Oncoming Spring

There is a common question here, one that took me a bit to really figure out. 回家吗?Did you go home? There rarely is any real context, so the first time I was asked I still thought of home as here. I came home a couple weeks ago. But the people here are talking about going back to the States. What home means to me is just where I’m living, the place, not a place to go back to. Even going back to the States won’t happen for a couple years.

Now that the cold is fading and the people are filtering back in, Lanzhou feels like a completely different place. A few of the places I used to love are gone, replaced or maybe just not back from the holiday yet. I’ve still been cooking at home a lot, but part of that is just because I have to find new restaurants to eat at. It’s frustrating to have to start finding favorites again without the benefit of moving to a new country.

A lot has changed here, not the overview, just the details. There is a bridge outside the south gate of the school that used to almost completely block the sidewalk. It was way too big, and people ignore it and just walk through traffic instead. Fortunately, it was put on the slate to be fixed. By fixed, I mean they cut out the middle section and squeezed the edges together. Now the stairs going up are much smaller, and still virtually unused. But it is much easier to walk around though.

The construction continues here, and it probably won’t end in this area until after I am gone. The coming subway, the buildings going up, if you count all of it I doubt it will ever end. Having a subway here would make things so much easier to deal with. Just being able to avoid the traffic for a while would be nice.

Even on good days walking in the city is never easy. The buildings block the skyline, and the sunrise and sunset can barely be seen, at least from my vantage point. It would be nice to have an upper floor at some point, something with a view. The mountains have been beautiful in the haze, and as spring goes on there should be some vegetation growing at some point.

It’s good to be back home, cool dry air leading into Spring. I’m only teaching about 6 hours a week here, but I’m sure there will be more coteaching as time goes on. The freshmen are still at this campus for one more semester, so I might get lucky and not have to travel as much as before. I fade between anxiety about my classes and fascination with the potential. I can teach anything I want, really. My only instruction has been to get the students to speak more.

Nothning is ever really set here until the last moment, but at least there is always something to learn. With the open lesson plan here I also can practice and teach anything I want to learn. There is still so much I haven’t done, and so many things I can try to get the students focused. I think it’s going to be an interesting semester.

Posted in 2018-03, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Warm Days and Fireworks

I’m back in Lanzhou, but it’s like a different city all together. The weather is warm, almost too warm with the heat still on. The sky is mostly clear, and it feels completely different. The cold seemed endless, and there was never a time when I really felt rested. The cold seeps in, making me tired, and worn. With the sun out, it feels like a new place.

I have been back for a week and a half, and the city is slowly filling back up with people. The campus is still mostly empty, but more than half of the stores are open again. Tonight is the lantern festival, so hopefully this weekend everything will be back.

I finally found out my schedule for the next semester, and it looks like it will be the same as last semester. There is an extra cotaught class that I have picked up, but that is just something new to learn. I will teach the oral English part of the class for the IETSL. Since the students all want to go to Australia and the class is a bit smaller, I should be able to push them more. At the very least I know I will learn a lot from this class.

Some of the other volunteers and I went up Lanshan 兰山, the same mountain I went up back in October. The day was cool, but compared to what it had been it was beautiful. It was a slow hike, with lots of talking and resting, more like wandering up the mountain. We hit the top and walked through the empty walkways and open squares, so quiet and peaceful. As we neared the other side, looking for a way to hike back down, we began to get hounded by dogs. Small scrappy street dogs at first, but the German Shepard made us fall back, half worried, half laughing.

We doubled back and found an old dirt trail past an unofficial dump then through the trees and back down to the road. There were still a lot of places covered in ice left over from the colder days, but they vanished quickly once the shade ended. It feels like Lanzhou will be a lot like Guadalajara when summer comes, a bit of scorching heat in the sun and a bit freezing in the shade.

It’s good to be back out with friends, after relaxing at home for a week. I did wind up joining a gym, if for no other reason than to get out of the house every day for a while. There are all these things I can do to practice alone, but without a gym, a place to go, I never seem to get around to it. It’s too easy to get distracted by things important and irrelevant.

There is a lot to do here, projects and planning, but it’s easy to wait, or to get distracted. Things can fall through the cracks, either because there is no time for it to be done, or simply because everyone is too busy to really get involved. This semester the freshmen will still be at this campus, but by next semester all the teachers and freshmen are expected to be moved into their quarters on the new campus. I think it’s going to get much quieter here in the future, but there really is no way to know for sure.

The warm days and fireworks bursting outside have changed my outlook on things here. I never had a problem with the chaos, but I didn’t realize how much the cold limited me until the sun was out and there were people in the streets again. It makes it so much easier to start the new year here at home.


Posted in 2018-03, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Small Town China

Small town China is strange. What they consider small here is less than 3 million people, but still with towering apartment and office buildings identical to the new parts of Lanzhou and Chengdu. The streets are much wider, and the sidewalks are as big as the streets. I guess with less land to cover they were able to go back to square one and rebuild the roads completely.

In Shangqiu 商丘 there was still a small town feel to it, despite the massive buildings. A few blocks from the hotel there was a carnival, like something Belmont Park in California. A few small rollercoasters, endless stalls of food and games, cotton candy, rides, and a small park to relax in. Elsewhere the was a manmade lake with old carnival style boats, like giant plastic animals or military boats. It had a certain beauty to it, but there was always something unrealistic about it. The carnivals of my youth aren’t as fascinating as they once were.
Most of the time there was spent with my friend’s family, eating and listening. Every new place I go I have trouble with the accent. In Guilin I spent two weeks discussing Chinese history during the time of the Opium Wars, but in Henan I couldn’t understand more than a word here and there. I still always seem to understand “ting bu dong,” though. It translates as “don’t understand.”

Some of the food was really good, simple home cooked meals, but it’s odd having everyone in the family checking to be sure you have enough to eat, and pushing you to eat long after you are full. They did give up on trying to serve me alcohol pretty quickly compared to Chengdu. I could still toast with tea and everyone seemed happy.

In Shangcai 上蔡 there were a lot of meals in restaurants, which were decent enough. There is something about home cooked food that is almost always better than eating out, as long as it’s someone else cooking. Shangcai上蔡 only has about one and a half million people in about a city that only seems to have a four-block radius. The county is mostly farmland centered around another series of the same apartment buildings as every city in China.

I was told there were no coffee shops in the city, but in the end we happened to find one. It was near the only big park, built around the thousand-year gate, a massive monument standing alone. The city was the center of part of the Eastern Henan Front after World War II, but it is hard to find much information on it beyond Wikipedia.

We sat with the family and I spent most of a meal talking to a Doctor from Beijing, discussing differences in medicine and workloads here. Apparently, they have a similar lack of professionals here, sometimes leaving the doctors to work sixteen-hour days.

I was still able to spend time wandering, but it is much stranger in a small town. Outright shock hits many people, and they are constantly staring and taking pictures, sometimes subtly, sometimes talking to you with the only English phrases they know while videoing you. I had gotten used to the few looks and pictures in Lanzhou, but this was a whole other creature.

It felt like being at the eye of a storm, and that paranoia I have from living in Mexico never really let go. Back then if people stare at you, there is a problem, possibly danger. In China, it’s just fascination that a foreigner would be in small town China. Many people had never seen a foreigner before, and others just didn’t expect one outside of the major cities. It was never bad, but I am not an extrovert, and eventually the feeling wears on me.

It was fascinating to see the difference between Lanzhou and Henan, to go from major cities and tourist towns to the middle of farmland. The pigeon petting zoo and the strange rides and dances. There is something here, between the old and the new. There are still the city block wide construction zones and half destroyed buildings waiting for the holiday to end and construction to begin again, but the change still has so much of the old world to it. Something that may survive the renovations and modernization, but I don’t know for sure. I wonder what it will look like next year.

Posted in 2018-02, Shangqiu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


The days were mostly cold, but the sky cleared and we had some beautiful days, like a California winter. Warm sunny days and cold cloudy nights. The sunset never really shone through the clouds that always seemed to come in as the day moved on, but the days were perfect. I alternated between wanting to be with people and wanting to see the city alone.

There were amazing vistas next to extensive construction sites and the city went from modern to aging in a few steps in a way I’ve never seen before. Most of the cities here are under construction, trains, subways, buildings, and any number of city wide eco projects while the rest of the city fades between old and new, but in Guilin it seems that there is no fading. The closest I’ve see was in Mexico City, but there it was clean populated malls a block away from a condemned graffiti covered building. Here, it’s just a renovation.

I wandered around with Firefly in the downtown area near the Indian restaurant and found a short street filled with Guilin specific art. I still have the problem in China where I can’t find any local art. It’s easy to find the same Chinese knickknacks throughout the country, but most of them are the same in every city. There are local teas, foods, a few other things, but rarely handmade art. Most of the shops had machine made art, still beautiful, but nothing special.

The shop in the middle, however, was filled with local art, tied to one of the local universities according to the man inside. It was beautiful, and saddening. I wanted most of what I saw there, but I couldn’t afford it. It was extremely cheap compared to what I would normally spend, but the life of a volunteer doesn’t really support an art collection. For that if nothing else, I have to go back to Guilin one day.

The city had the feel of Mexico in many ways, and I will miss that going forward. There wasn’t enough time to do much of anything, and I wandered rather than looking for kung fu. It was a good time to step back and rest, to think and redirect. I have time to plan out my life to some extent, but I need a more specific direction than I have had in the past. I love the chaos, but I have to move past that some day. Guilin is as good a place to start as any.

Posted in 2018-02, Guilin, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment