Hello Uncle Foreigner

culture

Jul 29, 2013

Quality time with Melody

Meat and massage

Melody's in-home classroom full of students
At dinner with Melody's familySichuan vegetarian food
Vegetarian Peter’s meal at the beef restaurant

The first person to welcome us back to town was our friend Melody. We ran into her on the street two days in a row before nailing down dinner and massage plans for the third. Melody is passionate about teaching English and living the good life, and that’s why she’s an awesome friend for us!

We met her at her apartment, which is nice and big, and overlooks the river. From what she had told us before, we thought that she just home tutored a few students from time to time, but she actually has a small classroom that holds about 15-20 kids just off the living room. She was wrapping up a class as we arrived, and we played along as special guest stars, doing a live rendition of one of their textbook’s dialogues for them. Later, Peter told Melody that her students were so impressive and that she must be a very good teacher. She hesitated a moment before accepting the compliment — deflection is the usual mode in Chinese culture — and then smiled and giggled in pride.

Dinner was at a Chinese Muslim restaurant around the corner. Muslim restaurants in Luzhou are favored for their beef dishes, Sichuan cuisine being primarily pork based. She brought along her father, step-mother and step-brother, so that we could order more and varied dishes without being wasteful. It was really great. I especially liked the steak strips with pickled hot peppers. “Do you eat these?” I asked, pointing out a pepper. “You can,” said Melody, popping one in her mouth. I sniffed one and immediately choked, so I decided to skip ‘em.

After dinner, we went to a new (to us) massage place … around the corner from Sticks! The guys there said they’d seen us eating sticks many times. The story was that this massage place was opened by the masseur who had trained many of Luzhou’s other professionals. And they were fantastic. A good life indeed!

Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.

Jul 26, 2013

The next step: A wider world beckons

Or, why Luzhou is a great first home in China

The Tuo River
Luzhou is ChinaLuzhou is ChinaLuzhou is China
Our beloved Luzhou has been good to us, and wonderfully, unrelentingly Chinese.

We had a plan when we moved here. Or a good guess at least. We’d start someplace small and remote, get settled and comfortable, learn the new life skills we need, and hang out with people who hadn’t already seen a thousand expats come and go. From there, world domination!

Two years in, the first stage is going swimmingly. Having put ourselves in a situation where we’re truly forced out of our comfort zones — without the temptation of taco nights and perfect pizzas — we’ve made even greater strides that we’d initially hoped.

We work hard, of course, but Luzhou works us even harder. There are days that I leave the house feeling sick or tired, or lazy or shy; or I don’t want to endure a hundred stares or get my picture taken with strangers; or for whatever other reason want to give myself a break from being a foreigner. But, too bad for me: someone’s going to speak Chinese to me, and I’m going to speak it back. And it’s always amazing.

It’s also difficult and incredibly stressful. In the beginning, we’d only rarely venture more than walking distance from the school because the taxis and buses were too much to handle. Buying vegetables at the markets, I’d just keep putting down money until the merchant said to stop. (I was very lucky that no one took advantage of us!) We ate dinner at the same place every night for an entire year. We’ve gotten braver and better since then, but I’d say that China’s still winning.

Each victory, however, has been worth it: realizing the woman at our bodega was our buddy, and cheering on each new word I demonstrated to her; the first time I told a taxi where to go instead of showing the driver an address someone else wrote; finding a new restaurant other than sticks, and then more new restaurants after that, and only once accidentally ordering chicken feet; recognizing words from my Chinese lessons out in the wild and being able to have conversations; actually being able to read a note a new friend had written to us.

While we’re not quite ready to leave this all behind, we can see that it’s time to start prepping for phase two. We’ve got a good grounding in the basics of living in China, and inoculated against the pleasures and temptations of the expat bubble, we can trust ourselves to mix and mingle in a more international city. Beijing and Shanghai sound like they exist in another universe, however, and we really like being in the wilds of west China, so we looked around a little closer to home.

When we started trying out Kunming — capitol of nearby Yunnan province — as a future destination, our friends here universally cited the year-round great weather and beautiful scenery as pluses. “It’s the city of eternal spring,” every single one of them said to us. That sounded perfect, especially coming off a second winter with inadequate indoor heating here in Luzhou. Further research promised: art galleries, multiple live music venues, fried goat cheese, a clear blue sky most days, good western-style bartenders, a walkable city with beautiful architecture, affordable apartments, plenty of jobs for ESL teachers, pizza …

We tried not to mentally move there overnight. Let’s be realistic, we told each other. We didn’t want to inflate our Kunming of the mind to a cheese-paved paradise that no real life city could measure up to. But we did book plane tickets.

Kunming is also China
Look out, Kunming. We’re coming for you next.

Jul 25, 2013

Snaps: Summer school’s out for summer

Time to start on your summer homework

Time to go

Summer term for the newly minted Senior 3s and Singapore Project candidates ended this week — in China, if you’re good at school, you’re rewarded with more school — and we caught a glimpse of the exodus yesterday morning. Now, it’s just us and the guards. And very soon, we’re leaving for vacation, too.

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

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