12/31/14 There are so many singing competitions here. I showed up 15 minutes early to this one and the entire auditorium was already completely packed. I stood against one of the side walls, a few people behind a little girl who was maybe 8 years old. I watched the singers and she was turned around watching me for most of the performance.

12/30/14 A house in the countryside.

12/29/14 Just one of many interesting meats you can find here laying out all day on the side of the street.

12/28/14 Lanzhou lamian are the most delicious noodles that I’ve had in this country. The noodles are somehow made by pulling dough, spinning it around and then slamming it down on the cutting board. Many lamian restaurants are owned by Hui ethnic families from Northwestern China and serve only halal food.

12/27/14 Climbing up temple stairs in Yibin.

12/25/14 This is a truck with a lion and two bears that was parked on the street between my apartment and the university. There wasn’t anyone nearby watching the animals and people were just walking by not really paying attention. I stood across the street for maybe ten minutes gawking; a few other people pointed at the truck, but no one else stopped to look. I later found out that the lion and bears came from an animal sanctuary about six hours away and were on their way to a circus in a nearby town.

12/24/14 I threw an end-of-the-semester party for Women’s Group at my apartment and about 25 girls came. I’m not sure if this is true everywhere, but one major cultural difference that I’ve found is that parties in China need to have planned activities and sometimes even an itinerary. People don’t seem to just hang out and talk. We baked, made art and then people took turns singing songs.

12/23/14 Luo Yu is one of my best friends here and I’m happy that I finally have a picture of her. She is the advisor for all of the freshmen who are majoring in a foreign language (really just English and Japanese) and one of only a few other teachers who live in the apartment complex where I do. She is maybe 4’10” and so friendly and cute, but she is really strict and terrifies all of the students! I think this is really funny – students tell me all the time that she is scary, but I can’t even imagine how that would happen.

12/22/14 I guess I expected Christmas to be nonexistent in China, so it has been interesting for me to see how it is actually celebrated. There’s a huge Christmas section in our Walmart in Zigong that has all sizes of Christmas trees, ornaments, lights, mini Santas’ and other decorations. Christmas cards are on sale in all the little stores in my town and the fruit vendors have been wrapping apples in Christmas boxes and paper – it’s a holiday tradition here to exchange apples with friends. Christmas in China seems like it is solely about consumerism and materialism; there’s no sign of Jesus or Christianity and people don’t get the day off so it’s also not a special time to be with family or friends. I think I sort of turned into a grinch these past few weeks.

12/21/14 The biggest park in Zigong is called Lantern Park and it is famous for putting on a fantastic show during the Lantern Festival every year. When I walked around the park there were hundreds of workers welding and sewing to prepare for the show. According to the 2015 Zigong International Dinosaur Lantern Festival website (which surprisingly had a section in English), “The display of fireworks and the sea of lanterns seem to have made a paradise. In the colorful lanterns world, the crowd and the lantern sea look like flusters of cloud. With a long history and full-bodied local customs and folk colors,Zigong lantern festival has formed a rich cultural accumulation. 、With the feature of grandness,ingenious conception, exquisite workmanship, andvividness,Zigong lantern festival is famed both home and abroad.”

12/20/14 The Peace Corps requires all of its volunteers to take a tour of the nearest hospital to our sites that they deemed suitable for us in case of emergency. I really didn’t know what to expect before we got to the hospital, but I was pleasantly surprised once we started the tour. Everything looked new and clean and pretty much like a hospital in America. The English translations on the signs weren’t terrible and it was a lot less crowded than I had expected it to be. I liked that the nurses all wore little white hats. That being said, I literally know nothing about hospitals and I still have no idea what the medical care is actually like at the hospital here. It was a little concerning to walk past the “bone crushing room” and see doctors smoking inside the hospital wings.

12/19/14 Pretty leaves.

12/18/14 A student and I went to check out the Flower Sea about half an hour away from Zigong. It’s winter so the flowers weren’t looking that great, but it was really interesting to see everything else. For some reason, the park seemed to be European-themed and there were two “churches” and another unidentifiable building that were being built to make things look more classy. You won’t be able to actually go inside any of these buildings once they’re finished, but you can appreciate their European look from the outside. You can also see in the background of this picture that the park was dug out of a small mountain, so it is like being in a man-made valley.

12/16/14 The outside of some student dorms.

12/15/14 Two of my friends, Thea and Pernille, came to visit me for a few days. They had been teaching at an elementary school near Chengdu for the past four months. It was wonderful having them here and they were fantastic guests.

12/14/14 Pernille and Thea gave a presentation to all of my students about life in Denmark. It was a big hit. Some of the most interesting things for everyone was the height difference between Danes and Chinese, the Danish college requirements, learning more about marriage equality and that the entire country of Denmark has a population only a little larger than Zigong county. Many of my students (and I) now want to move to Denmark. Here, Pernille and Thea are standing next to Queen Margarethe II.

12/13/14 One boy with a guitar was so popular at the school’s karaoke competition that everyone got out their phones and started waving them around. Unfortunately all the female students are so shy that almost every competitor was a boy with a guitar.

12/12/14 This is Cecily with her son on a picnic. Cecily is another English teacher at my university and one of my best teacher friends. I spent the afternoon with her happy family, eating fruit and playing badminton at the park, and it was really, really nice.

12/11/14 A wedding celebration in Deng Guan.

12/10/14 I shared a picture of Ryan a few weeks ago and wrote that he loves America’s Next Top Model. He is also a great model himself and it was very fun taking his picture.

12/9/14 Basketball at the university.

12/8/14 TEFL Manager, Luis, came to visit and he spent almost twelve hours at our university observing our classes and discussing teaching. It was awesome to get some feedback. This picture is in our office. Luis is the first person besides me to write a word on the English word wall that I made!

12/7/14 I sat across from these two students in a three-wheeled tuk tuk. They were on their way to a guitar class and I was on my way to catch another bus. Riding in a tuk tuk is a terrifying experience here and I try to avoid it as much as possible. The drivers go really fast and there are so many potholes that make you feel like you are flying down the road. I really thought that I was the only one who didn’t enjoy the experience, but I was happy to learn that that definitely isn’t the case. The guy on the right told me he had lived in Chengdu his whole life and he kept mumbling about how terrible this was as he clutched his guitar. I think we were all pleasantly surprised to find that everyone thought they were awful.

12/6/14 A man cutting down tree branches was by far the most exciting thing happening today.

12/5/14 The tunnel that you have to walk through to get from the east side of Zigong to the west side. People set out rugs on the ground to sell DVDs, magazines, clocks, belts, watches, etc.

12/4/14 I went on a bike ride around 1:30 in the afternoon which is right in the middle of everyone’s break/nap time. Eight people in this family were resting in the front of their house – the children were playing, the mom was feeding white rabbits in a cage, the grandparents were snoozing and there were a few dogs and goats roaming around. I had hoped to get a good picture of everyone together, but this one of grandma ended up being my favorite. When I asked if I could take their picture, she walked over and sat down right in front of me.

12/3/14 I judged a singing competition at school where students sang and danced to songs in English. We judged them on their singing and dancing, English pronunciation, the appropriateness of their clothes and whether or not the song had a positive message. I love these competitions – the performers go all out and they are really entertaining to watch. The hosts wear beautiful evening gowns and the dancers are all perfectly synchronized. This guy performed during the half time show.

12/2/14 Zigong is known as “salt city” and Kyle and I finally went to see its famous salt history museum today. It was great. I learned more than I ever wanted to know about mining salt in Zigong and even the building itself was beautiful.

12/1/14 These two boys were feeding lettuce to goats on the side of the road.

11/30/14 This construction site is down a road behind the track at my university. I have no idea what they’re building, but the site was huge. It sort of looks like the edge of the world.

11/28/14 The cafeteria workers use shovels to load rice into giant bowls!

11/27/14 A pretty house down the street.

11/25/14 This building was built in 1736. It has beautiful stone and wood carvings and there are dragon and phoenix sculptures in the courtyard.

11/23/14 Apparently this is a common site at Chinese universities, but this was the first time I had seen it. Students are picking up their packages.

11/21/14 A river at night in Neijiang which is about two hours away from me.

11/20/14 I took a few portraits of my student, Marion, when she came to my office hours. She did this pose every single time. Marion was afraid to talk to me at first, so she started writing me letters in her notebook to practice English. She would leave her notebook in the envelope on my office door, I corrected her grammar, wrote little notes back and then would put the notebook back in the envelope. We did this for about two months, but now we are real friends who talk to each other! She’s really self-aware and looks at things in interesting ways – I still enjoy reading her letters.

11/19/14 Every Thursday I eat lunch in the cafeteria with my English teacher friend, Cecily. Each week we look forward to eating mao cai and we always head straight to that line. You pick out what vegetables or meat you want (I usually get wood ear mushrooms, lotus root, cucumber, cauliflower and three different kinds of tofu), they’re cooked in a sieve in a big pot of spicy, boiling soup and then mixed with more spices. I think that we eat at a normal pace, but we are always the last people left in the huge cafeteria.

11/18/14 I wouldn’t take photos in my classes, but I feel okay taking pictures during Women’s Group because it’s much more informal. We talked about relationships with friends this week and here students are writing down adjectives describing good/bad aka healthy/unhealthy relationships.

11/17/14 I had remembered reading about a “burial ban” in China earlier this year, so I was surprised to see these wooden handmade coffins being built. Apparently China banned coffin burials in June of this year in an attempt to save limited land resources. I found a lot of articles like this one about suicides surrounding the ban, but I haven’t found much else about it.

11/16/14 My town’s only street. I was standing at one end of it with the countryside behind me . The tall buildings with the red sign are where I live and also the other end of town. The university is behind the buildings on the left.

11/15/14 These basketball cheerleaders are so cute, but I also can’t believe they’re in college.

11/14/14 I spent all weekend reading my students journals. It got pretty tedious by the end, but it was really interesting seeing their insights and it was awesome when I opened a quiet student’s journal and found an especially thoughtful paragraph. Perhaps the most fascinating thing was the immaculate spelling. Out of almost 250 journals, there were probably less than fifteen misspelled words. It was also pretty crazy reading about everyone’s “happiest moment of their life.” Almost all of my students wrote about the moment they finished taking the Gao Kao, the very intense Chinese equivalent of the SAT. One girl wrote: “The best moment of my life is the time that I walk out the Gao Kao examination hall. It’s the best wonderful time in my past 18 years. At that moment I can feel the wind singing, the clouds dancing and the sun shining. The world became more beautiful and brilliant. I’m free from that moment on.”

11/12/14 Goats in front of an abandoned factory that I found after exploring a new route today – go left down the road, then turn right.

11/11/14 One of my Chinese tutors who majors in Chinese invited me to their department’s field day. It was very fun and everyone was so excited. Students and teachers did tug of war, three legged races, a really short basketball game and then a few people sang songs.

11/10/14 One kid is curious and the other is terrified of me!

11/9/14 I wish I knew what all of these ingredients are! 

11/8/14 The Leshan Giant Buddha is a 233 feet tall stone statue that was carved out of a cliff face during the Tang Dynasty (around 713). The Buddha is cool! And big! And less than two hours away from where I live. Brittany, my city mate Kyle and I took a day trip to Leshan to visit it – we stood in a claustrophobic line for a while and learned some interesting facts. The Buddha’s smallest toenail is large enough to serve as a comfortable seat for one person. He is the largest buddha in the world. It took people almost a century to create him. And this lovely local saying, “The mountain is a buddha and the buddha is a mountain.” Apparently the mountain range that our giant Buddha is in also looks like a buddha. So many of them!

11/7/14 Foggy riverside view.

11/6/14 Every Wednesday night I host a Women’s Group for my English students which is one of my favorite things to do here. The official purpose is to increase confidence and empower young women to lead change while practicing English and meeting new friends. So far we’ve talked about self-esteem, leadership, gender roles and identity and every week is fun, crazy and inspiring. Tonight we talked about what makes up a person’s identity and we finished the meeting with a fantastic “I am…” poetry reading. Most weeks more than forty girls come, but there was another event going on at the university this time so only a few of the most dedicated members came out. Everyone was getting ready for a group picture while I checked my camera’s settings. From left to right: Belle, Phyllis, July, Rachel, Sophia, Kency, Marion, May, Seven, and Imogen.

11/5/14 A lot of middle aged and retired women in China love to go square dancing. Almost every park and open public space is filled with synchronized dancers blasting music in the evenings. Each group dances to different kinds of songs – some of them do dances in a formation that resemble waltzes, aerobics, line, ballet, free-style, etc. and sometimes they slowly dance in a line moving around a track. I’ve joined in a few times and it’s a lot of fun and sometimes even a little difficult. I hope this suddenly becomes popular in America in the next 4o years because I definitely want to do this for real when I retire.

11/4/14 An unidentifiable bird in my neighborhood.

11/3/14 This man in the cowboy hat comes to my town every few weeks and sets up a display of traditional medicines on a blanket on the ground. He sells the strangest things and has bags filled with bones, giant animal skulls and tree stumps. His blanket is usually surrounded by other men who also wear cowboy hats and brightly patterned clothing. They’re all very friendly. I wandered over today just as he was getting ready to do acupuncture on this women. Remember this is on the side of a dusty country road, in front of a big pile of trash. The man held the needles in his mouth while he was getting ready and then stuck them directly into her skin. The woman seemed happy enough about it though.

11/2/14 One of my best friends from the Corcoran came to visit for a week and a half! Brittany had been traveling around Turkey and Eastern Europe for the past few months before coming to China. We spent the weekend touring Chengdu and then made it out to my university for the beginning of the school week. Brittany was a huge hit in my classes – students asked her interview questions in preparation for a larger interview assignment for their midterm. A lot of the questions were very thoughtful, but many were also pretty strange and hilarious. Perhaps our favorite question was “If you had to describe your friendship with Julia using a color, what color would you choose and why?” Brittany went with purple. In my first class on Monday morning someone asked her, “What are the major differences between our university and American colleges?” Theoretically a very interesting question, but we had to explain that Brittany had literally only been at the university for about ten minutes. Overall, we had a great time exploring and it was so awesome having a visitor.

11/1/14 I went back to the Panda Research Center in Chengdu and it was just as wonderful as it was the first time. Standing there and staring at the giant, happy pandas sort of feels like meditation.

10/31/14 Heading out on another trip.

10/30/14 My university had an amazing welcome celebration for all of the incoming freshmen tonight at the track. I had known about it for a while and I had been practicing a singing and dancing performance with the few other foreign teachers and students. We had no idea that it would be such a big deal though. There were thousands of people watching and the other performances by students in the music school were great and perfectly choreographed. These students danced to everyone’s favorite song “Xiao Pinguio (Little Apple).” 

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10/29/14 Open windows of the apartment building next to mine.

10/27/14 The view outside of a mao cai restaurant in Zigong.

10/26/14 Each year every university in China has mandatory military training for the incoming freshmen students. According to China’s Education Ministry, the official purpose is to “enhance students’ sense of national defense and national security awareness.” And to improve “patriotism, collectivism, and revolutionary heroism.” I was excited for the military training at my university, but then heard that it had been postponed indefinitely because so many students got hurt the previous year. There’s a great article on China’s military training here that says that every year numerous students pass out or get heat stroke while in training. I was walking through Sichuan University’s campus in Chengdu when I saw these students practicing in their uniforms.

10/25/14 I went to Chengdu this weekend for meetings with the Peace Corps committee that I’m on. Right when I got there we started hearing rumors that lunch would be catered in from a Mexican restaurant. While there are a few Western restaurants in the city, most are way too expensive for us to afford by ourselves on our Peace Corps stipend. The Mexican food was delicious. It was truly a thrilling experience for everyone – definitely one of the most exciting lunches ever.

10/24/14 There is another row of apartment buildings after mine and then farmland behind the trees.

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10/23/14 The foreigners all had a mandatory rehearsal in the music school for our singing and dancing performance. We had never practiced before and none of us can actually sing well. We were all pretty surprised when we got there and the rehearsal was on a beautiful stage with fancy lighting. All of the other performers were sitting in the audience waiting for their turn. We were terrible, but these saxophone students who went before us were fantastic. After they finished playing, they discussed their performance with the music teachers who were watching.

10/22/14 A few students and my site mate came over to make dinner. The students had a few dishes in mind that they wanted to make, but we didn’t have all of the ingredients. You can only buy vegetables between the hours of 7 to 11 a.m. in my town when the farmers come and sell their produce on the side of the road , so the students were out of luck. Regardless, it ended up being a great, but weird mix of Chinese and American foods with vegetarian dumplings, spicy potatoes, and pasta with tomato sauce and mushrooms.

10/21/14 View of the river going through Deng Guan.

10/20/14 I judged an English speaking competition for all of the freshmen foreign language majors. My students Zeus and Cheryl, below, were the announcers for the competition. There were about 70 competitors and two stages of the competition. In the first stage, all 70 students read a short English speech that they had written or found online. The three judges, myself and two other English teachers, judged them on pronunciation, creativity and stage presence. It turned out to be pretty difficult to do after hearing dozens of speeches about college life read directly from the students’ papers. The second round was much more exciting though. The ten finalists had to write, memorize and actually perform a speech and then they had to answer one random question on the spot. I thought it was a lot of fun, but the students were incredibly nervous and competitive. Three out of the ten students ended up crying before the night ended.

10/19/14 My classes took a break from English grammar for the week and instead did an illustrated poem project. Students worked in groups to discuss and analyze the poem, figure out any words that they didn’t understand and then illustrate it and present it to the class. The poems from left to right are “The Pig” by Roald Dahl, “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams, and “April Rain Song” by Langston Hughes. We also had some good ones by Nikki Giovanni and Carl Sandburg, although Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky and Mary Ann Hoberman were definitely the biggest hits.

10/18/14 A very exciting game of Chinese chess.

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10/17/14 This is the bike store by my university where you can rent bikes and theoretically get your bike fixed. I think the couple who works here know even less about bike maintenance than I do. The three of us did however eventually manage to pump up the tires on my bike.

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10/16/14 By the river in Yibin, another city in Sichuan about an hour away from where I live.

10/15/14 View of Zigong out the bus window.

10/14/14 There aren’t any newspapers that you can pick up around my university campus, but there are two papers that get posted up on a wall by the teaching building everyday. One of them is the English language newspaper, China Daily, that is published here in China and I’ve also seen American editions in newsstands in D.C. and New York. Its stated goal is to present China’s news and government policies to foreigners and English language learners and I’ve heard that the paper has slightly more liberal policies than the other Chinese papers. I’ve read it a few times and the articles are all pretty funny and random. A friend sent me this especially thoughtful article about Chinese women dating Western men. At the height of the Hong Kong protests I wandered over to the wall to see what the newspaper would say about it. Hong Kong wasn’t mentioned, but there was a page-long article about the protests in Ferguson, MO on the first page of the World section, “Thousands march to protest police violence.” The next day I wandered by again, this time without my camera. There was a short article on Hong Kong, but it didn’t mention anything about the ideology or size of the protests – the article was just about how the protesters are selfish and dirty and are making it really inconvenient for all of the other nice, hardworking people of Hong Kong to get to work. There are some other good articles on the China Daily website about the Hong Kong protestors frightening children and vandalizing statues.

10/13/14 One of my awesome students, Lillian, on a bike ride. It was very exciting to find a girl who likes sports and we’ve gone on two bike rides now. There is only one road in our town so our first ride was down the road to the right and the other one was down the road to the left.

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10/10/14 I’ve been able to find public bathrooms in many of the smaller towns nearby, which is great. I thought this sink in Deng Guan was actually pretty beautiful.

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10/9/14 Ryan is a Japanese major who probably speaks the best English out of everyone at the school. He is one of my favorite people here and we have lunch together every Monday. 

10/8/14 The colorful and geometric teaching building in Zigong.

10/7/14 The beautiful butterfly princess Lillian lures people in with her adorableness and then scares them away with her plastic pet snake!

10/6/14 My host family who I lived with in Chengdu invited me along on a very fun weekend retreat with Jenny’s middle school class. The retreat was held in the countryside about an hour and a half outside of Chengdu near a smaller city called Pujiang. The students did team building exercises all day while the families hung out and drank tea in various locations. We definitely got the better end of the deal, the students had so much to do and they were exhausted by the end of the weekend. The teachers spent almost 20 minutes explaining the objective of this blue hand held device activity. The goal was to roam around the area listening to the level of beeps (bee boop beep beep) with your headphones to locate some sort of sound machine that would be hidden somewhere. When the activity finally started, the students all ran in different directions trying the find the machine. It was so funny to watch – the teacher had actually hidden it in a bush right next to where he had been standing.

10/4/14 The lake was packed with people riding these wobbly rafts. The rafts were built out of two levels of bamboo with little colorful pool floats in between to keep them above water. I guess the lake was just really shallow so they were able to push themselves along, but somehow people were paddling all over with only long bamboo poles for oars.

10/3/14 A view of the beautiful bamboo forest in Muchuan.

10/2/14 We went on a hike that involved walking through a long dark tunnel. The tunnel was probably wide enough for two people to walk side by side. My host brother who is twelve years old walked behind me, screaming at the top of his lungs for the full five minutes. I asked him why he was doing that and he said that he wasn’t afraid of the dark, but that he wanted to scare the other people who were near us. Oh. All of sudden, we were blinded by two bright lights from motorbikes speeding past us in the opposite direction. This was definitely the loudest, most eventful tunnel hiking experience I have had in a while.

10/1/14 While in Muchuan, I stayed with one of my host family’s friends who had a son in college. He is studying Chinese folk dance at his university and he invited seven of his other dance classmates to his home for the holiday week. We were a giant group of people. There was a random stage next to a store that we had stopped at and the rest of us were able to talk the boys into performing. All of them got up on stage and did a fantastic, perfectly synchronized dance that involved a lot of stomping and clapping. It was very exciting!

9/30/14 We had a week off of classes for China’s National Holiday and I started out the trip in a city called Muchuan, about a three hour drive from Zigong. Muchuan is my Zigong host family’s hometown and we all went to visit my host dad’s parents. They were very welcoming and were thrilled to have everyone there. We spent the majority of our time eating snacks, playing “fun” math card games and watching TV. The best TV show was one that had women in their 30s talk about their one true love who had gotten away. Most of the women had only met the men they were in love with once or twice before. Then the show tracked down the lost men and had them come on stage to talk to the women about what they were now doing in their lives. It was very dramatic!

9/29/14 I was very excited for my first wedding in China. It ended up being pretty hectic though! While I’m sure that every wedding isn’t like this, we did have a session during our summer training on modern Chinese weddings and every single thing that happened was exactly what our Chinese teachers said it would be like. The wedding was at a hotel and all of the guests were sitting at tables surrounding a raised walkway and center stage. Apparently the more people you have at your wedding, the more popular you are even if you don’t actually know the guests. The decorations were brightly colored. There was a big sign at the front of the stage that said “WEDDING: I well love you fathfully.” The ceremony began with the groom singing and dancing the most popular Chinese song called Xiao Pinguo (Little Apple) up the aisle for three minutes to meet his bride. The music was blasting and the whole thing was narrated by a very loud announcer who officiated the ceremony. The flashing, colored lights were seizure-worthy and many of the guests stood up right in front of my table and onto the platform to get a better view. I had heard that a lot of noise and a lively atmosphere means that everyone is having an awesome time, but this was like an Avicii concert. The entire ceremony probably lasted about 30 minutes. Then the announcer sang loud karaoke while the lights flashed. We all ate lunch and then everyone immediately left.

9/28/14 My site mate Kyle loves animals. Even though he’s also a vegetarian, he carries packaged meat snacks around with him so he can feed the stray cats in his neighborhood. 

9/27/14 A few students spent the afternoon hanging out and fishing in a nearby farmer’s pond. The farmer claimed that there were fish in the pond, but we didn’t see any. I learned that many of the local farmers like to rent out their kitchens and tea rooms to students for the afternoon and students can also pay a little money to pick fruits and vegetables themselves or go fishing.

9/26/14 Jasper and Delia invited me to go roller skating at 7:30 in the morning with them. At first I thought they were kidding. Why would a roller rink even be open that early!? But we went and it was great. The rink is a big room with a cement floor, disco lights and furry streamers. It’s about a three minute walk away from me in the same apartment complex. So my neighborhood consists of me, a few other teachers, shopkeepers and restaurant owners, retired people and disco skaters. I found out that Jasper and Delia like to go right when it opens so that they can practice their skating tricks without a lot of other people in the way. They were the perfect people to go skating with. 

9/25/14 I feel like I finally understand mahjong after playing all afternoon with these students. The game is so popular and it seems like every single person knows how to play. It’s played with a set of 144 Chinese characters and players draw and discard tiles to make four groups and a pair of similar tiles. I’m trying so hard to enjoy playing but I just do not find it very fun.

9/24/14 I went exploring in Fu Shun, a slightly larger nearby city, with these two girls and a few of their roommates. Liu Cui and Song Jie aren’t my students, but they were at an English Association meeting that I gave a speech at, somehow found my phone number afterwards and called me up. 

Liu Cui and Song Jie are outgoing, fun and love to eat sweet snacks. They literally ate their way around Fu Shun. Their roommates call them “chi huo” which seems to translate to “foodie with a giant stomach.” Their knowledge of food proved to be very useful for me and they led us on a trek around the city in search of hard-to-find spices like cinnamon and turmeric. They also helped me buy a toaster oven which was a hilarious experience in itself. I had been looking for one for a while, but no one uses them in China. The woman who worked in this big kitchen appliances store first tried to convince me to buy a microwave because she thought they were the same thing. Then, in order to show me that the oven worked well, she pulled it off the shelf, plugged it into an outlet on the floor, unwrapped a sausage from another aisle and stuck it in the oven. The woman, the five girls who I was with, and I all crouched on the floor around the toaster oven to watch the sausage cook. It did, so I bought it.

9/22/14 Bamboo leaves by the pond on campus.

9/21/14 There is a big market every weekend morning in Deng Guan and the traffic going through town is really busy. The road has giant pot holes and it only has one lane part of the way. This Sunday as I was coming back from Chengdu, buses and trucks were at a complete stand still for around 15 minutes and people started poking their heads out windows to see what was going on.

9/19/14 What are these!? My friend who I was with was not super helpful in explaining this ingredient. He did say that his mother and grandmother sometimes cook more traditional dishes with it, but not often because it is very expensive.

9/18/14 Student dorms at the Hui Nan campus in Zigong.

9/17/14 I was trying to just take a photo of the market scene, but this exhausted girl ended up in the frame. There were a lot of steps.

9/16/14 Our campus and town are tiny and unless you want to go hang out on a farm, there isn’t much else to do nearby. Every evening, groups of students get together to talk on the brand new soccer field and by around 8 p.m. the entire field is filled with people. It is very fun to watch the students play musical chairs and lead each other in new dance routines as I run in circles on the track around them.

9/15/14 Everyone is stocking up on brightly colored plastic hangers, buckets, trash cans and giant tea thermoses for back to school shopping. It is great to see all of the stores reopening from summer vacation as more and more students arrive on campus.

9/14/14 This rooster lives outside of my apartment building with two of his other chicken friends. Every night, he perches on this random pipe sticking out of a bush.

9/12/14 The puppies are adorable, but their cage is so, so small. 

9/11/14 Yan Jin teaches English at one of the university’s other campuses about an hour away from where I live. I have only met her a few times, but she is so friendly and kind. We went out for dinner and then for a walk, heading straight for this mini arcade. In the game they are playing, you hold a lasso and hit the button to try to catch cows as they run across the screen. The scary red bull with multiple piercings is worth the most points.

9/10/14 All of the freshmen English majors at their first introductory meeting. I gave a short welcome speech, another teacher talked about successful English majors who have previously graduated from the university and what they are doing now, and a third teacher talked about adjusting to college life and how to make the most of your college experience.

9/9/14 Finally students are beginning to arrive! The dragon sign in front reads “Enthusiastic Welcome 2014 Parents and Students.” It was very fun to see all of the excited students arriving on campus and it was just like the first day of school in the United States. Families wandered around Huangling carrying huge suitcases, trying to find the right dormitory and informational meeting.

9/8/14 The Mid-Autumn festival is a harvest festival that traditionally celebrates gathering with friends, giving thanks for the harvest, and praying for a good future. Everyone loves to eat moon cakes, sweet pastries stuffed with fillings like lotus seed and red bean paste, and their round shape symbolizes harmony and family unity.

9/7/14 Yun Ming runs a Shandong jian bing stand outside of campus. The outside of a jian bing is a little like a crepe and inside there is a spicy sauce, an egg, some sort of crunchy cracker, shaved cucumbers and scallions (and meat for everyone else). They are delicious and so different from other Chinese foods.

9/5/14 Many of the houses nearby are beautiful and overgrown.

9/4/14 The river that runs through Deng Guan.

9/3/14 I had a fantastic conversation with this woman in Chinese. I complimented her dog and then asked to take her photo. She told me no, that she was too fat but that I could photograph her cute dog instead. With only my wide-angle lens, she ended up being in the photo too and I figured that this was an important enough moment in my Chinese-learning career that it had to be documented.

9/2/14 These girls are the best. I met them at a milk tea store where they hang out after class every night and where I am able to get free wifi. They came with me to Zigong on a shopping trip and brought me all over the city to find the things that I desperately needed (plants, dried mangos, etc.) Their only purchase of the day was a giant plastic bag filled with duck parts floating in a special sauce that they were going to cook on the hot plate in their dorm room that night.

9/1/14 I’ve been spending a lot of time these past few days cleaning and organizing things around my new apartment. For the most part my apartment is awesome and actually much nicer and bigger than where I was last living in DC. This bathroom isn’t quite up to par though – it also serves as my shower and the drainage system for the washing machine (but it’s still way better than trekking up an urban hill to get to a laundromat).

8/30/14 I finally moved out to my permanent site in Huangling and am thrilled to be here. My town is really just a college with about twenty restaurants and stores along one road in the middle of nowhere. And this is a picture of Deng Guan, a larger town that is about a 20 minute hike from where I am now living. I will only be teaching freshmen and they don’t start school for another two weeks so I have so much free time to explore my new surroundings.

8/29/14 This is one of the most orderly lines I’ve seen since I’ve been in China. The students are waiting to add money onto their cafeteria card at my university’s main campus.

8/28/14 We had our swearing-in ceremony today and officially became Peace Corps volunteers! 

8/27/14 This almost 100 ft tall Mao Zedong statue watches over Tianfu Square in the center of Chengdu. Before 1967, the site was occupied by an ancient palace from the Shu Kingdom. The palace was destroyed by Red Guards and the moat around it filled in to make an air raid shelter.

8/26/14 A few friends and I went shoe shopping today after our training sessions which proved to be a thrilling overcrowded experience. Megan, in the blue shirt, did an amazing job battling the crowds and ended up walking out with a pair of shoes in about 5 minutes.

8/25/14 According to Wikipedia there are more than 33 million Christians in China, so it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise to stumble upon a church in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities. Seeing the glowing red cross and stark stone architecture was pretty unusual though. Some friends and I went to investigate further and as we were looking up at the tower the rusty gate in front of us started creaking open. It turned out it was just the church guard pressing the gate button to invite us in.

8/24/14 This was such a bittersweet morning. After two months of living with our fantastic Chengdu host families we got ready to move into a hotel for a few nights before heading out to our sites. Our bus was there on time, but we ended up having to wait almost an hour extra for the luggage truck to arrive. Yes, we had so much stuff that our suitcases required a truck of their own. My host dad is so nice and waited with me the whole time to see me off even though we can still barely communicate with each other.

8/23/14 Jenny and went out for lunch together today. That afternoon she was really into an app where you take a photo of your face on your phone and then insert your photo into one of the caricature drawings that this app has. She kept laughing hysterically and putting my photo and photos of famous K-pop stars into drawings together where we would be hanging out on the beach or singing karaoke. 

8/22/14 Last day of Chinese class! With our favorite teacher, Luo Shuai.

8/21/14 A few of my Peace Corps friends live in the same apartment complex as me and every evening after language classes we would walk home together, trekking along this perpetually soggy dirt road that we had lovingly nicknamed “the mud pit.” I took this picture on our second to last day of classes so we could forever treasure our mud pit memories. The next morning on our way to class we found that the road had been completely paved over.

8/20/14 Amy, one of Lillian’s friends, is over at our house a lot. I came home from class today and found the two girls dancing and screaming around the kitchen table pointing at this giant bug that they had found. I thought it was fake at first, but it was real!

8/19/14 Lillian and I played hide and seek. We played a few rounds and I was surprised when she actually did hide somewhere – and then this happened and it was so cute.

8/18/14 Heading down some stairs by Chengdu’s city center.

8/16/14 My host aunt loves to cook and she made dumplings for the first time today. It was so fun to help make them and they are awesome and delicious, but I will say that after eating only dumplings for three nights in a row, I never want to eat another one again (although I’ll probably change my mind again soon). She made a few different kinds and a special vegetarian one for me with eggs, mushrooms and green onions. You can buy the circular dumpling wrappers in any grocery store here and then just place a little of the filling in the middle, pinch the edges together and then steam or fry them.

8/15/14 I was walking along a river with two friends and we couldn’t figure out what the moving red, green and blue lights we saw in the sky were. Eventually we came across four men standing in a row flying kites with huge, heavy colored lights attached to their strings. One man started to reel his kite in and we waited to see what the actual kite at the end looked like. A balloon maybe? There wasn’t any wind that night and there were so many people around that it would have been impossible to run to get the kite in the air. No, the kite was literally just a sheet of plastic held together by chopsticks.

8/14/14 I spent the past few days visiting my future university in Zigong and meeting my new host family. We explored a lot around the main campus which the family lived near, but we didn’t spend much time at the campus an hour away where I will be living and teaching. We did get to go on a quick tour of my campus, but then we were off again! I took this out the car window while we were driving through Deng Guan, the town closest to my university.

8/13/14 We went to a big, crowded restaurant in Fu Shun for lunch and somehow this woman was the only cook there. There was one other man around the corner who was in charge of making douhua, or tofu pudding, which the city is especially famous for. I love douhua! It’s like very soft tofu that you can eat with a spicy sauce.

8/12/14 The awesome view from grandma and grandpa’s apartment. I think it’s fascinating that there are still little sections of farmland surrounded by a giant, modern buildings.

8/11/14 My city mate, Kyle, teaches our new Zigong host family and their friends how to play poker. After lunch, we sat here next to a lotus pond drinking tea and playing games for almost five hours. I was surprised when my host brother taught me how to play Mafia, which was one of my favorite games we used to play at camp.

8/10/14 I found this entryway while exploring in Fu Shun.

8/9/14 My host dad gets ready for my aunt’s surprise birthday party. My aunt had gone to visit her daughter for the day and my family was very excited to celebrate with her when she got home. Traditionally, Chinese people eat “peaches” (which aren’t actually fruit, but steamed buns shaped like a peach with sweet stuffing) on their birthday to represent a long life. But my aunt loves real peaches, so we just had those instead.

8/8/14 The neighborhood, Wan Ke, that a few friends and I are living in right now is a peaceful, green getaway from city life.

8/7/14 We had a very exciting day today – Peace Corps China volunteers received their site placements for the next two years. I’ll be teaching at a university in the countryside outside of Zigong, Sichuan.

8/6/14 Students like to carry these giant, picturesque tea thermoses around campus with them.

8/5/14 Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the dogs and cats roaming around the streets are wild or pets. I think this little guy must be someone’s pet though because his fur is so pretty and clean!

8/4/14 Li, my host cousin, and Wendy out for hot pot.

8/3/14 Motorcycles are illegal closest to the city center of Chengdu, so everyone rides motorbikes or bicycles instead.

8/2/14 The Wuhou Memorial Temple in Chengdu is dedicated to Zhuge Liang, a chancellor of the state of Shu Han, during the Three Kingdoms Period.

8/1/14 On Fridays all of the volunteers come together to do group training sessions on things like health and safety. Right before lunch, we discussed what to do in various natural disasters and then practiced putting out fires in the parking lot.

7/31/14 There’s a fantastic open air market around the corner from where I am living that I love to go to. My host family usually buys fish from this man. He is always happy and he put on a show for me when I asked to take his picture.

7/30/14 Early morning view of where I live.

7/29/14 My pretty host sister Wendy.

7/28/14 Our Chinese teachers brought a group of us to a tailor to have more traditional clothing like a qipao made for special events.

7/27/14 The rabbit is really fresh!

7/26/14 Lillian and I both weren’t feeling awesome this morning so my host aunt took us to a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. Lillian was much braver than me and claimed this didn’t hurt at all. The doctor lit a match inside special glass cups and then suctioned them to her back – cupping is used to improve qi flow and treat respiratory problems like the common cold.

7/25/14 After our last class, our students took Elizabeth and me out for hot pot which I’ve been eating a lot of lately. A big, simmering pot of spicy stock is placed in the center of the table and you choose what meats or vegetables you want to put in.

7/23/14 The girl on the left was so excited that I was taking her picture, that she called her friend over to join in.

7/21/14 Cutest store on campus.

7/20/14 My host family took me to see a fantastic show called “Taiji” that features the artist Isaac Hou. I’m copying this awesome description of the show from a Global Times article…”The nine feats involved in the show are Tai Chi, Wudang kung fu, plum blossom piles (performers practice kung fu moves or even exchange blows while balancing on wooden plinths), face changing, Hou’s crystal ball performance, universe ring (a performer fixes himself into a ring with his limbs and spins quickly), pitiao (performers make complex moves while hanging from leather straps in the air), jujitsu, and moqiu (performers maintain balance while moving on a giant seesaw which is elevated high in the air and can move both horizontally and vertically).”

7/19/14 A few late night stragglers make their way to the exit of the New Century Global Center right before it closes. The Center is the world’s second largest building measured by floor space and houses an IMAX theater, an ice skating rink and a water park among numerous stores and restaurants.

7/18/14 Friends get together for badminton after class.

7/17/14 Apartment buildings across the street from Sichuan Normal University.

7/16/14 A fellow volunteer, Dan, wanders down the hallway before class begins.

7/15/14 My teaching partner, Elizabeth, finishes a few last minute preparations before class begins. We will be working together for two weeks to teach a summer Intermediate English class for college students.

7/14/14 Unfortunately the fruit really does look too good to eat. All produce is contaminated by pesticides so we have to wash fruits and vegetables with a special soap and then peel them before eating.

7/13/14 The smog cleared for the night and I got a glimpse of the beautiful moon.

7/12/14 Fish for sale at the flower and plant market.

7/11/14 Having the best time at People’s Park by the center of the city.

7/9/14 The spicy fish soup was the main attraction at dinner.

7/8/14 The classroom on Sichuan Normal University’s campus where I’ll be teaching a group of 30 intermediate level English students for the next two weeks.

7/7/14 A rainy day through the grapevines.

7/6/14 A row of umbrellas left out to dry outside of a Chinese classroom at Sichuan Normal University.

7/5/14 My little 4-year-old host sister, Li Yuanwen, plays on the swing with her friends. I call her by her English name, Lillian, when we are practicing English together.

7/4/14 My host parents, Yang Xiaole and Li Guangming, prepare a special pu-erh tea for my first afternoon with their family.

7/3/14 The beautiful bookcase in my new bedroom for the next two months.

7/1/14 Clothes hung out to dry on balconies of the Sichuan University student dorms.

6/30/14 A little girl attempts to climb the gigantic table tennis arena.

6/29/14 Robes for sale in Chengdu’s Tibetan neighborhood near Wu Hou Ci.

6/28/14 An alleyway a few blocks away from the U.S. Consulate.

6/27/14 Baby giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.

6/26/14 For sale outside of the Wenshuyuan Monastery.

6/25/14 Found this weird little guy in a storefront while wandering. I don’t think he was for dinner, just proudly on display.

6/24/14 Wangjianglou Park is right by Sichuan University and is known for its bamboo forest.

6/23/14 These beautifully bouquets are around the corner from where I’ll be staying these next two weeks.

6/22/14 The entrance to Sichuan University where we’ll be doing some of our pre-service training for the Peace Corps.

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