This past Thursday, my 4:30 PM Oral English class was completely empty- I freaked and thought I accidentally went to the wrong room, when I remembered the morning class telling me there was a dance competition in the afternoon, at the north campus. With this in mind, I took a brisk walk over to see what the fuss was about.

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cheerleading competition underway

Sure enough, there was a large crowd of a thousand or so students sitting on the bleacher steps watching over the group dance contest. It wasn’t as much dance as cheerleading, with the crop-top shirts, miniskirts, and white sneakers giving the teams a coherent look. The teams were divided by College Major. From afar I see my English kids waiting for their turn in the spotlight, in red and blue uniforms. I walk over to greet them, some of whom are unrecognizable due to the amount of glitter and silvery, white powder brushed over their faces.

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English Majors, ready to compete
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i love the superhero-ish attire they have on, with the star and armbands

Some songs I instantly recognized that were used by the various teams- Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend, Nicki Minaj’s Starships, and Tao Cruz’s Hangover (lyrics: I got a little trashed last night / I got a little bit wasted/ I got a little bit smashed last night/ I got a little shit faced’ed) which is hilarious, because I doubt any of the freshman up there dancing have come remotely close to being wasted/ shit faced’ed, but whatever…

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a surprising amount of male cheerleaders. gender equality!!!

Anyway, soon it is time for the English majors to do their group routine. I am given two smartphones to take photo/ video with, and rush to the front to get a better view of the students. Their cheerleading choreography was very post-2007 Britney: a lot of hand/ arm waving, some marching in place, (no hair flips, unfortunately) – a good effort overall but lacking the enthusiasm and hip movements that would take this event to the next level. Im interested in taking over the role of choreographer next year. And costume designer. And makeup artist. Triple threat!!

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some post-2007 britney moves

The scores are announced shortly after the music ends. The highest and lowest scores are removed and the rest averaged together. A high score of 98 was taken out, the “low” score of 92 was also eliminated (how can the lowest score be 92?!? Is there room to even improve if everyone gets a 95 average for their performance?) The kids shriek in excitement and hug each other.

The Dance Majors also do a routine. They are easily the most talented of the bunch (I’ve seen their rehearsals and shows, they are phenomenal performers, when it matters) but they glaringly did not bring their “A game” to this event. In the same way that I limit myself to a third grader’s vocabulary when holding conversations with recent public school graduates who have zero, real-life experience,Cater to my audience!” (as they say in polite circles / teach at $70k-a-year MBA programs!!) – the Dance Majors assessed their peers and only put in a marginal amount of effort to meet the lackluster competition.

Basically, they just combined a bunch of watered down choreography from previous dances and clobbered something together last minute with only cartwheels and poorly timed backflips stitching the program together. Nonetheless, the crowd is impressed and everyone applauds, as they were one of the few groups that ventured into choreography beyond jumping jacks.

In the end, the English majors come in third place. We are super excited. The Dance Majors win as expected.


Foreign Experts take Linxia

The Gansu Bureau of Foreign Experts heads to Linxia!


In late May, I jumped on the opportunity to take part in the annual foreign experts trip, this time to the town of Linxia! Linxia is known as the “Little Mecca” of China; just over 50% of its residents are Hui (Muslim Chinese) and there are several other ethnic minorities based in the city, including the Turkic Salar group.

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i need those glasses!

**fun fact! I had traveled through this region of China back in 2009 as an exchange student; going through old photos, it looks like we briefly stopped for a bathroom break in Linxia and checked out a market… here is a flashback of a 20 year old Harrison!

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(Back in 2017…) After a short 90 minute bus ride, we hopped off the bus to see a few historic buildings in the center of town. The Eastern Residence is adorned with decorative brickwork, beautifully framing the doors and walkways that connect each inner courtyard to the next.

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Generally, depictions of humans and animals are strictly forbidden in Islamic art (the Persians didn’t get the memo, with their richly decorated miniature paintings of HUMANS!!) but sometimes exceptions for good fengshui need to be made, and the mythical Qilin-beast is perched near the front entrance of the complex.Fullscreen capture 6102017 51534 PM.bmp.jpg

Foreign tourists rarely visit Linxia, so wherever we went, there was a sure to be a crowd of school children clamoring to take photos with the Gansu experts.

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Apparently, egg shell carving is a local artistic specialty- chicken eggs, goose eggs, even ostrich eggs could be pierced with beautiful patterns.

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The local night market served sha-guo 砂锅 (stone bowl broth) and cumin-coated lamb kebabs 羊肉串, both of which are typical for Gansu.

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everything looks better with a DSLR camera and good lighting!

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The next day we visited two fossil museums to check out the skulls and bodies of the shovel-mouthed elephant, platybelodon.

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PCVs and an ancient elephant skull!
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the artistic renderings (And twitching robot exhibit, growling noises included) makes the animal quite terrifying

There was a visit to Song Ming Cliff park, and we took several group photos at the foot of the mountain.IMG_8928.JPGThis mini-vacation included many scholars from Middle Eastern/ Central Asian countries (ie. Egypt, Iran, Pakistan) and also from Russia, and if you follow the news, you would know trust among these governments is at a historic low… so, I am even more proud to be in the Peace Corps at this particular moment.

As an American volunteer I have the chance to build relationships with my international counterparts at a personal, one on one level that is independent from the web of politics that so often constructs the narrative we are expected to believe, fear, and adhere to. The Gansu experts from all backgrounds relished in convening at the table for dinner each night in Linxia, but I’m not sure our respective ambassadors would have the moral courage to do the same.Fullscreen capture 692017 112446 PM.bmp

A week later, I returned to Linxia for a solo trip- since there were a few buildings we didn’t get to see due to time restraints. The most important were the gong bei– mausoleums of Sufi Islam masters. These gong bei are scattered throughout the city, but you can spot them from afar due to their height- they tower over the low-rise buildings in the old quarter of the city.

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Of course this trip also ends with a sketch of  大拱北

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At my school in Lanzhou, breakups and relationship drama are a very public affair. Young couples will make a scene outside the front gate of the north campus for everyone to see. The guy always looks angry and talks loudly, while the girl (she usually wears a baseball cap, maybe to better hide her mascara-streaked face) silently cries at the prospect of getting dumped by this loser over a misunderstanding that probably wasn’t her fault.

And the rest of us pretend to go on with our lives but we keep looking over our shoulder every ten seconds.

The first time I saw this I was on my bike and I stopped to see what all the fuss was about. But now, this is so normal and so routine that I usually smirk when I see heartbroken couples having a pubic meltdown. It’s a rights of passage really, a coming of age for Chinese youngsters to have their moment of dramatic fame and glory.

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“i need everyone to see I’m in an argument with my boyfriend!”
and the guy will feel like this when he gets back to his dorm of 7 male roommates, and won’t have contact with a female for another six months

The way relationship drama is handled in China is completely different from what we do in the States. While we have a culture of #nofilter, TMI, and a tendency to overshare everything about our lives thanks to confession-style reality shows from E! or Bravo!, Chinese students have been influenced by unrealistic, exaggerated Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese television shows they obsessively watch. (my kids are always glued to their smartphones watching TV during class breaks “teacher- five more minutes!!” Me: Ruby, give me your phone, NOW!).

Here’s what I mean:

The first encounter between two future [doomed] lovers always occurs outside in the pouring rain: the girl is caught in a storm without an umbrella, and the boy comes rushing to her side, throwing his blazer over her head as they run to the nearest metro station for cover (this happens in 蜗居, Narrow Dwellings, a drama I am currently watching, which was temporarily banned by the Chinese government for touching on issues related to unaffordable housing prices, corrupt officials, and their money grubbing mistresses).

a scene from 蜗居! here is a government official and his mistress. RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH

These little acts of chivalry permeate through every episode of these types of shows, and give the men and women in the scenes a sense of dignity and an air of romance that doesn’t actually exist on earth anymore.

And I have a hunch that the overly romanticized shows are likely the inspiration for some of the craziest and extremely creative public engagements in China:

Anyway, back to the TV dramas. The climactic breakup mid-season generally occurs in the rain too, but this time the guy walks off and leaves the girl alone to fend for herself and maybe die from pneumonia, since she’s perpetually underweight, and forgot her umbrella again.

so typical (i googled “asian drama crying” and this was one of the first of many hits)

Of course it never rains in Lanzhou, but if the kids are lucky they might get hit by a sandstorm the day they breakup. Nothing can replace that timelessly depressing feeling of walking home soaking wet on the evening of a bad breakup, but getting dust, sand, and a cloud of 2.5PM toxin in your eyes, hair, and nostrils is a pretty good reminder that life sucks and you just got dumped.

expectation, when you first start dating
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reality, when your heart breaks in two, on YanBei Road in the middle of a dust storm