Qingcheng Mountain 青城山

Host sister
Walking through Qingcheng Mountain

Another late post; sorry, friends

As a last hurrah, my Chengdu host family took me on another excursion to UNESCO World Heritage Site and famed Daoist mountain, Qingcheng. It’s somewhat ironic I finally get to posting these. 都江堰 Dūjiāngyàn, just outside of Chengdu, has a spectacular gorge, much like the one currently experiencing an Armegeddon-level blaze in my homeland.

The dam, called Dujiangyan, defines Sichuan’s modernity and is largely responsible for allowing its agricultural prosperity and the relaxed culture that arose from its food stability.  Built in 256 BC (a long time ago) under the leadership of municipal governor Li Bing , the dam is a revolutionary marvel of hydraulic engineering.

The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, occupies a plain between several mountains. In old times, torrential rain and floods plagued the region, destroying cities and crops. Li Bing was tasked with stabilizing the area to support military and civilian goals in the area, and discovered the flooding was caused by the silty build up once the waters arrived to the flat terrain. Sediment-laden mountain flows streamed into rivers, which then erupted over the plain.

To prevent flooding, Li Bing’s workers constructed a massive levee to part the rivers, redirecting some of the river to irrigate the land and the other half to drain the excess water to flow away from the populated plain. The dam is remarkable for several reasons: Instead of blocking the river and harming the wildlife in it, the Min river still freely flows, just in several tributaries. Secondly, to alter the course of the river, Li Bing had to channel the flow through the mountain. 

In a period where gunpowder was not invented yet, Li Bing bore a 66 foot wide path through the mountain. Alternating with scalding water and freezing water, the rocks slowly fractured and made way. The process took eight years, and during that time, Li Bing was isolated and prohibited from having any contact with his family. Makes me pretty glad Peace Corps service is only 27 months. Dujiangyan is still used today, a wonder that is extremely fascinating to me.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to visit the actual levee, but we did spend a lot of time around the mountains. Here are some photos.

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The front of the mountain is famed for its Daoist temples, but the backside of the mountain is famous for the waterfalls and its hiking opportunities.

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*artistique*
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Of course, as with all Chinese hiking, refreshments are readily available on the trail
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Playing in the river near the base of the back mountain
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Walking through a bamboo forest on the way to a temple, featuring host family and host cousins
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge
One of the many waterfalls in the Qingcheng Gorge
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Practicum: teaching bootcamp

I wrote this probably two months ago or more. So embarrassing.

#不好意思

To help fledgling educators learn how to teach that good and authentic American English, hundreds of Chinese high school, university, and graduate students, and a few incredibly talented middle school students, volunteered their summer holiday to sit in Peace Corps trainee-taught classes for two hours a day.

If you know me, you’ll know that I believe mysteries to be one of the greatest delights and forms of entertainment in this plane of existence. Back at home, I honor Sunday as a holy day, religiously tuning in to the Public Broadcasting Service’s 9:00 PM “Masterpiece Mystery!” After years of enjoying mysteries, I thought I might be able to share this great art form with my practicum students by having them solve a murder mystery as their final assessment.

Marcus, my practicum partner, and I chose to teach high schoolers instead of undergrad and graduate students.Our TEFL trainers had consistently warned us that our students at final sites would have low English proficiencies and might not be able to string together a self-introductory sentence. We thought high schoolers might prove more receptive to playing a mystery game as their final assessment and also, since they had fewer years of English education, that they might be more similar in proficiency to students at our final sites.

Starting practicum (the two week model school) was nothing short of heart-attack inducing, but due to a lot of teamwork and the inherent awesomeness of my students, I made it through. Our class started out with 11 students, and every single one of them possessed amazing fluency. The challenge was not getting our students to participate, but in constantly revising lesson plans to stretch the knowledge of the students.

For most of our students, the time they spent with us was the only relaxing time they had during the day. Chinese high school students typically spend their “summer vacations” doing hours of homework, fitting in additional lessons and going to cram school (bu3xi2ban1, 补习班) in preparation for the national college entrance exam, the gao1kao3 高考. In the final week of the class, we ended up losing two students to study camps.

To an American, the study ethic of Chinese students is INCREDIBLE, but makes sense when you understand the impact that the gao1kao3 holds in Chinese society.

A student’s gao1kao3 scores not only determine the college they are allowed to attend, but also the major that the student is allowed to study. This may seem like a slightly more serious SAT, but you also must keep in mind that China’s student population numbers in the billions, the admission slots of top tier schools (一本大学) are few, and the students admitted into competitive majors such as management and economics, are even fewer.

The gao1kao3 is such a huge cultural phenomenon, that during the end of spring semester, roads near testing centers will shut down, taxi drivers will ferry students to test locations for free, and parents of high school seniors are given time off work so they can ensure their child makes it to the test. The test is delivered over several days and takes around 9 hours to complete.

Despite this looming pressure over Chinese high school students, our practicum students eagerly participated, injecting creativity and enthusiasm into every drill. Their relentless competitiveness in review activities and the fervor they showed in recounting the names of murder weapons (baseball bat! blunt objects! poison! SWORD! knife! gun!) inspired me to find challenges that would keep up their engagement and help them improve their English.

I spent hours “driving the night bus”  (开夜车: the Chinese equivalent of burning the midnight oil), writing lessons and often finalized the plan but one hour before I needed to start writing on the chalkboard. By the time the final assessment arrived, I was spent. In planning for practicum, I had originally found a few ESL mysteries online, but over the week, discovered these games were too simple for our students.

The night before the final assessment, I decided I had to find something difficult for them. Borrowing heavily from years of consuming Masterpiece Mystery!, Nancy Drew, and the myriad of novels recommended by my fellow mystery fan and former coworker, Lisa,  I hurriedly attempted to write a mystery that would challenge my students’ brilliant minds. Assembling a convoluted story of murder and intrigue for the students to role play took all night, and like clockwork, I finished just one hour away from class.

The day of the assessment was rewarding beyond belief, and I had little to do besides announce the time limits. Each student assumed the personality of a character who was present at a dinner party, where, OF COURSE, some rich guy died. Couldn’t avoid that cliché. 😉 The students hungrily conversed with the others to gather information. By the end of the two hour class period, they wouldn’t leave the building and raucously accused each other of murdering Mr. Theodore Allen.

The students’ final task was to create a two minute speech on how they deduced the murderer. After the game, Marcus and I allotted another two hour class period to help them on their speeches, but soon found that help was not necessary.

On the final day of class, our students blew us out of the water, presenting speeches that averaged out to around four minutes. Without much of our help, they expertly used consequential and sequential transition phrases and worked into their presentations a healthy scattering of some of the 60 vocabulary words we had studied.

I initially felt anxious at having written a mystery that lacked a clear answer. The students deserved a proper and logical puzzle! Yet, their rationales were extraordinarily detailed and some were so creative, I wished I had arrived at their ideas for the true solution of the mystery. By unintentionally keeping the clues somewhat open, the students were able to show off their genius and imagination. My mistake turned out to be a happy accident, but also caused me hours of anxiety that will ensure I spend a lot more hours figuring out how to teach once I’m at site.

After all the speeches had been delivered, I revealed the name of murderer and 1/3 of the students rejoiced, having their accusation validated. We finished the day with snacks, sodas, and some violin performances by Marcus and an impromptu one by our student Cindy, who sight read “Do you want to build a snowman?”

My students showed me graciousness and eagerness to learn. They were open in their feedback, which helped me realize being a good teacher is about facilitating activities that allow the students to explore, practice, and help them arrive at their own understandings. Designing that 80/20 is a struggle for me, but ultimately, there are few things as rewarding as sitting at the back of the class, watching your students apply and create with the skeletons of instruction you’ve given them.

Chinese Hiking at Emei Shan

Written~ two weeks ago

After hearing that hiking was most treasured hobby, my generous host fam set off this weekend to Emei Mountain, a sacred Buddhist mountain where the bodhisattva Pu Xian became enlightened.

With no time to prepare and thunderstorms in the forecast, I threw a raincoat, my Give n Gobble shirt, hiking pants, and my Merrells into my pack. Though grateful for a chance to get out of the city, my stomach simmered a slow anxiety about going on a strenuous hiking trip after one of the most exhausting weeks I’ve ever experienced.

Nevertheless on Friday night, I shuffled into a the back of a massive black Mercedes Benz and fought the urge to fall asleep as we tore past the Sichuan countryside under a blood orange sun and the melancholy melodies of Chinese pop ballads.

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The Chinese built the Great Wall, but they sure weren’t concerned about the breadth of the Emei mountain road. After a torturous trek we arrived at our hotel and I quickly realized this was not the hiking excursion I’d anticipated. I envisioned spare rooms tucked away into green hillsides, with plain vegetarian canteens located a small distance away in a nearby town. In essence, an Oregon hiking trip with some Buddhist flavor. I was really looking forward it.

My host parents, however, booked several rooms at Qi Li Ping, a massive and luxurious resort filled with various hotels: think a Neuschwanstein-inspired princess castle, a Panda forest hotel, and ours, a normal-inspired (???) hotel, all with access to the facility’s hot springs.

I’m pretty sure I woke the half the guests up when I saw my room–a massive loft, complete with a King-size bed and walls papered with brush paintings of the mountain. The bathroom was completely floored in marble and the centerpiece was a bath the size of a jacuzzi. #poshcorps

I slept better than I ever had in China and awoke to shovel a few bowls of congee into my mouth. My mom encouraged me to eat more because “today, we’re climbing the mountain.” We piled back into the Benz and to my amusement, went to a bus station that took us up to the mountain.

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We finally got to the “hiking” portion. Tourists occupied every inch of the wide, stone stair path. Well-fed Tibetan Macaques deigned to descend from their canopies to accept the attention, and food, of gawking city folk.  On our left, vendors beckoned us to purchase snacks, jackets, and rainbow plushie monkeys.

I pushed ahead, hoping to eventually escape the tourist laden area I entered, but to my surprise, it never let up. The entire way was filled with sellers who ensured your every discomfort along the path could be assuaged. For those who didn’t wish to walk up the path, you could even purchase a trip on a huagan, where two extraordinarily hardy old men would carry you up the mountain. Hiking indeed.

 

After maybe a 3/4 mile, we arrived at a cable car station. My host mother and sister asked me if I felt tired. Their legs had begun to waver and they were grateful to enter the cable car that delivered us to the peak. While waiting for the car, they admitted they didn’t like hiking. I felt bad they went so much out of their way so that we could share this hiking experience.

The peak of Emei Shan is known as the Jin Ding 金顶, the golden peak. Above a sea of clouds, the devout mix with the tourists to visit a giant golden statue of Pu Xian and his elephants. It’s spectacular and gaudy. We burned candles, incense, and 拜一拜’d, kowtowing in the temples and making wishes.

Afterwards, we ate a remarkably bad lunch of instant noodles, and for gluten-free and special me, a flavorless boiled cob of corn.  My host sister, Le Le remarked that the noodles were awful and her father replied to her that she should just be glad the noodles were not American instant noodles. He said Chinese noodles were highly sought after in American prisons and the American noodles are certainly worst tasting than these ones. I quickly agreed and we then headed back to the bus to take us to the station. After arriving back, we luxuriated in a giant feast and hot springs.

The whole affair on the mountain was a bizarre but uniquely Chinese experience. I laughed, thinking of my Merrells that I thankfully left in my bag, along with the rest of slovenly clothes I brought along with me to this glorious resort.

Though entirely not what I was expecting, I felt extremely relieved to be able to rest, take in the sights, and see what enjoyable tourism looks like for many Chinese. Thanks to a cushy hotel room and my family’s thoughtfulness, I feel refreshed and ready for one more slavish week of teaching. 加油,昭君!

Pandas and not-pandas

BEST DAY! On Sunday, the Peace Corps treated the China 23’s by visiting the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The Peace Corps assured us that departing from the hotel by 7:00 AM would allow us to see the pandas at their most active, so my fellow trainees and I zombie-walked onto buses and spent 30 minutes in transit before arriving at the large square in front of the research center.

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PC trainees swamp the park

We made our way up blessedly empty paths under dense bamboo forests and were surprised to see large spaces full of Pandas. I had anticipated waiting in long lines to see pandas behind glass windows, but the experience was much more like what you’d experience at the Oregon Zoo. The densely forested park had pockets of spaces for the pandas to lounge around and play, encircled by paths for tourists to enjoy the bears.

The stars of the park seemed to be group of four young cubs, who spent the entire morning climbing and falling off trees and bamboo structures. The cubs wrestled each other off, the pairs ending up toppling upside down, short legs flailing in the air.

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While descending the tree, these two pandas ended up colliding and falling into the pivot
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Adoring fans enjoy the spectacle
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The top panda didn’t want to share and stood so the other one couldn’t get on the tree

I spent most of my time looking at the animals play and didn’t get the chance to read or visit most of the educational buildings. Though I did learn that Panda breeding is pretty complicated.

Female pandas are only in heat 72 hours each year, so the staff at the research center collect urine samples from the pandas and measure the hormones to determine when is a good time to introduce a couple. Pandas are very particular about their partners so the researchers give the females scent samples of the males to see whom they might be interested in. But pandas don’t always get along and captive pandas are less physically capable than their wild counterparts, so sometimes mating introductions go poorly and no pandas will be born from that couple that year.

My favorite part of the park wasn’t actually the pandas – it was the red pandas, who are still somehow called red pandas but aren’t related to pandas. While most of the adult real pandas were sedentary and were only inclined to move when their meals arrived, the furry, auburn red pandas ran about a dense forest, or navigated tangled networks of branches at the canopy.

The red pandas seemed extremely clever, and one of them clearly anticipated feeding time and stood up to make sure her meal was on its way.

Going to the center costs about 60¥ or $8.80, which is more than a day’s budget for a Peace Corps Trainee, so it felt luxurious to enjoy such a beautiful park. We only had 3 hours so I missed out on the swan lake, the tiny baby pandas, and the other red panda enclosure (it was closed). It is definitely worth visiting several times and if I get the chance to go again, I’d be stoked. The park spans over several km, and we ended up doing about 9 km of walking. When we entered our buses to return to our hotels, I promptly fell asleep.

 

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Fellow trainees rest; the red capped water bottles are the brand of water PCMO advises us to buy

 

Wenshu Monastery 文殊园

On Saturday, the PC fam went to Wenshu Monastery, one of the best preserved Buddhist temples in Chengdu. The place was mostly overrun by tourists so I didn’t end up taking many photos of the actual temple and courtyard. I was surprised there weren’t many vegetarian restaurants around the temple.

Week one

It’s been a whirlwind of a week. We’ve had sessions for 8 days in a row, but I’ve still had some time to explore the city.

When we’re not learning TEFL, Chinese, PC policy, or ways to keep safe and healthy, we spend a lot of time eating out with members of our cohort.

Chengdu is one of the larger cities that Peace Corps works in, and we’re fortunate to be a block away from a vegan restaurant that has a couple dishes I can eat. I’d wager that 30% of our 72-large cohort eat mostly vegetarian or completely vegetarian and as soon as 12:15 hits, we’ve occupied every seat in the tiny restaurant. The cashier and cooks are exceedingly kind to us and have started to bring us a spicy pickled vegetable as a side with our meals.

Located near Sichuan University, our locale of Chengdu is quite cosmopolitan. There are sandwich restaurants, Malaysian, Thai, and Indian restaurants, a Walmart (沃尔玛 wo4er3ma3) complete with some Western imports like Hunt’s Tomato sauce and Barilla Spaghetti, and of course, hundreds of Chinese restaurants with local specialties like dandan noodles (担担面 dan4dan4mian4), numbingly spicy hot pot (麻辣火锅 ma2la4huo3guo1), spicy rabbit head, and more I can’t possibly describe here 等等什么的。

Here are a few new things I’m getting used to:

  • Drinking and buying bottled water (at Walmart, none the less. My environment-loving soul is dying a bit)
  • The time zone (15 hours ahead of the West Coast)
  • Not putting toilet paper in the toilet (I think have this one down)
  • Squatty potties (still trying to figure these ones out, tbh)
  • Being a pedestrian in a place with, shall we say, liberal and creative traffic patterns

We also live next to an extraordinary bamboo park, which has hundreds of species of bamboo there. I had no clue so many types existed! The greenery here reminds me a bit more of home and beside the weeping willows, the ponds are lined with Cannas and Bougainvillea!

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I should probably start exercising at the park in the mornings when the air quality is best. That’ll be the goal for next week. Tomorrow we visit the Panda Research Center so if I take any decent photos, they’ll be up in next week’s post.