Hello Uncle Foreigner

cultural differences

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an

Jun 7, 2013

What’s that you’re eating?

Or, why we keep showing you photos of boiling pots

Hot pot 1Hot pot 2Hot pot 3Hot pot 4Hot pot 5Hot pot 6Hot pot 7Hot pot 8Hot pot 9

“Yeah, that’s not hot pot, that’s 串串,” people would correct us when early on we would go around talking about our favorite meal on sticks. “Whatever,” we would think, “It’s hot, and it’s in a pot. That’s hot pot.” But now, almost two years into our Chinese journey, we’re finally catching on to the subtleties of Sichuan cooking.

There are 33 distinct Chinese terms for cutting, according to our Sichuanese food guru Fuchsia Dunlop and 63 shapes into which food can be cut. And that’s just the specificities of prep work. When you scale it up, a pot of 豆花火锅 (tofu soup) is an entirely different thing than 串串 and neither of them are what people mean when they’re talking about traditional Sichuan 火锅。Hot soup isn’t just one thing, it’s a whole genre.

The traditional style 火锅 is a spicy broth that the table shares, with platters of beautifully cut meats and vegetables to dump into that broth. Distinguished from it’s poorer cousin 串串 by the quality and price of everything. And, of course, the sticks.

But, what else could be different? Well, everything: Is there one communal pot, or does everyone get their own? What’s the base of the broth? How spicy is the broth? What goes in the soup, ingredient-wise? What goes in the soup, spice-wise? Does the soup come fully prepared, or do you order ingredients a la carte? What’s the quality of meat that comes with the meal? Are we talking fish, chicken, beef, sheep or what? How are the vegetables sliced? Are there any vegetables? What goes in your spice bowl that accompanies the meal? Do they have a spice bar?!

There’s a meal for all spice levels, and there’s a meal for all price levels. A night out at 串串 usually sets us back about about US$8 (including beers). A recent adventure at a fancier beef hot pot place came to about US$30 (again, including beers), which is a major splurge for us. For reference, that kind of money can buy two bus tickets to Chongqing.

Speaking of which, start all over from the beginning in Chongqing, because they have a completely different flavor profile there. Chongqing spice is much sharper, more in your face as opposed to the creeping numbness of the Sichuan peppercorn, and just more … red. It’s a little hard to describe. But we were very proud when upon revisiting a 串串 chain that we had read was based out of Chongqing and could definitely taste the regional flavor. Which, upgrade us from Brand Newbie to Not Completely Lost!

Nov 7, 2012

New school: Under construction and open for business

Don’t step in the fresh concrete

One day, the library
A future library, we think.
Working on the stadiumStill workingWorking on the stadium

By September, that big pile of dirt and scaffolding we had seen last year was really coming along. It was not, however, finished. But school was starting, so we and the kids moved in anyway.

It was surreal to be negotiating bulldozers and other construction machines on our way from our new apartment to the new classrooms. Linda told us that some of the parents were upset to see the state of the campus when they dropped their kids off, but the students were led around campus in groups, with a teacher to keep them safe. The adults were trusted not to monkey around with anything too dangerous. Peter and I wore our heaviest boots, and forgave the pain of our pre-departure tetanus shots.

From our apartment balcony, which faces out over the western border of the school, we could watch bricks, concrete and more dirt come into the construction site. For a couple of days, a team of mules did the hauling, but once the volume decreased, humans took over, carrying the heavy loads in baskets hung on sticks slung over their shoulders.

Construction continued at a frenzied pace throughout September. October 1 was the school’s 100th anniversary, and there was a huge celebration planned — one we’d been hearing about for our entire tenure here. Important officials from Beijing and Chengdu (Sichuan’s capital) were expected, as well as a centenary worth of alumni. The work HAD TO be done by then.

Needless to say it was loud, even during the afternoon nap-time that is held so inviolable here. The work was constant, though not necessarily organized. We saw workers move bricks from here to there and then back over here, rip up recently laid tile to sink even newer cabling and tubing, and punch holes in brand new walls for doorways that apparently weren’t in the original plans. It was quite chaotic, and more than once we said to each other, “You’d never see this in America. Why would they do it this way?!”

But that’s part of life in China. Things happen that seem nonsensical, and you just live with it.

We lived with the power and water disruptions, and the no internet access. We lived with the ground-shaking explosions from the blasting being done to level out the surrounding hillside. (Fun fact: Many of my students already know the English word “earthquake.”) We lived with the ear-shattering drilling poking crumbly holes in our walls for surprise electrical wiring.

But the real lesson here: Construction always takes longer than you think it will.

Trucks in our backyard

Nov 2, 2012

Tattoos in China

No long sleeves necessary

Iron Fist PeterPeter in the chair

Before we moved, we knew that our life in China would be different. They use chopsticks and squat toilets here (not at the same time), the government is Communist, and everyone speaks Chinese. Duh.

There were some questions we had, though, that seem silly now. Would I be able to wear tank tops, or would bare arms be too salacious? Would our piercings be OK? Would I be able to have crazy hair colors if I wanted?

We’ve found since landing that, much like in America, there are people who dress conservatively and people who dress wildly. It just depends on your personal style and what your job will welcome in the workplace. (As wacky foreigner teachers, we’re allowed a lot of leeway.)

But, given our pre-landing mindset, we were really surprised to see so many people with tattoos over here. Men and women both — though usually on the younger side — sport ink like it ain’t no thing. They’re not seen as thugs or roustabouts, and no one seems too shocked. Which, again, is much like it is in America these days.

Peter got his first tattoo 20 years ago, and this summer finally felt ready for his second. He chose the symbol of Iron Fist, one of his favorite childhood comic book heroes — and an American man who finds himself in China.

We had seen a small tattoo parlor in the center of the city, so that’s where we went. (Of course afterwards, we started noticing tattoo artists all over town.) The process was pretty straightforward: packaged needle, fresh ink, thorough aftercare instructions.

And now, Peter has harnessed the power of the great dragon Shou-Lao!

Jun 7, 2012

“Have you eaten?”

It just means “hello!”

Have you eaten?

A lot of times when we run into people we know, one of the first things they ask is, “Have you eaten?” When we first moved here, we worried that this was leading to an invitation; not that we wouldn’t like to spend more time with our friends, but dinnertime, especially in the beginning, is often a time for us to decompress and process what living in China means.

But, of course, it was never a dinner/lunch invitation. It’s just a polite thing you ask for small talk - much like “How are you?” in America. We’ve read that part of that comes from the Great Leap Forward, when there wasn’t enough food and people were starving. In fact, a lot about current day China focuses on having enough food. There’s a New Year tradition of having a giant fish that you don’t finish until the next day, because that shows that you have so much food that it spills over into the New Year. And of course, at formal banquets, the host purposely orders more food than is necessary. It’s a matter of pride and reassurance, I think, that there is enough food.

So, “Have you eaten?” becomes small talk. The answer is usually either “Yes, we had a delicious meal,” or, “No, but we’re going to eat something great in just a little bit.” What we’re all saying is really, “Isn’t it great that we’re not starving!”

May 31, 2012

They sell what?!?

Adult goods sold here

Adult shop

If you translate these characters, they mean “Adult Goods Shop” — and what’s for sale does not include ties or 401Ks. We couldn’t post a front view of the store because, well, there’s entirely too much front on view there. The thing is, there are at least 5 of these stores within a stone’s throw of the school. Some obscure their smutty wares, but not all of them do. It’s quite shocking!

Mores are changing here - for example, it’s no longer illegal to live with a non-relative of the opposite sex - but pornography is definitely still illegal. And sex (or even boyfriend/girlfriend cohabitation) is not something that’s discussed openly. So we’re really not sure what to make of this.

But the Chinese people we see walk by these shops appear neither fazed nor curious.

May 25, 2012

Parents maybe understand?

How do you say Will Smith in Chinese?

For this week’s lesson, we’re playing “Parents Just Don’t Understand” by The Fresh Prince. They’ve heard of Will Smith the actor, so we thought it would be interesting for them to see how he started out.

After I played it in one of my classes, one of the boys spoke up and said, “I love my parents!” Not like he was offended. He just wanted to go on record. I replied, “Well, he was a very naughty boy.” He liked that response.

May 16, 2012

Where is your baby?

How old is your son?

This kid is in charge of the road

Babies are pretty precious here. Part of it is One Child, but I think a bigger part of it is the tradition that your kids are the ones who will take care of you in your old age, so it is so important to A. Have one, and, B. Treat it well.

Needless to say, people are very surprised1 when we say that we don’t have kids. Accepting, but surprised.

Our school is a very small community and we stick out a lot - everyone knows where we live and what we’re doing here - so it’s somewhat surprising that people still keep asking us about children. We’ve never been seen with a child (well, an American child; we’ve been seen with many Chinese children) and we haven’t been known to make any childcare arrangements while both of us are at class. But, here in China, it’s not uncommon for the kids to live with the grandparents while both parents go back to work - even if the parents have to go across the country for work. A teacher-friend we were talking with last night even seemed disappointed that this wasn’t the case for us. We were telling her about our blog when the clarification happened. “Oh, that’s too bad. I was picturing your babies reading your stories and looking at your pictures,” she said. She was less impressed that it was our adult family and friends. (Though we’re very grateful you’re here!)

So, there are two basic assumptions made about children here: If you’re married, you have kids. If you’re never actually accompanied by offspring, it’s because they live out in the country with grandma and grandpa. And everyone’s been very gracious as we’ve disabused them of this, but it has been funny to see their reactions. Oh, those crazy Americans!

1. I’ve had this exact conversation a few times with some of my juniors:

Student: How old is your son? [Showing obvious pride in putting the question together]

Me: I don’t have a son.

Student: [Obvious confusion, sometimes consulting with another student]

Student: [Aha!] How old is your daughter!

Me: I don’t have a daughter either. I don’t have any kids.

Student: No!?!

Me: What about you? How old is your kid?

Student: I don’t have kids!

Apr 17, 2012

In your face

Know your new culture

You may have heard already about the Chinese concept of “saving face.” It’s a little different than the American connotation of that phrase, but as I understand it, it loosely implies that everyone in a given conversation has the responsibility to make sure that everyone looks good to everyone else. Don’t blatantly contradict another person or insult them, and don’t say anything that would make your conversation partners uncomfortable - even about yourself. It’s a slippery concept that can be difficult for straight-shootin’, in-your-face Americans.

One of the tools we’ve been using to help make sense of Chinese culture is a show called “Local Laowai.” (Laowai basically means foreigner.) We recently watched an episode that put this concept of “face” in terms of a Chinese business meeting, which was quite helpful. As they explained it, if your boss asks you for input, they don’t necessarily want you to just echo their ideas, but you have to be very careful with your constructive criticism. Start with saying you like their idea, then present the evidence that will support a different idea, and then present your different idea. You have to ease everyone in the meeting into the fact that you are supporting an idea that is contradictory to your boss’. This way there’s no confrontation, and also you avoid looking show-offy and arrogant - another thing that might create discomfort.

Extrapolating from this, I think I can now explain an interaction that I keep having with my students. Here’s an example:

Student: Where did you go last week?

Me: Um … nowhere. I was here last week, teaching your class.

Student: OK. I went to Beijing. I was the representative of Jamaica in the Model U.N. hosted by Harvard University!

Me: That’s wonderful! I’m really proud of you!

Obviously, my student was really excited to tell me that she had accomplished such a prestigious academic achievement. It baffled me at the time - if she wanted to tell me her exciting news, why didn’t she just start with that? But, if I’m interpreting this correctly, I think according to the rules of “face” she couldn’t just lead with, “Here’s why I’m so great!” It’s too abrupt and forward. She had to give me a chance to possibly share some good news first.

“Face” is a really tough thing to get a handle on. Fortunately, as foreigners, we’re given some leeway in how we conduct ourselves. But without understanding the concept, Chinese behavior can sometimes appear really strange to us. So figuring out each little piece of the puzzle helps us immensely.

Nov 7, 2011

Back in black

Let’s not talk about paperwork

Hello friends,

Sorry again for the slow down. Between some bureaucratic matters (it takes a lot of paperwork to live in China) and us both catching a change-of-the-seasons cold (now it’s in the 60s and rainy every day, instead of in the 70s and rainy every day), we haven’t had a lot of time for adventuring.

The paperwork could be described as an adventure, but not really an interesting one. I did learn that they use the English word “propaganda” to mean information or documentation — which kind of jibes with its original Latin meaning - but it is really funny to hear someone say, “Here. Take this propaganda,” at the police station (no one got arrested; foreigners have to do a lot of checking in with the police in China). Don’t worry. I didn’t laugh.

But we’re mostly well, and near the end of the process for getting our residence permits, so I’m hoping blogging will resume as normal.

Teaser: A short trip to Hong Kong is in the works. I’m excited to possibly find and eat some cheese; Peter’s looking forward to visiting HK’s giant guitar store.