The Textbook

k6755Textbooks have been a constant in my Chinese studies, an element of necessity given the few chances that I have to interact with native speakers.  At the start of my intermediate class in college, I was told that I would have to go out and buy yet another such text, draining my wallet by no small sum.  Unlike many of the other classes, Chinese was not one in which you could get away without the textbook, so I (grudgingly) walked to the bookstore and perused the shelves looking for the prescribed book.

It wasn’t just one book but two, with one containing the text and vocabulary, and the other breaking apart the grammar within each section.  I new what I was looking for, and the characteristic green and white of “A New China” soon appeared in view.  While picking up a package containing the two books bundled in plastic, I found an opened set of the books, used and in slightly rough condition but cheap beyond discussion.
In some respects, I am not a fan of buying used textbooks.  The price is unmatched, no doubt, but money isn’t everything.  Used books from college bookstores invariably seem to have the previous owners thoughts and highlights.  In some cases, I have purchased a used book and found that nearly every page has been highlighted.  The result is simply distraction; I can’t help but compare my thoughts to those of the previous person, or spend time wondering what in the world they were thinking when highlighting certain sections.  I wanted a clean reading experience.  At least I thought I did.

I eagerly opened the book at home, excited for something new and perhaps a bit more challenging than the recently retired book.  I grabbed at a random page within the text, and a set of papers fell out, a notice issued by a Chinese university the previous owner had apparently attended.  The note read like this:


“International students are discouraged from leaving dorms at night.  Recently a foreign student was gang raped while out at bar.”


Simple, succinct and incredibly dark, this little message immediately gave the textbook more character.  Terrible yes, but at that moment far removed.  It was a small piece of another world, locked and forgotten between pages 138 and 139.  I began to look for other potential notes, quickly flipping through the whole.  A napkin fell out, along with another slip of paper, this time partly in Mandarin, and with a secondary translation in English:


“Please take care while crossing the roads.  A student was killed while crossing third ring road”


At the time, I was not at a level where I could understand the content of the non English portion of the message, leaving me only to ponder on this dark notification.  I quickly placed these items aside, and thus the semester began.

As the year moved on, we delved further into the large book.  It seemed the growing complexity of each chapter elicited more thoughts from the previous owner.  I would open new pages and find characters circled, or phrases scribbled into the blank sections at the bottom of each page.   I began to understand the nature of certain marks, particularly circles around sets of characters, signifying the previous owners inability to recognize the encircled shapes.  Over time, I even began to have a little battle with the unknown individual, finding despair when a character would give me trouble, and celebrating when I knew a character that they had circled.  It was a quiet entertaining battle, though at I times I could only wonder, was I studying too much?

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Campers from China!

With the summer almost halfway through, summer camp is in full swing.  Working at one of the most established summer camps in the world has afforded me the opportunity to work with people from a wide variety of countries.  Arriving back to camp on Sunday morning, I was happy to find that we will be hosting a group of several Chinese campers as well as their chaperones for the next two weeks.  Straight from Beijing, they range from the age of five all the way through fourteen.  It is the coolest event of the summer as far as I am concerned.
I do not know what the future holds in terms of my connection to the summer camp world, but over the last few months I have gained an interest in some of the cultural exchange programs that exist between China and the United States (as well as some other countries here and there).  I would like to combine some of the elements of each of the things that I enjoy, which ultimately leads me to look at study abroad programs and cultural immersion.  The current group of campers that we have are here through a Canadian agency who I know little about.  I suspect that they are based out of Vancouver, but I have no solid evidence.  Ideally, I would like to travel to China and recruit staff members to come work in the US, or some other arrangement in which I am taking American students to China for cultural exchange.  Actually that’s not quite true.  Ideally, I would like to write, but this will not pay the bills just yet.
These thoughts on summer camp, and my interest in China have led me to wonder about summer camp in the PRC.  I don’t know a whole lot about such organizations, or if there is even any such tradition within the nation’s history.  I am going to do some research on the subject and see what, if anything, there is to know.  Based on what I know of Chinese parents and their frequent obsession with their Children, I can’t quite picture them sending their kids away for the summer, but then again, I know very little of the subject.  Do Chinese have this remarkable world of summer camp?

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SAFEA1One of aspects of my present job brings me to transport a significant amount of mail each day. Though I am only moving a distance of about 500 feet between two separate building, it is an obnoxious and generally monotonous task. A week or so ago, while picking up a large bin filled with letters and flat packages, I happened upon a large envelope with the worst scribbling that I had encountered in a while (I get a kick out of looking at some of the locations that packages arrive from). Upon flipping the letter over, I realized that it was not in fact scribbles, but rather a large return address done completely in Chinese, not only on top of a huge pile of other letters, but addressed to me.

Sometime in April I had applied to several schools using the CUCAS online application system. Having found that I would need to pay significantly more than I originally though was necessary, I opted not to give them any additional cash and marked another strike to the board of lost transactions. This large envelope, however, was clearly labeled as having been sent from the CUCAS headquarters, and contained a very legitimate acceptance letter and Visa invitation (they said I should apply for the X, though I specified that I wouldn’t be there for such a long duration).

These letters are always a taunt for me. Gaining university acceptance is easy, getting there is not. I simply don’t have the money to make and support such a trip, however much I want to. China has been my goal for three plus years at this point, and I see no way in which it will stop being such. Fact of the matter is simply that I am obsessed. I’ve been reading Zhang Lijia’s “Socialism is Great!”, which expounds the authors feelings of being stuck with a certain path. I do not think I am stuck, but I’ll be damned in the path isn’t difficult. As my laoshi once said, ‘follow the heart and you will find what you are after’. I have found what I am after, I just do not know how to make it mine.

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The Night Market

Neon Light Wangfujing Night MarketI’ve been watching the radar map and waiting for this huge storm to hit.  The map shows the darkest red, right above us, and yet nothing is happening.  I am sorely disappointed.  One of the highlights of my time in Beijing was a trip the world-renowned night market at WangFujing shopping area.  Sometime during the early months of 2008, I had seen a short you tube clip that a travel blogger had created to document his visit to the night market.  I watched in awe as he downed the likes of scorpion, cricket, even sea urchin, providing excellent commentary for each of the terrible yet fascinating snacks.  This video was short, but marked a definitive point in my future goals:  I had to get to China.

Upon arriving in Beijing, I had very little sense of how to find this holy grail of culinary oddities, but was determined to get there by any means necessary.  Though we had talked about riding the subway, taxi became our chosen method of transportation.  I asked the doorman to call a car, and within seconds a taxi was rolling up the driveway.

βββββ Wangfujing Plaza Beijingβββββ

As we pilled in, I remembered all of tales that I had heard about taxis and taxicab culture, most such stories focusing on a ride that could be compared with a vision quest; seven parts terror, three parts religious experience, and all around an adventure to remember.  As the cabby sped through endless traffic, narrowly dodging pedestrians and other vehicles, I was not disappointed.

Wangfujing Beijing Scorpion Night Marketβββββ

Upon arriving at WangFujing, we spent a good bit of time trying to join back up with the other half of our group, whom we had agreed to meet at McDonalds, a prominent establishment along the strip.  The main section of the legendary shopping center is situated on a street that has been closed to traffic.  It is absolutely huge, and the center of all things western merchandise in Beijing, containing all of the top American and European Brands. These were not what I had come to see, but I did find some comfort in having a more familiar meal at the golden arches.  After waiting for our friends to arrive and playing the ignoring game with a persistent beggar, we turned into a side alley and found ourselves within the night market.

Night Market Stand Beijing Wangfujingβββββ

Almost immediately, I found myself in front of a small stand selling deep-fried scorpions, drawn in by the allure of a bucket full of critters and a man happily dipping them into a basin of boiling oil.  For a bit more than a dollar (which I would soon realize was more than I should have paid) I had myself a stick of crispy mini-scorpions, and was preparing for my first taste.  I had tried to strike up some conversation with the chef about the nature of grilling dangerous little insects, but upon asking about whether they could sting, he quickly stopped engaging in conversation.  I was a bit worried as the stingers did not appear to have been removed, but after watching a few other people dig in decided that the risk was probably not that high.

βββββScorpion Wangfujing Night Marketβββββ

Though the texture and shape were a bit disconcerting, the flavor was amazing, especially when we requested a bit of spice.  Cricket, on the other hand, was terrible, tasting as though it had been grilled in motor oil.  I wouldn’t go near anything that looked like a spider.
The night market is not an uncommon establishment in China, and the one in Beijing is particularly well known and easily accessible, making it a frequent stop for tourists.  Despite this fact, I was surprised to find that I still received a considerable number of surprised looks from both vendors and customers around the stands that we visited, some of whom asked where we were visiting from.

Candy Tomato Wangfujing Beijingβββββ

The market itself, in many ways, seemed to cater to a more western crowd, with many stands selling the standard “China town” variety of crap that people place in their homes and cars to feel more in touch with their Asian side.  Miniature Buddhas, incense burners, small recreations of the Terra Cotta warriors from Xi’an and any variety of masks and clothing.  I once again found myself without interest in purchasing anything, but doing so anyway in order to have the opportunity to haggle with the sellers and get a small language boost.

Mallet Wangfujing Night Market BeijingThen, all at once, every one of the vendors and stalls began to close up and turn off their lights,  none early, and none late.  With a movement nothing short of synchronized, the market closed up and we found ourselves back on the glowing main strip of Wangfujing, quickly emptying out and closing for the night.NBA Billboard Wangfujing Beijing China

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The Big Switch

pollutionEconomists have been creating and updating predictions in regard to when China will pass the United States in overall world standing (namely political and economic power). As of this morning, the PRC has been declared to now consume more energy than the United States, about five years ahead of most predictions made by energy consumption analysts. We all knew that this day would come, but the significant decrease in time which it has taken has stirred some fears about the damage done by the U.S. economic crisis.

The concerns that I had when reading this article were not so much focused on the economic significance of this position change, but rather the sheer statement that it makes about the capacities most Americans have to consume fuel. The fact that China, a nation of nearly four times our population, up until this point has used less fuel terrifies me. Additional, the greater portion of fuel that is being used in China is going toward industry. A huge wedge of China’s industry exists simply out of a demand for products on the American business front. Long and short, though we have been surpassed by the Asian giant in fuel consumption, a good portion of their fuel consumption stems from a need to maintain production to feed the American market. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing (though it probably is), and I am by no means an environmentalist. I just spent some time thinking about it, had a small laugh, and went right back to enjoying the things which have today made China the worlds number one energy puller. Now when China begins to rely more heavily on demand from within their own population, that is when I will start to sweat. For your continued reading interest, follow up with this.

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A Web of Voices

google-china-ethics-790476A long while back I wrote a bit about my thoughts on the future of Google in China.  I typed ‘China’ into a basic Google news search this morning to see what might pop up.  I haven’t been keeping up with news on the Asian front for a few months, and only occasionally hear or read any particular story.  With this in mind, I was happy to find that things are basically as I had left them, with a seemingly endless supply of stories focusing on the internet, the great fire wall and the battle over what is becoming the most important market in the digital realm.

βββββHow long will the internet remain the object of focus in the coverage of China’s rise in power?  The internet, in many ways, represents a major aspect of the growth that China has experienced.  With more than 400 million users, Chinese blogs, social networks and online chat groups have become one of the dominant forms of expression for a huge portion of the country, especially among young adults.  Limiting access to some of these sites and options quickly brings about complaint from all of those who view free usage as a basic form of democracy.  In many ways, the constant shifting in open internet usage represents the front line of the ongoing battle over free speech.  The great fire wall changes, the netizens scream about it and the next day hundreds of international newspapers provide coverage.
βββββIt’s not just the Netizens that scream.  Each change in restrictions plays a major role in the power held by search engines and providers.  According to a recent New York Times article, it seems that Baidu (China’s main search engine) has experienced significant growth in users following the negativity that was generated between Google and China earlier this year.  In the last few days, there have been a significant number of reports regarding the blockage of numerous blogs and services similar to twitter.  Although I like the idea of full freedom of speech, I also respect a need to keep such a large population stable.  Change is good, but change too quickly and a breakdown in social order can quickly follow.  As always, this is a much larger thought condensed by a small timeframe, but it does make me think.

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Pleco logoI have no doubt that time is a non-renewable resource.  It is strange to witness how nearly all daily interactions are moderated by such an untouchable force.  It cannot be stopped, slowed or even changed, yet we manage to commodaffy each minute like a product on a shelf.  Between my last entry sometime in April and now, the seasons have changed, my plans have shifted, and though I have plenty to write about, I more and more find myself with less time to get the thoughts on the page, and certainly no time for editing.  Commence your typo search.

With the continued challenge of finding time for my own interests, I have been generally concerned for the wellbeing of my language abilities.  The upkeep of a second language is a matter of daily maintenance, of which I just don’t seem to get around to most days.  As such, I gave in and invested in an Ipod touch, which supports an amazing little application called Pleco.  Pleco is a phenomenal electronic dictionary which will not only translate in both directions, but in conjunction with the touch pad employs character recognition, which can be essential in quickly scanning for the meaning of characters (you can always count the individual strokes if you so choose).  Simply draw the character for which you need a definition and the great wonders of technology manage to come up with characters that resemble yours.  The program manages to get it right about 90 percent of the time, and for those that are a bit sloppy, it usually has the correct character in its first 5 suggestions.  Even with a sloppy hand or written at great speed, I have found that I rarely need to rewrite.  For under 200 dollars, it is safe to say that it is the greatest investment I have made this year.  Beyond being incredibly effective and generally accurate, it is a bunch of fun to draw on the pad.  Having spent the last few months cursing the Ipad, I have recently dreamed about how much more effective such a program would be on a large screen.

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The Sport of Photography

Leshan College calligraphy SichuanImmediately following the close of the ceremony, we were given a bit of time to walk around and talk to some of the students and staff that had watched the proceedings.  Finding myself to be in amazingly good spirits, I was eager to try and start conversations with anyone that would talk.  Many people were very shy at first, and most had a good laugh when I tried to start the conversation in Chinese.  “Very good, very good!”, they would say, and then change straight back into English.  Even if my Chinese was better than their English, the greater portion of people that I spoke with didn’t want to remain in their native tongue.

Spademan Chinese Girl Leshan Sichuanβ

A few minutes into this mass-mingling, a girl approached me with a bunch of her friends trailing behind, most of them giggling wildly.  She stood right in front of me, and in very shy English asked the famous question.  “Excuse me, but, handsome boy can take picture with me?”.  Seeing nothing but good times ahead, I said of course and we stood together while her friend pointed the camera, and, with a solid Qiezi! (Transliteration for ‘Cheese’!, this term actually means eggplant), I was imprinted in the memory card of a random Chinese girl.  We looked at the picture for a moment, and then she thanked me profusely for the opportunity.
βLeshan Giant Buddha Chinese Men β

It was as thought the shell of shyness had been broken.  As soon as the first picture had been taken I found myself surrounding by an endless stream of people wanting the same thing.  One person would have their picture taken, then the photographer would quickly change spots with the photographed and the process would begin again.  Handsome boy, qiezi, switch.  On many occasions (as is demonstrated by the later taken picture shown above) a photo that started with a specific set of people often turned into a free-for-all, with many random people gathering into the shot.  Whether these folks knew one another seemed to have little effect on their methods.  They were united by the lens of the camera.  Invariably marked by the signature peace sign, the taking of photographs appeared to be less for the memories and more for the sheer participation in the moment itself.  This was photography as a sport.

βLeshan Sichuan Ceremony gaohan


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The Ceremony

Traditional Tibetan Dance China LeshanIt has grown more and more apparent that a month is far too long of a period to go without writing anything, and I figure that with this day off it would be a great time to end the stretch. Work has kept me quite busy, and by the end of most days writing is about the last thing that I want to do. I’ve been keeping up with the Chinese, though it is rather difficult to do without someone to practice speaking with. I’ve been using QQ (the Chinese equivalent of Instant Messenger) to chat with people in China, which at the very least keeps my sentence structure together.

I never finished writing about the remainder of my time in Leshan, and there are a few amazing moments left that certainly cannot be left out. The greatest of these, without a doubt, is the welcoming ceremony that was held in honor of the arrival of our group. I have been told on many occasions about the love that Chinese have for ceremonies and grand occasions. Our arrival would allow me to witness this firsthand and in large measure. I usually focus on the writing portion of my content, but for this post I think it is the pictures that will really carry the feeling. This ceremony was, in many respects, magical.


Traditional Chinese Music Dulcimerββββββ

In the days leading up to the actual event, we attended a daily class entitled “Classical Chinese Music”. At first, I figured that this would be something like a music appreciation class, but it was immediately apparent that I was wrong. Instead of listening to music, it was explained that we would be learning a famous Chinese song (Mo Li Hua, Jasmine Flower) and performing it at the ceremony. Beyond the obvious difficulties that most people face in singing a song outside of their native language, we were also challenged with the fact that very few of us had any real musical ability (I am certainly not one of them) There was something that seemed almost spectacle like; having a bunch of American students butcher one of the most famous and loved Chinese classics, what more could you ask for?

Traditional Chinese Drum Dance Leshanββββββ


These things aside, we slowly made progress in our musical crash course. After several hours spent trying to remember the song, the rest of the time was spent listening to our teacher tell us we weren’t smiling enough. “Imagine someone that you really love”, she would say. Big smiles, big hearts. Right.

Traditional Chinese Dance Leshan



The day of the ceremony was marked by an excitement which had been growing since our arrival. People everywhere asked us whether or not we were ready to perform our piece, eliciting a nervous grin from most of us who were sure that this day might be our last. The anticipation felt in league with that of a crowd of spectators at a hanging.

We arrived at the music building, the lawn in front of which was arranged as the stage for this great ceremony. Seeing the large number of tables encircling the lawn brought a heightened sense of the number of people that were expected to show up, and really helped to edge on my anxiety. Presidents and administrators from dozens of the top SUNY schools and generally every person of importance at the Leshan Teachers College, a tiny union between American and Chinese academics. In the midst of this sat the eight of us, feeling like animals at a zoo.

Traditional Chinese Dance Leshan Ceremony


The ceremony started with a welcome speech, and transitioned quickly into a myriad of small performances by musicians, acrobats and martial artists. The costumes were amazing, and the level of coordination and choreography that went into the planning of the performances put me into pure aw. With each act, the movements and music became more unbelievable. Then, with little warning, it was suddenly our time to sing. At this point, a very large crowd had gathered to watch, comprised of students that were eager to see the fruition of what appeared to be months of preparation. At best guess, I figured that there were somewhere between 250 to 300 people.

China Traditional  Dance Leshanββββββ


I don’t really remember singing the song. It has become a blur with many aspects of the trip. What I do remember is the feeling of relief that came afterward, as well as my participating in what may be the most complicated dance I have ever seen. I was told that it was a traditional Tibetan dance used to create unions, or to establish friendships.


Fabrizio Traditional Chinese Dance Sichuanββββββ

I can’t speak on the validity of this (it smelled heavily of propaganda), but overall it was the most amazing part of the day. All of the concern that I had about the reception of our group lifted, and the time that followed was filled with great conversations with many of the students, and more photo taking than I would ever want to encounter again. This was a turning point for me, one in which I suddenly felt a greater sense of connection to the people around me and to the trip as a whole. It was a pure joy.

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The Giant Buddha

Leshan Giant Buddha Head Dafo SichuanI recently took a job teaching at an environmental education center, one at which I have worked in the past.  This is great in that I am now gainfully employed, but also means that I have significantly less time to write.  I miss being able to spend the day writing an article, but writing doesn’t really pay the bills, at least not at the moment.

Should you ever go to Leshan, ask a resident to tell you something about their city.  Chances are fair that they will first tell you about Dafo, the world’s largest sitting Buddha carving.  They may also tell you about Guo Moruo, the famed writer who is native to the area, but he doesn’t pull nearly the same weight as the great stone relic.βββββββββββββββββββββββββββββ


Leshan Giant Buddha Temple BuddhistLast December I posted a short history of the Leshan Buddha,  which is the main source of tourist traffic in the region, bringing in a good bit of revenue to the city.  Most tourists only go to see the Buddha for a few hours, and rarely do they stay more than a day.  Many of them are on their way to Emei Shan (mountain), the holiest of the Buddhist sites in China.

When we visited to the Buddha, it was a relatively quiet day, and we drew a lot of attention.  It was entertaining to see each person we passed do a double take on the group of western college students.  At one point, we attempted to take a group picture and were quickly joined by several eager Chinese men who happened to be in the area.  A classic moment.

Leshan Giant Buddha Cliffside SichuanI don’t have much time to do more detail than this, and I think the pictures do themselves great justice, so I will add a number.  The stairs down to the base of the Buddha were treacherous, and I really enjoyed to view from the cliff overlooking the confluence of the three rivers below.Leshan Giant Buddha Chinese MenLeshan Giant Buddha Catwalk

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