As any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, one of the hardest things about the service is filling the hours and hours of down time. Some volunteers do the responsible thing. They work on secondary projects, they study Mandarin, or they spend time with host country nationals. Others of us, well…we do our level best to stay sane, go to class, and not kill anybody.
Now, I’m pretty proud of some of my secondary projects like the English Language Workshop and the Hiking and Camping club, but I have still had far too much free time on my hands. Consequently I have watched and re-watched many of my favorite movies including the hit films Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2). As I was watching the second instalment of this delightfully gruesome kung fu masterpiece, I was intrigued by the following scene:
David Carradine’s enchanting music got me wondering if I could make a similar sounding flute. A brief search of the Internet told me that the type of flute used by Mr. Carradine is called a staff flute and the Kung Fu actor was famous for making his own out of a kind of reed. His staff flute was even featured prominently in the 1978 martial arts film Circle of Iron. For all the information I found about Carradine and his flutes, however, I could not find a single page that had instructions on how to make your own side-blown staff flute. After looking further into the subject I came across a number of different sites where I could find methods for making smaller flutes. I compiled all the information I could and set about my new hobby.
Step 1: Bamboo
I did not think I could find any North American reed in Xingyi Guizhou so I decided to make my flute out of bamboo instead. Many of the sites I looked at showed how to make smaller (one to two feet long) flutes out of bamboo so I knew that it would be a viable material. However finding the bamboo proved to be trickier than I would have thought. Bamboo seems to be used for almost everything around here but not a single person could tell me where to buy it. Eventually I went up with some students on a camping trip and asked my farmer friend whose home is next to our campsite if I could take some of the bamboo poles from the grove that abuts his house. The man was eager to help and took me to a smaller grove where I measured out the poles that I wanted. The farmer deftly chopped down the stalks and we dragged them back to camp where he immediately set about trimming the limbs and cutting the poles into equal pieces.
The following day I carried the poles down the mountain and through Fei Long Dong Cave as the students and I hiked our way out of the mountains.
Step 2: Curing
The bamboo was fresh and green when first cut down so I had to drive out the moisture in a process called curing. I used the Japanese method which is to slowly spin the bamboo over hot coals until the skin turns yellow and there is no moisture remaining. In my first attempt, I inadvertently burned two of the polls in various places and caused my first flute to crack making it unplayable. To prevent the compartmentalized middle sections from exploding, I heated a long metal rod which I used to breach the nodes and allow steam to escape from either side of the pole. It was pretty cool to see the steam coming out of the end of the bamboo while I wiped away the resin that sweated out through the surface with a dry rag.
Step 3: Hole Placement
Finding just the right place to put holes in the flute was challenging and I utilized a number of different schools of thought on the subject. In my first attempt, I tried to simply magnify the hole positions of a small bamboo flute that had been abandoned here by a previous volunteer. I burned the holes into the bamboo pole using the same heated metal rod as before. This worked out fairly well and the result was a flute that sounded haunting but resonant in the way I had hoped for. Unfortunately, this flute had a hairline fracture that, during the harsh winter months, splintered apart into a gaping chasm probably a result of the cold weather.
For the next attempt, I measured out where the holes ought to be using a series of percentages I found online. I had to adjust these so the holes would be close enough together for my fingers to reach. This second staff flute came out sounding nearly identical to the first one that had cracked. It sounds and looks pretty good though not a good as Carradine’s nor does it have such a pure tone.
Step 4: Traveling Flutes
Realizing that carrying a three-and-a-half foot-long flute back to America might not be the easiest thing in the world, I decided to make some smaller, more transportable flutes like the one Carradine’s character is playing in the opening scene of Kill Bill Vol. 2. Three attempts later I had two working flutes, one in a traditional Chinese style and the other using a Native American design and hole placement. Both of these smaller flutes sound better than anything else I have made.
I am very pleased with the three working flutes I have now but I may try again in my last few months here in China. I am also proud that I did not have to use any electric tools while making these. The only things I used were iron and fire. Now all that remains is for me to learn the five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique…
ps. Anybody interested in hearing what these flutes sound like can take a listen at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWkNOqYOQKk&feature=youtu.be
For the Guizhou Christmas party, Emma and I took an eight-hour bus ride up to Zunyi, home of Claire, Avery, Jason, and Beccy. Our ride up was uneventful and we spent the majority of the trip curled up in our giant coats reading our books. I finished Shantaram which is a wonderful book that gives alternating gruesome and beautiful depictions of Bombay. We arrived and walked from the bus station to meet the rest of the gang for lunch and then back to Claire’s house. It was cold in Zunyi but that was offset by the warmth of our friendship and our awesome, kick-ass coats. We spent the evening catching up, eating sugar cookies, going out for hot pot, and watching “Christmas Vacation.”
We spent the next morning cooking and preparing for our big Christmas dinner. I was on mashed potato duty. We started drinking early at about 1pm and I vastly improved my god-awful fruit-juice wine by mulling it with cinnamon and nutmeg. With everyone gathered together, we made our way over to Beccy’s large apartment on the other side of town. Once there, we had a delicious feast of soup, green beans, duck, cornbread, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie. After dinner we did our white elephant/footsie-stompy gift exchange. Footsie-stompy is how we resolve the dilemma of somebody wanting to steal another’s gift. The challenger and the present holder must hold hands and try to step on their opponent’s foot. The first person to land the killer blow, is the winner and the loser must pick a new gift from the pile.
By the end of the gift exchange I was exhausted and ready to go home but everyone else wanted to go dancing. We all met up at the 88 Club and ran that place like it was our job. Zunyi locals were buying us drinks while we danced on the raised platforms. Everyone had a great time but as we were leaving I realized I had missed a call from a friend of mine. She had come to the Christmas party in Zunyi but had to forgo dancing in order to catch a train back to Guiyang. From Guiyang she had to catch a flight across the country. I had put her into a taxi with instructions for how to get to the train station about an hour and a half earlier but now her text message to me read: “something went wrong”. Claire called her back and found out that there were no trains going in or out of Zunyi that night. By this point it was about 3:00 o’clock in the morning and half of our group were already asleep. Claire went to the train station and figured out that the tracks were broken and that my friend’s only way to make her flight would be to take what we call a “black cab” back to Guiyang. Black Cabs are illegal transportation that serve as an alternative to trains, buses, or taxis. The black cabbies often wait outside of train stations and bus stations, waiting to take advantage of people who are unfamiliar with the area. I have heard several stories of people being gassed and robbed in black cabs and other stories of people being killed after choosing this mode of transport.
My friend does not have a lot of confidence in her Chinese and she is a tiny girl. Claire wanted to see if any of the Guiyang volunteers would be willing to go with her since my friend was very nervous about taking a black cab by herself. Most were asleep and the ones who were awake did not want to go. I had already bought my ticket back to Xingyi and knew that a trip to Guiyang would be completely out of the way. Still everyone decided that it was a bad idea for the girl to go on her own. Finally, with nobody else willing to go, I asked Emma to try to sell my bus ticket and agreed to go to Guiyang. Tired, annoyed, and still a little inebriated, I arrived at the train station and found Claire haggling with a gaggle of cab drivers over the price of the trip. It took a long time but we eventually settled on six hundred RMB for a ride from Zunyi to Guiyang. The man who drove us was tiny but determined and we spent the next two hours driving and listening to Chinese music in his little sedan. I was so tired that I kept dozing off but my friend tried to keep me awake in order to talk to our driver who showed serious signs of fatigue.
We eventually arrived at the Guiyang airport and I said goodbye to my friend. From there, the driver took me to the train station where I had to wait for some time for a city bus. At six in the morning, Guiyang was painfully cold and I’d never been more thankful for my military surplus trench coat. The bus took me to the long-distance bus station and by 7:25am I was on a bus bound for Xingyi. I almost immediately fell asleep and did not wake up until our first stop about an hour and a half into the journey. After that I slept intermittently while the driver blasted two “Rambo” movies on the bus’s television screens. About six hours later I was pulling into Xingyi and finally got some proper rest.
The next day I was still feeling the effects of that sleepless night but I am happy to say I helped my friend make her flight.
Full disclosure: the Xingyi eagle is a figment of my imagination. I created the Xingyi eagle in order to teach a lesson on the environment and investigative journalism to my newspaper reading class. The premise of the activity was as follows:
BREAKING NEWS- Hundreds of rare Xingyi eagles were found dead today and no one knows how they died. It appears that environmental factors are the cause of this tragedy but authorities are unable to solve this mystery. YOU are an investigative journalist and it is your job to find out who is responsible and expose them to the world. Placed around the room are quotes from companies, veterinarians, farmers, ornithologists, and the government. You must read these passages and look for clues that might help you uncover the truth. When you think you know who is at fault, write a short article detailing the evidence you found.
This activity was successful and many of the students were pretty self-directed throughout. I was excited to do this activity for a number of reasons. Firstly, I am passionate about environmental issues and while many of my students understand a lot of the basic ideas, there remain some concepts left for me to explain. Secondly, China is a country that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have what we in the U.S. would call a free press. The media here is tightly controlled and while underground information might be more readily accessible in Beijing or Shanghai, such a loosening of the collar has not occurred here. In my classes it is not uncommon for students to have general information that is either highly skewed or altogether wrong. I thought that giving the students the opportunity to try their respective hands at investigative journalism might be a novel experience for them and one that might result in a higher degree of inquisitiveness and outside the box thinking. I’ll be interested to see if any of them rise to the occasion with their articles next week.
Last year was a year of firsts. Everything in China was brand new and each experience was something exciting, a new adventure. This year there is still a lot of “new” to look forward to but some things have already been done and probably do not merit a second go-round. Thanksgiving with Chinese friends in Xingyi was one such event. Last year, Emma and I decided to forego the PCV Thanksgiving and chose instead to stay in Xingyi and make dinner for some of our Chinese friends. We had a wonderful time but all the work we put into the dinner was not something I wanted to repeat this year. Emma decided a while ago to go to the Neijiang Thanksgiving for Sichuan and Chongqing volunteers. This left me with three options for how to celebrate. I could stay in Xingyi by my lonesome, go with Emma to Neijiang, or go to Guiyang where the rest of the Guizhou volunteers would be gathering for the holiday. I chose the last option and after a missed train (first one I’ve missed in China) I was on a bus to Guiyang. While on the bus I reflected that I have taken somewhere around twenty-seven different train rides since coming to China with the average train ride being probably around ten hours in length. When I arrived in Guiyang, I met Claire Donze in the Guiyang downtown where we had dinner together and caught up on current affairs.
I spent the weekend at Adam and Laurie’s house, which is large and comfortable, and together we baked pies and drank a little wine the night before thanksgiving. The next day, we got up early and started cutting up the chickens (there are few turkeys in china) as other volunteers began to pour in. Dinner was set for three o’clock but the cheap Chinese wine was served much earlier than that. Consequently, by the time dinner rolled around I was feeling mighty fine and more than a little thankful for all my friends here in China. We had a massive dinner and my pies were a big hit. After eating I had to lie down for a few minutes to digest all that wonderful food. My reprieve, however, was short-lived as everyone began to gather together to go play football in the park.
We walked over to an open area near Adam and Laurie’s house and started a game of touch football. We soon had a little crowd of Chinese students watching us while the volunteers who did not want to play cheered us on from the sidelines. Even though my team got spanked twice, I had a smile on my face the whole time. After the game, we went back to the house and just hung out chatting before closing out the evening with some charades. The next morning I caught an early train back to Xingyi which greeted me with one last day of beautiful summer weather before taking the long, dark turn towards winter.
On Friday, I finally took student volunteers to Malin Middle School for our English Language Workshop. After more than four months of planning and more than a few headaches along the home stretch, I can say that I have successfully implemented an education program here in Xingyi.
I woke up at around 5:45 am on Friday morning because I could not sleep for fear that something might go wrong. I thought I heard rain falling outside and gave a deep groan into my pillow. I went to the front door and in the dim morning light I could see that, in fact, no rain had fallen and what I had heard had just been running water from my neighbor’s house. I spent those early hours preparing for the day and putting some last minute touches on some of the various materials.
The road to get to this point has been a long one. Last semester, my friend Jordan (a local government worker) and I discussed creating a program where we would take student volunteers from Xingyi University to outlying rural schools. Students at these schools rarely get the opportunity to practice oral English and have little interest in English as a subject. Our goal was to provide an opportunity for students see the fun and interesting side of English while offering the teachers at these schools a chance to see first hand how we use the Communicative Learning Approach to teach students English.
To fund the project and the purchase of the necessary materials as well as pay for transport, I had submitted a project proposal to the Peace Corps Partnership Program which in turn gave me all the funding I requested. I received 2,439 RMB (or 381.69 US dollars) to execute my program
We were to leave at about 12:30 but I received a call from Susan our assistant Foreign Affairs Officer at 11:00am telling me that we would have to take a different route than the one originally planned. Susan went on to explain that Ms. Qiao, the head of the Foreign Affairs Department could not attend because she would be meeting with the Syrian Ambassador today. Now Ms. Qiao had been organizing all our transportation so you can imagine my chagrin to discover that she would not be attending after all the careful planning we had gone through to organize this event. Still the show must go on, so I packed the materials and met my students in front of the school.
At Malin Middle School, we quickly set up and I organized my students into groups before giving a short speech to the Middle school students explaining what we would do that day. After that it was a round-robin affair with students passing from one activity to the next every thirty minutes. Students did activities like Simon says, English Dodgeball, Telephone, Bingo, and Blindfolded Directions. At first the students were a little shy about participating but soon they were becoming more enthusiastic. Bingo and dodgeball were especially popular and as I drifted from activity to activity to check on my volunteers, I saw a lot of smiling faces.
After the Workshop, the students sang a song for us and then were dismissed from school. I gave the English teachers a packet of ideas for Communicative activities which they greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm. I hope to get a better reaction from the next group I see. On the way back to Xingyi, my students were elated and many vowed to go to the next school with me in November. “I think we can do it,” one of my students told me before running off to eat the leftover Bingo candy with her friends.
This year the Chinese National Holiday coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival which made for a sort of super-holiday that lasted for over a week. Taking advantage of this extended break, Emma and I embarked on an epic journey to the far Northwest of China’s Gansu province. We began our trip with a short eleven-hour bus ride to Chongqing city where we spent what remained of the night at our friend Ashley Wasil’s house. The following morning, Ashley made us a breakfast of eggs, sausage and homemade bagels while treating us to some real American coffee. This delicious meal helped prepare us for the next leg of our trip which entailed a twenty-two hour train ride to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu.
Claire Donze, a fellow Guizhou volunteer, joined us on this leg of the trip. We had “standing” tickets for the train so as soon as we boarded, we carved out a little space in between the cars. Unfortunately our little cubby was sandwiched between the leaky boiler room and a coal shoot. We spent a good two hours sitting on our luggage and trying hard not to think about how much farther we had to go. Eventually, driven out by the choking coal dust, we went to see if there were any extra seats to be had. It turned out that in fact all the passengers on the train had standing tickets and that seats were acquired on a first-come first-served basis.
We spent the rest of the trip in comfort while little by little the train emptied as we got closer to Lanzhou. By two o’clock in the morning, all three of us had sufficient space to spread out on the larger seats and actually sleep. In Lanzhou we were met by our two remaining travel companions Ciara and Arielle, as well as Mike, a PCV living in Lanzhou. Mike had planned on travelling with us but was still waiting for his visa to be renewed by the time we arrived in Lanzhou. We had just enough time to re-provision in Lanzhou before catching yet another train to our final destination, Dunhuang.
The train ride to Dunhuang was one of the most fun and also most uncomfortable rides I have taken in China. In celebration of Emma’s birthday, Arielle and Ciara had packed a load of small entertainments and delicious treats for the trip.
We also brought four bottles of wine which we drank while applying temporary tattoos, wearing party hats, and playing mafia with some new Chinese friends. By two in the morning I was exhausted and ready to sleep. Sleep, however, proved an elusive goal and I spent most of the night trying to prevent other passengers from invading our small space.
Daylight offered us our first glimpse of the Gobi desert which we had snuck into during the night. A vast expanse of cracked, dry earth, the Gobi stretched behind us into the Northeast. A few hours after dawn, we arrived at the Dunhuang train station and from there took a taxi to Charlie Jeung’s Café. Dunhuang (meaning either “Blazing Beacon”, “”City of Sands”, or “To Flourish and to Prosper” depending on which wiki site you visit) is situated about a hundred kilometers from the politically volatile Xinjiang province and is an ancient stop along the Silk Road. The city is built around an oasis that stands on the outskirts of the Gobi desert. On our way to the café we passed through much of the downtown. Dunhuang is one of those rare Chinese cities that has not been completely overrun by skyscrapers and poorly constructed tenament buildings, giving it a unique ambiance.
Charlie took us from the café to his hostel and on the way we saw what at first appeared to be low mountains to the Northwest. As we got closer, I realized that the mountains were, in fact, gigantic sand dunes that rise up like a cordillera along the edge of town. Charlie’s hostel runs right up against the somewhat dilapidated fence that is supposed to keep tourists from wandering up into the dunes without paying a fee, but gaping holes in the chain link belie this intent.
After a brief rest at the hostel, Charlie took us to the home of a man named Li who would be our guide through the desert. Li packed up supplies while we waited in his spartan bedroom. Soon, he called us out to the side of his house where there were five saddled camels waiting for us. The camels were all kneeling on the ground making mounting them a more simple process than with horses.
Once we were all astride our respective animals, Mr. Li had them rise to their feet and led us on foot into the desert. Along the way, each one of us gave our camel an English name. Mine was Saunty (because he liked to saunter), Emma’s was Derek, Ciara rode Chester, while Arielle and Claire sat Mr. Kazoo and Achmed respectively.
The sun beat down on us as we made our way along the dunes. Once we were outside of the town, I began to notice small cylindrical mounds of earth popping up along our path. Some of these mounds we covered in brick and surrounded by large squares of raised earth. Others had large sticks rising out of the apex of the mound. I asked Mr. Li and he told me that these were graves for the people of Dunhuang. The graves became more and more frequent until we were amidst a massive graveyard.
We passed through the graveyard and started up into the lower sand dunes where we stopped to make camp. I climbed a small hill and saw a movie shoot in progress on the other side. We spent the rest of the afternoon sliding down the dunes on homemade sand boards courtesy of Mr. Li. As the sun began to sink behind the dunes and as the film crew and Mr. Li headed back into town, our small band decided to crest one of the larger hills to watch the sunset. It took about twenty minutes to reach the top of what had appeared to be the largest dune for miles. When we got to the peak, however, the expanse of dunes that spread before us made our little accomplishment look diminutive.
We watched the sun go down over the sea of rolling hills before running down the sandy slopes to our campsite where Mr. Li had already set up our tents and laid out instant noodles and beer for our dinner. After dinner the five of us laid out on blankets underneath the sea of stars until the moon rose and banished all other lights from the sky.
The next morning was cold and the sound of Mr. Li, who had returned in the night and was now waking us up in time to see the sunrise, awakened me. Though we had all packed long underwear and some winter attire, we still took advantage of the long, green, soviet-era PLA trench coats Mr. Li provided us. After a light breakfast of bread and fruit, we saddled up and road back into town.
When we got back to Dunhuang we took a taxi out to the Mogao Caves. In Ancient times when the Silk Road was a bustling trade route stretching all the way from China to Constantinople, Dunhuang would be visited by nationalities of every stripe. The Mogao Caves were half temple and half library, housing thousands of scrolls written languages as diverse as Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hebrew. Over the centuries as different dynasties came and went, the caves were continually expanded with each new generation adding its own style and culture to the hundreds of caves. Among the most interesting and impressive sights in the Mogao caverns is a pagoda which houses a statue of Buddha that stands (or more accurately sits) at over one hundred feet tall.
We took the English tour of the caves and fought through heavy crowds to gawk at the magnificent painted ceilings and detailed sculptures. By the time we left the caves it was early evening so we returned to the hostel. Since it was National Holiday, the hostel was full but Charlie agreed to let us sleep outside on what appeared to be an old basketball court covered in sand from the dunes. After paying an exorbitant fee for the privilege, we set up the tents we had brought and spent a very chilly night camping. My sleep was periodically interrupted by the muffled laughter of groups of travelers sneaking through the worn fence and into the dunes. When I awoke in the morning and began to take down the tents, I found that the condensation on the inside of the rain fly had frozen during the night.
We took the taxi to the train station and said our last farewells to the Gobi. We watched for the next several hours as the landscape slowly changed and desert gave way to hills and mountains, wind farms to rivers and streams. Our adventures in the Northwest were unforgettable and I feel honored to have shared them with such amazing people. I will remember our experience in the Gobi as one of the most memorable of my time in the Peace Corps. My final thought on the desert is this: Dunhuang has been given many names but if I am any judge, the most fitting has to be The City of Sands.
When I first left for China in July of 2011, I had no intention of coming back to America until I had finished my service. Many other volunteers have made trips back home but with so much to see and do on this side of the world, I did not foresee a premature return to Oregon. When my mom called me to let me know that she was engaged to her longtime boyfriend, however, I knew that I would certainly be coming back for the wedding.
The trip to Oregon ended up taking somewhere around twenty-nine hours as I jumped from Kunming to Beijing, Beijing to Seattle, and finally Seattle to Portland. When I arrived in Portland my sister Kelsey was waiting for me at the gate. I had not seen her face to face in over a year. We got in the car and I struggled to stay awake, having not slept for nearly thirty hours by the time we pulled up to Mom’s house in Eugene. We had wine and brie while we sat out under the grape arbor in Mom’s backyard. Eugene in August has perfect weather. In the evenings, blue skies give way to dusk while a cool zephyr sweeps away the dry heat of the day. That night the last rays of the sun shone through the leaves of the grape vines illuminating them to magnificently vivid shades of bright green. Whenever I think about Oregon in the summer, I think about those leaves. There was a massive oak in the yard of my childhood home and in the summer a similar effect would occur while we dined on the deck. I love the contrast between the leaves that receive the full benefit of the evening light and those, somewhat more recessed, that retain their darker colors. To me they seem like two different attitudes or perspectives, the perfect metaphor for the Oregon climate.
When asked by friends at home what differences most stood out to me, I inevitably responded that the colors were what I noticed first. In many ways it felt like stepping from black and white into Technicolor, colors that endowed even the most mundane of sights with a kind of brilliance. I think this feeling has a lot to do with the sky. Even in Xingyi, where pollution levels are relatively low, the skies rarely attain the pure blue hue I saw everyday while in Eugene.
Everything about my trip left me with a sense of the surreal. Mom’s wedding was perfect by any measure one could possibly devise. I had the pleasure of dancing with my friends, eating excellent food, and seeing more people than I could possibly have hoped to see under any other circumstances. The highlights for me included listening to Tom Wheeler’s band rock under the canopy we put up earlier that day, seeing my friends from Canada dance their worries away, and watching shooting stars race across the night sky after everyone else had gone off to bed.
Other memorable moments included a trip out to King Estate to celebrate Mom’s birthday and to see my friend Zoe. King Estate may just be my idea of the perfect place, a sentiment that I advocate more strongly the more wine I have sampled whenever I visit.
The friendships that bloomed or where reinforced on this trip meant more to me than I can possibly say. Matthew drove all the way up from Stanford while Denali, Becca, Shaun, and Lauren all drove down through the night from Vancouver Canada. Zoe and Taylor went out of their way to spend as much time with me as possible and Aric had flashbacks to middle school every time he called my home phone. I especially enjoyed the night my Dad bought out the butcher’s to host my friends to some of his world-famous barbeque.
On my second to last day in America I very nearly had a panic attack as the reality of what I was leaving began to sink in. I knew that getting back on the plane for China could, in some ways, be the hardest aspect of my entire service. I can safely say now that I will not face a more difficult challenge for the rest of my time here. Yet get on the plane I did and as I bartered with a taxi driver at the Kunming airport, I began to feel a little more relaxed.
I spent my twenty-sixth birthday on a train from Kunming to Xingyi where I arrived early enough to have a small birthday dinner with Emma who I had not seen for nearly a month and a half. As the days have gone by I have become more and more accustomed to being back in China and I am encouraged by the thoughts of what awaits me at the end of this next year of service.