Southern Hospitality

China’s central and southern mountain ranges are the giant panda’s native stomping grounds. According to the government, a growing population of more than 1,000 of these cute critters roam free, after decades of precarious endangerment. So, after soaking up Chengdu’s vibrant teahouse culture and spicy hot pot broths for the last week, we visited the world’s premier panda breeding ground, where a significant percentage of the population chill (and breed) for the viewing pleasure of tourists.

The animal’s commanding size is easily overshadowed by its playful demeanor and blasé attitude. The same can be said about Sichuan’s capital – China’s fifth largest city. Cultural relevance, on the Chinese or international stages, may be expected from the dynastic canyons of Beijing or cosmopolitan Shanghai. But Chengdu’s burgeoning rap and hip-hop scene, boutique fashion trends, unmatched culinary scene (the first UNESCO designated gastronomic heritage city) and blossoming LGBTQ community all speak to its uniqueness as a welcoming, if still second-tier, Chinese city.

Initially, I thought my immediate infatuation was just a side effect of my 28-hour sleeper train ride from Beijing. After a day, I began to realize the seeming progressiveness of Chengdu is the byproduct of the preservation of a long, but mostly gentle, history, where teahouses and literary legends reign supreme over imperial rule.

Du Fu, one of China’s most revered poets, built a cottage in Chengdu in 759 and lived in it for four years, which some scholars point to as his most creative stretch. Though his straw structure is long gone, the trees and streams he wrote amongst were preserved over generations by his fans, who hoped to pass along his legacy, a seemingly successful endeavor. Du Fu’s thatched cottage park is one of the most tranquil places I’ve visited in China – especially remarkable in a megacity of more than 10 million.

Sipping tea in the People’s Park and in former Buddhist monasteries were equally enjoyable activities and great places to spy on some older women in a heated game of Mahjong (played, of course, with a set of lax rules apparently local to Chengdu).

Linguistic prowess could be the defining layer to Chengdu. I’m not just talking about the scores of writers and poets who followed in Du Fu’s footsteps. China’s formerly underground hip hop scene has exploded into the mainstream veins of official media, from popular American Idol-style reality shows to major record labels. Many top rappers hail from Sichuan, Chongqing and Chengdu – the Houston, Atlanta and Queens of Chinese hip hop culture. The sharp accents of Sichuanese dialect lend themselves to stringing together complex and quick rhyme schemes. Some of the region’s biggest names – namely the Migos-like quartet Higher Brothers – have toured successfully stateside and beyond.

Chengdu’s extraordinary variety today may have some dark roots, however. During Zhang “Yellow Tiger” Xianzhong’s rule of Sichuan at the end of the Ming Dynasty (around the 1640’s), a huge chunk of Chengdu’s ethnically homogeneous population was said to have been massacred. To restore the city, a 200-year resettlement program was initiated during the Qing Dynasty. By the end, nearly 80% of the population was reportedly non-native. It’s hard not to think this melting (hot)pot conglomeration is what helps make Chengdu such a deep place today. Plus, pandas.

Photo gallery below:

Catching a breather on way up Emei Shan – Day 1
Clouded sunrise on the summit – Day 2



Ma La
A family secret 
Emei Shan Base
Temple turned Mall
Giving homestyle a whole new meaning 
Du Fu Garden

A Siberian Soirée


Happy Year of the Pig! For China’s most important national holiday a couple weeks ago, some friends and I decided to bundle up in layers of counterfeit fleece and head north to Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province – nestled at the crossroads of Mongolia, Russia and North Korea. Before arriving, I didn’t know much about our spring break destination except for promises of consistently subzero temperatures, the world’s largest ice festival and a general sense of snowy reverie. We found all of that and more: Harbin also provided some surprising insight into Northwest China’s forlorn military history.

When in Rome… Ice from the Songhua River

Following some mandatory ice-luging at the winter time amusement park, we stumbled upon the Memorial Park of the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army. This gaudy memorial is nestled in a forest opposite downtown Harbin, a short walk across the frozen Songhua River. Attempting to decipher the remembrances of Manchu China’s regional forces in Mandarin proved challenging. But it prompted a refresher on the Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that is central to the history of Heilongjiang and Harbin.


Russian translations

Japan’s excuse for invading Manchuria was the so-called “Mukden incident.” A Japanese general had apparently detonated small explosives along the South Manchuria Railway in Japanese-controlled, modern day Korea – and subsequently blamed it on the Chinese. Though some guerilla forces coalesced as the Northeast Anti-Japanese Army, the lack of a central Chinese government at the time made it impossible to marshal a defense against a headstrong, ultranationalist Imperial Japanese Army with superior military technology. Russia supported China’s guerilla forces as best it could out of geographical necessity – many Chinese soldiers even donned uniforms on loan from the Soviets – but it was all for naught. In six months, Japan would control a huge chunk of Chinese territory, known as Manchukuo, a puppet state from which they would launch subsequent invasions of a vulnerable mainland China already struggling with its own debilitating civil war.

The Imperial Army’s siege of Harbin only lasted a few hours, but the city remained an important stronghold until the end of World War II. Soon after establishing Manchukuo, Japanese doctors and scientists created Unit 731, where some of the worst atrocities of the war would take place – yeah, that’s a high bar, so let it sink in. I’ll try not to get too gory, but this biological and chemical warfare research center provided the last and possibly largest study of human vivisection – surgery conducted for experimental purposes on living organisms. Chinese and Russian POWs were exposed to diseases like the plague, or ailments like frostbite, and subsequently studied – below is a link for more inquisitive readers (strong stomachs required). China believes Japan still hasn’t properly apologized for what it did there. Somewhat shamefully, at the end of the war, General Douglas MacArthur and the American force occupying Japan decided to look the other way in exchange for Unit 731’s scientific findings.


I would be lying if I said all this was at the front of my mind as we four-wheeled across frozen tundra and fed raw meat to Siberian Tigers. Today’s Harbin is a place that looks like the center of Buddy the Elf’s favorite snow globe. But beneath the glistening ice city that has become such a popular domestic destination for newly endowed Chinese tourists there’s a dark history worth remembering.

In 2017, the Ice Festival attracted 18 million visitors and generated $4.4 billion of revenue




Corn Ice Cream Comes in a Waffle Prophylactic

   I’ve always been a proficient digester of dairy products. Besides my 14 mile-per-gallon compact SUV, one of the things I miss most about Western culture is good cheese. I would give up Sichuan peppers for a week just for a bite of Morbier or a slab of Beaufort covered in fig jam right about now. It’s a good thing I go to Paris in less than two weeks.

            The reason I bring up cheese, and my unrivalled ability to direct it through my gastrointestinal tract, is that I have developed an unlikely relationship with an unconventional food group amongst my daily intake of noodle and pork everything. In East Asia, where the National Institutes of Health estimates that “90 percent of adults in some communities” are lactose intolerant, I have found a way to eat way more industrial-grade pre-packaged ice cream than is advisable.

Why? Well, it’s flames.

            China’s dairy demand has skyrocketed in the last few years, as its citizens seem willing to put aside some mild indigestion and a trip to the public outhouse if it means adopting another staple of rich Westerners’ diets. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Chinese milk consumption has increased 25-fold in the past 25 years. China has become the fourth-largest contributor to the global milk supply. Though I haven’t been drinking too much of the white stuff while here (see 2008 Chinese Milk Scandal) I’ve completely let myself go on the convenience store-supplied ice cream front, for better or worse. Probably much worse.

Below I rank three noteworthy flavors, from freaking weird to Christina Tosi-level-craftsmanship.

Green Pea

More often than not this variety of prepackaged ice cream is at least some degree of freezer-burnt when I scoop it out of the bottom of a Family Mart or Lawson’s freezer. Perhaps I’m just an idiot, and will never understand Beijing’s ice cream game, but I promise you the first time you have it, it’s good. The flavor is novel, and somewhat refreshing in a super-duper wrong way. It packs a bit of a grainy punch in the mouthfeel department, but I don’t think it’s worthy of ridicule. Someone, in some hilariously well-endowed food lab here, knew this was the move.

Coconut Gray

This one makes the list for being the ice cream most likely to give Ben and Jerry a run for their money in the States, so long as you can get over the fact that it paints your tongue and lips ash-black. For, like, hours. The whole thing is coconut and black sesame, I’m pretty sure, but I don’t really know what that means – it’s five kuai (75 cents) and usually gone before I actually savor its inky goodness on my tongue. It’s wet cement – that has no right being so good.


A little piece of me was transported to a farm in Iowa when I first bit in to one of these babies. I could almost hear the jagged edges of a Rick Santorum stump speech echoing in the distance. I’m kidding, of course, because these don’t really taste like corn, or even the syrup derivative responsible for America’s obesity epidemic (Mikey Pollan, where we at?) No, it tastes like something that could be sold for $9 an ounce in Williamsburg, and I’m not kidding when I say I’d think about paying up for the privilege. It’s a creamy, hard-to-identify flavored conical ice cream stuffed inside of a chewy, wafer prophylactic. And stuck on a stick.

I could tell you more about the melon-meets-banana thing, the ubiquitous durian ice pops or the “Russian style pure taste milk” bars adorned with an image of the Kremlin. But I am two weeks away from raiding a Parisian fromagerie to continue any further. A bientot.

Silk Road, Noodles, People Mountain, People Sea

Familiar Faces in Faraway Places; Bill knows this is culturally and archaeologically inappropriate. At least Chelsea had fun.

Sorry for the delay, dear readers – too much work. And travel: Last week I was in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province and the birthplace of Chinese civilization, intercontinental trade and dumb delicious Liangpi noodles. Xi’an is considered a ‘second-tier’ city by the socioeconomic metrics the People’s Republic uses – but its history is as rich as any city in the first tier.


Xi’an was also particularly germane to my studies, since I am working on an independent research project regarding the Belt Road Initiative, a behemoth infrastructure plan to link the Asian and European continents that promises to pour Chinese investment, commerce and ‘soft power’ influence into countries encompassing more than half of the world’s GDP. It is ambitious, and still more of a concept than an implemented policy. And it has deep roots in China’s ancient Silk Road. Xi’an was the departure point and cultural hub where merchants from around the world first saw and learned about the Middle Kingdom.

Ye Olde Passport
Would love to see that LinkedIn profile

Today, Xi’an boasts a steaming bowl of cultural, hot-pot goodness that wouldn’t exist without its role at the crossroads of global trade centuries ago. Muslim food is the crown jewel of Xi’an’s cuisine, chiefly 肉夹馍 (ròujiāmó), a juicy lamb burger served between two naan-like pieces of bread. It is freakin’ delicious, and an unlikely gastronomic staple for a Chinese city without some much-needed historical context. Muslim soup dumplings with lamb and oxen were also a big hit. IMG_2101.JPGIMG_2099.JPG

Liangpi is an equally tasty, and somehow thirst-quenching sesame noodle dish that I could probably eat daily, without pause, for the rest of my life. Educate yourselves, or just go to Xi’an Famous Foods in the city sometime. /

The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is a Buddhist temple that still stands from Xi’an’s heyday. Erected in the 7th century, during the frothiest commercial period of the Silk Road, it is a beautiful testament to religion’s ability to take advantage of economic prosperity. From here, departing merchants said prayers before conquering lands unknown, and foreign travelers would leave scripture and souvenirs at the temple’s base. A Tang poet, after climbing to the top floor of the temple, wrote that he could “bypass the world’s bounds” – a sentiment some of today’s world leaders could use to refresh their views on the benefits of global trade.

“wild goose pagoda”的图片搜索结果
Not my picture, but point still stands

Of course, Xi’an is best known as the home of the Terracotta Warriors, an unreal display of manpower and handiwork in honor of one dude, Qin Shi Huang, and his tens of thousands of concubines. The uncovered tombs – which are housed in what looks like the biggest hockey rink outside of Canada – are just a small part of a much, much larger underground necropolis that was built around the emperor’s tomb. The amazing thing is that the ruler, credited as the first to unite China, wasn’t religious – he simply feared getting to whatever life was next without his army and officers – I really don’t know if you can find anything more Chinese than that.

Since oxidation causes the figures to lose their original coloring, they will stay underground until scientists can figure that one out.


The only figure with original coloration


For good reasons, the place is a tourist mecca, and aptly described by one of my favorite Chinese idioms – 人山人海 (rénshānrénhǎi) – which literally translates to ‘people mountain people sea’, or figuratively: “way too many frigging people.”

What is Ice Ball?

China does Olympics really well. In preparation for the 2008 summer games, the People’s Republic doubled its subway system and added an airport terminal. It built impressive grounds from scratch in downtown Beijing, including the architecturally stunning Bird’s Nest and Water Cube facilities (relocating some 500,000 Hutong residents to do so). It built a Tibetan highway to Everest’s base camp so that the torch could make it up the mountain swiftly during its unprecedented relay around the world. The Communist Party put on a rollicking, US$100m opening ceremony that employed 10,000+ performers, and it also won the medal count for the first time in history.

So naturally the People’s Republic earned another turn with the games. In 2022 the Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, deeming the city the first to hold both. However, winter sports can prove slightly more niche than more popular summer ones, and China senses one main event in particular – Ice Hockey, literally translated to ‘Ice Ball’ – will need some help gaining momentum in the four-year run up to the next games. Let’s call it a ‘cultural boost’, with assistance from Wayne Gretzky, Gary Bettman and Johnny Hockey.

Shénme shì bīngqiú? What is Ice Ball?


The second annual China Games consisted of two preseason matches between the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames, in Shenzhen and Beijing. The Stanley Cup made its rounds, and even accompanied The Great One to the Great Wall for a photoshoot. The game started with the national anthem, sung by a runner up of China’s equivalent of ‘The Voice.’ Most everything was in line with the American spectator experience, except for video explanations on various rules that played between points or when penalties were called. I think the showcase of mite-aged players between periods required all if not most of China’s youth hockey players to show up.

The most egregious deviation from the norm was a lack of beer for sale, despite Tsingtao being a main sponsor. The many ex-pats in attendance were unsettled by this sad reality, and started to pour out of Cadillac Arena earlier than usual. Even the deployment of energized cheerleaders couldn’t make up for the lack of overpriced lager.


The game itself started out slowly – I think Tuukka Rask let in a game tying goal late in the second period to make things interesting – but by the third period Brad Marchand and others were scrapping after the whistle, their competitive spirits transporting them back to the grit of TD Garden. Despite lacking much hockey exposure, fans had the wherewithal to gasp every time Johnny Gaudreau stickhandled, each of his puck possessions reengaging the bulk of the arena back into the game.

Still, though, there is room for improvement. Way too many standard passes and plays were dropped, maybe a result of sub-par ice quality, and the boards looked more precarious with each player that slammed into them. By the third period most spectators had cleared out, and the ones that remained seemed disinterested.

Gary Bettman and his organization have a new deal with Tencent and CCTV to stream NHL games on the mainland, but I would stop just short of calling this spectacle a win-win for the NHL and China’s hockey culture. Bettman said he wants regular season games to be played in China soon. To that I say good luck – but if he’s serious, he’ll need to start with the kids in front of me who played Grand Theft Auto on their phones the entire game.

Also, a video of NHL stars using chopsticks



Week 1 – Disappearing Dumpling Shop

First and foremost, I’m having an incredible time. I think I just had the best food week of my life, and I already feel more confident in my language abilities. I think locals are starting to warm up to my lanky, foreign frame as I become more comfortable speaking. But I am definitely a lifetime or two away from cracking the shell that is Beijing, and have one solid explanation as to why.

The first time my classmates and I walked into the Baozi shop was before our first 8am classes, and our new Steamed Bun Playboy, rocking a slick Bathing Ape tee, couldn’t hold back an ear to ear smile as we all took turns stumbling through our orders. Everything we got was delicious. We went back every morning last week, filling up on steamed pork buns, vegetable buns, sausage pancakes and simple jelly French toast sandwiches. And then on Friday morning, right before our first weekly exam, the store was completely gutted. No kitchen, no dumplings and no hot soy milk to get us through the school day ahead. We just got yelled at by some sweaty construction workers who were busy razing our daily breakfast dreams. We were devastated.

And then on Sunday I walked by and, somehow, they were back up and running. In less than 40 hours she had been reborn in a mirror image of her former self. The entrance stood where the kitchen had been, the service counter replaced the refrigerator, and vice versa. Had it been my first time inside I would’ve assumed the interior predated the Cultural Revolution. The same old lady was at the helm of the griddle, where she was preparing the same Jianbing’s as before – crepe, egg, scallions, hoisin sauce, cabbage and pork skins, in that order – folded up and served hot. Although the American in me wanted an explanation, I knew I wouldn’t find one. The only change might’ve been that our Baozi Playboy fashioned an extra smug smile that day. I think he saw the confusion in our eyes and empty bellies. But the steamed buns, not unlike last week’s, spoke for themselves before class the next morning, and life in this city went on.

A Couple Hours Later

Construction and change at a blindingly fast pace is just one of many things that will always befuddle me about this place. Other things are more instantly gratifying though, like how cute all the small dogs manage to be no matter how scraggly their owners, and the sheer number of ludicrous, English language t-shirts that seamlessly fit into everyday life here. Those probably deserve their own ‘best of’ compilation later down the road.

Another abrupt introduction to this country has come in the form of the local students’ freshman orientation. Chinese nationals are required to serve, and in the first few weeks of their freshman year – in addition to signing up for classes – students learn how to march in their battalions, do all kinds of military tai chi exercises and salute their respective sergeants. It’s been really hard getting used to hoards of giggling young women walking to class wearing military boots, camouflage uniforms and bright red lipstick. You can hear their drills and music from nearly everywhere on campus, but luckily for my in-class attention span they will be done next week.

Dining Hall

Food has been my go to platform for cultural exploration as I try to get situated to classes and my new timezone. Since Minzu University fills a quota for every Chinese ethnic minority, the food on and off campus is incredibly diverse. Though it’s only been about a week, my favorite dishes have hailed from Xinjiang province, which borders Mongolia, Russia, a bunch of the ‘Stans and India. The combination of Middle Eastern, Muslim, Indian and Chinese flavors is incredible, and I don’t anticipate the novelty of it letting me down anytime soon. Other than that, I’ve definitely halved my tastebud count with some Sichuan Food, and have explored the ins and outs of street food – Beijing’s famous Jianbing in particular. A classmate introduced it to me, and he’s quite the connoisseur; hit the link below to his writing on them.

Sichuan Cai

The Bruins are playing the Flames here tomorrow. Yeah, those Bruins. Should be funny.

Word of the Day: Baozi –




Day 1 – Introduction and a Root Canal.

Greetings Friends, Family and Strangers,

My name is Sam Cox 柯山慕 (pronounced Keh-Shaan-Moo in my new default tongue) and I am heading to Beijing to study at Minzu University. I was fortunate enough to be named Union College’s William Cady Stone Fellow this year, affording me the honor and responsibility of representing my school overseas for the duration of my junior year. The program is wholly immersive, both linguistically and culturally, and my nerves remain in healthy governance of my excitement. That being said, nothing frightens me more than the thought of being halfway through my time in China with only a smattering of Tumblr-post equivalents to show for myself. Heaving synonyms and selfies onto one post after a next, a Pollockian display of my cultural complacency, is not how I want to stake out a place for myself on the internet. Nor is it how I want to remember my time in a country so vastly different from my own. Instead of exposing – no, bludgeoning – my readers with a series of ‘look-Mom-I’m-serendipitously-bungee-jumping’ updates, I plan on simply sharing my most memorable anecdotes as they relate to my personal life and to events happening in the real world. How my purchasing a toothbrush might prove a sliver in a burgeoning trade war, or how my ogling at an objectively adorable infant might not have been the same under a recently discarded one-child policy. Imagine Hunter S. Thompson meets Rick Steves, save the ether and tourist traps. These are the things that will matter to me – I think – while I’m in China, and hopefully they will appeal to a few of you.

I definitely didn’t expect my sojourn to the far east to begin as it did. An eleventh hour dentist appointment and the extraordinary tooth pain that followed (think a molar giving birth to twin canines) landed me in the chair for an emergency root canal. Though it delayed my departure by a few days, the good news is that I got to hear all about my new Endodontist’s red wine fueled Labor Day Weekend and his kid’s earth-shattering little league performance as he inserted a human hair sized drill into my decaying tooth. Telling my new, jock dentist and his receptionists about my study abroad plans provided me with a sobering reminder that many people share a mistaken perception of China. When I told him Beijing was to be my home for the next year, he looked at me like I was about to slap my cool new dental dam over his mouth and go to town with the hair drill. Many Americans, I’ve found, allow themselves the privilege of thinking about the world’s most populous country in faraway terms, as if the People’s Republic doesn’t claim nearly half of our treasury bonds and daily newspaper headlines.




Today I am finally on my way to Beijing; the belly of the beast. I’m sitting in a cafe in Chicago right now, relishing the friendly company of a barista who decided to take a few minutes to ask me about my travels. This is my first time in this city, and it’s pouring. My summer spent working in New York City produced exactly zero interactions like this one. Part of me loves that for some cynical reason, but my more chummy half questions why that is. I suppose New Yorkers have a sterling social reputation to maintain. I wonder if Beijingers will be friendly to a Gweilo such as myself, like this midwestern coffee lady has been. Will find out, and report back, soon enough.

Word of the Day: Gweilo –


p.s. – Chicago is pretty great. Finalizing my maiden post in the foreground of a community-sourced Keith Haring mural right now, which is being displayed (free of charge) in the Cultural Center downtown. Hit the superb Chicago Art Institute as well. Penultimate meal was a Chicago style Vienna hot dog, and my final supper was a slightly different Vienna sausage, 25 minutes after the first one. Tasty, and apt. Godspeed America.