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.”

School Happenings

Broadcast Exercise Competition (广播体操比赛)

A few weeks ago my afternoon class was cancelled – over half my students would instead take part in the “Broadcast Exercise Competition.” I had no idea what that was so I walked over with the remaining kids to the stadium to watch the spectacle.Fullscreen capture 11282017 92441 PM.bmp

This was a competition for the freshmen only, in which the choreography is literally just stretching. In unison, the students bend and reach their toes, swing their bodies side to side, and lift their knees up to their chests. Every team is required to use the same song – it’s a very communist propaganda sounding piece, with uplifting horns and flutes and reminds me of theme songs from Pokemon Stadium and Zelda, if CCTV were to mash those tunes together to use before announcing some dramatic, breaking news headlines.Fullscreen capture 11282017 92509 PM.bmp

We also happen to hear this tune on the loudspeakers EVERY MORNING, five days a week at 9:55AM, when the first period is over and students walk to their second class. The lyrics are also limited to counting:




1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

2, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

3, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!

And so on (up to 8, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8!), for several minutes to different tempos. (double time!!)Fullscreen capture 11282017 94843 PM.bmp

So now there is a two hour contest with hundreds of 18 year-old teenagers do the exact same choreography, something they could have memorized in kindergarten. Part of me is thinking this is really dumb and reinforces all these negative stereotypes about Chinese youth and their propensity to conforming to others/ lack creative thought, but then part of me is just grateful that afternoon class was cancelled.  Fullscreen capture 11282017 92541 PM.bmp

From the back row of the bleachers, my students and I still have our fun. We give ridiculous nicknames to each team. Above is a photo of Team Scrambled Eggs and Tomatoes 番茄炒鸡蛋Fullscreen capture 11282017 92614 PM.bmp

Here is Team Egg Whites: 蛋白 in all their yolk-less glory

And my students in the English Department- ready to be served with a steak and potatoes – Team Carrots and Peas (萝卜豆苗)!!  Fullscreen capture 11282017 92644 PM.bmp

The next day I ask my kids how they did. They laugh.


“Second to Last Place!”

Speech Contest

Our Wednesday nights have been busy- there are a variety of English-based contest requiring the expertise that only Peace Corps volunteers can provide. Some evenings are more successful and enjoyable than others. You can see with the speech contest that the students were given a wide range of intellectually stimulating topics to cover:Fullscreen capture 11282017 92807 PM.bmp

  • My Vision of Beautiful China
  • Big, Big World and Big China
  • China in my Eyes
  • China on the Rise
  • China in my own Eyes
  • China – a new face in the world
  • The magical China

There is no room for debate- the communist party is doing an excellent job and we are all fortunate to be sharing in the success of the Chinese Dream!!! To think otherwise makes you an ungrateful, Japanese-loving, delusional self-loathing piece of garbage!!!

Judging the speech contest is a chance for me to practice “Miss Universe Face”- sit with good posture, smile politely, and clap robotically for 90 minutes. I also am required to ask follow up questions for each contestant:

“How has China’s growth improved your daily life?”

“In Beijing we had Olympics and now One Belt One Road… and China is strong, yes, and the Shanghai Expo in 2010 with many visitors from around the world… and the economy with China, and then political, yes -”

“Okay great! Thank You!!”

English Drama and Stage Play

On the other hand, the English drama/ stage play (话剧) competition is much more enjoyable and relaxed. The kids seem genuinely interested in putting together something funny and creative, and instead of working off pre-selected topics glorifying the leadership of China, they get to choose their own stories to portray.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93350 PM.bmp

The students come prepared with a set of costumes and props. I’m always surprised when my seemingly timid and shy students can stand in front of 100 people and deliver a hilarious skit, behind the anonymity of a fairy tale character, or physical mask.

Highlights included Snow White and the 7 Dwarves, the Emperor’s New Clothes, Little Red Riding Hood, and the a scene involving the Monkey King.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93404 PM.bmp

One phrase commonly repeated throughout the night in various dramas: “I WILL KILL YOU!” I think everyone is secretly drawn to violence– its human nature to love bloodshed, and now the kids have their chance to dabble in a bit of imaginary murder.


To celebrate Thanksgiving, my sitemate Michelle and I took the opportunity to invite a group of sophomores to come and cook for us. They got a roast chicken, made “coca-cola wings” and an assortment of dumplings (everyone makes / wraps dumplings differently – like fingerprints or snowflakestruly unique). Michelle did the mashed potatoes and corn, and I put together some semblance of string beans and quinoa.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93505 PM.bmp

Everything was delicious, to varying degrees, and the wings and potatoes were easily finished by the end of dinner. The quinoa not so much, and the string beans even less so, so I have a lot of work to do before the next Thanksgiving!Fullscreen capture 11282017 93619 PM.bmp

Michelle also made a killer dessert pudding made of purple yam (called ube), and we had a blueberry cheesecake from Breadtalk.Fullscreen capture 11282017 93608 PM.bmp

Overall I have a ton to be grateful for in 2017- too many people, things, and events to list out… Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!!

From Xining to Zhangye

Xining: Tibetan Medicine Museum

Earlier this autumn I made a weekend trip to Xining, taking the 70 minute bullet train. Xining is the capital of Qinghai province, and the gateway to areas of China with heavier Tibetan influence.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM.bmp

I was there to visit the Tibetan Medicine Museum of China to see the Great Thangka. A Thangka (tangkasnet) is a Tibetan Buddhist painting done on cotton or silk. In this style of art, there is always one large figure in the center, surrounded by dozens of smaller demi-gods, animals, and monks depicting a Buddhist story. Here is an example, courtesy of Wikipedia:Fullscreen capture 11212017 62554 PM.bmp

The thangka is always colorful and ornate, meticulously painted with layers of blue ocean waves, deep red temple facades, and gold or silver lining saved for clouds and deities.

What makes the Great Thangka special is its sheer size and length – this is a scroll painting 618 meters (2,000+ feet!!!) in length and 1,000 kg in weight – which took 300 artists over 25 years to complete. Walking into the exhibit was a mind-blowing experience.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14042 PM.bmp

Wall after wall, room after room, was this never-ending scroll painting as far as the eye could see. Every square inch of visible surface-area was covered in colors and stories- there were elephants, tortured human skeletons, vultures, blue-skinned fire demons, dragons, and historical figures important to Tibetan Buddhism.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14029 PM.bmp

It was a quiet Saturday morning and I had the entire exhibit to myself. In retrospect I should have requested a guide to help me further appreciate the artwork, to better understand the major themes and fables depicted. Fullscreen capture 11212017 14035 PM.bmp

Had it not been for the green arrows on the floor guiding visitors through the museum, I definitely would have been lost at some point. The experience was similar to wandering through a corn maze, only slightly more artistic and lacking screaming children.

Here is a floor map of the exhibit; from above it looks a bit like our large intestines (I drew a yellow line to helpfully indicate the thangka snaking through the museum).Fullscreen capture 11212017 62604 PM.bmp

I am really curious about the logistics of outlining, painting, storing, transporting, and installing the Great Thangka. Researching this might just be my Peace Corps secondary project, instead of fixing up the dreaded “Book Nook”.

Zhangye: Danxia Geopark and the Giant Buddha

Several weeks later I again headed north-west from Lanzhou for three and a half hours via bullet train, this time to Zhangye.Fullscreen capture 11162017 11600 PM_1.bmp

Zhangye is famous for the Danxia National Geopark, a rock formation landscape similar to the Grand Canyon. With good weather and angled sunlight, the rich colors of the earth streak through the mountainside in reds, yellows, cream, and every color in between.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14301 PM.bmp

Danxia is about forty minutes away from Zhangye downtown by private car. After arriving at the geopark, I hitched a ride on the park bus that came every ten minutes or so, stopping at each viewpoint to admire various rock formations.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14253 PM.bmp

Chinese love giving ridiculous, long-winded names to odd shaped rocks on mountains and hills- the Danxia Geopark is no different. Below are some fancy titles for the sculpted landscape, and if you squint hard enough, maybe you could see a scallop or monkey, but I honestly just saw dirt-colored cliffs.

  • Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus
  • Colorful Meeting Fairy Deck
  • Spirit Monkey View Sea
  • Supernatural Tortoise Looks at the Sky

Also worth noting that every image on Google has been photoshopped and saturated beyond reality, and what I saw with my eyes looked nothing like what a visitor may have expected, if they were to believe Google.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62548 PM.bmp

The other must-see landmark in Zhangye is the Giant Sleeping Buddha (张掖大佛寺). This slumbering sculpture is the largest of its kind in China – and thankfully, has barely been touched since its creation in the Western Xia Dynasty 900+ years ago.02-20121111-08_cn-sleepingbuddha-sml

The Buddha is held together by a hollow wooden frame coated in a layer of clay, and painted over. A panorama shows its true scale: 157 feet long x 24 feet wide at its highest (shoulder to shoulder). He is guarded by ten disciples behind him, and two on either side of his head and feet.Fullscreen capture 11212017 62530 PM.bmp

No photography was allowed inside, so these are Google photos. Behind the statue on the wall were Ming Dynasty murals retelling scenes from Journey to the West (interestingly, the wall paintings were completed before the book 西游记 was written, so many of these tales about the Monkey King existed along the Silk Road well before they reached the rest of China!). There’s also a legend that Kublai Khan was born here, but so far there’s little evidence of this.Fullscreen capture 11212017 14214 PM.bmp

The temple exterior is unadorned and unpainted. There are banners along the entrance pillars with a beautiful poem, written in traditional Chinese characters:

Sleep Buddha, long may you slumber
Sleep 1,000 years
Slumber forever, do not awaken
Those who ask, question forever
Question 100 centuries
Never ask, and you will never know

Of course I made a sketch of this too, with the poem written in gold ink glimmering against a black midnight sky, overlooking Zhangye’s Giant Buddha. May he sleep for another 100 centuries!Fullscreen capture 11212017 62540 PM.bmp