The Book Nook is Opened!

Tonight we opened the Book Nook, or the English Resource Room that your money may have helped purchase if you donated! We’ve purchased books, games, movies, a carpet, table and chairs, and chair covers (soon to be delivered) to create a space for students to practice English in a cozy atmosphere. Our school joined in and donated a few furniture items too. We have 18 student volunteers, 6 of whom are managers to be trusted with keys and a little more responsibility. The Nook will be open for student use Sundays-Fridays from 4-9.

If you made any monetary contribution to this project THANK YOU AGAIN- I wish you could see for yourselves how excited our students are about this space and the new English materials. We had so many students check out books and movies tonight we worried that the shelves would be empty. Luckily, we are still waiting on another shipment of about 75 books to arrive.



Book Nook opening night

The Book Nook’s mascot is a bookworm, named Dinda. The students thought of this by combining our names, Dina and Amanda. They say in Chinese, Dinda has a very harmonious sound to it. We’re working on getting Dinda a permanent place on these white walls. 


More pictures to come once we get our much more attractive chair covers and additional books!

Roses, thorns, and so on.

In typical fashion, I don’t update this blog until the end of some episode of my life. Today I finished teaching for the fall semester- again, the best Christmas present is finishing my work just in time for the holiday! (But I’m also strategically posting before I lose access to wordpress due to the Great FireWall )

While a lot of you know, the past months have been a lot of highs and lows. Some of the worst and best of my China experience has been packed into the Fall of 2011.

The roses first:

  1. My wonderful parents and Uncle Joe came to visit over the National Holiday in October. I finally made it to the biggest tourist attractions in China with them- hitting Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, and then returning to Lanzhou to show them the best beef noodles and Chinese Shaokao (bbq’d kabobs and bread) along the beautiful Yellow River.
  2. Dina and I have made serious headway on our Resource Room at school. With the help of lots of generous donors, we raised 2,000 USD to transform an empty room into an English library and study lounge. While shopping online for books has proved to be one of the most frustrating things in China, we are finally filling bookshelves and furnishing the room with carpets, chairs, and tables.
  3. Early this fall, I got adventurous enough to buy a bike. I never thought I’d want to be part of the bike “lane” amongst Lanzhou traffic, but turns out my sense of traffic rules and safety have become just as Chinese as my sense of personal space. Since I live quite a distance from my campus, the bike gave me a new sense of freedom and saved me lots of time commuting back and forth. I also attracted a lot of attention as an American riding a bike and tended to make lots of friends on my way home (not distracting at all when trying to navigate Chinese traffic).
  4. In November, the Lanzhou Volunteers were invited to attend an Abigail Washburn concert for free…personally, I was so excited to see an American artist in concert again, but could not believe they were coming to Lanzhou! I invited 3 of my favorite students to go, unsure of what they’d think of American folk music. They seemed to like it all, and were especially receptive to the songs Abby sung in Chinese, or coordinated with Chinese musicians. My student, Aly, was especially moved by a song she remembered her grandmother singing to her during her childhood. She commented, “Abigail sang it better…probably better than anyone could in China”. The band members have a unique interest in reaching more of an audience in “the real China”, and I was so happy to be able to share this feedback with Abby after the show. The band actually came to a bar to hang out with us volunteers that night…Abby smiled when I told her the music was touching kids from the countryside in China who never dreamed of going to an American artist’s performance before. The band (including one Mumford and Son’s member!!) were a lot of fun. They wanted to know what Peace Corps China was like before moving along their tour to Eastern Chinese cities. They even trusted us enough to guide them through the Lanzhou night market’s street food by the end of the night.

Ok, now a few thorns:

  1. November was a cold, cold month in our neighborhood. While the rest of Lanzhou got heat by November 1, we were watching ourselves breathe inside our apartments until the twentieth. The month started in a tolerable way, as we were led to believe there was a mechanical problem in the building and our heat would turn on “soon”. Well, soon wasn’t comforting anymore wearing 3 layers of clothes just to fall asleep. But the worst was when we found out the real reason for the frigid temperatures. Five families in our building were simply refusing to pay for heat, so the whole building was without. Our school told us nothing more than “maybe soon the heat will come”. They bought us space heaters powerful enough to heat our bedrooms, but we eventually opted for staying with other volunteers in the city when they told us “maybe in December”. We were pretty grumpy pandas, and our lives were transformed when the heat surprisingly clicked on early on the 20th of November.
  2. My bike was stolen. It seems like this is something every single PC Volunteer in China experiences if they have a bike, but it’s still infuriating. After two months of keeping it safely within my apartment courtyard, my guard was not surprised when I told her my bicycle was gone. (Would have been nice to know thieves were a common thing before I had chosen to park it beneath the stairwell).
  3. As token foreigners, Dina and I have been “invited” (with no option of declining) to speak at a conference about Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. Neither of us have read this book, nor have a particular interest in discussing it, but without our American faces, the event could no longer be called an International Conference. We were led to believe it would take place in November, and thought we’d escaped when December rolled around and we’d heard nothing. Low and behold…it’s the last thing hanging over our heads at the end of the semester. Next Wednesday, we’ll be representing the country that produced the legendary transcendentalist writer as if we were literary scholars. We bargained our way out of writing and presenting an essay about the book, and are instead simply presenting an introductory biography to kick off the event. I believe our school is still in search of foreigners who know more than us. Unfortunately, foreigners don’t seem to respond well to last minute invitations such as these, so the two of us will hold the responsibility of showing up and keeping the conference “international”.

And after that happens, I’ll celebrate the New Year in Lanzhou with my fellow international friends and then I’m on my way to warmer lands! I’ll be travelling with other PCV’s out of China to Vietnam and Indonesia for truly relaxing vacation time. In February I’ll return to China, visit my tutor in the city of Wuhan and end my holiday in Chengdu for Peace Corps training and time with volunteer friends. By then, I’ll be craving the land of beef noodles and my own dusty apartment. I just hope to return a little warmer, sun-tanned, and refreshed.

The holiday hustle and bustle in China is quite different- in a very confused way. There’s no understanding of mistletoe or stockings or Santa for that matter, but my second and last Christmas in China will certainly be special. Students are celebrating with performances (or parties as they say), and they make me laugh by telling me Santa and Jesus are the same person. One student’s answer to my Christmas trivia quiz told me that we hang bombs and lambs on our trees. Perhaps it was a spelling mistake meant to say bulbs and lamps (lights?), but I prefer to hold onto the image of a giant pine tree with livestock and weapons hanging in holiday spirit. Bet you haven’t seen that on the front of any Christmas card…but a winning idea? (winking at Stamplis family). 

Follow up to Congressman Coffman’s “war” against Peace Corps China

RPCV and author, Peter Hessler, says it best, backing up our work in China:

We need your help

Dear friends and family,

This year, my sitemate, Dina, and I are giving more attention to our secondary projects, and our biggest, most challenging one – an English resource and study center- is getting a lot of support from our school and has huge potential to be something great.  Our school has given us a space to use, and student interest is even exceeding our expectations for involvement.

Our vision for the resource center is to create a space where students can meet as an English learning community, and find new English materials.  The room will  be a place we organize student activities, aimed at cultural exchange and building a stronger English learning environment. Because we are only temporary community members, we will give student volunteers the opportunity to help develop, maintain, and improve the center.  We want to leave a sustainable project that will also build our students’ sense of responsibility and leadership skills.

Our university has given us full support, but our resources and funding are extremely limited.  We are applying for funding and donations through a few organizations available to Peace Corps volunteers, but with just these funds, the project can’t reach its potential.  Inspired by our friendships with students and learning the struggles they face just to be at college, we are asking the help of  supportive friends from home to make this resource room a success.

To make donating easy, Dina has set up a website with Peace Corps, who will grant us the money once our goal of $2,000 is reached. Visit the site here: to learn more about our school and our project plans, and consider helping us out with a small donation and then passing along our request to someone else who might help!  Even the smallest donations are appreciated.

If we can give the resource room a strong start, we know future volunteers, foreign teachers, and students will continue its progress once we’re gone.

Classes started today. I met my new students, who come from rural areas of Gansu Province, a place congressman, Mike Coffman, obviously never found during his visit to China.

This man called me a symbol “of the arrogance and carelessness in how our tax dollars have been handled by Congress and the Obama administration,” suggesting Peace Corps China is useless. Mr. Coffman demonstrates what a pathetic understanding Americans have of China, and is proof  we really are needed here.



Water, water, everywhere

When I first wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer, I never imagined myself living in a city of 3 million people, with internet access in my 8th floor apartment. I thought (and hoped) I would be in a small village, somewhere far away from modern luxuries, confronting the most stereotypical Peace Corps hardships (maybe living without electricity, reliable running water, killing chickens for dinner, etc.). A year into it, living the dream in none other than Lanzhou, China, it’s clear enough that these stereotypical hardships aren’t what the whole experience is about. Even us “posh corps” city volunteers have hardships of our own. Usually different hardships, but hardships nonetheless. Perhaps if I were in a village cleaning chicken blood off my hands I’d never say this, but last night I revisited my wish to be without my modest “luxuries” because I, in fact, thought it would be easier.

Let me explain, and be warned that this is not a lesson in “less is more”. It’s actually closer to “less sucks…because your neighbors have more”. I know, I know, you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, and goods- but I’m still complaining for more.

More what? More water pressure.

Ever since I moved in, the water pressure in my bathroom has been remarkably unimpressive. Sometimes I’d wait half an hour just to get a trickle of hot water from my shower. I got used to it cutting off 5 minutes later, and learned to kill time around my apartment with shampoo in my hair.  Some might say this is a problem that could be fixed by my school’s handyman Mr. Ma, but I’ve been told numerous times “it’s just because you live on the 8th (and top) floor”. Forgive me, but I see a lot of buildings taller than 8 stories…do they not have water either? And why do my 8th floor neighbors never have this problem? I stopped asking, and wrote ‘running water’ on my Christmas list last winter. Surprise, surprise, but Santa didn’t deliver.

I’ve been a patient panda, getting used to the idea of allowing a possible 2 hours for every 10 minute shower. It was still humorous and going well, until I returned from Xinjiang.  Now, the ghost taking my water in my sky high pipes is affecting all of my sinks- kitchen included (brushing my teeth there became the norm).  But the worst part about this is that I can hear all of my neighbors’ water. I hear toilets flushing and water rushing through the pipes.  Yesterday I returned covered in dust after hours of cleaning our soon-to-be English resource room at school. I waited 2 hours for water, hoping to go to sleep clean, but eventually had to give up (and threw in the towel…).  I tossed and turned at midnight, not only frustrated because my feet were disgustingly dirty, but also because of the racket coming from my neighbor’s laundry machine.

Sometimes our community loses water for hours or days, but that’s to be expected. At least then, we all suffer together. Here, I’m on my own, with the means for running water,  which often  taunt me.  From my perspective, being the only one without the convenience (and having no solution to fix it) seems less tolerable than the idea of being in a whole community of people without, who know how to deal with it. I don’t know,  some PCV would probably trade my internet for their water pail.  Seeing an upcoming winter of half-showers and frozen pipes though, it’s easy to say I’d rather suffer with company.

Who’s to say what’s more challenging, but my point is that just because I can find expensive Land O’Lakes cheese across the street, it does not make life cushy nor easy.  Mulling over the situation again, I might be able to relate my own “less sucks because your neighbors have more” feelings to many things I see in rapidly developing, and still very poor Western China, but I won’t. And if I mention my students who must pay 3 yuan to take a shower, I really sound like a wimp. That’s totally another story, and besides, as a PCV I get a little space to whine, right?  I leave it as food for thought, and this as the mere account of a dusty panda, encountering all those unforeseen challenges she signed up for.