It’s been a few years since I had anything like a real thanksgiving, but I really don’t consider that a bad thing. I used to enjoy it, the food, relaxing, talking to friends and family, but we never really had any solid traditions beyond eating. Turkey and gravy, potatoes and rolls. I have been to friends with Mexican traditions, Filipino traditions, simple dinners, complicated feasts, long walks, and always good times. There are things I miss, but there is something great about having again after such a long time away.

We were lucky enough for former volunteers to buy us a turkey, a 14-pound monster that was bigger than the toaster oven I was supposed to cook it in. Yeah, I got stuck with bird duty, but honestly, I think that worked out pretty well in the end. I remembered my Alton Brown and took the bird apart at the joints. I took some flack for not taking pictures of the bird before I took it apart, but it never even occurred to me. Whatever.

I drastically underestimated the amount of seasonings needed so I had to go out for more. It was a good time to get lunch and wander a bit anyways, talking about everything and nothing with the other volunteers. We walked about an hour across Tianshui 天水 to find coffee and grocery store, then I headed back to keep working on the pieces of turkey.

Each pan could only hold two or three pieces, but it cooked in about an hour so the time wasn’t so bad. Just the issue of keeping everything warm until it was all done hours later. There is also the benefit of being able to change the flavor of everything as I went. Dark meat with sage, white meat with rosemary, just garlic on the wings, collecting the drippings as I went to make gravy in the end. I was never really sure if it would work out, like when I draw, it’s never really finished, just abandoned before I ruin it.

It has been a while since most of us have had Turkey. There wasn’t any last year, and even the new volunteers have been eating mostly Chinese food for the last few months. The best part of the night was seeing the beautiful faces light up when they tried the turkey and gravy. That moment is always my favorite, when someone finds something that amazes them, when everything begins to shine.

We spent the night laughing too much, eating too much, staying up too late, and enjoying it completely. There were some amazing moments, like when someone said they didn’t trust me, half-jokingly. Then I convinced them to eat durian cake because they believed me when I said it was mango. The woman who was saddened after dropping her plate, and seeing the joy in her eyes when I replaced her food with a whole turkey leg. She didn’t realize to finish it was a trial of strength. Some philosophy, some stupidity, but all in all a true thanksgiving.

It was hard coming back to Lanzhou, back into the dust storm we have had all week. Everything here is brown, and the air makes it hard to exercise. I have spent too much time indoors, but going out is deeply unpleasant. It has finally started to get harshly cold, and the air tastes like sand. But the memories are still there, and for the first time in a while I really connected to a group. It’s easy to connect to individuals, to students, to teachers, but days like that are what remind me that I am part of something more.

Posted in 2018-12, Lanzhou, Tianshui, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond the Horizon

It has finally begun to get cold here, with a little snow, and a few brisk days. I think my body is trying to hibernate again, but it is nowhere near as cold as it was last year. It’s almost nice, but I still find myself sleeping too much and making excuses to stay in and cook rather than travel out and buy food. It can be more expensive, but it is rare that I will cook something I don’t want to eat.

I think my problem recently has been inertia. I tend to keep doing whatever it is that I am doing, resting and sleeping, or working and exercising. It was easy to go to the gym every day when I was working all the time. I was already out, so I just stayed out. Now that I am barely working, it is easier to just stay in. It’s not entirely lazy, I just have trouble shifting between high and low energy. And it feels so good to stay in and sleep the morning away.

I picked up a new class at least, medical English. It’s comparatively basic for me, but the students have an endless amount of difficulty with it. I did discover that the concept of study groups does not exist here. The students always study alone, or ask a friend as the very last option. I didn’t think it would be possible for so many students to finish medical school without a few friends to process the information with, but it really does explain a number of the holes in their learning.

I knew they don’t like to speak English to each other, because they believe if they can’t be perfect, they shouldn’t try at all. I feel the same way about cleaning, so I hire someone else to do it for me. But this is school, and you cannot advance if you never fail. You can’t be better if you don’t know your flaws. Like I know that if I read a page of a textbook I have to go back at least twice because my mind got bored and wandered off. I can’t imagine the thousands of pages they have to cover without checking to see if my ears have started leaking spinal fluid.

They work hard, but there is something important to be said about working smarter. Changing the way we work and study to find something better. But I am standing against the tide here, and the society will not change easily. It is easy to see why people get frustrated here, when the hope fades and they see most of their effort fades into nothingness. But that has never bothered me.

The most important things I do here is for the few, not the many. The few students who learn what I have to teach and shine. The few that are happier for my time here. The few that really try to make my hopes into reality. I can’t change China, but the people here can. They can help others, and that can cascade into more. I don’t really care if I am remembered or not, only that I do some good for those few I reach. If only to show them a glimpse of something different.

Sometimes that is the smallest thing. I realized this as my friend stared into a bowl of broccoli I steamed in the microwave with a little salt and pepper. The easiest way to cook vegetables, but he became lost in the possibility. The group of us had a ten-minute conversation about all the different vegetables you can cook that way. He was so amazed that he could actually taste the broccoli. He ate nearly a pound of it and started talking about asking his wife to start cooking it that way. It’s the simple things that amaze people.

There is a weird distortion between the way I see things and the way they truly are here. Like time. I know I am barely teaching, and I almost never need to lesson plan, but time is moving so fast now. I spend long days alone sometimes, but I can’t figure out how they went by so fast. I am almost at rest, but everything feels rushed. I have the better part of a year left, but I know it will be over before I will ever be ready. Two years is nothing, and yet it’s such a long time to be here.

I still have things I want to do, places I want to see, but there really isn’t enough time. I don’t know if there will ever be enough time, but I can still hope. There are still meals to be had, and memories to be made. More times like tonight, with my friends sitting around trying steamed broccoli, candy canes, chocolate pudding, balsamic vinegar, and cheez-its, one after another. Nights of dinners, and Kungfu, of stupid jokes in class, and more goodbyes than I really want to deal with. I’ll even miss the dinners that I made, desperate for something familiar like steak and a salad. And I know there will be more to come in other cities, in places I can’t even imagine yet. Places still beyond the horizon.

Posted in 2018-11, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment


I think what I am looking for is an adventure. The second year here feels old, and I want something new. A new place, new people, maybe a new language. A mountain to climb, a windmill to fight, something. It’s not bad here, I just have trouble finding enthusiasm for so many things I have done before.

I am still learning new things, about China, about myself. My medical students were telling me about being a doctor in China. That sometimes if a diagnosis doesn’t work out some of the older patients can get violent toward the doctor. Not because of mistakes, but because the doctor isn’t magic. That if there is a blood shortage your boss might ask for blood if they know someone who needs it. The lack of value for any psychological help the doctor might give. Everyone has access to health care here, but no system is perfect.

My students tell me that it is getting better, that the hours, the hardships, and the money are all improving. Things change slowly, especially for a country as large as China, but my student still wants his son to be a doctor when he grows up in twenty years. He has faith in the system, in what he has seen as a specialist, in how the younger patients treat the doctors. That it is just the clash between the old generation and the new, that life will get better.

One of the interesting things is that there doesn’t seem to be any one person in charge of the change. Like we have the Surgeon General to work on medical directives and protocol, but my students couldn’t identify the person in charge of the system here. They have faith that the system will improve because of everyone’s efforts, not because of one single person. That society will move in the right direction. Faith in the group above the individual.

I’m not saying everyone here follows that ideal, but it seems to be common enough. I am still used to one person to be at the head, to be named a success or failure based on what happens. Not that it is all of us. As a sociologist, it makes sense, that we do or do not together. That a society is an ocean breaking on the shore. That the individual can’t do much to change it. But I have seen too often a single person in the right place change the world. I don’t know. I guess it’s like I tell my students, every kind of society has its problems.

And some things are just strange. I was walking through a mall toward the Starbucks where my friends were hanging out, and out came a herd of clowns to a techno remix of Phantom of the Opera. Clowns, a couple of people in giant bear costumes, giant inflatable clown costumes. I think it was advertising for a music school. They have clowns painted on the doors of their school, but it is hard to know. Advertising is a bit erratic here.

That is why the two years here, I think. Everything I learned the first year isn’t exactly true. It takes time to get the door open to really look inside. I am always fascinated by the new things I see here, by what is common but would be punished back home. That philosophical questions are never really studied here, or any questions. That self-defense is still violence, and all violence is illegal.

I’ve been reading Joseph Campbell again, about the difference between the Far East and the West, as they were called in his day. All the parts of society and myth that support the individual back home simply don’t exist here. Like after death, we keep our personalities, but they do not. All of who they think they are falls away to reveal they are simply part of the universe. That the group is of value, not the individual. That every society wants a partial person, the doctor rather than a person, whole and complete.

My second year, and it’s easier to see the patterns here, but I do my best to avoid what is right or wrong. Societies function, or they don’t. They exist until replaced, for better or worse. We create them more than they create us, so it’s hard for me to imagine a better world until we become better people. Or at least less complacent and confused.

Posted in 2018-11, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Starting Again…

It’s hard to find a reason to continue everything here. Not like I want to leave, or there is no value to it, but starting again without starting again is hard. I am here a second year, but all my students are new. I have to go through the same explanations again, the same jokes and frustrations. In a new place, I could understand how no one seems to know me, but I have been here a year, and they should have at least heard of me.

I think it’s the annoyance of their endless surprise. That I can speak Chinese, use chopsticks, that I practice Kungfu. The students who tell me how much they missed me after a week, when they have only spoken to me once or twice. Things I have heard keep running through my head. Why are movie stars so much more valuable to our hearts than the scientists that create the future? I write the same old song with a few new lines and everybody wants to hear it. Just cause I please you, you think I’m some kind of perfect man. Fragments of songs, questions, references. What I am is nothing special, but somehow changing social circles has attached me to an idea of who a foreigner is. There is prestige in having a foreign friend, something to show your value.

Then there are the moments that really interest me. When a student asks about music and I just send some possibilities. When they find Pink Floyd and are entranced the way I have always been. The time when students ask about reading practice and I send them some Calvin and Hobbes, and someone asks for more. The students who stay beyond the initial conversation, the photo with the foreign teacher.

Sometimes, I will mess with the students when they are taking the picture, blocking their face or standing in front of them. Sometimes they laugh, which is the goal, to get them to relax. Sometimes they don’t care as long as the picture exists. Like Mike in Monsters Inc., “I’m on the cover of a magazine!” That is the reason we are here for two years, I think, so we can get beyond the first conversation.

The school is done with its assessment now, so they are starting to remember I exist. No more issues with the power, and apparently my passport is ready, even if they forgot to tell me for a week or so. I really don’t blame them, the police came to everyone’s door to see who lived in all the apartments on campus, so I’m sure they went through the admin just as thoroughly. Since the assessment I have been asked to participate in a third English corner, to go to a three-day medical conference in 石家庄, which I don’t know where is, and had several requests for coteaching.

For this, the problem is me. I might become part of the school, like we are supposed to be, but I already built a life here around being without them. I have my friends, my hobbies, and I have more I want to add to it. I don’t really want to spend all my time on the other campus, a world away from all that I have been doing here. There are new options for Kungfu, a teacher practices Baji, which is too hard for my taste. There are other teachers practicing Yang family Taiji, which is not my style. There are students who just want to hang out and talk, but I am looking for something else.

I have done this before, and that is a big part of the problem. I didn’t really know what I have been looking for out here in the world, but I am starting to understand now. Joseph Campbell calls it the experience of living. To think, to feel, to do more than exist. To be part of something greater than yourself. Others talk about life really beginning on the edge, or that the only real hope for us is in discomfort. I think, in a lot of ways I am looking for a fight.

Not just for the sake of fighting, or winning, but the challenge that makes me see the value of life. Not just fighting with fists, but with ideas, words, actions. Something that will wring me out so I can see what’s left. Not just with others, with myself, with the world, culture, everything. Something that challenges how I live and how I think. The people, places, and cultures that might really make me think and feel. For me, I think that will be the second year. Actually part of the school, part of the teacher’s lives maybe. I just hope they don’t drag me into ping pong.

Posted in 2018-10, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment