The Departure

I know I’m skipping a lot of Nanjing experiences by jumping to the departure. In between, there were countless memories of meals, chores, and outings that made me feel like a part of the family at Tianlong Temple.

But the departure came quick. It came one day after I called to tell my mom, “I’m staying in China.”

It was immediate. It was unexpected. It was, from my current perspective, fortuitous.

I logged into my computer one afternoon and noticed that the flights from Nanjing to Portland had dropped drastically (likely due to the coronavirus outbreak). While I did not feel like I was in danger at the monastery, the price had dropped so low that I was tempted to fly home, even if I would need to return to China in a few weeks. And at the time, I was thinking that it would all blow over in just a few weeks.

I purchased my plane ticket on Monday with an expectation that I would fly on Thursday, for under $400.

My friends were taken aback when I broke the news.

“Don’t you think you’ll be more at risk at the airport than here?” they asked.

I nodded. It would be more of a risk to spend nearly 24 hours on a harrowing trans-pacific flight with people from all over China. But at the same time, it was cheap, and in the days after I purchased the ticket, the situation deteriorated rapidly.

I purchased my ticket as soon as I received a message from Fulbright saying that we would not be in violation of our contract if we temporary left China. The day before my flight, Fulbright changed their stance to “leave as soon as possible,” although at that point, flights had been cut and severe travel restrictions imposed.

These sudden warnings led me to think that I made the right decision in purchasing a plane ticket out, but alas that was not the end of my ordeal.

In the days leading up to my flight, there were unexpected cancellations of my connecting flight from Nanjing to Beijing, forcing me to reschedule to Friday, January 31. After a few stressful midnight correspondences with United Airlines, I was finally set to fly.

Due to all the rescheduling, my leisurely afternoon flight had turned into an early-morning departure from Nanjing. The night before, my friends scurried around to get me ready for my 21-hour itinerary.

“It’s fine,” I told them. “I’ll just pick up a McMuffin and some hashbrowns at the airport.”

I knew that wouldn’t stop them.

I woke up the next morning and brought my suitcase downstairs. Three monks stood waiting for me. I checked my phone; I was 5 minutes early.

“Stay safe,” one said. “I had Huiting steam you some buns.”

He handed me a brown bag, its steam escaping into the frosty air. I thanked him and grabbed it, feeling its warmth in my numb hands.

It was not a particularly emotional farewell. We all knew we’d see each other again. Being a man involved in temple life instantly makes one part of a tight-knit community. After all, women in the Taiwanese Buddhist world outnumber the men nearly 5 to 1. And so, with only a handful of guys in this sphere, it would only be a matter of time before we crossed paths again.

There were no cars on the street as we drove to the airport. Granted, it was close to 5 am and most workplaces were closed for the New Year anyways. I ate my buns and noticed a surprise at the bottom of the bag—a pouch of heated soy milk.

That was my last home-cooked meal in China. After arriving at the airport, it was either plane food or instant noodles.

After I returned to the US, I read a NYT article about the experience of a foreign exchange student from Portland, and I felt like the framing of his ordeal was sensationalized and lacked any sense of context.

Upon arriving at the airport, everybody was wearing a surgical mask. While this might be unsightly to those unfamiliar with it, I had spent enough time in Japan and Taiwan to become accustomed to it. Upon entering, I put on the masks the temple had provided me, and walked inside.

We were made to wait by the door while airport security took our temperatures. Everybody in our batch was okay, and we walked in. Despite the panic going around all over the country—and the world—I felt like I was in the eye of the storm. In this bustling airport, I didn’t hear a single cough. And should anybody cough, the masks we wore would theoretically cover a lot of the droplets.

The flights were smooth, and despite my six-hour layover in Beijing, I managed to keep myself entertained with their free wifi. On the plane from Beijing to San Francisco though, I realized how woefully unprepared Americans were.

The crew—all self-proclaimed native San Franciscans—wore masks like the rest of us, except they did not seem to understand the purpose of the masks. One pulled her mask down to talk to an elderly man, who shirked away and cringed as she did so. Another fellow felt that his mask was too restricting and only covered his mouth, leaving his gaping nostrils wide open—ready to spread and receive droplets of potentially infected body fluids.

In the US, a lot of people are uncomfortable with both the look and the feeling of face masks. Even my mom said she tried it for about fifteen minutes before deciding that it “probably wouldn’t work anyways.” This sentiment, shared by quite a few of my friends who post about the issue on Facebook, is a fact-defying act: studies have shown that depending on the type of mask used, SARS transmissions were reduced by 68 to 91%. Given that both SARS is also a coronavirus, it would be wise to develop good mask-wearing habits on a plane full of people from various parts of China, but it seems like Americans care more about comfort than safety.

And while I think the chance of coronavirus transmission in the US is so low that wearing a mask wouldn’t make much of a difference (you wouldn’t catch it anyways), I do think that mask-wearing habits coupled with good hand-washing would surely limit the extent of flu and cold cases.

But rather than worry about issues in our own backyard—are threatening American lives—attention is redirected to the potential dangers of a foreign germ.

There have been many articles on the harassment and prejudice Asians have faced in recent months due to the coronavirus scare, but as an Asian who did in fact come from China, the moment I was worried most—the moment I decided that I needed to wear a mask—was when I boarded the flight from San Francisco to Portland.

Despite the silence and general feeling of safety I experienced in China, landing in San Francisco made me realize how low our sense of caution is, considering that it’s both flu season and that there’s a viral outbreak going on.

Nobody wore masks, and through social pressure, I felt like I should take mine off too, lest I get heckled for being a suspicious Asian man wearing a mask.

But then I decided that social pressure was no reason to catch a cold from the cacophony of coughs and sneezes around me. I had a sneezing toddler (who did not cover his droplets) behind me, a coughing grandmother in front of me, and a few middle-aged men with runny noses just to my right.

If got sick, it wouldn’t be because of China’s coronavirus. It would be because of America’s cold and flu season.

(It’s been nearly a month since I got back from China, and despite my parents both coming down with a cold and recovering, I haven’t even let out a sneeze.)


Not long after the two temple visits, we had a small trip to see the lanterns that adorned the streets to celebrate the New Year. The frigid air was refreshing that night, and I enjoyed the company of temple friends.

We were nerds, to put it lightly, and everybody in attendance had previous experience with elaborate lantern shows before. In temples throughout the world, the Lunar New Year is a hectic time when every set of hands is required to help decorate and clean.

For most of us, this was the first lantern show we saw in China.

I grew excited with each step as we walked down the cobblestone path, street vendors hawking their sizzling snacks at us as we passed.

And then we saw them.

This was a beautiful lantern, but this was about all that they had.

The lanterns, while impressive enough to attract a healthy-sized crowd of photographers, left me with a wistful sense of dismay. I looked at my companions, and their furrowed brows reflected the same sense of distaste.

Finally, one young novice monk broke the silence.

“… That’s it?” his voice faltered.

Our temple’s director let out a sigh, “I suppose so. And here I thought we’d get some inspiration for decorations next year.”

As we left the lanterns behind and walked towards the nearby bookstore, I chuckled internally. It was silly. It would take a spectacular show to impress a group of monks who grew up executing one of the most elaborate festival of lights in Asia.

Leaving the lights behind, we entered the bookstore and browsed. Very few of us bought anything. We simply walked around, enjoying the ambiance and bustle of avid readers.

Finally, at the end of the night, we decided to stop for a midnight snack. Unfortunately though, none of the street vendors provided vegetarian options, except for dessert, and we wanted something with a bit more substance than sweetened tofu.

After a few rejections, we finally found our vegetarian meal at an unconventional place: a burger joint.

I was both curious and suspicious. They featured mozzarella sticks and veggie burgers on the menu. We ordered both.

As we waited for our order, a young boy—perhaps around 10—sat with his mother and called out to my Indian friend.

“Excuse me,” the young boy exclaimed. “Do you speak English?”

My friend froze. He turned towards me.

“Him, him!” he gestured. “He speaks English much better than me. I speak Hindi and Chinese.”

I turned towards the duo, and the boy giggled.

“Can you really speak English?” he asked me.

“Sure thing, bud,” I replied as I sat down on the empty chair next to him. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Beijing!” he responded enthusiastically.

“Oh, it must be really cold up there. Are you enjoying your fries?”

He nodded as he munched on his french fries.

“How do you speak English so well?” he asked.

“Well, I grew up in the US,” I said.

“Really?” he exclaimed. “I love McDonald’s!”

I laughed. This boy had absolutely no filter, and I found it hilarious that McDonald’s is the default representation of American culture.

His mom found it strange though and pressed me a bit further, asking in Mandarin, “So you didn’t grow up in China?”

“Nope,” I responded back in Mandarin. “This is actually my first time in China.”

This was an interaction I had become accustomed to by now, as new acquaintances struggled to comprehend how the same Chinese face could utter such foreign words while also speaking with such familiar tones.

The two finished their meal as our orders came out, and they bid their goodbyes while we munched on our mozzarella sticks. The restaurant didn’t have any marinara sauce, so they provided ketchup instead. It wasn’t quite the same, but I wasn’t going to skip a chance to eat some fatty and salty American goodness.

The burgers were pretty good too, and I realized how long it had been since I’d tasted mayonnaise.

Reflecting on my experiences in China now, I realized that most of my interactions involved navigating the American-Chinese dichotomy that people had ingrained in their minds. I looked Chinese and spoke Mandarin fluently, therefore I was inherently Chinese. But at the same time, I disliked calling myself Chinese, for that would erase the unique opportunities and upbringing I experienced for the first 20 years of my life. If I were to say I was simply “Chinese,” I would have no proper response when people asked where I went to high school, or where I went to college, and clarifying the situation at that point would make it even more of a mess.

And so, I decided that it was easiest for me to say, I’m American. That part isn’t obvious. It’s not what people notice when they see me. But that’s the part I feel like I need to come clean about. I qualify it by saying that I spent nearly a decade enrolled in Chinese classes and spent my undergraduate years reading Classical Chinese literature, but in a lot of ways, there is an “Americanness”—whatever that may be—that permeates my personality.

Mount Ox Head (Niushoushan) 牛首山

We visited Niushoushan the day after our trip to Dabaoen Temple, but I haven’t had a chance to write about it until now. A lot has happened in the past few weeks, and I will attempt to retell all of this chronologically.

Niushoushan was constructed in the early 2010s after the excavation of Dabaoen Temple revealed the Buddha’s skull relic. The construction, primarily funded by the Chinese government, is reminiscent of the imperial sponsorship that Changgan Temple (as it was previously called) enjoyed while it enshrined the Buddha’s relics.

This new construction features a mix of modern, Indian, and East Asian architecture, drawing from cave temples and “Tang dynasty” aesthetics. Overall, it is a grand and impressive structure, but nonetheless I was rather disappointed.

It is—in all senses—a tourist attraction. There are no events, no services, not even an active monastic community. Adjacent to the majestic palace is a small monastery which houses a modest community of maybe ten monks who take care of the relics.

While the architecture is spectacular and the vision broad, there was not much in terms of research, and this led to quite a few errors in iconography. But again, this was constructed on a tight schedule and meant to be impressive rather than accurate.

By visiting this newly constructed site, a site meant to memorialize an integral part of Nanjing’s past grandeur, I noticed that these reconstruction projects are not very educational. They serve primarily to bolster national spirit and morale, exude pride in the greatness that China once embodied, and suggest that China’s current trajectory will restore it to that fantastic past.

I don’t mean to say that it is inappropriate for China to highlight its grand past. In fact, I appreciate that the country is rebuilding its past and letting the world see how majestic it once was. My issue with it comes from the inaccuracies that plague its presentation. I would enjoy it much more if, say, the spaces sought to replicate a particular time in Nanjing’s history.

Of course, every time we have modern architects reimagining what ancient Nanjing looked like, the most we will get is an architect’s imagination. It will never be fully accurate. However, there is still value in attempting to replicate and giving credit to the inspirations for the replication.

That being said, I think it is also interesting for an architect to have free reign and create this conglomeration of Chinese/Indian art to highlight the entire spectrum of Chinese Buddhist history. But even then, I think it would be helpful to identify the inspirations for each aspect rather than presenting it as an artistic Frankenstein.

Overall, I am glad that these sacred artifacts are being maintained and well-preserved, but I do think there is a lot more to do for this to become educational. Sightseeing brings visitors, but once they’re in the door, there needs to be much more to give them a sense of new perspective and understanding. Only then will they leave with piqued curiosity and appreciation.