Book Collecting: Liturgical Works

I’ve always envisioned that I would eventually amass a sizeable library, but I never really purchased books until college. Although, even then, I leaned towards renting my textbooks rather than owning them. As the years went on, though, I decided that some reference books would be worth keeping, and so, my collection of books began to grow.

Some of these books would be required readings for classes, books I decided to keep after the semester ended. Others would be books I found on the free table in Mason Hall (like a whole set of the Onmyoji novels!!! Who would just leave those there???). And of course, every time I returned to Portland, I’d be sure to browse through Powell’s Books and bring home a few books that caught my eye.

These books have primarily been in English (minus the Onmyoji set), and they tend to be rather academic. From books on tea (thanks thesis), to scholarly works on Asian Studies, to a few facsimiles of calligraphy, my library was a reflection of my college life.

However, there was another side to my library. I had started collecting a few liturgical works here and there from my earlier trips to Taiwan. At first, I didn’t see much of a need for them. If I were ever to be at a temple, I’d just use whatever books they provided. But the books were ubiquitous, and on each trip, I’d find some beautifully-printed liturgies by Shihua, a premier traditional Chinese publisher.

Their accordion-fold books—which I prefer because it’s near impossible to lose your page—present the text in an easy-to-read font supported by comfortable spacing. I don’t feel like I’m staring at a wall of text, nor do I have to squint and guess what character it might be. After all, when recited, even a split second of hesitation can mean missing a character. And so, Shihua became my default for anything liturgical. Most temples used it too.

Which is why it was a complete shock to me—and the rest of my Buddhist friends—when Shihua closed down a few years ago.

The news came slowly, and my first sign that something was amiss was when their website stopped restocking. My fears compounded when I noticed that temple giftshops were pulling their books from the shelves and stockpiling them in storage for internal use. A gloom covered the temple, and in the offices, we whispered and wondered what would happen to the future of these publications. Who else would be able to print such beautiful texts, optimized so elegantly for the human eye?

At that point, I regretted not getting a set when I had the chance. Now, the once-ubiquitous golden covers were absent from tables near folk temples, gone from the shelves of monasteries, and could only been seen during annual prayer services. These sacred books, already prized as priceless treasures, were now even more scarce.

Meanwhile, other publishers came out to fill the void, albeit unhelpfully. Their fonts were too thick, their punctuation too bold. Their spacing was too narrow, making the entire tome wholly uninviting.

Since coming to China, I’ve been scouring the online markets for any of Shihua’s publications—or even anything remotely similar. If China was the capital of bootlegging, I sure hoped they had bootlegged Shihua’s books.

Unfortunately, I was out of luck. Some sellers presented pictures of Shihua’s elegant covers, then shipped me reprints of woodblock-printed scriptures. Others had similar products, but the ink they used was not nearly dark enough to pass as Shihua.

I had some luck in finding preowned copies of Shihua books, which were being resold by booksellers for significantly cheaper than what they would have been sold for in Taiwan. I suppose the Chinese market has yet to realize Shihua’s demise. Demand has stayed the same, but the supply of these books has dropped, and the books will only get rarer as the years go on.

I’ve since collected a few essential works, books that I know I will have to translate in the near or distant future. Of these, two are Shihua prints. I will be keeping my eyes peeled during my time in Nanjing, and hopefully I will be able to find more as they appear on the online markets.

But ultimately, one of my goals is to create a bilingual set: one which has elegantly printed Chinese, pronunciation in pinyin above it, and English translation at the bottom. This would free me from having to rely on external publishers who might—as Shihua did—suddenly fall to the ills of the economy.

As a result, I’ve spent more hours than I expected to on the phone with former colleagues in Los Angeles, discussing fonts, font sizes, and other formatting details for this project. The Compendium of Chinese Buddhist Liturgies, currently being completed one installment at a time, will hopefully be released as a full set by 2030. In the meantime, I’ll continue churning out translations, one line of dense Classical Chinese at a time.

Into the Unknown

As a new year unfolds, I’ve been thinking about what the future has to bring.

While these thoughts have been intermittent throughout the past few months, I’ve finally decided to take the time to process them rather than just have them pass through.

One year ago, I was in Portland, unsure of where I would be in the coming year. I had just applied to Fulbright, as well as to three programs in Japan. While coming to Fuzhou was a possibility, it was not one I thought was likely—especially considering the stringently selective evaluation process. Besides, given my obvious bias towards applying to programs in Japan, it was more likely that one of my Japanese routes would come through and I would end up in Tokyo, Yokohama, or elsewhere on the archipelago for my first year after graduation.

I still remember the day I emailed my advisor in a panic when I received that fateful email from Fulbright telling me not that I was accepted, but that I would have to wait for further decisions.

“I think you’re just going to have to wait at this point,” he relayed to me via email.

And so I waited.

It wasn’t long before I received an official Fulbright offer, which came with a request for a prompt acceptance. I didn’t have time to consider my other options—which at that point had yet to arrive—and perhaps that’s for the best. It was quick, easy, and simple.

After my accepting my Fulbright, my future seemed relatively assured for the next year. I would be in Fuzhou, China doing tea research. While the details were murky, the overall sense of time and location was set. But it was not until late-summer—weeks before my arrival in China—that I finally got my last few documents ensuring that I would actually be able to execute this project.

This reflection has made me realize how uncertain this world is.

Our vision of the future, no matter how we might envision it, is merely that: a vision conjured by our skewed perceptions of reality and our limited projections of what might happen.

If you were to ask 12-year-old Andrew what he thought he would be doing in the year 2020, he probably would have said something along the lines of being in pharmacy school or starting his first year at Google as a software engineer.

Twelve-year-old Andrew had never heard of the word “Fulbright,” nor did he know that people actually made careers out of researching Asian history and culture. How could he have possibly predicted he would eventually seek this path?

Thus, I have no strict predictions of where I will be in 2030.

I tell myself now that I will (hopefully) be done with school, perhaps with a doctoral degree in hand, and that I will be gainfully employed by some liberal arts college where I can teach a small seminar on tea to a group of engaged and curious students, and then spend entire afternoons in my office chatting with undergraduates over cups of steaming tea, an iron kettle eternally bubbling next to my desk.

But just as 12-year-old me was woefully inaccurate about where I would be as a 22-year-old, I know I will be equally wrong about my current predictions. However, this doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

While I recognize the need to have a goal and a sense of direction, I also have no qualms about shifts in direction. Paraphrasing one of my past teachers, the circumstances we are currently in are the best circumstances for us. Our circumstances constantly change, but as we adapt and respond to the changes around us, we are able to make the best of our circumstances.

Objectively, who is to say that one circumstance is ultimately better for us than another circumstance? While I might wonder what my life would be like had I gone to Japan rather than China, or if I had stuck with Computer Science rather than study the evolution of loose-leaf tea culture, these thoughts quickly fade as I come to the conclusion that I do not know—and will never know. These paths might exist in alternate universes, but in this present universe, I will only know the effects of my past choices and influences.

Surely, I would not be where I am today if I had stuck with the Computer Science or even the Psychology route. But would I still be here if my senior thesis was on calligraphy rather than tea? Who knows.

Looking back at these past choices, from the most impactful decisions to the minutest of thoughts and actions, each one has molded and shaped my path—even if I did not have the foresight to know what I was creating. Taking the Daoist example of the uncarved block, what starts as a canvas of infinite possibilities is gradually whittled down with each scrape, cut, and sanding, losing its realm of possibilities until its final shape is complete.

Does the carver know what the finished product will be? Can he see it within the uncarved block, using each of his precise movements to manifest it?

Perhaps a skilled carver is able to, but I am not a skilled carver.

My vision of the future is hazy—and not just because of the increasing wildfires ravaging our planet. I do not know what my finished product will look like. Besides, how do I know that my initial vision of the final product is the best that can be produced?

As I go through life one phase at a time, I try to make the choices that align with what I hope the future will be. Will my choices hurt others? Are they generally beneficial? Will they come back to haunt me later? Should the answers be sound, I proceed, venturing another step forward into the unknown and committing another slice to the uncarved block.

Granted, while my vision is hazy, having a general vision ensures that I don’t step too far away from where I want to be heading. I won’t lop off half the block with a sudden, impulsive addiction, nor will I suddenly decide that on second thought, I want to be an accountant and veer my life in a completely different direction.

While I am barely at the quarter-point of my life, I feel like there has been so much shaved off of the block that I am left with the task of fine-tuning the details. How much of these were decided when I was born in Portland, OR, where I was offered 13 years of public education, a cocktail of immunization shots in infancy to minimize my chance of dying young, and brought home by two loving parents who were committed to my well-being?

By these statistics alone, much of my life was decided in the instant the hospital’s florescent lights bathed my fresh skin. I was differentiated from billions of others in the world simply through the conditions at my birth, and these distinguishing traits compounded as the years went by. My upbringing, my education, my interests and pursuits—each of them influencing each other—created (and still continuously creates) the personality that I am able to call “me” today.

The web of factors that lead us to where we are now is too complex for me to begin to comprehend. Despite not knowing the full outcomes of our decisions—and the decisions made by those around us—these actions and thoughts made every single day reverberate through time, rippling into the depths of the unknown, affecting future decisions, future habits, and future outcomes.

Now, as I near the midpoint of my time in China, I have been pondering my next steps. Where will I live upon my return to the US? What will I do? How will these choices close or open doors in the future?

Recently, a few routes have presented themselves—often as half-jokes—but I am left pondering about their potential. I purposely avoided graduate school applications this round to leave time for another gap year (or two), but which projects will I pursue in the interim?

When it is time for me to make the decision, I will decide it based on my limited understanding, and it will irreversibly influence my future in ways I can and cannot see or even begin to comprehend.

But at the same time, I don’t feel like it will be a very difficult decision to make. Given that all of my choices lead to paths I am passionate about and eager to explore, I think I will be happy with any of them. My present choices are already limited by my past choices, and what I choose now will further my journey while defining my path just that much more. And with that, I know that whichever decision I make, the circumstances they lead me to will be the best circumstances for me. That is all I can ever know, after all.

Can I Scan Your Face?

I was buying some fruit the other day, and as I got my Alipay barcode ready, the cashier—a young boy no older than 12—turned to me and asked, “Can I scan your face?”

I stared at him in confusion.

“You don’t need your barcode,” he continued. “Just look in the camera right here.”

I was both intrigued and mortified. This felt like an episode of Black Mirror. I put my face up to the black lens.

“Error: This face is not linked to a valid Chinese ID,” the screen read.

“Huh,” the young cashier replied. “I guess it doesn’t work on your face.”

I scanned my barcode instead.

An Ethnocentric View of History

I was at my guqin class yesterday when a new student came in. He’s perhaps in his late-20s, early-30s, and works as a traditional furniture designer. Guqin tends to attract people interested in traditional cultural heritage, so this wasn’t too surprising, but I hadn’t expected to meet students from such diverse professional backgrounds.

As the class wrapped up, our teacher began chatting with him about maintaining cultural heritage. He tends to talk about this to everybody who comes in the door, but being interested in the topic, I kept half an ear on the conversation as I continued practicing.

“I think Japan does a really good job of maintaining culture,” he commented.

Yup. Indeed they do.

“Although,” he continued. “There’s never any innovation. All they do is receive whatever China gives them and they hold onto for centuries. They’re like China’s time capsule.”

I froze. Excuse me?

“What do you mean by that?” our teacher asked.

“Well, take tea for example,” he paused. “They still use powdered tea and prepare exactly how Chinese people did it during the Song dynasty while China has innovated and gone beyond.”

Hold up.

While powdered tea was introduced to Japan during the Song dynasty, the formation of Japanese tea culture happened through a lot of Japanese innovation. There was never such a strongly defined bond between tea and Zen until tea reached Japan, and it never developed such a rustic aesthetic in China (although there was a transformation in the Ming… but that was a shift from powdered to loose-leaf tea).

I realized that this was a common trope I heard repeated over and over again. That China is the source of East Asian culture, and the peripheral states in the Sinosphere were merely recepients of culture, unable to produce a culture of their own.

This was true of my explorations during the Buddhist art expo, where everything was labeled “Tang dynasty style” even if it was a replica of a Japanese-carved statue. It’s also true of other arts that are quite obviously Japanese in origin, such as gold-lacquer repair (kintsugi 金継ぎ). But, I’ve seen videos asserting that it is actually a Chinese art because China had lacquer before Japan had lacquer.

Recently, I’ve come across a few articles in Chinese that argue Japanese tea’s core ideals—wakeiseijaku 和敬清寂—are actually of Chinese origin because the phrase first appears in a Chinese text. Regardless of who actually arranged the text, the phrase definitely never caught on in China, whereas it grew into a life of its own in Japan. That alone needs to be addressed. Furthermore, there needs to be an understanding that two cultures can independently come up with similar if not identical concepts.

This is a troubling trend that stems from ethnocentrism, which is not new to China by any means. While in-group/out-group bias is pretty much universal, I remember a peculiar line that lumped the misfortune of being born in one of the four marginalized tribes (戎夷蠻狄) as being equal to being born blind, deaf, mute, or disfigured.


In any case, the young dude was a brilliant designer who told me little tidbits, like how a traditional table for calligraphy and tea should be 72 cm high. Fun stuff!

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.