We Fly High

I can do this, I told myself.

There were the rocks glaring down at me, coaxing, warning, daring. There was Rick behind me, no doubt wincing at my foolhardiness. We had come to the Tibetan Plateau, the land of monks, mountains, and magnificent maidens. Two Tibetan friends, Wenci and Cerrat, had taken us to this butte that housed a supposedly self-arising Buddhist monastery. The view from the summit is incredible, one of them now told me. I’ll take a picture of you at the top, shouted the other.

There was no turning back now.

I took a last energy-boosting sip from my grape juice and then felt the cliff face. Cold.  I glanced upward and studied my adversary. Right in front of me the cliff was smooth, but if I could scramble up a few feet I’d reach an impression, dotted with footholds, that meandered leftward. It wouldn’t be that difficult. I leaped up and eagerly slapped my left hand forth. It landed on something mushy which squirmed in my hand and, when I tightened my grip, exploded. The slug’s remains clung to my fingers like pesky paparazzi. I inhaled deeply. Wipe. Clean. Good.

We climbed up through the prayer flags to a Buddhist ritual area

I began to climb. Left hand, right hand. Left foot, right foot. Everything was a matter of careful limb placement—a reckless step here or there and, well, Rick and the boys would have a grape-flavored mess to clean up. But for now at least, amid the deep etchings that snaked along the rock face, I was in foothold paradise. Left, right; Left, right. I could do this in my sleep.

Onward, ho!

I realized, as I climbed, that my odds of successfully getting back down this way were exactly nil—unless I were suddenly bitten by a magic spider. But that was ok, since I intended to descend by a different route after scaling this baby. Onward, ho!

Onward, that is, until I soon found myself sucking air on a slab that jutted out several inches from the rock wall. My grip was starting to slip. I exhaled and groped upward to my left for protruding boulders, leafy appendages, wriggly roots—anything that might plausibly take my weight. Nothing. I slid my right hand in the opposite direction in similar search of an accommodating notch. Nada.

My fingers slid some more. In the absence of adequate handholds, continuing upwards would no longer be an option. Downwards? Fuhgeddaboudit. I plumbed my brain for the countless climbing secrets I had picked up as a student in Scarsdale, New York. My fingers slid some more.

My tummy began to turn. I then gritted my teeth, shook off sweat like a bulldog on roid-rage, and decided it was time for Plan B.

Plan B involved another cliff face to my left, which was separated from the ledge I was on by a several foot-wide crevice. The two rock faces formed a V-taper, meeting 20 feet below. If I could somehow make it to the other side, which was pockmarked with indents and notches, I could make it to the top.

The other side was only four feet away. I picked up my left foot, steadied myself with my other three limbs, and extended it (graceful as a ballerina, no doubt) as far as I could, reaching, pushing, stretching with all my might to land it on the other side. A few inches still to go. I stretched further.

“Hey, be careful up there!” Cerrat said.

“It’s ok, I always do this.”

I never do this.

Another inch. I streeetched further. Half an inch. My tendons and muscles were screaming out for relief, but as an athlete who had honed them during hours of brutal wrestling practice, I knew they could take—

Pop! Greecckk! Srrraaaakk! Cluck-glut-cluck-glut-cluck-BZAM! Pangs of fire accompany the symphony of spasms, the crescendo of glickety-glacks­ and bone screeching on bone. My leg whips back like a jack-in-the-box and plants itself back on the ledge. I try to move it. My leg is lead. It is a sack of needles. I didn’t know that legs make those sounds.

“Hey, you ok? Something sounded wrong.” Rick asked from below.

“Fine.”

climbing in Tibet

I clanked and clunked my leg to a stable position. There was no way I was stretching it to the other side. I would have to jump. It was only four feet. Come on, Greg, just imagine yourself jumping across solid ground. Four feet is not far. Just remember not to look down. Ready? Good. Now bend your legs. Oww! OK, we’re all right. Four feet.  Let’s try it from the top: Ready. Oh, and don’t look down. Now get set. Oww, again! Stupid leg. Set. Don’t look down. Deep breathes. Don’t look down.

Go.

Later, Rick told me I probably shouldn’t jump from cliff to cliff like that again. Wenci asked if all Americans were this risk-loving. Cerrat said that the photo he took of me at the top came out a little foggy. We all agreed that I was addicted to sailing through the air, un-roped, at high altitudes, and that this adrenaline addiction was probably unhealthy. As Rick pointed out, despite whatever rush I may have felt when I completed the jump, the whole shebang wasn’t worth the risk of grape-stained soil.

But during those seconds in the air you feel like you’ve grown angel wings. You’re heart whacks against you’re rib cage like an angry jackhammer, you’re head whiplashes as you thunder through the stratosphere, and for a feathery second you worry that you might well get lost among the stars.

And when you land, you smile and wonder whether they make adrenaline patches for people like you.

Rick, Greg, and Wenci

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Thoughts from the Backseat of a Motorcycle on a Frozen Lake

I hopped off the motorcycle, pulled off my shades, pretended I had a weapon and did my best Bond impersonation as I approached the holy lake Yihun Lhatso, nestled in a mountain range in rural Tibet. In the thick of winter, the lake was frozen solid. The sun played games on the ice, its rays bouncing onto the mountains, snow tossed over their brownish slopes like frosting on a cake. It was beautiful. I took off my sunglasses. It was breathtaking.

A breeze tickled my chin as I walked towards the bank. I passed a Buddhist monument—holy words were engraved on the bottom, which supported a statue of a meditating god. In its simplicity, the monument seemed as natural as the trees around it. As I stood before the bank, the ice wandering ahead for a mile, the religious meaning was lost on me. But the magic was not.

I turned around to see Greg strolling toward the lake, his neck straining in five directions at once. Our Tibetan friends—who insisted we use their English names, Jack and Bob, even though neither really speaks English—had brought us here on their motorcycles, and trailed closely behind Greg. “We don’t usually come here during winter,” Jack told me in Mandarin, the only language we had in common. “It’s not the tourist season now, and most people like it better during the summer.”

“But it’s beautiful.” I said. Jack took a deep breath and whistled.

“Yes sir, it is beautiful.” He said.

After testing the ice with his foot, Jack confirmed that the surface could support us. I had taken ten steps before my bottom and the ice became acquainted for the first of many times. Jack, Bob, and Greg pointed and laughed. But as Bob opened his mouth to mock me, he befell a similar fate. Greg and Jack survived the longest, holding out about another 15 seconds. For maybe a minute, lying on the ice, we sat in silence, our eyes on clear blue above.

Soon after we noticed tracks on a section of the surface that had a light layer of snow. Bob and Jack began explaining which prints belonged to which animals. “Those are goats,” said Jack. “And these look like they came from a yak.” Jack paused. “And those…” he turned to Bob and spoke to him in Tibetan.

“Actually, those are motorcycle tracks,” said Jack. “Which means people motorcycled across this lake.” The four of us exchanged glances. Our eyes bolted towards to the motorcycles parked close to the bank.

And for the next two hours, as the wind picked up, nearly knocked off my shades, and forced a few more meetings between ice and bottom, I looked around from the backseat of Jack’s motorcycle, hands clutching the backseat so tight my knuckles ached, and marveled at the frosty mountains, stretching up into the sky. It felt wonderful to be alive.

If in February of my senior year you asked me where I would be on the same date in 2011, my first guess would not have been riding on a motorcycle in rural Tibet. Maybe not even my second.

In my graduating class at Regis, no other students took a gap year. The decision process was tough. I made lists, drew charts, read blogs, and talked with professionals, teachers, friends, parents, myself, and the lamp in the driveway. Apart from the lamp, all the advice I received pointed to the gap year.

But then why the stress, the difficulty, the emails to Amherst asking for a time extension on my decision? Because questions stayed with me, circled through my head day and night. At home, I had projects, friends and family. I had an identity. I belonged. If I went to China, wouldn’t I have to start from scratch? When I came back, would my place be there? And how would it have changed?

My decision became clear when I saw the source of my questions: fear. Fear of a new place. Fear of a new language. Fear of coming back and feeling abandoned. I confronted these doubts with thinking and reason, time and time again. Eventually, I overcame them, took a deep breath, and committed myself to a year abroad.

I have not been disappointed. When I first arrived in China, my Mandarin needed a little work. When I tried to tell my teacher that I had “eaten enough” for lunch, I said that I had “eaten a dog” (though, for cultural reasons, she didn’t think it odd.) I once meant to tell a receptionist that I would come back “immediately,” but instead I told her I would return “on a horse.”

After more than five months here, in addition to no longer lying about riding large animals into small buildings, I can even understand taxi drivers: a feat I once thought impossible. If, this coming April, I pass the HSK exam—administered by the Chinese government to test the language proficiency of foreigners—I will be certified to attend university classes in Mandarin.

In my semester at Tsinghua University in Beijing, I studied with students from Gabon, Thailand, Colombia, the Netherlands, and everywhere in between. My teachers, from all different parts of China, exposed us to a slice of the Chinese education system. Outside the classroom, I met local college students, played pick-up soccer games, and spent time hanging around with Chinese friends in local coffee shops and restaurants.

On weekends, I volunteered as an English teacher for children of migrant workers. The survival English skills the kids learn help them find work and lift their families from poverty. Their stories, ambitions, and smiles made waking up at 6:50 on Saturday mornings the easiest part of my week.

At the end of the semester, I took some time off to travel, which has allowed me to see another part of China. While backpacking through Tibetan areas of Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan, I saw poverty and Buddhist spirituality firsthand. For the first time in my life, I spent cold nights without heating, electricity, running water, or bathrooms, listening to wild dogs howling outside. Poor monks took photos with me, opened their doors for me, fed me, and told me about their hopes for the future.

My time here has been an adventure.  I’ve endured falls, walked on thin ice, taken sharp turns, and seen more than my eyes could fully comprehend. But I’m still on that motorcycle, and it still feels wonderful to be alive.

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Fables

Here are two Chinese fables you may have slept through (if you’re like me) in world history class.

In the first fable, a throng of artists gathered to see who could draw a snake the fastest. This was pre-Crayola, so they used the earth as their canvas and sticks as their brushes. The artist who finished first gleefully claimed the prize wine. Then, chugging the wine as he waited for the others to finish, he added feet to his snake to make it prettier. The villagers saw this and confiscated the rest of his drink, telling him that he hadn’t drawn a snake, was extremely arrogant, and probably underage anyway. To this day, accusing somebody of adding feet to a snake—huashe tianzu—is a pointed criticism suggesting that the person has embellished a story. (A Chinese reader, for example, looking at my rendition of these fables, might suggest that I’ve turned a snake into a millipede.)

In the second story, there was an old man, Yu, who lived in craggy terrain that made the wagon trip to and from his home uncomfortable. To lessen the black and blue toll on rear end, Yu set himself and his sons to work with shovels to move the mountain in front of his house. The resident wise man was already rolling on the floor: “How can you move a mountain!” Yu replied that his sons would have sons and grandsons, and that through the cumulative effort of successive generations the mountains could eventually be moved. God was swayed by Yu’s persistence and moved the mountains Himself. That story gave rise to a well-known and admiring expression— yugong yishan, or “foolish man who moved a mountain”—for someone who accomplishes a great goal through persistence.

The moral of the first story is partly that we shouldn’t add to perfection, but to me it also suggests that the most capable and intelligent may finish last. The moral of the second is that the least rational but most persevering often finish first. God vindicates not the wise person who (tartly) admonishes the old man against an impossible task, but rather the old man who begins the impossible task because he doesn’t know any better.

Before I arrived in China, I was brushing up on my long division so that I wouldn’t stick out like a prime number in the land of towering IQs (didn’t work). Though I have met people who probably could calculate the standard deviation of my misapprehensions, most of my Chinese friends aren’t geniuses but simply extremely hard workers. I sometimes think back to my own high school where it was cool to study and then brag about not studying, since cruising through tests with no preparation meant you were a topflight student. But Chinese students traditionally study and then brag about studying. They admire the kids who slowly but persistently conquer their own mountains, even if in the classroom their ideas fall as silently as a spade in soft earth.

While we often stereotype young Chinese students as Einsteins in diapers, we might realize that Chinese historically hold the opposite value. The smartest person in the realm rarely snatched the golden apple. “More often,” my Chinese teacher says, “he was executed by the emperor for arrogance.”

Cross-cultural surveys have shown that in America, people think that the students who get the best grades are those who are smartest. In China (and the Confucian belt of Asia), surveys show that people think those who get the best grades are those who work the hardest. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but the notion that hard work is rewarded is certainly a useful and convenient ideology in the education world.

Americans who prize intelligence over diligence can learn from China’s education values. And although the success story of cerebrally-challenged Yu comes as a personal relief to someone like me, we should treat its lesson with care. The ethic of dogged perseverance replays itself in the rote memorization that has long been China’s blueprint for learning—and that methodology dampens the imagination. It chills the creative spirit. While Yu-like persistence can reshape the horizon, it will dull our shovels with too much use and dull our minds with too little. We’ll come to see things as they are without imagining what they could be.

I hope that God moved Yu’s mountain before the poor man croaked from repeated hernias, and I hope that the daring artist was able to get sufficiently drunk before his competitors plucked away his goblet of fun. The fact is that anyone can move a mountain. But to color outside the line? To draw feet on a snake? That takes imagination.

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The End of History, through a Saigon Beer Bottle in Shanghai

In his landmark 1989 essay “The End of History?” Francis Fukuyama posits that the conclusion of the Cold War may have meant more than a global power-shift. The American victory, he argues, represents the last stride forward: the final step in mankind’s social evolution. Having proven itself superior on ethical, cultural, and economic grounds, liberal democracy would spread throughout the globe.

A quick disclaimer: I don’t consider influential historical essays every time I have a drink. And I probably remember this one only because of the author’s last name. But it came to mind when Greg, my parents, and I ordered drinks at a Vietnamese restaurant in Shanghai.

“Saigon,” my dad said, reading the boldface brand name on the label of his drink. “That’s funny.” He spun the bottle, leaning in for a closer look at the fine print. “Made in Vietnam.” He paused. “Wow.”

If you erased your recollection of American history after your final exam junior year, a brief refresher will help. Saigon served as headquarters for the United States during the Vietnam War. When American forces left the country, the northern Vietnamese flooded in and quickly changed their capital’s name to “Ho Chi Minh City.”

The Vietnamese didn’t stop there. Ho Chi Minh’s name appears on currency notes, public buildings, and even temples. Textbooks devote entire chapters to singing his praises. The government censors media that makes mention of his faults, even banning articles that expose his non-celibacy.

The word “Saigon,” then, should have stuck out like a Communist flag draped over an American front door. But “Ho Chi Minh City Beer” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, and would be a pain to fit on a label. Also the name of a famous communist doesn’t fare well on the international market.

With a single word, my crisp beer seemed to slap Ho Chi Minh—and his cause—across the face. As we prepared to leave that evening, I took the last sip of my drink from a communist country, placed a few currency notes bearing Mao’s visage on the table, walked out into a plaza with Starbucks, McDonalds, and the Gap, and wondered if my Vietnamese beer bottle in Shanghai had answered Fukuyama’s question.

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Highs and Lows of Chinese Education

Merely saying the word curdles the juices of Chinese high-schoolers. It’s a word that invades their minds from diapers onward, piercing, commanding, enervating. The thought of it boomerangs around their insides like a bouncy ball made of needles. It is called the High Test.

The other day, the teacher demonstrated how to use “xinku,” the Chinese word for “toil,” in the following way: “A high school student must toil for many hours to prepare for the High Test, which will determine where she goes to college.” There is also an adjective form: “High school is toilsome due the High Test.” And the superlative: “By far the most toilsome thing in the life of a Chinese is the High Test.”

Okay, I get it. The High Test is tough. But it can’t be that much worse than the SATs. Right?

I’ll report, you decide: In China, you spend two years studying for the High Test, which you take shortly before graduating high school. On a typical school day, you might arrive at your classroom at 5:30 a.m. to begin studying, and get off at 10:30 p.m. You often continue studying even after that. You have one day off per month.

If you do well on the High Test—a 10-hour long affair with an occasional paramedic to revive those who faint—then you’re golden, since colleges don’t give a hoot about anything other than your score. If you don’t perform so well, then you might take a “gap year” during which you spend all your time preparing to take the test again.

All this has made me think my American high school, where students did study but also, in the words of a local friend, had something called “fun.” Mention that word to Chinese students here and, well, they’ll think you’re speaking another language.

The High Test creates accountability, because students across the country take the same test. It promotes meritocracy, ruthlessly rewarding the best performers over apple-polishers whom teachers favor with good grades. In a country crippled by corruption, bribes might help with a report card but won’t budge your score on the one exam that really matters. And there is no doubt that studying for it makes kids maddeningly smart. The High Test is the perfect system.

And yet. What about the kid who’s feeling sick on exam day, or is blue from a death in the family? What is more, that an entire high school career funnels toward a single assessment relegates genuine learning to the back seat. Not enlightenment but achievement—the kind that can be quantified and divided by some national average—becomes the lighthouse of one’s education. There is no room for intellectual risk-taking, since you could squander your only shot.

I often see similar threads in my own Chinese class here—a focus on knowledge over imagination, product over process. Teachers like to pick apart details without launching us beyond the stars.

Furthermore, the High Test advances a view of education that is deep but narrow. To prepare for the exam, you select either humanities or sciences in the beginning of high-school, and that’s all you study for the rest of your academic life. You perhaps become “I” shaped rather than “T” shaped, plumbing your own field without a larger recognition of how your discipline interacts with others.

So, China, move beyond the High Test. Turn it into confetti. That way, Chinese students can take themselves to greater heights, more beautiful vistas. And so what if afterward a student or two gets blown off the conventional course? Let them chance upon a New World. Let them soar. When they do, we can celebrate with the confetti.

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The BaiNian Vocational School

“You’ll be in charge of class C, the lowest English level,” said Li Xiao, my contact at BaiNian, a full-scholarship vocational high school founded by Westerners. The teachers are volunteers, and the students live below the poverty line. “That’s means it’s the hardest. I know you’re Chinese is pretty good, so use it if you have to.”

“ I’ll be in charge?” I said.

“Yes. You’ll be the lead teacher. But don’t worry, it’s not a full four hours. It’s really more like three and a half, plus you get a ten minute break. ”

“Oh,” I said.

By “oh,” I really meant “three and a half hours is a long time, I’ve never taught a class before, I’m completely unprepared, I’d really like a glass of water, where’s the bathroom?”

Li Xiao didn’t pick up on the subtleties of my long-prefaced question. Still, she gestured toward the water cooler, and, when I failed to see them right in front of me, the cups, and, when I ignored the sign indicating the sex of the bathroom, the men’s room.

A few minutes later, as we sat in the teacher’s lounge, Li Xiao introduced me to my “assistants,” Chinese educators who speak fluent English and have years of experience working with language-learners. One of the assistants, Sam, began asking me about my lesson plan.

I paused, expecting my extemp skills from high school debate to kick-in. Instead, the words “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” rang through my head, and I was halfway out of my chair with a finger dangerously close to Sam’s nose before I realized he was Chinese, a fellow teacher, very friendly, and not Tom Cruise.

“I thought I would only be an assistant today,” I said, seating myself and withdrawing my finger. “I didn’t prepare much of a lesson.” I forced a very forced-sounding chuckle.

“Well,” said Li Xiao, “We want to emphasize American culture, and you’re the only American teacher we have available today. Did you have a chance to look over the curriculum I sent you?” she asked.

“I couldn’t open the file.”

“Well, today’s class is about elections. So have the class elect a president and a vice-president.” I nodded and sat back in my chair. “You might want to get started preparing,” she said. “Class begins in 10 minutes.”

And it was almost as though, as she spoke, I was already in front of thirty silent, uniformed sixteen and seventeen year-olds, backs straight, notebooks out, eyes crawling all over me. My shoes squeaked a few times as I walked toward the center of the room. I picked up a piece of chalk, put it down, faced everyone, turned away, picked it up, put it down, and then faced everyone again.

“Hello,” I said. Thirty pens attacked thirty notebooks. “No need to write that down.” My Chinese assistant, Joanna, translated. The pens jumped up again, this time scratching out the last note.

“My name is Rick, and I’m from New York.” I smiled, and began walking through the aisles, trying to imitate some of my more engaging teachers. “I’m really looking forward to teaching you. I know you have a lot of potential, and if you work hard, you’ll really make a lot of progress. Now, today we’re going to have an election. That means all of you can vote for one classmate who you think will best represent you. So you should pick someone brave, responsible, engaging, friendly, and, most important, good-looking.”

Nobody laughed. I’m used to that. No one said I wasn’t funny or told me to stick to my day job, but I figured I could chalk that up to being the teacher. “Who would like to run for class president?” I scanned the room and saw blank, worried faces.

I needed to slow down. These were beginners, and I was speaking a foreign language. It occurred to me that these kids, from poor, mostly uneducated families, must have been very nervous. They spoke no English, had probably met very few Americans, and may have felt out of place in this formal, academic setting.

I felt my poise returning. The situations may have been different, but I had spoken without notes in front of crowds before. And this time—more than at any time during debate—I knew my stuff. I looked at the clock: three hours and twenty minutes left, and plenty of time to start from scratch.

“Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” I wrote on the board.

The rest of my time blurred away. I was speaking slowly, but dancing around the room, calling on students, having them ask each other questions and make statements. My “assistant teachers,” guided me through, suggesting points I might want to review and other possible games or activities.

As I lightened up, the kids did, too.  When a student understood and constructed a sentence, I had the class give a round of applause. Soon, they were applauding each other—sometimes a little sarcastically, as when one student said “I am good Bob at Basketball Bob.”

My paycheck for the day didn’t come on a piece of paper. Instead, it came in the form of my student’s weather predictions.  “It’s probably going to rain,” was the general consensus, and a gloomy forecast will never again sound so good.

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Lamb of God

I had to fill something that was very, very empty.

First the stomach growled just slightly. Then the growling grew louder, turning heads. Before long, belly machinery was grinding, train whistles were screeching, and long dormant forces were hissississing with volcanic want. I looked up to ask directions to the nearest food mart, but my neighbors had already scrambled off to a safer hemisphere.

“What was that?” Ricky asked.

“Umm, I didn’t hear anything.” I said.

“It sounded like thunder.”

“It was probably thunder.”

Far off, I saw a sign for Peking Duck.  Keep dreaming, Greg. I knew we didn’t have the dough to drop on a restaurant like that. But then again…maybe it could be a smash and grab—you know, Bond style. There was a tantalizingly large window on the fourth floor. Maybe I could somersault through the glass, nab the feathery bundles from their perches, and leap out with a witty—

“Yang rou, yang rou.” Could it be true? My ears stiffened as the vendor’s words wafted over on plumes that sung of spice and gristle. Lamb meat. The aroma plucked my nose up like a marionette, beckoning, coaxing, reeling the rest of me in toward its smoldering source. The rest is a blur. I remember stumbling across a street, dancing my way among aspiring NASCAR racers and motorcross madcaps who thought I was clear-headed enough to yield them right of way. I remember staggering amid suits and loafers, impelled onward by some prehistoric part of me that still prefers its meat off the end of a sharpened stick. I remember a group of Chinese girls whispering to each other about a good looking teenager ambling by. That last memory is particularly blurry.

I wobbled toward the vendor stand. Quick fingers juggled the spatulas and meat jars. The man was dark-skinned and, as is common among street vendors, a member of the oppressed Uighur tribe from southern China. He wore a shirt that was probably white two years ago. But there was something noble about his demeanor, as if he were one magic carpet away from becoming a prince.

A vendor making roujiamo, or "meat-stuffed roll."

I asked for lamb on a stick. He handed me what could be called a Chinese shish kabob, and I handed him 30 cents. I took a moment to admire the oil-crackled juiciness, the scepter of tingling spice that sparkled as a star. It was like holding the universe in the palm of your hand.

The first bite is bland. You don’t know what to expect. You wait a few seconds for the taste to register. Oh, but when it does….One…two…three….Kapow! Quick breaths as the buried Neanderthal within you bounds to the fore. Boom! Body shudders as spice and tangy flesh and fat and scandalously delicious stuff sledgehammer your senses like an anvil from heaven. Pure satori as the zesty hotness builds up and rockets you upward. Pretty soon you’re seeing stars.

Your heart races forever through that mutton-charred sky.

Sometimes, when I read in the newspapers about the mutual distrust between Han Chinese and Uighurs, I think of the spice-scented stands that pepper Beijing streets. I think of the Han strolling up to the Uighur vendor, as I see them do every day, and doing great business together and sharing a bite out of heaven.

But political problems aren’t the only ones yang rou can resolve.

“Hey, the thunder stopped.” Ricky said.

“Yeah.”

“Guess the lamb did the trick.”

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