Hello Uncle Foreigner

culture

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

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 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 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.

Oct 20, 2011

The plumbing saga

Where the heck's the toilet plunger gone?

The story of a plunger
(Photo illustration by the non-graphic designer of the house, FYI)

Yesterday, we were having some trouble with our toilet. I like to be a fix-it-yourself girl whenever possible, so before calling for help, I went out to see if I could find a plunger. This turned out to be harder than I thought.

I looked up the Chinese translation for plumber and I armed myself with my trusty notebook (fig. 2). I wrote out both the characters and the pinyin, just in case my characters were actually meaningless scribbles to a Chinese person. I also drew the top plunger as a visual aid.

My first stop was the hardware-looking store right next door to our school. I showed the shopkeeper and another customer the characters and the drawing. Blank looks. The shopkeeper went into the back to make change for his customer while she continued to try and help me figure out what I was trying to say. I did a little pantomime of plunging, and made a “pchew, pchew, pchew” sound. Suddenly, comprehension. She shouted back to the shopkeeper in Chinese. After he sent her on her way, he started looking around for something for me. Nails. Unfortunately, the woman interpreted my moves as hammer and nails. So I did it again for him. He had a realization, and wrote down the characters on the slip of paper in fig. 3. I think the second line was an address.

I took off in the direction he had pointed, excited that I was probably hot on the trail of a plunger. I saw another, more industrial-looking hardware store across the street. I showed the girl at the counter my paper, but she just shook her head. I noticed it was pretty much all lighting supplies, not really general hardware. Not the place to have a plunger. (Or a bicycle pump, as it turns out I was really asking her for, stay tuned …)

Nearby, there was what looked to be the equivalent of a dollar/variety store. I show the proprietor fig. 3. She nods and goes to get something: a bicycle pump. (There it is.) Oops. So I show her my original drawing, to which I’ve now added the squat toilet on the bottom left. She shakes her head no.

I continue on to a toilet supply store. They have both squat and western-style toilets, so I show the woman working there my notebook, and then do my miming over an actual bowl. She nods in recognition, but then indicates that they do not sell plungers. But she does say “zhu sai,” which is what Google translate said that I was looking for.

Moving on. Inspired by the toilet store, I do the drawing on the bottom right of fig. 2. I come to another hardware looking store and show her the whole thing. She does recognize it. But they don’t have it. She gives me directions in Chinese, though, indicating that somewhere back the way I came I can find what I need.

I turn around and go back the way I came. At this point it’s been an hour, but I’ve confirmed that I can communicate to a Chinese person that I need a plunger (and I’ve found where to buy a bicycle pump, should the need arise). I veer off onto a side street and find another thing shop. I show my notebook to the man here and he nods and goes back into his store. Success! He comes back with the item on the left of fig. 1. It’s brittle plastic and costs about $.30. I’m pretty sure this will not be effective, but I pay the man and take my prize.

Tired and discouraged, I head for home. Coming at the entry of the school from the other side, I see right in the front of another general thing shop an honest to goodness recognizable plunger (fig. 1, right side). Elated, I purchase it.

It’s also kind of crappily made, but I set out to buy a plunger and by gum! I got one. Those of you who know anything about plumbing and toilets can already guess how this turns out, however.

After a failed plunge and some research, I discovered that this is not the right kind of plunger to use. I tried the little plastic one for fun - and it was not that fun - which also didn’t work. Given how hard it was to find these, I decided against going out again and called our boss lady to say, “Help! Our toilet’s clogged!”

They sent over a pro, who got the job done in two minutes with some fancy snake machine.

The grisly conclusion: I suspect that, despite it’s modern, western look, our toilet may not be up to the task of handling toilet paper - I’ve seen it before in developing areas that you have to throw your paper in a waste basket, not the bowl. The pipes just can’t deal with it. But, as has been our mantra thus far, we didn’t move to China because everything would be the same …

Oct 18, 2011

Christmas carols all year

It’s happened a couple times now that we’ll be out and I’ll hear over a store’s PA system the lovely sounds of Christmas carols. It happened tonight at the restaurant we were at. Mixed in with regular “I love you, baby” pop music. I think, because most people don’t understand that much English here, the carols just sound like another nice song. But it’s really funny to hear.

Oct 18, 2011

Hangman is kind of a creepy game

This week, I’ve been trying to teach my juniors to play hangman - which, when I started breaking down the concept of the game to it’s simplest terms, I realized is kind of creepy: Guess all the correct letters before this stick figure man is killed!

It’s been a little tough. They’ve never seen this game before, and when I tell them, “Just guess any letter. One letter. Say a letter that you know,” (in much more patient and teacherly tones. To start, anyway.) they just look at me blankly. So I demonstrate by guessing the letters myself, some right and some wrong. Yesterday, my class caught on pretty quickly, but I had a really difficult time with today’s class. The vocabulary for this week is sports, and so they would just go through the words we learned and spell all of them. They could do this quite well, but this was not the point. Another thing they did was to count the letters and just guess a word with that many letters. I could not get them to understand the concept of “just guess one letter” for anything. I even went out into the class, squatted down, raised my hand and guessed, and then ran up to the board and wrote down my guess of ONE LETTER.

We got to a point where one girl just kept spelling “baseball” at me (which was the word; she had guessed from the amount of letters), so I had her stand up. “B-A-S …” She started. “Stop!” I yelled, and wrote down “B.” “OK, what’s next?” I asked her. “A-S …” “Stop! A,” and I wrote down both “As.” This started to click with some of the students. So we finished baseball, and I chose a word from one of their earlier lessons, “eraser,” which you’ll notice has the same amount of letters as “soccer.” Which they all started yelling out (there’s a lot of call and response in the classroom, so this wasn’t quite the chaos it sounds). Again I did the “Stop!” thing with the girl, who was spelling “soccer.” But the “S” went in a different place, of course, than they were expecting. The class went quiet. And then someone guessed … just one letter. They got it!

When they caught on that I was using earlier vocabulary words mingled with this week’s, they all scrambled to the dictionary section of their books and started counting the letters again. I guess hangman - and language - is all about pattern recognition. It just doesn’t seem as fun a game when you play it that way.

But, I’ll make some adjustments to my strategy and try again tomorrow and see how those kids do. That’s what this job has been about so far. And when it finally clicks, it’s really cool.