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.

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Spires of Guilin

The feeling of this city is completely different than where I have been before. The city feels small, sometimes empty, sometimes crowded. The food is not the best I’ve had in China, but there are good places to be found. But everything is a matter of perspective.

I walked out to the edge of the city, only about half an hour from the hotel, and the perspective completely changes. The buildings hide the endless spires of rock stretching into the haze on the horizon. The wide roads and short buildings feel completely different from the wide farmland on the outskirts of the city. The modern world ends and into the distance there are tiny homes and farmland among the rock spires.

The center of the city is clean, in the way a tourist city must be. The edge is a completely different story. Where the downtown is modern and sleek, the edge is filled with the refuse of an expanding city. Piles of brick and rock left over from construction or still waiting to be used. Broken furniture stacked, or used to build small shacks like the forts I built as a child. In some places piles of garbage wait to be taken away, but have been there long enough to grow weeds. It’s like the modern world came to this place in an avalanche, the center changed completely, but at the edge there is a fine line that shows the damage.

It reminds me of all the renovations I worked on in the past, stripping away the old and leaving it in piles as we rebuilt everything, but on a scale I’d never seen before. I wonder if a city is ever truly done being built or renovated.

I went to the top of Laorenshan, Old Man Mountain, with some friends here. Again, the perspective changes. It was a short hike, but like the ones I loved outside of Taipei. Climbing rocks and dry riverbeds to get to the top. But those trails usually had ropes and ladders for safety. Here, there was only rock. From the top you can see the entire city, like water filling up the spaces between the spires. The sun was out for a bit, but in winter here the clouds seem to come in right before sundown.

The landscape is surreal in it’s beauty, and high above the city there is a feel of peace and quiet. The air is clean, even through the haze and cold of winter. I wish I had more time, and all of my camping gear, but that is not this trip.

This is definitely a place I would come back to, a place where there is always so much more to see and do. I know there are more beautiful places to see here, but during the winter most of them are brown. It feels like a city of secrets, in a lot of ways reminding me of Guadalajara, where the best things are hidden from casual sight.

I find myself looking forward here, more than I usually do. I don’t know if it’s the time I have to think, or the possibilities ahead, but I’m starting to move away from just being. I still want to just wander the world, but I have to begin to prepare for when I can’t anymore. I was never good at planning for the future, but now it seems I have to try. I still have a year and a half left in China, but that time is not as much as it once seemed.


Posted in 2018-02, Guilin, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Two Roads

There is something to choosing consistency over chaos. I still have a year and a half here in China, but time is not what it used to be. Looking forward, time barely seems to move. Looking backward, it’s too easy to see how fast it passed. I’m close to halfway through life, and I still hate planning for the long term.

I practice every style, learn all the languages I can, bouncing from project to project, because, more than anything, I am fascinated by the human condition in all it’s forms. But what of my condition? I can deal with every problem in the short term, but the reality of how short life is, that is not something I want to deal with.

Being alone is easy in the short term. Even here in training, I am surrounded by people, but I go out of my way to move around, working with different people, sharing meals and drinks with others, meeting people I never really had the chance to before. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is still no stability in it. It is impossible to really connect with everyone, but there have been a few people I really got to know. There are others I would want to see more, but I may never see again. That is life, but there really is something missing when you’re alone.

It’s not loneliness, not exactly. Just a kind of emptiness. Something that could have been, or that still might be. There is always the desire for life to be concrete, but even that is a trap. Nothing is solid, nothing lasts. That is what makes it valuable. Every moment is the end.

I had a dream recently that I was about to die, a crash, or explosion I think. I remember thinking that there was no way I could die. I was alone, so I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone my story. How can we die without passing on what has happened? But that is the truth of life. Even the concept of emptiness isn’t guaranteed.

I was sitting with my host family, thinking about which direction to go in. I could continue in the chaos, and I could be happy here. I could find a long-term job somewhere and stay a while, five years, ten, twenty. Building a retirement so I could go back to the chaos afterwards. Sometimes it seems that practicality is just as much a trap as anything.

I avoided close relationships with people because they usually can’t travel with me, and the few people who could, well, so far those relationships don’t seem to have the potential to last. But then, fate makes fools of us all. So strange that I would choose to be alone and still fall into the trap of comfort and stability. What is the value of stability if you sacrifice the freedom you worked so hard for?

There are always more questions for me than answers. I actually prefer it that way. Answers are a dead end, a firm line that doesn’t allow for more questions. When you hold to the answers, it is so hard to change. Holding to questions leaves everything wide open. With the right questions, you have the potential to find new answers as the days pass. Even the right second can change every answer you ever found. Answers fight change.

The training here, and the people too, show me more about what has been going on than I thought it would. Not just with my teaching or my site, but with me. A mirror to my existence here in China. Two roads diverging, and I am still standing where I can go either way.


Posted in 2018-01, Chengdu, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment