Short Stories: Table Setting, New Names, English Moochers


I put together an entertaining lesson on American dining etiquette – the highlight was asking students to come to the chalkboard and fill in a “Formal Table Setting”, drawing and labeling each item as requested.FullSizeRender (1).jpg

This was also a way to test their ability to differentiate left from right, upper vs lower, etc. (“Directly above the dinner plate, please draw a small cake fork, pointing right. Good.. no, your other right.. no, that’s a spoon.. I need a fork.. thanks!

I actually learned a lot from this as well- the difference between the salad and dinner knives, or that the white wine glass is to the lower-right of the red wine glass. (I cant remember the last time I had both wine glasses filled during dinner, and this is probably for the best its unbecoming for guests to be jumping on the table at a wedding or charity event, anyway…)

My best advice for going to an American wedding: NEVER EVER wear white, or the bride will hate you forever!!!


Earlier last month, I provided a list of names for my freshman students. Over the semesters, I’ve had so many Nancys, Graces, and Susans… pleasant names by all means but also very Brady Brunch, very 1960’s textbook English names. So I spiced things up a bit this year: I looked up a list of all the Victoria Secret models’ names on Wikipedia, and asked the girls to pick from there!Fullscreen capture 10162017 82910 PM.bmp

Finally we have many more Russian, Portugese and Spanish names in class – there’s a Gisele, an Alessandra, a Karolina, and Adriana! Guys, I’m promoting ethnic diversity in the classroom!alessandra-ambrosio-adriana-lima-gisele-bundchen-models-angels

Now you might think, “Teacher Cheng! There’s nothing empowering about naming an entire cohort of students after women who are valued solely for their bodies and not their brains! This is a huge step backwards for feminism!” To which I will response, “You’re absolutely correct! But in 2017, to point out the obvious would automatically open me to being labeled a slut-shamer, a misogynist, an illiterate, sexist troll.” (Earlier this year, a fellow PCV accused me of living in the 15th century, when I discussed with her my hopelessly archaic views on female empowerment)Fullscreen capture 10162017 82904 PM.bmp

To be fair, the Victoria Secret is enormously popular in China (a 16,000 sq ft store opened in Shanghai this year), and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the names of my list above became popular baby names in the coming years – so if anything, I’m just ahead of the curve!

English Moochers

The worst thing about being an American volunteer English teacher in China is when parents with young kids find out your occupation – their brains immediately pick up on “American” “English” and “Teacher” (and skip over volunteer, probably because they don’t know what it means) and start pleading with you to teach their kids English.

I’ve been accosted countless times by parents who are friends of a friend, and somehow feel entitled to pass off their English-starved child into my possession for a tutoring session. Chinese people are notorious for being very indirect if they need something from you– they will make small talk, ask about your health, your family, your apartment, your dating life, gun ownership in America, and after 10 minutes, maybe bring up they need a favor from you.

But when it comes to English, these parents are ruthlessly direct. Recently, less than a minute after I was introduced to a woman here in Lanzhou, she immediately pulled out her iPhone and showed me photos of her daughter doing ballet, her adorable, oh-so-eager to learn English offspring. Then she basically demanded that I teach her daughter every week. Bribed me with red envelopes (cash), dinners, gifts…

Normally, I provide an indirect answer about being too busy, or not being allowed to take side jobs, or something else to soften the disappointment of not teaching their precious itty-bitty child. But this woman rubbed me the wrong way and deserved a response equal in magnitude to her offense

Me: 我讨厌教英语!也讨厌小孩!最讨厌给小孩教英语!I hate teaching English! And I hate kids! Most of all, I hate teaching English to kids!

Mother (clearly stunned by my unexpectedly direct reply): 好尴尬啊SO AWKWARD!


Labrang Monastery བླ་བྲང་བཀྲ་ཤིས་འཁྱིལ and more: the Chengs reunite in Lanzhou!

Mid-September my mom visited Lanzhou to check I was alive, 15 months into my Peace Corps service. In addition to cleaning my apartment from corner to corner (“its so dirty! Its so so dirty!”) we took a short weekend trip down to Xiahe, which is home to Labrang Monastery and the Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80638 PM.bmp.jpg

Labrang Monastery and Sangke GrasslandsFullscreen capture 1092017 80436 PM.bmp

Founded in 1709, Labrang Monastery is Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred complex outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. At one point it was home to over 4,000 monks but this number has been cut by 2/3 since the Cultural Revolution. Today it is also a functioning school for studying Buddhist law, religion, medicine, etc.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80647 PM.bmp

We were admitted into some of the temples and halls when prayer sessions were not being held. I was most impressed by the boxes and boxes of centuries-old scrolls and sutras housed inside, lining the interior walls up to the ceiling (like a scene out of Beauty and the Beast, when superficial Belle is blown away that the Beast is actually literate and not just an animal-thug)

Some of the exterior murals on the temple walls were phenomenal with incredible detail and colors. The frescos depict various guardians/ gods/ demons battling for dominanceFullscreen capture 1092017 83356 PM.bmp

The entire perimeter of the complex is made of a 3.5 km continuous corridor of prayer wheels – lifelong Tibetan Buddhists have traveled hundreds of miles to come here to pray and receive blessings. The most devoted will not simply walk and spin prayer wheels- instead, they bow and prostrate themselves on the ground every step of the way around the entire Labrang complex.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80445 PM.bmp

I attempted a sketch of this (leaving much of the image black and white- a new style for me, perhaps!)22277892_1694771400554991_6830050048584187904_n.jpg

The day was generally cloudy and even rainy, but for half an hour the sun came out and gave us perfect blue skies.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80455 PM.bmp

The Sangke grasslands were rather underwhelming. I imagined a vast field as far as the eye could see, with the spirits of wild horses and Tibetan/ Mongol herders soaring freely across miles and miles of wild pastures. In reality, most of these lands have been fenced off into small squares by the owners, so the grasslands have been tamed in some sense.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80236 PM.bmp.jpg

Still, I got a wonderful photo of the family that stayed on the particular plot of land (they were Tibetan for surethey did not speak mandarin Chinese). The baby is impressively unimpressed, and the young man is ruggedly handsome in a way that comes so naturally for Tibetans.

He wouldn’t look out of place in an ad for Hermes or Prada (see below) but instead of being a moody, pretentious prick, he’s just living his life…Fullscreen capture 1092017 113025 PM.bmp.jpg

Gansu Museum

Back in Lanzhou, we visited the Gansu Museum in the Qilihe district. The highlight here is the Bronze Running Horse- crafted some 2,000 years ago, it was rediscovered during the Cultural Revolution, and (thankfully!) not destroyed in some crazed political movement shortly after. The horse is no ordinary horse- it is a Celestial Horse, a prized breed of beautiful and fearless warhorses from the Fergana valley of Uzbekistan.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80605 PM.bmp

Personally, I was equally as impressed by the “Tiger-Devouring Sheep Pedestal” made some 2,500 years ago! Both the horse and tiger are on my sketch list… stay tuned!Fullscreen capture 1092017 80711 PM.bmp

The Vegetable Lady

Outside my school there is an indoor market that sells live chickens, fish, and fresh vegetables. I go to the same lady to buy groceries (she’s friendly and always gives me free parsley and chili peppers), and sometimes I have difficulty understanding her heavily-accented Chinese, so I brought my mom along for support.Fullscreen capture 1092017 80830 PM.bmp

The following (pleasant, at least initially) exchange occurred.

Vegetable Lady: Hi! So… is he your only child?

Mom: No, I have an older daughter. She’s 3 years older than him, shes 31

Lady: 31! Is she married? 你的姑娘结婚了没?

Mom: No, she’s not married.

Lady: WHAT? 31 AND SINGLE?Fullscreen capture 1092017 82054 PM.bmp

Mom: yes.. it’s quite normal in America and in New York.

Lady (shocked, and feeling extreme pity for my mom): BUT… YOU DON’T HAVE GRANDKIDS?

Mom: Yeah… I mean its not a big deal… I’ve lived in America for 35 years, it’s really not as important as it is in China…Fullscreen capture 1092017 82104 PM.bmp

Lady (speaking as if our entire family was a failure): NO GRANDKIDS? No grandkids to hug… no grandkids to hug… (没孙子抱! 没孙子抱…)

*later, as we leave the market*

Mom: Oh my god… even the vegetable vendor is hounding me about grandkids!!!

Weekend in Lanzhou

My dad and sister finally made it to Lanzhou, just for the weekend (they were busy touring Beijing and the ancient capital Xi’An – the schedule was packed) so we did a quick tour of the must-see things in Lanzhou:

The night market at Zhenging Road. There is a line around the block for 牛奶鸡蛋醪糟, a hot, frothy milk-egg-cereal drink. kind of loud, kind of crowded- sums up Lanzhou nicelyFullscreen capture 1092017 90235 PM.bmp

Lanzhou Beef Noodle Sampler (I have an entire post dedicated to these beef noodles)Fullscreen capture 1092017 82025 PM.bmp

Mine turned out to be a single strand of noodle, much to everyone’s amusementFullscreen capture 1092017 80800 PM.bmp

San Pao Tai Tea by the German Bridge/ Yellow River (best view in the Lanzhou, also home to some of the dirtiest toilets in the city as my mom found out.. which is why I always just pee in the bushes)Fullscreen capture 1092017 80748 PM.bmp

And of course, a dinner 涮羊肉 with our relatives here in the city. After 55+ years (I won’t reveal my mom’s age!), she finally meets her older half-sister. About time!Fullscreen capture 1092017 91954 PM.bmp



I made the request to teach freshman this Fall semester- I wanted the experience of being their first foreign English teacher in college (and in life, most likely). The previous year, I taught sophomore students who had already survived a semester of Bobby, or Marni the year before.

So what happened the first day of class with the freshman? Well, the kids were generally intimidated and horrified that there was an obnoxious, native English speaker in the classroom, forcing them to do obnoxious, native English activities. They stood there, frozen in fear, when asked to do a basic self-introduction exercise.

After stating their name and hometown, I cruelly asked for each student to do a song or dance as well (I did both, I lead by example)… and most students took an uncomfortably long time, pleading “I can’t… I can’t…” – which, due to lack of enunciation, ironically sounded like “I can… I can…” – (followed by my “Please, try! Just try!”), before finally caving and singing a 10 second chorus of a Chinese song in the tiniest of tiny voices, with their eyes glued to the floor or to their cell phone screens.

This highlights a chasm of difference between the American education system and what exists in Gansu and most of China. I feel like I’ve been asked to do embarrassing things for my whole life in school since I was in kindergarten. Standing in front of the classroom is a fear I conquered long ago – over the years I’ve done numerous science experiments, told jokes that were not nearly as funny as I had hoped, recited a soliloquy from Edgar Allen Poe (which I forgot midway – but I still remember the word ‘sepulchral’ from it to this day), sang in Spanish dressed as a character from the telenovela Rebelde (cierro los ojos y estoy pensando en ti!) – each time with 20 pairs of eyes watching my every move.Rebelde_Single.jpg

By college, these were replaced with group PowerPoint presentations on “corporate strategy” for an Argentinian media company Artear with unachievable, imaginary growth rates, and “market expansion” into Turkey for a hypothetical instant coffee powder company Spree that would have been insolvent by the time it reached the shores of the Bosphorus Strait. But we still did our 10 minute sales pitch with a strong intro and conclusion, saving time for a barrage of cutting questions from classmates trying to ensure our score would be lower than theirs for a class graded on a curve.Fullscreen capture 9302017 80906 PM.bmp.jpg

I always wondered why some of the international students – many from China – struggled with these sorts of projects so much at NYU. There is the obvious language barrier, but more than that it is the result of growing up in a Confucian education system where being viewed as humble (and in my honest opinion, a people-pleaser) was a priority over standing out and raising your hand/ speaking with confidence if you knew the answer. in the grand scheme of things, I see this mostly as being molded to live life through the lens of offending the least amount of people possible, which is exhausting.

To be fair, this is definitely changing as the Chinese get richer and more urbanized – my high school students from summer training in Chengdu were outspoken, sarcastic, and passive-aggressively hilarious – and my 5 year old relative Luna takes private lessons for singing and dancing and all sorts of “Me! Me! Me!” activities… but in the poor, western regions of China this is not the norm.

However, my students are improving! We have done so many impromptu skits and presentations already. Teacher Cheng sits in the last row of class and screams “EYE CONTACT!” or “LOUDER!” every forty-five seconds – like the guy from Black Eyed Peas that ruins every song with pointless shouting. Their confidence is growing, their voices have become stronger, and most importantly, they are nourishing an ability to laugh at themselves, which is most important of all.

Supermarket Sweeps: Mooncake (月饼) and Hairy Crab (大闸蟹)!


Autumn beckons a peculiar lineup of edibles in Chinese supermarkets. The cool weather is quickly followed by boxes of mooncakes piled high into looming towers throughout the central aisles of every grocery store, to ensure no child is left mooncake-less during the Mid-Autumn Festival

Fullscreen capture 9252017 112310 PM.bmpThese highly decorative – and increasingly expensive – gifts are wrapped in boxes made of bright fabrics, gold or metallic foil, and shimmering red tassels to give to your frenemies in your extended social circle/ managers at work, all in an effort to maintain good guanxi and social harmony.

Fullscreen capture 9252017 112318 PM.bmp(Last year many of the other volunteers received boxes of mooncakes from their schools’ staff; I received NOTHING. I tell myself it’s because I integrated and no longer need to be impressed with gifts, but most likely this is yet another grudge I’ll hold forever… It’s now September 25th as I write thisstill no mooncake…)Fullscreen capture 9252017 101437 PM.bmp

As a kid I loved eating mooncake- small pastries filled with lotus paste, mung bean, sesame paste, or red date paste. Depending on the province the cake is from, there may even be a salted duck egg yolk in the center! The cakes are pressed in intricate circular or square molds and can be quite beautiful. Sad that even simple treats such as mooncakes have become so commercialized…

Chinese-moon-festival-legend.jpgThe original of the mooncake is generally tied to a story about the moon goddess (Chang’E, painted above), but the other explanation – a more heroic, Disney Mulan-esque story – is secret messages regarding a coup were baked on the surface of the mooncakes by Han Chinese in a plan to overthrow the Mongol-ruled Yuan Dynasty.

Fullscreen capture 9252017 113628 PM.bmp.jpgBest thing about mooncake? The day after the Mid-Autumn festival, there is a massive fire sale of these pastries (not unlike Greek assets under neocon IMF auspices) and I can eat to my heart’s content!IMG_1826.JPG

Hairy Crab

This is a bit harder to find due to the scarcity of the Chinese mitten crab, but high end supermarkets will generally make room for a hairy crab display in the autumn. This is the perfect season for harvesting the mitten crabs – it is when the females are most fertile, ready to erupt with roe (eggs).20151023031152833.jpg

Rich people from Shanghai and Hong Kong go nuts for this stuff and will pay a small fortune for mitten crabs from YangCheng Lake, which are apparently the most desirable. Interesting Fact99% of hairy crabs on the market are fake! Not that they are made of plastic, but in the sense that mitten crabs from other lakes/ rivers/ bodies of water are being passed off as former YangCheng Lake inhabitants, and commanding massive premiums for the honor of bathing in a polluted lake 2 miles north of Suzhou.

1610-hairy-crab-haitienlo-main-635.jpgI guess rich people have very discerning palates- a hairy crab’s origin is as important to the Shanghainese as a sparkling wine’s is to a snooty, insecure, Hermes–hoarding Parisian. I haven’t had the luxury of eating hairy crab yet (I’m a humble volunteer, after all!) but it does look enticing…

Fullscreen capture 9252017 112009 PM.bmp.jpgIn the photo above, a 将 (general) leads his army of mitten crabs into DaRunFa Supermarket! I was pleasantly surprised to find these crabs at the local supermarket- a sure sign that Lanzhou is up and coming! We are the next big thing y’all!!!

Fullscreen capture 9252017 111945 PM.bmp

From the few times I made lobster rolls in previous summers, I know that crustaceans must be kept alive until just before they are cooked- or else the flesh rots very quickly. So somehow these crabs were still alive (in theory at least) despite being stuffed in cardboard boxes for days on end. I’m not in the mood for suffering explosive LDZ this upcoming month, so I left the supermarket empty handed.