Saturday, June 6, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a new blog and it looks like this:

Please join me for some eclectic writing attempts at

Warmly welcome!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Air Ticket August 5

For over a year, I've had this file on my desktop:

It's the flight information for my August 5, 2012 flight from Beijing to Cedar Rapids.  I don't know why I still have it on my desktop, except as a reminder of the remarkably strange feeling of staring down a blank slate.

A year ago this week, I was raveling up three years in China.  The only things on my calendar were my flight home on August 5 and a friend's wedding a couple weeks later.  I literally had nothing else planned.  I didn't know what city I would live in, what kind of job I would have, what church I would attend, what car I would drive, or if I would have any friends.

Looking at the blank slate in retrospect, I can see that God filled it:

Two of those items are job interviews, two of them are car repairs for a car I'd just bought (haha!), and several of them are meetings with family and friends that I really missed while I was away.  I know that God provides for us in different ways in different times in our lives; I could have a blank slate still and he would nonetheless be my provider, because He knows best.  But I am so thankful for how He quickly and abundantly provided for me last year.

This post is my expression of gratitude for a good church, a good job, a good house, and friends and family who have welcomed me back to America and to my new home in Des Moines. 

Philippians 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."  He is faithful.

Please be thinking of me this week as I mourn the passing of a full year since I left my beloved China.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Going to China: A Primer

I visited China on a two-week student trip way the heck back in 2005 and then lived in China from 2009 to 2012.  Having been both a visitor and a resident, I thought it would be easy and fun for me to put together a little primer to help you prepare for going to China.

First, a word about expectations.  Rather than thinking too much about what you think it will be like, just learn what you can about the country and then toss your expectations out the window.  They are probably at least partly wrong, and they will keep you from understanding the country as it is rather than as you expected it to be.  For example, if you come to Beijing expecting outright poverty, you may be primed to only see, photograph, and report on the homeless rather than noticing both the homeless and the Apple Store.

Preparing for a Visit

1)  Read at least an article or two on China in general; more if you have time.

2)  Make your itinerary.  China is still a fairly difficult place to travel independently without speaking the language.  Either join a tour group, rely on contacts in China, or make good use of forums on travel sites like  If you can, avoid tours that include only Westernized Chinese food and make you stop at zillions of overpriced souvenir galleries.

3)  Let your credit card and debit card companies know the dates you'll be abroad so they don't block your card when you use it in China.

4)  Learn these phrases:
  • ni hao (pronounced "nee how") = hello
  • xie xie (pronounced "shyeh shyeh") = thank you
  • zai jian (pronounced "dzai jee-en," first word rhymes with "eye") = goodbye
  • duo shao qian? (pronounced "dwo show chee-en") = How much does it cost?
  • bu yao (pronounced "boo yow") = "I don't want."
  • numbers one through ten
5)  Pack.  Less is more.  See the packing list at the end of this post for details.

6)  Stay up as much as possible the night before leaving.  This is an excellent time for packing and cleaning your home.  When you get on the plane, switch your watch to China time and sleep as much as possible.  When you arrive in China, do not sleep until at least 9:00 p.m.

7)  Enjoy your visit!

8)  Tips for a successful visit:
  • Lower your standards for cleanliness and efficiency, especially if you venture out past the Westernized hotels and tour buses.  If you don't like to "hurry up and wait," or if you'd rather not use a restroom with pee on the floor, or if hard beds bother you, it's OK.  But since you can't change these things, don't waste your time being annoyed by them or complaining about them.
  • Don't be afraid to try stuff.
  • Enjoy the cuisine -- they've been perfecting it for 5000 years!
  • Ask lots of questions, especially of locals.
  • Don't be obnoxious.
  • Bargain.  Try not to get ripped off, but don't let it bother you too much when you do.  Many times you can get a good idea of a seller's true rock-bottom price by walking away on a low offer and seeing if they call you back.  Even if you don't speak the language, you can bargain by writing down numbers or using the seller's calculator to display the price you're offering.
  • Enjoy normal, daily life things like going to a grocery store, walking through a city park, or attending a registered church service.

Several times in China I have watched American tourists pushing their hosts on some sensitive issue.  Once I was with an American who was questioning a Chinese translator about why there have been so many Chinese orphan girls.  She was trying to get the girl to say that they don't want the girls and so they are abandoned and end up in orphanages.  The translator looked really uncomfortable and kept trying to change the subject, but the American wouldn't let it go.  She wanted to be told she was right.

Another time, while I was in Beijing, some guys on a tour were asking the guide about some events that occurred there in 1989.  He acknowledged that they happened but, in spite of being a Beijing local, would say nothing more about it.  He kept saying, "I don't really know much about that" in response to any political question, but the tourists kept asking.

Here's my advice: If you have questions about anything sensitive in China, especially about politics, do your own reading and research.  Chinese people will be extremely reluctant to tell you anything that puts China in a bad light, and you will just create an awkward and uncomfortable situation if you press them about it.  It's possible you already know more about the topic than the Chinese person you're asking anyway.  So don't come to China trying to make some big point at the expense of a personal relationship with a Chinese guide or friend.

Alison's China Packing List

  • Passport
  • Money (+ Debit card for emergencies.  China is a cash-and-carry society.  You won’t use a credit card here except at larger tourist sites.  You can find ATMs at airports and in cities, but I usually just deal in cash when I travel.  Exchange rate as of summer 2012 was 6.3 RMB to the dollar)
  • Itinerary with hotel contact info, flight times and numbers, phone numbers of local contacts.

  • Mid-sized duffel or rolling suitcase (Alison's recommended maximum is 15kg; try for less.  International flights' weight limit is 50 pounds and domestic flights' weight limit is 20kg.)
  • Small backpack to take on day trips and hikes
  • If you plan to buy loads of souvenirs, pack an empty bag to take back to America.  Keep in mind you will probably have to pay to take an extra bag on the plane home.

  • Check the weather carefully.  Most places in China are hot and humid in the summer.  Bring sufficiently warm clothes and long underwear if traveling in the winter, since the northeast can get brutally cold and the south has no central heat.
  • I usually hand-wash my laundry when traveling in China to save money.  If you plan to do so, bring clothes that don't need a lot of care to look good.

  • Sturdy tennis shoes or hiking boots
  • A couple pairs of sandals/flip-flops

  • Hair, face, and tooth products
  • Contacts or other eye-care if needed
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
    • Take note:  Tampons, deodorant, and floss are very hard to find in China

  • Any prescriptions you are on
  • Ibuprofin or pain killer
  • Immodium (but don't use it indiscriminately; only if on a long bus trip or something)
  • A couple band-aids
    • Optional, only if you usually need them: Motion-sickness pills, Epi-pen, cold medications, etc.
    • You probably don't need to go overboard with vaccinations when coming to China, but you can make that call.
  • Student ID card (can often get discounts)
  • Copy of your passport and visa, to keep in a different place than your passport
  • Camera and charger; camera cord or card reader if you plan to upload photos while in Asia (Beware Internet cafĂ© viruses)
  • Water bottle
  • Sunglasses
  • Earplugs
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Small gifts (recommended: a few bags of American chocolate or candy, postcards from your hometown) to give if you plan to spend time with locals

  • Cell phone and charger (only if your cell phone is SIM-card compatible and you plan to buy a SIM card and use it – one person in the group could do this). 
  • Plane entertainment (a book about China, perhaps?)
  • Bible, journal
  • Deck of cards
  • Neck pillow
  • Small towel? (depends on your hostels)
  • Money belt or passport holder (When I travel, I usually keep all my important documents and money in a small, shoulder-strap purse that I never lose.)
  • Chinese phrasebook
  • HK or China guidebook

Notes:  I don't think it's worth it to buy or bring an electricity converter for such a short time, so I just check the plugs on my appliances to see if they are dual voltage.  Most electronics (like phone chargers, computer chargers, and camera chargers) are good for 100-250V, so you can use them in both China and America.  You may want to get a little adapter to help your plugs fit into Asian plugs.

I also think using your American cell phone and paying international rates while in China is a little crazy, just because it's so expensive.  Make sure you carefully check the rates before doing any texting, data use, or calling on your American cell phone in China.  If you plan to be in China a month or more, just get a Chinese cell phone and use that. 

By far the majority of the people I know who have visited China have shopped too much, packed too much, and brought too much.  Don't buy a bunch of special stuff, and take comfort in the fact that the only true essentials are money, a passport, and a plan.  Anything else you forget you can probably just buy in China or live without.

Have a wonderful trip to China! 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Last Post (?)

Welcome to my blog's House-Cooling Party.

When I moved out of my last apartment before going to China, my roommates and I had a House-Cooling Party.  We thought it was a very clever twist on the traditional housewarming party.  Three years later, it doesn't seem any less clever to me, so I'm declaring it House-Cooling Day here at Life in the Middle Kingdom.

This is (I think) my last post for this blog.  I have dreams of adding a "Going-to-China Primer" page next to the "Qufu" page, and perhaps I might compile a list of favorite posts, but with those possible exceptions, I don't plan to write any more here.

I have always approached this blog with a purpose: to keep my family and friends informed about my life in China and to help Americans understand China better.  One secondary purpose has been for me to document parts of my own China life and communicate experiences that I seldom have a chance to share in person.

Since this is by design a China blog, I don't plan to keep it up now that I'm not in China.  I never have any motivation to write about China when I'm not physically there, and I don't want to change the purpose or focus of this blog to something different.

Those of you who come here because of your interest in China should make sure to check out Seeing Red in China, a daily blog that does a great job of comprehensively examining the life of a foreigner in China and also China as a whole.  I get my China news from ZG Briefs, a weekly e-mail summary of China news, and from the Sinica podcast.  There are also zillions of online resources for Chinese current events and language learning.

Those of you who come here because of your interest in me should make sure to look me up in person now that I live in America again!  I have been here two weeks and I'm checking things off my list:
  • Phone: Check.  (Can I Have Your Number?)
  • Car:  Check.  (Note to young professionals: If you go shopping for cheap used cars with your dad in August, everyone will think you're in college... or high school.)
  • Job:  Check.  I'll be working at a brain injury rehab facility in Ankeny, starting at the beginning of September.  It will be interesting to see how well I can jump back into the world of speech pathology.

Here's the list that remins:
  • Find Roommates:  I really hope that I can miraculously get hooked up with a Christian roommate (or roommates) in the Des Moines area, especially those that share my vision of having a welcoming home for friends, internationals, & whoever.  If you know of a way to make that dream come true, please let me know.
  • Find Apartment
  • Move
  • Find Church
  • Enjoy my first Iowa fall in a long time

Now that you've all helped me cool house on my blog (not that it wasn't cool already), I hope some of you can help me warm my new home after I get settled in Ankeny.

Thanks for reading here; I've had a fantastic time writing for you.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Various Thoughts on my First Ten Days Home

A couple days after I got back to America, my sister and I went shopping.  (Three years in China is not kind to any wardrobe.)  At the mall, we played a game: "What's right with America // What's wrong with America."

The rules are simple.  Point something out.  Then say if it's what's right with America or what's wrong.  Here are a few examples:

Clearance racks:  That's what's right with America
Gigantic bucket-sized soft drinks:  That's what's wrong with America
Comfy benches to sit on:  That's what's right with America
Can't bargain:  That's what's wrong with America
Cinnabon:  That's what's right with America
The Chick-fil-a wars:  That's what's wrong with America

Normally when I get back in the summertime I'm really struck by all the differences between the U.S. and China, but this time, which is technically my fifth return from China, I've gotten used to the differences and notice them less.  I still gasp at every beautiful sunset, though.  (Clean air - that's what's right with America.)

A couple days ago I made my first real visit to the Iowa State Fair.  I've gone other times, but never really walked through and stayed awhile.  As I walked around with my friends, I started getting confused.

Deep-fried cheese:  That's what's wrong with America.  No wait - that's what's right with America!  Wrong!  Right?  Who knows!
(Deep-fried butter and deep-fried candy bars were an easier call.  I filed them under "wrong."  Funnel cakes and the pork tent were solidly under "right.")

As we walked deeper into the fairgrounds, we came upon crowds of people lined up along a police barrier around an intersection.  The overhead chairlift had been stopped, and we could see an ambulance sitting there.  We immediately thought there had been an accident (someone falling from the lift, maybe?) and turned back.  We couldn't get through anyway.

However, a little bit of questioning at the walking taco tent revealed that the crowds were waiting for Barack Obama.  Yes, the President of the U.S. was making an unscheduled stop at the fair!

I've never seen a U.S. President in person and was really excited to have the chance, and totally by coincidence.  We joined the crowds waiting patiently around the intersection.  After about a half-hour, the Presidential motorcade pulled up and two large, black tour buses parked in the intersection.

Another hour went by.  Nothing happened.  I bought an over-priced Sprite and returned to my spot behind three too-tall people blocking the view of nothing happening. 

At one point, a lady near me tried to pass a "Mitt Romney for President" sign to be held in the front.  The lady she tried to hand it up to was disgusted and handed it back, saying:

"Show some respect.  It's the President of the United States!"
"He doesn't deserve any respect.  He's crap."
"It's the office you show respect for."
"Well he doesn't respect the office!"

The first lady walked off to find a new place to display her sign.

I thought about this exchange for awhile.  Is this what's wrong with America or what's right?  I think we can all agree that the downright nastiness of political discussion in America is wrong.  (Both of those ladies sounded a little nasty.)  Then again, I just came from a country where you can't and don't say things like that about your leaders.  I think nasty free speech is more valuable by far than a false harmony.  I'm calling this one a draw in my wrong/right game, with a very slight advantage given to "right."

Here comes the anti-climax:  After we stood waiting for an hour and a half, hoping that Obama would finally emerge from his bus and say a few words, the buses simply drove away.  The local security guys unfastened the barrier ropes and the crowds streamed off in all directions.  We asked the security guys what happened, and one just shrugged his shoulders and said, "We don't know."

"Thanks for your work anyway," my friend told him.
He clapped her on the shoulder and said, "That's a long time to wait for a Democrat."

We considered that quote a fair reward for our long and fruitless wait.

It turns out that Obama had walked along the concourse for awhile, stopped for some pork and a beer, looked at the butter cow, and then gotten back in his bus.  I'm still not really sure why he didn't get out at the intersection where everyone expected him to.

A lot of people were muttering under their breath when it was clear he wasn't going to address the crowd.  "What an ass!" I heard at least one person say.  Others were annoyed that they couldn't get through: "What's everyone waiting for?"  "Obama."  "Isn't there anything better to see?"

I'm no Obama apologist, but I was a little surprised that some people couldn't set aside their partisanship and muster up some interest in hearing the leader of the free world speak in person.  (That's what's wrong with America?)

So now you know two things I've done in my ten days home.  In addition to clothes-shopping and State-Fairing, I've also gone up to visit relatives in Northeast Iowa and taken a couple trips to Des Moines.  I've been looking for jobs and will hopefully have something to report on that front soon. 

Interestingly, the most common China question I've gotten since returning to America is this one: "What American foods did you miss while in China?"  I may not be the best person to ask this question; I'm less of a food-misser than most Americans I know in China and never have a good answer to give.

In other news, I've complied my annual "Favorite Chinglish" album on Facebook.  You can view it even if you aren't a member of Facebook.  Click HERE for Amazing Chinglish!

That's all for now.  I may update this blog once more before slinking off into oblivion.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Teacher Alison

One of the nice things about teaching in the Summer Teaching Program last month is that I was observed by several different experienced teachers.  In addition to giving me feedback and suggestions about my teaching, they also did me the favor of taking some pictures of my classes.  It's the most I've ever seen myself in action as a teacher, so I thought I'd give you a peek.

Here's a Christmas lesson for a special holiday culture afternoon.  You can see on the board that I'm trying to help them differentiate Santa and Jesus, who occasionally get mixed up in the minds of those who only have a vague understanding of the origins of Christmas.

Here are a few shots from my own classroom this summer.  I love those moments when the class is engrossed in an activity and actually speaking all English. 

I have always had an interest in teaching and have loved it ever since first getting my feet wet as a teaching assistant at the University of Iowa.   I know that God has gifted me with a knack for teaching and hope that I can keep using that gift throughout my life.

Let me close with a couple all-time favorite teaching photos, taken by my friend Gloria when she visited me in Rizhao.

The Easter bunny and hang gliding, respectively.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A Lovely Last Day

I'm back in America but I'm lagging about a week behind in blogging.  If only for my own satisfaction, I plan to do a couple last posts about my time in Haiyuan and then close out the year with a big Chinglish finale.  (Stay tuned.)

Here we have my last full day in Haiyuan in all of its glorious glory.

First, a few local friends.  This was not my last day, but these ladies become important later.  They ran a dumpling shop just down the street from my hotel.  The first time I went there, we took a bunch of pictures and had a good time chatting, especially the 14-year-old working there.  I kept going back whenever I had time.  Here they are:

My last day in Haiyuan started with a closing ceremony with all of the teachers and officials.  We handed out the graduation certificates and said goodbye to our trainees.

After our closing ceremony, some of the teachers in my class invited me and my teammate to go hiking in the mountains.  I'd been praying for an opportunity like this!

It was so, so fun.  The air was delightfully fresh and scented with sage, the sky was blue, and the clouds were pleasantly plump.

Driving into the mountains

A trail we followed for awhile before going up the mountain

The climb begins.  Please note the watermelon.

Going higher.  Watermelon still in tow.

We hiked for an hour or two to reach a rock with a great view.  Watermelon-eating in progress.

Six of my trainees came out.  It was so fun to spend my last day with them!

This girl climbed in high-heeled sandals.

At our request, they took us on a long drive to see more countryside and stop in some villages.  Here is an old walled yard on a hill.

Riding some villager's tractor

Village school

Village school -- English class!  When we walked into this rural primary school in TheMiddleOfNowhere, Ningxia and saw the words, "Uncle," "Niece," and "Nephew" on the board, that's when I realized that English is truly an international language.

We stopped for a roadside picnic.  Here's the view.

Roadside picnic -- eating delicious fermented oats

Roadside picnic -- with noodles!

Village mosque

Village street

Village man

After our delightful day in the mountains, we rushed back for us foreign teachers to have a banquet with the officials.  Then I kicked my feet up in my hotel room after a very tiring month of work.

At 11:00 p.m., I heard knocking and giggling at my door.  I had no idea who it could be... someone drunk or confused, maybe?  The knocking continued and I opened the door to find...

The dumpling ladies!

The ladies from the dumpling shop heard we were leaving the next day and came after work to send me off with gifts and giggles.  I was so surprised.  I cleared a space for them on my messy bed and we hung out for awhile and took a bunch more photos.

I never told them where I was staying, but I'm sure everyone in town knew the foreigners were at the Haiyuan Hotel.  They came up to the third floor and just started knocking on doors (they woke up my teammates) until they found me.  Haha!  They brought bread for us to eat on the bus the next day (see above) and the gifts below:

Hand-embroidered insoles

Handmade pillow

And pantyhose!  Why?  Who knows!

All in all, it was a long and lovely day to end my stay in Haiyuan.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Noodles of Haiyuan County

While in Ningxia, I embarked on a quest to photograph all the different varieties of noodles I ate.  With noodles for most lunches and a few suppers as well, I had many opportunities.  Here I present the Noodles of Haiyuan County:

Hui Mian

Saozi Mian (my favorite)

Some kind of noodles

The same noodles after adding beef and sauce

Chao Mian (fried noodles)

Liang Pi (cold noodles with broth, tofu, and slivered veggies)

Some kind of rice noodle or potato noodle

Not noodles -- dumpling soup!

Homemade dumplings

A local specialty: the stuff on the left is buckwheat flour mixed with water.  You dip little pinches of it in the sauce on the right and eat.

La Mian (pulled noodles)

The price range of these dishes was about 4 RMB to 20 RMB, with most around 10 RMB ($1.50).  Now that I'm back in the U.S., I'll be looking for local recommendations to get the same thing for cheap!