Peng Du reads pieces out of his chapbook at Ellen Plumbs City Bookstore. 


“Du Peng, you are Emporia!” — Rick Becker, owner and proprietor, Mulready’s Pub.

Du Peng, a Chinese graduate student at ESU, has become something of a local celebrity. He is known for many things, but what I want to showcase is the way in which, unlike many other ESU students (international or not), he has ventured off campus and become tightly integrated into the daily life of Emporia. 

Peng has given poetry readings at the new bookstore in town, Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, 1122 Commercial St.; he has given two stand up comedy performances at Mulready’s Pub, 717 Commercial St.; he has performed his poetry in a zebra costume with the People’s Punk Band at the Brickyard, 20 Ale House; he rode in Emporia’s infamous Dirty Kanza bike race; and, just recently, he was featured in an art exhibit at Mulready’s Pub which displayed life drawings by ESU art students — all of Du Peng. 

There is almost no part of Emporia “Main Street” (Emporia’s historic downtown) where Du Peng does not actively participate. But how did he become such an Emporia regular?

When I met Du Peng at his regular coffee shop, Gravel City Roasters, 608 Commercial St., to find out more about him, he had just spent the evening before with the Bakers, who own and run the coffee shop, for Thanksgiving. Angie Baker told me that this was the second Thanksgiving he had spent with them. He’s become an honorary member of the Baker family. 

“When we bought the business in 2011, he was a fixture here,” Baker said. “When we started roasting our own coffee, Du Peng, having been a coffee taster and very involved with coffee in China, was sort of our guinea pig, and was able to give my husband tips and direction.” 

He was such a regular at the coffee shop that the Bakers purchased a special metal chair in his honor for him to use at his preferred table. He has been to numerous Baker family events and has traveled to concerts outside of Emporia with Joe Baker and their daughter, Clara, who also works at the family coffee shop.

So who is Du Peng? 

He explained at the coffee shop that he comes from Zhengzhou, China, in the Henan province. (Zhengzhou is much larger than Emporia. It’s something like a county seat in China, comprising over 9 million inhabitants.) 

Given that his family is upper-middle class, Peng’s life already took an unusual turn when he was still young. Most people in China of his background would not have gotten a job until they had completed their college degrees, but Du Peng wanted to get out and do things from early on.

He took on a number of different jobs. He ran outreach for a media and marketing company something like Emporia’s IM Design Group when he was around 18 years old. He then became the manager of a number of locations of a chain of independent coffee shops in Zhengzhou. 

Eventually he quit working for the coffee shop and began selling socks in the street, across from the university there. He looked unusual for a sock-seller because he was well-dressed, and so some students thought he was running some sort of scam, eventually creating a minor scandal.

In all of these jobs in China, he got better and better and speaking to strangers and ended up creating a widespread network of friends almost by accident. Here in Emporia, he has also created a network with many overlapping threads. Almost anywhere in Emporia you start, you’ll find other connections Peng has taken up. 

When I interviewed the owner and proprietor of Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, Marcia Lawrence, she told me about all the ways Peng had become a part of the store’s culture, but ended up revealing that Peng has been regularly exploring eateries outside of Emporia.


“He has embraced our community,” Lawrence said. “Du Peng was one of very first people who adopted the book store. From the day we opened he was here probably every other day.” 

When the store moved from its old location, Lawrence said, “Du Peng was one of the people who helped move the bookshelves into the bookstore. He’s come to just about every First Friday.” 

The cooperation goes both ways.

“I have edited all his books,” Lawrence said. “More of a copyedit than anything, and I’ve worked very hard not to lose Du Peng’s voice.”

Finally, as I mentioned, she told me that Peng “goes on Casey Cagle’s Lunch Bus tours. He knew Casey from the music scene and from [Mulready’s pub]. But Casey, at the bookstore, hosts the Armchair Traveller program. Du Peng adopted the Tuesday lunch tour.”

Peng came to Emporia in August 2009 as an ESU business student, but soon transferred to the English program. 

On his first day in Emporia, he explored town on foot to see if he could find a coffee shop. He found Gravel City Roasters (then called JavaCat). 

Already then, before he owned a car, he would often take a bus to see heavy metal bands in the area. When he did eventually buy a car, he drove to Lawrence and Wichita almost every month to see bands. And so, for example, he has seen Bad Religion in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Pearl Jam and Motley Crue in Oklahoma City. 

This shows how he has allowed his interests (in this case, in coffee and heavy metal music) to pull him not just off campus, but out of Emporia to other cities in Kansas and indeed the wider United States.

Eventually, he graduated from ESU with a degree in creative writing. He then stayed in Emporia and pursued a master’s degree in instructional design technology, and just graduated in fall of 2017. 

His involvement at ESU, in local music, and Mulready’s pub (where he can regularly be seen sitting at the bar, reading a new book) lead to other notable events, such as his aforementioned appearance in a zebra costume on stage with the People’s Punk Band, and the pub’s art exhibit of drawings, all of him. 

Finally, over the last year or so, his friendships and connections drew him into Emporia’s busy biking scene. Ultimately, he even rode in the Dirty Kanza, Emporia’s world-famous annual “gravel grinding” bike race.

It should be clear by this point that Du Peng has established a foothold in Emporia’s (and Kansas’s) music, literary, food, bar and biking scenes. But what one might not immediately realize is that many other international (and local) students at ESU could potentially use Du Peng’s success at becoming a part of the community as a model for imitation. 

Well, then, how does he do it? 

Admittedly, he is an odd and very unusual person, different from most people, so one might ask, ‘What if I’m not like him?‘

‘What if I’m not talkative or brash or outgoing? ‘

But anyone could use some of his techniques to make more connections and have more experiences beyond the ESU campus. We could call these techniques “applied hedonism.”

Applied Hedonism 

Use What You Love to Start Exploring

Peng’s main secret for stepping out and making connections, I believe, is the following hedonistic principle: explore more things to have more fun. His love of music, food and literature has taken him to many places. 

Two of his main Emporia starting points, which eventually branched out into many other connections, were a local coffee shop, Gravel City Roasters, and the local bookstore (then the Town Crier). He’s a coffee enthusiast and enjoys coffee shops, so he started with that. 

“I always liked coffee shops,” Peng said. “The first day I was in town, I was just walking around, looking for a coffee shop. The first thing after I set up my apartment, that was the first thing in my head. Because I’m more familiar with it.” 

And of course, as a regular and as someone who likes coffee, he began to strike up conversations at the coffee shop and started making friends.

Likewise, when he went into town to find a bookstore, what pulled him off campus was his love of reading. 

He went looking for a bookstore because he wanted to read a copy of Jack Kerouac’s famous road-trip novel, On the Road, which he had read before in a Chinese translation, in English. And, especially in the new local bookstore, he has met many new people and made many friends.

Peng also uses the things he loves (such as literature and movies) to improve his English. For example, he has read numerous novels chapbooks and biographies in English. 

Many international students may read English in order to get through their textbooks, but what they may not be doing is reading books and articles in English for pleasure. This is an approach which anyone who wants to learn a new language can use, whether international student or not. 

An especially easy technique is to re-read a book you love, but in the language you want to learn. Du Peng had already read Kerouac’s “On the Road” in Chinese, and read it again in English. (When I myself got back from an exchange program in Brazil, I re-read Stephen King’s “The Shining” in Portuguese.) 

The genius of this technique is that you already know the whole story and so it’s much easier to read in a foreign language—and since you’re reading something you already like, it’s fun. That way, learning a language and building vocabulary isn’t something you want to avoid, but is something you look forward to. (You can use a similar technique with subtitles in films you love, too.) 

As I mentioned before, his love of heavy metal and punk rock took him to numerous shows and venues in town, but also took him to see shows in other Kansas cities, and ultimately across the United States. Of course, one can find out about upcoming shows through the Internet, but sales clerks, baristas, bartenders and proprietors at Emporia businesses also often have lots of good tips for anyone willing to ask. 

Explore Things You Don’t Like, Too 

Peng sets challenges for himself which automatically start conversations and lead him to more discoveries. The one I’m aware of is his quest for the worst beer in America. 

I have seen him again and again in conversations with people, trying to settle the pressing question, ‘What is America’s worst beer?’ 

People bring up beers that he hasn’t heard of or tried, and he hunts those beers down or they bring him a can to taste. It’s easy to see that asking people such a question, or claiming to have already had America’s worst beer, is an instant conversation-starter. 

You, too, can carry on Peng’s quest—or set out on your own. If some other students invite you to a sporting event or play, take them up on their offer, even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it—either way, you’ll have a new story to tell when it’s over. 

Talk to People 

Finally, you should talk to people in town, especially Emporia shopkeepers. Starting short conversations is very easy: all you have to do is ask a question when you talk to them. An easy question is, “How long have you been here?” Or “What is a good place in Emporia?” 

Marcia Lawrence, of Ellen Plumb’s City Bookstore, knows about many things and is always happy to give tips and answer questions. And her bookstore holds regular free events (take note, students on a budget). 

International students may not realize how much many people in Emporia would love to talk to them and find out more. If you make sure to ask questions when you are standing in line or meet students and other people, you give others a chance to start a conversation and ask the questions they’ve been dying to ask you. 

I hope that these tips and techniques, culled from Peng’s “applied hedonism,” will make it easier for international students to become more tightly connected to the Emporia community and get the most out of their stay here in the United States. 

But not just international students—local students can also use these techniques to get more out of their stay in Emporia, too! With their success in mind, I raise a glass of hard pear cider from Mulready’s pub to Peng, Emporia’s hedonist raconteur. 

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