Frozen 2

No spoilers here, don’t worry.

So, Frozen 2 came out a few weeks ago, and while I’ve been meaning to watch it, trying to find it in English and in 2D in Chinese theaters was a stupidly difficult task.

Now, that’s not to say that there are no English movies in China. The main issue was that every time Frozen 2 was being shown, it was in 3D.

While that might not be much of an issue to most viewers, I haven’t had the best experience with 3D movies.

My first experience was in Ms. Schubel’s fifth grade class during a field trip to OMSI. Now, I love OMSI just as much as any other young Oregonian elementary school student (and I love that they show anime movies!!!!!), but their state-of-the-art IMAX theater was the highlight of the trip. We would go, see some cool 3D documentary about nature, and then come home well-educated and inspired by the wonders of modern technology.

The movie started, and I was amazed at the surround sound, the expansive view, and the sheer reality of it all.

Then the nausea came.

About 15 minutes in, I couldn’t keep watching, so I closed my eyes and waited until the movie was over. I sat on the bus ride home trying to keep my lunch down. Upon arriving home, I hobbled to my bed and crashed.

I also remember watching—or, failing to watch—The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, also due to issues with 3D nausea. Although, that was back when 3D meant thin red-blue glasses, so perhaps modern technology had corrected that issue.

I then recalled my recent encounter with 3D at the Harry Potter section of Universal Studios. I hobbled off of that ride and sat on the floor in a cold sweat for about 30 minutes before the nausea subsided enough for me to keep walking. But eh, perhaps that was just the ride and not the 3D, I thought to myself.

Given that the only theater offering Frozen in 2D and English was very far away, I decided to risk it. After all, some movies are worth throwing up for.

Well. After watching Frozen 2, I’d say that it wouldn’t be worth throwing up for, but I’ll leave my disappointments and commentary to myself for now.

On the bright side, I was able to get through the whole movie without any sense of nausea! Technology truly has improved.

The Incognito American

Reflecting on my previous post, I can almost always count on people telling me I don’t seem American.

I don’t look American, I don’t sound American, I don’t act American.

Sometimes, this is very helpful in getting to bond with local students and not having them tense up around me. Other times, it leads to extended interrogations on my origins, why I speak Mandarin, and general disbelief in what I’m telling them.

Recently, in another irritating episode, my guqin teacher asked me to be an interpreter for a guqin workshop with foreign dignitaries. This wasn’t an issue for me at all. Having done all sorts of interpretation and translation before, this would be a wonderful chance for me to help with some cross-cultural exchange (one of the aspects of the Fulbright Program) while also giving myself an opportunity to practice interpretation again.

One of the other guqin classmates interrupted us before I could respond.

“Hah!” she cackled. “What makes you think a kid like him can do English interpretation?”

Ever stoic, my guqin teacher ignored her.

“Sure, I’ll do it,” I told him.

“Good,” he replied. “I’ll send you the powerpoint later this week.”

“I don’t know what you see in him,” she shook her head at our instructor. “When’s this event happening? Monday was it? I’ll be there. Let’s see how good this kid’s English turns out to be.”

I don’t recall her being invited.

Our instructor turned over to me, “It’ll be good exposure for guqin. If we want the art to survive, it has to be able to make an impact outside of China. Who knows—maybe one of the dignitaries there will be inspired to support guqin education in the US.”

I nodded and continued practicing.

In this rather aggravating incident, I realized that my latent Americanness led quite a few people to underestimate me, which… is not necessarily a bad thing. I actually enjoy being inconspicuous. What annoyed me was how she immediately dismissed me on basis of age. Even if I had grown up entirely in China (which she assumed), I know plenty of twenty-some-year-olds who are stellar interpreters and translators despite having grown up in a non-English-speaking country.

While my Americanness is constantly questioned (or dismissed) here, I’ve started wondering what it means to be American. While most people here associate a blond-hair, blue-eyed appearance Americanness, an encounter I had in the elevator illustrated that this is a terrible heuristic.

I walked into the elevator. There was a blond woman and a Chinese man present. As we descend, the Chinese man said—in English—to the blond woman, “Happy Thanksgiving!”

“I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she replied.

“Oh,” he looked confused. “Aren’t you American?”

“I’m British.”

I stifled my laughter. Oh, if only it were Independence Day. Wishing a Brit “Happy Independence Day” would truly be too perfect.

Then I realized. He didn’t wish me a Happy Thanksgiving, probably because he assumed I was—like him—a Chinese person who doesn’t celebrate the holiday.

Culturally, a lot of what I do isn’t “American.” I play guqin, not guitar. I write calligraphy with a brush, not a pen. I drink tea, not beer. I admire poems by Li Bai and Wang Wei, not Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson.

But at the same time, that doesn’t necessarily make me Chinese. In fact, when I go out with Chinese classmates, they’re taken aback when I order tea despite everybody else ordering a Budweiser. They find it strange that I’m not acclimated to a Chinese classroom environment, and they find it even stranger when I tell them we had things called seminars which were discussion-based classes.

Having grown up in the US, many of my experiences differ from my Chinese counterparts precisely because of my environment. While I also celebrate the Lunar New Year, Qingming, and Mid-Autumn Festival, these weren’t necessarily identical to how my Chinese classmates celebrate them.

Thinking back to my JET interview, it seems like a lot of cultural exchange tends to focus on how different cultures are so that they seem exotic, fresh, and new to the other. But I disagree entirely with that perspective. Instead, I view cultural exchange as something that can be accomplished through sharing similarities. Rather than talking about football and mass shootings (seriously, these are the two main things people bring up when I mention I’m from the US), I find it much more productive to talk about how Chinese culture has adapted and changed in the US.

I remember vividly my JET interviewer looking wholly unimpressed when I said that I’d bring a calligraphy brush to Japan to show people American culture, but I still stand by that statement. If the US is indeed a melting pot of cultures, I think it’s helpful to show East Asia that their culture is represented in the pot as well. The flavors might have changed (brush lettering is one way of using the brush that Japanese shodo doesn’t have), but it starts at one shared point of culture before branching off into the differences.

Thinking about it some more, I’d bring Cup Noodles as well. There isn’t a better symbol of starving American college student than 10 cent ramen.

While these objects themselves don’t seem American by appearance, they’ve been immersed in American culture and have grown in their own way.

I suppose, in way, I like this approach because I’m like the objects—outwardly Asian, yet with a latent American twist.

A Pleasant Post Office Visit

I had to ship scroll to the US, and honestly I was really dreading another visit to the post office. Memories of stamping postcards and overly personal questions buzzed around in my head.

I got to the post office, but it was closed. Hours were MWF, 2 pm to 5 pm.

What post office has such limited hours?!

I then remembered that there’s another post office nearby, so I walked another few minutes to reach the other office.

I walked in, and an employee in his 30s—wearing a suit and tie—addressed me, “Shipping something?”

“Yup. To the US,” I replied.

“ID please.”

I passed him my passport and he typed my information in.

“Please fill this out,” he said as he handed me the shipping form.

I filled it out as he inspected my scroll.

“No text?” he asked.

“No text,” I replied.

“I’ll see if I can find you a nicer box for this,” he offered.

“Oh thanks!”

He rummaged around as I continued filling out the form. After a few minutes, he came back with my scroll wrapped up in a plastic shipping bag.

“No box, but this will keep it from rolling around,” he said as he put it on the scale.

“That’s fine. Thanks for your help.”

“If you’re not in a hurry, it’ll be about $17 to ship it to the US. Express is going to be around $50.”

“$17 is fine.”

I paid, got my receipt, and left.

What a difference.

The Most Bizarre Post Office Visit

I had to ship things to the US today, and so—after exhausting all online avenues to find out how much it would cost to a 2 kilogram box to the US—I ended up going to the post office (spoiler: there were three options ranging from $20 to $60—I chose the middle option, which cost $30).

Upon arriving at the post office, the employee asked for my Chinese ID card. Being a foreigner, I don’t have one. But she said that a passport would suffice, so I went to retrieve my passport.

Upon arriving with my passport, she handed me a shipment form with a template on how to send packages to the US. Coincidentally, the mock address was Portland, Oregon, USA.

Fortunately, I hadn’t sealed the box yet. After filling out my shipment form, the employee dumped the contents of my box out to inspect my parcels one by one, undoing all of my bubble wrap and foam packaging before exclaiming, “Aha! There’s tea in here.”

“Yes. I know,” I replied nonchalantly. “I declared it on the form.”

She ignored me and proceeded to repackage everything, except without much care or effort. When the arranged boxes didn’t fit (because she didn’t care to put them in the way they came), she resorted to shoving them down, as if the wood would somehow compress like a folded t-shirt.

“Excuse me,” I interjected. “The boxes are flipped so they won’t fit. If you’ll just let me do it—”

“No, if you touch this box, I will have to reinspect it again,” she declared.

“But—the lid on that one isn’t even on all the way. That’s why it’s not balanced.”

“No, it’s on.”

She taped the box shut. Alas, I hope my bubble wrap will protect its contents.

Then came the questioning, “How’d you get a US passport? You don’t look American.”

“I’m an American citizen,” I replied.

“Like, you have a green-card?” she prodded.

I didn’t think this line of questioning was necessary or even appropriate.

“No… I’m a natural-born citizen,” I answered.

“Oh, so your parents immigrated,” she assumed. “Must have been rich.”

They were actually dirt-poor, and my dad was a refugee, but she didn’t need to know that.

“So what do they do?” she asked. “What line of business?”

“My dad’s retired,” I answered, which probably sounded better than “my dad used to work for a grocery store before it closed and my mom washes dishes at the juvenile detention center.”

“Ah, so your brother’s handling the business.”

“I’m an only child.”

“Interesting…” she paused for a moment. “Your family must have some serious sources of passive income.”

I mean, if you count social security as passive income, my dad’s rolling in the dough with his monthly check in the mail.

“Can you tell me how much my shipment will cost?”

She ignored my question, “You don’t look American at all.”

I sighed in exasperation. The bell rang. I had been standing in the post office for an hour, half of which had been spent answering overly-personal questions.

“So, can you tell me how I can get a US visa cheaply and quickly?”

“Dunno. I’ve never had to apply for one.”

“How much money does it take to buy a green card?”

“Dunno. I’ve never had to buy one.” (I also don’t think that’s how the green card process works…)

She suddenly changed the topic, “I don’t think you’re American. You speak Mandarin too fluently to be American.”

“Foreign language classes exist.”

“Yeah, but look at all the people learning English here. They don’t sound like Americans no matter how long they learn the language. But you! You sound like you’re from Guangdong or something.”

She was close. My ancestors were from Guangdong, and I have to admit that my Mandarin does feature a distinct Cantonese-Teochew accent.

“So, the package?” I asked again.

“Can you stamp these for me?” she pulled out a stack of postcards and handed me a sheet of stamps.

I started processing them as she finally began typing in the details for my shipment. As I stamped them, I realized how bizarre this whole situation was. Why was I suddenly doing her job? Not that I minded, but still, it felt really weird.

“I don’t know how to type lower-case letters on here,” she told me.

“All caps is fine,” I replied. (Aren’t lower-case letters the default?) I glanced at her keyboard. She definitely had her caps lock on.

“Do you want this to be shipped via air, sea, or a mid-option?” she asked.

“How much do they each cost?”

“Uhhhhh. Not sure,” she replied.

“Can you give me the cost first so that I can make an educated decision?”

“Hang on a moment.”

A few more minutes passed.

“It’ll be $60 by air, but that’s quickest—it’ll get there maybe in a week or so? And then it’ll be $20 by sea, but there’s no telling when it’ll get there. And then there’s the middle option for $30, which will get there within the month.”

“Let’s do the middle option. Can you also get me a tracking number?”

She typed a few notes into her computer and gave me a slip with the tracking number.

“So… why do people choose to study abroad in the US? Isn’t it expensive?”

“Yup,” I replied. “Very expensive. Student debt is terrible.”

“You’re making a good decision to study in China. I’m sure it’s cheaper. We should charge you foreigners more.”

Most international students here actually receive full-ride scholarships and stipends from the Confucius Institute, but I didn’t bring that up.

“It’s such a hassle to get a student visa to go to the US too,” she returned to her earlier point. “You sure you don’t know an easier way to get one? Somebody to talk to?”

I was confused. Did she genuinely think I had some secret way of getting US visas? I entertained the idea of telling her to stand at the embassy door and press up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. If the Konami code worked to unlock secrets in video games, perhaps it would unlock the secrets she needed to get her visa. “Nope, I have no idea how to get a visa to enter the US.”

“Any friends in Guangzhou that might? I know the consulate is there.”

Coincidentally, I’m actually going to meet up with some people from the consulate later this week. But, I haven’t actually met anybody yet, so my answer was no. I don’t have any friends in Guangzhou.

“Why does it say here you’re living in the dorms?” she suddenly exclaimed.

I was confused again. I had written that down at the beginning. Did it suddenly occur to her that I live on campus? “Because I live in the dorms.”

“But you’re American!”

My headache grew, and I could feel my brain cells dying. The screech of my receipt being printed didn’t help my throbbing head.

“What does that have to do with living in the dorms?”

“International students live in dorms?”

“Where else would they live?”

“Dunno,” she glanced at the freshly printed receipt. “Are the dorms nice?”

“They’re not bad.”

“So how’d you get to live in the dorms?”

“I was assigned a dorm. I didn’t have to do anything special.”

“We should charge more for dorms too…” she muttered as she handed me my shipping receipt.

She looked like wanted to try her hand at a few more questions, but since I now had a receipt in-hand, I excused myself and bolted out the door.

After a bizarre afternoon, I am now back in my dorm drinking some tea. Ah, it is a wonderful cure for headaches.

Cyber Monday

For those you back home in the US, Cyber Monday has yet to come. But in China, November 11 marked a day of online deals.

My list this year was not particularly expensive compared to years past. Granted, in the US I would have gone straight for electronics, which tend to be pricy. While I had considered getting a smartphone, I decided that there was no need. Albeit slow, my cell phones both work (my usual phone turned out to be locked into the T-Mobile network, so I’m using a cheap one I got in Taiwan a few years back for mobile data and calls).

Instead, I went on Taobao (essentially the Chinese version of Amazon), and filled my shopping cart with goods.

I went shopping in-person as well, opting to spend my Monday at the tea mall I had visited before. When the day was done, I had purchased—either online or in-person:

Three books on tea
Two books on calligraphy
Two kilograms of tea leaves
Two teapots
One desk
Two table runners
And quite unexpectedly, four and half tatami mats.

While I hadn’t intended to purchase the tatami mats, the price went lower, and lower, and lower. And to seal the deal, the store also threw in two free cushions.

I don’t think my room actually has enough area to lay out all of the mats unless I remove some furniture, but it was a very good deal. At the very least, I can ship them to the US and it’d still be considered cheap.

Research has picked up recently, and as more books come in, I’m getting a better idea of how different authors are contributing to and building a contemporary tea culture. In addition to tea research though, I’ve dabbled a bit in guqin research—both in deciphering old qin tablature and in reading scholarly articles on guqin history. I’m honestly surprised to see that barely anything has been done on the intricacies of guqin music theory or the role of music in Chinese philosophical discourse.

In terms of my main research project, guqin as a culture serves as a particularly interesting foil to tea culture. It’s diverse, separated into regional schools; it’s writings are intensely theoretical, unlike tea’s more practical writings; and it has a very explicit connection to self-refinement.

In some ways, guqin reminds me of martial arts. It’s regionally defined, and there’s an explicit master-disciple relationship (which isn’t necessarily true with tea).

As I near the 1/3 mark of my ten months in China, I feel increasingly confident that I’ll return with worthwhile experiences. If anything, I’ve learned more than I had expected to learn with guqin, and I’ve had the fortune of meeting more tea experts than I had ever dreamed of prior to arriving in Fuzhou.

Edit: I wrote this on November 11. Since then, I’ve gotten more tea, a stove, some incense, and all sorts of other stuff.

Matcha in Fuzhou

After a long day of tea drinking with the aunties, I opted to practice at home instead of showing up to guqin class Saturday morning. It was shaping up to be a busy day already, and I was anticipating both a calligraphy competition and—surprisingly—sado demonstration at the Fuzhou City Library in the afternoon.

Let’s start with the calligraphy competition.

Aside from the entire thing being rather poorly run (we were given paper but not mats or ink, the tables were way too small, and the paper was way too big), my fatal mistake was that I submitted a piece of semi-cursive calligraphy.

As I walked out of the room, I noticed that everybody else had submitted regular script.

I froze. Did I misread the requirements? No—the brochure stated clearly that we were free to submit any script we’d like. So did everybody submit standard script because of personal preference?

As I walked to the lobby, a classmate came up to me and said, “Hey—what script was that? The one you just submitted. I can’t really read what it says.”

I laughed, “It’s semi-cursive.”

“Oh,” she replied. “Perhaps the judges will like that your piece is unique?”

I shrugged. We both knew my submission would be cast off to the side because there wasn’t anything to compare it to. It’d be extremely difficult to rank it against under pieces if the script is totally different.

It was 3:30. The sado demonstration had just begun. I hadn’t had matcha in months, and the thought of potentially tasting some again compelled me to leave.

The awards ceremony for the competition was at 4:30, but I wasn’t planning on sticking around. I dashed out of the building and hopped onto the subway train, ultimately making it to the library by 4:15.

It was a demonstration on bonryaku, the first temae I had learned when I was living in Kyoto. It was interesting as I had never heard sado being explained in Chinese before. The audience—mostly local tea connoisseurs and people affiliated with Fujian’s tea industry—were curious about how to grade and price matcha, whereas in my past experiences with American classmates, people typically ask about the wagashi.

In the end, I got to whisk and drink a nice hot bowl of matcha, and the instructor mentioned that while small, there is an Urasenke community in Fuzhou (or at least there was five years ago). She offered to contact them for me and see if they’re still active. If so, I’d finally be able to practice tea again! Fingers crossed~

Textiles and Tea

I woke up early Friday morning to visit my friend the tea arts professor. She had some other instructors she wanted to introduce me to. But, with everybody being busy, our meeting would be limited to 30 minutes.

While this wouldn’t be enough to talk about much, it would at least be a good introduction, and I might get to meet up with them again later. When Fulbright told us that research in China requires a lot of connections and playing guanxi cards, I didn’t realize the extent to which this is necessary. I’m very fortunate to have made so many friends through traditional arts.

We arrived at the offices at 9:20, and water was already boiling. Two other middle-aged ladies were chatting. One was an office assistant, the other was a tea merchant. After introductions, I found out that the tea merchant primarily sold white tea, which I had been curious about anyways.

Upon deeper inquiry, I decided that this would be one main focus during my stay in Fuzhou. White tea seems to be a primary example of shifting tea cultures in the region. To be clear, this is all from hearsay—I’ll need to do more research before being sure. Despite having gone unnoticed for most of Chinese history, there were a few policies enacted in 2013 that aimed to boost white tea production while also regulating the use of pesticides in growing white tea. This has led to a boom in white tea production and sales, with people collecting white tea cakes in a fashion similar to puer cake collection (although it’s nowhere near that expensive… yet).

And now, white tea is being touted as this healthy, anti-inflammatory, all-natural tea, with some recent data showing that white tea production and consumption in China has steadily grown over the past five years, likely as a result of the new policies.

But while these agricultural policies create more supply, they don’t create demand. The demand is being generated through marketing white tea as healthier, and now through tying it to the greater realm of Chinese tea culture. As one of the professors mentioned, this is difficult to do because although “white tea” as a term is in pre-modern texts, it doesn’t actually refer to the white tea we consume today.

But nonetheless, the industry seems to be fairing rather well from the health-oriented marketing alone. Fuding, where a lot of white tea is produced, is near Mt. Taimu, a major tourist attraction and scenic park—which is nice because the foot-traffic alone is enough to sell tea. I wonder if the pairing of tourist destinations and tea production is a conscious decision on part of local (or perhaps national) policy-makers. It certainly helped sell tea and promote an aesthetic of literati-in-nature-drinking-tea in the Ming, and it’s fun to see how this is being reimagined in the present day.

Okay. Enough about white tea, for now at least.

The meeting ended up lasting eight hours rather than 30 minutes. We drank a few rounds of tea, had lunch, and then went to a textiles workshop to drink more tea. Over the course of eight hours, I was treated to a wonderful assortment of rougui, shuixian, and white peony—all Fujian specialties. I also got to meet artisans working to create tea-based dyes for textiles (this is another side of tea as a commodity that I haven’t begun to dig into).

After a long day and plenty of new friends, I went back to campus…

Only to meet another new friend.

Huang Yu is a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on ink stones. Could this get any nerdier? Perhaps not. He’s also a wonderful calligrapher. And he speaks Cantonese. We connected really well, and after gifting me a box of chrysanthemum tea, he invited me to come join him in calligraphy lessons some time.

At this rate, I’ve met so many people (both young and old) in traditional arts that I don’t know if I’ll have enough time in my life to learn from them. But at the very least, I’m glad I know them and can pay them visits in the future—they’re all doing some very cool things.

Chirp Chirp

I had the opportunity to meet up with one of my Chinese professors from Pomona last week. He had spent the first few months of his sabbatical in China teaching various courses, and now he had come to Fuzhou to visit friends.

Our day began at the West Lake Hotel where he was staying, and after two of his acquaintances arrived, we went to visit Pingshan to stroll through the garden there. It was a beautiful modern Chinese garden with some Suzhou influences, but also meant to be a general public space. It was newly renovated and featured a variety of trails that led up to Zhenhai lou (literally, the Tower which Suppresses the Sea).

The building was originally built on Pingshan, the northern tip of Fuzhou’s three mountains, as a geomantic site to divert calamities from the ocean (in other words, typhoons). Whether or not that was successful, the tower was demolished during the Cultural Revolution, but has since been recently restored. According to Prof. Lin, one of our guides, Fuzhou hasn’t had a major typhoon since the restoration, and there are a variety of internet theories on why the tower actually works.

Prof. Chen, our other friend, shook his head at the claim, saying that there hadn’t been major typhoons since he was born—and he had been born decades before the tower was rebuilt.

Nonetheless, it was a grand tower with a spectacular view. The basement of the tower was a rather well-designed exhibit on Fuzhou history. It was much more interesting than the provincial museum, and featured a Qing-dynasty map of the city.

While I hadn’t noticed this on any modern map, the old map revealed that Fuzhou was built with some serious geomancy in mind. Pingshan, where we currently were, marked the northernmost corner of the city and protected it from evil winds. Situated at the foot of the mountain was the temple to the city’s protector. Then, towards the southeast and southwest were two mountains with pagodas on top of each of them as well—almost reminiscent of Toji and Saiji in Kyoto.

Currently, the provincial government offices are headquarted adjacent to Pingshan, and the city’s administration is located near the two southern mountains, with the city center nestled within the triangle formed by the three mountains.

According to Prof. Lin, the city expanded over time, and it wasn’t until the Qing that places like Cangshan (where Fujian Normal University’s old campus is) got incorporated into the city.

As we look around the main tower, we had a conversation that I think would only happen when three Chinese literature professors come together.

“That calligraphy on the building is terrible,” Prof. Chen said.
“Right?” Prof. Lin chimed in. “It looks like it’s going to fly away.”
“Mhm,” Prof. Chen nodded. “Semi-cursive isn’t the right script here. A building of this size needs Yan Zhenliu’s style of standard script.”
“Yup,” said Prof. Lin. “The current calligraphy can’t hold the building down.”

Now, while I could tell that the calligraphy on the building was a bit off, I didn’t have any suggestions on how to improve it. I had thought that perhaps something a bit more formal like clerical script would be a good match. But then again, like Prof. Chen said, standard script—especially a bold one like Yan Zhenliu’s—would be best.

From there, we went off to lunch. Prof. Chen had some errands to run, so he bid us farewell at the restaurant. Lunch was a buffet, and while my Pomona professor and Prof. Lin argued over who’d pay, I was stunned by the selection—especially the desserts.

Now, I know I had a close encounter with pre-diabetes from Pomona’s delicious raspberry-chocolate cake, but I hadn’t indulged myself since graduation, so my body would surely be able to take the hit.

After a few rounds of hot pot and main dishes, I came back with an egg tart, two kinds of cake, and a mango drink. Ah, much better than Oldenborg.

Prof. Lin had a meeting to attend, and so it was me and my former professor for the afternoon. We went to the provincial museum, which was even more disappointing than the first time I went, if that was even possible. Only one exhibit was open, and it was a regular Friday afternoon.

After the disappointing exhibit, we set off to Sanfang Qixiang, Fuzhou’s premiere tourist destination. I enjoy walking around, even if it just means browsing through the same shops over and over again.

This time though, we stumbled across a museum—the former residence of a local official from the Qing. At first, I thought we had been ripped off. It wasn’t particularly interesting at all. In fact, most of the free spaces in the neighborhood looked much nicer than whatever we had paid admission to see.

Then we saw it. A mini Suzhou-style garden built within the walls of the residence. All of my memories from working at the Huntington flooded me as I recalled the points in the Craft of Gardens. It proved to be an interesting space, although, that was before I knew I’d come back the next day and find an even grander space. But I’ll save that for another post.

After spending twilight among the gardens, we browsed around the shops a bit more and found a rather peculiar bookstore and overpriced cafe. The books included a variety of languages, as well as translated books. These ranged from fiction in English (Harry Potter and Penguin classics) to translated editions of scholarly works (I found a few books by Timothy Brook, Patricia Ebrey, and other esteemed authors). There was also a really robust section on European art history, philosophy, and my personal favorite: Classical Chinese literature.

I think the store was called Timeless World? Something like that. In Chinese it’s 無用空間.

But nothing was priced and judging from the coffee prices, it was probably more than whatever I was willing to pay. But they had good wifi, and it was really aesthetic, so hey, I’d come back to browse.

Before dinner, we made two more stops: one at Minjiang University’s lacquer shop, where I eyed a particularly fine plum blossom natsume and a round tray with pine trees painted in gold leaf. (Spoiler: I ended up coming back for the natsume. I do like the tray, but my wallet is still in tears from the natsume…)

After admiring the wonderful handiwork, we eneded up eating dinner at a Japanese restaurant, which provided perhaps the fanciest hisashi soba I’ve ever had. Rather than on a an austere bamboo tray, it was presented to us in a bowl of solid ice.

Fanciest soba I’ve ever had.

Overall, dinner was quite good, but a bit too high-end for me.

To wrap up the night, we met up with Prof. Lin again, who now took us to the private room of a tea shop in Sanfang Qixiang. While the shop seemed like a cramped little space from the outside, the staircase led to a second floor that was fully furnished with at least five tables for tea. Meanwhile, Prof. Lin was on the phone with the CEO to let him know we were crashing the place.

The store manager came out to brew tea for us personally, and as she brewed the jasmine tea (which came out wonderfully), Prof. Lin prompted me to ask any questions I had. Except, curiously, Prof. Lin was the one who answered my questions rather than the store manager. Either way, I got quite a bit of insight from it, mostly on how jasmine tea has been rebranding itself as a more “elegant” tea by improving the quality of both the leaves and the buds used.

While tea connoisseurs since the Song have praised unadulterated tea for its purity, jasmine tea is Fuzhou’s local specialty, and there’s definitely a push to make it seem like it’s for the upper class by using stories and connections to imperial and political figures, such as continuously mentioning that it’s Empress Dowager Cixi’s favorite tea, and that it was served to Henry Kissinger when he visited China.

Ms. Wu, our tearista for the night.

Ultimately, when we ended the night, I was absolutely exhausted. Having walked over 25,000 steps and nearly 20 km, I dreaded waking up at 7 am for guqin class the next morning. But I was happy I could meet up with my former professor, drink some delightful jasmine tea, and even bring some samples home with me for another day!

Packing, Part 1

I woke up today—three days before I fly across the world and live in China for the next ten months of my life—and thought to myself: what am I going to bring with me?

Limited to two suitcases, one carry-on, and one personal item, my first decision was an easy one: I would leave one suitcase empty. After all, I already plan on accumulating trinkets, souvenirs, fine teapots, calligraphy brushes, kilograms of delicious oolong tea, and a guqin.

Then came my mother, her voice slicing through my bedroom and her hands proudly brandishing a pair of vomit-green pants. “Look!” she exclaimed. “I got these on sale! You can wear them in China.”

I flopped over onto the other side of my bed and said, “I don’t want to bring too much.”

“Nonsense,” she replied. “One pair of pants is definitely not too much.”

A painful flashback brought me back to the weeks leading up to the fateful day I moved into Pomona College. That same line repeated itself until I ended up lugging an excess of clothing—three quarters of which I have yet to wear, even after four years.

“It’s alright,” I insisted, turning towards the warmer side of my bed. “If I need pants, I’ll just buy them there.”

She tossed the pair of pants at me; it landed somewhere near my head.

“Do you think I work day and night so you can waste money on pants that are not on sale?” she was understandably frustrated. “Try them on at least.”

I reached for them, opened half an eye, and rolled back over to the other side of my bed (the cooler side was a bit more pleasant in the summer heat).

“I think you got this from the women’s section.”

She walked over to me, her slippers shuffling on the linoleum floor. “Are you sure?”

I sat up and pointed at the label: Size 0. “Yup, see for yourself.”

She picked it up and laughed, “You’re so skinny you’d fit in it anyways.”

That’s true. I would. She left me to my own devices as she got ready for work. I breathed a sigh of relief—perhaps this time, I would finally be able to leave the house with an empty suitcase.