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.

-Harrison

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on being irrelevant (getting schooled in model school)

Irrelevant

adjective

  1. not connected with or relevant to something.

“an irrelevant comment”

synonyms: beside the point, immaterial, not pertinent, not germane, off the subject, neither here nor there, unconnected, unrelated, tangential

I was supposed to teach my students a course on persuasion, on convincing others to take your side of the argument. Instead, they basically taught me what it means to be irrelevant (to the point where I wrote IRRELEVANT on the board in all caps), in the sense that my questions and examples were so far removed from their day to day life that it was laughable at how little I know about my Chinese students and their lives

Example 1: your friend Nancy scored poorly in all her classes for the past year, so after 9th grade she has dropped out and become a cashier at Dicos (a local fast food chain) PERSUADE her to come back to class!

Lance: no way! Why would you drop out? This would never happen, her parents wont allow it. Impossible. She would just buxi (self study, extra study, etc) more after school and on weekends until her grades were respectable!

Example 2: your father has found a higher paying job in Harbin and will have to relocate from Chengdu to take the opportunity. How will you PERSUADE him to stay in Chengdu?

Lisa: what? We have no control over this, if he has a new job we will just leave with him. Our parents wouldn’t ask for our opinion if this happened! Why would they want our input?

Example 3: your favorite course in high school, art class, has been cancelled due to budget purposes. CONVINCE your principle that this is an important class to you and it is worth keeping in the curriculum

Jason: but art class was already canceled! None of us have had an art class since middle school, its not in our curriculum for high school.

Me: ok, fine. pick a subject you love

Jason: chemistry

Me: ok, chemistry was cancelled. What will you tell your principle to keep chemistry in high school?

Jason: he would never cancel chemistry! It is a subject on the Gao Kao exam (SAT Equivalent, college entrance exam) so this conversation would never happen

Example 4: All of a sudden, American high schools have decided to shorten their summer breaks from 3 months to 2 weeks. Defend your right to have a 3 month summer break, so you wont end up with just two short weeks of summer!

Linus: actually, summer is the best time to study and prepare for the Gao Kao! If you had a three month break you will never get into college!! How can you get into Peking U or Tsinghua U (the Harvard and stanfords of china) if you only study during the school year? At my high school 57 students went to Peking and Tsinghua U this year, because we worked hard! Even a two week break is almost too long.

So there you have it. model school has come to an end, and I’ve learned that my students are hilarious, creative, innovative, and sharp little monsters. If there were ever stereotypes about Chinese students being dull or monotonous, I can assure you this upcoming generation of Chinese kids is full of energy, enthusiasm, cunning wit, and have the guts to take on whatever comes their way in life!!

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Yolanda, far left, gave me a Ferragamo fragrance on the last day of model school. it was a woman’s perfume, but i appreciate the gesture!

cultural (classy) things to see and do in chengdu

I have been living here in Chengdu for a month now, and have had the great pleasure of exploring the city and its outer boroughs on the weekends and occasionally weekdays after class. Some of this is done with my host family (more on this amazing, welcoming family later), some with my program or friends, and other adventures take place on my own. Here are the highlights thus far:

San Xing Dui archaeologic site: 70RMB entrance fee

This is about an hour by drive outside of the city center. It is located at the site of bronze age ruins from the mythical Shu dynasty of china, which flourished some 3,000 years ago. This doesn’t fit neatly with the traditional narrative of Chinese history of one dynasty succeeding another (was this after the Shang dynasty? Before the Zhou? Or coexisted with one or both??), and records are spotty from 1,000 BC.

The bronze relics are most interesting to me for their non-chinese-ness. The gold plated heads don’t look han Chinese! There is something almost mayan or Olmec looking about them. Everything else in 2,500+ years’ worth of Chinese art is impeccably covered in dragons and phoenixes.. and these are just very otherworldly and beautiful in their own way.

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Bailuwan Wetland Park: free entrance, 20RMB bike rental fee

This is a massive park best traversed by bicycle, located on the outskirts of Chengdu city. There are all sorts of lily filled lakes, bird watching hotspots, tourist watching hotspots (the fashion here is really enjoyable!) and flower beds to meander through for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately I went on a day that was probably 90 degrees at least, and the humidity made breathing difficult. To make matters worse, I was still hungover from the night before. oops.

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hot, humid, and
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chengdu fashion

WenShu Monastery: free entrance, it is a working temple

Beautiful temple complex in central Chengdu! Walking around, I didn’t feel like I was in a city of 14 million people at all- the chaos of the city melted away and the complex is tranquil with all sorts of pagodas, temples, ponds, and trees. It was originally built in the Tang dynasty 1,000+ years ago, but renovated by the Qing Qianlong Emperor in the 18th century. I try not to ask how much of what I see is actually from imperial china, because a lot of times it turns out that everything was destroyed 60 years ago, and rebuilt in the past two decades when foreigners began flocking to china. So to save myself the disappointment and misery of the truth, i prefer to not look online for the facts, and instead imagine that what im stepping into is from 500 AD or 1500AD and not 2005.

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Ming Dynasty Mausoleums 10 RMB entrance

This is a secret of Chengdu that even my host family had never heard of. Apparently in the park across from Chengdu University, a bit outside of central Chengdu, there are the tombs of the Shu princes from the Ming dynasty. I went to take a look, and was really impressed at what I saw.

No photos allowed inside (i was tempted to take a shot but freaked out at all the video cams inside), but: imagine walking a series of steps until you are deep underground, and the air is much cooler (though equally humid), and inside the tomb there are facades of temples carved in stone, and on the ceiling of the tomb a swirl of dragons and phoenixes (of course) are carved out of a massive, single slab of stone. A stele is located in the front of the tomb explaining the significance of this particular prince, but it was way too advanced for my comprehension

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this is the mausoleum entrance, once you enter you walk down to an underground chamber

Jinli Street (free!)

Lots of old style buildings line these streets, and the shops downstairs either sell inexpensive, small snacks, or really expensive artisanal souvenirs (hand crafted tea pots, premium silk scarves jade bracelets, hand picked organic jasmine tea.. you get the idea) the highlight was a small red-walled walkway on the edge of the neighborhood, with bamboo groves towering overhead, swaying in the gentle wind, filtering out the sunlight. a most relaxing stroll

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Anshun Bridge (also free)

I biked here one night, during the week that the G20 was in town for a meeting. International development/ economic forums are always good news for the Chinese- this means the lucky city hosting the event is guaranteed to have blue skies for a week or so, since the government mandates that half the cars are removed from the road everyday (normally determined by the odd or even number on the end of a car’s license plate) and nearby factories are shut down as well, all for the sake of providing picturesque skies for the overpaid foreign diplomats and their underpaid entourage.

So yeah, we had beautiful blue skies for a week! And the night photography for anshun bridge came out STUNNING! Marco polo *allegedly* crossed this bridge in his travels, though Wikipedia told me this current version was built it in – get ready – 2003. 😦

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emotional bridge selfie
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the most glorious, iconic bridge in chengdu, rebuilt in 2003

model school!

Survived my first week of model school! This is a two week program for us Peace Corp TEFL trainers to try lesson planning and teaching, to give us some experience before we head off to our universities to become full time English teachers mid august. I’ve already been warned that the level of English I will see here in Chengdu is much much higher than what I would get in the smaller towns we are placed in. I had a class of 24 rowdy high schoolers, though their numbers dwindled with each class.

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my first class, ever! started with 27 students…

They all speak pretty advanced English and some have lived outside China in the UK or USA for a couple years. a few are also planning on taking the TOEFL exam to do university in America, since the competition is way too intense in china. (ie studying from 8AM to 9PM or midnight everyday since middle school!) overall the kids are charming, funny, and I have enjoyed planning lessons for them. In particular, they (like me!) love to make posters with markers and express ideas through flowery art. A minor scuffle between two female students (I hope they were good friends prior to this incident) broke out over who gets to use the red marker. as punishment no one was allowed to use the red marker for the rest of class.

I gave my first two lessons, first one was about countries. We discussed wealth, population, religion, capital city, prime minister, GDP, GDP per capita and tourist sites. I asked the students where they would live outside of china if they had a choice. Surprisingly (To me at least), japan had more votes than any other country. I guess this new generation of Chinese born in 1998 – 2000 (wow, I feel old!) are much more forgiving than their parents and grandparents for the events that led up to and occurred throughout WWII, and they are eager to move on, and refuse to be mired in the past. They love the food, the cherry blossoms, spirited away and other miyazaki films, and friendliness of the Japanese. Many have visited japan and enjoyed their quiet and non-chaotic vacations. The next favored group of countries were all scandanavian or from that region (Sweden, Finland, Iceland) for the spectacular landscape, clean air, and low population density (one student commented ‘there is no food- we only have beautiful scenery!’).

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theres nothing good to eat in norway, but at least we have fresh air and a childhood!

new Zealand made an appearance on the list, for being the country where lord of the rings was filmed, and for ‘good quality milk’. i think most americans would dream of living in a country with a sandy, sunny, beach as the only criteria. for these kids, growing up with the intense pressure of a competitive education system + other social issues have impacted what type of life they want to seek. I later made the kids present on some of these countries (and threw in turkey and brazil into the mix, for middle eastern and south American representation. One student asked if the national food in turkey was turkey. No.)

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jason (left) is insightful,; he asked if turkey was a sunni or shia country, something i couldnt answer until well into college. but then he followed up with “do people in turkey eat turkey?” so im not sure what to think of him

It was a great lesson. The next one was about American holidays. The high schoolers were dying to have their first Halloween party. They want candy, they want costumes, they want fake blood, and loud music. They want Christmas for the presents, for the tree with blinking lights, and for the white, powdery snow outside. And one group was assigned Valentine’s Day, and I requested they have two scenarios- for those who are dating, and those who are single. The team came up with a FANTASTIC poster, explaining that “the most important thing for the people (whether couples or singles) is just BRAVERY!”just be patient.. love is waiting for you!” for those who are single, “be brave to invite your dream lover!” and hold some parties for single friends so they could meet their future boyfriend or girlfriend on valentines day. so cute! and innocent, since none of them have dated, or their parents would probably ground them for life. one girl tried to act cool and said her parents wouldn’t care if she had a boyfriend in high school but i am 110% sure she was lying to me 🙂

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“be patient.. love is waiting for you!”