Morning Dew

“These phenomena constantly change and do not abide. They are like a drip of morning dew; as soon the sun emerges, they disappear. They are like water flowing from the mountains; they only go and never return.”

—Mahayana Jeweled Cloud Sutra | Fascicle Two | Chapter on the Ten Perfections

This quote exemplifies the meaning behind this blog’s name. Every friend I meet—every laugh, tear, challenge, and success I experience here are ultimately droplets of dew on the morning grass, disappearing almost as soon as they form. However, their existence is not completely in vain. They moisten the ground, nourish the plants, and freshen the morning air.

Tonight, two new drops of dew formed while one drop of dew evaporated into the air.

My two suitemates came home today, and Sangwon said somewhat awkwardly, “Wang Liang wants to tell you something.”

I turned over to him, my mind wondering what it could possibly be about. Was it that he was sick of hearing my guqin? Did I forget to flush the toilet at some point? Was he upset over me knocking his clothes over twice the other day?

“I don’t know how to tell you this,” he started. “But I have to go to the hospital.”

“What?” my mind began racing. “We should go. There’s one down the street. Is this an emergency? Are you okay?”

“We just came back from that hospital. They can’t treat me,” he said solemnly.

I felt like I was staring at a man who had already resigned to his imminent death. He carried no sense of urgency in his voice despite discussing a topic that revolved around needing to get to a hospital.

“Here,” he said ever so calmly. “Take a look at this.”

He passed me a stack of papers—his medical evaluation form. He was ill. Seriously ill.

“Don’t worry,” he assured. “It’s chronic. But they told me that if I don’t get treatment, then I can’t stay in the country. I’ll have to go back home.”

“Home?” I asked incredulously. “What about your scholarship?”

“I’m not sure,” his voice wavered. “I can always try again next year.”

My heart sunk. He had worked so hard to get here; he had spent so much time and effort to study. He was by far the most studious and serious person in our suite. And now, obstructed by an illness, he’d have to go home?

He showed me his recent correspondence with the graduate program advisor. She had given him a number to call and instructions to ask if our student insurance would cover the cost of treatment.

There was one issue: none of us had received our insurance information yet.

“Do you want me to call?” I offered.

“Thanks,” he replied. “But not now. I’m gonna discuss things with my family first.”

We didn’t have time.

Sangwon reminded us that it was 6 pm, and we had made plans earlier today to get dinner with a few of the other graduate students. I knew most of them by now, but there were two unfamiliar faces: May from Malaysia and Yongqi from Indonesia.

Having spoken Mandarin since they were young, the two of them were incredibly fluent, and I realized they must be bored to death in the HSK prep classes all international students are required to take. Indeed, as I walked with Sangwon and Wang Liang, I overheard them complaining about the inflexibility of school bureaucracy and how terribly this was planned. There were also multiple comments on how their instructor had a habit of talking down to them. An unfortunate situation.

Wang Liang decided it would be nice to go out for dinner. And so we walked. And walked. And walked until Yongqi finally asked, “Didn’t you say this place was only a few minutes away?”

“Yeah,” Wang Liang replied. “It’s only been a few minutes.”

Indeed, it had been roughly 20 minutes. Perhaps more than a few, but still in the range of minutes. Although we were all starving by now, our spirits were still high—or at least Yongqi and May were in high spirits, and that tended to rub off on the rest of us.

“Hey handsome!” Yongqi exclaimed.

I turned around, “What’s up?”

The others laughed, “Oh, you go by handsome now?”

“Why not?” I laughed in response.

“Hey,” Yongqi butted in. “I only called you handsome because I don’t know your name yet. What’s your name?”


“AH!” she stopped in her tracks. “I KNOW YOU!”

“You do?” I was very confused. I had never seen her before in my life.

“Yes! Everybody knows you. You’re all over the groupchat.”

Ah. Yes. That’s true. I am quite active on the groupchat.

This reminded me of my first year at Pomona College. While I was somewhat a quiet enigma on campus, everybody seemed to know me from Facebook.

We got to the row of restaurants, honestly not too different from the places that were only three minutes away from campus. But we were starving, so we ordered and feasted.

At some point during the meal, Yongqi complained that all of her suitemates had gotten into relationships and no longer had time to hang out with her. May suggested that she find herself a boyfriend as well.

“I haven’t found somebody my type yet,” she explained.

“Well, what’s your type?” May prodded.

“First, they have to be older.”

“There are three single guys here, all of them are older than you,” May gestured at the three of us.

“They also have to be international.”

“Yes… we’re all international here.”

“I meant like… America international. Not from an Asian country.”

Sangwon’s eyes lit up, “Him! Him! Him!”

“What?” Yongqi looked very confused.

“He’s from the US!” Sangwon said with a smile, both hands pointing straight at me.

“You?” she said.

“Yeah… I’m from the US,” I replied sheepishly.

“I was thinking someone who’s… blond. Not someone who looks like they were born and raised in SE Asia.”

Do I really seem that un-American? I was supposed to be a “cultural ambassador” for Fulbright and that didn’t seem to be happening because nobody associated me with American culture in the slightest.

Yongqi shook her head, “Sorry, but I’ll keep looking. Let me know if you have any handsome American friends looking for a relationship.”

On the way home, word had gotten out that I would be performing tomorrow morning. This came completely unexpectedly. Just last night, I had run into one of our department’s administrators in the elevator.

“Are you still taking guqin lessons?” she asked innocently.

“Yeah,” I replied. “They’re going quite well.”

Then, this morning, I woke up to a message from her supervisor—the international students’ advisor.

“Hi Andrew! I heard that you play guqin. Can you perform for us tomorrow morning? 8:30 am. Bring your own guqin; we’ll provide a table.”

I flopped back into my still-warm bed. I had barely been learning for three weeks and they wanted me to perform? But in this hierarchical system, I responded with the only word I could respond with: okay.

And now, word had spread to the other students.

“We’ll all come to support you!” Yongqi exclaimed.

“Yeah!” Sangwon chimed in. “I’m so excited!”

“What do you mean?” I was honestly surprised. “You hear me play guqin literally every single night.”

“Ah, it’s not the same,” he said. “A performance is much more exciting—and stressful for you—but still, that makes it fun to watch!”

We got home, and he helped me pick a song to perform (I only know three songs) and an outfit to wear. Meanwhile, my phone kept vibrating from the messages that were still going on. More and more people were hearing about the performance.

Let’s hope I don’t let them down.

Research: A Nostalgic Experience

This past week has been laden with research-related experiences. From visiting the library and leaving with a heavy stack of books to trying desperately to access the wider web and find academic books on tea (and hopping on Facebook while I was at it), it felt like I had started on my main project.

Looking back, quite a few of my posts have been about guqin. And while I do intend to learn the art as best as I can, my greatest obligation is to fulfill my research project on contemporary tea culture.

So as I went on through the week, I felt like I was reliving my senior year of college. Just one year ago, I was walking through the fourth floor of Honnold Mudd Library searching for books on tea. Also similar to last year’s experiences, it wasn’t long before I encountered troubles.

The first obstacle I hit was trying to find something that hadn’t been done before. A cursory search through showed me that a lot actually had been done on tea—more than I had realized. Although, this wasn’t necessarily an obstacle. If anything, I could see how I could further the studies.

And so, I started brainstorming.

After a few chats with my guqin teacher, a fellow guqin student and tea arts instructor, and my academic advisor (this meeting was especially interesting and will be featured in another blog post), I came up with a few potential avenues. Perhaps trace tea production by type over the past few decades to identify trends?

I then approached one of the professors who wrote articles on tea for advice, and he responded within a few hours. The response wasn’t particularly encouraging. He pointed out that my project would have to fit in a rather short time frame, and the information I was looking for likely didn’t exist (or if it did exist, the numbers probably aren’t too reliable).

And now, after reading books late into the night, a guqin class, and a day at the mall with friends, I’m rethinking my project. What aspect of tea culture do I want to focus on?

Hopefully, I’ll have an answer by next week.

An Unexpected Trip to Zhangzhou

There have been a lot of unexpected circumstances lately, with this trip to Zhangzhou being the most recent one.

It started with one of the administrators in my school’s Foreign Students Office asking me if I was interested in teaching English to a bunch of kids—more on that later. In any case, during the conversation, I mentioned that I was taking guqin classes on the side, at which point she invited me on a school field trip to Zhangzhou to visit a guqin workshop.

And with that, I went to Zhangzhou.

The ride there was about three hours, and we ended up on the border of Fujian and Guangdong, and if we had kept going, our next freeway exit would have been Shantou. Alas, I’ll have to make another trip down in the near future.

The building itself was impressive. Built just three years ago, this entire complex was intended to be a tourist attraction, although we were the only guests there during the two days we visited.

Prior to coming, I had mentioned the trip to my guqin instructor, who commented that it was too commercialized and touristy for his liking, but at the same time, it’s nice that guqin is getting more exposure.

Indeed, this place was tourist-oriented. Our dorms here were much nicer than the dorms at school. Each room was equipped with a heated toilet seat, a shower with decent water pressure, as well as a beautiful guqin and tea set.

Our itinerary started with a tour of the facilities and exhibition halls, where we learned a bit about the qin-making process and got to see some examples of exquisite guqin.

The guqin here were much more expensive than my 1,800 rmb (~$250?) qin. The absolute cheapest I could find was 9,000, and they soared into many, many figures higher. The guqin on exhibition are considered fine examples of qin that the company is keeping in their private collection. These are often decorated, either with beautiful engravings on the back, or with elaborate butterfly illustrations that are reminiscent of maki-e.

The one on the left has cracks in the lacquer (duanwen). These are typically a sign of an old qin, but these are all newly made, meaning this was made to look old.

After an afternoon of guqin workshops teaching right-hand techniques, we got dinner and then had the evening to ourselves.

I had heard from one of the staff members that there was a tea house on-site. Having not had tea with friends since leaving the US, I was eager to foster some communi-tea with my new classmates.

“Does anybody wanna get tea tonight?” I asked in the groupchat.

“What time?” a classmate we call Bro Zhang (張哥) replied.

“Meet me in the lobby at 7. We can go together.”

At 7, Bro Zhang came over and I was about to head to the tea house with him when suddenly I heard a voice behind us.

“Yo, wait up!”

I turned around to see a band of nearly 30 students coming towards us. Almost our entire class had came for tea. Delighted, I led them to the tea house and got two long tables for us. Fortunately, a few of the other classmates were comfortable serving tea, so I served one table while someone else served the other.

Our evening consisted of incense, snacks, tea, and board games. While my table was rather traditional and played weiqi (I won!), the other table played Uno. Only two of us knew how to play weiqi though, so our other classmates used the board to play five-in-a-row.

This all reminded me Saturdays at Pomona, with casual social activities being facilitated through snacks, tea, and board games. It was through these chats that we were able to meet each other, since none of us really talked to each other during class.

While the tea house closed at 8, my evening was not about to end so early. Far in the distance, I heard the familiar sound of Chinese opera and decided to check it out. Along the way, I ran into two classmates.

“Where are you going?” they inquired.

“To the theater!” I replied.

“Oh my gosh, there’s a theater here?”

And with that, the three of us went to the local theater.

The theater was situated across from the local Daoist temple. There was some sort of festival going on, and the ground was red with fresh firecrackers. My classmates were a bit disappointed at first.

“I thought you meant a movie theater,” one of them muttered.

“Nope, but this should be interesting anyways!” I replied cheerfully.

It was.

As we walked past the deafening speakers, my classmate exclaimed, “YO! This is Hokkien!!!”

“You speak Hokkien?” I was surprised.

“Yeah, all of my neighbors spoke Hokkien back in the Philippines,” she explained.

And with that, we watched for a few minutes before deciding that the deafening speakers were really a bit too much.

The temple was quite small, and I got a few stares for taking photos of it, but ah—oh well. I was surprised that there was a lack of incense. I felt like I smelled more cigarette smoke as I walked through the shrine than the familiar scent of sandalwood.

We walked back to the dorms to call it a night. The next day would be pretty much the same; an introductory guqin workshop, tour of the grounds, and then our return home (which ended up taking 5 hours due to traffic).

I did get to learn how to string a guqin though. It’s quite tiresome, as it takes a lot of strength to tighten the string and keep it taut while wrapping it around the guqin legs.

Overall, the trip was amazingly fun and a great bonding experience. Our rooms were beautiful, and although I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t learn anything new in terms of guqin-playing, I am glad that I got to visit.

An Unexpected Suitemate, Part 3

I was writing a blog post when a knock suddenly came from the door. An older Thai gentleman stood outside and talked to our youngest suitemate for a bit. He was a graduate student, one of Sangwon’s classmates, but it seemed like all of the Thai students were well-acquainted with each other.

The conversation ended, and the new visitor peeked into my room—I thought he was interested in my guqin. I was very, very wrong.

“He’ll be staying with us from now on!” my young friend exclaimed.

“Cool!” said Sangwon. “It’ll be a full house!”

I groaned internally and tried to think of where I could move all of my stuff.

“I’ve gotten permission to switch rooms,” our visitor explained.

I nodded and kept typing. He left to grab his stuff, and I quickly removed my belongings from his side of the room.

This will be an interesting year indeed.

An Unexpected Suitemate, Part 2

Earlier this evening—right as I had finished my previous blog post—my suitemate and I were discussing who our third suitemate might be. He proposed that it would be a Vietnamese master’s student coming in on September 18.

Intrigued, I asked him for his reasoning.

He explained that since undergraduate courses had started last week, all of the undergraduates must have checked in by now. Doctoral students are in two-roomed singles, meaning they wouldn’t be placed into our two-room double suite. This meant that only master’s students remained, of which, only one had yet to check in.

His reasoning was sound, and as I was about to agree with him, a knock startled us out of our conversation.

I opened it to see two student guides and a young student—far too young to be a master’s student.

Our final suitemate had arrived, and he wasn’t a master’s student from Vietnam. Instead, he was a first-year undergraduate from Thailand who had studied Chinese in high school.

He ended up choosing to room with Sangwon rather than me, which Sangwon seems quite excited about and I am quite relieved about. Both of them packed relatively lightly, and neither of them have a clunky guqin hanging next to their bed.

Our suitemate proved to be quite popular. His arrival was followed swiftly by a group of girls who came bearing gifts for him. Perhaps out of irony, they gave him a bottle of water. (Our water supply was suddenly cut off earlier tonight—fortunately, Sangwon and I had both showered right before it happened. However, the latest WeChat update mentioned that it wouldn’t be fixed until tomorrow morning at the earliest.)

“Wow,” I remarked. “You’ve made friends already?”

“They’re friends from Thailand,” he explained.

After getting settled in, we introduced ourselves and sat around for a bit as neither Sangwon nor I are particularly party animals. For the past few days, our evenings have consisted of studious work—me slowly progressing on my literature review while Sangwon progressed through his HSK 6 workbook—and short chats with the occasional snack or boba break.

“This is too quiet,” our latest suitemate finally said.

Sangwon and I both looked up from our laptops.

“Do either of you play guitar?” he asked.

Sangwon nodded, “I didn’t bring my guitar with me, but I can play.”

I shook my head—this probably wasn’t the best time to talk about my guqin.

In any case, that ended up launching us into a conversation about extracurricular activities.

It was a short-lived conversation.

Seemingly unsatisfied with austere silence of our productive workspace, our latest suitemate got up and left, presumably to seek out his friends from Thailand.

I suppose it’s only natural for him to seek out entertainment. In the coming days, once classes start for him, he’ll be swamped in work like the rest of us (and possibly begin to appreciate the rarity of such a productive and congenial study space).

So much for my hopes of having a suitemate equally geeky as the rest of us.

An Unexpected Suitemate

After living here alone for the past week without any sign of another student moving in, I assumed I would have the entire four-person suite to myself. This wasn’t the case.

As I was practicing guqin, my door swung open and our dorm manager came in with a young man carrying a bulky suitcase, his guide—a local student—helped him with his lighter belongings.

“Sorry—I forgot to knock,” the dorm manager said to me.

“No worries,” I replied as I got up from my seat.

As my new suitemate was getting settled into his room, the dorm manager mentioned that a third person would be joining us. No idea when, where he’s from, or what his name is, but there’s some third person supposedly joining us some time down the road.

My suitemate’s guide noticed my guqin and remarked, “Oh, are you a part of the guqin club?”

Hold up—there’s a guqin club on campus?

“No,” I replied, tilting my head in curiosity. “Can you tell me more though? I’d love to join.”

“Yeah, hold on,” she said. “Let me introduce you to the club president…”

As she typed a few things into her phone, my mind wandered towards other possibilities.

“Is there a calligraphy club too?” I asked eagerly.

“Yeah, do you wanna join that too?”

“Yes, please!”

And with that, I joined two clubs in one night.

At this point, my new suitemate had finished moving his luggage in, and we introduced ourselves. He’s from Seoul and had just finished his bachelor’s degree in Chinese language. Later, I found out that he’s also a Classical Chinese geek, although he switched his concentration from classical to modern Chinese about a year and a half ago.

Having just arrived, my suitemate was both exhausted and hungry. And so, we walked to the dining hall and talked over a bowl of spicy noodles before going shopping for household essentials. Since he arrived on a Friday night, he’d have to survive the weekend without a data plan, since starting a student phone account required a student ID, which he couldn’t get until Monday.

In the meantime, he survived by using my hotspot every so often and sneaking into the local McDonald’s for their wifi.

He even left campus on an adventure Saturday night, taking the subway into the city to meet up with his guide for a date. He came back with a bag of roasted chestnuts for me!

It’s a bit odd, as I’ve gone my entire four years of college without ever having a roommate. I did have a suitemate my senior year, but I was living with someone I had known since freshman year rather than a complete stranger. Although, it’s a bit comforting that even the strangers I end up living with share quirky interests like Classical Classical literature. Now, I wonder if our third suitemate is also a history/literature geek…

A Trip to the Hospital +85C

As part of our residence permit applications, my classmates and I have to prove that we don’t have any major illnesses, and to confirm this, we had to go to the hospital and get a thorough (and I mean thorough) medical examination.

We gathered bright and early at 6:30 am outside the dormitory and took a private bus to the hospital (I suppose it was a travel clinic that specialized in exams—no patients were being treated here). There were already a handful of people lined up waiting for doors to open by the time we arrived.

Fortunately for us, the school had made a group appointment in advance, so we were able to get prompt assistance. I was told that my American medical evaluations had no validity here, so I paid my 500 rmb examination fee and received a checklist of stations to go to.

The first was a blood test. Now, I’ve mostly gotten over my fear of needles, but I’m still a terribly difficult person to draw blood from (or so all of my medical providers have told me). I kindly told the nurse this as I sat down, and she stared at me, stuck a needle in, and drew three vials of blood on the first try.

“Please,” she said to me. “We deal with all kinds of ‘difficult’ people here. This is nothing.”

Wow. Okay. Got it.

I was still in awe at smoothly it went when she waved me off with a cotton swab so that she could extract blood from the classmate next to me.

Afterwards, I went through a number of tests: urine, height and weight, blood pressure, among other things. The more interesting ones included an electrocardiogram in which they attached strange things to my arms, legs, and belly. Not sure what it was for.

What I really didn’t understand was why I was also given an ultrasound. I joked with the nurse, saying that I am very confident that I’m not pregnant, but she responded seriously, “You never know until we check.”

I suppose. My results came out as I predicted—I am not pregnant.

Having finished my examination, I waited downstairs in the lobby as my classmates slowly funneled through the lines. I was number 10 in line—someone else was 97. I checked the time. It’d take them at least another two hours.

And with that, I went off to find breakfast. After wandering on the streets for a few minutes, I stumbled across an 85C bakery. Immediately, my thoughts returned to lovely days in California.

I walked in, only to be a bit disappointed. The selection here is vastly inferior to the bakeries in Los Angeles. There were no Marble Taros, no Mango Swirls, no cheesy-potato things. The prices though, were identical, making this the most expensive breakfast I’ve had in China.

I left with $3 worth of bread. The same amount of money would have paid for a nice dinner at the restaurants near campus.

I walked back to the hospital lobby, munching on my bread along the way. Upon arriving, I started coughing. Why did the lobby of a medical facility reek of cigarette smoke?

I traced the stench to the stairwell. Someone was smoking inside despite all of the no smoking signs plastered throughout the building.

Sighing to myself, I sat in the opposite end of the hall and made friends with the other classmates who had finished.

“Are any of you hungry?” I asked.

“No,” one classmate from Holland replied.

Then she saw my bag of pastries.

“Oh my god. There’s an 85C here?!” she jumped up.

“It’s really expensive though,” I replied.

“Doesn’t matter. I’ve been craving it. Can you show me where it is?”

With that, I brought a group of three students to 85C. It was on this trip that I met a few new friends—mostly classmates from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Classes and More Classes

This week started bright and early with our first Chinese class. As an international student, I was grouped together with everybody else in the program and assigned to Class 6. While there were theoretically 8 levels, Class 8 was never open, and they didn’t want me in Class 7 because otherwise I wouldn’t have any classes to take next semester.

And so we started the first lecture of Class 6 with “Conversational Business Chinese.” These were terms that were neither unfamiliar nor remotely interesting to me. When the dreaded two hours ended, I was resolute on switching classes. Fortunately for me, I got to skip Tuesday’s class due to a mandatory medical exam (read more about that here).

I came back on Wednesday for our main Chinese class in which our teacher spent an onerous amount of time correcting tone pronunciation and tongue curls. During the break, a classmate from Uzbekistan came up to me.

“Are you sure you’re supposed to be in this class?” he asked.

“This is what I was assigned, but I’ll probably switch out,” I replied.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much of a difference it would make for me to join Class 7. Everybody here was an undergraduate who started learning Chinese relatively recently. I still didn’t feel like Class 7 would do much for me.

And so, this morning, I went into the Student Affairs Office to ask if I could take classes with regular Chinese students. The secretary stared at me.

“At this point, I think the other students don’t feel too comfortable with me in the same class…” I admitted.

Ms. Lin, the director sitting behind her, hollered to us, “Just add him in!”

“But—” the secretary interjected. “He’s an international student!”

“And? He can obviously keep up with the Chinese classes. He’ll stick out less there than in the classes he’s currently in. Put him as sophomore/junior standing,” she instructed. “Alright kiddo, you can choose any of the core classes in the department.”

That was mostly true. I went into the registrar’s office to get the course list, but as she printed it, she also crossed off a few that I was told to not take—mostly because they were completely irrelevant. These included English for Chinese Teachers, Introduction to Maoism and Chinese Socialism, and Technology for Education. I wasn’t planning on taking them anyways.

And with that, I was approved to take Classical Chinese Grammar, Readings in Classical Chinese, and Chinese Culture in the World. While I wouldn’t receive credit for these (not that I needed credit), they would fulfill my Fulbright course audit requirement and give me a deeper understanding of the cultural background behind tea culture.

Let’s see how this goes!

While I won’t be making very many friends with the international group, this means I’ll have plenty of chances to meet local students—although they might already have their friend groups solidified by now. While I’ve made a few friends during our trip to the hospital for medical examinations, none of them are in my class, so I suppose those won’t be affected.

Most of the international students here tend to congregate with other students from the same country, but being the only American, there isn’t anybody for me to chat with. However, I’ve made a rather surprisingly close connection with the Japanese international students. One of them, Yamada-san, is in Class 6, and I suspect that she’s from Kyoto as she tends to use “-haru” as part of keigo.

In any case, we have a Mid-Autumn Festival gathering for international students tomorrow afternoon, which should be good for group bonding, and I seem to have been invited to the Japanese students’ dinner this Saturday.

The Life of a Chinese Scholar: Ancient Music and No Electricity

I’m actually not sure what to start off with for this blog post.

I suppose first, I’ve been without electricity for the past four days now, and despite having filled out a maintenance form every single day, nobody has come to fix it (although workers have come to my building to fix other things)… In any case, I’ve essentially gotten used to this rustic living. My body has adapted to being without AC, without hot water, and without a washing machine. Meanwhile, I’ve been charging my phone at restaurants and other public spaces. My battery, now at 50%, has sat off the entire weekend because I wanted to make sure I could use it as needed. Although, since I have class tomorrow morning, it should be fine to use it now and charge it in class—I hope.

Now, let’s move on to the more interesting things that have been happening. Yesterday, I took the bus and went to my first guqin lesson. The bus ride there was absolutely terrifying—I felt like I was on a roller coaster rather than a bus, complete with sudden lurches, abrupt stops, and a cacophony of car horns.

Now, the guqin lesson itself was rather straightforward. However, it wasn’t without its surprises. When I walked in, I noticed a proudly-framed photo of my new instructor standing next to Ven. Master Hsing Yun. Small world. I sat down and my instructor started me on the basic hand techniques. As I practiced, he’d chat about my experience in the US, and how odd it is for someone from the US to want to learn guqin.

I had just finished explaining that I would only be in China for year when he stopped abruptly.

“One year…” he muttered.

He came over and stared at me, “You’re going to have to take extra classes every week, but I’ll get you up to speed. I want you to go back as someone who can claim this lineage.”

I stared back at him, absolutely taken aback by the kung-fu movie-esque exchange. “I would love to take extra classes.”

“I’m serious,” he continued. “It would be really good to have someone who can play guqin in the US. I want you to learn something that typically takes people three to five years to learn—but you only have ten months. You’re going to be practicing at least one to two hours a day. If you’re not ready to commit, it’s going to end up being a total failure.”

My mind jolted back and forth—hell, when would I ever get this opportunity again?

“I’ll do it.”

He laughed, “Alright. Now let’s see how you progress in the next week or two. Just because you can put in the effort doesn’t mean you’ll soak it up that fast.”

And with that, my guqin journey started. I left the classroom hugging a cardboard box with my new instrument inside and got home eager to play. He had given me instructions to learn three songs before my next class, which at that point was only 24 hours away.

And so I practiced.

Having not held a musical instrument since middle school when I was third chair of the four cellos in orchestra, I had completely forgotten how to read notation. Fortunately, it didn’t matter because guqin has a totally different notation system.

Playing a string instrument again brought back not so fond memories of painful fingers and the process of developing calluses (although truth be told, I never developed calluses in middle school because I never actually practiced at home).

Perhaps it’s because I’m more mature now, or perhaps it’s because I can play a song on my own rather than being relegated to playing some long C note for measures and measures, but while I still lack the hand-eye coordination to play guqin smoothly, it’s much more enjoyable than when I was playing cello.

At 10 pm, I decided to stop—I had memorized one song, completely failed at the second song, and could fumble my way through the third.

The next morning, I practiced for another two hours after breakfast, my fingers still raw from the night before. By the time I got to class, I had memorized one song, could fumble through the second song, and had parts of the third song memorized. Proud and ready to show my teacher my progress, I hopped on the bus.

The bus dropped me off on the side of the freeway, and after walking for 15 minutes in the blazing sun, I realized this was definitely not the right place. I walked back, cursing T-Mobile for failing in international data coverage. Using a combination of cached and screenshotted maps, I eventually found my way to where my class was supposed to be—except I couldn’t find an entrance.

After asking two local residents who had never heard of a class here, I decided to ask one more person: a college student walking up the hill.

“Hi, sorry to bother you, but do you know where Minjiang College is?” I asked.

“Yeah, you’re at Minjiang College right now—I go here,” she replied with a bit of confusion.

“Ok—so I’m taking a guqin lesson and it’s supposedly somewhere around here.”

“You sure? I’ve never heard of guqin lessons at this school.”

Well damn. I showed her the WeChat conversation in which my teacher specifically designated that this would be the location for our next class. She looked at it and thought to herself.

“Can’t you just message him and ask?” she seemed very confused.

“Unfortunately not. I don’t have a Chinese SIM card,” I admitted.

“Huh?” her confusion grew even greater, if that was physically possible.

“I’m from the US,” I explained. “I got here last week, and I don’t have a Chinese phone plan yet.”

“But… you’re not white,” she pointed out.

“I’m not. But not all Americans are white,” I replied.

She accepted my answer and kindly let me freeload off of her hotspot so I could call my instructor. He didn’t pick up.

“Well, instead of waiting in the heat, why don’t you come with me? If you’re into guqin, you must be into other traditional arts, right?”

“Yeah—do you do any arts?”

“Mhm, I’m training as a lacquer artist. It’s kind of dangerous though. The lacquer can trigger some really nasty allergic reactions.”

She pulled up her sleeve to show red blotches of irritated skin.


“Yeah, so feel free to look and ask me about stuff in the workshop, but do not touch anything.”

And with that, we walked up the hill and into the lacquer workshop where a few students and instructors were making trays.

The lacquer workshop. These are all undergraduates.

“We mostly make export goods here,” my host explained. “Most of it goes to southeast Asia.”

As she showed me around, pointing out how lacquer is durable, light, and elegant, she gave me a brief overview of the different stages of lacquerwork, from the initial layering to decorating and buffing.

“Fuzhou has three treasures,” she said. “Bodiless lacquer—which is what we do—is one of them!”

“That’s cool! And what are the other two?”

“Dunno,” she replied. “I’m not a native Fuzhou-er.”

We laughed, and after watching them work, I finally got a response from my guqin instructor: wait there, I’ll pick you up.

I bid farewell to my wonderful host for the afternoon and walked back into the sun to see my guqin instructor standing outside. He was waiting for another lost student as well. We ended up walking towards the student dorms and entered what really was just a dorm. I suppose someone at the college must be a guqin fanatic and donated the space? The dorm resident popped in and out a few times, but like most college students just stayed on his computer in the quiet recesses of his room.

Our classroom in a dorm. The wall is painted so they must have been using this space for a while.

I left class with a note to return on Wednesday. I would take three classes per week and try to learn at least three years worth of material during my time here—if not more. In my conversations with my instructor though, I realized that this innocent hobby ties into my tea research a lot more than I had expected.

In terms of contemporary tea culture, there’s been a trend of viewing tea as a method of spiritual cultivation. While this perspective and function of tea can be traced back to Tang dynasty writings, it has reemerged with the “tea meditation” or 茶禪 aesthetic. This simple, no-frills way of serving tea is partly informed by Chinese interpretations of Japanese tea, but also an attempt to repackage tea for a modern “literati” lifestyle. That is, the geeks like me who live in the 21st century yet strive to learn arts like calligraphy, guqin, and tea appreciation.

In my guqin instructor’s elegant words: There is the Way of Tea, but music is also a way. To learn the way, you have to walk it—how long and far you walk determines where you end up.

To my instructor, guqin is an art that is also cultivation. In fact, his curriculum includes classical Chinese philosophy and neo-Confucian writings to balance practice and understanding.

While I’ll have to end this blog post here since it’s getting late, he mentioned a few other key points, one being the role of lineage in guqin circles. I’ll address this further in a later post. I’ll also update this post with pictures once I have stable electricity and internet.

Breakdowns: External and Internal

While I’m not too jetlagged, I woke up at 5 am this morning and decided to head out early to explore campus while it was still cool.

However, I woke up with a piercing sore throat. Nonetheless, I went downstairs and got two vegetable buns and a hot soy milk-cereal for less than a dollar and kept walking. Having nutrition and hot fluids soothed my throat, and I got halfway into campus before reaching the library.

As I passed students trying to memorize English passages and perfect their pronunciation, I walked into the reference section to see what they had in store. To my delight, there were plenty of calligraphy dictionaries. They also had a rare books collection that included Ming texts documenting the region, but I didn’t have my student ID yet and didn’t want to risk entering and getting interrogated, especially while my speech was hindered by an increasingly painful sore throat.

After a while of lounging around in the air conditioning, I went back to my room, stopping at the store to get some laundry detergent and drinking water on my way back. With a cold coming on, the last thing I would want is not having potable water.

Without much to do, I watched an episode of March Comes in Like a Lion on Bilibili and went back to the noodle place for lunch. On my way back, I decided to stop by a pharmacy, where I was promptly greeted by a clerk asking for my symptoms.

“Sore throat,” I replied.


“Not yet.”

“Runny nose?”


“Is the mucus thick or thin?”


She came back with two packages and rang me up. On my way back, I peeked into the bag and laughed. She prescribed me Yinqiao tablets and Banlangen to drink—exactly what the herbalist at Wing Ming would prescribe me over a decade ago. I guess my health habits haven’t really changed.

On my way back, I was approached by an over-friendly student who asked me if I was a first-year. I suppose I was since this is my first year here, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk.

“No,” I replied curtly.

He didn’t get the memo. “Well, then what year are you?”

“Researcher,” I muttered as I kept walking. He stopped in his tracks, confused at why I would be a researcher. I suppose I look a bit young for that.

As soon as he stopped following me, another student called to me, “Are you okay? You look ill.”

Why yes, I am on the verge of becoming quite ill indeed. “It’s just a cold; I’ll be fine,” I answered.

I got back to my room, downed the medicine, and the flames in my throat subsided for the time being. I could talk again with relatively less pain, and swallowing was more of a gritty annoyance than a torturous bodily function.

I decided that I would return to the registration booth because after looking at my class list, “Conversational Business Chinese” really did not appeal to me at all.

After speaking with one of the Chinese teachers and explaining my situation she agreed that since I have no need for transfer credits, I could presumably take whichever classes I wanted. And just like that, I eliminated a few hours from my schedule, making a bit more room for research.

I got home to an exceptionally warm room. My air conditioner had stopped working. In fact, upon plugging my phone charger into the wall, I noticed that all of my electrical outlets had stopped working. I went downstairs to report the situation.

The incident reminded me of resonance theory—the Chinese concept of microcosmic and macrocosmic resonance. Essentially, it is the idea that a micro- and macrocosmic systems reflect each other, meaning that breakdowns in one plane directly impact its surroundings. This is why the Emperor traditionally held ritualistic roles to balance Heaven, Earth, and Mankind. In my own situation, it was as if my electrical sockets were reflecting the breakdown in my immune system.

Although, perhaps I shouldn’t discuss use the term immune system either. Rather than attributing my distress to external forces such as bacteria and viruses I was exposed to on the plane, the Chinese pharmacist insisted that this was due to me not drinking enough water, that I had eaten too much junk food, and to not getting enough sleep (all of these were true). The idea was that if my body had been in a harmonic balance, I would not have fallen ill. Now, the medicine she grabbed for me would aim to restore balance by cooling my system down and helping it reach equilibrium.

In the meantime, I’ll drink more water and get more rest. I’d like to be well by Saturday, since that’s a long day of walking (and also the day of my first scheduled guqin class).