Letters from China (The Bunny 2007-8)

Living abroad, alone, was a real emotional challenge. I decided to face this challenge as any reasonable adult would, by getting a fluffy companion. It took a lot of research to decide what to get, since I had no idea how long I would be in China, and wanted to be able to bring my new friend with me wherever I went next. I came dangerously close to buying a chipmunk before Google convinced me that was way too much work. While looking at things like quarantine times and veterinary paperwork, I discovered that rabbits when personal pets (not lab animals) have pretty much no such restrictions, and so it was decided I would head back to the neighborhood pet shop and plunk down a few kaui for an itty bitty ball of fluff that would hopefully brighten my life. Spoilers: he did.


Oct 11, 2007 at 9:49pm

I bought a bunny today. It’s very teeny and very cute. I haven’t thought of a name yet, partly cause its impossible to tell at this age which gender it is (if you doubt me, look it up). It is strictly not going to be named Stu (stew), or any other variation of food: fish, human or otherwise. Enjoy the pics!

Oct 15, 2007 at 4:13pm

The bunny is very friendly. It likes to be around me. It hops around my feet when I’m home and paws at my pants until I sit down and let it hop in my lap. It likes to be petted and is very soft. It often falls asleep on me. When feeling active it will hop around the living room and occasionally leaps in the air for no reason. It likes to hang out in my pocket when I go out, which will not last too much longer. It’s very good about using the cage w/ newspaper as a potty. It loves cilantro and bok choy and bananas, but isn’t very fond of the dried food at all. It’s soooo cute. While exploring, it sometimes tries to stand up to see better and will lean so far back it falls over. It doesn’t always make the jump into my lap, but it keeps trying, and sometimes when its washing, it leans so far over trying to reach a spot that it topples. It gets sleepy after eating and sometimes falls asleep before it finishes washing and there are green smudges on its mouth. I’m still having some naming issues, so I’m going to put a poll up.

*The cage I bought was too big for his baby self and he was able to squeeze between the bars on his first night home, so he never did actually live inside it, but I encouraged him to use it as a “home base” of sorts and kept the bedding food, water, and liter pans in or around it. He never did get a proper name, and ended up being The Bunny (capital letters a later addition) for the rest of his days.

Nov 21, 2007 at 2:12pm

I’ve been promising more pics of the bunny forever, and I finally took some, so here we go…

Before and After

As you can see, the bunny has grown up a lot.

Now it likes to chew, especially on my clothes, and especially when I’m wearing them. It also likes to stand on my feet.

Bunny in the kitchen, wants food…

Dec 9, 2007 at 8:49pm

Don’t panic, the bunny is fine, although it came closer to being made a hat today than ever before. The reason I’ve been off line for a while is because the bunny chewed through the power cord of my laptop last night. And when I woke up this morning, I discovered that it also chewed through the Christmas lights. This was the last straw, and I spent my morning rearranging my apartment to create a wall to pen the bunny in the kitchen while I’m gone or asleep, and to remove, lift up or cover EVERY cable elsewhere, to protect them when I let the bunny out while I’m home and awake.

The couch forms the main barrier across the room, and since the back of the couch goes all the way to the floor, it can’t get under the couch from the back. The cage forms the remainder of the barrier with strategically placed cardboard boxes closing any gaps to prevent the bunny from pushing the cage out of the way. This gives the bunny a large space to play in with its food and litter boxes, while keeping it out of the part of the room with most of the electronics (the one outlet in the kitchen is high on the wall and the cord runs to the top of the fridge where the microwave has been returned to).

The living room now has a real table for the computer, the couch, desk and former tv stand guard the outlets in the wall, the main power strip runs from behind the couch to the top of the desk where I can plug in the tv (now living on the desk), the dvd player, and the computer, keeping the power cord WAY off the floor.

Its not the best feng shui, and I have to step over the cage to get into the kitchen, but it is my hope that this new arrangement will permanently protect my cords from being eaten.

As for my power cord, that was a whole other adventure to replace, since there are no Best Buys in Beijing, and I couldn’t exactly hop on the internet to look up a good store to go to.

I went into the city, and asked a taxi driver to take me to a place I could buy computers (hoping that a large computer store would also have spare cords). This conversation was a little tricky for me, since it was all in Chinese, but he took us to a large shop that, like many Chinese shopping centers, was full of many small booths selling goods.

When I went in, I asked the sales people where I could find “Dell”, and they pointed me to a Dell dealer. I showed them the broken part and said I needed one just like it. He told me it would be 850 for an “original” and 350 for a “copy”, so I made sure he understood I needed the exact same thing, but I would take a copy, and he took my money and scooted off, I believe to buy the product from another vendor, and came back with the copy.

I looked at the adapter, but the plug for the wall was Chinese. (Here I should note that while my American electronics will mostly plug into Chinese outlets with no trouble, Chinese shaped plugs will not plug into American outlets, no matter what voltage they can take) So I told him it wasn’t what I wanted, because it wasn’t the same, and he should give me my money back and I would look elsewhere. Now this was great, because the apparent difference between the original and copy was the American style plug, which he tried to tell me, and I insisted I didn’t want to buy what he was holding, so he finally relented and went to get the American model (yay).

So, obviously, I’m back on my computer, working just fine. But that’s pretty much my birthday present to myself, ’cause 350rmb (46 usd) is a big chunk of change to spend all at once (hence the extreme makeover for the apartment, I can’t afford to do that again).

The Christmas lights are only 10 kuai, so its not a big deal, but it means I have to redo the tree for what will now be the third time (sigh).

The joys of owning a pet. I love my bunny, but I’ll take cat-clawed couches over bunny-chewed electronics any day in the future.

Dec 10, 2007 at 10:07am

Well, not really… as it turns out the barrier doesn’t work at all. Although while I was gone, the bunny was content to stay put, once I was home, it worked really hard to get out, and succeeded, I was up till almost 1:30 am trying to fix it, but the bunny just kept jumping over everything I put in place… sigh

At least the furniture rearrangement keeps the wires safe, and the couch barrier means the mess from the kitchen is less visible from the rest of the room.

Dec 29, 2007 at 5:07pm

I finished all my paperwork for school and put the entire pile in a drawer in my desk to keep it nice and safe until it was time to turn it in.

Today, I’m cleaning my living room in preparation for my upcoming trip, and I open this drawer to discover that SOMEHOW just in the last 2 days the bunny has gotten into it and chewed all the paperwork to bits INCLUDING the student’s final exam papers.

My only guess is that there is somehow a small space at the back of the drawer that it was able to squeeze through, but there is something wrong with the world when even the papers IN A DRAWER aren’t safe.

*I went to Seattle for the winter break and left the bunny in the care of some of my students. I came back to a very chewed couch and learned bunnies have separation anxiety.*

Feb 23, 2008 at 12:28pm

It’s Saturday morning here and I’m about halfway unpacked. I’m getting some laundry done and I’ve managed a trip to the store for the basic essentials, food for me and the bunny and new dvds.

The bunny is well, however we’re going to the vet soon anyway because I got a really enthusiastic greeting when I got home and I now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is indeed a boy bunny.

The sofa is not as bad as I’d feared. The hole seems to be underneath the sofa, so the bunny crawls up inside it and vanishes, but the visible damage to the sofa is, while definitely there, not as scary as an actual hole.

* I was so wrong… 

Feb 24, 2008 at 6:43pm

Day 3, and i’m already going insane…

The weather is still evilly cold, especially when the wind blows, so its still hard to make myself go outside for anything non-essential.

The bunny had a little conniption fit and knocked over its litter boxes (not for the first time), so I finally went out and bought a full size covered cat box. The lid is off while it gets adjusted, but the sides are quite high, and its (I hope) too heavy for bunny to overturn. I’ve left the lid on the floor to see what he thinks of it, I’m still not sure if I’ll use it on the box, or just keep it as a bunny hideout elsewhere in the room.

I’m going to try to figure out my new camera this week, too so I can upload some pics of the sofa damage everyone keeps asking about, and of course of the bunny, which has grown more into his ears now.

*One of the more hilarious aspects of owning this bunny that I somehow failed to write about the first time was that I became known at the local pet shop as ‘the weird white lady who thinks her bunny is a cat’. I would return to the shop where I bought him for food and supplies. When he was little, I just used basic washing bowls for litter pans and regular people dishes for his food and water. As he got bigger, he knocked all these over… a lot. When I went in to find a weighted food dish he couldn’t pick up in his mouth and throw around (which he did when unhappy with it’s contents), the pet shop owner was confused, pointing out to me (in Chinese) that this dish was for dogs, and I had a rabbit. ‘Yes, I know’, I said, and tried to explain the issue in my limited Chinese. She laughed a bit and sold me the dishes. When I went back next for the litter box, she was once more perplexed. ‘This is for cats’, she explained, ‘you have a rabbit’. ‘I know’, I said, ‘but he doesn’t use a cage, he uses a litter box.’ ‘Like a cat?’ she exclaimed incredulously? ‘Yes, like a cat’. And she had to get her shop neighbors to come over so she could show them the crazy laobai who taught a rabbit to poop in a box. From then on, whenever I picked up the cedar shavings there, she asked again if he was still using the box like a cat and it cracked her up every time.

Mar 6, 2008 at 5:59pm

I was informed today that my rabbit has a better standard of living than some of my students….

Yeah. Take some time to soak that up.

I was chatting with a couple students after class today. We talked about various things, and when they found out I had a kitchen they were amazed, then even more amazed that I didn’t use it, but preferred to eat out. One asked me if I thought eating out was cheap, and I said, compared to America, of course. But they told me that even 10-20 kuai (2-3$) is a big deal, and too much for them to do!

They asked me what I often did in the afternoons and I mentioned that I sometimes go to the store to get food for the bunny. We got to talking about the bunny, how it lives, what it eats, etc. and I made mention of the fact that the bunny ate fresh vegetables every day, and my students told me that they cannot afford to eat fresh veggies that often, which astounded me, since I usually only spend a couple kuai a day on them.

However, given that the bunny has a room to run around in, its own toys, and plenty of fresh fruit and veggies to eat. They determined that the rabbit has a better standard of living than they do. Which you can imagine, caused me to be more than a little embarrassed. I mean… its one thing to know that I have a higher standard of living (a bigger apt, more discretionary income etc) but to know that my standard of living is so much higher that my PET is better off…

Post by zipwow on Mar 11, 2008 at 2:20pm

On the lifestyle of your students: What kinds of things do they do with their discretionary income? What does an evening’s entertainment cost, or for whatever they’re eating what does that cost? Now I’m curious.

Mar 11, 2008 at 7:59pm

I haven’t quizzed them directly, though perhaps I should. Generally, they’ll do something like play ping pong or basketball in the afternoon if the weather is nice. Also, walking around the “walking streets” seems to be popular, you can just wander around and look at stuff, like window shopping. I am also lead to believe that they play cards in their dorms when its too cold to go out. The school turns the lights off in the dorms at 11pm, so many of them are also trying to get their homework done before that time. And they are made to get up and run around the football field at like 6 or 6:30 in the morning, even though classes don’t start until 8, so they don’t stay up terribly late.

I’ll investigate, but I also have to admit that I think I was talking to some of the lower class kids in this conversation, because others have told me they do some drinking and ktv (like karaoke). But on the whole, they entertain themselves doing whatever free activities the school provides like sports and reading.

As far as food goes, there is a cafeteria on campus that is way cheaper than the restaurants outside it. So they can eat there, though I understand the food is not as good. And I’ve also seen many students buy some of the cheap street food snacks and share it. So something that might cost 2-3 kuai, they’ll split up, so everyone is only paying 1. There are a lot of, what I would consider, substandard snacks, things that are basically a little sugar and flour and a lot of air, but they’re cheap. And of course, they eat a lot more rice than I do. You can buy a bowl of rice that’s between 1.5 and 2 cups (cooked) for 1 kuai, and many poor students just eat rice with some soy sauce on it for most meals, and then can get meat or veggies every so often and in small quantities.

Mar 12, 2008 at 7:55pm

Another slide show, the bunny is getting bigger and bigger…

Mar 19, 2008 at 7:16pm

We went to the vet today.

The appointment was for 9:30am, so I got up at 7 and left around 7:40. Rode the bus for like an hour, I got an English speaking seatmate. I’ll never understand why the Chinese assume that just cause they speak English too, I want to talk to them, they don’t assume everyone who speaks Chinese wants to talk to them. Oh well. Then got a taxi who had to call the clinic to get directions, and drove past it anyway. He was nice enough to turn his meter off while he circled the block to get back to it.

*I do love talking to people when I travel, but living abroad is not the same as a holiday. There are some days I just want to run my errands. 

Checked in and waited about 30 minutes to see the vet. While waiting I let the bunny out of the bag on his leash, and sustained two bruises (from a very impatient and nervous bunny biting) and a handful of scratches (from when a shaved corgi came into the hall).

Got told that the rabbit wouldn’t get worked on till maybe 3, they’d call me when it was ready. I explained I lived 2 hrs away and didn’t have a cell phone, so they said they’d try to move him up to 12:30.

Yes the appointment that the VET himself made was for 930… I have no idea.

He recommended a cafe for me to wait in, which the next taxi couldn’t find, and when he tried to call, no one answered. So I just asked him to take me to the nearest net bar instead. He tried to ditch me by telling me that a place that offered phone service was a net bar, and got very upset when I protested that I couldn’t see a net bar anywhere, having learned the characters for it.

I should point out here that the base fee for a taxi is 10 kuai, and after you’ve gone a distance worth that it goes up, but you never pay less. This guy was trying to get me out of the taxi before we’d even gotten to 11.

He asked a passerby where there was one, and she told him where to go. We found it, and he insisted on driving just enough past it to make the meter go up one more kuai. *sigh*

I got into the net bar with HOURS of waiting, having been told to return at 2pm. I got a computer and hung out online for 3 hrs. Turned out to cost 3 kuai/hr, so I spent about 1.25$ on that. The internet was even slower than here at my apartment, but it gave me something to do.

Went back to the vet at 2 only to be told he just went into surgery. Waited for that, then had to wait another hr for the bunny to wake up enough for the vet to be sure he was ok. Two more hrs of taxi and bus home, and here we are. Safe and sound.

The bunny is still a little woozy, but he’s out of the bag and back on his rug. I have one of those silly collar things for him in case he tries to chew up his wound area, but there are no external stitches and the vet said he should be fine in a day or two.

Interesting note, unlike cats, the bunny didn’t have to not eat before, nor after the procedure. The vet told me the most worrisome thing for bunny health is upset tummies, so one should keep the diet as regular as possible and use very few drugs. Which sadly also means the bunny has no painkillers and won’t have any sedatives when we fly back.

*I shall pause the tail (haha) of the bunny here, with only a few more caveats. It turns out neutering/spaying is about the only vet trip a healthy bunny needs, but they can actually go crazy and damage themselves and others if they are not neutered but also not allowed to mate. There’s something to that “like bunnies” metaphor, I guess. But bunnies are also hard to sedate and medicate so every procedure is rough. It was a relief to get him through the experience, and his mood did stabilize a great deal afterward, returning him to his sweet pre-puberty self. The Letters from China will return to the bunny in a few posts with the dramatic saga of getting him out of the country when it came time for us to go.


For those wondering about my long silence, I apologize. I went to the Philippines for the Chuseok holidays this year, which was mostly lovely, and have been frantically working on the rough drafts of that trip ever since. Normally, I would be spending the fall enjoying the cool weather and fall festivals, unfortunately, life happened (job hunting, some health stuff, nothing serious) and has been eating up my free time, so not only is it taking longer than I hoped to finish writing, I’m not even getting good photos for the Instagram this season! I promise, I’m writing as much as I can, and thanks for waiting. ❤

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Letters from China (Queen’s Village 2007)

In October of 2007 I was invited to visit a small village near the university where I was teaching. This remains on of the most unique experiences I’ve had while living and traveling abroad. I was able to see parts of China that foreigners simply don’t visit. I was welcomed into their homes, and allowed not only to observe their way of life, but live it myself for a couple of days. I don’t where Queen is right now, and I don’t even know the name of her hometown, but I hope that she and they are doing well and can understand the impact they had on my life as an early traveler.


Oct 26, 2007 at 3:36pm

This weekend (Oct. 19-21) I went to a small farming village at the invitation of one of my students. Her English name is Queen. She is a sophomore (second year at university). She is 20 years old, and she is one of only 4 people in her generation from her village to go to college. She is also the first person in her family to pursue higher education. Her older brother didn’t even go to high school, and is now the only veterinarian for the whole area. Her family farm grows mainly corn which brings in about 1000$ USD per year. Her family grows its own vegetables and fruits in their yards, things like potatoes, turnips, cabbage, apples, pears, grapes and a kind of date called a jujube, mostly foods that can be stored, dried, pickled etc. There is only one store in the village to buy other goods, and most people simply eat what they produce or buy from each other what they need. They also have their own goats for milk and chickens for eggs, and one of her grandmothers even has bees for honey (they sent me home with coke bottle full).

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The Plumbing

The village does not have indoor plumbing, and while this may seem entertaining in an outhouse kind of way, they also don’t have running water indoors. There is a spigot in the yard that only works for one hour a day, since the government is restricting the water in the name of conservation. The northeast of China is very dry. So her family has to collect all the water they will use for the day during that hour. They collect it in a large basin and several buckets, and if they run out there is no way to get more. This means any cooking, washing or drinking they want to do requires them to get a measured amount of water from the daily store to use, heat it over a wood stove (more on that later), use for whatever purpose and then carry it out (no drains in the house either) to dump in the yard (don’t waste water that can help the crops).

In the summer they have a building in the yard they can take showers in (see picture below, its the building next to the doghouse), but since there is no way to heat the water for the shower, they don’t take showers in the winter, but rather heat up some water and use a basin to wash their hands, face and feet. There is a hotel in the village (apparently owned by one of her cousins, it specializes in offering city folk a real rural experience: Dude Ranch Chinese style), and every so often they go there to use the hot water showers in the winter, but it’s a special occasion.

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The lack of indoor plumbing extends to toilets as well, in the northwest corner of the yard (the least auspicious area in accordance with feng shui, I kid you not, and so the best place for a toilet). The building is brick (left), and the toilet is a rectangular hole in the ground (right), no porcelain here, that drains into a hole beside the building where the waste is collected for use as fertilizer. We stayed in two different houses the two nights I was there, and the first (her mother’s) had a nice clean toilet area, which I have a picture of, and the second (one of her grandmother’s) was pretty gross, covered in fecal matter and obviously not regularly cleaned (I have spared the world this image and have no photos of it).

The Electricity

There is some, but like the water it is limited. There is power for the lights, and they have TVs, satellite dishes, DVD players etc that they can run. Some of them also have a few electric cooking devices, like a rice cooker or hot plate. However, there are no stoves and no electric heating. The houses have large glass windows that collect and focus sunlight during the winter. People live on the sunny side of the house in the winter and move to the shady side in the summer, so the houses are built in mirror images. The main beds are made of brick. They run from one wall to the other and basically act as a horizontal chimney carrying heat from the wood stove to the real chimney in the outer wall. The bed stays very warm this way, and the whole family gathers in this room in the evening to eat dinner, watch TV, play cards etc where its warm. I was given this room to sleep in as the honored guest, and the family all slept together in another room. The stoves are fire, the fuel is whatever they can find, sticks and twigs from the orchard trees, dried chaff and stalks from the corn or other crops, etc.

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The climate in the northeast of China is very dry and very cold. It’s not the Gobi desert or anything, but it is very dry. The natural vegetation and the rock formations are very similar to the scrub-lands of southwest America, but its not as warm. If you could take a small rural town from the poorest part of Mississippi or Louisiana and move it out of the wetlands into the arid high plateaus of Arizona you might have an idea of what this place was like.

The Journey

We left Yanjiao about 1030 am. We took the 930 bus to the main terminal at Dawanglu, which is in the southeast corner of Beijing, out around the 3rd ring road¹. This is my normal route into Beijing and it takes about 40 minutes. We picked up some breakfast there, something a little like an egg mcmuffin, but fried. Then we got on the subway to go to Jishuitan, which is on the northwest corner of the second line (also the second ring road). This took about 30 minutes. Then we walked over to the bus station, passing one of the many old city gates, and got on the 919 to go to Yan Qiao. The mountains are apparently called the Yan Mountains, so many of the small towns start with “Yan”.

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We passed by many sites of the Great Wall, including Badaling, which is the most famous, and we paused for a brief rest stop and I think to change drivers, and I took some more photos of the wall.

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After about an hour and a half we arrived at the town, we took a little ride around the town square and went to the park.

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Then we flagged down a private cab (a guy with a van who doesn’t work for any taxi company) and my student negotiated a price for him to drive us to her village. The driver initially offered to take us for 13 Yuan, but later changed his mind, charging us only 3 and telling Queen to “take good care of the foreigner”. It took us about another 20-30 minutes to get to her village gate. As long as we remained in the Beijing zone, the roads were good, but as soon as we crossed the border into Hebei province, the roads became a mess of potholes and bad roadwork.

¹Beijing is an autonomous zone, a city without a province, like Washington D.C. is a city without a state. The city is zoned by the “ring roads“, which are just what they sound like. I only knew 5 at the time, apparently there are 7 now. It basically tells you how far from the city center you are.

Queen’s Family Home

We were dropped off at the gate and walked from there to her mother’s home. The streets within the village were more like dirt alleys, filled with rubble and trash. The homes were fairly old, most having an outer wall, a large yard used as a vegetable garden and a reasonably large home, which often housed 3 generations.

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Queen was very eager to show off the brick bed I described earlier, which was in the main bedroom.

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There were bright posters in many rooms which I was told are renewed at the spring festival and symbolize good fortune and fertility. I also took a look at the kitchens (both) to see the wood stoves that fed heat into the beds.

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Her mother was quite gracious. I was offered grapes and jujubes (the fruit not the candy, it’s a little like a date, but drier) from their garden as well as tea to drink. After a while, Queen wanted to wander over to her Grandmother’s house (for the sake of argument, since I honestly lost track of relatives, we’l just call this one Grandmother 1). It was a short walk, during which I was stared at by everyone we passed. Her grandmother, grandfather, aunt and uncle greeted us and I was plied with apples and haw fruit from their garden. Haw is a small red fruit with soft tart flesh; you might be able to find some candy or tea of that flavor in an Asian import store.

The people in Queen’s village don’t speak “putonghua” the common standard Mandarin Chinese, but rather a local dialect that I couldn’t understand at all. However, she’s a good student and was able to act as a translator for her family and me.

After a visit there, we headed back to her mother’s, stopping at the general store on the way back to pick up some snacks and packaged meat (kind of like Spam, but not in a can). Her mother prepared a nice dinner for us. We had sweet potato and rice porridge, a dish of potatoes and turnips, some candied almonds, and some mild pickled peppers her grandmother had sent back with us. Everything we ate except the meat was grown in her family’s gardens. Oh, and there was fresh goat’s milk from the goats in the back yard as well as a kind of strong clear alcohol that her mother soaked fruit in to make a tasty drink. I swear I ate until I was stuffed and her mother complained that I didn’t eat anything!

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Two of her young cousins came over after dinner and we all sat on the brick bed chatting and watching TV. Queen made her cousins speak slowly in putonghua to see if I could translate for myself. This seemed to amuse them for a while. I saw a beautiful show on TV of a troupe of dancers, all deaf and mute, doing a tribute to Guan Yin. They lined up behind one another and made elaborate patterns with their arms to imitate the multi armed statues of the goddess.

When it was time for bed, they set me up with plenty of blankets, made sure I had food and water in case I got hungry or thirsty in the middle of the night, and left a bucket so I wouldn’t have to brave the freezing outdoors to get to the outhouse.

Despite the bitter cold outside, the bed stayed warm, if terribly hard. I slept fairly well, though I woke up a little stiff. Breakfast was more fresh goats milk, some steamed eggs (which by the way had green shells, a nice pale sea-foam green, which I can only attribute to the breed of chicken, since I know the eggs were fresh since the chickens were also in the backyard)…anyway, this means I ate green eggs and spam for breakfast, I told Queen about Dr. Seuss and recited what I could remember of the poem which she seemed very interested in. There was also a nice pickled cabbage dish, almonds leftover from dinner and possibly some other things, it kind of blurs together.

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Local Schools

After breakfast we took a walk to the local schools. Queen told me that very few of the students finish middle school. The classes are too crowded and all the good teachers have left for better jobs. Many of the boys wander the streets during the day rather than going to school. Their parents don’t want them to get outside jobs at that age, but don’t make them go to class. When they grow up they will be manual laborers, working in the fields or building roads, earning only a few hundred Yuan a month.

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The children in the school were excited to see me, I may not have mentioned, but I was the first foreigner to ever visit this village. Queen herself was bursting with pride to be walking beside me and translating for me. The head of the kindergarten wanted to take pictures of me in his school, I hesitate to imagine that soon there will be pictures of me proudly displayed there, although I did nothing more than walk through it.

It was so strange to see all those bright and curious faces and know that most of them would never leave the 50 mile radius of their increasingly poor and dry county; would never see the world; would never even finish a basic education, and that for many of them, the few minutes that I was in their school was the only time they might ever see someone from another country not on TV.

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We returned to her mother’s house where an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I will continue the story in another post, since there’s a character limit here. Tune in next time for the continuation of the Village Excusion!

Oct 26, 2007 at 3:57pm

When we left off, an uncle picked us up in his truck to drive us to grandmother 2’s house a ways away. I do believe that the truck had no shocks at all, the roads were bumpy beyond belief, and sometimes there wasn’t a road, at least not what we would call one. There were certainly no traffic laws, and people simply drove wherever they could.

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This turned out to be quite a distance. On the way we drove past an interstate under construction, where I was informed that the government had taken up farmland to build a highway for the Olympics. We also passed a large metal statue of a hand holding a wine bottle, seemingly in triumph, a tribute to the wine of the region, which I have still never tried.

The Other Grandparents

Grandmother 2 lived in an older and less orderly village. The amenities were a good deal dirtier. The number of times I silently thanked my mother for teaching me how to be a gracious guest were countless. The yard was sort of a garden, and of course there were goats, fruit trees and even some beehives, well boxes of bees anyway.

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We walked around the village a bit, saw the main streets and the aqueduct which also doubles as a washing machine.

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Then her cousin came to pick us up and take us to some of the “sights”. There was a stage that the Beijing (Peiking) Opera apparently performs on during the spring festival.

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Is That a Town or a Film Set?

We went next to an old ruined village near the lake that has become a popular site for film directors. Apparently about half the ruin is authentic and the other half has been built over time by various film crews. I walked over a very rickety bridge, and was reassured that in the film, soldiers had run over it, but given what I know about film, this is not actually reassuring.

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Hostessing: Chinese Grandmother Style

We returned to her grandmother 2’s house, and the family picked up a chicken to serve with dinner, another nod to the guest of honor, as meat does not usually feature in their diet very much. A small swarm of relatives joined us, and I was ushered in to eat, at first alone, but I expressed they should join me; Queen said they were too shy to, but got them in anyway. They were also constantly pressing food on me, since both before and after dinner they made sure there were always snacks of fruit and bread nearby, and at dinner they constantly urged me to eat more.

They were also constantly worried I was too cold. They were amazed that I could use chopsticks. They were worried that Queen wouldn’t think of things I might need. They were generally very kind if somewhat fussy hosts.

After dinner, we gathered again on the brick bed, the kids worked on homework, I got a chance to look at some of their books. A few more people came and went, including her brother. As I became sleepy, they decided to evacuate to let me sleep. Queen told me that her family thought it might be rude to leave me to sleep alone, since the custom there is for the family to sleep together for warmth, but thankfully she was able to assure them that I would not be offended.

Again, they made sure I had food, tea, blankets and a bucket before leaving, and I headed into a fitful night’s sleep, punctuated by a nocturnal goat and a lonely puppy. I had no idea up until this point that goats were the least bit nocturnal, nor was I aware that any animal not in some kind of serious distress could make noise that constantly for that long.

A Sunday Morning Stroll

I gave up on sleeping around 7am, got dressed and found a corner of the garden to brush my teeth in (remember, no sinks), had a cup of tea and headed out for a pre-breakfast stroll thru the village. On the way we passed a sign, which I was told was put there by the government to entreat people not to follow Falun Gong, and those of you who have talked to me at all in the last 3 years know that this has been a bit of an interest of mine¹, so I was unable to resist the temptation to engage in conversation when I discovered that all the tales I had read of Chinese propaganda were true.

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They were told that FLG followers committed suicide and killed people. She was angry that the US wouldn’t turn over Li Hongzhi (the leader) to the Chinese government, and simply seemed to have a block on the idea that the facts might have been distorted. I tried to explain the concept of independent studies, and that thus far the Chinese had not allowed us to conduct one. I told her that FLG practitioners in other countries were peaceful (if a little noisy), and she was amazed there were practitioners in other countries, which just goes to highlight the lack of information available, since in America, one only has to do a google search to find thousands of mentions in the news².

She also told me that prior to the ban, her mother had been a member, though they had renounced it when the government turned against it. All in all, it was illuminating. It took me a long time to convince her that I didn’t like or agree with Li or FLG, but that I respected their right to believe as they wanted. She argued that China had plenty of religious choices; I said 5 is not plenty. She said more religions cause more conflict, I said, no, pluralism decreases violence. It was interesting.

Anywho. There was a lovely breakfast, egg fried rice, more veggies and a kind of spicy mutton stew. Afterward we set out to climb the small mountain behind the house. There was a ladder going partway up the wall in the back, from which you could reach the road at the base of the mountain, and I was much mocked for not wanting to climb the wall, steep and without secure footing as it was, so we walked around.

The mountain had some goat trails, but for the main part, we picked our way upwards thru steep shifting gravel and spiky scrub plants. The view from the top, however, was expansive. It’s hard to tell from the photos, but you could make out the main mountain range, the lake and the railroad. Queen told me that when she was a little girl she could often see the Great Wall on those mountains clearly, but the pollution has now become such that you can only occasionally see the mountains at all.

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¹When this was written, I had only just finished my MA and my thesis was on the Falun Gong. The upshot is that any of my friends who held still for more than a minute over the last 18 months had been regaled with my research findings. Short version: it’s a cult based in Qi Gong practice (like Tai Chi) started in China in the 90’s, first embraced by the government, but banned in ’99. The leader lives in New York and directs his followers from there. Most people around the world who practice it are only aware of the exercise aspect, not too many people read far enough to get to the aliens with bone noses, the demons who want our bodies, and the leader’s determined efforts to take down the Communist government of China. It’s a major controversy in China. Followers are imprisoned, allegedly tortured and possibly even used as unwilling organ donors for transplant tourism. It’s a mess. You can start with Wikipedia, but the rabbit hole is deep.

²Still. I just looked and there are news articles as recent as a few days old. It looks like the controversy is still on.

Getting Back

Her cousin came back to get us, and drove us to a place where we could catch a ride back to the bus stop. This ride included driving on the still under construction highway, battling non-paved roads and trying to get around construction crews. We stuffed into a van with 8 other people and wended our way on the back roads to avoid the traffic jam caused by the fact that due to some visiting dignitaries in Beijing, trucks were not allowed into the city (makes a motorcade block seem like nothing).

The rest of the trip back was uneventful. I would like to add, however, that throughout the whole weekend, Queen and I had a number of very deep discussions on the differences between China and America. I not only learned a great deal, as she was pleased to tell me the history and conditions of the many places and people we saw, but I was deeply impressed with her mind. It was obvious that even though she had been taught how to feel about certain things by the message of the party, that did not stop her from thinking about other things once they were presented to her.

*(please take a moment to go and look at the photo album, as this is an environment most people will never see in person or even in a National Geographic. My photos may not be travel magazine quality, but this village is off the map, and only seems only to be known to the families who live there. I store my albums on Facebook because the free storage space is limited on WordPress.)

Reflections *(2007)

All in all, the trip had a profound affect on me. What I saw, what I learned, there is nothing to compare with it in all my other experiences and I hope I will never forget it. I know its impossible to relay the depth of the experience, there is nothing you can read or even see in a photograph that compares to being there, but I hope that in some way this sharing of my experience has impacted some of you as well.

That I am living in a country where less than 100 miles from a city that rivals New York there is such amazing poverty, devastatingly poor education and tragically low standards of living is so mind blowing I still don’t think I get it, and this wasn’t anywhere NEAR the poorest part of China. And yet, despite these conditions, the people are kind to foreigners, proud of their achievements and their nation, and hopeful for the future of their children and it was able to produce this girl I met, who is brilliant and motivated. And not only does this girl have the desire and ability to go to college, to get a master’s degree and even to study overseas, her greatest ambition is not to flee to a big city and a high salary job, but to return to her village after all that and help the next generation to produce more people like her.

There is so much I could not include here, and already its 6 pages long, so I’m stopping, but I’ll be putting up the pen pal lists soon, and all I can say is that I encourage you to meet one of these students, not just to enrich their lives, but to enrich your own, because they are amazing.


Reflections 2017

It was and still is one of the best experiences. It opened my eyes to things going on not only in China, but around the world and in my own country too. It’s so easy for people in the cities (or in moderately well-off rural areas) to forget that millions or even billions of people on Earth still live in these conditions or worse. I have seen people around the world struggling to make a living, struggling to get an education, struggling to make a better life for the generation after them. And yet, most of those people have been the kindest and most generous. 

As much as I love gaping at the wonders of nature, or history, or even of the modern world, nothing in my travels can ever compare to the simple experience of sharing time with another person, whether it is an hour, a day, or a year. I never want to give up seeking out the wonders of the world, but I never want to forget that one of those wonders is human beings themselves.

Letters From China (Playing Tourist 2007)

In October, I’d gotten into the swing of my teaching schedule, and the oppressive heat of the summer began fading into autumn coolness, affording me the chance to spend more time exploring Beijing and other nearby sights. I took some trips on my own, and others under the supervision of the school which made arrangements to take the English teachers to the Great Wall. In the original letters, I put thumbnail links of every photo, but in this re-posting, the majority of the pictures are in the Fabcebook albums. Enjoy!


Oct 4, 2007 at 8:04pm

Another round of pictures.

The first place we went was the Lama Temple, the largest Buddhist Temple in Beijing, and home of the world’s largest standing wooden Buddha statue. Last time I was here (2005), I was running low on memory space, so I only got about 6 pics, but yesterday I got tons, so hopefully you’ll enjoy.

First we have the main gate, the guardian lions and a couple of monks grabbing a snack.

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Next there is a secondary gate, a detailed map and history of the temple (you can actually read it if you zoom in), a nice bell, me next to another lion and one of the many buildings around, this one houses the statue that follows.

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And now we see the Turtle and carvings that are in building just above.

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Next is me with a prayer wheel, a kite trapped in a tree, a little girl throwing a coin for luck, a temple replica, and me with some more statuary.

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Some nice trees, roof spirits, and a giant lotus statue thingy.

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More lovely architecture, and in the last two you can see part of the city in the background. It amuses me to see the incongruity.

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This next line is one you need to read and look at to appreciate. These six statues are large, they go in order from smallest up, and each one is further into the temple complex. The first is about 5 or 6 feet high. You can see the roof in the next two, and its a vaulted ceiling, so these are 10-12 feet or so. The fourth is over 15 feet high, the fifth is at least 2 stories high, and the last, being the largest wooden buddha in the world stands about 4 stories high. There’s not much in each photo to present scale, the flowers and other decorations are to scale with the statues so they are ginourmous too.

And some parting shots on our way out.

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After a hour or so of wandering around the temple, we headed over to the lake district, flopped on the first soft seat I’ve been on since I got here at Club Obiwan and enjoyed some tasty fresh fruit smoothies. After the rest, we headed off for a walk around the lake, punctuated by the occasional pit stop for lunch and a happy hour mojito.

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On our way back to the bus station we spotted what we think was a gate house left over from when the old city wall was there.

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And after a long day in the city, we took a bus with standing room only back to our home in Yanjiao to be greeted by the evening piles of garbage left behind by passing citizens and collected by duly employed street sweepers.

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*(See the full day’s photos in the Facebook album)

Oct 15, 2007 at 10:20pm

The school took us on a little field trip to Huangyaguan, which is a section of the Great Wall near Tianjin. It was initially built in Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577 C.E.) and later renovated and lengthened in Sui Dynasty (581-618 C.E.) and again during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644C.E.) The Great Wall is not actually one continous wall, its built in several sections, and over time those sections have been repaired or lost so its seriously broken up nowadays, this section is about 26 miles long here.

It is regarded as an ‘Impregnable Pass’ in Tianjin. This section is the longest restored section of the Great Wall with a length of about 3337 yards. The city at the base also contains some gardens and a museum which will be in the second post.

We went up the shorter of the two sides, and it was still quite a climb. You can see the other side in the background of many pictures, and I urge you to realize that it went all the way over the mountain and down the other side.

Anywho. We left at 9am, preparing for the 2 hr drive, and it turned out to be three, since we were stalled by a police blockade which was stopping overloaded trucks. The traffic backed up to the point that there were 5 lanes of driving on a two lane road. We passed thru many very rural spots which I almost regret not taking pictures of, but its a little scary.

When we arrived at the wall, we had lunch before beginning out climb, fairly plain local food, including what appeared to be a whole chicken chopped up in a bowl, anyway I found feet.

We started our climb in the rain, and the school cordinators rented umbrellas for us.

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The beginning of the climb was easy enough, mild stairs and long flats. A nice view of the gardens below, one of which you see here, other’s you’ll see in the second post. We made it to the first watchtower with little trouble.

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Leaving the watchtower, the climb started getting more steep. There was a pretty harsh incline and some pretty scary stairs. And of course, endless gift stands. Some of the views are looking forward, some are looking back to give perspective on how far we’ve come and how far we have still to go. I’m pretty sure you still can’t see our final destination in these pics.

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I continue to impress upon you the steepness of these stairs, we’re going up a mountain here, and the Chinese take a very direct route to the top of a mountain, straight up. In this series, we made it to the second tower, or really I should say I made it, as I was rather slower than the rest of the group and paused often to take pictures.

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On the way to the last tower of this section, the construction of the wall changes a bit, becoming much less even and alot more multicolored. The sun finally started coming out and I captured a fantastic example of a tourist leaving thier mark on the wall… I felt only slightly mollified that they were Spanish.

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There was more up, but it got considerably rockier and there were no more towers, so most of the group settled for stopping here. I went up a bit more for some more photo ops from the top.

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We then began our descent, and since the sun came out, I took a bunch more pictures, I tried not to include duplicates.

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I hope you enjoyed, and again, I encourage you to take the time to look at the full size pics by clicking on them, as there are sooo many lovely details that can’t be seen in the thumbnails.

Coming soon: Great Wall Part II, in which there will be pictures and descriptions of the unique gardens at the base.

(full album on Facebook)

Oct 16, 2007 at 2:47pm

Guancheng (Pass City) is the center of the Huangyaguan section. Guancheng was itself a perfect defensive project and it is also where Bagua Village (The Eight Diagrams Village) is situated. Bagua Village was built in the Ming Dynasty according to the Eight Diagrams created by Fuxi (an ancient tribal leader).

In the reparation during the 1980s, more tourist sites were built at the foot of the Huangyaguan Great Wall in Bagua Village, including Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum and the Stele Forest. Huangyaguan Great Wall Museum is the first Great Wall museum in China.

We went thru the maze at Bagua, the Museum, as well as the stele garden (yes that’s how its spelled), saw a lovely miniature wall garden and the longevity garden.

The first pictures are of the bagua maze, there’s a lovely yinyang on the floor at the center, and later on in the museum section, you can see a model of it as well.

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Next is the Stele Garden and the miniature Wall. I didn’t take pictures of the poetry on the walls, since none of you can read it, I figured we’d all rather see the wall.

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Next we have the museum itself, not terribly impressive, but i’ve noticed that Chinese museums tend to lack the flair we’re used to in the states. I mostly took landscape photos, since the displays were not to interesting, but I did take a couple of the model of the city so you can see the basic layout. And a neat door knocker.

32museum6.jpgLastly is the Longevity Garden, which you can see in the second layout model above. It has a nice waterfall, and a reflecting pool in the shape of what may appear to be a swastika, but it really a sacred symbol of Buddhism. And while I’ve seen this figure in a statue before, I’m still not sure who it is, other than it seems to be someone important in Buddhist history.

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Hope you enjoyed! I think my next major trip will be to the home village of one of my students this coming weekend, which should be a real adventure.

(full album on Facebook)


The Lama Temple was a revisit for me, but the Wall at Huangyaguan was a new experience. In both cases, the art, architecture and history of China were still new to me. This is not to say that I do not still enjoy them, but I find that once I’ve gotten past the big tourist bucket list, there is so much left to see. When I compare this to my trip in 2012, or even my explorations more recently, I can see the seeds of my tourism habit forming in this place: a blend of bucket list and local flavor. A good reminder as I head off to explore a new land for the Chuseok holiday this year.