12.4.14

Imagine if you only knew 100 words in English and two of them were Terracotta and Warriors

It’s not every weekend that you get a chance to visit a UNESCO world heritage site. And yes, living a mere 9 hours from an cultural experience short listed for the seven wonders of the world is at least worth considering visiting—but that doesn’t make seeing the Terracotta Warriors a forgone conclusion.
I mean, nobody wants to be this guy but...
When I told a buddy over lunch that I was going to Xi'an to visit 秦始皇兵马俑, he masked no attempts to dissuade me. When he spoke of his visit, it felt less like he was describing a trip to a museum and more like he was saying it wasn't the best sex he ever had ( he was also less than pleased to have paid for it.) Dude was frowning the whole time over his bowl of Niu Rou Mian, chopsticks half raised to his face when he told me I should really get ready to be disappointed and that I should probably see the three pits in the reverse order of 3, 2, 1 if I wanted to end on a high(er) note.
This sentiment was loudly echoed when I and my merry accomplices, (see figure one)
figure one

 had the pleasure of joining Tim King of Alert the Audience  at his friend’s house for a rooftop BBQ. 

Tim has carved out a great Expat community of really exceptional people. He claims that it was  this particular bar that brought them all together, but even at my travelers glace I could tell theirs is deeper than just drinks and giggles. Maybe it's becaue Tim's also from New England, or maybe because I've been following his blog for so many years--but I took immediately to them. It's like he seems to have chosen friends I would have chosen for myself. I wish I had more time in Xi'an just to chill with all of them and party. But they wasted no time telling me what a bad idea it was to see the Warriors.
To the above advice they added that all the photos you see are heavily shopped and you get the sense that the soldiers go on and on but they really only go back 20 rows.

For an adult of my age and weight class, I should be better at visualizing large sums but such knowhow escapes me. Be that as it may, 20 rows sounded like a lot of intact ancient pottery to me. But what do I know, really?


I had some interest in Ancient China, specifically Xi’an and particularly during the Tang dynasty thanks to a book I may have mentioned on this site once or twice called Under Heaven. However, the terracotta warriors are from the Qin dynasty.
To give you a little context here are the major dynastic periods in China...

 Read them from right to left using Frère Jacques as a Mnemonic device.

The first problem with seeing the Warriors is getting there from Xi'an. There was the craziest, longest, most disheartening (read as soul sucking) line to get on the buses going to Bīngmǎyǒng.
Luckily for me, two of our party can read and speak Chinese at level that kind of make me wish I hadn’t made so much time over these last few months to play video games and read books….but only sorta.
Anyway, they found us a bus with a much shorter line which was leaving immediately and had that take us to the site. We even each had seats!
We entered the park, I paid my fee and walked around under greasy streaks of clouds, fully prepared for what I was about to see to not be that cool and also possibly to be rained on.
Although, honestly—it was cool.
And it barely sprinkled.

Maybe it’s just because I used to pick up shampoo bottles while half looking at myself in the mirror in the throws of an Indiana Jones fantasy, but I’ve always considered Archeology to be one of the more bitching sciences. 
"You people" can't take care of this. See Also: It belongs in a museum.
Part of the problem from my point of view is that the curators never should have translated  as pit. Granted, that’s what kēng literally means but "pit" does not evoke in English what "site" does. These are archeology sites. Most of “Pit two” isn’t even fully excavated yet.  Is that not awesome? Are you not entertained?! 

They are actively unearthing 2200 year old works of art beneath   the same roof that you are permitted to view them! Who cares if they’ve only found 20 rows so far!!!!
Don't make me quote it...

In the end, it was beneficial to visit them in reverse order and flow against the wall of people that were also experiencing them. The bus we took was the 419 but the 306 and 307 get there if you are willing to wait in that super long line. Personally, I think that if  you or your mom wants to see these I would recommend going through your hostel. Ours had a 220 RMB (about $33) package deal which included a ride there and back, beer and the emperor’s tomb. I would have gone for if I wasn’t able to get in on a student discount. 
Verdict: Being prepared for a disappointment made seeing it for myself better than I was currently imagining. Thus telling everyone how much of suck-fest it is  might be nice of me to do in the hopes that they super enjoy it.   If you go, do it with a tour group instead of me because there were things I enjoyed way more while in Xi'an. Don't get me wrong, it was noteworthy, but not something a person with my level and interest in both Chinese history and the language needs to see again. It's a bit like going to the top of Eiffel tower. It isn’t free and some people never get to see it at all. Why should I see it twice? 



30.3.14

Hangover Remedy for the Pizza-ly impaired

My Pizza Game is outta this world!
But if I don't feel like making it myself and I still want to have some here in Lanzhou, I have to ride the bus for at least two hoursa task I’d be hard-pressed to undertake so insouciantly. And yet, it has widely been observed that after tomatoes left the New World, Pizza quickly found firm footing as a staple food group amoung many human cultures and has long been celebrated chiefly for its curative properties and great toppings.But when you can’t have it and you still need Pizza's help keeping down the rainbows, we at the Post Modern Talko suggest you follow these easy steps for crafting your own small batches of fries.



Protip: It only has to be done well enough that your mom would have been too tired to force you to do it again.


[Reading over my shoulder] Sebastien: What potato?
Me: Nothing.
Seb: Is it a potato that went bad?
Me: …
Redaction: The thickness is really more important than the length.(LOL)





I went with ground Sichuan pepper, salt and soft white "healthy choice" sugar.





And honestly, we're cool with this.


But you could toally fly solo with a season of Adventure Time.

Those Dishes will get done, man--you can relax.
And really, if you can't muster the will power to get those dishes done the next time you're hungry you can always fall back on a bag or two of your old friend, Microwavable popcorn.
*smert

Well that's about all we have time for. I hope you feel better!



9.2.14

Chinese Train Culture

Recently we boarded a plane that was leaving lands of summer for the more August company of Autumn. Arriving around 4 in the morning all told and taxied in, we slept until just after Hello Chengdu's 12 o'clock check out, ate a meal and promptly caught a bus for the train station. Just outside its dominion we purchased the dried noodles and snacks that would sustain our twenty-hour voyage to Winterland.
Moi qui n'ai connu toute ma vie que le ciel du nord...
Jolie, non?
 Duì, hěn piàoliang !
I promised once to talk with you about train culture here in China and so I'd like to share what I think I've learned. 
There are four ways to travel by train. Hard seats or soft seats. Hard sleepers or soft sleepers. The hard seats and sleepers aren't as hard as they sound. I've never had a soft anything so I can't speak to whether or not the increase in price is justified. For our purposes, I'll explain what I know best: Hard sleepers.

First let us examine the characters for the different beds. Note please that I have an impressively un-academic understanding of Chinese, the culture and the character writing system. I have attempted to verify all that I am telling you with the internet but I am in no way an expert on these matters or pretending to be. To follow will be much anecdotal observations, and though I can't help but paint at times with a very wide brush, the brushes I paint with are mine and I'm not ashamed of their lines. 

Now let's play a little guessing game.
上铺 (Shàng pù) I will tell you that the first character Shàng, said with the fourth tone and denotes a position of either up or down. Judging just by what you see, is 上 the uppermost bunk or the lower bunk?

How about this: 下铺 (Xià pù) Does 下 look like the bottom bunk or the top to you?

How 'bout a freebie?
The middle one is easy: 中铺 (Zhōng pù) Zhōng is clearly a rectangle divided in twain, thus remembering it means middle 中 is something a laowai can do on the first glimpse. Zhong also the first character in China (中国) Or as it is translated sometimes in English, 'the Middle Kingdom.' (Zhōngguó) (Also why Chinese websites often have .zh domain name (other times its .cn, FWIW.)

So anywho-- have you come up with your answers yet?
Well,  Shang pu is the top bunk---> 上铺 and xia pu is the bottom --->  下铺
When you get on a train you hand them your ticket and are given a plastic card to hold on to. Often this exchange happens right at the door, after you've found your gate, your platform, your track and your car-- so amidst all those small victories, befuddlements and shrinking and expanding crowds, you don't even have time to point at the characters on your paper ticket and ask your new bunkmates which bed should be yours. You have to remember if it's a shangpu or a xia and sadly not all Gryffindors are the Hermiones we could be. 

Atanyrate, the meanings of 上  and 下 were hard to memorize for awhile because they look to me as though they should imply the opposite of what they do. And yet, just as with your first language, there doesn't need to be a logic beyond representation for a word to mean one thing or another. However, I've had it explained to me that the longest horizontal line signifies the ground. Shang 上 means above in that case and xia 下 means below, pretty obviously.  These days I use these two characters měitiān in my classroom when I'm lowering or raising the projector screen so I now have a working understanding of what they mean. 

Of the topmost bunk I can say it is frightfully high. I bet I would have loved it as a kid. But it's the least expensive for a reason. There is no headroom and you have to climb higher than any bunk bed we ever had at my house.

The middle bunk isn't much better. But at least it's closer to the ground.

 The bottom bunk as you might expect is the most desirable bed because it allows for sitting room.
This can really mean the world to you on a train ride exceeding 15 hours and it offers some amount of communal space. 
Chinese people expect to share the bottom bunk with strangers when they need a place to sit down. This interaction is often unacknowledged. You don't ask permission, you simply sit. This is not perceived as rude because space is at a premium in China. However they are aware that these protocols do not necessarily correspond to non-Chinese. In fact, they often have to be invited to sit on my bottom bunk, more than once before they will take a small, small corner. 

People who's opinion I had thought to rely on, e.g., David Sedaris, would have me believe that people are just shitting and spitting basically everywhere in China-- in the Walmart even! And you do get some outdoor pooping, especially from potty training children, and one does occasionally hear a guy really hawk up a mean loogie, but the despite what I thought I knew before coming here, I have learned that the Chinese are very concerned with cleanliness.

A few examples. 
One: They take their shoes off. You already knew this. But this is also true on trains! You cannot under any circumstances expect to wear your street shoes up to your bunk. If you are grossed out by walking around in your socks on the train, pack some slippers. Everyone does.
You cannot step on the bed--anyone's bed-- wearing shoes. This goes for hard seats as well. If you need to adjust your luggage on the rack above your hard seat or sleeper you flip the cover up and step directly on to the surface where no butts or hands will touch. Only a barbarian would stand on a seat wearing shoes. This goes for park benches or any other kind of chair on offer. 

Example 2: 
They cover their sleeves with 袖套 (Xiù tào) Many of our students will wear these protective covers for their lower arms to class. As students move from classroom to classroom xiu tao keep their arms from touching any communal surfaces. They can also serve as a function of expressing their personality or sense of fashion.

Perhaps for every reason David Sedaris would have me fear or revile, our students tend to keep their bags and phones off of the floor. If they have to charge their phone in my class and can only find a baseboard wall socket to do so, they will put down a piece of paper under their phone or reconnoiter a spare chair. 
I have found that putting my bag on the ground  can make restaurant owners very uncomfortable and they will often put it on to a stool next to me, smiling and nodding the whole time. The first couples time I made it clear that this wasn't a problem for me and was polite but unnecessary, and yet as I have learned more about the culture and as I try harder to assimilate and mimic without being asked to, I find that my feelings concerning the floor and the bottom of my backpack don't need to come between me and my host country.  We're still debating low-cut tops.

Speaking about restaurants you will often find vendors of  xiǎochī (小吃) or Shāokǎo (烧烤) or even the wait staff at your favorite Huǒguō (火锅) establishment will wear plastic spit guards.
Spit guards: more proof that they care so hard about cleanliness.
I enjoy train travel although certain aspects do offend my sensibilities. 

Smoking is allowed nearly everywhere in China and even in places where it's technically not. I find filters stubbed out under my desk at school and I simply abhor running up 5 flights of stairs so as to not be late for my next class, while all at once suddenly realizing I've been sucking in second-hand smoke for the last staircase and a half. There is no escaping smokers on the train. They hotbox the squatter or chain smoke between cars.
 Electronic cigarettes please become cool!

I believe I mentioned to you befor that I've seen older folks trade a shang pu or a zhong pu with xia pu folks for a seriously great upgrade without offering money in return. I've now also seen a mother and child upgrade to bottom bunk as well. In part there is some randomization involved in bunk buying but I could never...well, I'll admit that I did ask a woman on the TGV  to trade seat with me so Seb and I could pass a sandwich back and forth, but switching beds for free would be more than I would be willing to ask of a stranger. But it's both a cultural and personal difference and I accept that.   

Well, I think I've given you a lot to mull over.
For my part, aside from a few PCVS inviting us out for drinks, I've just been holding up in our place reading, playing video games, painting miniatures and preparing food.

I like being on vacation but I also like oscillating between staring out windows in my PJs and putting new grooves in the couch; it feels good to be responsible to no one but Maslow. 
I leave you with a song that helps me keep perspective when my expectation management is out of whack.

It's also good to remember that any time spent in summerland is a good time spent indeed. Oui, parce que il me semble que la misère serait moins pénible au soleil...

29.1.14

A note slipped in your locker

I'm sitting in a rooftop garden on top of the hostel where I'll still be sleeping for the next few days. I'm relaxed and warm because we spent the day on the beach with some other PCVS, the Chinese Lunar New Year is only a few days away and thus all the local businesses have a likeness of pinky pie on their door. This makes me think of one of our best friends Alberto: a believer in the magic of friendship and an unabashed bronie.
I haven't really talked with him in awhile but was on my mind while I watched a snippet of Eat Pray Love in one of my cohort's TOEFL trainings via Peace Corps,  last week in Chengdu. He's Italian so he probably wants to punch that film in the face. But he's also very nice so he would probably just facepalm and move on.
Eat Pray Love, b.t.dubs is apparently a film I never want to see---and not just because they reduced Italian Culture to "dis-a-voice" and hand gestures, but also because it's a safe bet the other two cultures hit the chopping block as well. SERIOUS QUESTION: Does Julia Roberts learn to speak Hindi or are there just not enough cognates on their menus?
Two weeks in Chengdu was exactly how long it took me to realize I have no integrity. I mean, I throw my trash in the bin so perhaps "No integrity" is an oversimplification.
Back story: About seven Gansu-ren (self and Seb includzies) decided to leave our province and go on a short overnight trip before hitting Chengdu for In-Service-Training. Somehow the tickets got effed up and we ended up arriving in The Du a day early. We also had hard seats instead of hard sleepers for 15 or so hours of the trip as well as no where to sleep in Chengdu upon arrival. But we persevered. We had fun and all and all, we went pretty hard.
We ended up crashing in the Peace Corps Library. I slept in hat, coat, vest, two shirts, heavy socks and slippers--I had on three pairs of pants and still wasn't warm enough. It was cold and leg crampy and I was less than high-fivish in the morning.
Around sunrise I walked towards Sichuan University Western gate, head down in line behind the others, wheeling my suitcase through steamy streets and a smog filled zaoshang it was overcast and  the overtone was bu hao.
En rout to check in to our hotel we walked past a bar called Savage. The Savage Bar. I scoffed, rolled my eyes and snuffed. 
It really wouldn't have been so bad if they meant to invoke a mood but the logo has a Native American on it. I told myself I would never frequent such a terrible and thoughtless establishment. Terrible name. Horrible. Insensitive. We all agreed. 
As it happens  Savage bar was in the midst of their grand opening and as a promotion they were having an open bar from 8-12 every night for the exact dates of IST. Survey says...no integrity~

But also no regrets. Shit was funtastic!

I'm finished now, but I've been drinking coffee with coconut powder in it, a speciality in the province off-Mainland China where I am. My hostel is at the foot of a a fishing village on the peninsula that is a part of a city called Sanya. There is a beach involved so I'm clearly vacationing. I'm using so much of the new language I acquired during IST. And though I'm miles behind many of  my fellows I understand a lot of the Putonghua that  is spoken to or around me. There is a saying in French that goes "It's Chinese to me," meaning something is incomprehensible. Doesn't feel that way anymore and even as a struggle I'm getting better all the time. Legit: I talked a guy down 15 RMB for a dress  today. I'm going pearl hunting tomorrow.  

We hadn't planned to be in Hainan so we didn't pack things like flippy floppies and non-winter clothes.
It's a long story but the tickets were cheap.
Parts of it are funny, but some of the laughs are cheap. 
I'll tell you all about it soon.

I'm almost done with 1Q84. I have so much about it to say. 
But we're coming on fast is the year of the Horse. My little pony. My first Spring Festival in China. The sound of the surf has been helping me to think and I've come to certain understandings about who I want in my life and why.
E.G., I feel like a friend like Alberto could go anywhere in the world and still be important to me and Seb. Some folks are just like that. Some people aren't. Sometimes people can't be what you need and really, after awhile, you need to just stop asking them to try. Art will save you when no one else can fill a hole. I'm living proof of this truth.
I want to talk to you sometimes about the line the Chinese have taught me that separates love and duty, where I stand on it and with whom.
But my hand is cramping. This page is full. The bell is ringing. AC Slatter just called me preppy again. I've folded this sheaf of paper into a heart and now it is the note I shoved in your locker between classes. I should have been paying closer attention but I wanted get things right for you. I was still listening, the parts that came through were vivid and honest and they sounded like the surf to me. So save me a seat at lunch, there's still so much more to see and to say.  

1.1.14

Posting like it's 1999. (Dial up.)

As I rolled the stiffness out of my neck for the first time in the morning and swung to a sitting position  on the edge of bed I had two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home. Not really, but I've loved that rejoinder since I was 11 years old.
Truthfully what I was actually doing while my head and eyes lolled about on their pivots was searching for discarded clothing. I found a pair of leggings and a pair of longjohns both in arms reach, I scooted forward somewhat and bending, clamped my paws around a pair of wool socks. Glancing about I spotted a thermal shirt and sweater and I pulled them both on inside out to go over the tee shirt I wore to sleep. 
Making progress, I left the bed and drew open the curtains. 
There is ice on the inside of my window as I stretch  first my right then the left leg on the sill, exhale bend further, reflect that I haven't slept with clothes on--even in winter, for at least 8 years. Sleeping next to another person usually makes clothing superfluous on multiple levels, I find.  But here I am, now sleeping in at least a shirt, layering up on New Years day for a trip down to the back market to buy baozi for our breakfast. 
Typically I send Sebastien on such missions because in the time it takes him to get there and back I can make the bed, make the coffee and redistribute the distilled water we made the night before.
I'm not sure I've told you that we distill all our water as per Peace Corps China's requirements. Boiling water gets rid of the giardia spores and e coli bacteria true enough--but boiling alone can't remove the heavy metals or pesticides. So we have a semi-portable distiller that we scour with a steel wool between uses. It's nice because aside from providing potable water it also warms up a room.
On my way to the back market, home to 40 some odd restaurants and ten to fifteen push cart food-truck-esque stands, some part of my mind notes with a dry smile that I'm quite cold. I consider how lucky I am to live within walking distance of both so many affordable restaurants and my workplace. I pass the petitely stout coal colored dog that always contrives to force unwitting customers of his caregiver's magazine stand into buying a second hotdog on a stick for him. 
I caught his attention once for holding a bag and I promise you, his charm is a current only the hungriest or cruelest could swim against. There are a lot of stray cats and dogs on our campus and none of them are angular. Each slop of their extremities are rounded and full. Maybe you've heard that the Chinese eat cats and dogs but this isn't Leningrad, this isn't even the period of starvation associated with the Great Leap Forward, this isn't even Guangdong province, so no cats and dogs are eaten here. I'm not supposed to pet them but many of them come when I click. 
Having left my home a good five minutes ago, I'm currently wearing three pairs of pants, three shirts, a leather jacket, a vest, a scarf wrapped three times plus a woolen hat and still I'm thinking of the siege of Leningrad. 
We just finished reading City of Thieves and though I'm stiff-legged and chilled in the joints, I'm not trudging through two feet of snow on a suicide mission to get my ration card back. It's a wonderful novel, makes you feel sick or scared at the top of the page and will having you laughing at boyish behavior by the middle.
I take a few more cold breaths, try not to cough and decide I would never be able to survive a siege. Ok, maybe a short one but not for 900 days. Three years of almost nothing to eat and nightly rooftop duty? Nope. Dead. Someone would have killed me for my boots after the third time I flew off the handle because I was tired, hungry or both.

I arrive at the restaurant where the baozi laoban is standing outside, pulling small stuffed buns off of banana leaf mats and wrapping them in double-fist-sized plastic bags two or four at a time. In my best approximation of the tones involved I tell her I want four pork, two beef, two potato and two cabbage. I think the measure word here is "ge" but I've never bothered to ask my tutor if baozi has it's own measure word, e.g., pieces or bottles or bowls of. She understands me, atanyrate and takes my five RMB which is less than one American Dollar and I unsnap my vest and unzip my coat and arrange the buns like a clutch of small kittens under my breast before redoing the whole careful affair and shoving my gloved hands into the pockets of my vest, being mindful not to the let the metal of my house keys leach the warmth from my right hand. 
Sebastien's has several oral exams today to give in French. I made him take a bottle of water for this morning's session because his voice was nearly gone by the time he made it home for dinner yesterday.  Exam-wise, I've given one already and will give four more on Thursday, three on Monday and one next Tuesday. After that I have to get all my grades shoved into Excel files and off to the official computers before Seb and I join the throng of PCVs heading back to Chengdu for our mid-service formation. 


We had the American traditional meal of Chinese food for New Years Eve and Sebastien finalized his exams while I studied and sang.
In terms of our home life, Christmas was a lovely experience. I woke up early and snuck out of our bed, fired up the glue gun and made a bad choice about what to glue and where. But a stocking and several gifts seemed to be hanging over a craypas fire--a charming effect was achieved, I feel. All in a days, really.
Having to plan and host the Holiday program for my school on the other hand was way more work than it needed to be.
I think most normal people over the age of 12 abhor the ubiquitousness of Christmas music and its insistence on happiness, Christianity, whiteness and snow. That's why I'm sure that the saddest I've ever been in China was two weeks ago when I was hunting around the big supermarket in Lanzhou proper, looking for a something or other for the aforementioned Holiday program.
Melancholy of any sort was something I wasn't expecting to feel because I usually enjoy shopping by myself as  I eschew list-making on principle; thus if I fail to visit every aisle  I won't know if there was an impulse buy I might be missing (!!!)
But on this day, to my great misfortune, they were playing nonstop Christmas music--being there alone I had no one in English whom I could grouse to--specifically on the injustice of moving all the way to an Asian country and living in a provice populated predominantly by Buddhist and Muslims only to still be subjected to "Let it Snow." I tell you I came close to crying then and not just because I  was there to buy 10 boxes of hot chocolate.
Don't get me started on the injustices I've suffered at the hands of hot chocolate(!!!)  >:(
I'm pretty sure that's the best face made of text anyone ever came up with. What can I say? Emoto-iconically speaking, I have classic tastes. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I can't really complain and not want to smack myself because hardship was always part of the Peace Corps price and my so-called hardship amounted to not being a fan of a holiday while being asked to be its cheerleader. We made the best of it, Seb and I.
He definitely said, "I know, I know, I know." punctuated by mouth covering kisses more time than he really should have had to.
I'll probably need to do it again next year, but with a little luck I'll  be teaching the same courses and will only have to fine tune my efforts in that regard.
We showed the movie A Christmas Story to anyone who wanted to see it on Christmas day. As the film plodded its course and bits and pieces came back to me, I worried about how they would react to, "Eat your dinner, there are starving people in China," as well as the blatantly racist rendition of Deck the Halls. It turns out, that if you haven't seen a movie the whole way through in all thirty years that it's been on Television, you should watch it before you show it to 30 or so people.
Actually, they laughed at both those situations--and again when the restaurant owner chops off the head of the duck--not that this negates why parts of that movie are fucked up, but maybe it's good to show the sides of the US that are fucked up, in fairness to any dream--deferred or otherwise. Mayhaps we'll show Home Alone or Die Hard next year-- keep the time-honored films a'comin!
Sebastien had his French Students over for a Crêpe making extravaganza last Friday night and they pretty much lost their minds dancing to Mika's Elle M'a dit. The second time they played the song, Sebastien and I were invited to dance in the center of their group and as the track wore on and because all I could see were his eyes, I knew we were making a moment. After the students took us outside to light off fireworks and send lanterns into the sky, we wondered home to enjoyed a cup or two of hot wine with a German colleague who speaks impeccable French.
Our students truly spoiled us. We were gifted scarfs and apples and oranges and pomelos. Green tea cakes and a lemon curd pudding. Frittered octopus balls. Candied strawberries and hawthorns.  Popcorn and caramel popped corn. Roasted chestnuts, cookies, chocolates, fake flowers and fun.
Speaking of eats, We dined on spare ribs paired with red wine, green beans and mashed yams for Christmas dinner and  then we relaxed much more fully then we could have in a spare bedroom at any of our relatives' homes.

And that's a good a reason as any to gâches ta vie.
Alors...on dance.