Hello Uncle Foreigner

culture

Jan 28, 2014

Take good care of yourself

Have a fish, why don’t you?

Our reflexology guy
Peter tries some meatPeter tries more meat!Peter loves eating meat!
The road to meat acceptance

Peter is “pre-sick,” according to our reflexologist. “If you went to a hospital, they’d say you were fine, but I can tell you’re very unhealthy,” he told us through a translator.

Now, reflexology is bunk, but massages are lovely, so we go back. The beauty of working essentially part time is that there’s plenty of time to pamper yourself. And our reflexology guy runs a nice place; massage is a social event in China, so neighborhood kids are always about, and pop-in friends and other customers are always up for a chat. It’s actually a great chance for me to practice my Chinese while our aches and pains are soothed.

Chinese medicine is all around in China. But most people take it as seriously as Americans do their folk beliefs such as “no swimming an hour after eating,” or “cold weather + wet hair = instant cold.” Our Chinese friends are quick to recommend drinking hot water as a curative for about everything, and cite the restorative benefits of certain foods, but they’ll also take ibuprofen for a headache and antibiotics for a bacterial infection. We’re not practicing witchcraft, over here.

“Do you eat fish?” our reflexologist asked Peter during one visit. “You should.” This actually seemed pretty reasonable to Peter, who had recently been connecting the dots between his feeling terrible all the time and his vegetarianism. So that night, he welcomed animal proteins back into his life with some nibbles of chicken. And he’s feeling a lot better. (Nutritional science! Now that’s a thing.)

Our reflexologist hasn’t said anything, but he’s stopped squeezing Peter’s big toe and saying “Your stomach is bad.” Healthy meat, healthy feet, I guess.

Jan 4, 2014

Rocking the school talent show

Sure, we’ve got the time ...

We played for the whole school
Our little trioLinda on the drums

Linda asked us if we could play at this year’s school talent show, so we asked her if she could find a student who could drum for us. “I’m learning to play the drums. I can do it!” she said. And a trio was born.

Teachers generally don’t perform at these things, but we’re the Meiguos, and people love to have us be a part of things. (I once gave an impromtu speech, in English, to a room full of Chinese speakers because I wandered into the wrong room on Parents’ Day.) We chose Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” because it’s short, peppy, and has a swingin’ bass line. Linda met with us a couple of times to practice, and urged us to trim the 3:30 song. She explained our role thusly: “We’ll come out and it will be a big surprise. And then the surprise will be over!”

On the day of the show, we lived up to expectations. Peter, Linda and I took the stage to a huge roar of applause; we cranked out our song and the crowd clapped the beat along; and then we were done before anyone realized that I had forgotten all of the words and basically sang nonsense syllables for about a minute and a half. It was fantastic.

There’s probably video extant somewhere; half the audience had their cellphones raised in salute. But … I think a still photo makes us sound a lot cooler.

Getting ready to go onstage

Dec 31, 2013

Oh, yeah. It’s New Year’s Eve!

But there’s always room for Meiguos

New Year's Eve dinner at Snaggles'

It’s been a little hard to keep track of time now that we’re down to working two days a week (with Friday being our last classes until February!), and so both of us forgot that today was December 31 until we inadvertently crashed some giant banquet dinner at one of our restaurants. The staff, however, found room for us in a corner and served us as usual.

Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2013

Three times Christmas in Luzhou

We learn that we know nothing and stuff blows up

Our festive apartment
Some little toys from the kidsA cross-stitch from the teachers I taughtA print from a studentTraditional Chinese parasolsThe bare-bones before shot of our apartment
Most of the decor in our apartment is gifts from students. Below, the apartment in a barer state.

Formerly, I thought Christmas for the Chinese was just about shopping and sales, but our friend Chris just told us that it’s also tradition for people to give apples to each other, because the words for apples and for Christmas Eve (which is translated as “Peaceful Night”) sound alike. So you give apples to your friends and family to wish them peace. Chris said that the practice is so common that apple sellers jack their prices in the few days before Christmas. Peace can be pricey.

There were no apples for us this year, but one early December afternoon our friend Tina tracked us down in the hallways between classes to give us her gift, a beautiful hand-painted umbrella. “It’s very small,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money.” We told her that we loved it, because that’s the truth, and we gave her a big hug.

This year, the one thing Peter and I really wanted for Christmas was the Dragon Boat of Meat from our favorite beef hot pot restaurant across town. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve having (a perfectly nice) dinner with our bosses, and Christmas night waiting in the rain and not getting picked up by cabs. But on Boxing Day, we made it.

The Dragon Boat of Meat

The Dragon Boat of Meat is spectacular. It is also a carpaccio — a fact that had to be repeated and mimed several times by our bemused servers before we understood that we were supposed to eat it raw. We basically know nothing about anything. Peter actually kept cooking it on the sly even after we were positive that it was supposed to be eaten as is, because he wasn’t crazy about the uncooked texture.

Boxing Day was also when the mall in the center of the city blew up, though we didn’t learn about that until the following day, when we tried to go shopping there. We needed a new laptop bag. Actually, we had a weird lunch first, at a tofu soup place we like. They refused to bring us beans or turn on the table-top burners, but they didn’t want us to leave either. It was only slightly more confusing than usual.

After lunch, we walked out to the main road and saw the fire trucks and soldiers. Little boys in big coats, actually, guarding the smoking wreckage. The road was cordoned off to vehicular traffic and hundreds of gawkers crowded the sidewalks. “Well, we’re not going shopping.”

Local rumor, we found out later from Chris, is that one of the restaurants was doing something dodgy with their cooking equipment. Whatever it was, it caused an entire city block to blow up. Many people were hurt and four people died. Reportedly, people in the movie theater thought that the explosion was some kind of 3D effect. This is my worst fear, justified.

Life goes on, though, and four days later traffic is mostly back to normal, and the spectators are down to a minimum. Tofu soup still doesn’t have any gas, and the local McDonald’s remains shuttered; I suspect the underground damage to the gas lines is pretty extensive. But we bought a computer bag elsewhere, which I’m sure is what you were worried about most.

The movie theater blew up!

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an

Dec 18, 2013

Baby, it’s cold inside

And there just aren’t enough layers in the world

The cold city streets of Luzhou

“It’s going to rain this weekend, and then the temperature will fall,” our boss Linda predicted last week. And she was absolutely right. It was 49 degrees this morning, and we are dying.

Now I know that all of America is drowning in monstrous amounts of climate-change snow. Complaining about a dip below 50 degrees may seem small potatoes. But in China, the cold is defended against only with more and more clothing. Maybe an electric hand warmer, if you’re lucky. (I take two to bed with me these days.) Fuel is expensive and heating systems are poorly designed and inefficient. Effectively, you are outside all the time. And it’s the WORST.

But, mercifully, some of our classes turned on their heaters today! This is the first time in 3 years that either of us has seen that happen. I could even remove my hat and gloves, it was so warm. I kept my coat on, though. It’s not that warm.

Dec 14, 2013

Snaps: The box it came in is always more fun

The bustle of Tai An

This kid found a lovely new hat.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An. Our favorite spot is a place we’ve dubbed Egg Bar (which was formerly Old Man Bar) because the proprietress sells eggs as well as beer. We like it there primarily for the dumplings, but also for its perfect view of the busy little alleyway.

Nov 30, 2013

The return of Hank and Summer

Our first friends show us a new place

Hank and Summer treated us to a Mid-Autumn Festival feast.

After 2+ years in Luzhou — plus, now, gallivanting around the countryside — Peter and I feel like we know our city pretty well. I know where to buy the good beers, how to go to the doctor, and where and how to get dry cleaning done. We’ve got friendly relationships with shopkeepers and restaurant owners all over town, and I can tell cabdrivers how to take the short cut to our home.

But by no means are we experts. As we repeatedly have to learn.

We’ve recently reconnected with Hank and Summer (our very first friends in China!), and they knocked down a presumption that we were absolutely sure was correct: There is no live music in Luzhou. (Other myths we’ve invented about Luzhou-ites: They don’t buy canned food. OK, they do, but they don’t have can openers. The corn is terrible here. Maybe the stuff the street vendors sell is leftover cattle feed. They don’t eat chicken eggs, only duck eggs. They don’t have garbage bags. They adhere strictly to the one-child policy. And so on … We now know that we know nothing.)

They treated us to a National Day dinner, with their other friends Fayla, a local piano teacher, and her boyfriend Sid, a Pakistani student at the Medical College. (Not from the terrorist part, he assured us, after Hank made a joke about bombs.) But the real action happened after dinner, when they took us to their friend’s wine bar — real wine being another thing we assumed didn’t exist in Luzhou — where a live band played rock standards and backed up karaoke singers from the audience. Summer didn’t sing; she had done so previously and garnered a less than lukewarm reception. “No one would look me in the eye,” was her recollection. Apparently, this audience took their singing of other people’s songs seriously! But, undaunted, Fayla and I each took a turn, and Peter jumped on guitar to play along with China’s favorite song, “Country Roads.”

I'm singing!Hank is arm wrestling!Peter is playing guitar!The host is auctioning off a bottle of wine!

And music wasn’t the only fun. In between sets, a vibrant host took the stage, working the audience and giving away bottles of wine and beer. Then there was the arm wrestling competition. Hank was our table’s champion, showing off some surprisingly spectacular guns even as he lost.

It was a little like being one one of those crazy Chinese variety shows that dominate the airwaves here, and definitely a new experience for us. So, yeah, even a small city way out in the bumbles of western China still holds some surprises. Which is awesome, because we still have another year here.

Oct 9, 2013

Snaps: Waiting for the bus

Are you gonna go my way?

Oh, just waiting for the bus by the side of the highway

On our first intercity bus trip, we were astonished that the bus stopped in an area very much like this to let some passengers off. “This is a highway!” we said. “This is not a place to stop!”

But, actually, turns out there are legitimate city bus stops all along the highway. This is where we catch the bus out to the little countryside village where we eat dinner from time to time. Surprised drivers — not expecting westerners out here — call out hello to us as they pass by. “Keep your eyes on the road! Not on us!” we answer back.

Jul 30, 2013

Deeper into the countryside

Luzhou continues to offer fun and adventure

Our first time at Egg Bar!
Just waiting for the bus on the highwayA little guy in the hill by the highwayMore little guys in the hill by the highway
A narrow pathway leads from the highway bus stop to a small shrine ensconced in bamboo.
Luzhou Laojiao's countryside factory
As we suspected, the small brewery in the city center is not where China’s supply of Luzhou Laojiao is manufactured. It takes an “Industry Development Zone” to quench that thirst.
Out in Tai'anOut in Tai'anIt's hot out, so we're having some cool beers at Egg Bar
It’s hot. Peter’s melting.
Some kids in the alley
The small residential area we found offered everything we were looking for, including fun times at and around the old man bar.

They’re building a highway through the site of our regular countryside bus stop, and we returned from vacation to find that we were essentially cut off from the small village where we usually eat and hang out. The trip into the city requires a longer walk to a different bus stop, and it’s hot out and that’s annoying. So the only sane choice was to go further out into the countryside — via a third and much closer bus stop — to see what we could see.

Our initial expedition led us down the highway into nothing and nowhere and then the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery Industry Development Zone. It was presented as a tourist sight, so we figured it was worth checking out.

There was a nicely decorated factory, though not one that really seemed open to unscheduled tourism. In fact, if anything, we were the sight to see; all the drivers and packers and other workers gave us startled hellos as we passed.

We did find, however, an open bodega next to the highway — and where there is a bodega, there are cold beers. We sat at the rickety table out front and had a couple of cold ones, lamenting the fact that we didn’t really find any alternatives to our now inaccessible Tofu Soup neighborhood but being proud of ourselves for trying.

We took a different bus back … and passed right through the very type of residential area we were looking for. Restaurants and shops and teahouses and people, just a few stops from the school! We rushed off the bus and out into the street.

We spent the afternoon tucked away in an old man bar down an alleyway, watching the street life unfold. Kids darted by the entrance, doing kid things and occasionally stopping to get a peek at us white weirdos. The big doings in the bar was that the TV remote had died. The men made sure keep us in the loop — the proprietress had gone in search of batteries, they indicated, oh look now it’s back on, do you like this show?

We’ve been back to the neighborhood a few times, trying different restaurants, and we’ve already befriended a new bodega owner. There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing when were out in areas where there haven’t been many foreigners before: People will take surreptitious glances at us but generally leave us alone until one brave person approaches. Once I start speaking Chinese, a whole crowd will gather. Not everyone will have the courage to say anything, but they all want to get their curiosity satisfied. And I can offer a few biographical details: American, teachers at Tianfu Middle School, yes we like spice. And then the crowd will disperse, and we will be a little less strange.

Buying some watermelon