Hello Uncle Foreigner


Dec 17, 2012

The Singles Day English speaking competition

In which true love is found, a love for language

Our talented English-speaking friends
Alex and Justin, left, preparing to go onstage to perform their play. With them is fellow student Crela Chan, the play’s author.

That speech competition that Alex had invited us to was on 11/11 — which was until recently Corduroy Appreciation Day, but is still in China known as Singles Day. It’s a sort of contrapositive of Valentine’s Day, and there are lots of sales. Of course.

But thirteen dedicated students, from four local high schools, gave up the chance to find a good deal, to spend the morning speaking English. We were there to support Alex — as well as four students from our own school whom we had spent the previous week coaching. Our teachers were surprised to see us there, because they hadn’t actually invited us, figuring it was too early for us.

But the shock wore off, and we took our seats next to a few of Alex’s friends, but also near to our kids. For part one, each contestant gave a five-minute personal statement on the topic of “The Youth in China.” Speeches like this are often very formulaic — “Now I will tell you my five reasons for …”, “Now that I have said that, I ask you to confirm my original statement …”, “People may say this, but they are wrong, and here’s why …” — and there were plenty of platitudes and list making. But some of the kids (Alex! Alex!) made some pretty heartfelt personal reflections. Also, one of the girls made a reference to the show “Two Broke Girls” as a good example of youthful self-reliance.

Part two consisted of questions from the judges that each speaker had to answer on the spot. This is where things got tricky. While the kids’ English was uniformly excellent, the judges were not fantastic speakers. (We confirmed this after the competition to many upset students and teachers.) Listening to them, I was itching to jump in and read the questions myself. And, eventually, they asked me too. So, this round threw the contestants a little off their game, to say the least.

But things picked up again in part three: the performance round. Each of the four high schools presented a short scene. First up, “Little Red Riding Hood” starring the hammiest wolf ever. In the end, he’s gunned down by a hunter with an assault rifle. These guys were really great and really funny.

Next, was an original piece titled, “I Have a Dream” featuring a Chinese family with an over-scheduled 9-year-old daughter. The titular dream? No homework. Again, hilarious.

Our school was next, with an overdub of a scene from “Kung Fu Panda.” From working with them all week, we had already seen this done five or six times, but it went over well with the crowd.

Lastly was Alex and his partner, who took Justin as her English name because she loves Justin Bieber. They returned to the ground covered by “Little Red,” setting up a meeting between Grandmother and the son of the wolf she murdered. Neither has fared well. Grandmother is despondent because her youthful dreams of becoming a poet had been crushed. And the loss of his father ruined the wolf’s life, and now he’s a washed-up alcoholic who can’t feed his own family. “It’s the bureaucratic system that’s to blame,” Grandmother tries to argue. But the wolf doesn’t buy it. In a drunken fit of rage, he pushes Grandmother down the stairs. It was a laugh riot!

The competition was really early
Some friends-of-contestants were a little tired.

With the performances finished, it was time to total the scores. Students from the college hosting the competition were on hand to process that paperwork — dressed in track jackets and looking like official Olympic time keepers. The mathematics went on for a little too long, and the competitors started to get restless. “We’re bored!” they yelled — now that the pressure was off, everyone was in a more convivial mood. So Alex and one of the competition hostesses got up to sing a song for everyone. “The scores aren’t very important,” one of Alex’s teachers confided in us.

To wrap things up, the school groups gathered on the stage to take photos. We stood for photos with Alex and Justin, and then with our school. This led to photos with other kids who we didn’t know. And then photos with the hostesses and, I think, the sound man. It gets truly surreal sometimes.

The flashes eventually calmed down, and we said our good-byes. Happy Singles Day!

After the show

Dec 16, 2012

A routine emerges

The people on the bus go squish, squish, squish

Our crumbly bus stop sign

“Next week it will be easier,” was our refrain from the beginning of our two-apartment life. Sunday night, we pack up our two backpacks — and often many additional shopping bags — full of the things we need for the next three days at the new campus, and wrangle our way onto a bus, hoping we didn’t forget anything too important. Wednesday night, we repeat the process in the opposite direction.

Since September, we’ve gotten a little better at the commute and we have managed to cut down on the poundage that we carry back and forth. But by this point, I think we have to accept that there’s a minimum amount of stuff that we’re always going to have to carry with us. And that amount of stuff is going to be heavy.

The journey on paper is a short, door-to-door bus trip. And sometimes we can even get a ride from the school car. But, in reality, it’s been like living our own version of “The Amazing Race.” Do you have the guts to cram onto a bus that’s already overstuffed by eleven people? Can you madly pack everything you’ll need for the next few days before the school car leaves without you? Will you find a cab driver who can understand the address that your coworker scribbled down for you? Answers: Sometimes. No. Eventually.

It could be so much worse, however, and we know that we’re lucky to have two apartments that are fairly nice by Chinese standards. We have someplace else to go when the power is out at one place, for one thing. But two apartments also means two homes full of things that break. This is leaking here, the heater is broken there, the mold is encroaching everywhere. It’s why people with two homes are usually also have a Mrs. Bale to help them with it.

Coming off of an internet outage at old apartment during last week and a power cut at new apartment yesterday, Peter remarked, “It would be one thing if we were living in a mud hut. This would be expected.” But our life in China so often resembles our life in America that we forget that it is actually the second world. We’re so close to comfortable that we expect it all the time, and when it’s not, we get cranky. And we can’t even blog about it because there’s no power or internet.

But, when we put it into perspective, these are somewhat petty inconveniences. And the adventures we’re having here wouldn’t be possible without a little discomfort. It’s a worthwhile trade. So when our boss asked us to stay for a third year, we said yes. (Actually, what we said first was, “Can we have some more money?”) It’s just too much fun to stop now. And we’re getting really good at elbowing our way onto the bus.

Up on the roof

Dec 11, 2012

Where the air is sweet

Walking around in a new part of town

The road to the countryside campus
Walking with some girlsThe countryside market

We hadn’t visited the Chinese countryside until this summer, and to tell you the truth, we had been a little scared of it. “We’re city people! What would we do with all that nature in the middle of nowhere?”

So, when we had heard about the new countryside campus, we were initially resistant to the idea of moving out there. But word came down at the end of the summer that we would be splitting our time between the country and the city, so we started looking at the (half) move as the next phase of our Chinese adventure.

We got down to exploring our new environs, and found that we were actually in the middle of a somewhere. Or, a future somewhere, anyway. The runway to the school is a wide, four-lane road flanked by small farms and what look like hand-built homes which occupy space between gigantic construction sites bringing to life huge apartment complexes.

At the third bus stop towards the city, there is a small spit of land that we’re calling the town, as in, “Let’s go into town tonight.” The centerpiece is a completed apartment complex that is home to many of our students and their families. Surrounding this are restaurants, tea houses, a green market, bodegas, hardware stores, pharmacies and more. Everything you need, if you don’t need anything too special.

The area is far enough from the city, that many residents (including us) find their entertainment locally. And the chief occupation is strolling. There’s very little traffic out this far as of yet, so walkers spill out onto the road, making the rounds and seeing their friends. When we go out for dinner down there, we like to watch the parents out with their kids for a please-go-to-bed-soon evening bike ride.

In the city center, I think there’s an impulse to play it cool around us, but we definitely get noticed the countryside. Kids and adults get startled by our American-ness; braver folk with a little bit of English come over and say hello. Even as recently as yesterday, we caused a bit of a commotion at the hardware store. The proprietress and her patron were tickled that we even existed, leave off the fact that we needed a wrench.

Our school in the distance

Dec 10, 2012

Meeting Maybell

A new friend, via — amazingly — Connecticut

Maybell and her boyfriend eat with us at Golden Hans

Maybell was new in town this fall. Originally from Chengdu, she was doing her student teaching at our school. And besides her boyfriend, she didn’t know anyone in Luzhou. Peter met her in one of his classes, where they discovered common ground in Hartford, Connecticut, of all places — she had been there as an au pair last year, thus accounting for her perfect English.

At lunch a few days later, she asked if we could be friends, apologizing if that seemed forward. You see, she had met many friendly people in Luzhou, but they all already seemed to be busy enough with their own lives, she explained. We’ve had a similar experience in our time here.

Maybell is passionate, about English and about teaching, in a way that is infectious and inspiring. At lunch, in the school cafeteria, she’d tell us about her classes, her strivings and frustrations, and her successes. She spoke warmly about getting the students involved in speaking and wished she had the opportunity to do more.

Let it be said now: Her future students are going to be really lucky to have her.

Eventually, we finally got it together to have a double date. Maybell may speak perfect English, but her boyfriend does not, so she had to act as translator … though as the night wore on, the teacher in her came out and she pushed him to, “say it in English.” With a little bit of beer in him, he grew less and less shy about this.

For this beer, we took them to our new dining hot spot, Golden Hans. Maybell’s boyfriend (who, alas for my memory, does not have an English name) works for our local liquor giant and has many, many drinking meetings, so he said he was glad of the opportunity to have a laid back beer. We were glad too.

Sweetly, they sung each others’ praises all night. Maybell revealed that they had been high school sweethearts — at a school where dating was banned! The did get reprimanded, she said, although one of their teachers told them that they made a cute couple.

We also talked about the differences between American and Chinese education, and what is expected from students in each country. Chinese students, Maybell confirmed, face a rigorous course of study in high school wherein they make homework and exam-passing their whole life. When they leave for university, they’re stuffed full of facts, but have little idea of what to do with those facts. We all agreed that each country’s educators could learn something from the other’s.

Thus, having solved the world’s education problems, we said good night.

Nov 25, 2012

Snaps: Me and Me

My favorite subject

Me and the staff

For the Anniversary, the school put up several posters featuring historical photos — including one with last year’s staff picture. Can you find me, twice?

Nov 23, 2012

Holiday shopping

Don’t miss out on the National Day sales

Outdoor market
Emily's new coatPeter's new coat

Whereas Mid-Autum Festival is a harvest feast holiday like American Thanksgiving, National Day Week is a time for shopping … much like the day after American Thanksgiving.

We didn’t really intend to do much shopping — saving’s the name of the game for us — but we both scored new coats; Peter’s at a phenomenal sale price of 300RMB [US$48] down from 1,200RMB [US$192]. For most of the week, however, we just enjoyed the window dressing. A big strip of new stores went up in late summer along Middle Road, and the merchandise there was much higher end (and covet-able) than what was there before. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to see what could have been (in our closets).

Where there’s shopping, of course, there’s eating. For the holiday week, the vendors who sold snacks in the streets around the city center were allowed to set up right in the main pedestrian plaza, creating a big outdoor food court. Except this was no Panda Express/Blimpie-type operation. You could choose from noodles, spicy potatoes, crispy pancakes, meat on sticks, sushi and much more, and it was all delicious. Even on a rainy day, plenty of people stopped to pull up a stool under the tarps. Everything was a little wet, but no one minded too much.

Nov 22, 2012

Manchester United

The best bar in Luzhou

The barPeter with a Luzhou martini

How often have I whined about the dearth of decent cocktails here? Very often.

But I never gave up hope. And during our National Day explorations, we found Manchester United. The bar is in the square around the White Tower — an area with a ton of bars that serve lukewarm, expensive Budweiser. But ManU had a cocktail list in English and an Anglophone bartender.

Service is kind of slow — despite the fact that the bar has this menu, I think those drinks are rarely ordered and the bartender has to look up what’s involved. But they make a decent Black Russian. An even higher recommendation is that the crowd seems much older and relaxed than in other places we’ve tried, and there’s 100% less vomit on the floor of the bathroom there.

We can and do make better and cheaper drinks at home, but it’s nice to finally have an option for an occasional fun night out. Before returning home in time for 10pm curfew, that is.

Nov 19, 2012

100: Digging into the gift bag

Treats by which to remember the day

Baijiu in the gift bag

A party is not complete without a gift bag, and this one was pretty good. There were two expensive looking books about the history of Tianfu Middle School — one mostly in Chinese and one mostly in pictures; and a two-bottle set of special run Luzhou Laojiao 1573 — their premium product, and the only baijiu that I tolerate — with a logo commemorating the anniversary.

The package also included a school-produced video about Tianfu’s 100 years, and it is a marvel of over-the-top pomposity. And, of course, it’s interesting to see the historical footage and pictures of our home. The video is a little longer than 15 minutes, and it’s all in Chinese, but if you want to check it out, we put it up here.

Nov 19, 2012

100: The old school gets in on the action

Party across two campuses!

Party at the Old School

We missed whatever fun time happened at the old school, but it sure looked nice.

Nov 18, 2012

100: What’s for lunch?

Bellying up to the celebratory buffet

After we changed out of our dressy Anniversary Celebration clothes, we hit the cafeteria — because we were hungry and it was the only place we knew of (at the time) to find food out in New Campus Land.

Instead of regular lunch service, however, we found a special Anniversary Celebration buffet! Which made sense, because if you cart thousands of special guests out to the countryside for a four-hour long assembly, you’d better feed them. The food was typical cafeteria fare (which is actually pretty delicious; we’ll get into that in a coming post), but because it was a party — and our school’s sponsor is a beloved liquor company in the city — everyone was encouraged to take beer or Luzhou Laojiao with their meal. (It’s been really hard to suss out if China/Luzhou has a drinking age or what it is. On this special day, anyway, the kids were able to grab a beer without ruffling any feathers.) This made the atmosphere extra convivial. A few happy parents/alumni came over to toast with us as we ate, and we were happy to be included in their fun.

After lunch, the anniversary was solidly over … and the National Day Holiday began! Everyone had vacation from school for the next week, so we packed up some things and joined the throngs of students catching the bus back into the city. (While our new campus apartment was nicer, it didn’t yet have internet.) Let the relaxing commence!