Most of the Time

There is always a problem dealing with the courtesy and generosity here. It’s not that they’re not friendly, it’s not that they aren’t generous, it’s that they are too friendly, too generous. I go with it most of the time, but other times I just have to deal with it. From my perspective, there are two real problems with this extreme, at least in the way it fills the society here.

The first is mostly just an annoyance, that the generosity never stops. The first time I go to your home to eat, I can understand wanting to put on airs. You want to make a good impression, this is your home, your food, your life. You never want someone to come in and feel bad or awkward in your home. But after the fourth or fifth time, you should relax. The closest my friends have come to relaxing about that custom is to stop offering me a cigarette every time they smoke. They still do sometimes, but not every time.

Part of it is just the lack of awareness. Having them still asking about a wife that doesn’t exist, or if I am in love with every female that happens to be near me gets old fast. In Mexico it’s a joke. Here, it’s just a lack of belief that I could be happy alone. I’ve had it explained in detail to me by one of my Chinese friends this week, that the best he could wish for me is a traditional Chinese form of happiness with a good wife. Even while saying he understood it is not as important to me, he still could only wish that I have his form of happiness, as though no other choice existed.

I appreciate the sentiment, to want me to be happy, but there is no concept of “to each their own.” It seems a common thread that they don’t know any other way to be polite, that personal space and the word “no” have no meaning.

Most of the time, I am fine with it. Repetition is good practice for my Chinese, but I have been feeling off the last couple of days, something I ate maybe, and every time I moved a little further away so my friend wouldn’t be physically touching me while he smoked, he would move closer. I tried to drink beer instead of liquor, but my stomach wasn’t having it. He believed that was a good time to get out the baijiu with dead scorpions in it. Every sip of tea was instantly refilled. Every refusal of food was ignored.

I told them I wasn’t feeling well, but I think, in a way, it made the behavior worse. Since they could not fix the problem, they went after the discomfort. Unfortunately, the only way they had to deal with the discomfort was more food and alcohol. Since there is no concept of space, there isn’t the understanding that someone who isn’t feeling well should be left alone. They should be taken care of. Normally, it is a wonderful sentiment, a beautiful kindness. Except when you aren’t feeling well and you are the target.

Most of the time, this is one of the things I love most about the culture here, the generosity. People fighting to pay for things, to do things for others. Normally I would say it is something the world needs more of. But at a certain point, it feels like it has nothing to do with me, what I want, what I need. It is an issue of pride, and control. That you know what is best for your guests, not them. That you must offer so you don’t look bad in front of others.

That brings us to the problem of the second extreme. When everything is done for you, you never learn to do it for yourself. That’s why so many people never learn to cook anymore, because buying food is so much easier. Most of the time, that is the best policy. Why learn computers when someone else will do it for you? Why learn medicine when there are doctors? Social intelligence, the benefit of being part of a large society is that you only need to do a fraction of the work to gain the benefits. Without it, most of us couldn’t find or produce enough food to get through the year.

But it is a bigger problem when everything is managed for you. My Chinese teacher was asking about the dangers of sending her daughter to America or England to study. The biggest danger to her is that she has no reference point for the dangers she will face.

We learn in high school about peer pressure, social difficulties, drugs, alcohol, and all the cultural problems we have. A lot of people never apply that knowledge until college, but there is a background, a reference point when someone offers you something you don’t want. Here, that refusal is ignored. When one person smokes, everyone smokes. When one person drinks, everyone drinks. If I say no at a party, there might be one person pushy enough to not leave it alone, but we get used to saying no. It gets easier to stand your ground over time, but when you never learn that “no” is not something that should be ignored, you have a much deeper problem.

More than enough college students suffer through hazing, or drinking because their friends are, or suffer because of drugs, and we are culturally trained to be individuals. The topic of sexual assault, where “no” has been ignored for so long is finally coming to a point where it isn’t, and that took decades. How do you say no when you never learn to hold to your convictions?

I’m not saying they will never learn, or that their generosity is a bad thing, but the extreme ends of anything are dangerous. One of my friends will go to Curtis in Philadelphia in a year or so. I help him practice English, but the best thing I think I can do for him is to give him an idea of what he might face. I don’t know what the policy is on marijuana there, but I know enough musicians to know it will be around. Even cigarettes and alcohol, which have no age restriction here, can cause problems. And if you’re on a visa, the repercussions can easily be deportation.

I would never tell someone these things if they weren’t planning to leave China. Here, these are the cultural norm, and the society is built to handle the problems that come with them. I have problems with them because I am not Chinese, so I will never handle the culture as well as a native. The same goes for people here when they leave. Take someone and put them into a completely new culture and you can see where the edges don’t fit anymore. I think I am good at adapting to new places, new cultures, new rules, but we all have our edges and our bad days.

Posted in 2018-07, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


Whenever I find myself following too much of a pattern, I tend to start to resist it. Patterns tend to be boring, not necessarily in itself, but I find myself getting bored. Sometimes I just change the details, sometimes I move around the world. The problem here is finding myself in patterns I’m not sure I should break.

Patterns are necessary to learning. All of kung fu is just training your body to patterns, so that when something happens, your body reacts as you spent all those years training it to. Sometimes with your direction, but the goal is for the body to be faster than the mind. To react faster than either you or your opponent can deal with under normal circumstances.

The same idea is in effect with spoken language. To have your brain send the information you want without delay or translation. For your brain to simply react before you really ask it what the word are, or how to explain what you want. Patterns for grammar, for vocabulary, for dialects spoken across continents. Patterns are necessary.

I just have issues with them. I can repeat patterns, over and over. Kung fu, language, meditation, work, everything has patterns. Some I have to follow, work being the primary. The rest, are choices.

I always enjoyed humor, telling jokes, making people laugh, simple, complicated, clean, vulgar, it really only depends on the audience. It’s harder in a new language, at least until you get to the point where you can make your mistakes funny. It was easier in Mexico, but I knew the culture better, and insults and wordplay are almost natural parts of their language.

Most jokes require a pattern in their chaos. To follow the ordinary until the end, then break off to something completely wrong or insane. To distort the view of something completely normal. To use the basic patterns of language and culture to take people to places they would never go on their own, but always somewhere safe. Even as dangerous as it may feel, when jokes cross the line we can feel it. It varies from person to person, but the pattern is there. The patterns we know, and the ones we don’t.

I always worried about getting too set in my patterns. That if I became too predictable I wouldn’t be funny anymore. I never wanted to work the stage, but humor, the connection laughter brings is important to me. I don’t like a big audience, but an audience of a few people is a great thing. I think that runs in the family. The desire to connect to an audience, the pride in making other people laugh, and in keeping a straight face while doing it. The few people I have found who can make me laugh too are the most valuable thing I have in my life.

But, even that is a pattern. The Emmisary. Ten Minutes and the Guard. My oldest friends, all at a distance now. I keep in touch, sometimes. I was always bad at that. But trying to keep the pattern is so much harder with continents between us. But now I am here, with new friends, and work to do, always forming new patterns.

For a while it was an endless series of work, exercise, and sleep. Then, the coteaching ended and there was a massive change. So, I tried to continue some of them, to keep the excessive exercise schedule for as long as I could. But it’s hard to hold on to a pattern when so many fragments fall away. Oddly enough, I fell back into the old patterns of videogames and pizza, but I can’t really afford either here.

I have been filling my time as much as I can, and building new patterns as it suits me, but I’m not really sure where to go. To repeat the pattern of this school, feast and famine, the complete lack of schedule, the things that I have been planning, or to find new patterns. I am still limited to my work schedule, but there are other things to be changed. Other things to make life less predictable. But there is always the competition between the patterns and the chaos. Do I reinforce the learning, or find something new? It doesn’t really matter which choice I make, I know it won’t be long before I change it again.

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

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