Hello Uncle Foreigner


Jun 22, 2013

Snaps: It’s a parade

… of savings!

Going on paradeGoing on paradeMore Parading Still parading

Shortly after our arrival in Luzhou, way back in September 2011, China celebrated the National Day holiday — meaning a few short days after we were thrown into the classrooms, we were given a week-long break. No one had told us much about what the holiday means or what people do, only that we had time off. From our apartment, we could hear drum corps marching down the streets, and so we assumed there must be some sort of holiday-related parade that we were missing.

Nope. We have since run into these roving bands of drumming women many, many times. They’re advertising local sales. Of course.

Jun 11, 2013

The many faces of Listening Ling

A king of masks in training

Listening, after the show

Our friend Listening Ling (formerly called Alex) has been studying the Sichuanese art of Face Changing this past year, and we were psyched last night to go see him in his first public performance. We met up with our new Australian friend Cori (whom we me through Listening; if you speak English in Luzhou, Listening with find you) and waited in the city center for Listening to come pick us up. And then, Listening called and said that the restaurant was too crowded for us to come; we were basically planning to crash his graduation party, so we were bummed but we understood.

As an alternative plan, we decided to take Cori to Golden Hans for some good dark beer — in the week and a half we’ve known him, we’ve basically been giving Cori a dissertation on the beers of Luzhou, whether he wants that or not.

At Golden Hans, who should we run into, but Listening! The restaurant was in fact very crowded, but we squeezed into a table at the back. Listening came to visit with us periodically, updating us on the status of his performance. We could tell he was very nervous and we tried to pep him up. “My friends are all singing or telling jokes,” he told us. “I’m the only one doing the face changing.” “So then you’ll be the best,” I said. “That’s too much pressure!” he said.

But the show must go on. Listening changed into his costume, and we gathered at the front stage with the rest of the restaurant. Everyone had their cameras out, even people, I think, unconnected with the school crew. This was a special event.

And it was amazing! Listening did a “Gangnam Style”-inspired dance and his masks appeared from nowhere and then disappeared back into the air. He had previously told us that the kids these days are losing interest in the traditional arts, and it was important to him to modernize the form. We think he was a total success!

Jun 5, 2013

Snaps: Rocking closer to home

The cool kids make some noise

A concert on the school grounds
Our rock band

Shortly after arming ourselves with new instruments, we found that Tianfu Middle School had been training up some little rockers as well. It was showcase day for the school’s various clubs, and one of those clubs was rock club.

The group gave a performance, rotating in new singers for each song. They ran into some sound issues — like you do, in China — but it was a pretty cool show. Mixed in with the poppy tunes were some proto-post-Joy Division droners. Extremely cool.

Jun 2, 2013

Guitar shopping

And bargaining practice

Our family of guitars

With rock in our ears as we returned to Luzhou, we decided it was time to go guitar shopping. It was about time we acquired a cheap acoustic for the old apartment.

On our initial recon trip to the half dozen music stores that surround the old campus, we walked away with a brand new ukulele. The instant I picked it up, I just wanted it. The price tag was 860 yuan — a little over US$100 — though we accidentally bargained the clerk down to 840, because she waved away our debit card and 840 was all the cash we had on hand. Score!

After spending the afternoon with the newly christened Ramona Mona Ramone, Peter decided that what he was really after was a nylon stringed classical guitar. So the next day, we returned to the most promising of the shops. There was a cool-looking crew hanging out there: An older manager-type, a young man expertly jamming on an electric Paul Reed Smith, two post-high school girls with a little English who seemed to work there, and an additional girl who looked girlfriendy.

They all watched — well, not the girlfriend, she was busy with her phone — as Peter tried out the guitar he wanted. A small step up from the cheapest of the cheap, it was a huge leap in quality, and it was to be ours. The price tag said 1600 yuan, but “I’m going to ask for less,” I told Peter in English. Then in Chinese, I tried to say it was too expensive. Whatever I did manage to say, they understood my meaning, and the manager knocked 300 off.

They also didn’t take cards, so I had to run to the bank for cash, leaving Peter with all of our stuff. Peter took a spin on the young man’s guitar. “Oh, wow! So cool,” his audience cooed. As he was looking through a Fender catalogue, one of the girls asked Peter if he liked Fender. “I do. But they’re very expensive,” he said. They all laughed, knowingly. (They may have the catalogues, but most of the guitars we see in the stores here are knockoffs.)

There was a poster of Ibanez guitars on the wall, and Peter pointed to it and said “That’s what I play.” The girl retrieved an Ibanez catalogue from the back, and flipped to a picture of Steve Vai. She pointed to the boy with guitar and said “That’s his favorite guitarist.” Peter said “Me too!” And the boy launched into some Steve Vai songs. He was pretty good, too.

Luzhou’s not a live music town — everyone tells us that we have to go to Chongqing or Chengdu for that. But, of course, the kids who like music hang out at the guitar stores! Duh. Some things are not so different between the US and China.

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.