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.

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Stories to be Told.

And it just keeps getting busier. I kind of like it, but it would be nice to rest sometimes. There just always seems to be something else going on, some other project or event going on. Last week it was the Peace Corps’ language test, to see if our Chinese has improved at all. Mine has improved a lot, but I don’t know how much it will be reflected in my scores. I don’t particularly care either. It was something to do, and I was able to get together with the other volunteers to hang out for a few hours. It’s more important when I get ready to leave, so I can see what I have learned in the last couple years.

This week there is a speech competition I’m being dragged into. I don’t mind helping, it’s actually a lot of fun. I don’t want to judge the competitions. I don’t have any interest, and I don’t really find that to be useful to anyone. What I see is not what they have ever been taught, and it’s hard to judge when you helped some of the students edit their speeches. We’ll see how it goes on Sunday. I just hope it’s short.

The classes have been better, sometimes. The post graduates still aren’t overly interested in learning, but they are easy to keep in line. The smaller classes are always better, but I wind up talking more than I would like. I’m am not good at teaching listening skills. I just find it boring since the students never ask questions. Trying to teach them the idea that there are no stupid questions never really seems to take hold.

I did receive a care package with Mexican and Indian spices, as well as a new pair of running shoes. I’m getting tired of the same kinds of food every day, but I don’t really have time to venture far enough to find something with more variety. At least if I cook I have leftovers to keep things interesting. And two pounds of Masaca for tortillas is one of the best things ever. The stuff I had before really wasn’t what I wanted, but this is perfect.

I think the only problem is the shoes. Back home I would just wear them until they died, then buy new ones when I could. No hurry, no concern for their survival, just function and replacement. Since they are so hard to get here, I find myself considering how long they will last and what I should save them for. The shoes that work best for kung fu are actually work shoes but walking around campus in them wears down the tread. My running shoes have all but disintegrated, but I don’t want to wear the new ones because they will start to fall apart. It’s almost like I actually care, but then I look and see seven pairs of shoes, all pitch black.

I’m trying to set up a dungeons and dragons group here too. I kind of already did, but the group was too big, so we split between the locals in Gansu and the people who can only meet online. I prefer to play in person, so I took the locals. The other group got together already, mine has not. I’m sure we will, but adding travel time to game time makes it a little harder. I really miss the game, but hopefully I can find a group with my students at least.

The old escape into stories, places that never were. I think that is what taught me most of the skills I use to teach. How to be someone you’re not, especially when I have to be in front of a crowd. Lucius is always there for me. The students ask about religion, and Telis is around. Marius the Drake, Lith the Grey Knight, all personalities that have taught me something I can teach my students. I have gotten so used to trying to think and act in different ways that it’s become easy. That would be one of the best things I could teach my students.

We will see. This weekend is a holiday, but if we start gathering next week then we can have a game that will run almost two years. There are a lot of places to go and stories to write. There has been a story in the back of my mind since Taipei that I never really got to flesh out, elementals and wizards pulling the world apart. If not, the story can wait for another time. In some ways, that was the hardest thing to sacrifice when I left. All the stories, the worlds I no longer can discover. Instead, I chose to explore this one. It’s so much easier, and harder than that ever was. Plenty of stories out here too.

Posted in 2018-04, Lanzhou, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Feast or Famine

Feast or famine, that seems to be the pattern here. A few weeks ago I was bored. Now, there is never enough time. Classes, projects, students, teachers, friends. This job is difficult for an introvert. I am still enjoying it, but I need time to crash and recover. Maybe in June when my schedule drops off again, but I always seem to find more projects.

This last week was probably the busiest I will have. We had a makeup class for Tomb Sweeping Day, a long weekend festival that reminds me of Dia De Los Muertos. It’s more private, more quiet, but it is still a day to remember family members who have died. A lot of my students went home for the holiday, and the ones that were too far or are Muslim spent time with friends, hiking and eating. It’s a holiday we could learn from, a day to remember family.

I spent the weekend with friends, practicing Chinese, eating, and working on my forms. I haven’t had taiji class for a few weeks now because of time of year. My teacher works at a middle school, so he has been pulled into work on Sundays for competitions and makeup days. Weekends are not protected here, and if you are off on Thursday and Friday you work on Sunday.

Classes weren’t too difficult, but they were fairly constant. Especially Wednesday. I was in a classroom for eight hours that day. Harsh, even if a couple of the hours were a conversation class where I didn’t have to do too much. Adding the time I’ve been spending in the gym and there isn’t much time left to do anything. Feast or famine.

I went to dinner with friends a couple of times, once with my xingyiquan teacher and once with a family I buy street food from a lot. I have gotten used to the dinners with my teacher, and it’s getting easier to talk to them every time I see them. I’m told my teacher’s accent is pretty heavy, but I’m getting used to it. They served soup with chicken wings and beef bones, refilled with vegetables to cook after the meat was gone. They kept most of the beef bones for something, except mine. They were softened to the point where I chewed them up to get the flavor out. Apparently that’s not common here.

The other family is from Sichuan, a husband and wife. Their son was out most of the night, but they had a couple of his friends over, two men he met when they were soldiers together. We spent most of the night talking and drinking, playing a very aggressive form of rock paper scissors as a drinking game. I drank more than I wanted to, but I don’t like the alcohol here in general. It’s far more harsh than it needs to be.

The weather has been all over the scale too. There was a dust storm over the holiday weekend, then a snow the next day. The snow came down looking pure white, but it left dirt when it hit the ground and melted. There was no accumulation during the day, the earth didn’t get cold enough until after the sun went down. During the night it built up some, but it melted again when the sun came up. The days were warm, the nights freezing, but now the temperature is dropping again. I’m told it’s like that here in April.

There is always more to tell, every thing I remember leads me to another event. I have been having dinners and lunches with my students from the IELTS class. I made it part of their practice. Partially for me, partially for them. I can’t do it with my other classes because there are just too many students, but this is a way I can connect with them outside the classroom. They are still nervous, but hopefully I can keep trying to make it easier.

There is more, but there always will be. The details, the people, the memories. I collect as much as I can here, but there will never be enough words to really show the life here. But always, in the back of my mind is a phrase I read. “People travel to faraway places to watch in fascination the kind of people they ignore at home.”

Dagobert D. Runes US writer

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