I’ve hit a strange point where I feel like I am plateauing. There is still plenty of room for me to improve in my hobbies, and while I am unsatisfied with my current ability, there’s some mysterious blockage preventing me from going further.

I first noticed it with my essay-writing. I was working on my literature review on contemporary tea history when I realized that I was wholly unhappy with how I was framing the entire piece. It didn’t rake me very long to realize that in fact, I had no idea how I wanted to frame it. As a result, nothing I came up was appealing. I knew I could do it better, but my goal was vague. I set it aside.

Then, while practicing calligraphy one night, I realized that—like my essays—nothing I wrote appealed to me. I had started learning seal script, and while that came with its own harsh learning curve, but when I tried to switch back to the standard script and semi-cursive I was so fond of before, I was critical of every stroke I made.

Then, I noticed the same thing with guqin. While I had amassed a large repertoire of songs, I was unhappy with my inability to play a certain piece with full proficiency. As I was practicing, I noticed that there was a larger issue—could it be that I had actually gotten worse? I stopped and listened to a recording I took of myself playing the same piece just one month prior.

It wasn’t that I had gotten worse, but I had realized how poorly I was playing.

Curious, I looked at my past calligraphy—I hadn’t gotten worse. Phew. But while I was more-or-less content with my calligraphy in the past (at least, content enough to post it on Instagram and Facebook), I wanted to delete everything at that very moment.

I sighed in relief. It wasn’t that I had forgotten all I had learned. That would have been disastrous. Instead, I had gradually developed enough discernment to see my mistakes.

My discernment had outpaced my skills, and now I needed to catch up. Rather than be discouraged by my new realizations, I decided that this would be my impetus to improve. After all, now that I knew exactly I needed to change, I could progress a lot quicker.

I started with more reading and writing, trying to identify a cleaner and clearer writing style. With calligraphy, I returned to the most basic strokes, producing pages and pages of horizontal strokes as I aimed to produce a consistent page of quality strokes. I returned to the most basic guqin pieces, refreshing my memory of them while also refining each movement.

This recent challenge led me to think about the process of our growth as humans. Overtime, we begin to realize our faults, and while this can be disconcerting and lead to thoughts such as “wow, I did some really terrible things” or “I’m not good enough”, this can also lead to a motivation to change—a newfound resolve to not do terrible things anymore and a renewed vigor to do even better.

Xiamen: Part 2

I decided to get up bright and early the next day for a head-start in the expo. The hotel had run out of regular rooms, so I had been upgraded to a suite with a hot tub and ocean-view for free, so I spent my night in absolute luxury.

This time, I got to the expo, but entered through an unfamiliar entrance. Oh no, I thought to myself. This is going to be difficult.

I waded through aisles and aisles of Buddhist textiles. All sorts of tablecloths, altar cloths, streamers, banners, canopies, and every design I could possibly imagine.

I think this would look better in red… and that they should hire me as a Buddhist designer.

I forced myself to snap out of it, and I continued walking. By the time I got to the statuary shop—only halfway to the tea expo—it was noon.

“Hey buddy!” my friend from yesterday called out. “We were just gonna have lunch, wanna join us?”

I thought about it quickly—I’d have to eat lunch anyways. Might as well eat with friends. I agreed, and we started chatting about Buddhist statues over our meal.

Halfway through lunch, Mr. Hoshino appeared from around the corner.

“I’m hungry!” he declared. “Don’t you have some food around here?”

My new friend stood up immediately, his face stricken with terror.

“Sir, are these bento boxes okay?” he asked

Mr. Hoshino inspected them.

“Eh, better than nothing,” he started eating.

Those bento boxes were supposed to be for the shop employees, but alas I guess the employees would have to wait a bit longer. My friend rushed to buy extra lunches for his staff.

“Oh!” Mr. Hoshino suddenly exclaimed. “You’re here too!”

The jerk had noticed me.

“You have time today, right?” he asked with a sleazy grin. “Why don’t you come along with me. I have a few more orders to make.”

I sighed. This time, I needed to get things done, but perhaps Mr. Hoshino could help me without knowing he was helping me.

We started walking, and as we entered a few places, he started asking about prices. During the gaps when he wasn’t asking about items he was interested in, I decided to ask about things I was interested in. I ended up with a few quotes, many business cards, and a little bit of negotiating experience.

Eventually, I was able to break free and get to the Tea Expo. Except over there, only two people talked to me.

One is the owner of a tea shop in Fuqing, not too far from Fuzhou. Another was a tea producer from Chaozhou who currently lives in Guangzhou. But as I realized, it wasn’t from interviews that I would get my information. It was on a greater scale—from observing the entire expo as a whole.

The majority of products in the Buddhist expo and the tea expo were of Japanese design. However, very few people referred to them explicitly as “Japanese” 和式. Instead, the preferred term among Chinese customers was “Tang-style” 唐式. That is, instead of purchasing Japanese items, Chinese customers understood themselves as returning to an earlier form of Chinese aesthetic (that Japanese artists had preserved).

These are actually from Japan, which is interesting.
Chinese monks are wearing Japanese robes now?

There are many, many issues with this line of thinking, as Japanese art has transformed over the centuries. To consider it as merely a regurgitation of Tang dynasty ideals is absolutely insulting. However, to those in traditional circles who are proud of Chinese heritage, it feels much easier to lay claim to this reinvented “Tang culture” than to admit that they’re actually adopting Japanese culture.

Over the course of the expo, there were shops that offered an experience in trying “Song dynasty tea whipped tea” which was using Japanese matcha… not cake tea as would have been used during the Song dynasty, there were Buddhist statues that made “Tang-style” altars (which were copied from Japanese designs), and as I mentioned earlier, there were “Tang-style floor mats” which were really just tatami.

I found it hilarious that despite Chinese tastes aligning with Japanese items, the Chinese market is unable to accept it as being labeled as Japanese, thus creating the need to relabel everything as “Tang-style.”

This points to a greater undercurrent of nationalism within the traditional arts communities here. A lot of the tea practitioners, calligraphers, and other traditional artists I’ve met here are extremely proud of Chinese culture. One person told me that Japan doesn’t have its own style of calligraphy. Everything they have is a copy of Chinese calligraphy, to which I pointed out that kana calligraphy is indeed unique to Japan. They tried to tell me that it was actually invented by the Tang dynasty monk Huaisu, and that’s when I stopped replying. There was no point.

Another egregious example is when I was told that kintsugi is a Chinese art because China had lacquer before Japan. While that is true, that doesn’t mean Chinese artisans were the first to use lacquer and gold to repair ceramics. But alas, convincing overly-prideful people that they don’t possess a monopoly on other East Asian cultures is completely useless. From this skewed perspective, everything that is good in East Asia came from China.

Xiamen: Part 1

First off, sorry for the delay—there have been some internet connectivity issues preventing me from uploading photos until now.

I woke up at 7 am on Friday and began my journey to Xiamen for the International Tea Expo.

Off to Xiamen!

After breakfast with Sangwon, I went took the subway to the train station and eventually boarded. My seat was next to an old granny who was talking on the phone in Hokkien. After she hung up, she turned to me and asked—in Hokkien—why I didn’t stow my luggage in the slots above us.

“It’s too heavy,” I replied to her in Teochew.

She nodded in understanding.

A few seconds past and she turned to me again.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Chaozhou,” I answered, wondering if I could actually pass for a Chaozhou native.

She nodded again and fell silent. I had passed the test—or so I thought.

“No,” she suddenly said. “You’re accent sounds like it’s from Chaoyang, not Chaozhou proper.”

I was shocked. Were the regional variants of Teochew so drastically different? She must have seen the shock on my face because she laughed.

“My husband is from Chaozhou, so I know,” she said with a smile.

When I got off the train, I had a quick lunch before taking a shuttle to the expo. After checking in, I began walking towards the tea section.

Unfortunately, I never made it there.

I was greeted by a colossal Buddha statue as Buddhist chants played in the background. I’d have to walk through the Buddhist supply expo before I could reach the tea expo.

As large as this is, there were bigger statues all around.

I knew I would be distracted and begin to browse, so I set a limit for myself. I would go to the tea section at 3 pm. That’d give me ample time to get through the Buddhist supplies.

As I walked, the sound of drums, bells, gongs, and woodenfishes surrounded me as all sorts of people walked around testing and purchasing instruments. The smell of fine aloeswood wafted through the air, and in every direction, elaborately carved statuary adorned the halls.

Now, this isn’t to say that everything at the expo was nice. In fact, most were things I would never care for. Countless booths had cheap porcelain statues, plastic statues trying to look fancier than they really are, and fiberglass statues that looked dull and lifeless.

But a few shops caught my attention with their detailed wood carvings and beautiful gold-leaf. While most shopkeepers ignored me, the staff of one of finer wood-carving shops invited me to sit down and drink some tea.

“You… don’t really seem like the typically Buddhist statuary client,” he remarked.

He was right. Most people here were at least twice my age and walked around in monastic robes.

“I’m here on behalf of a friend actually,” I explained. “I’m looking for a statue that has pretty specific requirements—are you able to do a custom order?”

He was quick to accept, and I found myself engaged in a deep conversation over wood carved statues for about an hour. At that point, an anonymous old man sat down near us. He turned to his assistant and muttered something in Japanese.

I turned to them and—in Japanese—asked where they were from.

He introduced himself as Mr. Hoshino from Gunma. While he’s not Buddhist, he made his fortune off of selling Japanese temples Chinese-made items that look close enough to the Japanese quality to pass.

As soon as he realized I could speak Japanese and Mandarin, he pulled me over to interpret for him. It was a bit awkward because most of it was him grilling my new friend about a recent order. The wood color was uneven, meaning the hands of the statue were slightly darker than the body. My young friend apologized profusely and promised to have the issue remedied as Mr. Hoshino threatened to cancel his other orders with them.

As I would find out throughout over the next few hours, Mr. Hoshino is a jerk.

But, he’s a rich jerk, so people typically accommodated his jerkiness.

I found it ridiculous though—wood tones naturally vary, and the shop had already promised to lighten the wood so that the final product would have an even color. That should have been the end of the story.

Instead, we were there for a good while going back and forth until Mr. Hoshino received enough apologies to move on… at which point he decided to drag me along as he crossed off more purchases on his list.

Among the things he wanted were a pair of gilded altar lights, and as he was discussing the down payment for them, I whispered to him that these weren’t gilded with real gold. I didn’t—and still don’t particularly like the guy—but I didn’t like that the manufacturer was being sleazy as well.

He got up immediately to visit a reputable manufacturer from Japan, which confirmed my suspicions. The gilding at the first shop was far too dull to be real gold.

He laughed heartily and thanked me with a pat on the back and insisted that we keep on moving… except I still needed to go to the tea expo and check into my hotel before 6 pm.

And so, I excused myself, and he invited me to dinner later that night. I accepted, although thinking about it now that was a bad idea. I should have just eaten instant noodles alone in my hotel room.

Being vegetarian and trying to eat at the same table as a mega-wealthy Japanese man who enjoys fine steak, seafood, and copious amounts of alcohol is not easy.

Fortunately, we had a fourth guest: the owner of the restaurant we were eating at. Despite having just met, she was incredibly courteous and made sure I had enough things to eat (she had to scold a few waiters and waitresses because they forgot my vegetarian order)…

We were serenaded by live music too!

Throughout the night, he asked me about my language study and how I developed such a keen eye for Buddhist art. I wasn’t sure to answer him—most of it had come from exposure. Again and again, he asked if I was interested in working for him. I smiled and nodded politely.

But I would never work for the guy.

Earlier in the dinner, he mentioned that we were complete opposites, and indeed we were. In his own words, he’s a sleazy businessman who liked to profit greatly off of temples to fund his excessive lifestyle while I’m an austere student with a remarkable eye for Buddhist artwork.

I nodded and smiled faintly.

As the night grew late, I began to take my leave as the restaurant owner whispered to me that he tends to get violent when he’s drunk… and judging by his increasingly snappy attitude, I could tell that the volcano was about to erupt.

In any case, I left the dinner with Mr. Hoshino’s business card with a job offer if I ever ended up unemployed in Japan. I won’t be using it.

Meals: A Most Difficult Situation

Being vegetarian in China is hard.

It’s not that there isn’t an abundance of vegetables, or that there aren’t enough options, it’s that the people preparing the food simply don’t understand what “vegetarian” means.

My first encounter with this happened one morning last week when the grandpa I buy my veggie buns from happened to run out of my usual order.

“Ah, it’s fine,” I told him.

“It’s okay,” he assured me. “This is also vegetarian.”

I eyed the bun he held, already packaged and ready for me to eat.

“No meat?” I asked warily.

“No meat,” he assured me with a grin.

I paid him the however many cents it was and went back to my room. Upon taking a bite, something felt… odd. There was an abundance of mushrooms, which usually meant that it was probably vegetarian. But then my teeth sank into something tougher. I inspected my meal.

Thin strips of meat were embedded between the mushrooms. My mind went through a series of evaluations: if I were to throw it away, I would be wasting food and the animal that died for this wouldn’t come back to life. If I kept eating it, I might have digestive issues in the next hour or so.

After weighing my options, I kept eating it. I was rather disgusted with each bite, but fortunately my bowels were fine. This is a scenario that would replay itself throughout the week.

The second time it happened was when I was getting lunch. I had ordered a tofu rice bowl and confirmed that it was 100% vegetarian, no meat whatsoever.

Then, as I was eating my tofu, I noticed something red underneath. Imitation crab, hot-pink ham, and some mystery meat. I gagged, but finished my meal nonetheless. Having not eaten meat in years, I’m actually surprised I didn’t throw up—or run straight to the toilet. But I think eating the mystery meat helped solidify my decision to be vegetarian—that stuff is absolutely gross and horrendously salty.

Now, the next two times this happened, I was in a group setting—more or less with the same group. Yamada-san, my former classmate, invited me to a dinner with the other Japanese students on Saturday night (Sep. 14).

It was a friendly, lively dinner with copious amounts of alcohol (I drank water) and seafood (I ate the tofu and veggies that garnished the dishes). But it was at that dinner that I realized I now wince when people are peeling shrimp, shelling prawns, and cracking lobsters. It just… feels barbaric.

Of the five students from Japan, four were from Okinawa: Uehara, Tomoyose, Miyagi, and a young man whom we called Sha-san because his surname was really long (something 謝?). Yamada-san, who I had assumed was from Kyoto, was actually from Osaka (eh, close enough). However, our host for the night, Oyama-sensei, was from Kyoto. He was teaching a two-week crash course on Linux at the university, and he has been doing this every semester for the past six years—possibly more.

The star of the show though, was Yamada-san’s Chinese boyfriend. He brought a bottle of very expensive-looking liquor to share, persisted through the night without understanding the conversation, and he got roped into preparing crab meat for everybody except me (since I don’t eat crab).

Oyama-sensei eventually caught on and noticed that I wasn’t eating any of the fish… or really any of the main dishes.

“You’re okay with tofu and veggies?” he asked.

“Mhm—I’m not much of a seafood person,” I replied.

“Do you want something meaty? We can order something else,” he offered.

“It’s fine,” I assured him. “I don’t eat meat.”

“Ah!” he exclaimed. “You’re vegetarian.”

I was actually surprised he noticed—nobody else at the table had mentioned a thing.

The rest of the dinner went smoothly, and we finished the night be exchanging WeChats information.

Then, a few days later, I got a message from Yamada-san’s boyfriend, Zijing.

“Hey, do you wanna get dinner?” he asked.

“Sure! Who else is coming?” I replied.

“Just you, me, and Oyama-sensei.”

And with that, I met them at the mall (a bit late because I decided to get a massage at a spa near the bank—it was really nice, and they gave me a cupping and guasha session too!). The dinner was at a sushi restaurant.

I walked in to find Oyama-sensei and Zijing already there. They had ordered, but the food hadn’t come yet, meaning I wasn’t that late.

“Can you eat anything here?” Oyama-sensei asked me.

“Mhm,” I answered confidently. “Egg, cucumbers, and inarizushi.”

He laughed, “That’s barely anything!”

Indeed, which is why I typically avoid sushi restaurants. But Zijing wanted me to come, and I think it would have been rather awkward with just the two of them, so I showed up.

It was all-in-all a mediocre meal over fun conversation in which we discussed anime, the overabundance of mayonnaise in Chinese sushi, and the difficulties of learning Japanese.

Since then, my meals have been smooth. I’ve figured out which dishes are truly vegetarian, and my accidental meat consumption has gone down to practically zero.

While barely filling, the mushroom udon on campus is delicious and perfectly vegetarian!

The one major slip-up was when I walked into Pizza Hut thinking I could just order a cheese pizza.

First off, the prices were essentially identical to the US. I ended up paying about $10USD for a personal pan pizza and a soup. It was kind of funny to me that in China, Pizza Hut serves pasta, steak, and is actually kind of high-end.

When I ordered a cheese pizza, the waitress stared at me.

“That’s just cheese, sauce, and dough,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

“There’s nothing on it.”

“Yes, I know.”

“We can’t sell that.”

“… What?”

“You must put something on it.”

“Fine,” I relented. “Pineapple.”

“Ah,” she exclaimed. “One Hawaiian!”

She turned around and left before I could protest, and a few minutes later, a pizza with bits of ham sat in front of me. I sighed. A cheese pizza is literally the simplest pizza order, and yet it was unheard of here.

My “pineapple” pizza. Note to all vegetarians: avoid Pizza Hut in China if possible.

Among the various challenges of living in China, I honestly think food is the biggest one for me. And this is after being relatively open to whatever is put in my plate. Nonetheless, I’ve become familiar with the dining halls on campus, and my meals are now (almost) stress-free.

Why I Didn’t Apply for the JET Program

This headline is misleading.

I did apply for the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program, but not as an English teacher. Instead, I applied to (was waitlisted) and eventually received a phone call with an offer to work as a Coordinator of International Affairs in Japan.

Teaching English never struck me as something I’d want to spend a year doing, and given that nobody associates me with America, I feel like it’s just weird. I’d much rather teach calligraphy. Actually—this brings me back to a point in my JET interview where I probably sent my interviewers into confusion by telling them that I associated a calligraphy brush with American culture.

I explained that a calligraphy brush—while commonly associated with East Asia—possessed the ability to write in any language, and although calligraphy is highly valued in Japan, America also has a tradition of calligraphy and hand-lettering.

Perhaps they were expecting me to say that I associated pizza, football, and Bud Light with American culture, but these were all aspects of America that never really resonated with me. Besides, in terms of cultural exchange, I think it’s best to start off with shared cultural points. Perhaps that’s calligraphy and writing, perhaps that’s in the celebration of holidays, or perhaps that’s in a shared love for the great outdoors.

In any case, I declined the position since I had already accepted the Fulbright Grant.

Now, this most recent experience reminded me just how much I did not want to teach English. A few weeks ago, my school’s Foreign Students Office recruited me to teach English to a group of preschool and early-elementary school students.

These were the children of staff in the department that directly manages all of us international students, so I felt obliged to at least give it a try. After all, they had approached me twice now, and I felt bad for continually declining.

I walked in, and the first thing one of the kids said was, “Mommmmmm, I thought you said our teacher is from America!!!”

“He is!” she exclaimed.

“America my butt!” he shouted. “He’s obviously Chinese. Don’t lie to me.”

“Watch your mouth,” she scolded. “And show your new teacher some respect.”

I sat down.

“Mom, look!” the six-year-old exclaimed again. “He doesn’t even have a powerpoint! What teacher comes into class without a powerpoint!”

I stared at him. At no point in my elementary school education do I remember even hearing the term Powerpoint. We used things called whiteboards, transparencies, and we read books in print rather than on a screen. This was a totally different era.

I picked up the textbook, which I hadn’t gotten a chance to look at until that very moment. It seemed to have been put through a lot of use.

“We already finished that book!” one of the other students said.

“I see that,” I replied, flipping through its pages. “But you can always review.”

The students fell silent, and I took the chance to introduce myself in English, then in Mandarin before asking each student to introduce themselves as well.

They struggled.

After helping them figure out how old they were in English numbers, I decided to move on. At the very least, we could do story time. And so our first lesson was on fruit.

“What fruits do you like to eat?” I asked them.

“YEEEEESUUUHHH!” one student enthusiastically replied.

“Sorry, could you say that again?”

“YESSSSSSSHH!” she screamed at me.

I was absolutely confused.

“This isn’t a yes or no question…” I tried to explain.

“NOOOO!!!!!” she screamed at me again.

The girl next to her timidly remarked, “I like caomei.”

“Oh, you like strawberries?” I immediately turned to her. “I do too!”

“Si tuo bei li!” she shouted.

I suppose pronunciation would come gradually.

The class continued as I read them stories and politely declined to sing the songs included in the textbook.

“How can you be a teacher if you don’t know how to sing songs?” one witty student remarked.

“I’m an English teacher, not a choir teacher,” I responded.

“But this is like, two sentences,” he jabbed.

“Yes,” I sighed. “I can read you the lyrics but I have no idea how the melody goes.”

“You’re just a stupid teacher. You can’t even sing a simple English song.”

Ignoring the remark, I graced them with my narration of three friends making fruit salad together. It probably would have sounded better if I knew the tune, but as a poem it didn’t sound too shabby either.

Then, my live reading stopped abruptly when two students got into a fight over who could sit in the green chair. The chairs were all made of the same uncomfortable plastic, but I suppose perhaps there was something special about the green chair.

There were tears. There was much screaming. There were many obnoxious comments.

The parents, who had been sitting at the back of the room, looked up from their phones. “Honey, stop that,” one of them muttered.

I stared at the parents.

“Honey, stop. I’ll take you out for ice cream if you stop screaming,” another parent said faintly.

The offer was drowned in the shrieks of two six-year-old classmates as I tried to stick my arms through to separate them. One of the parents glanced up and sauntered over to pick her child up. He stopped crying. The father of the other child brought her some water.

“Break time, everybody!” one of the other parents yelled from the back.

Break time seemed to mean the end of class, and they bid me farewell with an invitation to come back the next week.

I sat on the bus home dreading next week’s session. For the first time in a very, very long while, I felt like I wanted to cry. I dragged my feet back to my room and fell face-first into my bed. I woke up three hours later, still drained. I completely lacked the motivation to walk to the dining hall.

Then, there was a knock at my door, and I forced myself up to answer.

To my surprise, it was the Vietnamese nun who lived on the sixth floor.

“Do you want to come over for dinner? I made a lot of vegetarian food!” she invited.

A wave of gratitude washed over me, “Thank you so much! I’ll be over shortly.”

And with that, I spent my evening eating vegetarian noodles as a few other students stopped by for a quick bite, whether it be fruit or peanuts. Most of them had already eaten a meaty dinner and declined the offer of a full meal.

After the meal, I felt much better, and I decided to quit my job. When I informed the parents of my resignation, they were very gracious, and although I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to help their kids learn English, I think perhaps an instructor with lighter hair, paler skin, and more affinity towards nursery rhymes would be a better fit.

Breaking Out of my Undergraduate Shell

I visited a tea distributor in Fuzhou today (Oct. 5) specializing in Wuyishan teas. The operation is family-owned, and the owners both have Ph. Ds in Tea Studies from Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. That is, although they studied tea chemistry and production, they also learned tea arts, history, and culture before opening shop.

And so there I was was, sipping tea with them, ready to discuss my research, when they opened the conversation with, “What questions do you have?”

I knew already my question was too broad. It had no specificity whatsoever. I was still scrambling to find a potential direction to go in, as every time I found a lead, someone else had already done it, or the lead would end up being a dead-end.

And so, I gave them my generic answer about studying contemporary tea culture.

“… That sounds like an undergraduate student came up with that,” the dude with the Ph. Tea said. “Did your graduate advisor really approve that? It’s way too broad.”

I bit my lip.

“I’m still discussing it with him,” I explained. “I’m not quite sure what direction I want to take this in yet.”

My guqin classmate from before chimed in, “In our earlier conversation, we talked about tea as a spiritual path in a Chinese setting.”

“Ah,” the lady with the Ph. Tea cleared her throat. “I’ve researched this before. It doesn’t exist—at least not in the way you’re thinking of. I’ll forward you an article on the topic.”

And with that, two nails sealed my academic coffin shut.

But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t rise—or eavesdrop—from the crypt.

Although I had faded into the recesses of everyone’s attention, I noticed the varied conversations going on around our small table. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people with elite tea arts certificates and Ph. Ds in Tea Studies. Their conversations revolved around the latest changes in tea licensing, the quality of the latest batch of Wuyishan teas, and of course, the quality of the teas we were drinking.

The world of Chinese tea is primarily commercial. Everything seems to exist for the sole purpose of selling tea. The entirety of the tea ceremony is an elaborate sales pitch. From brewing a sample of fine tea to knowing how to explain the tea’s origins, functions, and story. Contrary to my expectations, there was no deeper meaning behind tea—at least not to the people I’ve been talking to.

When I got home, I had received three articles. I’ll give the a read over the remaining days of the holiday, and hopefully I’ll be able to come up with a concrete research question before the International Tea Expo next week.

Finding a Friend Group

Although life in Fuzhou is often trite and uneventful, having friendly roommates has brought variety into my daily schedule of tea research and guqin classes.

Since I’m not actually in any of the classes, I don’t really have a friend group on campus. I don’t mesh well with most of the international undergraduates, and since I only take one class with the Chinese students, I don’t really know them either.

Fortunately, thanks to my roommates, I’ve been absorbed into the graduate student group. This has led to multiple homemade meals at friends’ dorms, a number of outings, and a couple of karaoke nights (where literally everybody is a pop star). While I don’t mind living a quiet life, it sure doesn’t hurt to go out every now and then—especially with a group of friends as amicable as the ones I’m with.

When I first arrived in Fuzhou, I wondered if it would actually be possible to make any long-lasting friendships in just a year. I had never really gotten close to my classmates when I was in Japan, but then again we weren’t living with each other. A part of me also worried—why spend all that time making friends only to have a tearful goodbye in July?

But this isn’t an issue. Ultimately, all friends are temporary. Whether we’ll be together for a short ride on the bus, an afternoon at a conference, a year, or a century, there will come a day when circumstances separates us. Just because a smartphone is eventually going to break doesn’t mean I’m never going to buy one. It just means I need to recognize that fragility of it—and in this case where I only have a maximum of nine more months with my friends—really cherish the moments we do have together.

I was feeling a bit down yesterday because as much as I try to stay connected with friends back home, it’s challenging to coordinate time zones, busy schedules, and an unreliable internet connection. As I was showering, I realized that while this is an unfortunate part of moving away, I shouldn’t be so preoccupied with the unending task of maintaining past friendships that it prevents me from forming new friendships with those currently around me.

When I return to the US in nine months, all of my friends will still be there. Perhaps there will be an initial disconnect, but I think that for the most part, we’ll be able to reconnect simply by meeting up again.

And so, rather than being upset about leaving my friends in the US behind, I can take a change of perspective and embrace this opportunity to make new friends. And when I return home, rather than lament about leaving my international friends, I can celebrate with my old friends.

This actually reminds me of a story that, despite hearing time and time again, I never gave much thought until now.

There was once an old lady who had two daughters. One sold noodles; the other sold umbrellas. This lady was always upset because if it was raining, she’d worry about her daughter who sold noodles because she couldn’t put the noodles out to dry. If it was sunny, she’d worry about her daughter the umbrella-seller because nobody would be buying umbrellas.

Eventually, the lady was desperate to find some sense of joy again, and a wise person told her, “When it’s sunny, think of your daughter who sells noodles; when it’s raining, think of your daughter who sells umbrellas.”

And from then on, she was always smiling. Reality had not changed, but her perspective did, and that made all the difference for her.

Now, when I first heard this story in a Buddhist setting, one of my classmates remarked, “I don’t get it. At any given point in time, one of the daughters is still not making money. Nothing’s changed.”

While nothing changed, this is a situation in which nothing really can change. Worrying doesn’t change the weather, and so instead of worrying, the lady found a much healthier option. And of course, the daughters never starved—there were always a combination of sunny days and rainy days.

Similarly, rather than worrying about my friendships in the US while I’m in China and worrying about my friendships in China while I’m in the US, I should be focusing on what’s in front of me, here and now. This is not to say that I’m forgetting about half of my friends, but rather recognizing that there’s nothing to worry about—I’ll spend time with them when I am able to. For now, I am able to spend time with those around me—my friends in China—and that’s who I should be spending my time with.

Otherwise, when July comes around and I’m on the plane back to the US, I know that I will definitely wish I had spent more time with friends in person rather than reminiscing friends I can only see online.

Clubbing: The Academic Kind

Now, I’m not the type of student to go clubbing… unless it’s the extracurricular kind. Then I go about and fill every open slot in my schedule with clubs.

I had been a fan of after school clubs since middle school, when I was inspired by Hikaru no Go to start a go club. This exploded during my high school years when I was on a clubbing frenzy and had an after school activity every single day of the week.

Clubs were always a way of keeping me engaged, and for us high school students who didn’t have too much to do after class, it was a way to meet people, bond, and also get a free meal through the school’s programs. Even now, some of my best memories of high school were made during after school clubs (like that award-winning Science Club video…).

At Pomona, I was relatively reserved when it came to clubbing until senior year, when I decided to expand the scope of Buddhism Club and help build a Calligraphy Club. This is essentially the same genre of clubs I’ve joined in China, but I’m honestly amazed at how well they do club publicity here.

First, about a week before the club fair, existing club members go door-to-door throughout the first-year dormitories to promote the many, many clubs we have on campus. Interested students are added to a group chat, where they receive more information about the club and get to ask questions before the official club fair.

The club fair itself is an all-day affair with prizes, giveaways, and performances. The way it typically works is that the clubs will make a post on their social media of choice (in this case, QQ), and new members are asked to share the post. If a member reaches a certain number of likes/reactions on the post, they can show it for a prize at the club booth. Honestly a very smart way of getting the word out. Unfortunately, I don’t have any QQ friends, so I didn’t win anything.

As I walked through the booths, signing up and paying the minimal club dues (they ranged from $3 to 5 USD), I ended up with three clubs: guqin, calligraphy, and seal carving. Try as I might, there was no tea club. I was sorely disappointed. There was a wushu/lion dance club, but I decided to not overload myself… although I do miss lion dancing.

Of the three clubs I joined, I’m most excited for seal carving, which meets every Friday night. They also do calligraphy, and to be honest, their calligraphy is a notch higher than the official calligraphy club. I’m hoping that by learning more seal script, I’ll be able to read the bottom of tea pots and other antiques a bit better.

After signing up for three clubs and getting impatient with the unbelievably slow registration process (it was by paper, and each booth had a line because only one person could sign up at a time), I finally finished and went to my Saturday morning guqin class. I got to the classroom 90 minutes late. Fortunately, I had predicted my delay and texted my instructor earlier that morning.

“So, what clubs did you sign up for today?” he asked.

“Guqin, calligraphy, and seal-carving,” I relayed.

“Seal-carving? Interesting…” he paused. “You know, I just got recruited to be the guqin instructor for your school.”

“Oh?” I looked up from the sheet music. “That’s great!”

“Yeah,” he looked me in the eye. “You can be my TA.”

I stopped playing Fengyun hui, slightly mortified yet also excited for what’s to come.

“Sounds good,” I replied.

He looked back at his phone and typed a few things down. “I’ll tell you more later.”

The next day, I got a message from him. It was a screenshot of a conversation between him and the guqin club president.

Instructor: There’s a student at FJU named Andrew Nguy. He’ll teach the first class.

Club President: Oh, I’ve heard of him. Yeah, sounds good.

I replied to my instructor, “What am I teaching?”

He sent me a PDF outlining the points I would have to cover.

“Got it,” I replied.

“If I’m busy, you’ll have to cover other classes for me too.”

I stared at my phone, honestly mortified because some of the club members have been playing for four years already and would probably laugh at incompetence.

“??” he messaged after a few minutes.

“Okay,” I replied hurriedly.


And with that, I am now expected to assist in classes once a week. Since I’ve gotten the notice, I’ve been reviewing a lot of the earlier songs I’ve learned because although I can play them, I don’t feel like I can play them well enough to demo in front of curious eyes and keen club officers. Knowing a song is one thing, but knowing a song well enough to teach, identify mistakes, and being able to skillfully correct them is territory I’ve never entered before.

But I’m excited. Part of the Fulbright Program is for me to interact with the local community, and I honestly can’t imagine a better opportunity than this—one that pushes me to refine my guqin technique, deepen my understanding of the philosophy behind guqin, and develop teaching skills that I’ll be using for the rest of my life.

National Day

October 1 marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and that meant a widely-televised military parade, an assortment of events on campus, and my impromptu guqin performance.

The booths mostly had an assortment of carnival games and prizes for the students still on campus.

I got to the performance area to find out that the set up was a booth at the school fair. We happened to be situated next to the speakers for the local radio station, and I immediately realized it didn’t matter how well (or poorly) I played, nobody could here a thing.

So I sat down, set up my guqin, and started playing as people snapped photos all around me. I hope I looked good for the camera. Eventually, I found the entire endeavor to be quite futile and packed my guqin away. The student next to me had been roped into doing calligraphy. Being more familiar with calligraphy than music, I volunteered to help him.

During the course of the morning, I ran into old friends—from Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, and Malaysia—and happened to meet a curious local first-year who had just joined the guqin club. At least I’ll see a familiar face at the first club meeting.

That afternoon, I had scheduled an appointment with my guqin classmate who also happened to be a tea instructor at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University. Looking back, if I had known more about universities in Fujian, I would have affiliated with them instead of Fujian Normal University. They have an incredible library on tea production, history, and culture, as well as a well-established tea studies program.

Nonetheless, I’m glad that I was able to connect with them through guqin.

The conversation lasted a whopping six hours. We enjoyed countless varieties of oolong, jasmine, and red teas while discussing the current state of tea culture in China. Without getting too deep into nitty-gritty details, it was a very productive conversation.

I left with a small, yet beautiful momento from the day: a Longquan cracked-celadon tea caddy. It’s currently storing my Tieguanyin tea!

I am really a fan of ice-crack celadon tea-ware. It looks so delicate and light!