Hello Uncle Foreigner

Nov 1, 2011

Pengyou! Pengyou!

朋友! 朋友!

Being in the position of having no friends is a very strange one. It’s part of the package of moving to a new city, but it’s still an odd experience and one that does not occur often in adult life.

But one of our big goals here is to really integrate into the community. We not only want to learn the language, but we’d like to understand a little more about Chinese culture, and have fun times with people in addition to ourselves. In short, we want a Chinese friend.

As circumstance would have it - just as we’re in the market for a Chinese friend that speaks English - English-speaking Luzhou-ers are always on the look out for native English speakers to befriend and converse with. Which means that just by running errands and exploring the city, we’ve met a few people that are likely candidates for friendship.

Here’s what happened last week: We went to the music store that’s right next door to our school. (There are actually four music stores right outside the school’s gate, with a fifth one half a block down.) The manager was ringing us up and indicated that he could tape our boxes together for easy carrying (we were buying three guitar stands). Peter indicated that we lived right next store.

“Oh! You’re teachers!” he said. Then rapid Chinese, with enough English interspersed that we understood that he knew an English teacher. He then took out his phone and indicated for me to do the same. This was super confusing. Why would he want my number if he can only speak mostly Chinese? He called someone, and I think he’s going to put us on with her to explain what he’s trying to say. This happens with some of our colleagues, that they’ll call an English speaker to explain stuff to us. But whoever it is didn’t answer the phone.

But then he pulled out, “My wife is an English teacher!” Ah. We’re getting somewhere. And the last piece of the puzzle: I hear him say the word “péngyǒu.” “Péngyǒu! Péngyǒu!” I repeated. Seriously, not the day before, my juniors taught me this word. It means “friends.” He was asking us if we want to be friends with his English-speaking wife!

An English-speaking couple with an interest in music? Of course we want to be friends. After some texting with his wife, we made a date for dinner tonight. We’re very excited. They seem like really nice people.

And this is how a couple of introverts makes new friends in China.

Oct 28, 2011

Snaps: The studio, in its full glory

A place to rock and roll

Our studio

Oct 28, 2011

Dinner with our coworkers

Mapu dofu and more

A view of the bridge

Tuesday night, our bosses took us and some of the other English teachers out for dinner. We went to a small place by the Tuo River (which you can see above). Here, when you go out with a big group, you eat family-style - this place had a kind of lazy Susan on the table, so you could easily get to the food that you want. It was really good. Because our bosses have worked with foreigners, they understand “vegetarian” a little better than the average Chinese person (although they still think it’s kind of weird to not eat any meat) so there were plenty of vegetable-only dishes for Peter. The flavors here are really intense. If it’s not super spicy, it’s really salty or even sweet (one of the dishes was a sweet boiled cabbage). I love the spicy stuff, even though it totally empties out my sinuses (actually, maybe that’s why I like it). So I become a red, teary mess, but I love it.

So there were a lot of vegetarian dishes (Mapu tofu, green beans and hot peppers, sweet corn, cabbage, some kind of sweet salad made with dandelion greens or something, eggplant, and these noodles that they said were made of sweet potato, I think). But also some meat. As some of you know, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, only because Peter is the cook in our house. So when meat is on the table, I take advantage … to a point. They’re big on serving whole animals here, which I am a little picky about. I’ll eat a shredded chicken breast (which was one of the dishes), but I’m a little more hesitant to eat a chicken foot (which were part of our soup a few weeks ago when we went for hot pot). There was nothing too outrageous (to my sheltered palate) on the table - some fried pork thingys that I remain ignorant as to what part they actually were, a fish stew and the chicken.

But the food is only half the story. Chinese meal time is all about togetherness. And that felt really nice. Throughout the meal, everyone made toasts to us and to each other. The custom is: So you have some beers out on the table. Everyone gets a small shot glass. You can sip from this when you want, but when a toast is being made, the toaster and toastee fill their small glasses and drink the whole thing down to the bottom. It’s rude to refuse to drink, though some of the older teachers told me I could switch to tea later if I needed too. I don’t think men really have this option. (Though our friends have pretty low tolerances, so we weren’t really in any danger.)

The whole affair was a nice unofficial “welcome to our school!” It was great to sit with our new coworkers and get to know them a little better as people. They spoke a lot of Chinese with each other, but everyone made an effort to talk with us in English and make us feel a part of the group. They also, later on in the night, invited themselves all over to make us Christmas dinner. We’ll see what happens.

Oct 28, 2011

When is a house a home?

When you have an amp!

Our new amp

We bought new amps yesterday! (It was prohibitively expensive to ship our old ones.) They’re little 15-watters, but they get the job done for now. And what is the job? Since our bosses know that we both play guitar (they helped us carry three guitar cases up to the apartment) they’ve asked us to perform with some of their students!

At the end of November, the school is having a big concert, and the class that we’re performing with will present a poem, sing the school song and sing a pop song. We’ll be accompanying the pop song, of course. It’s “Which Station” by Yu Quan. (Look for it on the video streaming service of your choice, if you like. I’d embed the video, but at this point we can’t access YT and what we can access, Youku.com, is blocked in the states.) Our first practice is Sunday, so we figured that we better get amped.

In the long term, we’re hoping to get to Chengdu to buy some more heavy duty amps - there’s a big rock scene there and the music shops are a little more pro. But for now, we can at least be heard.

Oct 25, 2011

Some facts of China life

A non-definitive FAQ

We did a lot of research before we moved from New York to China, but there was a whole subset of questions that I had a really hard time finding answers to, mostly dealing with basic daily life. So I’m laying out here some answers I’ve learned (some are educated guesses) just in case you’re curious too.

Do expats drink tap water?

No. But neither do the locals; initially, we thought we couldn’t drink it because of foreign microbes or something, but it turns out it’s just too polluted for anyone to drink. We either boil the tap water or drink bottled water. I’ve found that I’m mostly drinking tea, because once the water is boiled, why not? It feels a lot like medieval times when people used to drink beer because the water wasn’t clean.

What about brushing your teeth?

For this and showering, etc., we do just use tap water. But we never swallow it.

How do you deal with produce?

If we’re going to cook it, we just rinse it in tap water. Because the veggies and stuff we buy are clearly fresh from the farm, they are usually covered in dirt. If we’re going to eat it raw, we’ll soak it in vinegar for a few minutes - fresh from the farm also means natural fertilizer, the germs of which we want to kill, of course. We do this with our eggs too, which even from the grocery store still have visible dirt on them. It’s kind of nice to see, actually, because it’s a sure sign that our food is not the product of a factory farm. “Organic” farming is a matter of course in our area, because no one is wealthy enough to afford big machinery and pesticides.

Is street food safe to eat?

So far we’ve had no problems. I look for: is there a high turnover of food, or has it been sitting out for a while? I’ll take a pass on food that’s been out, but if I can watch someone cooking it in front of me, that’s a go. We also don’t go for any raw fruit - this is just my suspicion, but I don’t really want to eat something that someone else peeled and exposed to the city glunk for however long.

Can I get a cold beer here? I hate this room temperature stuff.

You can, but you have to ask for it. We noticed that even the water restaurants serve is on the warm side. This is not, as I initially thought, because it had just been boiled (though it has just been boiled). But rather, the Chinese think warm liquids are just better for you - there’s an idea that it will help with digestion, where as a cold drink will solidify fats in your stomach, making you ill.

Eating and drinking here just requires a little more care than at home, but it’s not something to drive yourself crazy over. I spent our first week worrying about what would or would not make us sick, but that’s no fun. I’ve gotten food poisoning in America, anyway. So now, I’m willing to err on the side of caution (see: street fruit), but I’m trying to be adventurous. No scorpions on a stick yet - and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there - but there’s plenty of, “I wonder what this is? Let’s try it!”

Oct 24, 2011

Staying in Hong Kong and Shenzhen

Alisan Guest House and some seedy hotel

So the cheap way for us to get to HK is to fly to Shenzhen, the Chinese city that borders Hong Kong, and cross the border over land. On the way there, we took a bus from the Shenzhen airport to the center of the city. For those of you who don’t know (and two weeks ago, we didn’t), Hong Kong is a series of islands, one of them being Hong Kong Island. This is where we stayed, which along with Kowloon - the neighborhood north across the harbor - is what’s considered the city center.

We stayed in the Alisan Guest House, an establishment about which I cannot say enough good things. It was on the order of hostel living, so no frills, but super cheap and the staff was incredibly helpful. (And free wi-fi.) Would stay again!

Alisan Guest House

This was our room, bathroom and view. As you can see, quite small. But, here’s where service, service, service counts: They couldn’t accommodate us for the whole weekend, so they put us up in their monthly rentals at the same (quite cheap) rates.

Alisan 2

The room was much bigger, and the bathroom, specifically the shower, was the most western (and therefore most comfortable) experience we’ve had - including our own Luzhou bathroom situation. We just had to not be loud jerks, which we managed.

Our last night, we had to go back to Shenzhen because our flight left early the next morning. We actually took light rail from the Alisan to the China border in a neighborhood called Luoho, where we went through customs. From there, we walked to our hotel. We were two of very few non-Chinese making that boarder crossing, which worked in our favor, line-wise. The major travel groups cross at a different point, so my guess is that only savvy travelers try it on their own at Luoho. But it’s really so easy to figure out, and way cheaper than paying for the bus or ferry which walk you through the process.

Our hotel in Shenzhen was a little on the seedy side - it didn’t even occur to me to ask for a non-smoking room, but now I know that’s important

Seedy shenzhen hotel

Is that a round bed? Yes it is! Both the booking agent and the check-in person were sure to emphasize, “It’s a room with a round bed!” Sure! Whatever!

Oct 23, 2011

A surprise trip to the Old Cellar

We’re, like, supermodels, or something

Luzhou Laojiao

This morning we were awakened by a phone call from one of our bosses: “A photographer who works with our school wants to take photos of you. Can you meet him in half an hour?”

I managed to buy us a whole hour, and we jumped in the shower and made ourselves presentable for what was explained to us as a “3-4 minute photo shoot.”

The disembodied drinker

We met the photographer at the gate of the school, along with two students - Cindy and Alice - who were to be our translators. We followed them, not to a photography studio, but the Old Cellar. This factory, which is right in our backyard, produces a liquor called Luzhou Laojiao. The locals call it wine, but it’s a white spirit brewed from sorghum, and it tastes INTENSE. This liquor has been brewed here for nearly 2,000 years, and it’s the pride of the city. Cindy told us our students receive two small bottles of it as a traditional gift upon high school graduation. She says she doesn’t drink it, because it’s too strong. (She’s about 16, I think, but there is no drinking age here.)

We were met at the factory by another photographer and a tour guide, Angie. It was very surreal. Angie gave us a private tour of the factory - which we had actually been intending to visit one of these days - with English help from the two students. Meanwhile the two photographers were snapping away. They posed us in front of everything. They even took pictures of Peter taking pictures of me. (Peter, fortuitously, thought to grab our camera on the way out the door.)

A bottle of Luzhou Laojiao

The tour itself was pretty simple; because of the language difference, a lot of it boiled down to, “this is a thing.” Having toured wineries and breweries before, I’ve seen how alcohol is made, and it was much the same here; take a grain, heat it up, store it away. It did take about an hour, though, because we had to keep stopping to pose for photos. The photographers snapped us listening to the tour guide, looking at stuff, reading plaques, joking with the kids, sitting on benches …

At the end of the tour, we had a small sample of the liquor in the ceremonial hall. It was about 11 in the morning, but why not? They sat us at this large wooden table with beautiful chairs and served us a small shot in a traditionally shaped porcelain glass. Much like a wine tasting, there’s an elaborate process to sipping the spirit, involving sniffing, sipping and inhaling. They even had us rub a little on our skin, although I don’t think that’s a traditional part of the ceremony.

And that was that. We went back out front, where the photographers had Peter and I kiss in front of the giant rock at the entrance. And then, our modeling job was over.

We exchanged phone numbers with Angie for possible language exchange, which would actually be pretty cool. She was very nice, and we’re definitely in the market for new friends here. But no explanation was offered for what we had just done, or why. Though we did get a nice private tour out of it in English. Check it out for yourself:

>An early-morning tour of a liquor showroom
Check out the full album of our tour.

This city is really serious about the liquor. Luzhou Laojiao is known throughout all of China. You can buy it EVERYWHERE here. There are liquor stores next to liquor stores, all selling those red boxes. Here’s just a small sample of shops that we’ve seen around town:

Stores selling baijiu
So many liquor stores!

Oct 22, 2011

Bake me a cake

Life without an oven

The cake

I made a cake! In our rice cooker!

I used this recipe, and it came out OK. Not my best work; I over-cooked it by a lot, so the whole thing bowed upwards and the bottom was pretty crunchy, and I substituted five-spice for the matcha powder she used - which gave the cake kind of a strange taste. But, for what I had to work with (the only measuring tool I have is a tablespoon), that it came out at all was a success. It’s really dense, kind of like coffee cake, and I think if I try it again, it’ll result in something that I could actually call dessert. Which is pretty darn amazing considering we have no oven, no dairy and no measuring cups.

Oct 21, 2011

“If you need glasses, you should wear your glasses!”

C’mon, kids!

I’d say probably about seventy percent of our kids wear glasses, at least. But then there’s another good handful of kids who have glasses, but do not wear them. And as someone who wore glasses at that age but desperately wanted not to, I understand where they’re coming from.

Some of them won’t wear them, but hold them up backwards or folded up to their eyes, kind of like opera classes. I had a couple of girls today who were sharing one pair of glasses, even though between them they possessed two pairs. It’s very weird. But most the exasperating is when you come to a kid and ask them a question and they have to put on their glasses to see the board and answer me. This means until I addressed this student directly, they were getting nothing from the lesson! (Which is separate from there are a few kids who I can tell need glasses, but don’t have them. When I catch that, I make them come up front.)

So many of the kids wear glasses that it seems like it wouldn’t be a stigma, but still some of the kids just won’t wear them unless they absolutely have to.

Oct 20, 2011

Hangman update

Every other one of my classes has gotten the game pretty much right away. I don’t know if I’ve gotten subtly better at explaining it, or what. Some of the classes even grasp it so quickly I can have one of the students come up and pick their own word. I’ve dispensed with the hanging man, because I don’t want to cut them off when they’re finally getting the rhythm of it, so it’s more of a “guess the letters” game, but they seem to be having some educational fun.