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.


Longmen Grottos (龙门石窟) and FutureLearn

In early December I took the high speed rail to Luoyang in Henan Province to see the famous Longmen Grottoes. This was one of the furthest weekend trips for me so far, one that required spending the night in Xi’An first, before heading further east to Luoyang the following morning.Fullscreen capture 12242017 100301 PM.bmp

Luoyang is one of China’s four great ancient capitols- the others being Xi’An, Nanjing, and Beijing. Interestingly, Luoyang itself doesn’t have massive city walls, palaces, and temples that could still be seen today in the other three. The capitol was likely burned to the ground several times in the past millennium, and hit particularly hard during the Cultural Revolution. However, it is home to some splendid rock carvings, collectively known as the Longmen (Dragon’s Gate) Grottoes.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92506 PM.bmp

These Buddhist grottoes were carved from the Northern Wei period 493 AD onward, and work ceased at some point in the Song Dynasty (around 1127 AD). Over the 600+ years, some 2,300 caves and 100,000 (!) Buddhist figures were dug out of the cliffs in various scale- many minuscule, and some enormous.

The one cave everyone comes here to see is the Fengxian Cave, the true masterpiece of the Tang dynasty. In this expansive, open-air grotto, there are nine carved statues, with Vairocana Buddha seated in the center. The five central figures are serene and calm- the outer four guardians are clearly ferocious warriors. This is a political work of art as well; all power radiates from the Emperor and Emperor only!Fullscreen capture 12242017 92450 PM.bmp

It was during the reign of the enormously powerful and wealthy Wu ZeTian – the only female emperor in all of China’s history (crazy mother-in-laws don’t count!!) – that this set of statues was carved. The effortlessly beautiful central Buddha was modeled in her image, and has distinctly feminine features – the high eyebrows, slender nose, pursed lips, etc. Her earlobes are 2 meters in length, so I would still come up 10 cm short if I were to miraculously levitate and stand next to her earsFullscreen capture 12242017 92901 PM.bmp

From across the river you can get a better sense of scale for the Fengxian cave, and you can also see the many, many stairs I had to climb to enjoy this World Heritage Site.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92443 PM.bmp

Back in Xi’An, I revisited the Wild Goose Pagoda which was much more impressive this time around, with clear blue skies instead of a polluted grey backdrop. I got someone to take a photo of me pinching the tip of the pagoda, as if I were lifting the precious lid off a seven-tiered dessert platter.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92536 PM.bmp

Later I came across a group of old men playing chess, just outside the Ming city walls. This sort of hobby – chess, and the crowd of back-seat chess drivers that gather – is common across all of China, especially on a lazy weekend afternoon.Fullscreen capture 12242017 102457 PM.bmp.jpg

A moment like this warrants its own sketch:Fullscreen capture 12242017 110501 PM.bmp

I also witnessed a blazing sunset while waiting at the platform for my train back to Lanzhou the following evening, a sure reminder that another weekend trip has come to an end.Fullscreen capture 12242017 92436 PM.bmp.jpg

FutureLearn: The European Discovery of China

I’m taking full advantage of my free time by traveling through China, but to gain a deeper understanding of many of these sites and how they are connected, I needed more background information than what was provided in brochures, audio-guides, and WikiTravel.

There are several sites offering free online courses on almost any subject you can think of – and after some digging, I found “The European Discovery of China” through FutureLearn.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90634 PM.bmp

This is an eight week course (each course requires the learner to finish viewing a dozen or so short videos and an optional quiz at the end – all videos can be downloaded as PDF text as well) that explains interactions between the East and West for the past two thousand years.Fullscreen capture 12242017 90641 PM.bmp

The course has a heavy emphasis on the analysis of ancient maps, paintings, and letters, all of which I enjoy. Did you know life in the royal harem was boring as fuck for most of the young women living behind palace gates, many of whom might never even see the emperor in their entire lives?Fullscreen capture 12242017 90816 PM.bmp

It also clears up some rumors “Did Marco Polo ever reach China?” (Answer: yes, but it is strange he never mentioned the use of chopsticks, or the complex writing system!)Fullscreen capture 12242017 91225 PM.bmp

Usually I will download all the videos of a course onto my tablet and then watch them on the train rides during weekend trips- this is an efficient way to make use of time, on the already efficient high-speed rail!

The European Discovery of China has really added depth and context to all of the traveling I’ve done in the past year and a half, and I’m always pleasantly surprised to see Lanzhou/ Gansu pop up every now and then in a lesson.



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.”

The Ancient Capitol: Xi’An

The great thing about being a Peace Corps China volunteer in 2017 is we get to take full advantage of the growth of high speed rails across the country. Last year, a visit to Xi’An would have taken 9 or 10 hours by train. Now, it’s a quick 3 hour trip – which makes for the perfect weekend getaway!Fullscreen capture 1262017 101959 PM.bmp

Xi’An (pronounced shee-an) is one of the ancient capitols of China- 1,500 years ago, when Beijing was a backwater nobodyville, Xi’An was already a bustling metropolis. In the Tang dynasty it was the largest city in the world by population, with over a million inhabitants inside the city walls and another 2 million outside.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102213 PM.bmp

The later Ming Dynasty walls remain today, creating a massive, rectangular 14km perimeter around the city center. Visitors can climb to the top and walk or bike around, getting great views of the interior and exterior city. The sky was rather polluted the day I went, but it was still a contemplative experience, nonetheless.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102222 PM.bmp


One of the famous dishes in Xi’An is biang biang noodles, named after the thwacking noise the dough makes when it is repeatedly slapped onto the table and stretched over and over again. The noodles are as wide as a belt, but at the same time very thin, and remind me Lanzhou’s da-kuan noodles.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102006 PM.bmp

The character for Biang Biang is extremely complex (see below) with 57 strokes needed before it can be written out. It is essentially total artistic nonsense, and never made it into the great, definitive Kangxi Dictionary. There are over 47,000 recognized characters in the dictionary and biang biang is not one of them. Case closed!Fullscreen capture 1262017 102012 PM.bmp.jpg


Wild Goose Pagodas

A short bike ride south outside of the city walls will bring you to the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, built in the Tang Dynasty. Originally the structure was 10 stories in height, but subsequent earthquakes and rebuildings have left it at its current 7 stories.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102037 PM.bmpIn 627 AD, the famous monk Xuangzang left China on a 17 year, road-trip journey to India, in an effort to gain a more enlightened understanding of Buddhism and bring back hundreds of original Sanskrit texts.journey.jpg

The Wild Goose Pagoda was constructed to house the texts and related translations, and also to honor his journey and spirit. Across town the Small Wild Goose Pagoda was built a short while later in 707 AD. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102114 PM.bmpAs more and more pilgrims returned from India with Buddhist texts, the two pagodas (and Xi’An as a whole) became a symbol for the spread of Buddhism throughout China.

Qujiang Museum of Fine Arts

This is a museum that is not to be missed! The Qujiang Museum is a private (AKA pricey admissions) museum, but absolutely worth it. The highlight is several rooms displaying works of pure gold through several dynasties. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102101 PM.bmpThe gold work is mostly filigree- fine gold threads that are then woven together to form baskets, headpieces/ crowns, and (my favorite) vases.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102911 PM.bmp

Precious gems- rubies, pearls, jades – are securely embedded into most of the pieces, and little animal figurines can be spotted throughout. There were gold phoenixes, dragons, bats, and elks that were easily identifiable, all thought to bring good luck to the very fortunate and wealthy owner of the piece.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102054 PM.bmp

I’ve seen some of the most exclusive works of gold housed in the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the National Palace Museum in Taipei- this collection easily rivals the best in the world.

Muslim Bazaar

No Chinese city is complete without a night market- and in the heart of Xi’an there is the wonderful, energetic Muslim Bazaar. This is one of the larger night markets I’ve experienced in mainland China, and it was a surprising amount of fun.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102133 PM.bmp

It’s absolutely packed on the weekends with all sorts of snacks to savor and trinkets to buy. There was a refreshing variety of goods for sale – I drank several cups of fresh squeezed pomegranate/ coconut/ sugar cane juice, and found myself running to the bathroom to relieve my bladder on several occasions. Fullscreen capture 1262017 102127 PM.bmpXi’An is also famous for Yang Rou Pao Mo 羊肉泡馍  (Mutton and soaked bread) which I obviously had to try.Fullscreen capture 1262017 103159 PM.bmp

This is a three step meal:

  • You’re first given an empty bowl with some very firm, round bread.
  • This then needs to be shredded by hand into small pieces (mine were massive chunks but the locals could break the bread down to a much more refined size).
  • The bowl is handed back to the waiter, who will take it to the chef, who then pours a boiling mutton broth over the bread. Some sliced lamb and other condiments are added, before the bowl is return to you. Slurp quickly!Fullscreen capture 1262017 103315 PM.bmp

It’s all quite enjoyable, and quickly warmed me up as I was sitting outside in the chilly November night. The soup congeals though as it cools- so it must be finished ASAP

There’s something for everyone at the market- carnivores will delight in skeletons of sheep and other animals, purposely hung to be gawked at by visitors. Vendors cut the flesh off the carcass and skewer them into kebabs for roasting.Fullscreen capture 1262017 102141 PM.bmp

Vegans can find something delicious too- including fresh jackfruit, sliced on request. Is it just me, or does this giant fruit eerily resemble the leg of a lamb, or maybe Spanish iberico ham displayed at a banquet?? Fullscreen capture 1262017 102145 PM.bmp

This trip to Xi’An was one of my most interesting and rewarding weekends yet. Luxury malls and high rises dominate the noisy central roads, but one or two side-streets away, the atmosphere is completely serene.

Biking around on those one lane streets, I could hear the dry leaves scraping the ground in circular patterns below me, and songbirds confined to their cages chirping in the trees above. In some ways, Xi’An has not changed at all after 1,500 years