last stop on the ESL trail

small cemetery in Yangshuo, China

Cemeteries have never been creepy, sad places to me. The quiet, green, peaceful acres dotted with tombstones and surrounded by trees and ponds have often been my sanctuary for solitude. And some of my earliest memories are bright, sunny walks with Mom to the Marshalltown cemetery with a bag of stale bread to throw to the resident swans who lived like divas in a lovely pond. Many a walk I have had through the winding hills of the Iowa City cemetery, past the “black angel” and up to the entrance of the city’s own Central Park, Hickory Hill. The most beautiful cemetery I’ve ever seen was a five minute walk from my apartment in Wlocawek, Poland. Every tomb here is adorned with brightly colored flowers, glass lanterns, and wreaths. And how can I forget the small, yet thrillingly old St. Fintan’s with all its ornate Celtic symbols on Dublin’s Coast Road? If a town has a cemetery, rest assured, I’ve walked through it alone.


According to my former Chinese tutor, the Nanjing cemetery is located outside of town. However, its exact location is a mystery despite all my google searches. So rather than deal with long, confusing bus rides past the city’s suburbs in order to get my cemetery fix, I’ve had to settle for the resting places of some of the nation’s heroes and leaders. Though many, many more live than dead people can be found in these resting places, they still offer the serenity one can only get from green grass, abundant trees, and fresh air.

Sun-Yatsen Mausoleum

Sun Yat-sen is considered “the father of China” and is regarded in much the same way George Washington is by Americans. He led the revolution that ended the Qing dynasty, the last of a legacy of dynasties that spanned 5000 years. He was president of the first People’s Republic of China that began 1912. (Note: 1912 is also the name of a very “hip” part of the city full of overpriced restaurants and dance clubs.)

Sun’s nickname Zhongshan is the name of the two main roads (Zhongshan N. and S./ Zhongshan E. and W.) in Nanjing. At the intersection of these two busy roads stands a large bronze statue. More of the same can be found in front of many schools and public buildings throughout the country and his face adorns the pesky one yuan coin. His remains are at the foot of Purple Mountain, the most popular scenic spot in Nanjing.

view of downtown from Purple Mountain

This was one of the first places we visited, way back in October of 2010. In fact, we went here on National Day, the busiest day of the year, and about a month before they stopped charging an admission fee. Because there were so many people, we didn’t actually get inside the building where the remains are. But you get the idea.

interesting landscaping for a tomb

Yuhuaitai (Rain Flower Terrace) Park
“In late of Qing Dynasty, the armed forces of the Revolution of 1911 once used the natural topography of the Rain Flower Terrace to beat the soldiers of Qing Dynasty. When two sides were fighting, they also had casualties, so now on top of the hillock there still preserved two tombs of dead soldiers, providing people to show respect.

at entrance of Yuhuatai

This park surprisingly didn’t make it into the Lonely Planet guide or the wikipedia page about Nanjing. This free park is huge, full of winding paths, hidden gazebos, random statues, and even a peacock zoo. But because it was a cold winter day, we didn’t explore all the areas such as the agate stone park or the rain flower terrace tea house. The main draw of the park is a statue, tower, and memorial hall. Most people congregate around these areas for the requisite photo opp (“say qiezi”—eggplant in Chinese). Stray away from these and you might actually have a good 20-30 minutes of walking without seeing another soul.

monument in forest of Yuhuatai

Ming Tombs
This is by far my favorite “touristy” place in Nanjing. I liked it so much I forked over the 70 yuan fee twice, both on beautiful, rare blue-skied days–once last spring and again a few days ago this autumn.

family time at the tombs!

The person buried here is the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang. The pavilions and the archways are fantastic, but what I love best about this place is the Sacred Way where stone animals serve as guards for the emperor’s remains. I think they are supposed to be menacing and intimidating, but I find them rather cute.

Sacred Way 2

Sacred Way Cool

Additionally, there are several paths leading to ponds and areas full of trees. Again, these are usually empty as it seems the Chinese would rather just stay close to the cool stuff.

the less beaten path to the tombs

In each of these places and several others we have seen throughout China is the bixi monument, a large engraved stone tablet (stele) with a tortoise base. These bixi monuments have existed all over the Eastern world for centuries. I couldn’t really glean why a tortoise and not…say, a platypus. But I think the tortoise is regarded as a wise, mysterious, and strong animal and there are many ancient stories about it carrying heavy things on its back.

Bixis in three locations

The chaos of living in a large Chinese city can take its toll: the constant presence of others shoving, spitting, shouting; the constant traffic and its toxic fumes and cacophony of honking; the constant barrage of advertisements contrasted with the dullness of concrete and gray, hazy skies. To find a rare sanctuary—a place full of colors only found in nature, a place of relative quiet and open space—makes me so glad that there exists in our human nature an instinct to build and maintain these tranquil resting places for those who have departed.

great job at Ming Tombs


As I mentioned in my last post, this year we’ve been spending much less time splurging on nights on the town and much more time saving money at home. These nights in mostly involve a 10 yuan (about $1.30) pirated dvd and a home cooked meal. Over the last 14 months, we’ve accumulated at least 200 films. I thought it would be a fun mental exercise for us each to choose our top and bottom ten and limit ourselves to a one sentence review. The dvd shops showcase a truly bizarre mishmash selection of new releases, straight to dvd films, classics, and obscure foreign films. So I’ve included the imdb links in case anyone is curious as to what the h*ll film we’re talking about.

Top Ten Films by Stephen

 The Shop on Main Street (

Think Schindler’s List in a small shop being run by the Slovakian George Costanza. 

 Tony Manero (

Another black comedy, about a mad man running around killing people at the drop of a hat in a country (Argentina, late 70’s) run by mad men running around killing people at the drop of a hat.

 Ashes and Diamonds (

This is a film about a cooler than cool Polish resistance fighter killing time in a provincial hotel.


The Last Command (

This silent film might put some people to sleep but Emil Jannings was the first man to win an Oscar for his performance as a Russian general turned Hollywood extra. If you can stay awake until the end you will see why.


The Secret in Their Eyes (

Another film from Argentina set during military rule; this was the best film I have seen in a long time, a classic thriller in which for once you care about the characters.


How I Ended This Summer (

The tension in this film slowly winds itself up to a point at which you realize you have stopped breathing.


Barney’s Version (

This film is worth a look just to see the great Dustin Hoffman playing Paul Giamatti’s father.


Heaven (

A beautifully made film about the different ways people can choose to react to violence that jumps back and forth from a small-town in Denmark to a refugee camp in Africa.


Red Road (

This is a revenge film of sorts about a CCTV monitor who uses her cameras to follow the movements of a mystery man on a Glasgow housing estate.


Departures (

A funny and touching film about a man who must return to his hometown in Japan, he is forced to take a job as a funeral director’s assistant. At some point in the last twenty minutes expect to start crying.



Bottom Ten Films by Stephen

Vanishing on 7th Street (

The main premise is silly and inexplicable.


City of Your Final Destination (

This is the first film with Anthony Hopkins that I have disliked.


Rabbit Hole (

Too emotional and very boring.


The Company Men (

The worst film with the highest number of Oscar winners made in America since The Maiden Heist.


Fair Game (

Stop shouting at me Sean Penn, please stop shouting.


Daydream Nation (

You know what the fellow said – in Argentina, for seven years under the military Junta, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Tony Manero and The Secret in Their Eyes. In Canada, they had brotherly love, they had twenty five years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? Daydream Nation. So long Holly.


Stan Helsing (

This was a poor man’s Scary Movie.


Nine (

This was a stage musical that just seemed to be filmed without adapting it into a movie.


Howl (

This was a waste of time for me and for the people who made it.


The Disappearance of Alice Creed (

This film was miserable and boring.


Top Ten by Erika


Blue Valentine (

This simple tale of a blue collar marriage gone stale is made captivating by the on-screen chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams.

Neds (Non-educated delinquents) (

Though the teen protagonist’s foray into sociopathic behavior was maybe a bit too sudden and extreme, I enjoyed the raw glimpse into Glasgow youth culture of the 1970s. (NOTE:I needed subtitles to understand their English)

Bigger Than Life (

A nice and normal suburban school teacher (James Mason) goes insane after being given cortisone treatment for an illness.

The Secret of Their Eyes (

Imagine your favorite Law & Order episode and love unrequited story set in Argentina.

Persepolis (

I don’t usually like animation films but this was a clever and entertaining vehicle for watching a young Iranian girl grow up during the Islamic Revolution.

The Fighter (

I was so riveted by both Walberg and Bale’s performances, I couldn’t tell who was the “lead”.  This should have won Best Picture.

Boy A (

You want to hate this guy who has just been let out of prison for committing a murder when he was a child. But you just can’t.

Haevnen (In a Better World)

A brilliant drama about how two families deal with death and revenge.

Four Lions (

Terrorism is made hilarious in this tale about four suicide bomber wannabes.


Tony Manero (

This insane but likeable guy will stop at nothing to win a Tony Manero look alike contest; best dark comedy I’ve seen in ages.

The Bottom Ten by Erika

 The Vanishing on 7th Street (

There is absolutely no explanation whatsoever of how and why this “dark” takes over a city.

My Dinner with Andre (

I don’t care how popular this film is and how often it’s referenced in pop culture (such as the brilliant “Community”); I just wanted Andre to shut the hell up.

Rabbit Hole (

The film actually made the grief and drama of losing a child a yawn fest and I couldn’t get past how weird Nicole Kidman’s face looked.

Wall Street 2 (

Oh all the unrealized possibilities and unexplored plot lines in order to show that annoying kid from Transformers!!

Drive (

Ok, great music, great mood. But not enough driving. I felt ripped off.

Super 8 (

The end made me throw up a little.

Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (

I couldn’t get over Antonio Banderas in “mom jeans” or the unbelievable ending.

Enter the Void (

I could have stared at my screen saver and had the same experience.

The Sacrifice (

So many great things—beginning of WW3, stopping of time, blurring of reality—made painfully dull for three hours.

Somewhere (

I just didn’t care at all about this Hollywood actor and his mid-life crisis. (This makes two Elle Fanning movies that made my bottom 10 list–sorry Elle!)

November marks the 14th month we’ve been in China and though we’re in the same city, employed at the same maritime college (that has buildings that look like ships) and still living in the Princess House, some things are decidedly different.

Princess House and hedge art

Firstly, the moment our former upstairs colleagues/neighbors moved out for greener pastures, we grabbed our scant few belongings and fled upstairs to occupy the space I’d secretly coveted for a year. Upstairs has a bit more light, better floors, and a layout that doesn’t combine the living room and bed room.

living (and office) room

There are nice touches courtesy of some previous IKEA-loving occupants such as this clever fabric wall hanging and ornate tile in the bathroom.

unused, unheated room

But best of all is the tiny, but sunny kitchen complete with counter space, utensils, cookware, and the much loved, much used OVEN.

introducing the amazing oven, microwave, washing machine combo!

Last year we trawled the city in search of restaurants, street food, and any small gem of a place tucked away in small alleys. We still have our favorites and can’t live without a monthly dose of meat on a stick, but now with an oven, I’ve rediscovered my joy in cooking. Chopping and dicing local veggies, crushing garlic, adding spices sent from America by my good friend Jim, stirring, testing. I love losing myself in the task at hand which involves managing an oven, one hotplate, and a rice cooker and achieving a mental state where nothing else penetrates. Meditation is great and all but does it result in a three course meal? Ahhh how we’ve enjoyed lasagnas, toast, roasted veggies, soups, and a variety of creations involving melted cheese.


Of course, no place is ever perfect. With the new digs comes a much better view of the crazy muttering man next door who has long heated debates with no one, except for this one day when a bear hung out to chat with him.

Bear hanging out with Crazy Guy

Though we’ve only had a couple of chilly days, it’s apparent that this apartment isn’t heated nearly as well as the one downstairs. But I’m ready to endure winter with long johns, a fuzzy robe, and thick socks.

As I mentioned, our former neighbors are working elsewhere in the city and a couple has come from America to take their place. Well…sort of. Jenny teaches at our school, but Ian is working as a strength and conditioning coach for the Jiangsu Dragons basketball team (CBA-Chinese Basketball Association). After being exposed to mostly teacherly ex-pats for the last few years, I find hanging out with someone in a completely different field to be exciting and refreshing.

Ian, Steve, and Dan (Dragons player from US)

This is their first time living abroad so it is also nice to have a fresh perspective from someone who isn’t yet jaded by the multitude of annoyances that come with living as an ex-pat (check out their awesome blog: ) The only downside is that with the glamorous job of working with a national sports team, comes lots of travel. So we don’t see Ian as much as we’d like.

at famous Nanjing cuisine restaurant (minus Ian)

Not only do we have new fun and interesting neighbors, we also have new kittens living in a shed next to our house. The mama calico, resident of the campus, gave birth to a litter of 7 a few weeks ago. Each day we try to coax them out with fancy cat food and fake meows. I managed to grab this brazen white one the other day. A soft and fluffy cloud of quaking fur with two different colored eyes!


Not all of our life revolves around the Princess House compound. We still must earn our keep. I’m again teaching Business English to freshmen and sophomores. Teaching the same course a second year in a row is a blessing. All that work I did last year to create ‘stimulating, level-appropriate communicative activities’ only needs to be slightly tweaked. In addition, my six courses are only on two days (Tuesday and Friday) which has freed my schedule for taking on a part-time job.

On Wednesday and Thursday mornings, I teach seven 45 minute classes to 8th graders at a “foreign language school” that is about a 15 minute bus ride from home. From the outside, the school seems to be a pristine haven of quality learning. Fountains and landscaping of flowers, palms, and even some orange trees adorn the front entrance and the courtyard has a striking red abstract sculpture.

school courtyard

Art is hung on the walls outside of each classroom door and one can’t miss the inspirational quotes in English hanging on walls at the bottom of each stairwell. However, the classrooms themselves are cramped areas with shoddy wooden desks and chairs and tattered curtains. And best of all, students and teachers alike share an antiquated toilet system of squatting over a trough in a door-less cubicle. Nothing like being stared at by wide-eyed teen girls while trying to literally not fall in.

squat over the trough--in full view

Working with kids is not my forte and I find the task of managing 42 rowdy young teens while trying to do communication activities without any materials a bit challenging. But the time goes by quickly and the extra money is nice. I just wish that the Chinese teachers at the school would say hello as I walk by. Sometimes I wonder if I blend in with the white walls….

our main source of entertainment

If last year’s theme was exploring and experiencing China, this year’s theme is saving money to get away from China. Eating at home is one way to save money and also allows me to pursue a “hobby”. Even though we have two jobs, we still have loads of free time, so we need lots of hobbies. Cinemas and western bars are insanely expensive, not to mention a bit dull. The only movies the cinemas get here are the blockbuster action films like Transformers and The Green Lantern. So we spend quite a bit of time watching cheap pirated films bought at any number of dvd shops. Though there seems to have been a crack down lately on these shops. Stephen actually got thrown out of one by a policeman a few weeks ago.

China is still a fascinating place and I make it a point to try to periodically discover new places within the city. And living a quieter life affords us the chance to take trips to Shanghai (see upcoming blog) and escape winter by going to a tropical paradise (Thailand winter blog coming February 2012). In this crazy ESL life yearly changes are the norm: new continents, new language, new climate, new everything. Though the changes this year have been small, more exciting unexpected changes are sure to come.

The U.S. is a huge country—the third largest in the world. Which is why it can be difficult to answer questions about “America” and “Americans”. For example, I’ve been asked a few times, “Do Americans like seafood?” Me: “Well, in Iowa, not so much because we’re 2000 miles from the sea and two day old salmon costs a small fortune. Maine has lobster and crab and according to The Simpsons, they like chowder. California probably has a lot of fancy things like sushi and mahi mahi. Scandanavian northerners like pickled herring. And those Cajuns down south like to the suck the heads of crawfish. Myself—I’ve eaten a few fish sticks in my day.” The diversity within my country is astounding. Even in my home state there’s more to be found than overly friendly meat and potato eating farmers. Take a drive on a two lane road and you’ll find small towns with authentic Ecuadorian cuisine, German Amish fare, and places that serve beer with clamato juice.

China, too, is an enormous and diverse country. And I was ready to see something of it other than the concrete jungles, KFC, and the occasional historical relic not destroyed by the Japanese or earthquakes. I had two goals for the holiday: to see the desert and to feel like I was in a completely different place from Nanjing. Stephen’s main goal was to see The Great Wall.

One of the best trips I ever had was traveling the old Route 66 Highway from Missouri to New Mexico. I had a similar idea to travel part of the Ancient Silk Road, the 3000 year old trade routes that connected Asia, Europe, and Africa.

To summarize our journey: Nanjing to Xi’an via plane; Xian to Langzhou by plane; (side tour to Linxia and Langmusi by bus); Langzhou to Dunhuang by 20 hour train; Dunhuang to Beijing by plane; Beijing to Nanjing by high speed train. All goals were realized plus a few unexpected bonuses. Here is a sample of the highs and lows of our 21 day holiday.


1) The Army of Terracotta Warriors—a life size army built and buried underground 2000 years ago to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

2) The Muslim Quarter is a maze of narrow streets with tons of spice, food, and souvenir vendors.

Muslim Quarter II

3) I haven’t ridden a bicycle in years and have never ridden tandem. We rode around the 14km perimeter of the old city walls and were able to see the city from all angles.

bicycle built for two

bike ride around xi'an city wall

4) Our hostel was clean and near the north wall and train station. Above our bed was a giant poster for “Ocean’s 11”.

7 Sages Hostel

5) Free places. A free museum and temple were near the Little Goose Pagoda.

Small Goose pagoda, Xi'an

Xi’an Lowlights

1) The Big Goose Pagoda (where the Monkey King brought the original Buddhist scrolls to be guarded) has a separate entrance fee to actually go inside the pagoda. So the 50 yuan fee only gets you views of the place you could see from the street as well as access to overpriced souvenir shops.

2 Big Gooses

2) Xi’an still had a Chinese city feel. Old buildings like the ancient Drum Tower are right next to shopping malls and the like.

historical site + mall

Langzhou was just a stop on the way to the smaller towns of Linxia and Xiahe.

Linxia Highlights:

1) The views from the bus were spectacular. Mountains, green hills, and several mosques and temples with golden domes shining in the sunlight.

landscape dotted with mosques

Linxia Lowlights:

1) Most hotels here do not accept foreign guests. We looked for nearly two hours and by chance ran into a couple of Dutch travelers who told us where we could go. The room was standard and not too bad. The travelers also told us that we wouldn’t be able to go to Xiahe the next day as planned because foreigners were banned for a week. ( We were bummed about not being able to see Labrang Monastery, the largest Tibetan monastery or the Sanghe Prairie.

the closest I got to Xiahe

2) Linxia had a vibe of unfriendliness towards foreigners. We definitely felt like a mark and were indeed charged double for a local specialty dish in a dirty restaurant. Dapanji (whole chicken cut up and fried with potatoes and peppers and served with a spicy chili sauce).


3) I was also quite sick with a sinus infection and/or altitude sickness.

the unfriendly and dirty Linxia

After our night in Linxia, we decided to go another temple town, Langmusi. We had called ahead and were told by a hostel owner that foreigners were allowed there.

Langmusi Highlights:

1) Again, the scenery on the bus journey on the two lane highways was spectacular. Did not feel like the China of Nanjing.

on the road to Langmusi, Gansu Province

The town of Langmusi has 3000 people—mostly Tibetans, Hui Muslims, and other minority groups.


out for a stroll

Langmusi, population 3000

2) An absolutely friendly and beautiful place with mountains, meadows, blue skies, rivers, and bright stupas.

Serti Gompa a.k.a Gansu Temple

3) The two temples (Kerti Gompa and Serti Gompa) were the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Quiet, unspoiled. Great views in and around. Prayer wheels available to all.

prayer wheels II

4) Of course we also had a lot of great food including yak.

Langmusi Lowlights:

1) We found out upon arriving that foreigners would be forced to leave in the morning, so we only had about 14 hours total in this place. We’d hoped to do a lot of hiking in the surrounding mountains.

view from Serti Gompa

2) Again, many hotels would not allow us to stay. The one that did clearly was disobeying the rules and probably shouldn’t be a hostel. Room with four beds, a tv from the 1960’s, no windows. Our unlit bathroom was outdoors. A skinnier person might fall in to the river below.

only toilet at our no name Langmusi hotel

Because of the ban on foreigners in the area and the infrequency of buses, we spent most of the next day traveling. We had to make it back to the dull town of Langzhouto get a train to Dunhuang.

lots of hours on buses like this

Highlight: In Langzhou we bought our train ticket quite easily and were able to book a room for 4 hours in a nice hotel for much needed showers and rest before our train left at 8:30 p.m.

Lowlight—the biggest lowlight:

We didn’t ask when the train arrived because Lonely Planet said it was a 12 hour journey. We had booked the cheapest class of ticket, which are sets of seats facing one another. Our journey lasted 20 hours. I slept most of the time due to my sickness and sleeping pills. Stephen sat the entire time with little leg room.

20 hour hell journey

Dunhuang (7days)

Ireland Jones


1) Our hostel was clean and had laundry. It was in the center of town and next to one of the dozens of outdoor bbq restaurants. The owner of our hostel, Charley Zhong, also had a café with cheap Western food, real coffee, and yogurt shakes.

Charley Johng's Hostel Dunhuang

2) The dunes surrounding the town were gorgeous. We had two awesome bike rides through the small farming villages near the dunes. I never knew how much I liked riding a bike!

desert village bike ride

3) The Mogao Caves are one of the “must see” places of Gansu Province. Started around 300 A.D., the area had 18 monasteries and about 450 caves. Wealthy merchants and government officials commissioned artists to adorn the caves with paintings and Buddha statues in order to accumulate good luck when traveling on the treacherous Silk Road. Now a few of the caves are open each day for a few visitors. Taking pictures in the caves is forbidden but if you google “pictures of mogao cave grottoes” you can see what’s inside.

Mogao Caves from afar

4) We  took a day long side trip to the Yadan National Park, which looks a lot like the Badlands of South Dakota and also saw a part of the original wall which has not been restored.

no so Great Wall (unrestored)

5) By far, the biggest highlight for me was the overnight camel trip to the dunes. Stephen, myself, two camels…

the camels wanted their picture taken

and a guide, Mr. Li

head rest

The walk into the desert took about 3 hours.

desert cemetery III

We watched the sunset, set up camp, ate some instant noodles, had a moonlight rest under the stars, long sleep in a tent, sunrise, and back to the town. The desert is surreal, beautiful with its shifting lines and millions of shades of brown. Loved, loved it.

desert sunset II


1) Two of the days were cloudy and rainy. In a desert.

2) Twice a restaurant tried to overcharge us and we had to haggle on the final bill.

3) On our second bike ride, Stephen was chivalrous and took the crappy bike while I had the nice mountain bike. The chain fell off several times. We argued with the man about the bill and refused to pay.

Mechanic Steve


Who can live in China and NOT see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, or Tiananmen Square?

Great Wall in sepia


1) On our first day, we went on a booked hike on the Great Wall.

smogless views!

A long uphill hike between 22 towers.

this stretch nearly killed us

The day (like all the other days we were there, thankfully) was hot and cloudless so the views were phenomenal.

gazing at the wall

2) Hutongs  are surviving medieval neighborhoods of winding, narrow alleys, old trees, and courtyard homes. They are places to wander and see how people live as they did  hundreds of years ago. A place that feels like more like “China” and less like Chicago.

hangin' in the hutong

3) Beijing is easy to get around and especially foreigner friendly since the 2008 Olympics. But it definitely helps traveling with someone who knows how to read a map and rarely gets lost. We walked nearly everywhere in the city and only hired a rickshaw once.

the saturated market of rickshaw driving

4) We were able to meet up with our colleague Eileen, her son, and her friend. Her friend works for a German company and said she wanted to give us some classic Beijing food that Westerners were like. So we got lots of fried stuff. But I loved ma tofu, kinda like a hummus made with fermented soybeans. Also tried classic red bean paste noodles. It was a bonus having Michael and his friend teach us a crazy card game called “Chase the Land Lord”.

swindled by some local cardsharks

In addition to Beijing food, we tried eating vegetarian meals a few times, which is a change for two people who love weekly doses of meat on a stick.

5) In the heart of city is The Forbidden City, a fascinating place of ancient imperial debauchery.

outside the Forbidden City


1) Our hostel that we had booked on line was in the heart of a hutong and not far from several sites, but it was dirty and run by chain smoking shirtless non English speaking family. It was also one of these places where the shower is right next to the toilet and the walls are frosted glass and therefore, not a barrier between you doing your business and your partner resting on the bed on the other side of the glass.

Horrible Hutong Hostel

2) Beijing is the capital. It’s huge. People are everywhere. Everywhere! The Forbidden Citywas an amazing place but with so many people there, it was difficult to imagine it as it was hundreds of years ago.

rare people-less pic at Forbidden City

All in all our trip was an interesting mix of cultures, scenery, and history. I find that I’m more of a small town outdoorsy tourist rather than a big city, tick the boxes kinda girl. But I enjoyed every place we went. Though my ESL career is less than a glamorous one, I’m lucky that it offers me the chance to have these journeys!

inside testing booth in Examination Hall

When I was a grad student and before I knew that the itch I felt was wanderlust, I was a research assistant at a center that studied the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on the K-12 public school curriculum. “Dreadful snoozefest!!” I can hear you exclaiming. “No wonder you buggered off to Bangkok alone with one suitcase!” Well, there really was no cause-effect relationship with those two scenarios—just two different chapters. And actually, I found the research to be quite interesting (if you do too, you can read about the stuff I participated in here: ), so interesting that I can’t enter into an educational setting without thinking about the curriculum and how testing affects content and learning.

 China has a long history with standardized tests that began over 2000 years ago and continues today. An Imperial Examination was started during the Han Dynasty (about 206 B.C) to keep aristocrats from getting their corrupt best buddies appointed to the imperial court. Any male of any status and any age could take the one to three day test and become a high-ranking official. The curriculum covered the “Five Studies”: military strategy, civil law, revenue and taxation, agriculture and geography, and the Confucian classics. Of course the test was extremely difficult and many people took it year after year in hopes of passing. The examination halls were located in a few areas throughout the country. One of these is a 15 minute walk from my apartment.

entrance to Examination Hall

Visiting here is worth the 20 yuan. To see the tiny little cubicles where tens of thousands of men of all ages flocked from the country side to take their chance at improving their social status, to see the vast numbers of ways men tried to cheat to get this rank. It’s a fascinating place.

 The Imperial Examination was eventually abolished in the final dynasty (though apparently the current civil service exam has similar features). After the Cultural Revolution there was a renewed interest in and appreciation for higher learning and thus a need for some standardized process to admit millions of people of all ages who wanted a chance for a new life.

 Enter China’s Gao Kao, the mother of all tests. Every year in June, millions of students in their last year of high school sit for a three day exam that will determine if they have the opportunity to study or will be forced into a life of tolling in a job where an education isn’t necessary. Additionally, scores determine which universities the students are allowed to study in. A less than stellar score can mean two to four years of study in a third-rate college rather than a prestigious one. A degree from a third-rate college will get a third-rate job. Once the path is determined, there’s no going back. A person can take the Gao Kao again, but will risk getting a lower score and suffering the consequences. The test is of such importance that traffic is often rerouted around testing areas to keep the noise level down. All the years of schooling have led to those 72 hours at a desk on a summer day. It doesn’t take too much to imagine the amount of stress these kids and their parents must feel.

Stephen's future is on the line!

Students I’ve talked to in China say this is the way it is and the way it must be. They describe their last years in school as long, long days filled with practice for the exam and very few extracurriculars, let alone free time for hanging out. Weekends and summers are filled with extra classes, and to not do these extras sends a message of blatant underachieving. When I shared a typical schedule for an American student, they responded with disdain, not bothering to hide their superiority complexes about China’s stereotypical high achievement in math and science. On the other hand, they seemed a little wistful when I described thematic projects, drama classes, class trips to Spain. The cleverer ones admit that they may have more knowledge but maybe not much skill at applying it.

I’m not a big fan of tests and even less of a fan teaching people how to take them, but when I was offered a month long gig at three times my normal salary to prepare a small group of precocious teens to take the SAT, I couldn’t say no. All of them were hoping to get a score of 1800 so that they would be eligible to study at a university in Singapore. This group of kids stole my heart. They argued with me about grammar points like masters level linguistics students; they refused to accept my “It sounds awkward” explanations; and they had an insatiable appetite for new words and expressions. But it was their single-minded drive to get a score well above the minimum required in most American colleges that really impressed me. They studied 8:30a.m. to 8:30 p.m. six days a week and stayed in a dorm across from the teaching building. When I asked them why they would give up their summer to do this, they just shrugged and said that’s the way it is. If they want to compete and get a much coveted spot, they have to beat out tens of thousands of others with the same skill sets. Of course it doesn’t hurt that many students born around 1990 have parents wealthy enough to give their only children an edge.

last day of class!

Critics of standardized testing in the U.S. warn of the narrowing of the curriculum to focus on only tested skills (reading and math) and the elimination of not only subject areas such as art, music, and civics but also skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. They argue that focusing so much on drill and practice in preparation for tests takes time away from classroom activities that foster a love of learning and help students grow into responsible thinking adults. Proponents of standardized testing say that schools need to be held accountable for teaching all students the basic skills needed to survive into today’s society and that no school, regardless of its students’ profiles or economic status, can fly under the radar.

One aspect both sides do seem to agree on in is that a child’s future shouldn’t be determined solely by one test score on one day. When American students begin the college admissions process, they are armed with not only a score from an entrance exam like the ACT or SAT, but also grade point averages, essays, letters of recommendation, and awards and achievements gained through the last four years of their secondary school career. The universities want to see their applicants as well-rounded individuals. A test can’t give a snapshot of a student’s accomplishments over the last four years or his or her future potential. After all, a kid might be sick on a testing day or may be a perpetually bad test taker. He or she might have just had a big fight with mom, dad, or a girlfriend. Maybe the family dog of 13 years died.

Critics of the Gao Kao do exist and are out there demanding changes to this testing system, especially in light of recent numbers of student suicides. But the roots of China’s standardized testing go much deeper than those of the US and until those at the national level see a need to correct the flaws that have existed for centuries, I’m afraid that in the words of my students, “That’s just the way it is.”

Suicide Blog

Did the title of this entry make you think of the INXS song? Do you have Suicide Blonde in your head now?

Joking aside, suicide in our modern world is all too familiar; we all know at least someone who has been affected by it. The pressures of survival, the economy, war, relationships are so overwhelming for some that they feel there is absolutely no other option but to jump off the bridge, swallow the poison, or pull the trigger.

China is no exception. Last year, several workers at Foxconn, an electronics factory in Shenzhen, committed suicide purportedly due to a variety of factors related to the working conditions ( According to a 2008 report from WHO, suicide is the leading cause of death among women, especially in rural areas. And due to the extreme competition of higher education, suicide is all too common among high school and university students. (Those of you in Iowa will likely remember the 1991 University of Iowa shooting by Gang Lu, a Chinese graduate student in physics. The story was a partial inspiration for a film with Meryl Streep.)

So depressing! Why does it happen? Why would anyone do it? Well, determining the causes of this phenomenon is probably best left to the psychologists and sociologists. However, as I’ve traveled to several scenic spots and come across ancient tales, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible that old teachings such as fables as well as romanticized versions of history have played a small role in people’s conception of the suicide solution.

And they suicided themselves and turned into mandarin ducks,” our teacher tells us, a bit of awe creeping into her usually academic voice. When I gasp at the conclusion of this ancient children’s story, she goes on to tell me that suicide is common in ancient literature and features prominently in many fables. And I suppose this is true in Western literature as well, but it’s more likely that the creators of literature rather than their characters off themselves. And there is something romantic about Ernest Hemingway sitting with a bottle of whiskey and a shotgun or Virginia Woolf walking into a river, her overcoat full of stones. Do those who are about to fling themselves off a cliff into the sea think about those who have jumped before them? Does romanticizing the act make it easier for those left behind? I don’t know. I imagine a lot of smart people have examined this topic and written big papers about it. These are just a few random instances of suicide  memorialized and cemented in Chinese culture that I have personally come across in the last few months.

A 45 minute walk from our house is Mochou Lake, named after Mochou, who when faced with the prospect of her husband never returning from war, killed herself and turned into a lake.

On this same lake on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month (June 6 this year), the annual dragon boat races are held. To sum up the legend: In 278 B.C. a very loyal Qu Yuan tried to warn the king about corruption in the empire. The corruptors convinced the king that it was Qu Yuan who was the bad one and he was exiled. After writing some of the most famous poetry in Chinese history about his love of the country and fear for its future, he waded into a river and drowned himself. People were so distraught that they went out on their boats to try to save him and dropped rice in the water to deter the fish from eating his body. Now each year there are boat races and some rituals about giving offerings to the river.

A few weeks ago, we took a trip with the foreign language department to nearby Anhui province—a beautiful place of mountains and countryside. Walking through the forest, I saw this sign, yet another example of romanticized suicide. The theme of star-crossed lovers we know all too well. But don’t we also know all too well that at that age, they’d probably break up eventually and move on?

Next month we’ll be traveling to Beijing and to The Forbidden City, which during the rule of Emperor Yongle in the 1400’s was rampant with suicide, albeit some not so voluntary. It is said the Emperor forced his hundreds of concubines to off themselves in order to save his reputation. When a different emperor, Chong Zhen, ruled in the 1600s, he forced his favorite concubine Chang Ping to jump into a well rather than be captured by invading forces. This story is a famous opera called Patriotic Princess.

It is impossible to determine the impact that ancient myths and fables or artists and their characters  have on the average modern citizen’s conception of suicide. But it is interesting how a whitewash of romance, music, beauty, poetry can turn something ugly and disturbing into something we actually pay to see.


Catching the Sun

Glimpsing through the photos from all the excursions (and blog posts) from the last year, all I see is grey, grey, and more grey. One might be led to think that China is a cold, dreary place shrouded in permafog. But it is not true! We just had a streak of bad luck on all our planned trips. But in reality, it was on those spontaneous days out and unexpected trips that we saw the blue skies. And had the most fun.

So here I present a random smattering of pics taken on spectacularly sunny days this last year. From walks around the old quirky Baixia neighborhood to the steel heart of downtown; from the futuristic ghost town of Olympic Stadium to the packed hills of Sun Yatsen’s Mausoleum; and finally to the neighboring province of Anhui where for two days we were able to breathe fresh mountain air and see farms and villages little changed by the dragon’s hunger for modern prosperity.

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