Takers and Leavers

I finished “Ishmael,” Daniel Quinn’s philosophical novel this weekend. The story follows the Socratic conversations between the male narrator and a telepathic gorilla as they task themselves with understanding, “The way things became the way they are,” and then positing an action plan for saving mankind from its own destructive tendencies.


In a poorly phrased nutshell, the way things got to be the way they are today (today being a negative path leading ultimately to man’s and the rest of the world’s total annihilation due to an imbalance of resource supply and demand) starts with identifying two groups of people—Leavers and Takers.

Leavers were those early groups of Homo sapiens sapiens that lived for about three million years alongside nature in a variety of ways that didn’t tax the environment and life around them to the breaking point. Takers are those clever saboteurs who struck the earth and tilled some soil with their first insipient stab at agriculture in the Fertile Crescent around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers some 8-10,000 years ago.

From that first successful reaping of that first crop a new path, a new culture of thought and action, began. This path, using the Leaver story of Cane and Abel, Ishmael the gorilla explains, sets the stage for a war between the Agriculturists, embodied by Cane, who believe they have the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which is outlined in the novel as the sacred knowledge to know who should live and die) and the Pastoral/Hunter-Gatherer people, symbolized by Abel, that live in accordance with the earth and “in the hands of the gods.” The Takers view themselves as the masters of the earth, the pinnacle of evolution, and thus devise a myth or culture that takes them out of the natural lineup of the Community of Life, excusing them from the laws of competition and the “peace-keeping” law that all living creatures—save man now—follow.

Removing themselves from this lineup allows them to justify their push for total domination of the earth, at any cost. Species, terrain, and ways of life are wiped out as the Takers plow along, reshaping the world in the image they see fit. The problem, as any anthropologist or ecologist will tell you, is that a species’ population can only grow as large as its limiting factors will allow. When a fox population grows, the rabbits die. Then the foxes dwindle, and the rabbits come back. That’s the way it goes. But man, being the master of the earth, takes the world around him and shapes it to his will. The Takers produce more food to feed the masses, but the production just encourages even more growth, which in turn pushes the Takers to exert their god-like control over even more of the earth to sustain the larger numbers. The big problem arises when we realize that the earth, her resources and the life on her, are limited. If the Takers have destroyed their limiting factors, what’s the logical conclusion then?

Boom! Or rather…the wheezing, hoarse cry the last of us Takers will let loose as we starve to death on what will then be an empty dust ball hurtling through space.

Connecting his theory with the sciences of ecology, biology, and anthropology, Ishmael takes his student through a journey of thought that leaves the reader reeling. From a strictly cultural standpoint, the use of Biblical stories from Genesis provides a great way to conceptualize Ishmael’s theory in a linear, narrative form, but with the objective science, and back and forth dialogue between the gorilla and the narrator the novel transforms, or evolves, into a book very difficult to put down. Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” and many others have looked at the conflicts that emerge when a group that sees itself as “civilized” clashes with a perceived, “primitive” group (those would be Takers and Leavers, in the vernacular of “Ishmael”). These novels depict this all out war as an inevitability that stems from an inherent flaw in man. “Ishmael” weaves this battle into the design of his theory well, but he does something with it. Unlike most doomsdayers or pessimists, the theory does not necessarily dictate that man is damned or inherently deficient. It does offer up a solution by pointing the reader back in the direction of the Leavers, those that lived within the Community of Life for three million years, and, at least in some remote places like jungles and deserts, still do. Hope for the Takers, Ishmael teaches, is in relinquishing the title of master of the earth, and reclaiming a place in the lineup of Life.

I didn’t mean to write a mini-book report here. Seriously. I just wanted to think, and for me, thinking usually involves writing. There are plenty of elements worth analyzing such as why Ishmael is a gorilla, what the narrator’s next steps may be, what really is the meaning of the ambiguous sign on the wall of Ishmael’s apartment, and I’m sure we’ll have our students cogitate on all these and more (oh, I didn’t mention: I read this in preparation for teaching it with a history and English teacher I work with). For me, though, I just wanted to work my head around this book with a little rambling. This novel didn’t come out of left field with a whammy, but it is the first one that followed the line of inquiry long enough to point out something new to me. Much like Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” this novel’s dialogue works like a spell, capturing my mind and reshaping certain thoughts—making some appear and others vanish. Even Dan Brown’s new one, “Inferno,” tackles the idea of overpopulation, but his is amped up to the nth degree and a bit darker.

The numbers in the book surprised me, too. At one point Ishmael says there were about 3 Billion people on the earth. In a science class that I work in the students watched an old Bill Nye video from the late 90s, and the Science Guy said there were about 5 Billion of us. About a year ago, I read that we are right around 7 Billion. These numbers, and the speed at which they’re growing, are freaky.

Living in China, one of the most densely populated places on this rock, I can’t help but think about the futures portended by “Ishmael,” “Inferno,” and good old fashion Mathematics. The scales here are so imbalanced it’s not even funny. People mountain, people sea in one place, and then tumble weeds in the next. China has entire cities that are uninhabited, they have complexes with beautiful exteriors and vacant interiors, and they seem to have a near-phobic reaction to open land in close proximity to their cities. It’s as though they can’t abide grass and hills when perfectly good apartment buildings could be sitting there.

Just the other day Xiao Ming and I were driving around Jinshitan, and all along the perimeter of the town vast numbers of empty buildings loomed like mausoleums that even the dead would rather avoid. Between Dalian and Kai Fa Qu there is an entire neighborhood that seems to be populated by three street sweepers who idle their time away by snaring errant pieces of litter that blow into their turf.

All my life I’ve been a Taker, but there have been occasions when I’ve dreamed that I was not. It’s more than rebuking money, materialism, control and civilization, it’s about recognizing the imbalance all around us and realizing that, shit, this isn’t what we had planned.

None of these thoughts are new, and even “Ishmael,” wasn’t the first or the tenth to lay it all out. Even Lao Zi, the founder of Taoism in China caught on to the idea. He preached about the principles of Wu Wei, or in English, the Art of Inaction.  He used this idea broadly, but there are strong similarities between it and some of Ishmael’s thoughts. The way ambition leads to so many negative consequences can be seen as the Takers enacting their god-like powers over the earth. A quote from the Tao Te Ching goes, “Try to change it and you will ruin it. Try to hold it and you will lose it.” That sounds a lot like Takers screwing things up to me.

I’m excited about teaching this novel, and seeing how the students react to it and its ideas. I can’t wait for our own Socratic discussions about the topics within its pages, and listening to their points of view.

Love, Lanterns, and Lechery

Friday was Valentine’s Day and Lantern Festival. Apparently this auspicious day happens but once every nineteen years when the dates align on the Lunar and Solar calendars. People get married, lovers go out gallivanting, kids eat sticky rice balls called Tang Yuan and Yuan Xiao, people split time between their special someone and their mom and dad, and then in the evening send paper lanterns floating into the heavens, trying to secure good fortune from their ancestors.

One of the stories goes—surprised that there’s a story…anyone? Didn’t think so—that way back during the Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history, around 220-280 A.D., there was a great military tactician known as Zhu Ge Liang, or by his formal name, Kong Ming, who launched lanterns into the sky in order to get messages across to his people. Men in ancient China had two names they were known by: their “ming” or common name and the “zi” which was their formal name they received when they were twenty, but in modern Mandarin we think of “Mingzi” just as given name. Girls only got the “zi” when they were fifteen, the age of marriage. Anyway, that’s why the lanterns today are known as Kong Ming Deng, after his “Zi.”

Then, during the Qing Dynasty there’s a story about how the people of a village let lanterns fly to signal that bandits had left and the village was safe. As the years passed, traditions evolved and that’s why folks launch them still.

Ah, yes. The ancient Chinese tradition of huddling around the Sacred Golden Arches and engaging in floating arson bombs.
Ah, yes. The ancient Chinese tradition of huddling around the Sacred Golden Arches and launching floating arson bombs.
"I hope it lands on my ex."
“I hope it lands on my ex.”
Ancestors, give my vengeance wings.
Ancestors, give my vengeance wings.


Then, during the Qing Dynasty there’s a story about how the people of a village let lanterns fly to signal that bandits had left and the village was safe. As the years passed, traditions evolved and that’s why folks launch them still.

And we all know the story of the Western holiday, Valentine’s Day, right? On a cold February 14 in Chicago back in 1929 a group of Al Capone’s men, two dressed as cops, gunned down seven of his competition’s men, in broad daylight, thus prompting card companies to adopt the color red and a Tommy-gun toting cherub in a fedora as their mascot (Chicagotribune.com, except for the cherub part…).

(Not exactly the Valentine Card I was expecting…


Well…It may have been inspired by other things, too…

Enough of history.

Xiao Ming showed me some jokes that are circulating the Chinese net on this auspicious day. I’ve written before about the “Second Wives” of Chinese business men (here: https://ourchinaexperiment.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/women-wives-and-wandering-willys/ ), but I’m not the only one. In China, Xiao Sans and their Sugar Daddies are joked about openly, or at least quasi-openly since it’s on the web. Here are two jokes, translated by Xiao Ming and me.

再过几天就是小三和正房抢一个男人的日子,是多少地下党浮出水面的日子,是玫瑰花升值的日子,更是大造活人的好日子!下午四点,花店的老板笑了;傍晚六 点,饭店的老板笑了;晚九点,夜总会经理笑了;子夜,宾馆的老板笑了;明天,药店的老板笑了;一月后,妇科医院医生护士都笑了。/憨笑/憨笑/憨笑提前祝 大家情人节快乐!

情人节时间安排表:          7:00偷偷起床,躲到洗手间给情人发个短信          7:30给老婆煮好面条          8:00去市场买菜,再买100支玫瑰          9:00给情人送99支玫瑰          9:30回家给老婆1支玫瑰          11:00做中饭          12:00陪父母过元宵节          17:00陪情人去吃西餐,简单亲热一下          19:00约老婆到附近餐厅吃饭,看场电影          22:00给老婆倒杯水,加5片安眠药,然后陪老婆睡觉          24:00悄悄起床          0:30到情人家,严重亲热一下          8:00回到家给老婆做早点然后喊老婆起床吃饭!这就过去了!

First one: In two day, xiao sans and wives will fight for the same guy. Secrets will be revealed, roses double or triple in price, and many more people will be produced. At 4 pm managers of flower stores will smile. At 6 pm restaurant managers will smile. At 9 pm bar managers will smile. At midnight hotel managers will smile. And the next day pharmacy managers will smile.

Second: Schedule For Valentine’s Day

7 am: Send text to lover while in shower.

7:30 am: Make wife breakfast.

8:00 So to store, buy 100 roses.
9:00 Give 99 roses to lover.
9:30 Back home give one rose to wife.
11:00 Make lunch.
12:00 Accompany parents for lantern’s day.
17:00 Western restaurant with lover.
19:00 Take wife to a restaurant nearby home then watch movie.
22:00 Give wife a cup of water with 5 sleeping pills inside, go to bed.
24:00 Get up quietly.
0:30 Home of lover, get it on.
8:00 Next day back home, make breakfast wake up wife.

Whoever you’re spending your time with, take care and have fun this weekend.

South to Cambodia

Then we had a week and a half off for Chinese Spring Festival. Xiao Ming and I took off right after school that last day and headed to the airport, me changing in the car. We spent a day in Shanghai and visited the museum.

It was the vacation that almost didn’t happen, though.

About a week before the trip I filled out forms online for the E-visa, and I got mine within three days. Xiao Ming waited a bit longer, and by the time we were at the airport in Shanghai she still hadn’t received her visa.

Without it she couldn’t leave the country, and we would miss our flight. All day long I had been on her about checking her mail. Then I had her contact them again. Still, we were in line, ready to check in, when I thought to ask if she’d checked her spam folder.

There it was, a digital e-visa. But the woman behind the ticket counter wasn’t havin’ any of that tomfoolery. She told Xiao Ming she needed to go down stairs and print it out and bring it back before she’d check us in.

That ordeal took about forty minutes, and by the time we got through security and ran to the gate we were the last ones to board. We laughed it off with weary smiles. If I hadn’t had nagged her so much we wouldn’t have gotten a seat on the flight.

Then off to Phnom Penh we went.

We checked out some temples, a museum, and walked around the city during the midday heat long enough to get a bit snarky with each other before finding a few good restaurants along the river. Then, during the evening on the second night, we stumbled upon the…bar street.

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After watching how this boy handled these birds I couldn't stop thinking about the scene from Dumb And Dumber...Duct Taped bird and a blind boy...
After watching how this boy handled these birds I couldn’t stop thinking about the scene from Dumb And Dumber…Duct Taped bird and a blind boy…

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I thought five on a scooter was rough, but a few minutes after I took this photo I saw a family of seven on one of these!
I thought five on a scooter was rough, but a few minutes after I took this photo I saw a family of seven on one of these!

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Neon-lit bar fronts lined the narrow lane, and petite, cosmetically rejuvenated gals of all ages dangled themselves around the entrances, calling out to passersby with their whistles and smiles, hellos and cleavage. Xiao Ming and I trotted down this street once before doubling back and walking straight into what looked like a vampire lair. The VVIP Bar door opened into a dimly lit, air-conditioned interior with a long bar running back into the place, and about fifteen hookers smiling and looking at us.

The scene felt mildly comical to me, but Xiao Ming freaked. She pulled us back out and was half way up the street, speedwalking toward the river. When I caught up to her, she admitted that the girls looked like vampires and freaked her out. I suggested we grab some dinner to chill for a bit. We found a place and as we finished she was ready to try again.

We strolled right back to the same bar, walked in and drank two beers, completely unmolested by the vampire hookers. In fact, two of them just kept staring at us while we talked and laughed the whole time.

Now, before you say, “How do you know they were hookers,” let me just say that it was very obvious that they held a job, but also moonlighted, ok.

Inspired, Xiao Ming suggested that we try another bar—the raunchiest we could find. I was to go in alone for a few minutes and then she’d come in after, just to see how the girls acted around a young, lone male.

As soon as I stepped into the next bar, Oasis, three girls immediately leapt to their feet and ushered me to a stool at the bar. Two sat beside me and one placed her hand on my lower back, keeping it there as she handed me the menu and smiled at me. Totally aware of the situation, I silently removed her hand, ignored the two girls on either side of me, and studiously analyzed the beer list.

The hand girl gave the other two a strange look, and then disappeared. The one on my right, the only attractive one in the joint, kept trying to slide her knee up and down my thigh. She asked me a few times what my name was, and, unable to get her to say the right one, I settled on something that sounded like Joelny. The other one asked the same question. I simply told her it wasn’t important. I ordered an Angkor beer and then moved my leg, for the second time, away from the cute one’s friendly knee.

Due, apparently, to her highly tuned senses, she could tell I was not playing the part of a guy on the prowl. She asked what was wrong and I politely said that all was good. She didn’t press the matter. Instead, she and the girl on my left leaned closer to me and touch my shoulder. Just for something to do, I guess, because that’s all that happened. I stood up, completely surprising them, and surveyed the rest of the bar.

One other Western traveler sat behind me, groping two girls and speaking a language I couldn’t understand. The girls seemed eager enough, but then I saw the Cambodian business guy on the couch in the corner. He had his hand down the front of one girl’s shirt, and the other two around him rolled their eyes and just stared on. The looks on their faces held both revulsion and determination.

“Where you going?”

“I’m moving,” I said.

The girl then nodded, knowingly. She pointed to the back.

“Want to go in the back?”


It was after three steps that I realized that, no, no I do not want to go in the back. What I thought was just a larger area at the back of the bar turned out to be just a private room with a couch and no light. I about-faced and walked back to the bar just as Xiao Ming walked in smiling.

The girls left us alone once they realized we were together, and the two of us enjoyed another beer. Before we left though, we got to see the whole staff stand on the bar and dance to Cambodian rap that I hope I never hear again.

Then, after a few days in Cambodia’s capital, and after I had acclimated to the temperature change, we took a seven hour bus ride to Siem Reap in the north, bound for the famous Angkor Wat temples and beautiful natural scenery.

A few thoughts that occurred to me during this week-long trip:

I know next to nothing about Cambodian history. Aside from being a French protectorate for a while and home to jungles that hid majestic ruins for years, the place and its culture was entirely a mystery to me.

The language is in no way decipherable to me, nor would it reveal its grammatical gems upon further study—it’s just a language I could never pick up, I’m sure.

Living in China for the last two years and spending RMB did not make it easy for me to flip to using USD and Cambodian money, both of which are widely accepted there. Though the dollar is about 4,000 Cambodian Riels, the prices in the two cities we spent the most time reflect this leaning toward the US buck. Things that most Americans would stop and exclaim were so cheap seemed a bit steep for me. I’m not a cheapskate or anything, but still, the place was very comparable to Chinese prices—something I wasn’t necessarily prepared for.

Speaking Chinese with Xiao Ming on the sly to avoid eavesdroppers did not work as there were many who understood both English and Chinese. And though she can speak French, I cannot—but that wouldn’t have mattered either because there were a surprising number of French speakers as well.

We got into Siem Reap around seven-thirty and, after conferring with the bus station’s map, let an impatient Tuk Tuk driver take us to the center of the city, on one side of the river. We were a day early, but we figured that didn’t matter. After all, Siem Reap was chalk full of hostels and hotels—we were bound to find a place to sleep for the night easily enough.

On one hand, I was completely wrong. On the other hand, we got to see a lot of the city by walking around for 45 minutes looking for a place. Eventually, we managed to secure the last room in a hotel. A minute after we checked in, a group came by asking for a bed and the hotel explained we got the last room available. Yeah, we got lucky.

The next day we found our way across the river and to the Siem Reap Hostel. Check in was at two, so we decided to leave our stuff and take a ride to the Floating Village.

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The next few days we saw all the temples in the area. After that first day without sunscreen my neck was nice and red. It was then that I realized why so many wore those loose scarves even in the heat. I bought two and let my neck turn from lobster red back to a more human tone.

Everywhere we went Tuk Tuk drivers called out to us, wanting to know if we needed a ride today or tomorrow. This constant barrage of questioning prompted me to buy a shirt that proclaimed, “No Tuk Tuk today and tomorrow.”

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These guys were right on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, just hanging out in the jungle around the temple.
These guys were right on the eastern side of Angkor Wat, just hanging out in the jungle around the temple.

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Even my uncle Larry came for a visit!
Even my uncle Larry came for a visit!

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Ok...I do feel bad about this. I'm not sure what made me climb up this centuries-old temple....Sorry, History.
Ok…I do feel bad about this. I’m not sure what made me climb up this centuries-old temple….Sorry, History.

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There are many temples in the area. More than most realize. And we saw all of them. Long three days. But very much worth it.
There are many temples in the area. More than most realize. And we saw all of them. Long three days. But very much worth it.

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I heard a guy say there are two types of trees in these temples: good ones and bad ones. The good ones help keep the walls intact and the bad ones crumble them...
I heard a guy say there are two types of trees in these temples: good ones and bad ones. The good ones help keep the walls intact and the bad ones crumble them…

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We actually went to Angkor Wat twice. Once in the morning and once during sunset. We wanted to see what it looked like from the top tower in the evening since the line to go up there was too long during the day. Unfortunately, the tower closed at 5 and we got there around 6. As we walked around the perimeter though we saw five guards all huddled together playing poker. One looked at us and told us if we wanted to go to the top we needed to give him ten dollars each.

Annoyed, I told him that was ridiculous because that money would go right in his pocket. I asked him to lower the price, but he wasn’t having it. So we kept walking. And as we rounded the corner and disappeared from their eyesight, we formed a plan. If all the guards were there…At that time of the day, most tourists were actually outside of the temple. We could only see a handful of visitors, and not one guard. We hopped the wooden gate and crawled up the steep stone steps, rushing to the top before anyone could see us. Once at the top, we snapped pictures, and then began to hurry down. We stopped when we realized what we’d started, though. Those other tourist, they were now climbing up, too!

About five of us stood at the top, illegally taking pictures at Angkor Wat. After a few minutes one of the guards did catch us, and kept yelling that we all needed to pay two dollars. I told him that he needed to talk with his boys in the back who were charging ten each. He said he didn’t know anything about that. While he wrangled the others who had gone up, Xiao Ming and I vanished in the temple without shelling out four bucks. We laughed the whole way, surprised that we were the two brave enough to do what everyone else was apparently thinking.

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Looking down from our illegal perch at the top...
Looking down from our illegal perch at the top…

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Xiao Ming found the Cambodian’s accented English hilarious, and took to imitating them at the most inconvenient times. Everything they said sounded like a question, the end of the sentence rising more than necessary. I had to tell her to stop a few times when she did it around crowds of Cambodians just in case they didn’t take kindly to a skinny Chinese girl mocking them.

We spent a week wandering around Siem Reap and seeing the sights, and only once had to stay at another hostel for a night when the Siem Reap Hostel ran out of rooms. On that last day, we took a drive out to Kulen Mountain and hiked through a temple and found our way to a beautiful waterfall.

Phnom Kulen is a sacred mountain plateau on which Jayavarman II as the first independent king founded the Angkorian monarchy and Khmer Empire in 802 AD. Also the Siem Reap River originates from Phnom Kulen. Nowadays Phnom Kulen is a National Park and is with its waterfalls, the Siem Reap River and forest a popular recreation side for the Khmers. Especially at the weekend or during holidays it is a very popular destination for a refreshing swim in the waterfalls or a picnic on the riverbanks. (globaltravelmate.com)

It was a blast swimming in the water and jumping around off the rocks. About ten minutes after I got dried off a whole group of people showed up. Some tourists and even a group from a local orphanage came out and had fun. It was a good way to bid farewell to our vacation.

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Once at the Siem Reap International Airport, I changed back into jeans and a dark shirt. We were flying into Guangzhou, a much colder destination than we were leaving. One night in a Youth Hostel there and we were back in Dalian that Sunday afternoon.

Best of all, going from the freezing air of Harbin down to the tropical climate of Cambodia within days of each other didn’t even give me the sniffles. No, it was coming back to Dalian that did that. The next day at work I fought a runny nose, and endured shorts and t-shirt withdrawal symptoms.


North to Harbin

Russian, Chinese, French, and Cambodian forces all colluded spectacularly with each other this past month in a Herculean geographical effort to give me a cold.

Once every year, in the far north, above the wall where white walkers roam, in the Chinese city of Harbin, there is a Snow and Ice Festival that garners much national and international attention (http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/03/travel/harbin-ice-festival-2014/index.html, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/harbin-international-ice-and-snow-festival/2014/01/03/8cf808d2-7491-11e3-9389-09ef9944065e_gallery.html). Years ago, in this remote municipality of frigid air and freakishly low temperatures the denizens of this wintry wasteland huddled together and, inspired either by Russian alcohol or the alluring promise of frostbite, decided that they should shape and mold the snow surrounding them into specters of objects less…snowy. Well, that’s one interpretation, I suppose.





Xiao Ming and I hopped on the high speed train right after work on that Friday and then spent the weekend wandering around the icy capital of the Heilongjiang province. A large group of teachers went as well, but we kept pretty much to ourselves and traversed the northern city on our own (not because we’re anti-social! Our schedules that weekend just didn’t line up with the other group’s).










Brrrr.....My face froze like that and I had a goofy smile until two pm the next day....
Brrrr…..My face froze like that and I had a goofy smile until two pm the next day….















Hello....not creepy at all.
Hello….not creepy at all.



On the train ride up and back though, collectively about 9 hours, I read and annotated two booklets I put together on modern Chinese history 1830s-1930s. The first one was about a hundred pages and the second one nearly two hundred. Over the last two and a half years I’ve availed myself of historical and cultural information regarding the Middle Kingdom, and it’s helped me in the classroom, but I actually put my knowledge to use “for real” by teaching a history class recently. In order to not sound like an idiot I reread everything I could get my hands on, and put together a 50 slide power point with a lot of photos and tidbits that allowed me to take more than a hundred years and consolidate it into a two-part presentation. We got through the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Unequal Treaties, and ran right up to the XinHai Revolution, but 1911-1937 had to be left for the second session of the class. Gotta’ say, I thoroughly enjoyed putting the presentation together and presenting it. History and culture are two passions of mine.







Once back from Harbin, we had two days of school. Going from the cold of the north back to Dalian wasn’t all that rough, but we were heading to Cambodia in less than seventy-two hours. I just hoped my body wouldn’t mutiny against me…