My short trip to Xiamen (pronounced Shaman, like the chanting, spiritual witchdoctor) left me recharged and deeply relaxed. Xiamen is one of the most comfortable major cities in China- the city is mainly comprised of a large island off the Fujian coast. In the 1980s it was one of four SEZ (Special economic zone) that led China toward modernization and economic prosperity.5ef46560533e48c0acc5bfa5.jpg

That being said it is neither overdeveloped nor inhumanely capitalist in feeling, which is the dreary reality and fate for many of other China’s mega cities and early SEZs. The population sits at 3.5 million; there are numerous parks, the skies are blue, and the coastal breeze is much appreciated.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70148 PM.bmp.jpg

The name Xiamen means “doors to the mansion”- after losing the Opium Wars, Xiamen became an entrance point for European powers to conduct their business and governance in China. The tiny Gulangyu Island is a short ferry-ride away, and it is here that the Westerners built their consulates and homes. Fullscreen capture 3162018 94103 PM.bmp.jpgMany of the buildings are still standing today – although in various stages of decay – and their terracotta roofs still paint a magnificent picture of what the island looked like a century ago.   Fullscreen capture 3162018 70158 PM.bmp

The tourist ferry port to go Gulangyu was even busier than some train stations and airports I have been to in China- expect long lines, and bring your passport as always! I got into a screaming match with a couple who definitely cut me in line, (I parroted off some propaganda I see regularly about traveling with class 文明旅行!!! 听过没?”, which in retrospect is an un-classy thing to say to a stranger ) but two minutes later I was over it and completely #unbothered since we would be stuck on the same ferry anyway.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70204 PM.bmp

One of the best local dishes here is an inexpensive bowl of 沙茶面 (Satay Noodles). The broth is rich with south-east Asian spices and there’s always the option to add an egg and some mish-mash meat rolls for more flavor.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70638 PM.bmp

I also found a small restaurant serving handmade vegetarian dumplings and noodles, where the dough for the noodles was being kneaded on one end of the table, and the patrons sat at the other end eating the finished product. An intimate and comfortable experience, though I was nervous for the little boy (the owner’s son, I assume) whose fingers were constantly in the vicinity of the fast moving knives.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70630 PM.bmp

Xiamen gets an A+ for urban planning. A wide pedestrian/ biking boulevard surrounds much of the perimeter of the island, so traveling from district to district became a pleasant and scenic experience. A pair of highways have been built out over the ocean, which makes for some dramatic night photography.Fullscreen capture 3162018 70217 PM.bmp

The coolest neighborhood in Xiamen is Shapowei (沙坡尾)made up of low-rise buildings from the early 20th century. Most storefronts have been converted into cafes and specialty restaurants, and I spent several evenings here wandering around, stopping for the occasional snack and drink.Fullscreen capture 3162018 65956 PM.bmp

I wonder what Xiamen will look like a decade from now – if its urban population will double, if the island will drown under thousands of new high rises, if traffic will snarl the heart of the city… but hopefully the city can retain its coastal cool, and hold tight its history as the doors to China.


Hong Kong & Macau

I’ve been out and about for the past eight weeks on a lengthy tour of East and South East Asia, including Thailand, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xiamen in Fujian Province. This was a relaxing trip and definitely the longest vacation I’ve taken IN MY LIFE since I was born, unless you count preschool or kindergarten as vacation.

A long holiday is never a bad thing, but at some point I did feel an urge to get back to work and commit myself to something. I always dreamed of retiring at 35, but now I know … it’s probably best to wait out retirement until my 60s along with everyone else!

I probably won’t have time to write a post for each of the trips, but I’ll start with the China related adventures, since this is a Peace Corps China blog after all. First up: Hong Kong!Fullscreen capture 382018 105056 PM.bmp.jpg

Hong Kong

The land and islands that make up present day Hong Kong were lost to the British Empire after the First and Second Opium War. After just over 150 years of British colonial rule, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 (photo below) as an autonomous ‘special administrative region’ for the next 50 years; that is, until 2046.hong-kong-handover-1-july-1997-1

Today Hong Kong is home to 7.4 million people, and still feels a world away from mainland China. People read and write traditional Chinese (instead of simplified), speak Cantonese/ English and not Mandarin (and thus the phonetic spelling of words is different as well), and still have some Western demeanors due to the legacy of British rule.Fullscreen capture 392018 111128 AM.bmp.jpg

The man below is painting a Lunar New Year greeting with traditional characters in gold ink – so cool! – to hang outside the front door of a home.Fullscreen capture 382018 83939 PM.bmp

I didn’t plan ahead for this trip so I probably missed major cultural highlights, but generally Hong Kong is renowned for several things, in addition to outrageous property prices:

  • Excellent food, which I indulged in on a daily basis
  • Excellent nightlife, which I danced and drank my way through on Friday and Saturday evenings
  • Excellent hiking trials, which I was too tired to even locate on a map, let alone attempt to hike

Some cities are referred to as the “city of 1,000 spires”, “city of 1,000 bridges”, or “city of 1,000 minarets and bazaars”… Hong Kong island should be known as the City of 1,000 Steps. It’s built entirely into a mountain, so any movement in the north – south direction results in a drastic change in altitude and requires climbing stairs, but if you’re lucky you could catch a ride on a nearby outdoor escalator.Fullscreen capture 382018 104258 PM.bmp

Its slightly more difficult to visualize the topography of Hong Kong today due to all the skyscrapers, but the painting below from 150 years ago gives a better sense of what the island is like.City_of_Victoria

The cuisine in Hong Kong is really incredible- it’s far lighter, sweeter, and seemingly healthier than anything we eat in Gansu, which is always drenched in vinegar, chili sauce, and other oils. Some of the most delicious things I’ve eaten in the past year and a half came from the few days I was in Hong Kong.Fullscreen capture 382018 105755 PM.bmp

Most of the dishes I ate were steamed (though I assume the dishes could have gone through the fryer as well… before ending up in a healthy-looking bamboo steam basket).

I had the pleasure of meeting up with my dear friend Andrew and his wife Vivian for the weekend. They will be first-time parents in about one month’s time (yay!), which meant the nightlife portion of my itinerary was pawned off to their childfree friends, much to my delight.Fullscreen capture 382018 110412 PM.bmp.jpg

I ended up at the Lan Kwai Fong (LKF) neighborhood, with its densely packed ascending and descending streets of bars, restaurants (including kebab shops identical to those in NYC!), and clubs. Chengdu has a recently built an upscale club and bar district called Lan Kwai Fong as well- but I gotta say, the original in Hong Kong is much better!

Andrew also took me to the south side of Hong Kong Island, away from the skyscrapers that dominate Victoria Harbour. It was a foggy day but still an enjoyable trip away from the frenetic energy of downtown Hong Kong.Fullscreen capture 382018 84243 PM.bmp

Plus, I got to pray at Tin Hau Temple, dedicated to Mazu the Goddess of the Sea!Fullscreen capture 382018 110616 PM.bmp

The next day I traveled farther out in Kowloon, to see Lei Yun Mun, an area that still holds tight to its fishing village roots. It’s also a quiet part of Hong Kong, and one of the more beautiful places to visit with its blue-green waters and countless small boats resting in the calm harbor.Fullscreen capture 382018 100522 PM.bmp

The restaurants here all specialize in selling fresh seafood- each shop hosts an array of tanks crammed with crustaceans and a variety of fish, with the sea water spilling from the top tanks downward.Fullscreen capture 382018 100604 PM.bmp

The seafood here is definitely fresh but also extremely expensive, but diners here don’t mind- they will pay a premium for quality. A woman picked out a massive crab for her banquet that night…Fullscreen capture 382018 110711 PM.bmp

I feigned interest in a small spiny lobster, pictured below. For now, I’m good with just eating shumai and shrimp dumplings JFullscreen capture 382018 100537 PM.bmp


A short ferry ride west will bring you to the two small islands that make up Macau, which has had heavy Portuguese influence for over 500 years. Today it is more known for its mega-casinos and gambling than for anything else. As a broke volunteer I passed on the gambling and headed to see the Ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral.Fullscreen capture 382018 111019 PM.bmp.jpg

The church was completed by the Jesuits in 1640 and burned down in 1835, with only the stone front still standing. It looks European in style but has Chinese characters and motifs on the façade, which makes it culturally significant.Fullscreen capture 382018 104436 PM.bmp

To be honest, I don’t really love the designs that were carved; the dragons and hydras look childish and out of proportion, and nowhere near as complex as what I’ve seen in Lisbon and other European capitols. It looks like a half-assed effort from both the Chinese and European architects that would have had heads rolling if constructed in Portugal or China proper…Fullscreen capture 382018 104322 PM.bmp

These future PLA leaders didn’t seem to mind though; they’re just happy to remind the world of China’s ever-expanding territory and regional influence! Fullscreen capture 382018 102005 PM.bmp

Personally, I found the nearby cityscape much more appealing. People might say endless rows of concrete apartments are drab in appearance, but they hold a hell of a lot stories waiting to be told.Fullscreen capture 382018 104404 PM.bmp

The best thing about Macau though? freshly baked Portuguese egg tarts!!


Stories from Xinjiang!

In the beginning of January, my Juniors who were sent to Hetian in Xinjiang for a semester to teach Chinese came back to our Lanzhou campus. I had dinner with a small group of them to catch up on their journey, and as expected they had unforgettable memories (and photos!) to share.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63556 PM.bmp

Let’s backtrack a bit to better understand the context of their teaching internship. Xinjiang is considered an autonomous region, and it is the westernmost province in China. It is culturally more similar to Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan) than to Han China, and roughly 10 million people living there identify as Uighur – a Muslim, Turkic-speaking group. uyghur-Hotan-april2013

Uighurs also don’t look Chinese! This sounds incredibly racist coming from someone who is regularly told he doesn’t ‘look American’, but… it’s totally true! Many people in Xinjiang have blue-green eyes, light hair, and strong noses and jaws. They could pass for Russian, Persian, Mexican, Egyptian, or Greek… but definitely not Chinese in the Jackie Chan/ Mulan sense. Here’s an article from NPR about Uighur models, and a photo from Bing Images:Fullscreen capture 1312018 115317 PM.bmp

Throughout the centuries, the area has fallen in and out of control of various Chinese dynasties- sometimes completely independent from China, sometimes as a tributary state, sometimes a loose alliance of tribes – but by the end of the 19th century, Xinjiang was fully conquered by the Qing Dynasty (battle depicted below).Fullscreen capture 1312018 70528 PM.bmp

However, the Uighurs have been slow to assimilate to Han Chinese customs- everything from writing/ language to religion, holidays, customs, and dress/ attire, meals, etc has remained distinctly non-Han for the population. This has inevitably led to violent clashes in recent decades, as more and more Han Chinese permanently relocate to Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has been eager to send Chinese language teachers to Xinjiang as well, in an effort to help the Uighurs better integrate into their country and – in theory – obtain better work opportunities down the road. PC volunteers are banned from traveling to the region during service- there are many reasons for conflict in Xinjiang beyond what I write in my blog, and I encourage you can look this up independently.

Fullscreen capture 1312018 63549 PM.bmpAnyway, back in Lanzhou I was eager to see my students and recognized them one by one as they made their way to the North Gate of our campus.

William – a student who feasibly could have passed for deaf-mute the first three months I taught him since he refused to participate in anything– grabbed me out of sheer exasperation and was entirely sympathetic to my plight this past year and a half.


It took a while for me to stop laughing. As it turns out, he was assigned to a large class of 70 third graders, who didn’t speak a word of Chinese. I can only imagine the wall of chaos he faced on a daily basis.Fullscreen capture 1312018 52040 PM.bmp

Other students came over and aired their grievances.

“William didn’t even learn their names. I memorized all of my students’ names! SOME HAD NAMES THAT WERE 12 HANZI CHARACTERS LONG! (12 syllables long, omg!!!)

“I had to teach from pinyin (foundations of Chinese language)they didn’t even know the alphabet

“…no one paid attention in class”

“I couldn’t understand a word of what they said to me”

“… they couldn’t write characters or memorize stroke order…”

“everyone wanted to take my picture”Fullscreen capture 1312018 63602 PM.bmp

This was starting to sound like the experience of every Peace Corps China Volunteer, except instead of teaching English to college kids who don’t care, they were teaching Chinese to elementary school kids who didn’t care… and quite honestly, I’m not sure which is worse (the stakes are higher for them though– these Uighur kids will very likely need Mandarin Chinese later in life, whereas my students can get by fine without English)

I asked if my students had played charades, telephone, or Pictionary in class, as we had done in our lessons. They immediately ruled that out, since any whiff of “game” or “fun” would cause the young students to explode into a mass of uncontrollable energy.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63641 PM.bmp

Overall they all appreciated the opportunity to live in a completely foreign culture, while still staying in China. Inevitably they became close with their students and fellow teachers. A couple of my students admitted to crying when they packed their bags and said goodbyes. A few said they would return to Xinjiang when they graduate, since salaries tend to be higher in desolate places that require strong survival skills.

Looking through the photos the juniors sent me, I can safely say our college campus is much nicer in comparison. It looks as if their rooms were heated with coal stoves, and there was next to no technology in class, apart from electric lights. While Gansu as a whole is quite poor, the incomes in HeTian might only be a fourth of what they are here in Lanzhou.Fullscreen capture 1312018 63809 PM.bmp

If anything, my students’ experiences in HeTian were much more similar to the typical yurt/ mud hut Peace Corps adventure than mine, and in some ways I’m a bit envious of them!  

Semester Three Sketches

Happy 2018 y’all! To celebrate the new year – and the beginning of my final year in Peace Corps – here is a collection of sketches from the third semester of teaching.

San Xing Dui Bronze HeadsFullscreen capture 1102018 51127 PM.bmp

RoosterFullscreen capture 1102018 51146 PM.bmp

Prayer WheelsFullscreen capture 1102018 50050 PM.bmp

Tiger and SheepFullscreen capture 1102018 50121 PM.bmp

ShanghaiFullscreen capture 1102018 50207 PM.bmp

Hairy Crab SeasonFullscreen capture 1102018 50247 PM.bmp

Sleeping Buddha of ZhangyeFullscreen capture 1102018 50357 PM.bmp

ChessFullscreen capture 1102018 50313 PM.bmp

GraduationFullscreen capture 1102018 50327 PM.bmp

PandasFullscreen capture 1102018 50335 PM.bmp

As usual, the sketches are accompanied by elegant and refined poetry, courtesy of my uncle. All of the sketches are based on places I visited, many from this semester: Gannan, Zhangye, Xi’An.

Some are from trips I took last summer, and others even from Pre-Service Training (San Xing Dui, and the Chengdu Panda Reserve, back in the summer of 2016)! The sketch of Pudong is inspired by a trip I took to Shanghai in October and didn’t have time to write about; but rest assured – it’s the most cosmopolitan city in all of China.

Here are links for Semester One Sketches and Semester Two Sketches.

For the final stretch of Peace Corps I will try to focus on drawing people and their expressions, rather than architecture. this is a bit of a challenge as its always easier to draw a building than a person’s face, but I’m going to try my best!!