary about a Syrian family that relocated to Canada.

The two hour class was mostly somber but there were some funny moments.

Me: what are some challenges Syrian refugees will face after they move to Germany, Canada, or Sweden?
Susan: language, making new friends, getting into college, finding a job… LIFE!!!!

There is a relief organization CARE with which you can send messages of support via its website, which will be translated into Arabic and shared with refugee children. I instructed my students to write some nice words, which I would later collect and send together as one big letter.


An exchange between Jess and Emory as they gather their thoughts:

Jess: Maybe they can come to China, “the Chinese people and government warmly welcome you!”
Emory: 别叫他们来中国!我们已经够穷了! (Don’t tell them to come here! We are already so poor!)

Messages that didn’t make the cut:

The disaster is temporary. Don’t worry about it – Linda

I know you maybe lose your husband or wife, even more awful…” – William (this is my fault; his original letter was too generic so I made him rewrite it, but this is too real)

Forrest’s mother had told him ‘life is a box of chocolates, you never know what is gonna get’ – Nancy (not very comforting, from one of my best students, sadly)

It is well acknowledged that one’s greatest enemy is actually oneself. Don’t be beaten by yourself – Catherine (this is advice for a MacBook wielding, vegan cleansing, safe-space seeking, asexual Librarian Studies 22 year old, not for someone whose house was hit by a barrel bomb)

I think the government will take some measures to resolve these problems – Shelly (except it’s been five years and the world has done nothing but send more weapons to Syria)

In the end I gathered some of the most thoughtful and sympathetic messages to submit. I didn’t feel right correcting the grammar errors in these short messages- sometimes it’s best to leave things the way they are.fullscreen-capture-132017-35454-pm-bmp

Some days my kids drive me crazy, but today I could not be prouder to have spent two hours with them.

The final letter I submitted (in many pieces, due to an inexplicable 255 character limit per message):


My name is Harrison – I am an English Teacher with the American Peace Corps program in Lanzhou, China. My students have learned about the ongoing crisis in Syria, and wish to show solidarity with the millions of refugees that have left Syria for a better future. Below are some of their messages:

“We hope you can go through the difficult period. We all are together with you, and with an optimist attitude face the new day! Let us face it together, arm in arm” – Susan

“Hello, I’m Sunshine, sophomore student of Lanzhou University. I’m sorry to hear that you got away from your country and moved another new place/ country. the life is going on. I wish you hold on and start your new life. And no matter what happened, you do believe the God all be here with you and we all too.” – Sunshine

Courage is like muscle,
We strengthen it with use it
Don’t let reality blocking
the way of your dreams
Regardless of how difficult
Don’t be terrified”

“I’m Coulson, a college student from China. I feel so sad that I heard you had to leave your home and go to another place. It’s not your problem and you can’t stop it. Just like we can’t choose where we are born, but we can decide our future. Don’t feel so sad, because I always be here with you. Always!” – Coulson

“I feel so pity for the suffering you have experienced. Terrible wars made you have to leave your motherland and go to another cities. However, please keep it in mind that god will bless you whenever and wherever you are. And you could come back to your hometown in the near future” – Lorin

“Everyone will try one’s best to help you. Please believe that there are a lot of kind and love people in this world. Please live strongly for your family” – Win, Alice, Dora, Tina

“I truly feel the sufferings for you. Sunshine always after the rain. Comrades, don’t be sad, don’t lose heart. You will rebuild your homes. I wish you return to the classroom so you can study.” – Jack

The Bad Boys of Lanzhou

I spent a lot of my free time at Dr.INK, and have become close friends with the guys that frequent the café. They are awesome, if somewhat unpredictable company, and I never know what’s coming next.

One minute they’re teaching me Tang poetry(青山不倒,绿水长流 / the jade mountain forever stands, the green waters forever flow), and the next moment I’m learning to say some of the most vulgar things that have ever come out of my mouth, in Lanzhou dialect.


Either way, a night out with these guys is guaranteed to be boozy, loud, and memorable. A rundown of the core “wine and meat friends” 酒肉朋友:

Zhang Zhe

At 25, Zhang Zhe is the coffee shop founder and as a small business owner, knows much more about interest rates and loans than I do. He’s busy building a loose network with other cafe managers to turn Lanzhou into the newest coffee hot-spot in China.

Zhang Zhe understands a lot of English and is delighted whenever I bring Bobby or Jess (from nearby TianShui) to hang out

He’s also the most active in reaching out to me to join the gang for anything- dinner on weeknights, KTV on weekends (to assist him with Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie), or overnight trips out of the city, to nearby Tibetan or Hui towns.

Jason / (Big Baby Uncle 大宝叔) / (Double Fly Brother 飞飞哥) / (Prince 王子)

Jason is 32 and goes by many names (see above). He gave me a grand tour of Lanzhou a few weeks after I first arrived, which ended with drinking san pao tai tea on the banks of the Yellow River (as educated people have done for thousands of years), so I’m grateful for his hospitality.

Jason (center) with Bobby at his B-day bash!

Jason knows the best places to eat in the city and always chastises me for going to restaurants not up to his standard

Me: so there’s this la-mian noodle place next to my schoo-
Youssef!! No! no! no! that’s ranked #6,581 in Lanzhou! Call me tomorrow, I’ll take you to a top 3 restaurant! No, wait, a top 1!

Zhao Chen / (Rock)

Zhao Chen is the funniest guy in the group. Everyone has agreed that his expressions are perfect for memes and emojis; in our weChat group, pixelated close-ups of his face are always being passed around to hilarious effect. He taught me to play the Congo drum and we are now working on the ukulele.

the many faces of Zhao Chen

As with most Lanzhou-ren, Zhao Chen has never left the country and loves hearing about my tales from abroad. His dream is to rent an RV someday and drive through China, head west and eventually reach Europe, ending in Portugal. “For Ronaldo!!!

…and more faces


Out of all these guys, I see Jerry the least (because he actually has a real, full-time job – as a police officer). Jerry speaks very good English; he lived in Alaska for a year working on a fishing/ crabbing boat, similar to the ones you see on Discovery Channel’s World’s Deadliest Catch. He had bleach blonde hair back then, but he refuses to show me photos, so it’s hard to imagine.

when i dyed my hair, i asked Jerry for advice on the cut and color

Overall Jerry is solid guy and I’m glad to speak to him in English when I can’t think of the right words in Chinese. He’s the same age as me and has a steady girlfriend- I’m secretly hoping he gets engaged and married soon, just so I can attend his wedding.

Zen Meng Hao / (ZMH):

Lanzhou Eye Candy, Prefecture Level Hottie. This guy is super handsome and has zero competition in Lanzhou and knows it; he’s a total narcissist, which is probably why we get along so well. He works a cushy job at a university close to mine, managing the daily affairs of all the professors there. For the longest time, I didn’t understand how someone younger than me [and without a college degree] landed such a position.

with ZMH at COLORS

Later the guys tell me ZMH’s grandfather and, in particular, great-uncle, were a really big deal in the CPC army back in the heyday and aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. So, ZMH has inherited some far-reaching 关系 guanxi (“connections”) to help him out in times of peril, or (in a neoliberal, post-recession world) times of unemployment.

Ironically, my grandfather, and in particular, great-uncle, also held some highly esteemed positions with the rival KMT in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, except I grew up in New Jersey so guanxi couldn’t even get me free Cheetos in elementary school if I tried.


There’s something oddly poetic and darkly humorous about the whole situation; to think that two generations ago our grandfathers – both in Lanzhou at some point – were exhausting their resources and energies trying to annihilate one another, and now in 2016 their grandsons are busy running around the same city buying each other drinks, sharing cigarettes, and taking selfies together every Friday Night.