Thursday, July 14, 2011

Cultural Embrace Training Week: July 3 - 9

So I'm writing a blog about Cultural Embrace training a few days after it ended. I'll try to keep it short, but we'll see how that goes. The week was pretty much a blur for good reasons. First I met so many cool new friends, and just like the first few days at college we all bonded pretty quickly. The first few days were kind of funny because I know that less than a month prior, I had been in most of these peoples' shoes; it was their first day in China. Our lodgings were adequate, but I would have rather been in a hostel in the middle of Beijing. We were at the Beijing Politics Youth College on the fourth ring of the city, just too far out for anything fun to be around. Our group took taxis to Houhai area (a lake and shops and rooftop bars) and then Wangfujing Street (shopping out the wazoo and scorpions on sticks!) a few different times during training. I even ate a fried scorpion the second time we visited as a group! It was actually not bad- the thought of eating a bug was the worst part and once I got over that the spices actually tasted good. Chris Jones ate a live one, and someone else (maybe Aaron) ate a fried seahorse. Those looked worse than the scorpions!

The actual lessons taught during training were a mix of old news and beneficial. I had understood a lot of the cultural tips just because I have been in China for a month, and I know numbers and some basic phrases. The most helpful parts of orientation were getting to practice making lesson plans and go over how we needed to teach. Also, part of orientation was seeing the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. This time on the Great Wall was even better than the last (the sky was beautiful blue, and we went to a different section), but the Forbidden City got to be old after the first few gates. Worth the trip, but I couldn't spend more than two hours inside. Lucilla (Lollipop) and Deana and I went souvenier crazy and practiced haggling a lot. Deana and I are shopping buddies because she says I haggle really well. Well, what can I say? It's a talent. ;) The looks we got wearing traditional chinese clothes and funny hats on the Great Wall were hilarious. It made some great memories! 

One of the last and most important notes about Cultural Embrace Orientation was my new assignment! Inner Mongolia fell through because of some ethnic conflicts. So I was assigned, along with Colin, Meredith (McNabbster), and Lollipop, to go to Yanqing County and be private tutors for a week. After a week with a host family, we would get an apartment and be joined by Becca and Deana. From then on, we would be teaching classes at a school. I'm kind of disappointed that I couldn't go to Inner Mongolia, but I'm sure we will make the most out of Yanqing!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cultural Embrace Introduction Blog: July 1

I know that some of this is a little repetitive if you have read this blog, but this is my introduction blog for Cultural Embrace and I figure I might as well post it here. I wrote it on the train to Beijing...

So, I've been here in China for almost three weeks, but I'm now starting the third leg of my journey. First I will be returning to Beijing for the Cultural Embrace teaching orientation and then, a few days later- Inner Mongolia! I'm really excited to meet not only the other teachers but also the students and faculty I will be working with for the next month. I think the thing I'm most excited for about Cultural Embrace is meeting new people here in China. I've worked at a preschool/summer camp for a few years, but teaching English will be a whole new ballgame. I can't wait to have, as Emlyn Lee says, "twenty pairs of eyes looking up at me", waiting for me to start a lesson.

China has been fantastic so far! I got the travel bug last year when I studied in Cambodia and Vietnam in May, and I am so happy to be back in Asia. I have been traveling throughout China and studying Contemporary Daoism and Eastern Religions since June 8th. As an International Studies Major concentrating in Asian Studies I have some insight into Chinese culture, and it has been awesome getting to put some of what I have learned at the College of Charleston (in the great state of South Carolina) to use. I have definitely used the few weeks I have been here to learn as much as possible about everyday life. Now I feel pretty comfortable ordering street food or buying things from stores, but there is always room for improvement.

In just a few hours my bullet train from Shanghai will arrive in Beijing and I'll have my last night before I meet some of the other participants. I have gotten to do a lot of the "touristy" things in China like see the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Panda Conservation Center, and the Great Wall, but I missed the Forbidden City. That will be a great trip during orientation. See everyone soon. Here's to new friends, interesting experiences, and a great summer!

Visit to Shanghai: June 28 - July 1

I left Chengdu by plane, and by some kind of miracle, ran into Helene in Shanghai even though she didn't have my correct Chinese phone number and I got in 2 hours later than I planned. I stayed at the Mingtown Hikers Youth Hostel, which was fantastic. It was better than the hostel in Chengdu and I even got a private room the first night! 

On the 29th, Helene and I went to the Shanghai Museum to look at old Chinese art, pottery and even ancient furniture. I saw some ceremonial masks from Inner Mongolia, too! After the museum, Helene wanted to go shopping, so I decided to head back to my hostel to catch a small nap. Unfortunately, I was accosted by a young lady who said she thought I was her German friend who taught English in Shanghai. What a coincidence! She ended up inviting me to get a coffee, and being friendly, I obliged. It turned out that coffee really meant coffee, a pot of tea, and fruit at an expensive restaurant in the middle of downtown Shanghai, and it turned out that she was a prostitute. Well, by the time I had figured this out, I had concocted a story about being engaged and my fiance was waiting for me at my hotel and Oh! Look at the time! I was supposed to meet her ten minutes ago... The "coffee" turned out to be about 500 Yuan, but I only had 300 on me, so I gave that to the waitress and dashed out of the restaurant as quick as I could. Let that be a lesson to anyone that reads this blog. Watch out for Coffee Prostitutes.  Later that day, Helene and I took a walk on the Bund (the river that goes through Shanghai) and went out for a few drinks on roof-top bars such as the Bar Rougue. It was a really fun night, and we ended up at a club called Brown Sugar. It was a great night and we both made some new friends in a really fun city!
On June 30th I found a way to get onto facebook... I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. It's been pretty strange not having access to a lot of websites here in China. Some news, blogs, twitter, even linked in doesn't work here. Since I am getting on a bullet train to Beijing today, I booked a hostel there for the night and found a bookstore and bought some books for the ride. It's a speedy train, but the trip is still over 4 hours. I cannot wait to come back to Shanghai, and I'm sure that if I get a free weekend during the teaching program, I will be back down here on a fast train for the weekend! Upon arriving in Beijing, I managed to find the right hostel. It was in a hutong, and I think the only word I can use to describe it is ghetto. There really wasn't even a ceiling in most places in the common area, just some glass panes on rafters. About ten Chinese people were passed out on chairs or couches. The girl at the front desk seemed entirely annoyed at having to help me, and by the time I got to my room, I found out it was not even air conditioned. Not what said at all! 

The next morning, July 1, I woke up at 6am because the room was boiling. I read Stephen King's "It" for a few hours until my roommates woke up. Three of them were guys from Denmark traveling around China before they went to university. They seemed pretty nice. I also met a girl in the lobby who was from England who had just finished teaching in the Hebei province. I'm now about to go start my adventure with Cultural Embrace!

A Week On My Own. June 23 - 27

So, my College of Charleston classes and Daoist tour of China have officially ended, and I bid my friends farewell as they head back to the US or to a Daoist Conference. I will go back to Chengdu with Dr. Siegler and find my own adventure there because the border to Tibet is temporarily closed. Most likely this is due to the 90th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (July 1). While in Chengdu, I stayed at the Dreams Traveler Hostel in the Wuhousi area. It was pretty nice, but one of the first things I noticed was that there were fewer western patrons than I would have imagined. As I was figuring out where the closest ATM was, an Irish voice greeted me. I guess the most surprising part was that it had come from a Chinese guy! Ben, who had moved to Ireland when he was young, became my good Chengdu friend for the week. After booking a flight to Shanghai for later in the week and checking out the huge Chengdu bookstore, Ben and I got Indian food and explored some of the bars in Chengdu. We found that the crowd at Shamrock's was a bit too old, but Jellyfish was really fun. I ran into Will Cutler from my Chinese class there. Out of how many millions of people there are in China, and the hundreds of cities, I ran into one of the 20 kids from my Chinese class! Unbelievable!

I'm loving the hostel living experience, but the lack of English speaking guests made it difficult to meet many people. My roommates were silent sams, but I used the most of my second day to send out emails and then go to the Chengdu Panda Center with Dr. Siegler and his kids. It was pretty sweet to see pandas up close, and the red pandas were being fairly active. I tried to find out how to hold one, but couldn't figure out where you could do it, even though it's advertised almost everywhere. I guess there will have to be a next time! Today I also had a bad experience with doing laundry in a Chinese washer, but am pretty thankful that when it all dries I will have relatively clean clothes for once (albeit still with grease spots from food).

On the 26th, (my third day alone) I got all the Cultural Embrace stuff squared away! Totally excited to go and teach and meet all the other teachers in Beijing! This morning I also discovered the rooftop area of Dreams Traveler which has a tv and tons of relaxing couches and a nice view of the area. You can even see Jin Li street if you look from the far side of the roof! For a treat I went to dinner at the Sichuan Opera and saw the mask switching and firebreathing acts. It was such a phenomenal show, and I kept thinking that a show like this could do pretty well for an American audience, too. It would have to be altered a little, but still enjoyable for most people. A girl also played some bluegrassesque songs on a Chinese instrument that looked like a two stringed banjo. Also, I have run our of deodorant, and because no one in China knows what it is, have given up on it for the time being. I don't smell too bad... hahaha.

For most of the 27th I thought how cool it would be to travel around China or SE Asia with friends. I'm really enjoying hostel life (thank goodness they have western toilets). Also, I have discovered that some emails are also blocked so their recipient never gets them. Seriously, China?!? Are you kidding me? No. I checked out Jin Li street again in the daytime. They have some crazy food stands and tons of little shops. It is created to look like old Chengdu (except they have a Dairy Queen!) I'm getting really tired of all the spicy Sichuan food; it's killing my stomach, so I've been getting western food at the hostel or not-spicy noodles from down the street. I'm leaving tomorrow for Shanghai to meet up with Helene, and so for my last night here, Ben and I got Tex-mex and I tried to teach him to do a Southern US accent. It's pretty amusing to teach someone from Ireland to speak with a southern accent. I would say I have a pretty neutral accent, so it was kind of difficult even for me to talk like a Texan. I also tried to speak like an Irishman, but there wasn't much success there. The bars were dead because it was a Monday, but we met some interesting people.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Part 5. June 22 - 23

            The big day finally arrived! For my birthday (June 22nd) we went to stay at another mountain called Qingchenshan. Nearby Qingchenshan is the Dujiangyan dam, a dam built with Daoist principles in mind- it works with nature and the natural flow of water instead of against it. Like the Daoist practice of wuwei (or nonaction). This area has been championed by the government as a Chinese cultural heritage sight, and for good reason. The dam was built between 267 and 256 BCE and still works today! Our group got free time at the area, so I wandered off by myself and went on a big walk around the complex. There were a lot of gardens on one bank, and on the other some temples that were a bit of a climb up the side of the mountain. For my birthday celebration part 2 we drove back to Dujiangyan to eat and get drinks at the “All Night Beer Garden”. Tyler, Chrystal, Robby, Seigler, Stephanie and Helene helped me celebrate and eat some great local cuisine. About halfway through the meal the table of locals beside us started taking our picture secretly, and of course we invited them over to get a better picture with us. They were so happy and brought over beer and cheers’d us. Then, we went to their table and cheers’d them back. Many people here are so friendly. Well, after we had been socializing with them for twenty minutes, we went back to eat and the table on the other side of us was having Happy Birthday sung to them (in Chinese) by a traveling band. I couldn’t believe it, so I went over and told them it was my birthday, too. Well, the band then sang Happy Birthday to me and the other guy for about seven minutes in Chinese and English, and then sang another birthday song in Chinese. After dinner we braved rain and went to KTV! (Karaoke) It was a blast! Most of us hadn’t done karaoke before, but we were all having a good time and sang until 1 or 2 in the morning. Celebrating in such a unique way with good friends and new friends certainly made it a memorable 21st birthday. I am missing all my friends back in the States though.
            It was finally the last day of our trip (June 23), and we had one last challenge: climbing Qingchenshan. My foot was not in good shape to go all the way to the top with the rest of the group, so I opted to hike up the back route to Tianshi Caves. A temple had been built here and was one of the bigger ones on the mountain. It was a beautiful temple and many of the Daoist deities and gods were represented. Even China’s Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, had his own hall. Many of the buildings had been built in the Qing Dynasty, but the actual temple was constructed in the Sui Dynasty.  Funny enough, there was a sign at Dujiangyan that said superstitious practice was not allowed, and here on Qingchenshan there were so many monasteries and temples and Daoism was everywhere. After looking around I walked back to the hotel and napped and rested my foot. 

Part 4. June 19 - 21

         Part 4
On June 19th our group flew to Chengdu, which was grey and drizzly and smelly. Great… Then, thanks to Seigler, we were joined in the afternoon by a Daoist urban hermit who talked with us about his decisions to leave the monastery and about internal alchemy processes. It was a really fascinating conversation, and many of the people on Livia Kohn’s tour had so many great questions about internal alchemy practice because many of them were practitioners. Two of the things he emphasized were respecting the Dao and honoring de (virtue).
            The next day it rained, but my foot was feeling better after hurting it on Huashan. We went to the Qinyanggong (Temple of 2 Immortals) and saw the amazing union between Daoist temples and nature. Chengdu had a lot of this in various temples and other locations and it was truly beautiful. Some of us had fun reenacting the legend where the abbot of Qinyanggong found a dragon trying to escape from the pillar of the 8 Trigram pavilion, so he punched the dragon and it stayed on the pillar ever since. The actual pillar had a fist sized indentation on it. Qingyangong also had a teahouse within the temple- I haven’t gotten to try teahouses here, but I will sure do it before I leave China. We also ate an amazing vegetarian lunch at Wenshu Monastery. Some of the food looks like meat but everything is veggies. Today I also got a phone here in China! I have to get a new plan in Inner Mongolia (where I will be teaching for Cultural Embrace), but for now I can contact new friends and people back home! Hotpot for dinner! A Sichuan specialty- you dip meats and veggies into boiling, communal sauce pot to cook them, and then you pull out what you want. We got to eat with Siegler’s family and some of his friends from Chengdu!
            June twenty first (day before my birthday!) we had another hike scheduled. We conquered two peaks (more like hills compared to Huashan) of Hemingshan. It’s famous for being the place where Zhang Daoling practiced internal alchemy and perfected his immortality elixir. We saw a few temples here and then went back to get food massages or go to the Tibetan area. I chose massage because I’ll be returning to Chengdu in a few days and can go to the markets later. Robby and I napped through dinner, but we found a to-die-for Mongolian bbq on a sidewalk corner. While we were walking back to the hotel we ran into two young Chinese couples and they took us to a bar to celebrate my birthday! We played the dice game that the Chinese are so fond of and tried to teach them Thumper- the latter which was mainly unsuccessful. The two girls spoke pretty decent English, but both the guys were having a little trouble understanding us. The night more or less ended when one of the guys got into a fight with a waiter and the other one fell asleep at the table. Still, it was a pretty good success!

Part 3. June 15 - 18

            Huashan was our next destination. Mount Hua (Flower Mountain because it has 4 peaks and a valley in between- like a flower) is well known as a really important Daoist religious site for Quanzhen Daoism, as well as one of the 5 really important mountains in China. At the base is Jade Springs Monastery and Temple. Such a beautiful temple in such a fun little town. At Jade Springs we listened to some evening chanting by monks, ran into Lewis Komjathy, a past student of Livia’s and a friend of Elijah’s who had joined the Quanzhen sect of Daoism and is a scholar. The ascent up Huashan was not too bad- we took a gondola up half of it only because we were going to walk down the whole way. My group of Stephanie, Chrystal, Alexandra, and Helene all climbed to the Western Peak and saw the Daoist Caldron where they did alchemical practice. We also stopped at the Jade Well Monastery, which Martin knew fairly well. I got some really good pictures using Stephanie’s camera of me on the tallest part of the western peak. Which, incidentally is not the tallest peak on the mountain, but with such a view it seemed like it was. The Southern Peak is the tallest of the peaks, but we decided to skip that and head down the Mountain using the same path that people did long ago. (Except the Communists, who used the path under the gondola to sneak up and capture the mountain- this was long before the Gondola was built). If you are in China, please make sure you stop at Huashan- it will kill your feet, but it is totally worth it.
            After Huashan, we saw the Terracotta warriors in Xi’an. That was pretty neat, but I think if you see it once, you don’t need to go back. The museum was amazing though. On a side trip to Loguantai (where Yin Xi stopped Laozi on his journey west and got him to write down the Daode Jing), we saw some more temples and I got lost on a mountain temporarily with Genevieve and Robby. But we found a really cool temple in the middle of the mountain so it was all worth it. Back in Xi’an that evening we checked out the Muslim district for dinner and some shopping. Xi’an was an amazing city and I really hope to be back some day.

Part 2. June 12 - 14

Part 2
In Beijing we met up with Livia Kohn and Robin Wang’s group of about 24 people. Also, my camera has broken so don’t expect me to upload pictures here. After Beijing we took a train to Zhengzhou and met a Daoist millionaire! He has developed a huge Daoist retreat on the roof of his furniture mall. (Zhengzhou is famous for having tons of furniture stores) We took a ten minute tour –by car- INSIDE of his furniture mall. We were being chauffeured down the massive hallways inside this building while news crews surrounded us and took our pictures. We got such paparazzi treatment because we were the International Daoist Conference Group! Anyways, we also received a tour of his retreat center, offices, guest houses, collection of paintings, and a ridiculous amount of real Shang Dynasty ritual bronzes! Then, as a thank you for visiting (and studying Daoism), every person on our tour received 2000 (~$300 USD), a painting, and a delicious dinner including turtle soup and sea cucumber. Never again will I eat turtle soup.
            We also visited Luyi, which is Laozi’s supposed birthplace. Saw this huge monument to Laozi with Yi Jing symbols carved into pillars and verses of the Daode Jing carved into the ground. China has really begun to use Daoism as a cultural icon (and to promote tourism). Luyi seemed like a theme park even though our group doubled the amount of people inside, including workers. Maybe it was empty because there were no rollercoasters? :P We also got massages in Zhengzhou. I got cupping (placing hot jars on the skin to draw out bad energy) twice over the whole trip so far.
            Longmen Caves with the Buddha statues was also a pretty fascinating one day stop. I got some video (because that function on my camera does still work) of the huge Buddha there. Even though these were from the Tang Dynasty I think, many of them were in great condition- others not so much.

Part 1. June 8 - 11

In Beijing we stayed at the Huguosi Hotel (It comes highly recommended by our whole study abroad group). Each morning we got to eat baozi (kind of like dumplings with all sorts of meat or vegetables inside. I guess the first thing to get used to in China was traffic patterns and hard beds, oh, and being a minority. It is always kind of strange stepping into a world that you are unfamiliar with, but I’m trying my best to adapt to life here and practicing Chinese. Most importantly I’m enjoying every minute. Our hotel was surrounded by Hutongs (alleyway courtyard housing areas that are really common especially in Beijing). The area was not touristy at all, and I’m happy about that. Beijing didn’t seem to be as dirty on big streets as Cambodia or Vietnam, but it stinks!
We spent a lot of time checking out temples in Beijing. I guess that’s pretty obvious, seeing that I’m on a Religious Studies trip. Anyways, the temples are fascinating. We went to the Confucian Temple in Beijing where the emperor gave addresses to people and sacrificed to Confucius. These giant stone plaques called steles have the scores of all students taking the government entry test. (Could you imagine that in the Cistern at CofC? Haha!) We also checked out the only Tibetan Buddhist Temple in Beijing; White Cloud Temple (Baiyun Guan), which is the main Daoist temple in Beijing and the headquarters of the Chinese Daoist Association; and the Alter of Heaven (now a huge park).
Tiananmen Square was humongous (many things in China are built to mammoth proportions) and constructed with the Forbidden City and Mao’s mausoleum on a North South axis. Temples are built on the same axis because it is religiously important. Even the Olympic stadium and water cube were built on the same N-S axis. I think I had my first “Wow I’m actually in China” moment at the Great Wall. It was unreal to be standing there with an excellent view of mountains and more wall, and at one point, I couldn’t see any people! There is a saying in China that you aren’t a hero until you climb the Great Wall. Well, everyone on our trip is a hero!


So I’ve decided I have to do this blog thing a little differently. Neither website I tried to use works in China, so I’m going to have to forward along blog posts in the form of emails and get someone to upload them. (Thanks Mom for volunteering) Also, since I have been here for over two weeks, there is a bit of catching up to do. I’ll try to do it in 3-4 posts, and please do not expect daily updates, I’ll just give shortened updates including the most memorable or eventful parts of my trip. Well, the whole journey has been pretty eventful, but I’m sure I can cut out some stuff. So now, let me reintroduce you to my China blog!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Lesson in Blogging from China - new blog website post

Hi Friends and Family,
Okay, well one of the first things I learned in China is that this blog website is blocked over here. So after several days of trying to find a web host that works, I discovered wordpress! Please feel free to follow my adventures here: ( ) . I will be updating the events that have happened so far in multiple posts, so read them if you want to be caught up. 

Monday, June 6, 2011


Well, once again I will set off for a new adventure in a foreign land. Last summer I studied abroad in Cambodia and Vietnam (check out the blog:  or the video: This summer I have set my course for China! I will be abroad for a little over two months starting on June 7, 2011. My trip will consist of a one month study abroad program sponsored by CofC; a week long trip to Lhasa, Tibet; and a month of teaching English at a Chinese summer camp organized by Cultural Embrace ( I'll use this blog to keep track of my escapades and activities oversees so you: family, friends, and others can get a little taste of my experience. 

Tomorrow I will board a plane at the Charleston Airport, and then be on my way to China with my study abroad group: Tyler, Chrystal, Robby, and Dr. Siegler. We will be studying "Sacred Texts of the East" and  "Contemporary Taoism" with Livia Kohn, one of the top scholars on Taoism, as we travel from Beijing to Chengdu. It is hard to believe that I'll be out of US airspace in less than twenty-four hours! I'm getting the same excitement jitters I had last year. Not sure how often I will be able to update the blog for the first half of the summer, but I will try to at least update weekly for now.

Elliot Dickerson is a rising senior at one of the most excellent schools in the US Southeast, College of Charleston ( Majoring in International Studies with a concentration in Asian Studies and a minor in Religious Studies, he has enjoyed learning about and experiencing different cultures from across the globe.