Dispatches from the Middle Kingdom

What I’m Thankful For

On Thanksgiving I did not ponder this question as much as I have in years past. Obviously I’m thankful for, friends, family, health, etc. However, living in Guilin has made me appreciate some of the smaller things in life…

The Legend of Zelda

Words cannot describe how excited I am.

As of today, December 6th 2011, a package is en route to 15 Yucai Road, Guilin, Guangxi, P.R. China. The contents of this package include,

1x Nintendo Wii

1x Copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (with Wii Motion +)

2x Wiimotes

1x Wool pea coat

2x Bags of homemade white-chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies

Begging my mother to send me a very expensive package so I could enjoy a seemingly prepubescent pastime seemed far-fetched and immature until I read the reviews.  Immediately after reading, “Ocarina of Time has met its match”, the most pertinent question became, “How could I not have mother ship me this wondrous game?” You must understand, I think of Zelda games as works of art. I would classify them as epic, interactive movies instead of video games. Controlling a sword-wielding elf-like humanoid dressed in a green tunic has provided me with countless hours of entertainment. Further more I attribute most of my problem solving abilities (finding things, opening gates, navigating dungeons, etc.) to The Legend of Zelda. When the package arrives sometime next week, I will revert to the 13-year old version of myself until the powers of darkness have been thoroughly vanquished.

Friends: “Want to go to Cats and Rabbits tonight?”

Me: No… I’m busy… go away.”

Heating and insulation

One of the major reasons I wanted to teach in Guilin was because of its sub-tropical climate. I had heard that the weather in Guilin is quite pleasant for 7 months out of the year. Theres a few months of torrential downpours, which I can’t wait for, and a few months of winter. In my  TIC interview I made it implicitly clear that I refused to endure another mid-western winter. Kirk politely informed me that Guilin does in fact get cold during the winter. At the time I thought, “Oh sure, average highs of 48, how insufferable.”

Little did I know, heating and insulation are not universal. Furnaces, insulation, do not seem to exist in Guilin. The only way to heat my apartment is a space heater. The only way to say warm in class is to wear a coat and mittens. Driving anywhere on my moped when it gets below 40 degrees is bone-chilling. The cold itself would be tolerable if I was ever able to get warm. There is no insulation in my apartment. The walls are paper-thin, the windows are single-pained, most of the time it is waker outside than it is inside. Sweatshirts and blankets have become my de facto wardrobe. I’m essentially living in a fridge. The cold, cold has not even arrived yet. When winter truly envelops Guilin, I will be seriously regretting my decision to exclude long-underwear from my luggage.

The Internet

Posing for a stock photo is a lifelong goal.

The greatest annoyance I had during my first week in China was that I was not able to check Facebook… conveniently. How sad is that? Circumventing the Great Firewall and coming to grips with the fact that I would not have a smart phone for the duration of my stay was difficult. Having an unlimited source of information and entertainment at my fingertips was something that I took for granted in the United States. Now that I’ve conquered the Chinese router,  keeping up with the news, streaming television shows and downloading music and movies legally* is that much better.  I would have gone insane living here 20 years ago. I would have been truly disconnected from American culture and I may have even learned how to speak Chinese by now. Yes the downside of the Interweb is that it is quite distracting.  This simple formula explains my dilemma,

Boredom + Free Time + Intereweb = Reading through Fox News comments for no apparent reason.

(*in China)

Knowing English


Learning a 2nd language has always eluded me. To date the only class I have ever failed was French 3 junior year of high school. I can still remember Madame Doriac’s contemptuous voice,

“Do you know the answer Michael? … no, hahaha”.

The problem I have with foreign languages is a combination of inability and work ethic; work ethic being the most probable culprit. My language acquisition barrier is a violent cycle. The more I don’t understand the language, the more frustrated I get. The more frustrated I get, the less likely  I will actually study outside of class.

When I came to China I thought I would finally be able to break the cycle. Becoming conversational in Mandarin whilst living in a place where the only language spoken is Mandarin, seemed like a relatively easy task. From everything that I’ve learned from television and movies, if you hear enough of a language your brain will adapt and allow you to become a fluent speaker. This could not be farther from the truth. I have taken 2 months of Chinese class, 6-hours a week and I’m only now beginning to show signs of improvement. Let me clarify that this is not because Chinese is an impossible language to learn. My fellow classmates are learning Mandarin substantially faster than I am. Chinese is not as difficult as you may think. The language is incredibly logical and the classes and environment are very conducive for learning. Alas, my lax attitude towards homework combined with my cerebral cortex’s inability to comprehend Chinese grammar is stopping me from reaching my goal of becoming “Conversational in Mandarin”.

But this is all a tangent for the point I am trying to make. English is the International language. As Americans, we can basically go anywhere in the world where at least someone will know English.  Being able to speak English fluently with good pronunciation is a highly valued trait in China. From everything that my students have told me, English opens the doors for career opportunities, travel and a whole slew of other benefits. Because of my linguistic shortcomings, I am thrilled that I had the fortune of being born in the United States. God only knows where I would have ended up had I not grownup with the Lingua Franca pre-loaded into my brain, probably in a rice paddy or a slum.


6 things they don’t tell you about China

1. Pizza Huts are high dining.

You have entered the Twilight Zone when you walk into a Pizza Hut in China. Pizza Hut is basically their equivalent of P.F. Chang’s (China Bistro). Although it’s lacking in tomato sauce, the pizza is awesome, way better than the America equivalent. You can also order wine, cheesecake and a variety of other Western specialties. I recently visited a Pizza Hut in downtown Guilin. For the first time since I’ve been in China, I had to wait to get a table. Compared to other restaurants, the food is very expensive. I had to pay 50 quai($7.88!) for a personal-pan pizza, waffle fries and a coke. The place was classy, one of the nicest restaurants in Guilin, a bizarre testament to western culture.

2. Basketball is really, really popular.

Yao Ming must have had a crazy impact on the athletic culture of China. I knew basketball was fairly popular, but I had no idea it was this popular. If you have any shred of athleticism and you are male, you probably play basketball. The only reason any of my students have heard of Minnesota is because of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Kobe Bryant is a household name, the NBA is the official sponsor of the most popular beer in China and there are Derrick Rose (Adidas) commercials on Chinese television. I am flabbergasted that there aren’t more Chinese players in the NBA. On average the Chinese are smaller, but with 1.5 billion people  you would think that they would at least produce a few decent point guards. What surprised me more was that the George Town Hoyas utterly humiliated the best team in the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association).

...and then this happened.

3. Do not get into a fight, you will lose.

(EDIT: This section may contain hyperbole, China is very safe.)

Chinese people go bonkers in physical altercations. I’ve heard many horror stories about Chinese fights. Fights are never 1 on 1. If you do get in a fight, you will be fighting the person you offended and 10 of their friends. Furthermore they will not stop kicking the shit out of you when you are on the ground, unconscious. They will stick you with knives, shanks, anything with stopping power to claim victory. I once saw a 5’ 3”, 90 lb girl try to break a bottle on a table when she got in a fight with her friend over god knows what. That was one of the scarier/bizarre/funny things that I have seen in China. One of my friends put it best, the Chinese have a “nothing-to-lose” mentality when they fight.

4. The police don’t care, Good Samaritans don’t exist.

If you get into trouble in China, car accident, ect. do not expect anyone to help you. The police seem to be spread too thin and your chances of a random passerby coming to your assistance are slim to none…

...they're too busy dealing with wild boars.

There was recently a news story about a two-year old being run over twice by two separate trucks. 18 people walked by this little girl until the 19th actually moved her out of the road. I’ve heard that people are afraid to help because they do not want to be blamed for the accident. I would also presume that there’s some other sort of psychological or cultural reason for this behavior. So in summary if you do come to China, don’t injure your legs, you’ll need them to stagger to the hospital.

5. Angry Birds is a fashion statement.

Angry Birds is a way of life in the Middle Kingdom. Some may say, “That’s impossible, I take hits from the AB crackpipe all day every day.” That may be true, but at least you’re a closet junkie. Angry Birds is a fashion statement here. Those irrational birds are on t-shirts, backpacks, everywhere. The Chinese even constructed a real-life Angry Birds theme park. You may hate those little green pigs, but I guarantee you, the Chinese hate them more.

6. The Chinese are obsessed with Lady Gaga.

When I came to China I thought that I had finally escaped from Ke$ha, the worst musician of our generation, I was wrong…

The first English song I heard in China was, Your Love is my Drug. When I realized that Ke$ha was popular in China, I nearly threw up. The younger generation is madly in love with our most popular singers. For the most part these musicians are talentless, soulless, shells of human beings that are packaged by the music industry and shoved down our throats. Lady Gaga, who does have some talent and substance, is by far the most popular. “Oh my Lady Gaga!” is a popular expression amongst the youths, I’m not kidding. There are millions of  “Little Monsters” in China. I recently had the fortune of witnessing two students sing a acapella rendition of Poker Face at a recent assembly, it was life changing.

Being Japanese

Growing up as a fourth generation half-Japanese-American has been a strange and awkward journey. Among my friends I have always been designated “The Asian.” Despite my appearance, I am technically more American than many of my Caucasian friends. I know nothing of Japan, or being Asian. My Japanese father was born and raised in Minneapolis. His father was born in Worland, Wyoming. My life in the suburbs of Minneapolis was nearly identical to that of an average white kid. I never had Asians friends because I could not relate to them; I did not know how to be “Asian”. Furthermore, I do not fit the Asian stereotype. I have large, round eyes, math was my worst subject in school and I am a fairly decent driver. Aside from working at P.F. Changs, where ironically I was the only employee of Asian descent, I am as white as they get.

Example A

Being of mixed descent, I have always felt that I have belonged to two worlds. Although my peers don’t really see my as an “Asian” and any racism that I have experienced has been minimal at most, I have always felt slightly out of place. I’ve always felt a little different from my friends and neighbors. At times I’ve felt guilty for not being Asian enough, or for not knowing more about my heritage.

Since coming to China, the racial status-quo has flip-flopped. I am now surrounded by people who look like my other half. Most people can tell that I’m not from China, but I do not stand out as much as my fellow foreigners. For example, a tall blonde girl that doesn’t have the body of a middle-schooler can be spotted from 100 meters away in China. Because I have similar hair and somewhat similar facial features, I do not get gawked at as frequently. Unlike some of the other Laowai’s, people will not blatantly stare at me with their jaws dropped. A Chinese man even tried to ask me for directions one time. In all my classes my students have asked me if I know how to speak Japanese or if I know anything about Japan. The only thing I know about my Asian ancestry are the stories I’ve heard about my family during World War II.

During World War II all of my Japanese relatives were forcibly relocated to internment camps; they lost all of their property and possessions. Despite the fact that my entire family was being held captive by the United States government, my grandfather joined the 442nd Combat Regiment. The 442nd was an all-Japanese regiment which fought on the European front. They were nicknamed the “Purple Heart Battalion” for the staggering amount of causalities they incurred during their service. The 442nd remains the most decorated regiment in the history of the United States Armed Forces for its size and duration.

Two days ago, November 2nd, the 442nd and 100th (another all-Japanese unit) were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest award bestowed to civilians. Although I never had the chance to meet him, I have always been very proud of my grandfather’s service. I have always been proud to call myself an American. The story of my family enduring the internment camps so that one-day their sons, daughters and grandchildren would be able to thrive in the Land of Opportunity is all I know about my Asian ancestry. Perhaps this is why I identify as an American first and Asian second. The story of my grandfather has always been an integral part of my identity. I have always been proud to be a Japanese-American because of his example of courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. I have always felt special knowing that the legacy of the 442nd will always be part of American history…

Congressional Gold Medal



Driving in China + Video


This is my moped.

His name is Falkor II (Falkor I was wrecked in a tragic traffic light miscommunication back in the summer of ’08.)

Falkor was the dog-dragon in The Never Ending Story

I bought this bad boy for 900 quai($140.96). The engine runs well, the lights work and the horn operates when it absolutely has to. This is my primary mode of transportation in China.

There are three rules that a motorist must follow in order to survive Chinese traffic.

1. Don’t panic

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was exactly right. Do not panic. If you stay calm and maintain a sound mind, most challenges in life are manageable. Driving in Chinese traffic for the first time was terrifying. Cars, mopeds and pedestrians were everywhere. There was no law or order. I feared for my life the first time I had to cross a busy intersection. I had never operated a moped before and I had never experienced Chinese traffic. But you must not let fear and dread cloud your thoughts. As Bayaka honey collectors say, “If you have fear, you will fall.”

2. Assume that everyone is trying to kill you

The Guilinese are the best J-walkers I have ever seen. They are fearless. They will walk into the middle of the street without looking. They simply do not give a fuck.

(A passage from my inner monologue)

“Why didn’t you look both ways,

Why are you still WALKING?!?!

DEAR LORD!!!” (swerves, cusses)

I have almost gotten into several accidents because of people not paying attention where they were walking. They come at you like deer. Pedestrians are a constant threat in Guilin.

“Motorbikes”, mopeds and motorcycles, are another obstacle you must be wary. There are herds of motorbikes in the streets of Guilin. They do not have to follow the same rules as cars or buses. Motorbikes can run through red lights, drive on the wrong side of the road and on sidewalks. Like pedestrians most motorbike drivers are fearless. They will cut you off without a second thought. They will fly by you with only a foot or two of clearance.

Cars are relatively predictable. They obey traffic laws and tend to be the most cautious drivers. Buses on the other hand, are the most dangerous mechanical beasts on the asphalt Serengeti. Bus drivers are crazy. They will run you over. Because buses are never late in China, bus drivers are always in a hurry. They will not slow down if you get in their way. Unlike cars, motorbikes and pedestrians, you will most likely die if you get hit by a bus.

3. Do as the Chinese do

Because I do not know Chinese traffic laws, nor can I understand any Chinese road signs, following my fellow motorists is of the upmost importance. Oh you can run red lights? Ok! Driving on the wrong side of the road is the norm? Well you don’t say! Rule three is not nearly as important as the first two, but it expedites travel and makes life much more enjoyable. Running through red lights is loads of fun, it’s simply expected of motorbike drivers. Driving on the wrong side of the road tickles my rebellious side and can also be very convenient in certain situations. Driving in a country with Grand Theft Auto rules is beyond awesome. Going back to the authoritarian traffic laws of the United States is going to be difficult. I firmly believe that speeding is a valid form of civil disobedience. I went out of my way to speed on I-235 to show Iowans how to properly operate a motor vehicle. I like to think that my inner-Paul Walker contributed to the installation of speed cameras on I-235, you’re welcome.

Driving is not nearly as dangerous I thought it would be. Now that I have been driving for a few months, going to the gym is almost as routine as it was in the suburbs.  So mom and dad, do not fear. Even if I do get into an accident, this could always happen…

K22: A Demented Journey to the Heart of the Dragon


I could go into some length about my recent trip to Beijing. The Great Wall, the 798 Art District, Diplomats, blah blah blah. Watch a History Channel special or Google these topics if you really want to know more.

This is a tale about a mode of transportation too vile and demented for the Western world.

An insane asylum on railroad tracks, a smoked-filled sardine can.

Hard Seats, on a Chinese train….

It was the National Day holiday. We all had a week off for travel and leisure to celebrate China’s independence. After much deliberation over our destination we decided to go to Beijing, two days before our departure during one of the busiest weeks of travel in China. Because of our procrastination we were only able to procure Hard Seats, on a train that takes 28 hours to reach Beijing. The layout of a Hard Seat cabin is like this, several dozen rows with 3 seats on the left, 2 seats on the right with an aisle in between. I had the misfortune of having a seat on the left, next to the aisle.

At first the trip was not bad, there was room to stretch out and I had a decent amount of space. I even had the gall to scoff, “This train isn’t that crowded.” Then the Standers started to appear. What I did not know about the Chinese is that they are more than willing to stand in an aisle for 28 hours. As we traveled closer to Beijing, more and more people kept piling in. Because I was in the aisle, the Standers were behind me, to my right and directly in front of me. For most of the journey there were 5-6 people within 12 inches of me. The train was twice as crowded as the busiest bar I have ever been in. You had to fight just to get to the bathroom. Speaking of the bathroom, every time I got up from my seat, I would come back to find it occupied by a Stander. Instead of getting up, they would simply move over and pat their hand on the remaining half-seat that they had left me. So yeah, for a good part of the trip I was sitting 4 on a 3-person seat, with half my ass hanging out into the aisle.

Sleeping was out of the question. The two girls sitting next to me were not small. Because of this anomaly, my right shoulder was sticking out of the aisle the entire time. Whenever someone passed by they rammed their body into my shoulder, destroying any possibility of sleep. In a last ditch effort for some zzz’s I took 3 Tylenol PM’s and slammed a few shots of Chinese cough syrup. My makeshift knockout concoction only put me into a drug-induced haze, there was simply no hope.

Paranoia and dementia began to set in. Where am I? Who am I? Why am I still on this train? You begin to think about very strange things when you are locked on a train for 28 hours, 12,000 miles from your home.

My non-schizo handwriting is not much better


At around noon the next day, I stopped caring. I was sleep-deprived, dehydrated and thoroughly beaten. China had won. No amount of bitching or complaining would have changed my circumstances; I was going to be on that train for another eleven hours. At that point, a Zen-like wave of learned helplessness swept over my body. For the next eleven hours, I was a Chinese train-commuter. The rest of the trip was good, the girls to my left, who I secretly despised, offered me fruit. The women across from me finally stopped staring and I begin to smell freedom. I was able to get quite a bit of reading in, as there was absolutely nothing else to do. And my Ipod’s batteries lasted, despite the fact that I was blasting music the majority of the time to drown out the Chinese. (Thank you Steve Jobs, the Ipod is the most invaluable product I have ever owned). Despite what I may have inferred throughout this entire post, the experience was a good one that I never, ever, want to go through again. I now know the extent to which the body and mind can endure public transportation. I cannot imagine how the poor souls who bought Standing tickets managed the trip. I was spoiled with a seat and electronic stimulation, all they had was cigarettes. Beijing was well worth the 238 quai($37.31) train ride from hell and we were able to get sleepers on the way back. And for what its worth, I can now say with some conviction that I will never complain about a 4-hour car ride again.

To West End: From Michael

In China, homesickness is inevitable. You begin to miss the little things. Cold glasses of milk, watching the Minnesota Vikings lose, being able to order food without having to employ a complex system of nonverbal communication. You then begin to miss more important things, Friends, Family and Home. Home is the most subjective of the big three. Most would consider Home as one’s residence, one’s place of birth or region. In my opinion, home is anywhere you are greeted with a smile and a warm embrace. A home I had, if only for a brief moment in time, was the West End Lounge. Before you assume that I am an alcoholic, think about what Home means to you. A place where you felt that you belonged? A place that you could call your own? A Constant in a life full of transition and change?

Thanks to Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar & Grill” restaurant chain, “my bar” holds less meaning today than it did before that Country Blowhard decided to try his hand in entrepreneurship. Nevertheless, the West End Lounge really was “my bar”. So many of my friendships were cultivated within Her walls. So many good times and memories. She was the Last Stop for booze cruises. The Refuge for exiled Phi Delts. The Fickle Mistress of the Night who has been responsible for countless hangovers and bank account discrepancies. She never was the classiest bar and occasionally reeked of vomit and Townie Fart, but She had character. She had history and community. She had a certain dignity and pride that no Pig could take away from her. I miss being able to make money and take tequila shots at the same time. I miss the raging conversations about God and Politics. I miss the shots, traditions and unwritten rules that made the place so special. What I miss the most are the people who made Her great. The people that gave my college experience meaning.

Goodbyes are also inevitable. I said goodbye to the Home I grew up in. I said goodbye to Phi Delt after the House was prematurely closed down by The Man. I’ve said goodbye to too many friends, many who I will never see again. And now I say goodbye to the last place I considered home in Des Moines, the West End Lounge. Upon re-opening, She is no longer mine; She belongs to those who can still slam Lunchboxes, to those who can still order
Magic Waters, to those who are still living out their Glory Days at Drake University. Alas, all good things must come to an End; the only ones who should dwell in the past are historians. Today is a bittersweet marker in my life. The day I could not celebrate the grand re-opening of that Little Dive on the corner of 25th and University because I was too busy exploring the Eastern Frontier. I have grown old, graduated and moved onto better things but I am still sad. She gave me so much and asked for so little. I will return to “my bar” at some point. But on that day, I will return as a guest. I will return as an outsider, an “old-balls” alumni whose alleged drinking prowess can no longer keep with up with the realities of a frail, untrained liver.

My advice to all the young whipper-snappers who have taken the time to read this rant. To whichever place you call your “West End”, enjoy it while you can. As cliché as it may sound, our college years are really some of our best. Living on the other side of the world, the sad fact that I will never have another West End is apparent. No matter where I go, I know the memories I made there will be some of my best. Always remember why the West End Lounge is great. It has never been about the Drinks, the Deals or the Biddies. West End is great because of the people, so don’t fuck it up and pull a Skyler Otto. Don’t let the place regress into another Doghouse or turn into a scrub-filled wasteland. And most importantly, don’t forget to tip your bartender.

So in parting, to all who remain at Drake, drink for me. Enjoy your time at the West End Lounge while you can, you will never find better company. Perhaps I am romanticizing the bar. Perhaps I am exaggerating the greatness of the West End to justify both the time and money that I spent there. Perhaps not. To all the nonbelievers I say,


I have now been in China for four weeks. Since August 17th, the Minnesota Twins have been eliminated from the Central, Donavan McNabb has thrown for 39 yards and the Minnesota Timberwolves are still irrelevant. Despite all of these developments, I still have not taught a single class. Alas, my three-month stint of unemployment will soon end; my Teaching Cherry will be popped on September 17th.

The Accounting Scare is over. After I was informed that I would be teaching Accounting Theory, fear and dread flooded through my body. I was horrified that I would have to learn about “double-entry bookkeeping” and utterly petrified that I would have to teach this “double-entry bookkeeping” to individuals who only know English as a second language. Thankfully, after a productive meeting with my bosses/co-workers, I was able to convince them, despite their overwhelming confidence in my teaching abilities, that knowing absolutely nothing about accounting disqualified me from the position.

I will now be teaching two Intercultural Communication classes on Wednesday nights. After skimming over a few chapters of the book, the class looks like it will be a mix between public relations, anthropology and sociology. I do not know how I will manage 80 students or how I’ll be able to lecture for 80 minutes, but at least I will have a grasp on the subject matter.

I will also be teaching three Oral English classes between the hours of 8:20am and 9:50pm on Saturdays. The Sabbath will be pretty brutal but I’ll gladly sacrifice Friday Night debauchery to only work twice a week. Oral English is fairly straightforward, “make the students not speak Chinese.” Movies and group work will be utilized regularly and with enough shaming and sarcasm, I should be able to motivate my students to develop the tongue of a bonafide Anglo. Triumphs, horror stories and awkward moments are on the way, until then here is a photo of my new teacher ID.

"The name's Harrison, Michael Harrison"