Hello Uncle Foreigner


May 18, 2013

Friday in China

May 10, 2013 • 2013年 05月 10日

Can you spot Uncle Foreigner?

Fridays, we teach Juniors, and it’s Peter’s earliest day. His first class is second period, 8:40am. For me, it’s my sleep-in day; my first class isn’t until third period, 9:30am.

The kids today are more rambunctious than usual. Opening class with “How are you?” gets me answers of “Unhappy!” and “Terrible!” Their parents are coming in for school conferences.

I hear more about it at lunchtime. Peter is taking a nap and I am done for the day, so I walk down the hill with my student, Amy. She is wearing a shirt that says, “We are all greedy bitches.” I know that she knows what the word “bitch” means, because she keeps calling her history teacher one. “I know what the rules are! I never break them,” she complains to me, her voice quivering with the rage of the unjustly wronged. And yet, her history teacher yells at her a lot, and will presumably give a bad report to Amy’s mother and father. Amy is also worried what her parents will think about the 0 she got on her math exam. “I don’t like math,” she says in defence. She did, however, get a 95 in English.

After we say goodbye, I go up to the track. On my second lap, a Senior 3 student, Zhang Rae, joins me. We try to run together every week, and he’ll practice his English on me. He tells me he really liked the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

We discuss films, future plans, Chinese history … everything. “Many young people think Deng Xiaoping was a great man,” Zhang Rae says. They don’t like Mao. But, he adds, Mao was a great man.

On my way back to my apartment, I’m met by one of my neighbors, an older man in his 70s. With Zhang Rae’s translation help, we have our first conversation: He sees me running all of the time! Would I like a plant that will cure my freckles? Chinese people really don’t like freckles.

Curious, I take him up on his offer. The plant turns out to be aloe — my neighbor is cultivating, like, hundreds of aloe vera plants. He chops me a few stalks and mimes rubbing them all over my face. When I run out, I am free to pick some more, he tells me.

After the lunch break, Peter goes to his final class. Ten minutes later, he returns. It turns out parent-teacher conferences are happening during afternoon classes. Not for the first time, our classes are cancelled without anyone telling us. But it’s a hardship we’ll bear. The internet is out, so we spend all afternoon reading comic books and playing cards.

For dinner, we are meeting a new friend, Melody. She spotted us at chuan chuan a few weeks ago and introduced herself. Her English is really good. She’s actually a former English teacher from our school, and these days she does private tutoring while she stays home with her baby. She keeps current on her English by watching and reading American TV and books.

While we wait for Melody, at the corner near chuan chuan, one of Peter’s students spots us. Walking with her father, she proudly says hello. They disappear around the corner … and then she comes running back. She offers us a bag of delicious flaky pastries filled with red bean paste. We eat two on the spot and have the rest for days.

Before dinner, Melody takes us to get Chinese massages. These are the best massages either of us have ever had. More theraputic than, like, a pamper-yourself spa package, they treat all of our aches and pains. As we’re finishing up, Melody asks if we’d like to try cupping. “Does it hurt?” I ask. Not really, she said.

Peter got cuppedMelody brought us to a new restaurant
Left: Peter’s post-cupping back. Despite the welty look, it doesn’t hurt. I promise. Right: Melody and me, and the many fine cuts of beef we ate.

Cupping is one of those things that the hosts of Chinese travel documentaries have to try out, always with an air of, “Isn’t Chinese medicine wacky?!” But it didn’t really feel any stranger than other poking and prodding I’d been through in the name of beauty and comfort. I was thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow, though, the whole time the cups were suctioned on my back. In the end, I felt great and Peter said that his 22-year-old back injury felt better than it ever had.

In this state of bliss, we go on to dinner. Melody takes us to a new hot pot restaurant that specializes in beef. We get individual pots, and a large spread of delicious food. They also have a spice bar there, and Peter and I go a little nuts. Looking at our bowls, Melody says she can tell we are newbies because we took so many different things. But I need garlic, peanuts, oil, 2 kinds of peppers, tahini AND sesame seeds!

The conversation is equally as delicious. We talk about what it means to live a good life and how to follow your heart, both philosophically and pragmatically. We also talk English; Melody asks us what a trust fund is — something she’d come across in her reading. “The characters are always saying, ‘Don’t touch my trust fund!’” she says. She’s surprised when we tell her that not all Americans have trust funds.

After dinner, we say goodbye to Melody and cap off the night at Manchester United. They always have interesting music there. Tonight on rotation: “Rock and Roll All Nite,” KISS; “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode; “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” T.Rex. Why? Who can say. That’s just China.

We ate BEEF

May 12, 2013

China gets excited about “Iron Man 3”

Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi steal the show

Iron Man

So, you may know that we got to see a different version of “Iron Man 3” over here, with some extra special Chinese scenes. It was pretty easy to tell what those scenes were, because they were all in Chinese with no English subtitles. And they seemed to be spliced in from a different film.

We went last Saturday afternoon — opening weekend, of course — and the theater was packed. Not quite sold out, but the most people we’d seen there in all our movie-going adventures. We were an excited and attentive audience, and the film just dived right in with no previews. It was awesome and exciting, and if you’re a fan of fun, you should go see it.

But, given all the hype (but none of the advertising), I was expecting a lot of the action to be set in China. *Spoiler alert*: It wasn’t. The Chinese bit was really just tacked on at the end. Tony goes to China for heart surgery, and the doctors — played by well-known Chinese actors — trade quips as they scrub up. The audience laughed, so it must have been funny.

The Chinese moment that got the biggest reaction, however, was completely unintentional: There was a widely reported bit of product placement for a popular bean drink, and when it showed up on screen as one of the doctors’ drink of choice, we all roared.

Apr 20, 2013

Snaps: Peter in the wall

Abandoned riverside cafe

I don't think this business is open anymore

Last summer’s flood left behind some strange rubble, some of which still hasn’t been reclaimed.

Apr 8, 2013

We can fly … mostly

Tianfu Middle School Kite Festival 2013

The Tianfu Middle School kite festival

Last week, the whole school was atwitter about the upcoming kite festival set for Easter Sunday. (Well, they just called it Sunday). The Monday afternoon prior, my class 24 taught me 风筝, the Chinese word for kite, and all week different students asked if we would attend. “It starts at 8,” our boss Linda told us, which, of course it did.

Sunday morning, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 8, hoping to miss any opening Kite Festival speeches and arrive fashionably late. When we got to the sports field, the students were already loaded into the bleachers, but there were a bunch of kids at the field level making their last-minute preparations.

Last minute repairs on a kiteThe students speak English with meHiding from the sun

The way it worked, a student filled us in, was that each class was to have made two kites. There would be prizes for the most beautiful, highest flying, etc. Some classes had spent days and days on theirs — though some were starting from scratch right then and there — and we saw some beautifully decorated specimens. My favorites were the few that were made from plain newspaper with hand-painted Chinese characters; gorgeous in their simplicity. Phoenixes, the school’s mascot, were popular, as were other birds. One class took it even further and did an Angry Birds kite.

Fish and snakes rounded out the animalia theme. There were a couple Chinese flags, and a 100RMB bill. One kite looked like an angel or a ghost. She didn’t fly very well, sadly, though it would have been cool if she did.

We chose a seat high up in the center of the bleachers, which happened to be where Peter’s gifted classes had been placed. There was a lot of homework and reading going on among these kids while they waited for the event to begin.

A couple of students asked us if American schools hosted kite festivals. No, we told them, Americans kind of think of kite flying as an old-fashioned pastime. When we turned the question around on them — Do you fly kites often? — most of the students said that it was something they did when they were little, but not anymore. “I am from the countryside,” one boy said, “I don’t have time to fly kites.”

After about an hour, the event began in earnest. Groups of 10 or so lined up at one end of the field and showed their stuff. There was little wind to speak of, so the kids had to run hard to get their kites aloft. The students in the stands cheered on their classmates, though as far as competitive sports go, kite flying is awesomely nonsensical.

Peter chatted with one of his boy students, while I spoke to a few of his girls. This is definitely a recurring pattern, and possibly one of the reasons that the school prefers to hire couples as foreign teachers. One of the girls told me that she prefers physics to English … this in pretty decent English; I’m pretty envious of Peter’s gifted classes sometimes.

One of the most impressive kites was a gigantic snake that cast a large shadow over the field as it undulated across the sky. The kids traded off flying it, because they had to run like the dickens to keep it in the air.

After the last competitors left the field, the wind finally picked up. Taking advantage of this, a kite free-for-all broke out. It must be said that the store-bought kites did fly better than their homemade counterparts, but as Peter’s student pointed out, the students do feel proud when something they made flies.

Mar 31, 2013

A picnic in the park

A plan comes together, Chinese-style

This park is still under construction, but come on in!

A few weeks ago, our boss pointed out a new park that is very near to our countryside campus. A perfect place for an American-style picnic, we thought. We invited our friend Alex along, as he loves all things American.

The date was set for yesterday, but Peter started work Thursday afternoon, boiling some potatoes and some eggs for a potato salad. Friday evening, we shopped for more provisions, including chips, veggies for crudité, cheese and bread for sandwiches, and Peter assembled the potato salad to set overnight. We woke up early Saturday morning to put everything else together. And then we waited at the bus stop for Alex …

… who had thought we meant Sunday, not Saturday. Bad news! He had class and couldn’t make it. But the show must go on.

The park entrance
Hard at work, building the park paths
The road down to the river

The front gate to the park was big and impressive, like most park entrances we’ve seen. But, we noticed a lot of men and women in construction wear, carrying big piles of stuff around. Our boss wouldn’t have sent us to a park that was still being built, would she? Of course she would.

But, in China, just because something is under construction, it doesn’t mean that civilians can’t wander around. No one batted an eye as we walked down the dirt/concrete roadway into the future park. At one point, the path was blocked by an excavator moving dirt from here to there, but the operator ceased his work so that we could scoot by.

As we got closer to the river, there was a small foresty area, with funkily shaped rock pieces scattered about, ready to be installed as park sculpture/benches. There was also one fake stump that was flanked by two smaller fake stumps, as if it were set out just for us to have our picnic.

As we sat and ate, we watched pleasure bikers traverse the path. (We also saw them all turn around when they got to the excavator.) The funny thing was, with just trees and a simple paved road, the partially completed park felt a lot more European or American than other Chinese parks we’ve been to. You could forget that you were anywhere. Despite the distant noise of construction, which is pretty much a constant in our lives anyway, the whole world was a cheese sandwich. And potato salad.

Our American picnicIt's lovely to eat under a tree

Mar 30, 2013

The chickens of Luzhou

Didn’t have to pay to get it in

To the chickens!
Click on the photo above for 6 pictures of chickens!

Pork is the preferred protein in our part of the world, but I’d say that chickens are a close second. People raise ‘em and sell ‘em all over the city. Sometimes we even see live chickens taking the bus.

Mar 30, 2013

Tea and oranges with the bosses

And a rousing game of “Run the fastest”

The weather here has been glorious of late, and we had a perfect afternoon for an English department outing recently. Our boss took us to lunch at a Hong Kong-style restaurant near her home — where we all agreed that the food was neither western nor eastern, but very delicious. Afterwards, we walked to a nearby teahouse.

Tea in China is not just for drinking. You also must play games. Our server brought us over a fresh pack of cards and laid down a felt square on our glass table top. And the teachers taught me a rummy-like game that they referred to as Mahjong. They also said that the Chinese name translates as “Run the Fastest,” as the object of the game is to get rid of all your cards first. (The rules are very similar to this game that wikipedia calls “Fight the Landlord.”)

It was a lot of fun. I even won a hand or two! I’ll admit it, I have fun when I’m winning.

Mar 26, 2013

Other Westerners

A meeting of the Luzhou ex-pat ESL teachers club

The other Luzhou expats

This summer we learned that we are not the only westerners in Luzhou, and last month we sat down and had a beer with all but one of the foreign teachers currently active in Luzhou. Areas represented: New York (that’s us!), Midwestern US, England, and South Africa.

We met at “The Clock Tower,” because that’s a convenient enough address among a bunch of English speakers, and then migrated over to Manchester United for a night of beers and more beers. And some complaining about China. But mostly beers.

Mar 12, 2013

Battling the mold

And minor fame at the pharmacy

I found the Psedoephedrine!
October 2011, I buy my first Chinese pseudoephedrine. Look how short my hair is! And how red!

This week, the senior lesson is all about drugs, so we’re showing them the “Chokin’ and Tokin’ ” episode of “Freaks and Geeks,” in which Lindsay experiments with marijuana. The B-plot centers around poor, sickly Bill, and the line wherein he explains that air is foremost among his many allergies has gotten a big laugh in every class.

But I feel for Bill. I’ve been taking allergy medicine of some sort since I was nine, and damp and rainy Luzhou is not a friendly place for allergy sufferers.

One of the first Chinese words I learned was 氯雷他定 (Loratadine), and six months in I was even able to start pronouncing it correctly. I’ve tracked down pseudoephedrine when expat message boards pronounced it unavailable in China. And I am a hyper-vigilant berserker waging a ceaseless war against the ever encroaching mold. (Pro-tip: bleach worked well, but vinegar works even better!) It makes me feel like a maniac sometimes, especially when our boss’ reaction to my complaints is along the lines of, “Oh yeah. Sometimes there’s mold.”

But my friendly neighborhood pharmacy workers have got my back. I got proof of how well my ailment is known the other day when one woman immediately went for a box of Loratadine the second I walked in the door. We all laughed. And I was able to keep the sneezing at bay for another 10mg x 10 pills.

Mar 9, 2013

Happy International Women’s Day!

Hey, ladies!

My prizes for Woman's Day

Yesterday morning, I was greeted on my way to class by Angel and two of my other junior students. “Here,” they said, and thrust a small bouquet in my hand. “Happy Women’s Day!” The warning bell rang and we ran off to class together.

The flowers were from Angel’s entire class, so I thanked everyone, and they all cheered. It was a very sweet moment.

Then they immediately started chanting “Watch TV! Watch TV! Watch TV!” Oh, juniors!