Bourdain and Quixote

After coming back from Tianshui, I could feel myself starting to shut down. Months of nonstop work, or at least what felt like it was really starting to get to me. I am an extrovert by practice, but an introvert by nature. I have been failing to avoid people ever since the trip. I tried to crash over the weekend, so I bought a couple pizzas and cued up a series of movies I hadn’t had time for before, then I found out my boss was in town.

It was a good night out, relaxing in the park, small talk and analyzing work with another volunteer. My boss took us to a light dinner and we talked some more. It was a perfect evening, except that the introvert in me was still trying to be alone. I walked home and settled in, knowing how busy I would be the next day.

Sunday wasn’t so bad, some exercise and a lot of lounging, then a long dinner with friends. I eat with them a lot, my Hangzhou 杭州 family. In the mornings Blue teaches me kung fu, when I can get myself out of bed. I really want to connect with all of my kung fu friends in the morning, but I hate trying to wake up before seven. Or even before eight. I got some rest, but the part of me that wants to isolate still wasn’t satisfied.

I spent Monday morning at the far end of Lanzhou with a couple of volunteers that will be heading home soon and my boss again. I had never been to that campus, and it was good to see how the other volunteers dealt with their students after two years. Much more causal than anything I can do, but that’s not really a surprise. My medical students are too formal most days.

I headed back and relaxed, but it really wasn’t enough. Sometimes I just want to spend a week alone, or at least have the time to wander around the beach, surf, swim, eat, nap, and repeat. I think in some ways it the remnant of the depression I had for so long, the repetitive pleasure-seeking behavior that is never really enough, I just don’t feel the physical pain that always came with it all those years ago. Now it’s more like extreme laziness.

The middle of the week is still reserved for planning and teaching. There is far less of it, but in a way that makes it harder. When I never really stop I don’t have time to slump into true laziness. There is always a lesson to plan, a class to go to, students who need help, something. Now I can settle in and really procrastinate instead of trying to prepare all my lessons for the rest of the semester and get ahead.

Even after class I have my private medical class and my English corner, both of which are really just conversation classes with my best students. Others come in and out, but only a few consistently have time for it. At this point we talk about anything and nothing. Food to philosophy, sex to psychology. One student is a traditional Chinese medicine major, one is a western doctor specializing in the male reproductive system, one is a western medicine postgrad who is looking to teach one day, and the last is a psychology major. It creates a very strange dynamic with personalities, majors, ages, and genders spread across the spectrum, and it makes great conversation.

I wound up getting a call at seven in the morning on Thursday from a teacher who needed help understanding the story Beggars by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had never read it before, and we spent three and a half hours taking it apart and trying to understand it together. It is not an easy work to understand, and even less so to explain to someone with a Ph.D. in translation and not English Literature, but it was fun trying to understand and to see how much I could read into it. I don’t know if I was right, but the best thing about poetic language is that understanding it is so subjective.

Friday was a day to relax, but there was another dinner with another family. Saturday was taken up by Dungeons and Dragons and dinner with some of the volunteers and my friend who runs a street restaurant nearby. The game was a lot of fun, especially with the drastically different personalities of the players, and dinner was another of those events that is so stressful and relaxing.

I took more than I could eat, then came the obligatory additions from my friend. When I suggested it was too much, she said I chose all of it and waved her fist at me. It’s just like having a real family here, being part of their world, well, as much as I can anyway. My Chinese keeps advancing, but there is still so much to learn.

Sunday came again with the same pattern, but with the shadow of Bourdain’s death over everything. He wasn’t the one who first gave me the idea to travel, but he certainly made it possible. The philosophies, the integration, the acceptance of the weird without the superiority that is so common, the endless places he went and the families he was able to be part of. There isn’t a day that passes that I don’t hear his voice in my head.

Almost every meal reminds me of his time with the tribe in Africa where he ate ostridge egg, unseasoned, cooked in the hot ashes of a dying fire and the intestine of a freshly killed and not really cleaned boar. When you go to someone’s home, you eat what they offer, you say thank you, and you ask for more. No matter how strange or horrifying you find it, this is what they live off of and they are sharing that life with you.

The idea of traveling, as much as you can, to see the world as it is, and as it could be. I never really thought about exploring the US before hearing him talk about travel around the world or across the river. I always though of travel as something that had to take you to the ends of the Earth, and the ends of yourself. All or nothing. How much did I miss because I was afraid or bored of what was so close.

His death made me cry for a moment, which is far more than any other actor’s death. I never really get that invested in them as people, I just try to enjoy their work. His was too personal, too much of what I want to experience. He found the kind of joy and pain I am still looking for. His death doesn’t make me question what I am doing out here really, but now I know absolutely how bad things can get.

When you can have a life like that and still lose your grip, there is something to be said about the darkness we never see. I do my best to accept the pain as a friend, but I don’t know if I will ever be that powerful, to stand up to all the light and dark in the world.

I guess that is the Don Quixote in me, that when a knight falls he rises again, and woe be the wicked. I really don’t think insanity is all that bad of thing anymore, with how insane the world is at times. I just try to hold on to the ideal. To make a world of iron into a world of gold.

Posted in 2018-06, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Usually the Little Things

I think the only problem with Tianshui 天水 was having to leave. The skies were blue, and it was a busy time, but it was an amazing trip. The places I saw and the people I met were wonderful and all of it was exhausting. It was a trip sponsored by the government, so there were speeches and banquets, and a show put on by students at the university we visited.

We started at a farm, but the kind of place where they breed plants and test out growing methods and conditions to improve them. It was a beautiful place, old and filled with covered gardens and old models of rockets. I guess at some point the place was focused more on space flight, but it’s really hard to know.

We ended the tour passing through the mushroom farms and seeing where they make and package milk and yogurt. They told us a story, a rumor passed around Tianshui and Gansu, a story about how beautiful the women of Tianshui are because their skin is so white. It comes from drinking all the milk, called 白娃娃牛奶, white baby milk. It’s usually the little things that are surprising, but this one is printed on all the milk they sell. Personally, I think the processing and boxing of it ruins the flavor.

We went back to the hotel and spent the evening eating and being treated to an art exhibition in the hotel. One of the artists is on the board of the hotel we stayed in, and the work he did was beautiful. There were others, but after a long day I had a headache and headed to bed early, but the gift of a hand painted scrip made it more than worth the pain.

The next day we went outside the city to the mountains, where everything was green. It was hard to believe it was still Gansu, just a few hours drive from Lanzhou. Here, almost everything is brown, and even the leaves turn dark quickly. I have heard about the fruit in Tianshui, and now I am pretty sure where most ours comes from. They have a bit more variety, and far more volume in the street markets there. It lasted a lot longer too. When I buy cherries in Lanzhou, they usually don’t last more than a day before they start to brown.

We headed up to a small mountain outside the city called the Maiji Caves. It is covered with Buddhist carvings, statues, and caves, most of the locked and protected from the elements. Time and visitors have worn down the carvings, and over the years earthquakes have taken their toll. There are still caves locked away and protected, and as guests we were allowed to enter a couple of them.

They were dark and cold, but there was a feeling there, something old, something near the edges. It was a quiet place, even with all the people in it. There was just something about it, a place that truly felt peaceful. It’s been a long time since I really studied Buddhism, but it’s always hard to find the right teacher.

After lunch we went to Tianshui Normal University. Normal is what they call the Universities where the focus is on producing English Teachers. I always thought it was an odd name for it, something old that I have never heard in the States. I’ve never really met a teacher that I would consider normal. Boring maybe, but not normal.

I spent the evening with the other volunteers and a physicist from Ukraine. There was talk of using a ion beam focused with magnetic lenses to kill individual cancer cells in patients and a couple games of Uno. It was a good night of light drinking, especially since most of the beer I’ve had here is 2.5% alcohol.

We spent time at FuXi temple the next morning, where the founder of Chinese culture once lived. It’s a beautiful temple, rebuilt many times over the millennia. It was beautiful, and still had the feel of the old world, even though it was well maintained. It was the kind of place I would just visit to wander in the peace and quiet. And at the end, there was a museum of the works of Pablo Picasso, the last artist I would expect to find there. Like I said, it’s usually the little things that are so surprising.

Posted in 2018-06, Tianshui, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Competition in Tongwei 通渭

I don’t know why I asked, I just happened to see a message in my kung fu group about a wushu competition in Tongwei 通渭. I didn’t really ask where it was, or details, it just came out. I didn’t think I really had time either, but why am I here if not to see something awesome.

Tongwei is southeast of Lanzhou, only about an hour by high speed rail, but that’s not where I wound up going. They picked me up in a car and we went to a local school to meet some of the masters. We talked, as much as I could, and we had tea. Everyone wanted a picture taken with me. It is interesting, but it’s hard to feel pride in people who care about where you are from before they even ask who you are.

As we got to know each other they became friendlier, talking and laughing, before we set off to the temple. Zhan Long Guan 湛龙观 was outside of a town with no roads. Most of the houses were old enough that they look like they were made of the same material as the earth around them. They faded into the background as the car wove through the mountains, long ago terraced for farming. With the coming of spring, the green of the fields and the trees was a beautiful contrast, occasionally speckled with purple or yellow flowers.

I don’t think many, if any, Americans ever go to that part of China. The photographs were endless, people so happy and awed to see an American. There was a certain honor to it all, and that I can accept because all of us have invested our time in kung fu. I am told that the people of Tongwei love the martial arts, and it was great to be part of that kind of group again. The people in Lanzhou always seem too busy.

The days were sunny and bright, and the food was simple and wonderful. As a guest, I wound up drinking a lot, but not so much that it was more than an edge of drunkenness. The first day wound down with a long dinner and a drinking game I never learned how to play but I still did well enough at.

The night was a bit different. One of the people there was more or less in charge of the event, and I think he booked the entire hotel we were staying at. They were all very friendly, but until they have experience, the local police never know how to deal with a foreigner staying in such a small town.

There were two cops in my room, as well as three of my friends, taking pictures and calling people, trying to figure out the paperwork for having a foreign visitor in their hotel. I think that foreigners are only allowed to stay in certain places, but mostly it’s just that everyone who goes to a hotel gets registered. It didn’t bother me until the police came back after my friends left.

It was hard to communicate with them, but apparently they needed my physical passport so they could xerox a copy for their records. Also not uncommon in hotels here. They take it for a night and return it in the morning. Still stressful, but the police were friendly enough. I just never like dealing with the police in an official capacity.

In the morning, there was no water. It happens in my apartment sometimes too, but it makes it difficult to shave. I’m sure all of the locals are still happy with the pictures of the scruffy foreigner, but I would have liked to look better. The event was only scheduled for the morning, and I spent the time before with my friends, old and new, practicing their forms for presentation. They wanted me to practice too, so I went through what I knew of the Chun family tai chi form, but that is only a bit more than half.

The man in charge gave me a camera, a heavy DSLR, to get what pictures I could since so many people at the event were short enough that I could see over. I wandered, took pictures, and had mine taken in turn. I played with the children after they presented their wushu forms, and eventually they devolved into tapping me and running and feeding me weird foods. I didn’t mind the super sour candy, I never have, but the individually wrapped chicken foot was a no.

We finished off with a decent sized lunch, which is awesome because so many of the meals here are beyond enjoyment by the end. The old man next to me kept me drinking, but their shot glasses were half the size of ours. I finished the last toast and we made our way back to the train station at Tongwei, stopping on the high roads to take pictures of the driver’s hometown.

It was beautiful, and that is so easy to forget here in the big city. There are roses growing on my campus now, huge and bright, but most of Lanzhou is so brown. To see the fields and valleys so close in Gansu if amazing, and just to be part of something so fascinating is why I am here. To see behind walls, places hard to get to…

Posted in 2018-05, Tongwei, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


It’s always the unexpected little things that have the biggest impact on my experience here. Like the joy of having a conversation suddenly switch from basic English to an attempt to explain the human condition. I think my favorite part was that the student began to get cocky about it, questioning how much of a person you could replace before they are not themselves anymore. They never seem to understand that that kind of question was half of my degree, and the center point of most of my hobbies.

He began with a question about what is more important to the body, the heart or the brain. When you study philosophy, it’s not about the answers, it’s about the question and the argument. I am happy to be wrong, it’s usually pretty interesting, but a question like that is too simple not to be torn apart by the exceptions. The man with his skull filled with fluid instead of brain tissue. The commonality of heart transplant surgery. The difficulty of defining death, or consciousness, or humanity.

With any philosophical argument, there are always exceptions to the rule. I think that’s why it always fascinated me as much as physics, the endless possibilities. The bonus is that I don’t have to sit in a lab to study philosophy. I can go anywhere.

That is still the plan, another thing that amazed my student. No, I don’t want to get married and have kids. What will I do when I get old? I don’t know yet. I have to pay back my loans, but looking any farther than that has too many possibilities. Even that could be Shanghai, or the Middle East, or even someplace like Vietnam or Korea. There are always options. Well, at least for now. When I’m old, I’ll find a place I can be useful and work until I die. I wasted too much time already.

There is always a part of me that wants safety, a place to call my own, but I know that when I have it, I’ll just be looking to leave again. Knowing I have to be here for another year is stressful enough, even though it is everything I want it to be. Life is good, but I still have wanderlust.

Then there are the surprises that make no sense, that make me begin to question things. I was teaching a class based on crime and why people in America are so invested in thicker doors and heavier locks, trying to explain why most of our country is not dangerous. I pointed out that the only time I had really been robbed was in Mexico. One of the students asked if he was black.

It made no sense, on any scale. I know that student understood where and when it happened, she is the best speaker in the class. But in the heart of Mexico, they still question the race of the thief. I wonder what we are showing the world that this is what they think of our criminals. I wonder how much of that same sentiment has infected us.

I know there is crime, I know that race is an issue, but out here I can only see the result of the face that we show to the world. Not just today, but who we have been throughout history. The information here is filtered, and a lot of it old, but somehow our problems shine through easier than our beauty.

I try to point my students in the direction where they will see what we can be, directing them to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Rosanne, and Fresh off the Boat instead of just Friends so they can practice, but it’s not much compared to all the movies and news that everyone else sees. From the outside, I guess it’s just easier to see the divide.

That is always the issue with being here. Teaching more than just English, but trying to show them that there is more to us than the face we show the world. At times it seems hopeless, but there are always a few students who ask questions, and begin to internalize what I have been trying to teach. The few give me hope, and the others tell me what I still need to teach them. That one question makes it so much easier to plan for my next class with them.

Posted in 2018-05, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment