On the boorishness scale of one to Kanye West, aim for Wilde

Do you know how many times it took me to read the Communist Manifesto? Viele. At least five, even.
One time I was reading it in an airport--back when I still had that beautiful red Go-Lite jam pack as my main get about. I noticed a guy watching me furrow my brow as I whetted my finger in preparation for that pleasing slice a deft page turn can illicit.

Picture, if you dare, a more cocksure Erin with the androgynous, tousled short hair of an anime character.  はい , very bishounen in a hoodie and Northface vest, sporting the same pair of sambas  as back in high school--always forcing TSA officers to say, "Sir, uh, ma'm," now sitting propped  up against a wall, defiance in her angle of repose, on the floor near a plug which she is not using. This fella made one of those older-man-faces older men make at people they think they've got figured out.

But I was already pretty sure there was a MacArthur fellowship in my future by then, so I gazed back, unaffected. In fact, I had already forgotten him by first boarding call, though it turned out we were to be seatmates.
He had Bob Ross sized hair in red,  not quite repellent but definitely ineffective--so I let him lead the conversation. I was about 19 or 20. I'm terrible with ages and always really uncomfortable when people need to talk about theirs, so I never asked but he couldn't have been over 35. His girlfriend was with him. He criticized her for reading of one of those vacuous sex tip and style mags before turning to me and asking me about my book. I found the whole interaction disquieting, given that I believed most hetero-normative women to be readers of such fluff and he hardly could have just noticed that she was into that sort of relaxation at that very moment.

I was in college, so I talked about that. He worked as a therapist for "kids coming back from Iraq" but he meant solders. He asked for my email address as we circled above Logan, preparing for our final decent. I drew a heart in the window-steam my breath left behind that had nothing to do with him. Boston's veins were laid open like a cyborg autopsy below us all.
His companion visibly stiffened at his contact request. He didn't notice, or he didn't care. I turned away from the slowly corkscrewing skyline to study him more fully. Perhaps he was less motivated by carnal forces and more inspired by the opportunity to mold or influence--by the time I made it to Uni, my life was littered with such men: grandly tolerant of my arrogance because they saw a little bit of themselves in me. Or perhaps they just enjoyed the attention. Or perhaps they didn't fully know their own minds. It hardly matters now.

To mine own, his eyes said, there's something about you--right at the corners of each them. In my memory they were grey, almost leaden but I can't be sure now. I am sure his beard was patchy. Dry skin poked out from under it in places, needing to be sloughed off. I twice politely tried to rebuff him, citing even a lack of pen or paper but he persisted in making it seem like no big deal, so that eventually and through the powers of compromise, I was able to get him to give me his instead--with the intention of never writing him.
Plot twist: He asked his girlfriend to lend him a pen and even had the audacity to rip a square from her magazine. Her poise and self-possession impresses me even today.

Spoiler: I never wrote him.

But I made a plan to in a lucid dream I had where I was climbing the tennis court fence behind my house. I was thinking of posing these questions to him: If I can feel my muscles doing work in the same way I do as when I'm awake, is work happening? Are the same synapses firing as when the activity is being carried out in reality?  Is there activity happening in that part of my body and can we somehow harness that to help people workout in their sleep?
WAIT, He might realize how lazy I am if I phrased it that way, perhaps it's better just to focus on the brain activity...He wouldn't have cared much about the synapse stuff, that was just me flexing. It would have intrigued him to hear of lucid dreaming and he would have enjoyed being dreamed about.

Yes, sir--it would have been the kind of email that makes a man sorry he resigned his lease and bought a couch with the sort of lady who lets you put her down in front of strange girls you both meet in airports.
He deserves to be sorry after all. Doesn't he?

And what about me? Why is it that all these self assured dirty words only work on the friends outside my head? And why did it take five go's to read a document which, all told, is less than 100 pages and fits so cleverly into a pocket?

Well, the copy of the manifesto I had with me featured a sizable amount  of prefaces and forwards and notes and remarks by anybody who ever bought Marx a cup of coffee, and me being me, I just couldn't bring myself to skip over those self-important boring bits to get to the juice of the fruit. Or the Fruits of their labor, whichev.

This has been a very breathy way of excusing why I haven't written to you in so long. Order must be respected!
排队, punks!
I mean, I've been busy and all, but I kept telling myself that after my next adventure I would finally document them all for you.
Sebastien's birthday, Fourth of July, Summer project, Beijing, Mongolia, the start of term, Hotpot November, my birthday--all of them demanded a place on the muse's pedestal, and my most of me insisted that I treat with them chronologically and I still need space and time to veg.

A photo posted by Erwin from Berwin (@mctalko) on
   See the sky from the sky  
I'm teaching 8 classes: four sections of Freshmen Pronunciation and four more of Junior Oral Spoken English. I also have office hours and English corner, the random speech contest and the occasional D list celebrity appearance to make. But this year I'm also the layout editor for the Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment internal Peace Corps China Newsletter, the training coordinator for the peer support group Volunteers Serving Volunteers, a charter consultant for an LGBTQ group within Peace Corps China, and I've been attempting to apply to graduate programs and teaching positions outside of the lower 48.
In my free time I've been re-blogging a lot of pictures, reading books and hanging out on Wechat with anybody who's cool enough to have that app.

So, the question of course is 'will I ever get back to you on the subjects mentioned above?' I mean, mabes, but there's just so much here and now--and so much more music to play.

 And as to moral of the story, I suppose it is that sometimes you've got to skip right to the chapters you want to read, to the person you really want to be. Or be seen as. Or be seen with.

Cheers before beers, my sweetlings. Off to boldly go...


Dear NASA, please stop.

I am of an age when there are very few joys left to me. I’m too old for space camp, Jane Goodall’s too old to need me as her intern, and if I wanted to be an astronaut I should have made better friends with math and gone to space camp before I was too old!
Yet I’ve never seen a good reason to stay tethered to this earth. After a father-daughter trip to the Planetarium at the Boston Museum of Science, I offered to take a walkie-talkie into a black hole and radio back what was on the other side. I was actually a little surprised that no one had thought to do that sooner. I should have been mad at the head pat and chuckle my bravery elicited from my step-father but then again...

Without being too self-deprecating I can safely say that I’ve been coasting through life on privilege, entitlement and an amazing sound track of party anthems and sad-for-myself-songs. 

I’m the proverbial cricket surrounded by all you damn ants and in my crooked smile lazy way, I’ve sort of always assumed that although I’ve put  my Chapstick through the wash countless times over the last few years, weeks, colonies are going to need warm healthy bodies to terraform the lands and write long form epic poems about our last days on earth. I mean obviously.

Question I might ask myself as I brush my teeth: Would I trade any lovers, successes on the job or potential offspring for a chance to eat freeze dried ‘space’ ice cream, guilt free on the reg, at zero g’s—absolutely. 

Truth be told, I'd think I’d make a comely redshirt--and the requirements can’t stretch largely beyond wanting to go and not being a convicted felon, right?
[From the PA]
This deck is being sealed off—death by emulsion immanent.
And me and all of my willing compadres would be like, sure, great, as long as the command team is safe on the bridge!

But really tho, I figured as long as I kept doing push ups,  crunches and the occasional run and I’d simply answer the call when it came.

Then I read this drivel about how extroverts will be terrible colonists and shipmates and I just want to punch a face off a face!

First of all—current post notwithstanding,  I’m not the kind of extrovert that has to post articles about how hard it is to be socially awesome because... well,  it isn’t. Or at least, it hasn’t been hard since I stopped needing to be a class clown.  

Secondly, I LOVE small spaces. My blood pressure goes up in a fun way when I think about how much I enjoy being in a one person tent as it rains—all safe and snuggled into my sleeping sac. 

Thirdly, I am pretty good at entertaining myself. I make pictures. I make songs. I write about the deep dark darkness of my heart—I’m basically this cartoon.

And finally, although I do like people, sometimes I just want to be by myself for days.
Check out this tweet, published 12 hours before the article went live, and 3 days before I read it:

 For real, I am the queen of breaking off plans.  People are like, dude last night ok, at like 4 in the morning, you were adamant that you wanted to go hiking at 7 am today. And I just look at them like:

Listen, I can’t help that I enjoy the company of others, but if that matters then the fact that I am used to being ignored by those I want to impress or be loved by should count for something as well. Plus, I am seriously good at packing. Most recently, I brought rope with me on an overnight hike and we totally used it within the first hour of said hike.
Specifically, concerning the article: The sample size was small and anecdotal. More testing! I volunteer! NASA, seriously...seriously, NASA...you want my cute butt in one of those adult daipers almost as much as I do. Here check out this  Go-Pro footage I shot from my first mission to Mars back in 2009:


The Anthropological Significance of Carrying a Watermelon

Any time someone, up to and including the Peace Corps director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, has asked me,
I’ve told them earnestly that I've wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer since I was a small child. Yet as anything else that gets said over and over again, eventually it can start to sound strange...

For instance: Why would a five year old be talked to about the Peace Corps anyhow?

My mother for one, wanted no part of it. I was given a choice at that age, I could be a doctor or a lawyer. I chose lawyer because doctors are rarely depicted in television with their feet on their desks. I set my first office up in the laundry room with great success. According to Car Talk, the law firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe was taken so I wrote "my office" in blue pen on a piece of plywood that also served as my cubical wall.

Recently, I started to think that I may have gotten interested in the Peace Corps much later. Time can feel very elastic for me, maybe I just felt younger in my memory. I can recall quite vividly, for instance, that my principal made a big impression on me when he revealed he was an RPCV from Zambia. Not just because it meant that this authority figure with a Wario mustache was once a twenty-something dude who went through reverse culture shock, but also because he taught Animal Farm under a dictatorship. He was as impressed with me for understanding the significance of his doing so as I was for his bravery. Teachers had power was that lesson...maybe I'd first heard of the Peace Corps then?

It wasn’t until I started watching Dirty Dancing with my American Film and culture class that a few things started falling into place...during the opening scene...

YES. This was it! I teared up when I saw this hug! Mannn, I loved my dad so much. We had matching pink polo shirts and I felt like a boss any time we wore them around town together. I'm sure that I latched on to the the latter detail  and the Peace Corps line planted a seed.
This was an important film for me and has been different each time I've seen it. It was hilarious right before I left for college when I realized Robby the waiter was the kind of douche who reads Ayn Rand--it makes so much sense! And I didn't notice how condescending Neil (the boss man) was towards Baby when he asks her if she was going to study English until this go through. 
A lot of my older analysis still applied...

But what is watching Dirty Dancing like for 18 and 19 year-olds living in modern day China? 
I can't speak for all of them, but I can tell you that my quest for universal truth has lead me to this understanding: all students, everywhere, invariably love writing on big pieces of paper. 
So I set out humongous sheets of paper and had them walk around in small groups answering questions. Presented without edits for grammar or otherwise are the questions and the anonymous responses of my 26 students. 
Prompt 1: Write things you liked about the film:
"The main actor is in muscular frame."
"I like the dance at pretending sex" 
"The music in the movie." 
"Their pure love regardless of class and social status." 
"We can see the diligence and honesty of the woman" 
"The plot that the father mistakenly though that Johnny abandoned the female dancer after knocked her up."
"The scene where Baby and Johnny practiced lifting in the lake."
"The brave of baby"
"The understanding of their family."
"The Final Dancing is very successful"
"The leading man is handsome, sexy. I like his muscles."
"The heroine's father (kind, wise, handsome.)"
"Her haircut. (very fashion) cute."
"Happy Ending"
"The heroin is the same old with us. We can feel her inner thoughts actually."
Prompt 2: Write things you didn't like about it:
"The plot is not so interesting."
"The clothing is not beautiful."
"There is no handsome guy in the movie. (Too ugly the actor)"
"There is no pretty girl in the movie."
"Their dances are too dirty."
"Their love developed so fast."
"The film is out of style"
"The hair of Baby is terrible"
"Too many rude words."
"The size of Baby's breast is small (A cup)"
"The song was too noisy"
"The figures in the movies is so barefaced and according to our Chinese culture, we can't accept that crazy atmosphere."
"It's too traditional"
"At first, the parents are stubborn."
"The dancing style is too open for some people."
"We can guess the ending which are very common."
Prompt 3: Write about how the movie presents a world similar to China today:
"Her father interferes his daughter's private life."
"Young people tend to have a passion for new things they like."
"To be a male dancer in the bar or club is not very respectable."
"It's hard for two from different classes to have their love accepted."
"Rich people have money and time to go on vacation."
"The poor people are tend to be looked down upon by rich people."
"Someone working at art are always looked down upon."
"Doctors have high status in both countries."
"The fathers in both countries have more power to make decisions."
"The young teenagers want to be free, and they don't want to be controlled by their families."
"In some people's opinion, dancers are not a stable job."
"The parents are strict with their children."
"The barrier is always father."
Prompt 4: Write about how the movie and China today are different:
"They have clear stratification."
"Sexual life is abundant"
"Their clothes and cars are outdated."
"Today China's clothes are more fashionable."
"Chinese society conservative timid be busy with life and pressure."
"Work at the thing they want [verses] be forced to spend time on something we actually have no interest."
"When Chinese people attend a party they seldom danced."
"Not many Chinese know how to dance."
"Chinese doctors don't have as high status as western."
"The Chinese parents are so conservative that this couple will finally die because of love."
"Chinese won't have such haircut as the girl."
"Chinese girls today are less likely to have sex before getting married."

And a good time was had by all! So glad I get to be with this gang again next year.
Over and outty 500.


On the Lawn with Strawberry Slush

China is never too shy to teach me; just yesterday a lesson was made possible by an email I wrote to my student, "Dang! I have a conference call in the morning so I won't be able to pick up the meat!" And he wrote back, "My name is Deng. I know you are learning Chinese so here is the Character..."
We settled it in person when he showed up with the meat.
For my secondary project which all Peace Corps volunteers must do, I've decided to creat a youtube/youku channel where my students cook traditional Chinese dishes. They loved the idea because there is a very popular show on right now called, Bite of China. So far we have two episodes in post production. 

This is the first weekend in over a month that Seb and I haven't been back to the city. Making memories is exhausting.

We've been camping, hiking, s’moring, snoring, drinking, playing and tournament-ing. I really enjoy being there and seeing all of our friends, especially the 18s who will be starting their new adventures elsewhere soon, but there is a lot of installing and dismantling that has to occur when you stay in a hotel room every weekend.

 We've lost many an item in the fray that is the to and fro and I think I deserve to spend a little time alone with our plants and my desk. 

You like my lock-screen image? Yeah, I've been making a lot of easy graphic design type stuff lately including these images:

It's cool that I'm getting better at this sort of meow meow because I'm the new layout editor for The Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Peace Corps Newsletter. Should be fun once I read the desktop publishing manual.

My oral classes are going crazy well; I've been taking them across the US one class session at a time and we've talked about every little piece of Americana that I can—from BBQ, to the Amish, to the foundation of hip hop, to Brunch, and to our last class meeting where we talked about county fairs.
I am not going to lie, hearing them plan a trip to Cape Cod’s county fair made me almost as nostalgic as the walk I took the other night where I could smell the tall summer grass. It's strange because I never remember the county fair being fun. My mom would make us walk around to all the craft tents and stuff before we hit the rides, which meant that the first half of the day was miserable for her and the second half was miserable for me. (The inverse was also true.)These experiences were so impacting that it coined the personal idiom, "I didn't come all the way to the county fair just to hangout at the craft tents." Which feels less obvious in it's meaning now, but was intended to be analogues to the sort of thing that gets said in masculine fonts during a red bull advertisement.
Anyway, I think I should experience it as an adult and bring my mother so we can do all the old lady crap she's always loved and maybe I can try some of that fried weird stuff I distained my whole life for being too American.
Things are far from great in the US socio-political front but it really feels like we're living in a time where signals are getting boosted and opinions are getting traction that have been deserved to be heard for a long time. Take this N.E.R.D cover

Zero Backlash.
But just recently, Pharrell Williams had to apologize for this Elle cover.

Yes, the second one is more flagrant but I definitely saw the first one and was like...Ugh, I might not put that in my Ipod.
Or during our in-service training where we had a closed LGBTQ group, Closed P.O.C. group and an open Asian American group sessions respectively. Ten years ago understanding that these groups would have things they needed to discuss in privet was at the frontlines of radical. I'm so glad to see them seeping into the mainstream.
I have to remember things like the Sisters of the Sun episode of Cosmos or the fact that video blogs like Anita Sarkeesian can have an impact on equality when I get discouraged about where we are and how far we need to go.
But I need to go, because this ice coffee I just made needs its own fandom.


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? 


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.

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


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...