Hello Uncle Foreigner


Feb 28, 2013

Snaps: Country Driving

Off the beaten path

Roads can be treacherous.

It can be treacherous out there. Be careful!

Feb 24, 2013

Winter break: Return to China

Leaving is also arriving

Peter on the river
Pete's Tex Mex
With the Lazy Pug on vacation, Peter’s Tex Mex took good care of us.
Jane and her dog
Jane’s dog, Mango. Or Bongo. Each of us heard something different.

Our trip to Penang was our first time outside of China in more than a year. And it was great — everyone spoke English, things weren’t just broken everywhere and always, there was no hoop jumping to get stuff done. Everything was so comfortable and easy!

But, during our last days of warmth and Anglophonics, there was a conspicuous absence of end-of-vacation dread. We were actually missing our difficult Chinese life, and couldn’t wait to get back.

We bookended our travel to and from Malaysia with a stay in Chengdu, and holed up for a few days at our favorite hostel, the Loft. We weren’t yet home, but it was great to be someplace familiar to continue our relaxing.

Of course, when in Chengdu, we have to go for Mexican food. The Pug, alas, was also on a winter break, but we found joy and margaritas at Peter’s Tex Mex. That’s this quarter’s tacos achieved.

Back home in Luzhou, we are immediately greeted with big hellos from all our students on the new campus. (They were finishing up the fall term’s final exams.) We made plans to have dinner with Tina, Sky, et al., later in the week.

And with two apartments, we got to make two returns. On a walk by the old campus, we ran into Young Jane and KOKO!, who were out walking their dogs. We sat on a bench by the river and showed them some photos of our vacation, and then went for ice cream (late January was surprisingly and gloriously warm here this year).

We finally felt like we were truly home when we went for dinner that night at 串串. Peter wore his new Iron Maiden football jersey that had arrived while we were away (“Is that for exercise?” our boss Linda asked), and it just felt like a special occasion. A random passerby even wished us in English, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

We had a great time traveling, but it’s really nice to be home.

Peter in his new Maiden jerseyBread
Left: Peter in his new footie jersey at Man U. Right: Some delicious Chinese Muslim bread we found while out with Jane and KOKO!

Jan 5, 2013


Out go the lights, again

Car headlights light the way home

Power cuts are just part of life here. I would estimate that this past term saw an outage about once every two weeks — sometimes for a few hours, sometimes the whole day. It’s unpredictable, and you just have to roll with it.

The kids study in the cafeteria, which has an emergency generator
Drinking beer by candlelight

Part of rolling with it is making sure the students get enough study time in. During one particular power outage (coincidentally, the water had been out all day the day before), Peter and I decided to cope by going into town for dinner with the hope that the electricity would be on by the time we got back.

No such luck.

We returned to a brigade of teachers illuminating a passage for the students with flashlights and headlights. The kids were all trucking their books from the dark classrooms to the emergency-generator lit cafeteria. This was prime homework time, and there was no reason to miss out on it just because it was dark.

We walked through the cafeteria to get home, and witnessed the excited chaos of a routine interrupted. Kids had all their books out, but were taking their time getting settled into work. As we walked by, they called out and waved excitedly to us. It felt a little bit like celebrities visiting the displaced in a storm shelter. It was definitely an “our life is so weird” moment.

At home, we poured beers by flashlight and lit emergency candles, resigning ourselves to a technology-less night. And then, a little more than three hours after everything flickered out dead, and directly after we sat down, the lights were back on. That’s just how it goes.

Dec 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Eat up!

The teachers feastThe cooks get their turn

Yesterday, we had our annual Teachers’ Field Day and banquet. All teachers and staff from both campuses convened on the new school’s field in the afternoon for some raucous sporting … and ridiculous cheating. But it was all in good fun. The events included the three-legged race, balance the ping pong ball on the badminton racquet, jump rope, two people transport a volleyball using their backs and not their hands, and a good old-fashioned relay race. I was part of the latter, and my team WON! All in good fun.

After the games, everyone retired to the cafeteria for a holiday banquet. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as last year (they may have run through a lot of money opening the new school this fall), but it was really delicious, and everyone had a lot of fun. Dish after dish piled up on the table, and the cafeteria workers switched off serving so that they could also enjoy the feast. The principals made the rounds, toasting each table with the traditional baijiu … and then 30 minutes after it started, the fun was done.

We’re still getting used to the pace of Chinese formal dinners, but it was a nice time with our co-workers. Happy New Year!

Dec 28, 2012

Snap: Look over there …

There’sss sssomething in the bushesss

There's a snake!

Peter’s story, adapted by Emily: There are many buildings overlooking our city campus that are not part of our school. One afternoon, some boys beckoned to me from a window of one of these. Clearly they wanted me to look at something, so I did. It was a snake. It was big. You don’t want to see it. Thanks, boys.

Dec 26, 2012

Middle Country Christmas wishes

“Did you know there’s a church?”

Luzhou's church

Yesterday and today, we got many kind wishes of “Merry Christmas” from our Chinese friends and students. Not everyone is clear on the details, but everyone knows that Christmas is part of our culture and that the time to celebrate is now-ish. It’s very thoughtful.

Alex even called for a Christmas chat (which, speaking your second language on the phone is really difficult, so props to him). During our talk he asked if we knew that there was a church in Luzhou — which interestingly enough, we had just stumbled upon about a month ago while doing some city wandering.

“Do you think they had many activities today?” he asked.

I’m pretty sure they were pretty busy, I told him.

Dec 26, 2012

The guard house

And the guys to befriend

The guardhouse at night

All entryways to the school, both in the city and out in the countryside are manned by guards who make sure that you’re supposed to be going in or out. Students have to show ID, and sometimes passes that say they’re allowed to leave or enter the campus at that time.

We just recently realized that these guards come from the Luzhou city police force. Given that they get to spend most of their day joking around with each other and playing computer games, I’m guessng that it’s a pretty cush posting.

We like to say hello as we pass, because it’s polite, and sometimes we make a little small talk of the 你们吃饭吗, 我们吃饭-variety [“You will eat dinner? We will eat dinner.”]. But, though we’re not asked for paperwork, it turns out they are keeping tabs on us. We found this out after we came back late one night. We think the fact that we were accompanied by some friendly laborers that we had met on the walk back is what turned it into an incident to be reported. “You don’t speak Chinese, and you don’t know the politics out in the countryside,” our boss chastised us in a cryptic speech a few weeks later that we can only guess was motivated by said late-night walk. It wasn’t clear precisely what we’d done wrong, but I’m pretty sure she’d be much happier with us if we confined ourselves to our apartment and the classrooms.

Dec 25, 2012

Eating at the cool table

The Chinese kids take us in

Helen and Tina with Peter
From left: Helen (who is NOT a turkey, she’ll have you know), Peter, Tina

Our plan to connect with the students by sitting in their dining hall bore fruit pretty much right away.

Tina, one of Peter’s students, was the first to ask to sit with us. Now, we don’t feel scary, but the kids tend to consider talking with us a terrifying prospect. There’s always a lot of apologizing for mistakes and embarrassed giggling as they try to find the words they need. Some of our students can do no more than yell out hello and run away when they see us outside of class. And, seriously, no other teachers eat with the students. So for Tina to slide her tray over to us was an incredibly bold move, and we admired her right away for it.

The next day, she brought some of her friends with her — partially to prove to them that she had had the guts to eat with us in the first place. They were suitably impressed. After lunch, we all walked back to the dorms together, and Tina bashfully asked for a hug. Once the first hug was given out, Helen — one of the new girls — wanted one too. But again, Tina blazed the trail.

As time went on, our group of admirers grew. More students attracted more students. Even from ones who don’t stay, we get a surprised and friendly greeting as they pass. One afternoon, a student who was too shy to sit even gave us a drive-by taste of this delicious spicy, fermented bean paste before running off in a fit of giggles. (We’ve since gone through two bottles of the stuff on our own. It’s really quite tasty.)

In addition to getting to better know our current students, we’ve also been able to reconnect with some of last year’s kids. It’s been such a pleasure to get in touch with them again, and it’s been interesting to see kids mix it up with others with whom they might not usually interact; for example, Senior 1s and Senior 2s. At busy meals, we see multiple shifts of students as kids join and leave the party. “You have many fans,” observed one of the boys at one such dinner.

Not surprisingly, food is a big topic of conversation. Do we like Chinese food? What is American food like? Can you cook? Other big topics include our life in America and traveling abroad.

One night XiuLing, one of my former students and such a sweet girl, told Peter, “I hope you stay in China forever!” That was immediately responded to by another student: “That’s terrible.”

Our meals with the kids are always lively and fun, more than what we hoped for when we started the experiment. Tina and her friends are the most regular attendees, and recently she revealed that they brainstorm discussion topics for when they are going to eat with us. November 28th’s agenda: the upcoming Parent’s Day, American pen pals, and “Do you feel uncomfortable when we talk a lot in Chinese to each other?”

Not in the least, I told them. We’re happy they’re there.

All the girls, eating dinner
Clockwise from top: Sky, Emily, I’m-so-sorry-I-forget-her-name!, Elaine, Tina and Jane. You can see our jar of delicious bean paste in the center of the table.

Dec 24, 2012

Surprised by Christmas in Luzhou

Santa shops in China

Buying a new coat
Peter, wearing his new winter coat, in Bao-en Pagoda plaza

For Christmas, we have today and tomorrow off, but we didn’t really plan on doing anything beyond vegging and puttering. Christmas isn’t a Chinese holiday, and we weren’t going to get a big tree or make a big deal for just the two of us.

But, though Christmas isn’t really celebrated, it is recognized — with sales! On our Saturday afternoon provisions run into the city, we were ambushed by the sights and sounds of Christmas deals. Stores on Middle Road were festooned with be-Santa-ed signs reading “Your Text Here Merry Christmas Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet!” Peter, again, got really lucky with a winter coat that caught his eye; price tag 399RMB [US$64] which rung up as 239RMB [US$39].

Peter Santa
This time, Santa’s sack is full of coal for some good ex-pat teachers.

Finally fully realizing we were on holiday, we stopped for an afternoon beer at a place we just noticed that overlooked Bao’en Pagoda Plaza in the center of the city. Below was all hustle and bustle, and we took a long minute to be relaxed and happy.

In the supermarket — our next stop — listening to the strains of a Chinese version of “O Holy Night,” we’d decided that we caught the Christmas spirit. It was decided: we’d go home and watch “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” which, it turns out, with its focus on commerce and thrift, is a pretty Chinese Christmas tale.

Before returning to the countryside, we had one more stop. We swung by old apartment to pick up some charcoal for our grill (stay tuned). And then, while we were hailing a cab, we caught a glimpse of Santa.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Dec 18, 2012

The Juniors dance

A short break from homework and school books

The Junior dancers
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ... Dwarves?
Snow White and her seven Santa dwarves
Our favorite performance

All month, junior students have been asking to miss our classes for dance practice — which is just a thing that happens; because oral English is considered somewhat of a supplement, the other teacher often schedule other extracurriculars (or sometimes even tests) during our classes. It’s a little annoying because it messes with our planning, but it’s not too terrible as it either results in a half-sized class or a free period for us!

And Friday, we got to see the results of all this practice at the Junior school dance performance. Many of our students invited us to come watch, so we had advance warning that Friday afternoon classes were cancelled. (Our boss didn’t call to tell us until five minutes after that first afternoon class should have started.)

Even at a junior school assembly, there’s all the trappings and pomp that attend an adult special event: Four CCTV-jr. hosts presided, with their first duties being to introduce all the principals and VIPs. Then someone important made a dull speech. And then the chaos began!

They definitely front-loaded the programming. The opening act was a short retelling of “Snow White,” with a little boy in a dress as our fairest of the land and one of my favorite students, Angel, as the evil queen. It was mostly in Chinese (the local dialect, as one of the teachers informed me), but funny nonetheless.

This was followed by an incredibly impressive and moving ballet piece depicting the violence and brutality of war. Soldiers carried their injured brethren on their backs with loving care, but no promise of safety or reward. It was astonishing to see these young dancers execute some very technical lifts and carries, and at the same time they exuded true sadness and emotion through their movement. It was a stunning bit of dancing, and not generally what one expects to find at a junior high assembly.

The rest of it was exactly what one expects to find at a junior high assembly. There was a mix of traditional and contemporary music and dancing, with hip-hop dominating the contemporary styles. Individual performers showed some real skill, but mostly, everyone seemed to be having fun. A lot of the acts managed to incorporate some “Gangnam Style” horsing around.

By about No. 14 on the program, a lot of the VIPs left. We lasted for 18 of the 20 acts, but they don’t heat the gym and we were freezing, so we took our leave.

In a culture that so strongly emphasizes homework and scholastic achievement, it’s really interesting to see how extracurricular activities — especially the arts — are treated here. I suspect that if you show real promise at an early age, you’re sidetracked into a special school that plays to those gifts. Otherwise, you’re encouraged to put those pursuits aside to focus on your schoolwork as you age. (We have a lot of senior students that say that they used to play an instrument, for example.) But — as someone who believes that arts education is equally important to producing well-rounded, thoughtful adults — I’m glad to see that there is still some time for dancing.

Junior dancers