Great Wall Cinema Park and Lanzhou New Area

Every time I head to the airport some 40 miles north of Lanzhou, in the final minutes of my ride I always pass a giant replica Sphinx and Acropolis rising out of the desert dust, and an endless expanse of construction in the background. This week I finally took an hour long bus ride to visit these structures and find out more about “Lanzhou New Area”!

Great Wall Cinema Park

At the edge of Lanzhou New Area sits “the Great Wall Cinema Park” where the Sphinx and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven are casually hanging out. A ticket costs 50 RMB, and another 10 RMB gets you access to a sight-seeing cart, which I took because I wasn’t in the mood to walk across this large but sparsely decorated park/ movie set.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63049 PM.bmp.jpg

The Cinema Park is mish-mosh of cultural heritage sites- Forbidden City to your right, a scaled down Tang Dynasty DaMing Palace to the left…Fullscreen capture 6242018 70316 PM.bmp.jpg

…and then suddenly, a massive Transformer’s head the size of a small hill greets you around the corner.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63118 PM.bmp

I suppose it’s fitting that something Transformers related shows up at this park; the franchise has been hugely popular in China, and several films had extra scenes spliced in with Chinese stars for the mainland market.

I should recommend they add a monument of Kim Kardashian’s ass here too, as she is equally influential around the world, the perfect role model for a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who will give up anything to make it big and #haveitall! #womenwhowork #bossladyFullscreen capture 6242018 63023 PM.bmp

Anyway, I reach the southern end of the park where the Sphinx is resting. It’s not at all out of place here in the desert, neglected and alone in the sand and dust. I can’t comment on the artistic integrity of the structure (my only planned trip to Cairo was cancelled in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring). I hate it when citizens fighting for democracy disrupt my well-deserved vacations to authoritarian countries a swing set in front of the Sphinx ruins my perfect selfie!Fullscreen capture 6242018 63037 PM.bmp

Next up is the Parthenon, which I have been fortunate enough to see in 2009 (also near the height of the Greek debt crisis- bad timing all around) It’s likely a 1:1 replica, replete with missing portions of the façade, due to looting by the British asshole Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin from 1801 onward.   Fullscreen capture 6242018 63030 PM.bmp

And then there was this structure a few steps east of the Parthenon, a large cerulean-blue tiled pavilion. Worldly Harrison was so, so certain it came from Shiraz or Isfahan in Iran.

How romantic 浪漫, the idea that two architectural structures from millennia old rival civilizations – both ravaged beyond recognition by the neoliberalism (first Iran in 1953, when a secular and democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown by the British government and CIA to protect the revenue streams of the oil and gas company known today as BP, and now Greece held hostage by the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank for failing to pay back risky, artificially cheap loans originated by private German and French banks [why are ordinary citizens responsible for failed investments made by private financial services groups?!?]) – now sit side by side in an empty movie park, next to Lanzhou airport.

But no, the lady driving my sight-seeing cart tells me it was just a random pavilion built for the Hui people in Lanzhou. My inner historian and faux-economist are crestfallen.

Lanzhou New Area

China is infamous for ghost cities; Ordos in Inner Mongolia is probably the most notorious, a $160 billion USD gleaming modern city meant to be home to one million occupants but is mostly empty a decade after completion. (a photo of Ordos from GettyImages below)gettyimages-125673327.jpg

Municipal governments across China build these mega cities in the middle of nowhere – complete with museums, soccer stadiums, artificial lakes, parks, etc.) to reach public spending/ economic growth quotas, only to find there was never a real demand for these “new development areas” to begin with. Fullscreen capture 6242018 65837 PM.bmp.jpg

I have faith that Lanzhou New Area is different- tens of thousands of Chinese outsiders (外地人) from more provincial parts of Gansu and the west move to Lanzhou each year. There is genuine demand for housing (Lanzhou is sandwiched between mountains on the north and south side- the city cannot physically expand beyond its current borders),

By 2030 one million people are expected to move in as full time residents. There is a promotional video for the new city, stylistically similar to propaganda clips from the Trump and Kim Jong-Un administrations, for interested investors.Fullscreen capture 6242018 42643 PM.bmp

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanzhou New Area’s 5 hospitals and 75 public schools are up and running near capacity by the end of the next decade. For now, it’s still a surreal experience to take a bus through the Lanzhou New Area.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63555 PM.bmp

In New York you see the occasional skyscraper built; in Chengdu you might see dozens of residential complex apartments rising simultaneously in the outer city rings. But here, the entire city is still under construction- hundreds of commercial and residential towers are half finished, stretching for miles on end. I wish I had a drone to capture a bird’s eye view of the construction frenzy.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63614 PM.bmp

Vast roads meant for six lanes of traffic are mostly unused. Interestingly, it seems all of the vegetation has already been planted, giving the trees and parks a decade to mature before they are put to daily use- pretty good planning!Fullscreen capture 6242018 63604 PM.bmp

Most of the finished apartments sit empty, but there are pockets of residential life where some people have permanently moved in. I ate a bowl of tomato and egg noodles and asked the guys at the shop about the cost of the apartments- currently under 5,000 RMB per square meter (half of the price in Lanzhou proper, less than 1/15 the price in Tier 1 cities). I should invest in an apartment here, instead of a master’s degree…

Fullscreen capture 6242018 63537 PM.bmpI quietly relished in the experience of riding the new cross-town bus (with new car smell!) as the only passenger; Probably the only time in my life living in China that this will ever happen!


Love Story

I got back to campus around 10 PM after a lengthy bike ride downtown. In the darkness, near one of the student dorms a crowd has gathered; candles are being lit, and rose petals neatly strewn in the shape of a heart. The candles spell out “SneedU” and “YXQ”. Neither makes any sense to me, but the excitement is palpable. OMG! I’m about to witness the infamous biao bai 表白, the ritual that takes place when a guy likes a girl and publicly declares his interest in her!!!Fullscreen capture 3262018 53546 PM.bmp.jpg

Whoever this love-struck guy is, he definitely has guts. I could never do something like this knowing the odds are probably 50/50 at best… I would want to die after a public rejection from some dude with a quasi-French/Italian accent… but life is all about taking risks (as I tell my students regularly!) and maybe this is the only girl he has fallen for so far in his life, which makes this event all the more important.

Anyway the crowd begins to swell and the guy requests for all of us to pull out our cellphones, turn on the flashlights, and play a Jay Chou song in unison. The latter request is tough to manage, but he’s lucky I had a portable MINISO speaker in my backpack from class earlier in the afternoon, so I plug in the speaker and we have the necessary Jay Chou song on repeat.

I try to imagine what happens next- will the girl’s friends bring her out from a random corner of campus and surprise her? Or was she tricked into staying late at the library and will see the candles on her way home? As it turns out, we were standing right under her dormitory, and she is presumably at home. The guy tells us the name of the girl (her initials were YXQ), and all together on the count of three we shout her name, then beg her to come downstairs. “I’M WAITING FOR YOU!” 我在等你!”

Everyone’s neck is craned toward the dorm, trying to figure out which floor and which room this girl lives in. There are a bunch of other girls in the dorm looking confused and excited, as they stick their heads out the windows to figure out where the girl is. The boy’s dorm is across the narrow street, and there too, a ton of guys have poked their heads out to witness the spectacle.Fullscreen capture 3262018 53601 PM.bmp.jpg

A few minutes pass and nothing happens. We try again, and shout her name. “I’M WAITING FOR YOU!” 我在等你!”

Still nothing. We call her name again. Nothing. The crowd begins to murmur with explanations

she’s probably putting on makeup”

“maybe she’s sick”

“she’s not at home”

“she isn’t giving him face! 不给他面子!

I helpfully offer a “maybe this is the wrong dorm

“so awkward!!!”

This guy is still standing in front of his glowing, candle-lit heart creation, with his unblinking eyes fixated on the upper floors of the dorm, refusing to make eye contact with anyone in the crowd. His back was probably soaked in sweat and his legs quivering with nervousness, but it was hard to tell in the darkness. He is a tough cookie. I can only imagine what thoughts were running through his head.

It’s been ten minutes. We shout her name again and again and tell her to come down. I quietly change the song on the MINISO speaker to a Bossa Nova cover of Craig David’s Don’t Love You No More, which was more appropriate for the current mood of the evening.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, a shy girl stumbles out of the girl’s dormitory and walks over to the flickering heart. She is wearing a surgical face mask and a huge hat, both to shield her identity (though everyone on campus now knows her name). The guy leans in and whispers some stuff in her ear, and a minute later they are hugging.

Everyone claps and cheers, and I hear waves of “oohs!” and “ahhs!

She is covering her eyes while they hug with her free hand, because some student paparazzis are snapping away at the emotional and hugely anticlimactic moment for their WeChat and QQ logs. A couple asshole guys are shouting “KISS KISS KISS! 亲一个! 亲一个! 亲一个!”

The ritual is over. The couple walks to a quiet corner of the building to discuss their budding romance in private. The crowd scatters, as curfew is coming up in a few minutes. I turn off the Craig David breakup song and put my speaker away, satisfied that I finally witnessed the very public formation of a new relationship.Fullscreen capture 3262018 53549 PM.bmp

I’m deeply relieved for this guy, but at the same time feel even more terrible that girls at our campus feel obligated to take part in these dramatic ceremonies (What if she hates the guy? What if she never met him and has no idea who he is? What if she was actually sick and had diarrhea all day? Should she still rush downstairs so the guy doesn’t risk plunging himself into the Yellow River out of loss of pride?)

A Non-Christmas Celebration of December 25th, Fake News, and more

The war on Christmas has arrived, and for the first time in nearly a decade it has nothing to do with Barack Obama! (I jest, I jest!). According to various news articles written in both English and Chinese, Christmas this year has been cancelled by the central government. Some sources described the holiday as a wicked, Western influence on the malleable youth of China, and made strongly worded allusions to China’s darkest days during the Opium War / European colonization.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120306 PM.bmp

It was strange that this edict went largely unnoticed in the parts of China I had visited in the past two months- there were giant Christmas trees in every shopping mall I entered, and the red-and-white peppermint motif was seen in many storefronts throughout Lanzhou. There is a saying in Chinese, 天高皇帝远 (the sky is high, the emperor is far) which means you can do whatever you want, especially the further away you are in proximity (and power) from the central government.Fullscreen capture 12312017 121506 PM.bmp

I erred on the side of caution though, and decided not to show the music video for the Mariah Carey / Justin Bieber remix to “All I Want for Christmas Is You”. This was probably for the best, as it ultimately spared my students from having to see Mariah dressed as Santa’s little hooker flaunting her cheap wares at the Herald Square Macy’s.Fullscreen capture 12312017 113630 AM.bmp

But it was too late to cancel the Christmas gift grab, which I had told my students about well in advance. So, the party was changed to a 冬至 Winter Solstice Gift Exchange Celebration instead. Last year, it got real awkward when the students who didn’t bring gifts had nothing to do, and sat in class with their headphones in staring at their phones. To avoid these uncomfortable moments, I got a few extra gifts this year for each class just in case – chocolate for everyone! Cavities for Christmas, yay!!!Fullscreen capture 12312017 120246 PM.bmp.jpg

I could use a little help in the gift wrapping department though, and made good use of several pages from the  quarterly Peace Corps TEFL Magazine to create a festive – albeit unassuming – exterior for my chocolates.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120252 PM.bmp

Anyway, the Winter Solstice Gift Exchange Celebration was still a fun treat for my classes. The students who opened the Hershey’s boxes were nice enough to share the candy with their classmates- I’m not sure I would have done the same…Fullscreen capture 12312017 120456 PM.bmp

The non-Christmas December 25th Celebration continued with KTV for a group of Freshman from Class 1. My student Joan, in particular, was an excellent singer and nailed songs from Adele, Taylor Swift, and Selena Gomez. She told me her English used to be terrible, but through singing English songs repeatedly, she improved in pronunciation and confidence. I couldn’t agree more- she was the star of the evening.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120316 PM.bmp

On a separate night, Michelle (the PCV 23 at my site) carved out time for the sophomores to make some festive decorations, such as little green non-Christmas Christmas trees, and an intensely difficult 3D paper snowflake.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120834 PM.bmp

We gorged on sugar cookies made by Michelle and struggled through the snowflakes. This arts and crafts night turned out to be a great way for the students to take their minds off their upcoming finals.Fullscreen capture 12312017 120334 PM.bmp


Out of curiosity I wanted to see if the other teachers knew about the ban on Christmas. I showed the anti-Christmas news articles to a staff member of our school. He studied them carefully (suspicious that one was written in traditional Chinese – AKA likely from outside mainland China) and laughed.

“I haven’t heard about this at all- it’s a fake article. This must be written by western sources that want to make China look bad, and look unreasonable to the rest of the world. That’s why it’s important you guys can come here for two years with Peace Corps, to understand the real China. So you won’t believe these things next time they appear on a website”

OMG! I was duped into believing fake news, yet again!! (Reminds me of the time I got in a heated argument with a med student that vaccines cause autism… oops.) Now I need to know who wrote those articles: Fox News? RT America? Putin? Erdogan?! Quasi-Turkish goodwill ambassador Lindsay Lohan?


Our year end banquet had ten extra guests this time around- they are a group young and friendly male students from Tajikistan. I’ve seen them around campus but rarely speak to them, besides the cordial “ni hao” and “hello”. We have language barrier issues: though they speak upwards of five languages (Russian, Tajik, Arabic, Turkish, and Uzbek), I speak none of those, and their four months’ worth of Chinese classes have yet to yield fluency in Mandarin Chinese. But they are super nice and told me they like Eminem, Rihanna, and Shakira– truly global superstars!   Fullscreen capture 12312017 120504 PM.bmp

I joked with our department that we need to get some Tajik girls next year to balance things out a bit. I was told that studying abroad for 4 years would put the young women at a huge disadvantage: by the time they return home at 22 years of age, they will have missed the opportunity to marry and start a family.

Michelle and I exchanged a wtf?” look, with some light chuckling but general feelings of pity, to think that girls in some countries feel pressured to marry by 18 or 19, and completing an undergraduate degree would actually do them a disservice in life.

Or perhaps, if I could ask those Tajik guys their thoughts on the matter, they may laugh and tell me that this too is FAKE NEWS.


This week I started the Sophomore Writing Class with Katy Perry’s video, Wide Awake. Presumably the song is about the collapse of Katy’s short-lived marriage to Russell Brand. She got it all wrong: happily ever after was just an illusion, and her romantic dream become a nightmare. (Trapped in a maze!)Fullscreen capture 12182017 84934 PM.bmp.jpg

After a couple dead ends and a severe bout of berry poisoning, Katy exits the maze. She’s smarter the second time around, can differentiate truth from lie, and won’t be blinded by love again. (Katy punches Prince Charming in the face)Fullscreen capture 12182017 71129 PM.bmp

I used this video to introduce the concept of betrayal– feeling you’ve been wronged or hurt by someone you trusted or thought was a friend. The writing assignment required:

  1. Tell me about a time you were betrayed
  2. How did you feel at the time?
  3. How did you grow from the experience?

The class burst into chatter and excitement. It seems everyone’s been burned in life at some point or another. Some students began banging away at the keyboard immediately, writing in Chinese first (“I’ll change it to English later, I promise”!) to better capture their emotions in that intense moment of fury.

A lot of their stories had to do with being cheated out of money at a part-time job.

  • A Woman Who Has a Black Heart: this was about a student Victoria who tutored children several weekends in a row under the assumption she would be paid for her time. In the end she was told the work was unpaid and only for experience. I realized the different people’s heart is ugly!”
  • Another student Emily wrote about a part-time job handing out flyers, where she was only paid a fraction of what was promised because she finished the job late. Interestingly, she said the woman who employed her was “tall as a giraffe

Other stories also showed the world is full of ugly hearted people:

  • A time when two students took a photo with the mythical costumed characters 孙悟空,猪八戒 on the pedestrian street in Lanzhou (like Elmo and Batman in Times Square). The kids naively assumed taking the photo was a free service, but were aggressively pursued until they paid the off the street performers – who did not accept paper money – WITH WECHAT!!
  • A rather mean-spirited prank in which half the girls sharing a dorm finished a two-part final, and told their three other roommates to go home after the first half of the exam was over. Personally, I would never talk to those people again for causing me to fail a class, but they still sit together so I think all has been forgiven.

I was most interested to see how they moved on from the situation, and if they were wiser because of it. Perhaps Molly – who rarely seems engaged in my courses- summed it up best:

If your friends turn away from you, don’t too sad, as long as you remember yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift. Don’t let yesterday’s events affect your mood. And if you still sad, you just hit him.

At the end of class someone asked me about a time I felt betrayed. Wow!! I’m a rather petty and resentful individual after all, behind my Mickey Mouse demeanor and smile. Disturbingly, dozens of situations immediately flooded my mind… here are two lowlights:

  • The revolving door of roommates I shared apartments with throughout a decade of living in New York, which culminated with a former friend who went ape-shit crazy over her unrequited love for a deadbeat, vegan, hipster bicyclist who lived in Bushwick. (can’t make this shit up!!)
  • The Cool Bike Company 酷奇单车 (which I wrote glowing reviews about just this Spring!) that likely went bankrupt at the end of Summer, taking with it my bike deposit, and all the deposits I lent out on behalf of 15 of my students out of the goodness of my heart (more on this another day)

But I didn’t want the class to witness their teacher smash a chair through the window and descend into an explicit filled rant about how the world is unfair, especially to me and me only. I would instead tell a story with a happier outcome.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to live in China, it’s been a dream of mine. And many times I came so close- first with the company I used to work for, then with Teach for China. Neither of those worked out, and I was disappointed and frustrated for a long time. But finally I came with the Peace Corps. Lanzhou isn’t fancy and modern like Shanghai, or beautiful and green like Yunnan. But there’s the Yellow River, and I can bike everywhere, and I like my students enough…”

And that point, my voice trailed off and my eyes felt unusually warm and damp, and my throat dry. In particular, this class of sophomores I will have taught for three semesters by the end of service. Looking around, I realized I might miss them very much when I’m done with service next summer. I continued:

“…everything worked out in the end. It always works out in the end.”