Tag Archives: Culture

参观棋盘山的向阳寺 – Visiting Qipanshan’s “Sun-facing Temple”

In late June, when Spider was only three weeks old, I took advantage of a beautiful morning to drag the entire group – wife, M-I-L, son, and puppy – to the nearby Xiangyang Temple for some fresh air.

Xiangyang Temple (向阳寺), literally “Sun-facing Temple”, overlooks the southwestern reaches of Qipanshan lake. You can see the temple and surrounding area for yourself via Google Earth if you input the following coordinates in GE’s search bar:

41°55’52.75″ N, 123°38’41.75″ E

According to the temple’s own history, it was built around 500 years ago. I declare that unlikely on the grounds that this part of China was very sparsely populated during the time claimed. Things didn’t start really happening around here until the Manchus declared Shenyang their capital in the 1600s. Furthermore, whatever structures may have existed by the 20th century were almost certainly destroyed during the Cultural Revolution as part of the “Four Olds” campaign by the Red Guards and other associated geniuses. That all the buildings on the grounds look brand-spanking new (and probably are) does not in any way detract from the experience, however! The architecture is still lovely.

View of the main gate from the upper parking lot
View of the main gate from the upper parking lot

Continue reading 参观棋盘山的向阳寺 – Visiting Qipanshan’s “Sun-facing Temple”

8,000 Years of Civilization and China Still Can’t Eat Seeds Properly

I love eating sunflower seeds. I don’t go in for any of those fancy-shmancy flavors they have now like BBQ, Ranch, or Dill; but I will never, ever turn down a handful of traditional roasted and salted sunflower seeds.

It doesn't get much more American than this.
It doesn’t get much more American than this.

Look at that bag. That is ICONIC. I would put DAVID sunflower seeds right up there with Levis jeans, Marlboro cigarettes, Jeep Wranglers, and Hershey bars on a list of things I can buy that are more American than the American flag.

Continue reading 8,000 Years of Civilization and China Still Can’t Eat Seeds Properly

From Beer to Buddhism

I’ve been terribly busy at work these days, and last Thursday saw me working overtime at the office until 9PM. One of my coworkers was there as well, and when we finally decided to call it quits he suggested we go out for dinner and a few drinks. His wife and child were visiting relatives in another city and he had nothing better to do. As for me, my wife and child were likely already asleep – I had missed my chance to see them after work. Therefore staying out a bit longer would only impact the length of time I’d be spending in bed that night. Valuing the invitation from my coworker, and knowing that there were currently several sensitive and pressing business issues better discussed over a meal, I accepted.

Two hours later we were wrapping up a nice meal and putting away the last round of those few drinks. It had been a productive discussion and I, happy to have stayed out, was now looking forward to heading home to a nice, warm bed.

But then the café door opened and in strode six gentlemen, one of which gaily shouted “HEY!” across the room when he spotted my coworker. The loudmouthed fellow in question was a former employee of our company who presently works for the local branch of a large Chinese software group. He and his comrades had wrapped up an intensive training program that afternoon, spent the better part of the evening at a fine restaurant, and were now in search of a suitable location for some serious drinking. According to the unwritten but unbreakable laws of Chinese business culture, having been spotted and acknowledged, we too were now required to participate in their merrymaking.

And we did… until 2AM.

Continue reading From Beer to Buddhism

Real Surreality

It’s 7pm on Friday night and I’m standing on a busy street corner in the heart of downtown Shenyang rolling up the sleeves of my dress shirt. The air, laden with car exhaust though it is, feels cool and refreshing on my face. Autumn has arrived. Across the street a neon sign promises to transport my tired body far, far away into a world of ecstasy simply by massaging my feet – although they’d probably be happy to massage a whole lot of other body parts, if I was willing to pay…

Inside a cozy booth in the restaurant behind me two coworkers are arguing over what kind of barbecued meat to order for dinner. (Sheep? No, Cow! No, Goat! No, Dog! Dog? Get the fuck outta here! Ha ha, ok, sheep!) Three more work buddies should roll up any minute to complete our half-dozen. It’s just your regular Friday-night dinner after work among friendly coworkers in NE China, wholly unremarkable save for the presence of the Drew.

When I first left America for East Asia in the summer of 2005, I carried a profound sense of wonderment with me wherever I went. I was constantly aware of the novelty and rarity of my situation, and took great delight in every twist and turn my path required. But the passage of time chips away at such feelings, and four years later I find myself so thoroughly accustomed to my life that the wonder is all but gone.

However, sparks remain. As I stood on that bustling corner staring off into neon oblivion, I took a deep breath and my consciousness was swept up and away, out of myself, out of the moment, until falling back down to earth in my hometown. Suddenly I was seeing myself from an outsider’s perspective, from the perspective of those I’ve left behind. I watched myself amble back into the Chuar-Ba (BBQ Bar) and slide into the booth beside my comrades – the division director on my left and department manager on my right, with three more coworkers across the table. I watched myself lift my mug of draft beer in toast to our good fortunes, argue and laugh over the events of the past week, and lazily discuss those yet to come – all of which of course done in Chinese. I noticed the other patrons openly staring, marveling at this obvious outsider who seemed so at home, so at ease.

And so it went until sliding into the backseat of a taxi and wearily explaining the route home broke the trance and snapped me out of the spell I’d been in. I’ve been asked a million times “what’s it like to live in _____?” and the answer I give always disappoints: I still take out the garbage, vacuum the floor, and go to work just as you do. Sometimes though, sometimes the special overwhelms the mundane, and the surreal beauty of your situation shines through… like when you come back early from lunch on Tuesday afternoon and catch the Administration Manager trimming his nose hair with a 12 inch long pair of office scissors…


One night, during my final few weeks in Japan, I rode my bike south along the coastal highway out of Beppu and down into Oita, from there I turned inland and pedaled through the night until the office buildings turned to apartments, apartments turned to houses, and houses turned to rice paddies. It was there that I came upon a low hill, at the top of which after climbing several hundred badly grownover steps, I found a small Shinto shrine. Having paid my respects to the resident kami, I then walked back to the top of the steps and sat down to contemplate my commanding view of all of Oita spread out across the alluvial plain below me, and the perfectly serene circumstances of my surroundings.

During a previous evening’s solo outing, it had occurred to me as I strolled in the dark through a quiet neighborhood that I would forever be an outsider there. That no matter how well I spoke Japanese, or bowed, or played shamisen, or stood spellbound as cherry blossoms drifted downwards all around me, I would never be able to call that place home. While I was struck by the sudden clarity of the thought, my heart met it with quiet and comfortable acceptance which I found myself unable to explain.

Sitting alone at the foot of the Shinto shrine on my tiny mountain, surveying the prefectural capital below me glittering in the warm summer darkness, I began to understand. While I would never be able to (nor desired to) overcome 22 years of American imprintation on my being, I had found a beautiful rhythm in Japan – a daily resonance, a finely-crafted harmony which existed for me nowhere else. I understood then that life and circumstance would conspire to lure me away from that land, but my connection to, my feeling with, and my desire for it would never fade…

And now Time finds me seated at a table for two in the corner of a Shenyang Starbucks beside a long window overlooking TaiYuan shopping street. Today, tomorrow, and perhaps even the day after are marked by gray skies and a slow steady drizzle. Such weather is a most excellent time to contemplate, methinks.

I arrived in Shenyang in early September of 2007 – this week marks my 20th month in the city, more or less equivalent to the time I spent in Japan during my graduate studies. Yet, as I sit here gazing out the window at the slowly flowing sea of walking umbrellas, I can call up from within no meaningful appreciation of this place I now call home. Despite 3 jobs, 2 apartments, and my fair share of adventures around town, I cannot describe my feelings towards this place as anything other than detached.

Now I am not so foolish as to extrapolate my feelings for one city – however large – to characterize the entire country. China is not Japan. In Japan there are only 2 places: Tokyo/Osaka and then the rest of the country. Having spent significant time in both, one can safely state his true feelings towards the land. China, rather, is like America. Boston, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco might as well be different planets.

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Life is Life

One of these days I’d like to write a book about my experiences out here, and perhaps it’s a mistake to give away the mind-blowing philosophical conclusion now, but who cares – no one’s reading this damn journal anymore anyway! Ready? Here we go:

Life is Life.

What does that mean? It’s simple really: no matter where you go, what you do, what you have, what you don’t have, who you’re with, what you want to be, life boils down to the same basic sequences, needs, and interactions. Put another way – you can change the quality of the TV, but the program will always be the same.

Sounds stupid? Perhaps, but it’s true, and it took me a year abroad and 2 countries stamped into my passport to figure it out. Moving to China has only further reinforced my suspicions.

Before I left America I had visions in my head of what the rest of the world was like. I was giddy with excitement at the idea of setting foot in Japan, or China, or anywhere else I might happen to end up. This is certainly not an uncommon line of thinking. It is human nature to attach – really without basis – some sort of mythical, magical quality to places and things unknown or not yet experienced.

The question I’m asked most frequently by those back in the States is “what’s it like, living in ____?” It’s a question that’s usually posed with heartfelt sincerity, the inquisitor leaning close with a starry look in their eyes as they try to imagine themselves smack in the middle of a picture series they saw in National Geographic or a documentary from the Discovery Channel. When confronted with such hopeful, wistful enthusiasm you cannot possibly give them the honest answer (it’s the same, dude) so you stammer out some anecdotes about funny cultural differences or mix-ups at the outdoor market and such. It’s just a smoke-screen though, a deliberate attempt to continue the romantic mythology surrounding the expat lifestyle.

Life is Life.
You can change the setting, the language, the currency, the religion, but life is still life.

This realization hit me like a lightning bolt to the brain one foggy morning last summer in good ol’ Beppu, Japan. I was in an introspective mood, preparing as I was to leave that wonderful country, and my thoughts wandered to those near and dear back in the States and what they would think if they could see me now… taking out the garbage.

The point of this ramble is not to dissuade you from pursuing a global lifestyle, or to deglamorize such things – quite the contrary. The point of this ramble is to make it clear that no matter where you go, there will always be constants to rely upon, and thus stepping forth into a new culture, a new land, a new country should not be viewed as such an impossibility as I know some of you see it.

Life is Life. There are 194 countries on this planet and in every single one you’ll still take out the garbage, but in every single one that garbage will be a little bit different. Why be satisfied with just one?