IMG_2413Grandma, 2012

I want to share a fun memory. I lived on an island of the Yangtze river for 6 months in 2012. The little island is called Yangzhong, which translated literally means middle of the Yangtze river. Anyway, everyday I would pass this underground shopping complex, but for some reason I didn’t go in for a while. Eventually, probably when I realized there were fun things to look at in there, I went in and had the time of my life just looking at all the vendors and booths. The woman in the pictures above was always sitting on the steps outside. She sold these traditional handmade baby shoes for pennies. The first time I saw her I was fascinated by her. I couldn’t really imagine myself sitting outside all day every day as a 70 year old. At that time I didn’t speak any Chinese beyond simple greetings, but it’s easy to make friends anywhere with a smile. This woman and I became best friends. Every evening I would come sit by her and drum up a little business because of my skin color, but mostly we would just chat. She would ask me questions that I never understood and I would tell her about my day and show her pictures of my family. We often brought snacks to enjoy together while we were hanging out. Eventually the day came for me to return to America. I said goodbye to her, but I don’t think she understood. I never thought I would see her again. What were the odds of me ever visiting this tiny island again?

Flash forward to 2015.

A teaching opportunity came available in Yangzhong and I jumped at the chance. I had spent the past 2 years in Taiwan and learning Chinese. My first day back in the city I jumped on a bus and came to see this woman whose name I didn’t know. Guess what, I found her! It was as if no time had passed. She was sitting on the steps selling her shoes as usual. When I approached her I said, “Grandma, do you remember me?”. She looked up, smiled, and said “long time no see. Where did you run off to?” And just like that we were best friends again. I asked what I should call her and she looked at me like I was crazy and said “Grandma, of course.” I told her about my time in Taiwan and adventures from the past couple years and asked about her life. As it turns out she is Miao minority, which means she belongs to the very small population of Hmong living in China. She told me all about her kids and grandkids. It was so nice to actually be able to communicate with her.

fullsizeoutput_2eGrandma, 2015

I tell this story for a few reasons. One, it’s just cute. But more importantly, to illustrate the fact that it is possible to truly be friends with the people we meet traveling. We don’t just have to be strangers passing through. These are the little stories and relationships that are hard to describe, but make for the fondest memories.



18 Truths Learned from Kung Fu Panda

  1. Shifu means master
  2. Wugui means turtle
  3. Filial piety is a huge part of Confucianism
  4. Parents make decisions for the kids, sometimes even their careers and spouses
  5. In the North noodles are eaten for almost every meal
  6. Pandas are adorable
  7. Noodle/food carts are everywhere and you should eat at them
  8. Weird names like “special ingredient soup” are normal
  9. In mom and pop shops bowls line the walls
  10. There are a million kinds of dumplings and all of them are amazing
  11. Not all Chinese people use chopsticks, but the ones who do have incredible skills
  12. Like the Five, some children are sent to boarding schools and training centers to learn a skill or trade
  13. Pandas can eat and eat and eat forever
  14. The temple where Master Wugui lives is authentic
  15. The architecture of the village is also correct
  16. Bluntness is part of the culture
  17. Climbing a billion stairs to get anywhere is a real part of life
  18. The cool mountains where the Five fight Tai Lung are similar to Zhangjiajie

Touchy Subjects

(This post is going to be heavy, but don’t let it scare you. As you can see above, even Chinese officials are stoked to hang out with visitors.)

In the spirit of full disclosure, the descriptions of the events and situations below are super watered down versions. Politics, economics, history, and culture play roles in current events that I still can’t understand completely.

Falun Gong – 

This is by far the most serious subject to avoid. Falun Gong was started in the 90s as a yoga/meditation business, but quickly grew into a spiritual organization. Falun Gong had the support of the government when they were just teaching physical health and happiness. However, when a spiritual aspect was added and the group gained popularity, the government withdrew it’s approval. Despite the withdrawal of government sanction, the group’s membership grew into tens of thousands. Technically Communism is the only religion approved for practice in China, so this new “cult” posed a huge threat by teaching emotional freedom and other illogical ideology. It was at this point Chinese officials began persecuting the group members in order to irradiate their ways of thinking. It’s not spoken of, but there are labor and re-indoctrination camps dedicated to the detention and reform of Falun Gong members. I’m not going to get into what goes on in these camps. Talking and asking questions about any religion, especially Falun Gong, should be strictly avoided. Don’t even google it or email about it while you’re on Chinese soil.

Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Tibet – 

The situation for all three of these territories is vaguely similar. During the Qing Dynasty China owned a huge chunk of Asia. As seen in the maps below.  Through war and political dissension, they lost some ground, that they are still trying to reclaim. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and many islands in the South China sea were once part of China. They’re still Chinese territory as far as the current government is concerned.

Qing Dynasty Map –Qing_Empire_circa_1820_EN.svg

Current Map of China – chinamap

Hong Kong was the property of Britain for about 150 years. During that time Hong Kong was transformed from a fishing island to one of the biggest international hubs in Asia. English and Cantonese were taught in school while Mandarin became the official language of Mainland China. Democracy was taught and implemented. So Hong Kong has it’s own legal system, which allows freedom of speech and assembly. In 1997, Hong Kong was turned back over to Mainland Chinese control. As you might imagine, there has been a significant amount of conflict since that time. In the past few years there have been peace protests and riots conducted mostly by college students. Per the turnover agreement, China can’t do much to stop the riots, but that still doesn’t mean they have to listen to the will of the people. It’s a good topic to avoid.

Internet Censoring – 

I’m sure that most Chinese nationals are aware that their internet, and all media really, is censored, but you shouldn’t bring it up. This is another good reason to stay off your VPN in public.

Hot Pot

Okay guys, you need to know about hot pot. It is one of the most delicious foods China has to offer. I guess, it’s not really a food, but a style of cooking the food. Every restaurant does it their own way, but here’s basically how it works. You go into the restaurant and order a base for your soup. The picture above shows a mild broth and a spicy broth. Next, you’ll order what you want to put in your soup; meats, sea food, vegetables, eggs, or dumplings. Then, you figure out what kind of sauce you want. Luckily you can usually experiment with the sauces to see what you like. I like the shallot base with garlic and sesame seeds mixed in. Your food will be served on trays throughout the meal. Once everything has been delivered, you cook it by pouring it into the soup. After a few minutes you pull it out, piece by piece, and eat it on top of rice and dipped in sauce. It’s amazing.

A friend recently introduced me to the HaiDiLao hot pot chain. Their website is really fun and will show you more of the hot pot experience. Here is the English version and here is the Chinese version.

Sometimes there will just be one pot for the whole table. Other times each person has their individual pot. Either way, if you like soup, you’ll be a happy camper!

Scams to Avoid

You’ve probably heard horror stories about people being scammed in China. I’m sure most of them are true. To get started, click here to see the comprehensive list Clever Travel Companion put together of the 40 most common scams around the world. China Mike also put together an awesome list specifically for China.

I’ll just highlight a few that are particularly popular in China.

  1. Black taxis: they’re not literally black cars, just unregistered. They usually will take you to your destination, but they’ll charge you 10x what you would have paid a regular taxi. Taxis in China have to be registered and in each train station there is a specific area they are allowed to pick up passengers. The best way to avoid black taxis is to find the taxi line and stay in it until it’s your turn. While you’re waiting in line a lot of people will come up to you and ask you to to take their taxi. If you go with them they’ll take you to a regular parking lot and put you in their personal car, this situation is best to be avoided for obvious reasons.
  2. Art Scams: an “art student” might approach you on the street and invite you to an art showing. If you go with them you’ll be pressured to pay an entrance fee or purchase a very expensive knock off print.
  3. Tea or Lunch Invitations: Young people might approach you on the street and ask you to go to lunch or tea with them, their treat. They’ll take you to a super expensive place and duck out just before the bill comes.
  4. Knock Offs: There are a billion places to buy cheap merchandise, which is fine to buy, but make sure that you don’t pay American prices for whatever it is.

All of these things being said, Chinese people are so kind and you really can make friends  with people on the streets. Just keep your wits about you when you’re meeting new people. If they pressure you to go somewhere with them it might be best to politely decline.

A story illustrating a scam:IMG_5927 My sisters and I were visiting the Bund in Shanghai. Two college students approached us and made small talk in English for a few minutes. Eventually they asked us to go have dinner with them. We declined, but they pressed pretty hard and I began to get suspicious. Other people would have been a little embarrassed and moved on to another topic of conversation. Luckily, I understand Chinese so I understood when they said “they aren’t coming, next ones.”

A story illustrating kind-hearted people: 10891511_10153189878770733_8772654989348924322_n

Once I went to Chengdu for a weekend trip. I took a long distance bus that took me to the Leshan Buddha. It was about a 2 hour ride, but I chose the bus over the train because the bus would take me straight to the Leshan Mountain. Anyway, I wandered around the beautiful mountain for hours and had a great time. During my wanderings I ran into the same group of people 3 times. After the third time meeting they insisted on taking me to lunch with them. After lunch they asked what my plans were and it turned out we were all going back to Chengdu. They insisted on traveling together and I didn’t see any harm. But they had train tickets and I had planned on taking the bus so I didn’t have my passport with me. They told me they would take care of me like I was part of their family. I told them I felt a little bad that they were going to so much trouble for me, but they said if their relative were traveling in America I would show the shame kindness so I shouldn’t worry. With some expert bargaining they got me onto a train and eventually dropped me off safely at my hostel.

The moral of the story is that, while it is important to be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts, it is entirely common to meet kind and generous people. Don’t be so suspicious that you miss out on meeting new friends.

12 Zodiacs

In China, you’ll often be asked what your “sign” is. They’re not talkin’ Leo or Capricorn, but rather the Chinese Zodiacs. They like to know your sign because it is a polite way to ask your age and they will know a little bit more about your personality.

Here’s how it works: each year is assigned a Zodiac and each Zodiac features  specific personality traits. The picture below will tell you what your year’s sign is and what that sign’s prominent traits are. For example, if I were born in 1996 I would be a Rat.


This is a fun video explaining the origins of the 12 Signs.

Whether or not you believe in the Zodiacs it’s still fun, right?

Public Holidays

元旦.  Yuándàn. New Years Day:

This one is pretty obvious. They celebrate the Gregorian calendar’s new year. Most people get January 1 off work.

春节. Chūnjié. Chinese New Year:


In 2018, Chinese New Year will be from February 15-21. This is a time to be together as a family. The meal commencing the festivities is seen as the most important meal of the year. This is also a good time to wish others well and get some much-needed relaxation. Some people will go to the local temple to think and attend parades later in the week. You’ll see red decorations all over and hear non-stop fireworks in celebration.

清明节. Qīngmíng jié. Tomb Sweeping Festival:


April 5 off work in 2018. Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Festival is a little like our Easter. Families gather together and clean up their ancestor’s tombs. Depending on their family traditions and religions they may also offer sacrifices to them. One of the most common ways to offer sacrifice to ancestors is to place fruit and snacks on the person’s graves and burn incense. The smoke from the incense carries the offerings up to the ancestors.

劳动节. Láodòng jié. Labor Day:

April 29 – May 1 off work in 2018. It’s pretty much just like our Labor Day. It’s a day to take off work and enjoy yourself.

端午节. Duānwǔ jié. Dragon Boat Festival:


June 16-18 off work in 2018. Most Chinese holidays have many origin stories. This is the link to my favorite story. Watching it will basically make you an expert on the subject :). Sweet or salty Zongzi will be on sale everywhere. If you’re lucky you might even be able to go to someone’s home and try to make Zongzi with them.

中秋节. Zhōngqiū jié. Mid-Autumn Festival:


September 22-24 off work in 2018. Click here for the link to EBeijing’s explanation of Mid-Autumn Festival origins. And this is an animated version of the first origin story. It’s in Chinese, but if you’ve read the EBeijing story, you’ll be able to follow along.

国庆节. Guóqìng jié. National Day:

October 1-7 off work in 2018. This is like our July 4th. National Day celebrates the establishment of the People’s Republic of China by Mao ZeDong in 1949. This is one of the craziest times to travel in China. Usually over 450 million people will use the train system during this week alone. Let that sink in…that’s 100 million people more than the entire population of the United States.