Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jan 5, 2012

New Year’s Eve, part 1

Let’s have a Field Day

The teachers jump rope
Check out the best of our Field Day photos here.

The Gregorian New Year isn’t a huge deal here in China (except for the fact that there are even more sales on). A Chinese friend, when we told her we celebrate New Year’s Eve with a big party, said,”But didn’t you just have one at Christmas?” But our school has an annual Field Day and dinner for the staff members on December 31.

Linda, my head teacher, told me to join them in the school gym wearing my sports clothes, which I had trucked halfway across the world and not worn yet, so I was happy to have the chance. For the rest of the teachers, “sports clothes” apparently meant, maybe bring sneakers or comfortable shoes to put on with your normal work clothes. So I was the odd one out, in my NY Running Club-acquired gear. (And, oh yeah, the gym is open to the outdoors, so that’s why everyone is wearing coats.) But, I pretty much stick out no matter what, so I couldn’t be too embarrassed about it. (Peter was an event photographer, so he was dressed in street clothes, too.)

We were divided into four teams by the grades we taught: Junior 1, Senior 1, Senior 2, and Senior 3. Because I teach Junior 1 and Senior 1, I did one event for each team. The events were: Horse Crossing a River, wherein each pair had to traverse the gym together stepping only inside the two hula-hoops that they inched down the gym floor; a sack race, which I had only ever seen done on TV before; jump rope - the handle had a counter and the idea was get as many rotations as you could in one minute; and a relay race. I did the last two. There were varying levels of athleticism on display - and a lot of falling over during the sack race - but everyone laughed and cheered everyone else on.

They announced the winners at the end. My teams both lost the events I was in (not because of me, I hope; I think I performed decently), but everyone got prizes. I won a badminton set! Now Peter and I will have to learn how to play.

Then it was on to dinner. See you in part 2 …

Jan 2, 2012

Christmas in China

It’s time to party

Santa is watching
More Christmas sights around Luzhou here.

We’ll get to New Years, but first I wanted finish up Christmas, which they do actually celebrate here. It’s mostly a secular holiday, though around 7% of the Chinese population is Christian (our head teacher’s mother is one), and they celebrate as you would expect by going to church. But for most people, Christmas Eve is a good excuse to party. So much so that our school bumped up curfew so that the kids had to be home early. (We did run into some of Peter’s students at karaoke, however, having a raucous time.)

Kids give each other presents, our friends told us, and adults throw parties and do karaoke. There are also massive sales, leading up to and after the holiday. (We bought our new toaster at a Christmas sale.) Santa is everywhere, saying Marry Histmass among other things. Like many things here, it’s surface-level familiar, but totally alien at the same time.

Dec 30, 2011

Dinner with our principals

Welcome to school

Our first banquet dinner

Last Friday night, or Christmas Eve eve, our head teachers Linda and Sarah took us for a long promised welcome dinner with our schools principals - we have one head principal and four vice principals. We went back to a restaurant that they had taken us to before: It’s hot pot, but everyone gets their own individual bowl of broth. I think because most Chinese dining is done family style, it’s a novelty to have your own portion.

We dressed nicely, to impress our bosses, but the rest of the night was not a staid, impress-your-bosses type of affair. There’s a manner here that we’re not sure is Chinese or local Sichuan, but people are very loud and forward. If you need more tea, you either yell for a waitress, or get up and get it yourself. Dropped your chopsticks? (Which I do often.) Go grab another pair from the waitress station. Even at upscale places, there’s a lot of yelling and getting up and grabbing. It’s brash and we like it.

But, anyway, ordering food is always a loud and confusing ordeal. Sarah did all the ordering for the table, but she and the waitress seemed to need to consult for a long time. In that time, the principals came in and were introduced to us. They had all been stuck at a meeting, so they were a little late, which they apologized profusely for. Each of them asked each of us for forgiveness, which was kind of astonishing and a little embarrassing - you’re the boss! Show up whenever you want!

After introductions, Sarah broke out the special bottle of Luzhou Laojiao that she had brought along, and the toasting began. Everyone was served a tiny thimble of the white liquor, and when someone toasted you, you stood up with them as they made their speech to you. The principals all could speak a little bit of English, but mostly Linda and Sarah translated. They wished us Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and told us how happy they were to have us at their school. They were thrilled to have us as part of the family, they said. It was all very flattering. When the toast was finished, you drank your glass down to the bottom and held it out to show the other person that you had indeed drunk it all.

The spread

The food just kept coming. There were meat slices, leafy greens, sprouts and other veggies, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, potatoes, pumpkin, fish bits, dumplings and much, much more. The good thing for us about this meal is that you only take what you want, meaning we could skip the intestines, etc. Halfway through the meal they brought out some desserty items: fruit, sticky rice cakes and mini pumpkin muffins. (None of these went in the soup.) This did not mean the meal was done, however. More main course stuff followed. As did ice cream. And then more leafy greens. When we thought we were done, the question was posed to the table: rice or noodles to finish the meal? All of our hosts were pretty drunk by then (the Chinese really do metabolize alcohol much differently than we do), so the discussion was a hilarious one (they were all laughing about it, anyway), with one of the VPs chanting “mian, mian, mian!” Somehow, the decision was put to me. I chose noodles, of course.

The jokes were flying around the table, though even translated they didn’t always make sense to us — I have a whole post about Chinese humor to come, but from what I’ve seen it involves making a statement that is obviously false and then laughing your head off. As they had more to drink, there was less and less of an effort to translate things into English, but it was kind of interesting to sit back and watch the room descend into silliness.

When the meal was over, it was over. Everyone abruptly stood and gathered their coats and things. There was no lingering, no talk of an afterparty. The meal was done, it was time to go home. Everyone said their goodbyes and wished us Merry Christmas again as they bundled us off into a cab.

We may not have understood the whole night, but it was a fun time anyway. We feel so lucky to be at a school where everyone loves having us here. We’ve heard stories that that isn’t always the case — foreigner teachers can be resented, ignored, cheated, etc. But everyone from the students to our fellow teachers to our bosses has been incredibly nice and generous with their time and help and attention. I’d say, as winter break approaches, it’s going quite well.

Dec 30, 2011

We found the salt

And a panda toaster

This is what salt looks like in Luzhou

Our search was reinvigorated when our friends came over to cook on Christmas and they were like, “Where’s your salt?” If it’s something that you expect to find in every apartment, we should be able to find it. So I finally did what I should have done three months ago, and looked up and wrote down the character for salt: 盐(yan).

I showed it to one of the women at the store, and she nodded her head and led us over to the racks and racks of MSG. She looked around, frowned and called someone else over. The second woman disappeared into a storage closet and emerged with a big box labelled “YAN.” Inside was our cute salty panda friend pictured above!

Now that we know what to look for, we see it everywhere, at markets big and small.

Also, you may notice that our bag of salt above is leaning against our new toaster. This was a Boxing Day buy (Christmas is a time for sales here). The surprise thing about our toaster is that it cooks a panda into the bread!

Panda toastMore panda toast

Dec 28, 2011

Hong Kong: The MTR

Go underground with the Octopus!

Taking the train

One last post about Hong Kong.

One of the things we really loved about the city was the Metro system. It was clean, fast and convenient, and it looked very much like the London Underground. You could pretty much get anywhere from anywhere via public transportation.

The coolest part, though, was the Octopus smart card. Instead of swiping a Metro Card or using tokens, you just held your pre-paid smart card up to the sensor. You could also use the card to debit purchases at 7-11, McDonalds and other retailers. It was very convenient, and reminded us of the failed smart card program in New York. Catch up, New York, or we’re not coming back.

A crowded escalator underground
Check out a subway photo album.

Dec 28, 2011

Our new coat rack

We’ll take that to go

Coat rack

We bought a coat rack yesterday, so now we can stop just throwing out coats on the table and couch by the door. It’s great, except now I keep seeing out of the corner of my eye and thinking there’s a giant lurking by the door.

In Luzhou, you pretty much have to carry home anything you buy yourself, unless you have a car or motorcycle. Things we’ve seen people carrying on their back: A hot water heater, a washing machine. We also saw a woman carrying home this same exact coat rack while riding back seat on a motor bike.

Dec 26, 2011

The search for salt

What are we missing?

One of the interesting things here is seeing what we can easily find and what we can’t. For instance, I can find the same exact brand of face wash that I used in the states and replacement razor heads for my razor. But they don’t have leave-in conditioner. Also, for our party, we found disposable cups and bowls … but our guests were amazed that we had them. They were also astonished by the colored tea lights that I had found at a local gift shop; it was something they had never seen before!

But something that we’ve had a really hard time finding is table salt. We’ve looked at several grocery stores, and we just can’t find it. We can find plenty of MSG, but no salt. But it’s not that they don’t use salt here: We see it at restaurants all the time. We live two hours away from the salt capital of China! (Zigong, if you’re interested.) Our neighbors brought over some salt to cook with for our party even, so it’s not a rare thing. We just can’t find it anywhere.

It’s a mystery!

Dec 25, 2011

Christmas Eve in Luzhou

We throw our first party

A small party in our living room
Take a look at our Christmas Eve photo album.

Our teachers have been very kind to us at Christmas. Tonight, they threw us a pot luck party at our apartment - we provided the alcohol; they liked the sangria and gamely took tiny shots of Jack Daniels. We finally performed “Just Like Heaven” — I was sick when we were supposed to perform it at a school-wide assembly — and they loved it.

After dinner, we went to karaoke at one of the places by the river. We had a private room, and they asked me to sing every English-language song. Peter also helped me sing one song. It was very silly fun. And it made for a nice foreign Christmas.

Dec 23, 2011

An apple for the teacher

Merry Christmas

Our students know it’s Christmas this weekend, and it’s also nearing the end of term. So this week a couple of our kids have given us apples as a gift! Cliches are true!

Dec 22, 2011

Shenzhen: On our way home

Walking over the Chinese border

Emily, on the Shenzhen border
Here’s an album of photos from Shenzhen.

As I may have mentioned, it’s cheaper to fly back to Luzhou from Shenzhen - the city over the Chinese border - rather than going direct from Hong Kong. And the Shenzhen-Luzhou flight runs every other day at 7 am. So Monday evening, after picking up Peter’s passport, we crossed the border back into China so that we’d be ready to catch our Tuesday morning flight.

We took light rail from the center of Hong Kong right to the Lo Wu border checkpoint. A few stops before the checkpoint, a bunch of people swarmed on with huge boxes and burlap sacks. They started handing out items from the boxes and sacks that other swarmers grabbed and secured in their small luggage, making sure that nothing looked lumpy. By the time we reached the checkpoint stop, the boxes and sacks were broken down and out of sight, and everyone left one-by-one. It was extraordinary to see - out of the side of my eye, of course. This didn’t seem like an operation you wanted to get caught staring at.

The crossing itself was easy enough. We filled out departure cards on the Hong Kong side and arrival cards on the Shenzhen side. This particular border crossing is supposed to be the busiest, though we zoomed right through. It went much faster than our crossing the opposite way at Shenzhen Bay. As we were going through customs, we saw a school group doing the same thing - with 50 or so 10-year-old kids! I would not want to be a chaperone on that field trip.

Back in China, you’re immediately confronted with the grayness of Shenzhen. Customs empties out into a big paved expanse with the main rail and metro stations right there. It’s convenient, but ugly. Our hotel was in walking distance, so we walked. The scenery got a little better.

For dinner, we found another Mexican place: Amigos! They had an album of photos outside, next to their menu, showing people enjoying their food. While we were browsing, the host came out, dressed in a serape, to convince us that this was the place for us. We could hear some Australians inside having a good time. One of my travel rules is that you usually find Australians in fun places, so that sealed the deal.

The food was good enough - it was our last real cheese for the foreseeable future. And they had delicious sangria. It was a fun time when we weren’t expecting one, so that’s always nice.

We woke up the next morning at an excruciatingly early 4:30 am to get to the airport by 6. The less said of this, the better.