Hello Uncle Foreigner


Jan 5, 2017

Santa comes to the MixC

Christmas 2016

This year, I took up the family mantle and played Santa for my new school. We took over the nearby mall for a variety show with singing, dancing and a short play — and because I’m the resident westerner, most of the acts were written, choreographed or conducted by me. Merry Christmas, China!

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Taking a lesson

An international education colloquy

We took tea with the teachers.
Mom and the art teacher's daughter work on a painting.The art teacher pours the tea.Afterwards, we went to lunch for a typical Luzhou chicken hot pot.

My boss Linda very nicely arranged for us to meet with both a physics and an art teacher from our school while we were in Luzhou. (My mother is a physics teacher and a painter.) We all gathered one morning for a lesson in traditional Chinese painting. Mr. Li, the art teacher, brought his daughter to translate — although as a shy a middle school student, she was a little timid about her role. Li was very hands on with his lesson; everyone got a chance with the brush, even Mr. Chen, the physics teacher.

After painting, we sat down for some tea. Li expertly handled the Chinese tea brewing rituals — a complex dance of leaves and hot water that is way more involved than you’d think — and the conversation turned to American and Chinese teaching styles. From what I can tell, it seems that China is about a generation behind what’s going on in America — although Linda did point out that reform is ongoing. For example, Chen’s science lab sounds a lot like my high school experience: the teacher teaches an equation/principle, performs an experiment to demonstrate, and then the students replicate it. Whereas in my mom’s classroom, it’s flipped around: the students take the lead in experimentation, and from their results they derive/prove the equation themselves. “Student-led learning,” I believe is the buzz-phrase.

To follow up our discussion, Linda brought us all out to a banquet lunch! Chicken soup hot pot, which is a very typical formal Luzhou meal. It’s actually almost like two meals: First you have the chicken — a whole chicken, beaks, claws and all — and then, top up that broth, because it’s time to throw some veggies in there and start all over again.

Throughout the meal, our hosts were very attentive, refilling our bowls and glasses as quickly as we could drain them. We all walk away quite stuffed. And, as always, with a Chinese banquet, the conversation was lively and boisterous. Even across two languages!

Giving a lesson in Chinese brushpainting.

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 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.

Mar 9, 2013

Happy International Women’s Day!

Hey, ladies!

My prizes for Woman's Day

Yesterday morning, I was greeted on my way to class by Angel and two of my other junior students. “Here,” they said, and thrust a small bouquet in my hand. “Happy Women’s Day!” The warning bell rang and we ran off to class together.

The flowers were from Angel’s entire class, so I thanked everyone, and they all cheered. It was a very sweet moment.

Then they immediately started chanting “Watch TV! Watch TV! Watch TV!” Oh, juniors!

Dec 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Eat up!

The teachers feastThe cooks get their turn

Yesterday, we had our annual Teachers’ Field Day and banquet. All teachers and staff from both campuses convened on the new school’s field in the afternoon for some raucous sporting … and ridiculous cheating. But it was all in good fun. The events included the three-legged race, balance the ping pong ball on the badminton racquet, jump rope, two people transport a volleyball using their backs and not their hands, and a good old-fashioned relay race. I was part of the latter, and my team WON! All in good fun.

After the games, everyone retired to the cafeteria for a holiday banquet. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as last year (they may have run through a lot of money opening the new school this fall), but it was really delicious, and everyone had a lot of fun. Dish after dish piled up on the table, and the cafeteria workers switched off serving so that they could also enjoy the feast. The principals made the rounds, toasting each table with the traditional baijiu … and then 30 minutes after it started, the fun was done.

We’re still getting used to the pace of Chinese formal dinners, but it was a nice time with our co-workers. Happy New Year!

Dec 18, 2012

The Juniors dance

A short break from homework and school books

The Junior dancers
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ... Dwarves?
Snow White and her seven Santa dwarves
Our favorite performance

All month, junior students have been asking to miss our classes for dance practice — which is just a thing that happens; because oral English is considered somewhat of a supplement, the other teacher often schedule other extracurriculars (or sometimes even tests) during our classes. It’s a little annoying because it messes with our planning, but it’s not too terrible as it either results in a half-sized class or a free period for us!

And Friday, we got to see the results of all this practice at the Junior school dance performance. Many of our students invited us to come watch, so we had advance warning that Friday afternoon classes were cancelled. (Our boss didn’t call to tell us until five minutes after that first afternoon class should have started.)

Even at a junior school assembly, there’s all the trappings and pomp that attend an adult special event: Four CCTV-jr. hosts presided, with their first duties being to introduce all the principals and VIPs. Then someone important made a dull speech. And then the chaos began!

They definitely front-loaded the programming. The opening act was a short retelling of “Snow White,” with a little boy in a dress as our fairest of the land and one of my favorite students, Angel, as the evil queen. It was mostly in Chinese (the local dialect, as one of the teachers informed me), but funny nonetheless.

This was followed by an incredibly impressive and moving ballet piece depicting the violence and brutality of war. Soldiers carried their injured brethren on their backs with loving care, but no promise of safety or reward. It was astonishing to see these young dancers execute some very technical lifts and carries, and at the same time they exuded true sadness and emotion through their movement. It was a stunning bit of dancing, and not generally what one expects to find at a junior high assembly.

The rest of it was exactly what one expects to find at a junior high assembly. There was a mix of traditional and contemporary music and dancing, with hip-hop dominating the contemporary styles. Individual performers showed some real skill, but mostly, everyone seemed to be having fun. A lot of the acts managed to incorporate some “Gangnam Style” horsing around.

By about No. 14 on the program, a lot of the VIPs left. We lasted for 18 of the 20 acts, but they don’t heat the gym and we were freezing, so we took our leave.

In a culture that so strongly emphasizes homework and scholastic achievement, it’s really interesting to see how extracurricular activities — especially the arts — are treated here. I suspect that if you show real promise at an early age, you’re sidetracked into a special school that plays to those gifts. Otherwise, you’re encouraged to put those pursuits aside to focus on your schoolwork as you age. (We have a lot of senior students that say that they used to play an instrument, for example.) But — as someone who believes that arts education is equally important to producing well-rounded, thoughtful adults — I’m glad to see that there is still some time for dancing.

Junior dancers

Nov 15, 2012

100: Pomp and spectacle

It’s not an event until every official has their say

The stage
Our professional hostsThe flagsThe birds

Straight up, the Anniversary Spectacular looked good. Our school stadium — which two weeks previously had been a gray set of concrete bleachers in front of a swath of asphalt — looked magnificent. As a finished product, the plywood stage looked pretty great. The front was a sea of flowers, and it was flanked by two screens which displayed feeds from three different cameramen — including a crane-based operator.

The ceremony was hosted by four professional-calibre presenters; we could have been watching a CCTV variety show! Of course the speeches were the first order of the day. These were very boring. (They’re always very boring.) We were trying to pretend to be interested, but after the fourth or fifth speaker was announced, someone behind us (an adult) groaned audibly. Even if you speak Chinese, I think these kinds of things are very hard to sit through.

After the last speech (there were at least a dozen), some people were invited to the stage to hold up large checks. Our best guess was that these were donations made to/money raised for the school. More stuff was said that seemed very important but felt incredibly dull. But just when we were about to sneak back to bed, large sparklers lit up the front of the stage. At the same time, there was an explosion from the back of the audience that released red, orange, yellow, green, etc., puffs of smoke. It was like a rainbow cloud drifting through the sky. I’d never seen anything like it. Firecrackers snapped and banged on the sides of the stage, and a truckload of doves was released to fly over the proceedings. It was really something.

And then came the dancing …

Nov 12, 2012

100: Getting ready for the big day

Polishing the rocks and painting the roses red

Preparation for the anniversary party
Preparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary party

We started hearing about Luzhou Laojiao Tianfu Middle School’s 100th anniversary shortly after our arrival last year. In fact, it was a major enticement for us to stay for this second year. There were big plans in the works, and everyone spoke really excitedly about the event.

This fall, however, after experiencing several school happenings, we adjusted our expectations downward despite the big talk. The various assemblies, recitals, etc., were tons of fun, but very charmingly low budget. I mean, we’d seen kids wear garbage bags as costumes.

But things started to ramp up in the week leading up to the October 1 celebration. (October 1 was also two days after the Mid-Autumn Festival, and the kick-off to National Day, so it was a very exciting time.) A large stage was being erected in the stadium area, and the students were practising dancing and singing routines during any scrap of spare time they could find. Classes were even called off for a few school-wide dress rehearsals.

Construction wasn’t quite finished, but everything looked presentable. Anything that wasn’t done was camouflaged with some fancy signage.

The day before the big day, our boss Linda ran up to us to say, “I have a big surprise for you!” The surprise turned out to be: Foreigners! Heidi and her husband Richard. Heidi worked for Tianfu’s North Carolina-based sister school, Charlotte Latin. We all sat down to a lovely lunch together. We intended to get a photo with them the next time we saw them. Little did we know, we would all be too busy for next time.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around and observing the last minute preparations. While watching the tech rehearsal, we met a recent alumn of the school — English name Michael. He’s currently at university in San Diego, but he flew back to China to join the festivities.

Foreign guests? Transoceanic alumni?! Tech rehearsal!?! This one may be big after all …

Preparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary partyPreparation for the anniversary party