Featured Photographer: Michael Steverson

Michael Steverson is an American born documentary and travel photographer living in Liuzhou, China. His work portrays the people and cultures of the places he visits while simultaneously evoking emotion and empathy for seemingly foreign lifestyles. Michael’s photography has been featured around the world, including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic, The Smithsonian, CNN and The BBC.



Q: Can you tell us a bit of your personal story? Where are you from?

A: I am an American documentary and travel photographer, originally from Kentucky. My father was in the military and we moved around a lot when I was very young and I’m sure that’s why I became so interested in travel and other cultures; the wanderlust stuck. I was actually born in Germany, but my mother’s family is all from Kentucky and that’s where we settled after my father was killed in Vietnam in 1967. I was ten at the time.




Q:  How long have you lived in China? What first inspired you to come to China?

A: I’ve been in China now almost ten years. I worked in the music business, in radio and records, for almost all of my adult life and as the record business began to change, I found myself looking at other options. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do, only that I wanted to try and develop my love of photography into something more than a hobby. I wanted to take a leap and do something totally different and unexpected. China seemed very exotic and it more than met those requirements!




Q: How long have you studied Chinese?

A: Well, it began even before I came to China, off an on for about ten years. I began with a basic course of about ten CD’s while I was still in the States, all of it in a very standard Beijing accent. I was in for a rude awakening. I distinctly remember getting off the plane in Guangzhou and hearing loudspeaker announcements at the airport that I was certain weren’t being made in Chinese! Of course they were. I’ve had only a few years of formal language training and I still can’t read more than a few hundred characters, nonetheless I can communicate fairly well. My wife is Chinese and speaks English so she has been my teacher in most areas regarding Chinese. One obstacle that I personally find difficult is that there are so many different dialects spoken in the area I live and across China. It’s much more pronounced than just a regional accent, often totally different words and sounds and tones. Ask ten people in Liuzhou to pronounce the word “two” and you may well get ten pronunciations!




Q: Your photos often seem to have a sense of happenstance, as if you wandered into a new setting and met a stranger. How do you earn the trust of the people you meet? What sort of topics do you like to discuss with them?

A: The photos that appear to be happenstance usually are. I am indeed wandering, for the most part, and looking for candid moments. My goal is to try and capture these people in their environment without altering the scene or spontaneity in any way. I most often don’t communicate with my subjects before photographing them. That usually comes afterward. Those conversations almost always follow a pattern. First, they typically want to know why I am taking their photo. Then, it’s where I’m from, how long I’ve been in China and if I can speak Chinese – often asking me that question even though we’ve been speaking in Chinese… I ask them about their lives, same as you would anywhere. If they are local to the area, if they have kids, grandkids, what their jobs are. Those are the encounters that happen by chance. A great deal of my work is producing documentaries and photo essays for magazines and newspapers. Those encounters aren’t by chance of course and usually entail very specific questions and parameters designed to tell the story.



Q: Can you describe your most memorable chance encounter?

A: That’s difficult – there have been so many enriching encounters. One does come to mind. Early one morning in Liuzhou I took a photo of a man who was sitting alone in an alley and he absolutely objected. He caught me just as I released the shutter and the image reflects that emotion. He immediately stood up and walked past me and into his house, muttering some choice insults over his shoulder. I did my best then to try and win him over but it didn’t work. He wasn’t at all interested and kept walking so I felt bad. I went back to find him a week later, to give him a print of the photo. I found his adult daughter, a woman about my own age, and she invited me in for dinner. The old fella’ was there and was flabbergasted to see me. His daughter and son-in-law kept plying both of us with warm beer and over the course of about an hour he warmed up. He eventually took the photo and stuck it on the wall with a piece of gum (not kidding). Now every time I find myself in his neighborhood I stop in and we have a conversation. The photo is still there, I assume still adhering to the wall with that gum.


He caught me just as I released the shutter and the image reflects that emotion.


You can check out more of Michael’s work on his website including his portraits of Luo Meizhen, purportedly the oldest person in the world at 127.



Guilin’s Flying Tigers

Many people don’t realize that the U.S. and China were close allies during World War II – and that Guilin played a central role in military cooperation between the two countries.
The “Flying Tigers” were an American volunteer air force squadron based in Guilin during the initial years of the war. Officially part the Chinese Air Force, their mission was to defend China against the Japanese.
The wide mouth full of sharp teeth painted onto the nose of the Flying Tiger planes (pictured above) is one of the most recognizable images of WWII. The Flying Tigers fought more than 100 combat missions, shooting down 272 enemy aircraft and destroying another 225 on the ground.
Last month, the Flying Tiger Heritage Park was opened in Guilin in conjunction with the U.S.-based Flying Tiger Historical Organization. The park is built on the original Flying Tigers airfield and includes a museum, aircraft shelters, and hundreds of historical items.
In a recent speech, U.S. Consul General Jennifer Zimdahl Galt perfectly captured the importance of the park and the significance of the historical era it recognizes: “As we honor their memory, let us look to the Flying Tigers for inspiration, as a shining example of the great things that can be accomplished when Americans and Chinese join together in a spirit of mutual friendship and support.”
Source: Xinhua News Agency
Photos: Flying Tiger Historical Organization, Imperial War Museums collection, and the German Federal Archive

CLI Perspectives: The Culture of Chinese Chess

Guilin is bubbling over with cultural experiences, and each experience is open for foreign students to observe and even take part in. There are ayi (“aunties”) line-dancing in city plazas each night; there are majiang parlors where people gamble and gossip late into the evening; there are philosophical discussions over tea ceremonies in local tea houses. Participating in cultural activities like these is a great way for CLI students to meet new people, practice their spoken Chinese, and interact with Chinese culture. In this week’s blog post, Bradford Fried shares a recent cultural experience and the language opportunity and friendship it provided.


Chinese Chess

By Bradford Fried, Co-founder of CLI

On a beautiful day in Guilin this week, I went for a bike ride around the city and into the countryside. Just like any other day, I passed numerous groups of Chinese men standing in a circle intensely focused on what was happening at the center. Many newcomers to China are surprised to discover these onlookers are actually observing a fascinating aspect of Chinese culture: Chinese chess.
I am a big fan of board games, so I decided to stop and watch. This small crowd had five people watching and two men playing. Some of the onlookers were strangers to the players, others friends, but all in attendance were eager to provide suggestions for the players’ next move.
For a board game, Chinese chess is surprisingly loud and energetic. Players slam pieces down with conviction while shouting out their actions. Although the game doesn’t involve a timer, it is fast and aggressive; most players only think for a few seconds between each move and games are finished in around ten minutes.
Chinese chess has been played in China for at least two thousands years. It can quickly be picked up by anyone who knows how to play international chess. The rules are very similar, as are the pieces and strategy.
As one of the oldest cultural activities in China, Chinese chess is a great way for CLI students to immerse themselves in Guilin’s local community. Within a few minutes of stopping to watch the game, I was talking with the onlookers and players, giving my own suggestions of moves to make, and asking why one of the players didn’t take an obvious capture. When the game ended, I was invited to play against the winner — and I was soon left wondering how I was defeated so quickly (but I think I put up a good fight).
Everyone I spoke with was eager to share their knowledge of Chinese chess with me and they asked me lots of questions about my experiences in Guilin. The game I played is a great example of an opportunity where trying is more important than winning, and there is lots to try in Guilin!

Student Spotlight: Daniel

CLI’s Student Spotlight series provides insight into the thoughts and experiences of current CLI students. From food to language study to best local attractions, Student Spotlight gets the inside scoop directly from students on the ground.

Name: Daniel Del Bosque

Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico

University: Yale University

Length of Study at CLI: 6.5 months


Q: How long have you studied Chinese? What sparked your interest in China and the Chinese language?

A: There is a very popular Chinese food restaurant in New Haven that my suitemates and I would often go to. We would never leave without asking for “fortune cookies” (which, of course, I haven’t seen once since I arrived in China). Every time after having dinner at that Chinese restaurant, it became a funny ritual to read the pinyin aloud to one of our suitemates, James, who speaks Chinese. Whoever could read the pinyin out loud and have James understand, won. But, that’s about all the Chinese experience I brought with me to Guilin six and a half months ago. I have learned other languages before, so I have a general interest in languages. I had always wanted to take a gap year to do something that I know I would never be able to do again, pause life for a year and dedicate myself to something very specific, Chinese! For the last six and a half months, my life has been in tones and characters, and I love it!


Q:  What’s your favorite place to eat in Guilin? What do you usually order there?

A: There are lots of good places to eat in Guilin, but the place I have been to the most is the Lanzhou hand-pulled noodle restaurant on the Cultural Walking Street (Lanzhou is in the west of China and its cuisine has strong Muslim influence). It’s the perfect distance away from CLI, the 10 minutes there are a great warm-up to a perfect bowl of noodles, and the 10 minutes back are great for digestion. If I take my scooter, it’s only a few minutes away, and I can even get carryout when I’m in a hurry! Every time I order the same dish: fried egg, tomato, and green pepper noodles. The place is magical. The smells of western Chinese spices linger in the air, and just as you sit down, there is a small bowl of delicious broth waiting for you. The noodles are the perfect consistency. The shop owners’ accent is fascinating. He is a reminder of how big and complex China is, and how far away some people’s families are from one another. Throughout your meal you can hear the loud thumping of the noodles being stretched in the kitchen. I’m proud to say that the 老板 (Laoban: Shop owner) doesn’t ask for my order anymore!


Q: What do you think is the most important thing for a student to remember when studying Chinese?

A: The most important thing to remember when studying Chinese is that even though it may seem Chinese is a difficult language and at times even impractical, it is the language with the most native speakers in the world (twice the number of native Spanish speakers, and three times the number of native English speakers). There is much sense and logic to the language, and when you think there is not, you need only look at the traditional character. Every character is like a 3-D puzzle with meaning, sound, and image. The sooner you learn to recognize separate elements in a character and their associations to specific sounds or meanings, the faster you will absorb new words and learn to recognize and write them. Chinese logic is very different from western logic, but also incredibly straightforward. The learning curve becomes steeper as you learn more characters. So, remember: write characters, write more characters, and then write even more!


Q: What is your favorite Chinese word or expression?

A: 宁静致远 (Ningjing zhiyuan: Tranquility yields transcendence)


Q: What is your favorite thing to do in Guilin after class?

A: My favorite thing to do after class is hike a secret trail into Seven Star Park, and if I’m lucky, see some monkeys in the process. The park is Guilin’s biggest and has everything. In case you’re not familiar with the Chinese concept of everything, here is a short list of some of the things you can find inside: an expo of huge Transformer statues, a Buddhist temple, a paintball court, a beautiful mural, pandas, climbing walls, and of course, old women elegantly dancing and/or doing tai-chi. After the short hike into the park, there are many things to do, however, I always end up doing the same thing: climb to the park’s highest viewing point and listen to music while looking at Guilin’s breathtaking landscape.

Featured Photographer: Trey Ratcliff

Trey Ratcliff is a world-renowned travel photographer and publisher of the blog stuckincustoms.com. Trey’s images from China’s famous cities of Lijiang and Guilin (some of which are featured above) are steeped in wonder and fantasy and evoke a desire for travel and exploration.
According to Trey’s website, he “grew up blind in one eye, which changed the way he has come to experience and visually map the world.”
“There is always something new, unexpected and beautiful to see.”
– Trey’s About page

Happy 2015!

We’re already halfway through our first month of 2015, and Chinese New Year is just around the corner in February.
Above are a few photos from CLI’s December 31st New Year’s dinner at a popular Guilin restaurant called Xiaonanguo (小南国), which translates to “Small South Country”. Over forty party-goers sampled dozens of the most delicious southern Chinese dishes in the traditional Chinese round-table style.
Among the highlights of the night was the presence of CLI’s co-founders, Robert and Bradford Fried, who both delivered warming speeches at the end of the evening, thanking everyone—students and CLI team members alike—for making CLI such a unique and exciting learning community.
In traditional New Year fashion, the group went out to the Shangri-La Hotel bar for drinks and live music after dinner. Students from all over the world joined their teachers, friends, and local community members to celebrate 2014 and welcome the arrival of the new year.
We hope you’re all having an outstanding new year!
-The CLI Team

Farewell, Study Abroad Students!

Last week, CLI said goodbye to a very special group: our fall semester Study Abroad students from SUNY New Paltz. CLI hosted a farewell dinner and roller-skating event on their last day. Congratulations to our New Paltz students on completing a semester in Guilin! 你们辛苦啦!We hope to see you in Guilin again soon!
Good luck to all of our Study Abroad students! Stay in touch and keep studying your Chinese!
The CLI Team

Homestay Potluck Dinner

On Friday, CLI hosted its annual Homestay Potluck Dinner to celebrate our homestay families. Each person brought one dish — and with 50 people in attendance, we covered three tables with delicious local food. The event welcomed host families, CLI students, and many members of the local community and brought everyone together for a feast, games, and even a song and cake for a host family daughter who turned two years old.
With Pictionary and other games, CLI students were challenged with questions in Mandarin while the young Chinese partygoers were quizzed on their English vocabulary. The evening ended with a Chinese language scavenger hunt around the CLI Center, and a big group photo worthy of anyone’s scrapbook.
Thank you to everyone who made this event so successful! We look forward to our next Homestay Potluck Dinner!
The CLI Team

Student Spotlight: Harry

CLI’s Student Spotlight blog series provides insight into the thoughts and experiences of current CLI students. From food to language study to best local attractions, Student Spotlight gets the inside scoop directly from students on the ground.

Name: Harry Mattison

Hometown: New York, New York

Length of Study at CLI: 1 month


Q: How long have you studied Chinese? What sparked your interest in China and the Chinese language?

A: I have studied Mandarin every summer for 4 weeks for the last 7 years. As a high school student I had a teacher who had studied with Edwin Reischauer at Harvard and introduced us to Confucius, Mencius and Lao Tze. I wanted to go to Asia but my life took me elsewhere until my late fifties. When our son went off to college I decided to take a course at a local community college but I was so exhausted by the night classes I was determined to come to China. Over a period of years I have been to Beijing, Kunming and Haikou to study but I find CLI to be the most professional of all the schools I have attended.


Q: Tell us about your experience in China.

A: China has become a second home to me. It is the most peaceful place I know and the hospitality I receive is never ending. What a gift. A great place to practice gratitude.


Q: What’s your favorite Chinese holiday? Why?

A: The Lunar New Year. Where else can you 放鞭炮 (fang bian pao) around the clock? 加油 ! (Jia you!)


Q: What’s your favorite place to eat in Guilin? What do you usually order there?

A: There is a noodle shop up the street and I always order 桂林米粉 (Guilin Mifen). For a dollar a bowl it is a full meal. I usually have fresh mango juice for dessert. A great combination for the budget or weight conscious.


Q: How did you end up at CLI?

A: I might say how did I begin here. In fact I met a former student Jackson Hayes in Qingdao and he said it was the best language school he had encountered and two days later I was on a train to Guilin. Carpe Diem.


Q: What do you think is the most important thing for a student to remember when studying Chinese?

A: It’s a process and has no end. Enjoy yourself and those who arrive to help you, teachers, friends, strangers. Perseverance furthers…


Q: What is the most valuable thing you’ve learned at CLI?

A: Patience.


Q: Please talk about a person in Guilin that you find interesting or had an interesting interaction with.

A: My teachers. Each one has shared so much with me.


Q: What is your favorite Chinese word or expression?

A: 谢意 (Xieyi: Gratitude; thankfulness).


Q: What is your favorite thing to do in Guilin after class?

A: 出去散步 (Chuqu sanbu: To go out for a walk).

Dumpling Party!

包饺子! CLI recently hosted a dumpling making party in the CLI kitchen! Dumpling making is often a social activity in China, with family and friends coming together to make various fillings, then stuffing their favorite filling into a dumpling wrap and boiling or frying it to perfection.


Check out photos of students and friends below!

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