Real World: Lixian

Summer Project has come and gone! This is a two week event that every PCV must complete between the first and second year of service. This year, all volunteers from Gansu province were sent to small-town Lixian together, to teach primary, middle, and high school teachers Oral English.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85408 PM.bmp.jpg
Gan’Zoo Crew 2017

Some 300 students (teachers) took part in this annual lovefest of learning and intercultural exchange. In other provinces, the volunteers were split between five sites, so each volunteer had a monstrous teaching load- we lucked out and all 17 of us were all thrown in one town.

More volunteers = more fun = less teaching = happy Teacher Cheng. The gansu volunteers all stayed on the same floor of the hotel we were at, and i felt like a college freshman again (that was 10 years ago!)  with some rooms designated for netflix, or nintendo, or just “drink wine and chill”. a few of us frequented the spa downstairs, despite the water in the hot tub never being filtered, and only drained every other day..

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85200 PM.bmp
guys hangin’ out in the sweltering heat

Lixian is a pretty laid back town, and you see a lot of the card playing/ chess/ mahjong in the streets that might no longer be common in larger cities. everything moves a little slower here, and you dont risk your life walking across the street in the same way you would in Lanzhou

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85212 PM.bmp
serving up a hot bowl of Re Mian Pi (warm noodle skins), the local specialty

We had a day to settle in and then classes began the next morning But, first things first…

Jess’s Birthday Bash!

I don’t think anyone dreams of celebrating their 30th birthday in Lixian of all places, but that exactly what happened to my Peace Corps BFF Jess! We got a nice cake (interesting choices included sponge bob cake, bra and panties cake, and a Barbie cake from Angel Bakery) and went to a beer garden near the dried creek that intermittently reeked of urine or worse. Despite the unusual aromas that wafted through the night, we had a great evening together.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85022 PM.bmp
we ultimately picked a very normal cake with dragonfruit and kiwi

Jess said turning 30 in Lixian just puts everything into perspective – its really just another day in your life, and in the end, everyday is what you make of it – the world is full of surprises and you just learn to roll with it. Plus, ten or fifteen years from now when people ask what you did for your 30th, it’s way more meaningful to tell a story about Peace Corps than “I flew to Paris for a week”

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85128 PM.bmp
learning too much about one another through “never have i ever”…

My Lesson:

Each morning, around 9:30 AM – after an unnecessarily long, self-centered introduction in which I make the class guess where I’m from (China! Japan! Korea!), show a dozen photos from the many countries I visited (you just *have* to see Uzbekistan with your own eyes! The empanadas in Colombia were amazing!) – we packed our invisible suitcases and started on an imaginary tour of America.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 84921 PM.bmp
a typical elementary school classroom

I reused a good – but not great – lesson plan about Travel, a lesson I had taught in the previous semesters that barely lasted 90 minutes, let alone the THREE HOURS I needed to fill each morning. I’ve also become a master of talking really slowly without sounding condescending, a guru of walking up and down the two aisles that divide the classroom, repeating hard to pronounce words with a V (Vacation! Vacation! Vacation!) or stressing the difference between “Customs” and “Customer” that so many teachers struggle with.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 91211 PM.bmp.jpg
a culturally insensitive slide (by 2017 US university standards)

After the first few classes, it occurred to me the men in the class always said “NBA!” whenever I asked what they would see or do in the States, and seemed disappointed that I had nothing to say on the subject. I quickly revised the PowerPoint and pulled up a list of highest paid NBA players and grabbed their photos for the below slide:

Fullscreen capture 7312017 90919 PM.bmp.jpg
Curry isnt on the highest paid list, but his face is EVERYWHERE in lanzhou- he’s promoting VIVO cellphones so i had to add him

The guys in class knew all of the players by heart, so in this aspect they definitely recognized more about American culture than I did. Lixian Teachers: 1, Mr Cheng: 0.

Next, the teachers had to work in groups, select a country to visit, and list important information they needed to know before embarking on their imaginary trip. Some highlights, which warmed my icy heart:

  • The Emperor of Japan: Shinzo Abe
  • Population of the UK: 6,564 billion (translating numbers from Chinese to English is very, very difficult because of the different ways in which we categorize sets of 0s in large numbers)
  • Australian pop star: “Kyty Perry”
  • South Korea’s famous hobby: face-lifting
  • Interesting Fact about Russia: Vodka
  • Favorite food in North Korea: dog soup
  • Things to do in Thailand: ride elephants and ladyboys

Overall the teams did really well with this assignment, considering none of the teachers had ever left the country (or even province for some), and they had to rely on the limited access to media and Baidu to guide them through their travels.


Fullscreen capture 7312017 85544 PM.bmp
all the volunteers + one of our eight classes we taught. lots of smiling during these two weeks

Cui Feng Mountain

We were lucky to have an easily accessible mountain range Cui Feng Shan (翠峰山) just a few miles south of the town of Lixian, which I took full advantage of. I went on two separate days, as we had perfect blue skies for two weeks- and it would be a waste not to see some more green before I return to brown and dusty Lanzhou.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85352 PM.bmp
all that green!

The view was phenomenal, probably the most beautiful mountains I have seen yet in China, and certainly the most beautiful in Gansu province.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85417 PM.bmp
new friends!

On my first climb up, I ran into two other volunteers and some of our students. The students were so friendly and invited us to eat dinner with them, and we later visited their apartment in central Lixian.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85341 PM.bmp
eating sichuan food with our students (teachers)

This was easily the highlight of my time here: it was unexpected that the students were so eager to treat us like old friends, and take us to meet all of their family, including their 94 year old grandmother with bound feet – a relic from pre-republic culture.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85415 PM.bmp
home visit

We were so, so touched by their hospitality and warmth, for the green tea and watermelon, for the handshakes and smiling eyes.


Sally is one of my students from the first semester of classes I taught – way back in September 2016. She lives in Lixian country, and we were able to meet up for a few hours after I was done teaching one day.

Fullscreen capture 7312017 85509 PM.bmp
sally + friend

Good news! Sally, as with most of her classmates, will be heading to Hotan (FAR west China, near the border of China and Pakistan) in XinJiang to work as a volunteer Mandarin Chinese teacher for a semester, starting in late August!

Hotan, on the far west edge of China

This was one of my proudest moments yet as a volunteerto see my students grow and transform into teachers in their own right. Sally remembers all the best games from class that will keep the kids moving when the class need a little boost. I am so happy for her and will be keeping in touch with all my former students as they take on their own mini- Peace Corps adventure!


Qinghai: Canola Flower Season!

I had been hyping up this reunion for the longest time- between Ana and Monique (from Taipei) – and Monica and Fox (based in Lanzhou). We talked about this for months and months, as the girls met years ago in Thailand and hadn’t seen each other again since.

Our plan was to hangout for a weekend in Lanzhou before I took the girls from Taiwan on a trip to Qinghai

As luck would have it, the first evening Ana and Monique arrived in the city, I was about to have dinner with my relatives, Fay and Ma Qiang. They were thrilled to invite the girls to eat 涮羊肉 (thin-sliced, rapid-boiled mutton) with us, so the girls hustled into a tuk-tuk(ish) car-thing to get to the restaurant ASAP.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123454 AM.bmp.jpg
Ana, awkwardly sequestering herself away from the rest of us. im holding a bowl of San Pai Tai tea, a Lanzhou specialty

It was all very, very delicious, and I’m always amused at the ways in which various social circles can collide and expand in the most unexpected circumstances!

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123443 AM.bmp
lamb on the left, pickled sweet garlic below (next to the cilantro), tofu and veggies to the right

The next day, we meet with Fox and Monica and do the foodie tour of Lanzhou – the beef noodle soup, the fermented barley milk tea, the kebabs and baked bing bread.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123527 AM.bmp
hugs all around

We talked about Monica and Fox’s impending wedding, my very important and unorthodox role as best man, and the generally crazy-but-hilarious lives we have all been living and enjoying in Taipei and Lanzhou.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123500 AM.bmp
enjoying fermented barley milk tea
Fullscreen capture 7272017 123507 AM.bmp
kebab 羊肉串, baked bread 烤饼, and potato slices 土豆片. everything in lanzhou is so salty/ spicy/ sour, and im kind of over it. but the girls from taipei love this stuff, since the food in taipei is much lighter in flavor

The next day, Ana, Monique and I set off to BianDuKou via express train to see the canola flowers there. Mid July is the perfect time to see these flowers in full blossom, and if you are lucky you will see an unbelievable site- miles and miles of flowers that blanket the earth in a sea of yellow and gold petals.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123536 AM.bmpIt turns out, this year MenYuan (not Biandukou, where we were headed) had the highest concentration of canola flowers, so the view from the train was the best of all! I’ll be back next year…

At Bian Du Kou, stopped to take some gorgeous photos of wildlife and nature at its finest– with mountains in the background, some Chinese tourists in the front (dressed for the occasion), and a field of flowers throughout!

Fullscreen capture 7272017 122722 AM.bmp
some girls came ready for a photoshoot!

Fullscreen capture 7272017 124028 AM.bmp

Fullscreen capture 7272017 122831 AM.bmp
Here are some yurts we could have rented for a night, if we had more time
Fullscreen capture 7272017 83317 PM.bmp.jpg
Happy visitors in BianDuKou

The field mice in the grasslands were so cute! But, they have a devastating impact on the soil here and lead to soil erosion throughout the region.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 122633 AM.bmp

Fullscreen capture 7272017 81906 PM.bmp.jpg
sheep crossing

The next day, we headed to Qinghai lake from Xining. Our driver Stone was a French and English speaking tour guide who gave us ample time to stop at the best sites- including a Tibetan temple midway between the provincial capital and the lake. I was able to take some incredible photos there…

Fullscreen capture 7272017 122947 AM.bmp

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123003 AM.bmp
prayer flags set up behind the temple. Tibetan prayers are written on each flag, and as the wind blows, the prayers are carried away into the wind
Fullscreen capture 7272017 123103 AM.bmp
“give me serious”

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123117 AM.bmp

We stopped to have lunch at another grassland, and ate outside yogurt and nang bread outside the yurt of a nomadic family.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 74522 PM.bmp
lunch break!! picnic in the middle of nowhere

We also fed their baby goats – poor thing is tied to a post – that quickly sucked down a bottle of milk.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 81154 PM.bmp.jpg

Finally, after a long day of driving we reached the lake in the mid afternoon. Qinghai Lake is impressive for being the largest body of water in China, and in July it is even more impressive with much of its circumference colored by a ring of gold canola flowers several kilometers wide.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 123842 AM.bmp.jpg
Vogue Qinghai

This of course, makes for another great photo session!

Fullscreen capture 7272017 74729 PM.bmp
squatting in a field of canola flowers (not pooping- i promise!)

Fullscreen capture 7272017 82806 PM.bmp.jpg

Interesting fact: Tibetans do not have a culture of eating fish, so the massive fish population in Qinghai Lake had never been harvested by humans for centuries, or maybe millennia. During the great leap forward, when the rest of China suffered from great famine and disaster, large-scale fishing in Qinghai Lake sustained the entire population of Xining and spared hundreds of thousands of people from starvation.

Fullscreen capture 7272017 74529 PM.bmp

Mid-Summer Goodbyes

The Peace Corps 21 cohort has finished up their service here in China. The past few weeks I’ve been running around Lanzhou bidding farewell to the gang that got here a year before me.

I’m grateful for their guidance over the past year, and the many moments of camaraderie we shared over 501 Coffee, at the clubs M2 and COLORS with horrendous DJs (“put your fucking hands up!! 1… 2… 3…!!! 你们HI了没?!?”), or under Zhong Shan Bridge on warmer nights with beer and tea gazing out to the rushing, murky waters of the Yellow River.

Fullscreen capture 7172017 92816 PM.bmp
Bobby and Susan- the best sitemate and honorary sitemate i could have ever asked for. MISS YOU both!!!

Kyle is heading back to the states as well! One less foreign teacher using the BOOK NOOK and randomly assigning grades between 75 and 96 for speech contests =]

Fullscreen capture 7172017 92835 PM.bmp
Kyle sippin’ his San Pao Tai tea

Marni, the volunteer who taught at my school from the Peace Corps China 20 cohort, came back to visit for a week! We snapped a rare photo of 3 generations of PCVs under one roof; I told bobby he must come back this time next year, to get a China 21- 22 – 23 photo.

Fullscreen capture 7172017 94028 PM.bmp
Lanzhou U of Arts and Science PCV 20/ 21/ 22

I’m sad to see these friends go home, but I know everyone is moving onto better things for the future, and I look forward to many more reunions in the years to come- either on American soil, in China, or some other country with this gang of globe trekkers!

Nosebleed Emoji, Love and Internships

Nosebleed Emoji

weChat comes with sets of stickers to use to send to your friends. One of my favorites is this dog “Shiba Inu” and his many moods- shocked, sad, eating, embarrassed, wistful, nervous, etc. See below for the first 16 emotions of Shiba Inu:

Fullscreen capture 732017 110139 AM.bmp.jpgThe one I never understood was the nosebleed emoji- why the heck would someone send me a nosebleeding dog? (other sticker sets also contain central characters gushing blood out of their nostrils).

It never occurred to me to ask someone what the nosebleed means, until I recently had a female friend telling me about a guy who was so hot she was “about to have a nosebleed!” 都快流鼻血了!BINGO! I was onto something.

Fullscreen capture 732017 110052 AM.bmp.jpgSo last week during a class break I asked my students what it means to have a nosebleed. The girls giggle and struggle to come up with a coherent explanation. Finally, they pull out a smartphone and go on BaiDu and look it up. “so… when a person gets excited, their blood starts rushing faster and faster through their body… then to relieve the pressure, the blood must come out somewhere! And the membranes of your nostrils are the thinnest in your body- so, you get a nose bleed

This is definitely some Eastern medicine kind of theory, like Yin and Yang, Qi, and internal heat. For example, every Chinese person knows not to eat too many lychee in one sitting, because it will set your Qi on fire and cause problems for your body. Similarly, a lot of mutton based dishes in Lanzhou are no longer served in the summer, because lamb induces toxic heat in the blood, and its already hot outside. To counter this, many restaurants will serve mung bean soup instead, which cools your Qi. None of this is scientifically proven, but it is all anecdotally true!

Anyway, I laughed when I heard their explanation about the emojis. I was about to say “actually, when a guy gets excited, his blood rushes faster and faster until he gets a…” but I didn’t want to be crass. So during the final presentations, whenever a group asked me if I thought they did a good job, I replied “SO GOOD! I’M ABOUT TO GET A NOSEBLEED!!”

Love and Internships

The evenings are getting much warmer now, and in recent weeks I’ve seen a lot of my Sophomores practicing roller skating at the student plaza a few minutes walk from my apartment. Sometimes Coulson or Vivian will text me to come out, and I will join them for an hour or two at night to catch up on life.

Fullscreen capture 732017 105921 AM.bmp.jpg

Mary tell me a hilarious story about how they haven’t slept well at night the past week, because some guy has been coming around at midnight to their dormitory (breaking curfew!! Omg!), screaming the name of a girl and telling her he likes her. As in “I LIKE YOU. I LIKE YOU SO MUCH!!” 我喜欢你!我好喜欢你!

So now, the hundreds of girls living in the same dorm all must suffer this nightly nuisance until he either gets rejected, gives up, or is told he is liked in return. This is called 表白” which means to “express your sincerity” but I think its more prostrating/ humiliating yourself in public to show you are willing to give up your dignity for the sake of love.

Mary told me guys generally start courtship by writing a page long letter about the first time he saw the girl and fell in love with her, and couldn’t stop thinking about her ever since. However, most guys skip the first step now, and go straight to screaming like a maniac outside the girl’s dorm at night.

More importantly, the girls tell me about their upcoming semester, which generally requires an internship, since we are at a 3 year vocational school. The department has given them three selections to choose from, in addition to the option of finding their own job:

  • Go to Xinjiang to work as a Chinese teacher at an elementary school in Hotan
  • Go to Shanghai to work at an international hotel
  • Go with China National Petroleum Corp to Pakistan, Iraq, Central Africa to grow vegetables and cook for the Chinese men who work on the oil fields

We all agree the last option is the worst, since these regions with oil are unstable, and nothing good will come from working as farmer surrounded by a group of middle aged men. (lots of nosebleeds!) The students who had the most interest in learning English have signed up to go to Shanghai, and hopefully they will have many opportunities to practice their English with foreign guests. The rest have hesitantly applied to go to Hotan and become teachers for a semester. (Fun fact: the program is willing to pay for flights for these internships, and none of my students have flown before, so they are all really excited about getting to site!)

I feel bittersweet about all this, since we have become good friends over the course of a year, and I’ve become comfortable with running into the Sophmores all over campus and sharing stories, dinner, laughs, and unsolicited advice about relationships or buying an iPhone. It will feel strange not seeing them in the fall, with last minute requests to meet filling up my calendar

But nothing is forever, and we all keep moving forward with our lives and make the best decisions we can. As Alyssa told me – with her roller skate wheels glowing in the dusty night – “I used to think we have so much time as students! I never thought we would need to make such an important decision by the end of the week.”