Hello Uncle Foreigner


Nov 5, 2012

A bridge to somewhere

What’s all that noise?

Bridge construction
October, 2011: The big, white building sporting the mini-Epcot hat is our school!
Bridge construction
December, 2011

On our first morning in China, our boss, Sarah, and her husband drove us around our new home, pointing out various city landmarks. A main feature of the tour were the four bridges that connected the peninsula of the city center with greater Luzhou. We drove back and forth over the Tuo Jiang and Chang Jiang rivers. And Sarah pointed out with pride the under-construction fifth bridge — which was going up practically in our new backyard.

This bridge, she explained, would connect the city with the southern countryside, where they were building a new campus for Tianfu Middle School. We crossed the Chang Jiang to take a spin through an expansive pile of dirt and scaffolding that would become the new school in the following year.

Peter and I took it in, all jet lagged and bewildered, and returned to our apartment to unpack and sleep.

In the months that followed, 24-hour construction ensured that the new bridge grew at a rapid pace. When we walked by, we joined the crowd of lookie-loos that stopped to supervise the work. Extra-keen citizens would breech the safety walls to get an up-close look at the equipment and rubble, though we were happy to inspect from the sidelines.

The noise moved further and further away from our bedroom window, and the scaffolding moved out to the river and then disappeared, leaving a solid structure in its place. As summer approached, and we had confirmed our second year at the school, our other boss, Linda, talked with excitement about the new school, which was also nearing completion. We had many discussions about how and when we would get out there. If we lived at the old school, maybe we’d learn to take the bus out to the countryside. If we lived at the new school, maybe a school car could drive us into the city to do our grocery shopping.

One day, when out for a stroll by the river, we looked up and noticed people streaming across the bridge. It had been open to pedestrians, though not yet to cars. Though there wasn’t yet anything on the other side, everyone wanted to walk the span, including us. (The first morning of the flood, the bridge was a popular platform from which to view the risen waters.) It was strange to walk down the middle of what was designed to be a major roadway — very “I Am Legend.”

The first cars started crossing in about August — though traffic was light, because, as I said, there’s nothing really on the other side yet. When we finally took a ride over, many of the roads were still more of a plan than a reality. Even today, the bus we take from old to new school crosses dirt in places to get there.

But big changes are expected, as can be surmised from the size of those roads that are being built over on the other side. It’s definitely changed things for us, as now we live part time in the countryside. Much more on that to come …

The bridge is open, but there's no traffic

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Underwater World

A beach activity for non-beach people

Approaching Underwater World
Underwater World

The opening exhibit of Qingdao’s Underwater World consists of our favorite genre of Chinese museum display: terrible taxidermy. Or, possibly, papier-mâché. Whales, sharks, penguins … all kinds of sea creatures, with lopsided grins and bulging eyes. There were a couple of rooms of this, and then the path led outdoors and to another building.

At this point, we were beginning to regret our entrance fee. But, here’s where it got good. A conveyor belt towed visitors through a giant tank full of sharks, sting rays, and all kinds of fish. It was like scuba diving, but you didn’t even have to move. At one turn, a flat glass ceiling showed off the underside of scads of starfish. We also caught sight of a diver in the water who was feeding the fish.

After the people-mover, there were many more tanks of various kinds of sea life — and plenty of opportunities to buy a plush crab or pearl necklaces — but the conveyor was definitely the best part.

But you don’t have to take our word for it … watch our video!

One more delicious meal, coming up …

Jul 22, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Rock out!

The premier rock club in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: (New) Little Bar

Objective: Go see a rock show

We found the rock and the roll

Here in China, pop is king. Our students are constantly asking about Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, Adele, et al. The hardest western band they’re into is Linkin Park. And the popular home grown acts are similar: all moon-eyed crooning with nary a crunchy guitar in earshot. For the last week of school, we played some rock videos for the kids and they were perplexed at best. (They were completely horrified by Sonic Youth.)

But that doesn’t mean there is no rock in China. It’s just something you have to do a little digging for. One of the mainstays of the Sichuan scene, we heard, is the New Little Bar in Chengdu. (New Little Bar is the younger brother of Old Little Bar. Both were founded by a hip collective of musicians and artists.)

As the great Sir Elton once said, Saturday night’s alright for fighting, so the Saturday night show was the one for us. One thing that’s different between Chinese and American concerts is that in China, if the show is listed from 8-10 pm, it starts promptly at 8 and the last band finishes at ten. (This includes set-up and break-down of 4 different acts!) In America, if doors are at 8, the headliner won’t even start their set until 11 p.m. or 12 at the earliest.

The little bar inside the Little Bar
The little bar inside the Little Bar.
Each member of Dongjiayan Band radiated personality.
Let’s conga!

We were still on New York concert time, so we arrived at nine — and missed the first two acts. Aside from the punctuality issue, however, walking into New Little Bar felt just like walking into Arlene’s or Rock Shop. It was dark and close, with a long bar down the side of the room and a small stage up front. The kids looked awfully hip, as well: one young man was wearing an aggressively loud button down shirt, and another had a Ramones-style haircut and thick-rimmed glasses. The scene was straight out of Brooklyn, making me realize how much I had missed going to shows.

Black River
The lead singer of Black River

The first band we caught was called Black River. Adorably, they all wore matching T-shirts, and they were decent with their instruments. But really, I was so euphoric to be back in a rock club that I just loved them.

About ten minutes after Black River left the stage, 董家堰乐队 (Dongjiayan Band) was ready to go. And they rocked from the first chord. Their style was loose and relaxed, and each band member radiated individual presence and personality. Their front man was especially charismatic — throughout the show, kids from the crowd kept coming up to wreath him with garlands. He sang at the top of his range, giving off waves of passionate, intense energy. The audience responded to that energy, pogoing and skanking all over the floor. At one point, most of the dancers joined in one large conga line and snaked around the room. When we got jostled by the dancers, that clinched it: We were at a rock show.

As their set progressed, however, my sense of “this is familiar and so comforting” was replaced by the thought that “this is really different and exciting!” I could recognize a ton of western influences: a ska beat with shades of reggae, metal, grunge, folk, British new wave … But 董家堰乐队’s music wasn’t just a mish-mash/rehash of those genres. It was something fresh and new.

We have since learned the term “摇滚” or “yaogun,” from “Red Rock,” by Jonathan Campbell. Yaogun literally translates as “rock and roll,” but as practiced, it’s a new Chinese genre that takes western music as a starting point, rather than just a Chinese version of a western sound. And I think that’s what we were hearing from 董家堰乐队, and that’s why it was so exciting.

Take a listen for yourself:

Listen to excerpts of Dongjiayan Band’s performance.

It’s time to stop goofing around and finish the darn game! Back to Luzhou it is …

Jul 3, 2012

Replace your passport: The Airship!

Getting around becomes a breeze

Item obtained: The Airship!

There were many factors, but the two biggies were that it was no longer freezing outside and that I can speak just enough Chinese. So this trip to Chengdu, we zipped around the city with ease — in taxis, on public buses, the subway … it was almost as if we had an Airship.

Enjoy a slideshow of our tour around the city, with an original score by Peter.

In the midst of our celebration, we hear music rising in the distance …

Jun 19, 2012

Luzhou school days

One whole year!

The basketball court

I’ll be honest: When we embarked on this crazy scheme, teaching was a means to an end. The job would take no more than 20 hours a week, and enable us a comfortable living with plenty of time off. Neither of us was sure that we’d like teaching, but we were psyched about embarking on a new life in China. If we had to put in time at a job we didn’t really enjoy … well, that wouldn’t be that different from what we had been doing in New York. In fact, the work would be easier and there would be a lot less of it.

A lovely bonus, however, was that we had a complete blast! We said goodbye to our students last week, but we’re already talking about how glad we are that we’ll get to see them again in the fall. (In case I didn’t officially say, we’ve agreed to teach another year.)

Real teaching is a difficult job and professionals who are good at it are worth their weight in gold. What we do is important and educational, but it’s not Real Teaching. It’s more fun-time language practice/cultural exchange. If everything goes well, class feels like hanging out with a really cool bunch of kids.

So how does it go well? Basically, it’s up to us to decide. Our bosses gave us the textbooks and said, “Do what you think is best.” Our contract forbids proselyting for any specific government or religion, but other than that, our only mandate is that we speak English with the kids. In the beginning, this was terrifying. During my first very class - senior 1, class 24 - Angie, one of my students, had to reassure me: “Don’t be nervous!”

But it was really hard. All I had at my disposal was a PowerPoint presentation that Peter and I had inexpertly thrown together the night before, with no idea of the students’ level of English comprehension or what to do to get them to engage with the language. Staring down 50 students with this as my only weapon was quite a challenge. It got worse when I used the same presentation with my junior students – who, no one had informed me, only had three weeks of English instruction. Literally, all that happened for that 40 minutes was an exchanged of alarmed and befuddled looks.

Day 2 went more smoothly than day 1, but the first few weeks were really tough. In addition to us not knowing what we were doing, the students were awed in to silence (or sometimes scared out of their minds) just by our presence. For many of our kids, Peter and I were the first and second foreigner they had ever met, and they were mortified to open their mouths in front of us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of our shyer students would literally try to hide from us - behind books, their hands, whatever. And each of us made students cry just by asking them to speak. (Not many, but more than one.)

Over time, however, we got used to them and they got used to us. And then the fun really started.

Kids in the courtyard

The most memorable students are the ones who very quickly stepped out of the pack to introduce themselves. There was Angie, whom I mentioned above, a girl who greeted me every week and demanded, “Do you remember my name?” until I actually did. Jay impressed Peter with his curiosity about the English language, needing desperately to know the word for a man who dressed up in women’s clothing. Jessi, one of my students, stood out early as both a talent and a jokester when she answered a question about her vacation by saying she went to Mars. “Did you enjoy the cuisine there?” “No. It was all rocks!”

Just as individual characters started to emerge, whole classes eventually started taking on distinct personalities. One day, the students of junior 1, class 2 decided that everyone wanted a turn to speak in class, and from then on they were basically falling out of their seats volunteering to read. In my senior 1, class 6, towards the end of the year they started “oohing” and “aahing,” first, whenever a boy chose a girl that he had a crush on (the students aren’t allowed to date, but love was definitely in full bloom this spring) and after that, whenever anyone chose anyone. In another class - junior 1, class 6 - the word “yellow” turned into Pee-Wee’s secret word. They went nuts every time it came up. The only explanation I ever got went like this: “Why do you guys like the word yellow?” “Because yellow is cool!” “Why?” “Because, YELLOW IS INTERESTING!”

There’s a 3-year age gap between the juniors and seniors, and I loved teaching both for very different reasons. The seniors were better at English, and we could have more sophisticated discussions. I loved the times when they would come up to me after class with pressing questions that ranged from “Did you hear about Whitney Houston? Very sad!” to “Let me tell you something about my hometown” to (after a lesson on earthquakes) “Natural disasters are very scary, but I am more worried about how humans can treat other humans so badly sometimes.” It was so exciting, and I felt so privileged to listen to the kids articulate these very thoughtful ideas in their second language.

The juniors, however, had the boundless enthusiasm of 12-year-olds who know that they’ll have to behave like grown-ups one day, but not yet. They would ask the “inappropriate” questions that the older children were too polite to ask, and a lot of the girls even sneaked up behind me and pulled on my curls. Once they decided not to be shy, they were all in. Which meant that classes were a lot rowdier, because jumping around and being silly is really fun, but my theory was that as long as we were doing it in English it was OK. To put it simply: The juniors adored me, and I adored them, and we just had a crazy good time together.

Fun on track and field

It wasn’t always a big love-fest, however. Peter and I each had two classes that were pretty difficult to control. They’d talk in Chinese or play games while class was going on, and they moaned and whinged when they were asked to speak English. We had no power to give detention or anything, so the poorer-behaved students quickly figured out there was little consequence to goofing off in our class - though I did throw a kid out once; he hung out in the bathroom until one of his Chinese teachers asked him what he was up to - and then he was really in trouble for getting thrown out of foreign teacher’s class.

The big surprise with these classes was that when we said goodbye, those students seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I think we each took it a little personally, but their misbehavior stemmed from the fact that they’re not that crazy about learning English. They liked us just fine.

Despite the (very few) rough patches, Peter and I both feel like we really accomplished something with our students this year. Vocabulary was learned, pronunciation was polished, grammar was developed, confidence was built. But the connection we made was deeper than that. “America is a mystery to me,” one of my students told me early on. She was one of many kids dying to consume every scrap of Americana we had to offer. So we worked hard to make sure our lessons were about more than just language. We covered American experiences, tastes, touchstones and even a bit of history - anything that would expand their knowledge of the U.S. beyond Michael Jackson, the NBA and “Big Bang Theory.” It was a lot to take in, and some of it went over their heads. But when it connected, it was really exciting.

It seems unbelievably cheesy to say that they taught us as much as we taught them, but we really did learn a lot this year. The school and its people wholeheartedly welcomed us into this community, and everyone, students and teachers alike, generously shared their lives and culture. From this vantage point, it seems startling that we ever expected teaching to be just a pay check.

And, man, the vacation time is sweet!

Enjoy our first all-original video production from Whoop Wu Studios.

Apr 23, 2012

Taking a ride

Riding sheep by the river

The weather has been absolutely gorgeous this week — sunny and 80s every day. We’re taking advantage of that by going on lots of walks … and so is everyone else. The walkway by the river is a hive of activity with people walking, playing carnival games, eating snacks, dancing and more.

Above, Peter has captured one of the big squares where a lot of people hang out. You can see a father and his daughter riding a mechanical goat around. We’ve been seeing this kind of ride all over the place - anywhere there’s space for it, someone sets up shop to rent out some kind of mini-vehicle.

Apr 22, 2012


Just a little

On one of the ways we walk to the city center, we pass a vendor selling delicious snacks: Different types of vegetables and meats that are breaded, fried and then coated in spices and tomato sauce. We’ve been enjoying his wares about once a week since the middle of the winter, and as you can see above, I can accomplish this transaction with no words in any language. He speaks a bit of English, however, and I’ve been trying out some of the few Chinese phrases I’ve learned on him.

We visited him yesterday, and as we were wrapping up our transaction he said to me, “Your Chinese is getting better and better.” (Of course, he said it in Chinese first, to which I replied 我不说汉语, so he then said it in English.) It was such a nice compliment!

So, I’m very proud of me! … Although before you gauge how proud you are of me, too, here’s what I said that elicited the compliment: When he pointed at the spice mix, asking if I wanted any, I said, “一点儿,” which means “A little bit.” Hardly a treatise on world peace. But little by little I am able to communicate, and that’s very exciting.

Apr 3, 2012

Chinese poetry

At the recital in the gym

Should we be paying attention?

All last month, we’d see large groups of kids tucked into basically every corner of the school grounds reciting poetry together. Finally, last week, we returned home after dinner, and we could hear something going on in the gym. It was a poetry recital!

The funny thing about events like these is that they’re not at all formal - off-stage. On stage, everyone’s taking it very seriously, but in the audience, people wander in and out, the kids talk to each other, do each others’ hair, etc. I guess attendance is encouraged, but attention is not necessary. And we only stayed a few minutes. Not knowing any Chinese, there wasn’t a whole lot for us to grab onto. But the kids we saw seemed like they were doing a good job.

At the recital from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Mar 22, 2012

6 months in China!

So let’s eat more sticks

Yesterday marked six months to the day we landed in China! We celebrated, of course, at sticks!

There are two things we’ve learned for sure: China is always loud, and we like our food spicy.

Mar 16, 2012

Spring time for basketball!

It’s gorgeous out here

It's gorgeous out here

This week, the weather has been absolutely gorgeous: sixties and sunny every day! It could be a coincidence, but there’s also been a school-wide basketball tournament going on all week. We have six courts here on school grounds, and each court has been packed with four teams playing half-court. And the whole rest of the school has come out to support them. Even us! For a few minutes, anyway.