Dispatches from the Middle Kingdom

Graduate Life: Looking Back on One Year of Madness

Please hire me.

One year ago I staggered across the stage of the Knapp Center, officially crossing into the uncharted waters of the “real world”. Commencement was the happiest day of my life and I felt like the Highlander being endowed with some new-found power when I shook President Maxwell’s hand. I was ecstatic at being able to smugly pronounce to the world that I, Michael B. Ujifusa, was a bonafide college graduate. That I had finished the 17 year-long academic marathon and was now statistically better off than the majority of the population. What I was most proud of was the fact that I had finally evolved into a “real” person and was now able to declare myself a young professional, capable of dominating the world through sheer will and business savvy.

Although my life-long struggle against standardized tests and term papers had finally come to an end, I knew that another fiend lurked around the corner; the soul-crushing, self-esteem destroying entity known universally as the Job Search. The tricky bastard had only become more vicious during the recession and my credentials were not exactly prestigious or notable at the time.  I feared rejection and unemployment so much that I decided I would do something different.

Moving to China was the perfect loophole for deferring the depressing reality of the “real world” for one more year. I have been technically working and developing “marketable” skills and experiences, yet my life here could not be further away from reality. I am not a real person in China. My life here could best be described as living in a strange dream, and sometimes nightmare, that I can not wake up from. The experience has been surreal and I can’t express how happy I am that I had the chance to take a year off to live in this strange place. That I was able to do something besides relegating myself to a year of relative boredom and insignificance.

(Now for the cliché commencement speech portion of this rant.)

If you fear responsibility or the doldrums of office life. If you are afraid of living a life of boredom and mediocrity.  Don’t settle for Normality. Don’t let the pressures of the graduate life stop you from continuing to learn about yourself and the world. Do something wild and erratic while you are still young. Quit your job, move to another country and live in squalor for a year. Pursue your dream of becoming a world renown voice actor. Move to Alaska and work at a fish cannery or train to become the champion of History Channel’s Full Metal Jousting. Do something before you squirt out a few kids and realize that the majority of your adult life has been spent worrying about paying rent or monthly installments on IKEA furniture. Youth and the accompanying lack of responsibility or accountability should not be wasted. You have your entire life to work, settle down and turn into your parents. Cultivating yourself and more importantly your happiness is the most important thing you should be doing in your early 20s. Furthermore there is not a better time in life to be a wandering vagabond. I’ve always found great comfort in the fact that if I wanted to, I could jam every possession I own into the Mazda and drive to Tierra del Fuego with no repercussions.

If you hate your job or are hopelessly unemployed, do something about it there are always alternatives. Embracing Normality and continuing to pad your resume or build your professional career are more prudent and “intelligent” than everything I’ve mentioned. However, when I look back on my life I will not remember the days where I was diligent and hard-working. I will remember when I lived in China for a year and knew what it felt like to be a rolling stone.


Skills Acquired on the Eastern Frontier

The Exquisite Art of Pooping Into a Hole

When I first arrived in China I avoided using a squatter for over two months. Fearing a messy accident, I reluctantly experienced my first squat toilet on the 28-hour train ride back from Beijing. My stubbornness to adapt to the squat was out of fear. You must understand that squatting requires skill, balance and preparation. If you are not in the proper position or location above the hole, stinky tragedies can occur. Furthermore, toilet paper is considered a luxury in public bathrooms. If you do not remember to bring TP, you’re taking off a sock or calling a friend. Because my apartment is equipped with a western toilet, I did not fully appreciate the squat toilet until I was traveling the back roads of Southeast Asia where western toilets are rare. Despite their apparent downfalls, the squatter has many advantages over the sitter. Public bathrooms are pretty disgusting in China and Southeast Asia. I’ve actually deferred to the squatter on Chinese trains several times. I would rather hover over a hole than expose my cheeks to god knows what gets left behind on the western toilets. There are also health benefits to the squatting position. During a Stumbleupon binge I found out that squatting instead of sitting positions your colon in a better angle for defecation. With less mess and effort, squatting may even lessen your chances of colon cancer and hemorrhoids.

Tips for the Perfect Squat

-The most important aspect of pooping into holes is placing your weight on the back of your heels. For Americans this is counter-intuitive to the traditional “catchers squat” which entails balancing on the balls of the feet.

-For beginners, squatting with a wide stance is crucial for balance and decreasing the strain on the quadriceps and shins.

-You must also be wary of pooping directly into the hole, for splash-back is always a threat.

-Pants placement is also critical, you never want them to touch the floor or be in the direct line of fire.

If you follow these simple guidelines you will be able to poop anywhere; into holes, in the great outdoors or even perched over the sunroof of a rival’s car.

Drinking Gasoline

Baijiu may be the foulest tasting liquor in the entire world. The noxious taste that bombards the palette upon contact can best be described as paint thinner that has been strained through hay for several weeks. Baijiu, which literally means “white alcohol”, is China’s interpretation of hard liquor. Most of the stuff is at least 100 proof and has a strange propensity to leave an intense burning sensation in the mouth and throat. Traditionally served at banquets and other formal affairs and celebrations, baijiu is roughly the equivalent to whiskey in America. Men mischievously proclaim “gan bei” (bottoms up) as they go around the table toasting with small ceramic cups filled to the brim with baijiu. I had the misfortune of getting into an informal drinking competition at a wedding I recently attending. To my surprise, I gulped down a double shot of the rancid concoction without vomiting or going into shock. Perhaps it was years of training at the West End or my now defunct Fraternity’s legacy as the house that almost got Everclear banned in Iowa, but the taste of baijiu has become tolerable to me. Despite my relative indifference to the taste, I still avoid it with a passion. What most people don’t realize about baijiu is that the havoc the white liquid wreaks on the body is far more painful than the actual consumption. The Baijiu Burp is an disgusting after effect of the vile liquid that occurs during the hangover. The smell of processed, festering, 100 proof liquor bubbling up from the bowels may be the most disgusting emanation that the human body can produce. Furthermore, what happens in the toilet the next day is too graphic for description… needless to say, I’m bringing several bottles back and terrorizing unsuspecting drunkards at the bar.

Eating Bones

"I will haunt you from beyond the grave"

Most of the meat and all of the fish in Guilin have bones. The Chinese believe that cooking meat with the bone in produces a higher quality and better tasting dish. Learning to eat meat in China was quite challenging at first and I would regularly stab my gums with pieces of dead chicken ribs. Undaunted by the challenge and thoroughly addicted to meat, I have become proficient at eating around the bone or if necessary through the bone. Several weeks ago I accidentally ate an entire fish, bones and all, during a late night BBQ session*. I honestly couldn’t tell at the time and I was horrified/proud after I realized what I had done. Looking into the eyes of the helpless animal that was slaughtered in order to provide you with sustenance and than proceeding to literally pick through said animals carcass takes some getting used to. This may be a PETA activists worst nightmare, but knowing exactly where your food came from because you saw it walking down the street hours earlier is much more satisfying and primal that shoving sterile, processed, pink slime down your throat.

*I was very drunk.

 Tuning Out

China is a very loud place. However, I had not experienced Loud until I began teaching 9 and 10 year olds at my second job this semester. For 6 hours every week I attempt to talk over the din of 50 Chinese children screaming bloody murder. My prepubescent disciples are absolutely out of control and I leave the school partially deaf and craving alcohol after every session. After two weeks of dealing with these pint-sized hellions, I learned an invaluable skill, tuning out that which should infuriate. While my assistant tells them to shut the fuck up in Chinese, (which is incredibly humorous especially when she starts hitting their desks with random objects) I put on my angry face, cross my arms and stare ominously at the wall. Little do they know, I’m actually zoning out and thinking about what I’ll eat for dinner or why the general management of the Minnesota Twins failed to acquire any starting pitchers from free agency during the offseason*. The Zen-like trance I fall into during these times is a welcome relief from my regular lesson plans which consist of repeatedly shouting a handful of English words at a class of deceivingly adorable banshees.

*As of today, the Minnesota Twins have the worst ERA in baseball (5.59), the worst record in baseball (6-17) and are last in the MLB with 4 quality starts. (and Jason Marquis doesn’t count as a free agency pickup)

The Killing Fields

The Khmer Rouge’s violent regime lasted from 1975-1979. During this time, 1.7-2.5 million Cambodians died because of Khmer Rouge policies, a horrifying number considering the population was only 8 million before the genocide. Anyone suspected of being an enemy of the state was murdered. Religious minorities, intellectuals and even people whose only crime was wearing glasses were  detained and executed by the Khmer Rouge.

Located outside of Phnom Penh, Choeung Ek is an old Chinese graveyard about the size of a large neighborhood park. In this relatively small area, over 18,000 people were murdered. The tour of the Choeung Ek Killing Fields was one of the most profound experiences I had in Southeast Asia. The audio tour, narrated by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge, told a short story at each predetermined spot on the map. The manner in which victims were rounded up and processed was expounded upon in detail. Then came the chilling details of how the mass executions were performed.

Blindfolded, people would be dragged into the fields in the middle of the night. Under large fluorescent lights and blaring propaganda music*, they would be beaten to death with blunt objects**. The bodies were then dumped into mass graves, some containing over 300 victims.

*The music was used to block out the screams of the victims.

** In order to save bullets, the Khmer Rouge opted to savagely bludgeon their victims to death with common farm tools.

During the audio tour, they played the same propaganda music to recreate what the final moments for the 18,000 victims at Choeung Ek may have sounded like. The music was absolutely horrifying and I was chilled to the bone as I vividly imagined myself being bludgeoned to death.

The most abhorrent abomination in Choeung Ek was the Killing Tree; a large chankiri tree that Khmer Rouge soldiers would smash babies heads against. Pol Pot believed that there could be no seeds of rebellion, not even a newborn. The paintings nearby depicting soldiers swinging babies by their feet into a tree covered in blood and pieces of brain were absolutely nauseating.

There was a communal sense of respect for those who had lost their lives at Choeung Ek. Despite their being hundreds of people touring the Fields, the place was eerily silent. Everyone was somber, struggling to comprehend how this genocide was allowed to happen.

The tyrant Pol Pot was never truly brought to justice and died an old man living under house arrest. Several of his top officials are still awaiting justice and many in Cambodia’s current government have ties to the Khmer Rouge. What I found remarkable and inspiring about the people of Cambodia is their ability to survive. It’s hard to imagine how life can continue after so much death and darkness. However, the people are happy and many are surprisingly proficient English speakers.  Before coming to China I would not have been able to find Cambodia on a map. I would have imagined it as some dangerous, hellhole that no god-fearing American should ever visit. After leaving the place, I realized I could not have been more wrong.


The War Remnants Museum: The Worst Place to Start a U-S-A Chant


In high school history classes in the United States, the Vietnam War tends to fall at the end of the semester. Because of snow days or dilly-dallying for too long on the Articles of Confederation, lessons on the Vietnam War are expedited and condensed. The limited amount I learned about the War at Wayzata High School was no more enlightening than watching Apocalypse Now.  I learned about Kent State, some sort  of theory involving dominos and hippies. Needless to say, the War Remnants Museum was a sobering experience.

Old US warplanes, helicopters and tanks surrounded the outside of the museum. The inside consisted of photographs with captions and statistics about the War. The first floor was lined with anti-US propaganda from around the world. There was widespread condemnation of our involvement in Vietnam and being on the other side of the looking glass was strange. The fact that we were the only Americans in the museum was also disconcerting. As we passed photos of US soldiers smiling while holding skulls or setting Vietnamese aflame with flamethrowers, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat guilty.

The most disturbing portion of the museum was the Agent Orange section. Agent Orange was a powerful defoliant used extensively during the War. Over twenty million gallons were sprayed in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos from 1962-1971. This vile invention was initially used to clear jungles in order to destroy hiding places for the Vietcong. However, Agent Orange was later sprayed over farms with the intent of cutting off the Vietcong’s food supply. It is estimated that the mass use of Agent Orange killed or maimed 400,000 and caused 500,000 children to be born with birth defects. The museum contained dozens of photographs of grotesquely disfigured children and fetus’. Even more disturbing is the fact that Agent Orange continues to plague Vietnam to this day. There were several children at the museum with greatly diminished mental capabilities who were confined to wheelchairs due to severe spinal deformities. This was all caused by farm fields contaminated by Agent Orange that their parents had worked in.

I always knew that Agent Orange was bad, but until our tour of the museum I never realized how devastating it truly was. I felt ashamed that the country I love, committed these atrocities. All in the name of preventing an ideology from taking hold on the other side of the world. What was it worth? If you haven’t read a history book, the Vietcong won. Vietnam is a communist country and our efforts were seemingly meaningless. I don’t mean to oversimplify the motives of invading Vietnam or make light of the sacrifices that our soldiers were legally obligated to make. However, looking back on the War, I cannot think of one justifiable reason for why we were over there for a decade. Not only did we tear apart Vietnam, we also dropped 2.5 million tons of ordinance on Laos and 2.7 million tons of ordinance on Cambodia… in secret. For reference, that is nearly 2000 pounds of explosives for every man, woman and child living in Laos at the time. Our legacy of blood and destruction lives on in Southeast Asia. There are still 80 million unexploded  bombs in Laos and it is estimated that one third of the land is contaminated with unexploded ordinance, but I digress.

I never felt any anti-American sentiment while I was in Vietnam. In fact the Vietnamese were always hospitable and most were down-right friendly. The one thing that I took away from  Vietnam is that our capability to destroy is only trumped by our capacity to forgive.

Cu Chi Tunnels: A Claustrophobic Tour Through Enemy Lines

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong successful resisted the most powerful military in the world by living underground in an enormous 250 kilometer-long system of “bunkers” and tunnels. Located two hours outside of Saigon, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a small segment of this massive hand-dug network that has been preserved by the Vietnamese government.

The tour of the tunnels gave an intimate look into the lives of the Vietcong. Our tour guide was a Vietnam War veteran who provided colorful commentary about how the Vietcong lived during the War. He showed us several different traps that had been preserved, most of which involved gruesome bamboo skewers. He also told us about a variety of guerrilla tactics used by the Vietcong to wreak havoc on US soldiers, both physically and mentally.

The most interesting/terrifying part of the tour was actually walking through the tunnels. The Vietcong were certifiably insane for living in these tiny claustrophobia-inducing tunnels for nearly two decades. The tunnels were small and uncomfortable, we all had to hunch over in order to pass through. However the worst aspect of the tunnels was the lack of oxygen. I felt like I was suffocating or seconds away from being buried alive. It took less than a minute of being in these cramped, hellishly hot tunnels for my body to go into “get-the-fuck-out-of-here” mode. How these people lived in these tunnels while being constantly shot at and bombed by B-52’s for 18 years is beyond me. A testament to their sheer will and how impossible winning the war in Vietnam really was.

What entertained me the most about the tour was the shooting range at the end. For a nominal fee, you could shoot a variety of weapons with the assistance of military personal on hand. I am sad I didn’t have the Dong* to get 10 shots out of an AK-47. What a bizarre story to tell,

“Yeah, some communist soldiers let me shoot a M-16 on the modern ruins of their former underground bastion.”

*Dong, Vietnam’s currency

Vietnam and Cambodia (In Color)

Saigon, Vietnam



Saigon, Vietnam


Mui Ne, Vietnam

Mui Ne, Vietnam

Sihanoukeville, Cambodia

Serendipity Beach

Cambodian Children

Cambodian Children

The Choeung Ek Killing Fields, Cambodia

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek

Choeung Ek

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Last Month: Abridged Version

In case anyone was wondering, I am still in fact living in China. Heres a brief recap of the last month, for anyone wondering how western holidays work in a communist country.

A “Red” Christmas

I could go into some detail about celebrating my first Christmas away from home, on the other side of the world, but that story is far too bleak and uninteresting for the common netizen. Lets just say driving around on the 24th of December and not seeing twinkle lights, garish plastic Santa’s and herds of blinged out wicker deer, dampens the spirit. What I can tell you about Christmas this year is that I sang Silent Night in front of 1000 Children with the REAL SVL and then proceeded to dance around the group clasped hand and hand with a little boy…

He asked me to dance...

On the 10th day of Christmas my true love gave to me, 1000 Chinese children wearing red stocking caps.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Vanlandegan, the fire-breathing, amazonian, shieldmaiden of Guilin.

Hong Kong Travels

The day after Christmas I left for Hong Kong to pick up an old friend from the airport.  After the “short” 14-hour train ride, Chinese customs, Hong Kong customs and the hour-long subway ride to the Wan Chai district, I arrived at the hotel. The first aspect of Hong Kong that shocked me was that I was able to order McNuggets in English. Up until this point, I had only been able to order in English at expensive restaurants in Beijing. At every other restaurant I have relied on the linguistic competency of my companions or a complex system of nonverbal communication. The second impression I had, was the impossible scale of the buildings in the southern metropolis. My camera was not able to handle the pictures I was taking. Hong Kong can best be described as an urban forest of monstrous metallic redwoods confined into a ridiculously compact space.

Photos are incapable of capturing the outrageous scale of these buildings.

The “New Year”

After a few nights in Hong Kong, Ashley and I headed to Guilin to celebrate the New Year. Let me first clarify that the Chinese do not celebrate the New Year on January 1st. They follow the lunar calendar where the Year of the Dragon officially kicks-off on Monday, January 23rd. The celebration of the Chinese New Year coincides with the Spring Festival, the biggest holiday in China that is basically Christmas combined with the 4th of July on steroids. There is expected to be 2.8 billion rail journeys  during the Spring Festival this year, but I digress. All you need to know about the night/morning of December 31st/January 1st is one thing. The Laowai’s of Guilin ate an entire goat. Memories of the rest of the night were clouded by alcohol, but I can say with some confidence that we did in fact eat one deliciously tender, slow-roasted goat.

"Et tu, Brute?"

A Week of Reflection, Still No Zelda

For the past week I have been reading my students “term papers” and entering grades. I cannot tell you how relieved I am to be done grading 180 papers for my Intercultural Communication’s class. If I have to read one more, “as we all know, when  in Rome…” I’m going to strangle someone*. But thats neither here nor there, here’s an update of the on-going Zelda saga. When my mothers package arrived with the long-awaited Zelda, prudency and intelligence momentarily left me. I plugged my Wii into what I thought was a voltage convertor, only to experience tragedy. When the Wii, which is meant for 110v, was plugged into a Chinese outlet, which is set at 220v, something very terrible happened. There was a sickening electrical pop, followed by a burning electronics smell, followed by tears. Hoping that the electricity had only fried the power cord, I had my father throw in a Wii power cord with a Christmas package he was Fedexing to China. This package was supposed to arrive on December 21st. Unfortunately Chinese customs deemed my package a threat which resulted in a whole logistical debacle that ended in the package being returned to the United States. As a result, I still have not played one minute of the Skyward Sword and I still don’t have long underwear. Why China??? WHHHYYYYYYYYY???????

*3 maybe 4 people will understand this reference

Southeast Asia HO!

But on a more positive note, today, Friday the 13th I will leave for Ho Chi Minh City via China Southeast Air. If you’re superstitious, please rub several horseshoes for me. After Vietnam I will travel to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand on a month long expedition into the unknown.

I cannot express how happy I am to be going somewhere warm. Guilin is in the darkest depths of winter. I can see my breath in my apartment and I’ve unplunged the fridge, its services are not needed at this point in the year. I still cannot believe that is was warmer in Minneapolis than it was in Guilin last Tuesday, what the fuck? But I cannot complain, while you’re returning to school or work, cursing about the lack of  a remote car starter, I’ll be in a tropical paradise, loaded on drinks garnished with exotic fruits and tiny umbrellas. But I’ve bragged enough, it’s the only way to make myself feel better about the lack of snowmen in Guangxi.

(NOTE: I will be out of contact until the middle of February. Also, if you get a call in the middle of the night from Thailand, please answer it. )