Jun 25, 2012

Replace your passport: Time for fun

Book shopping is the best

☆ Side Quest: Bookworm and Le Sud

Objective: Have some big city fun (and possibly a pizza) before catching the bus back to Luzhou

Reading and drinking is pretty much the best
By the way, the mint candy soda at the Loft is tops!

We were finished at the consulate by noon, but both Peter and I agreed that it was just too soon to get back on the bus to go back to Luzhou. Also, the silver lining of the passport mess was that we got to revisit a city that we really liked. So we agreed to stay another night, and set about enjoying Chengdu.

First thing: We were in need of lunch and new books, and The Bookworm is only a short walk from the consulate. It was a no brainer.

After lunch, we wandered around the city, soaking up the cosmopolitan atmosphere until our feet started to complain. We retired to the Loft courtyard to enjoy some minty refreshments while we read our new books.

For dinner, we had our sights set on pizza. You may have noticed that people love to argue about things on the internet, especially food. So the search for “Best Pizza in Chengdu” turned up many conflicting results. But French-Mediterranean restaurant Le Sud kept coming up as well-liked, and they had very few detractors.

And, just to put this out in the aether: There seems to be a little confusion online about whether the restaurant is closed, be it for renovations or permanently. But a man answered the phone when I called, and was really excited that we might be coming in for dinner later.

So, the restaurant was empty, but the meal was delicious enough

When we got there, the restaurant was empty. It would remain so for the duration of our dinner. So, for the record, Le Sud is open, and it’s delicious! The pizza had a delicate, thin crust with just the right amount of tomato sauce (that’s an issue with Chinese pizza), and cheese, lovely cheese.

After dinner, we retired back to the Loft for a healing sleep, and then it was back on the bus for us.

The action resumes in back in Luzhou …

Jun 24, 2012

In which we are invited to take a brief trip back to America, sort of

Or, What happens when your passport is stolen in China

Prologue: Don’t look now …

We’d gotten a little too comfortable at sticks, I guess. I had fallen into the habit of putting my purse down on a chair next to us, and then keeping a not-so-watchful eye on it. Eventually, this garnered predictable results.

This would have been a minor inconvenience but for the fact that someone along the line had told us that it was a good idea to keep our passports on us at all times, in case we were ever questioned by the police. (Later, I would be asked repeatedly [including by the local police] why on earth my passport had been in my purse.) So I was now a player in the extremely boring RPG, “International Bureaucracy: Replace Your Passport!”

On our RPG adventure

Chapter 1: Luzhou — Exit/Entry Bureau

Objective: Collect a Statement of Lost Passport from the Exit/Entry Bureau of the Luzhou city government

With the help of my coworker Chris acting as translator, I filed a police report, which I then took to Exit/Entry. The officer there processed my paperwork and gave me the Statement of Lost Passport.

I could now make an appointment with the Consulate General of the United States in Chengdu to apply for a new passport.

Chapter 2: Luzhou-Chengdu Highroad

Objective: Keep yourself from going stir-crazy!

Get on the bus

By the end of our quest, we will make this journey 4 times in two weeks. This trip is long. And boring.

And, departing from Luzhou, we spend almost an hour idling at three different bus stations before even leaving the city, the inefficiency of which drives me crazy every time.

Jack ... Rose ...

They do play movies during the drive. In English even! Unfortunately, they’re usually terrible. Though on this first trip, the movie was “Titanic.” This movie is hugely popular here, and, well, it’s watchable enough.

The monotony of the drive is interrupted about halfway through and replaced with horror at the Rest Stop Toilets of Doom. Both the men’s and the women’s rooms contain a smelly canal, over which you squat (there’s a half wall for the least-private privacy ever), and down which water is sluiced every five minutes or so. We both try to plan our liquids so that we don’t need to visit this convenience, but sometimes life doesn’t work out that way.

When we pulled into the Chengdu bus station, The Titanic was still sinking. It had been for more than an hour - though we’d miss the very end of it; it turns out, “Titanic” with Bus TV commercials is even longer than the drive from Luzhou to Chengdu. Good work James Cameron! That’s truly epic.

☆ Side Quest: Xiao Tong Alley

Objective 1: Find a place to eat
Objective 2: Find a place to sleep

Back at the Loft

Our love of this area is well documented. Part of our excitement at returning to Chengdu was that we’d get to stay at The Loft again. So our second objective was easily accomplished. They put us in the Erykah Badu room this time. And the rooms have TVs now!

Objective 1 was trickier. By the time we got settled we were both starving, but it was after 10 pm on a Tuesday and most of the restaurants in the neighborhood were closed. We trudged around the block, grimly entertaining the idea of a dinner made from convenience store food. But then we spotted it: 串串. This is the Chinese name for what we call “food on sticks.” That’d do it!

We laughed at the fact that we were in a city with so many more options than Luzhou, and yet we were eating the same meal that we eat almost every night. But it’s delicious and we love it. And, at this place they used very different spices. So it was really almost like a completely different meal.

We returned to the Loft for a healing sleep so we’d be ready to resume our quest tomorrow.

Chapter 3: The Consulate

Objective: Apply for a new passport

Out in the street

The U.S. Consulate in Chengdu is in a fancy part of town, just around the corner from a bunch of flagship stores for international luxury brands. So we took a photo of that, instead of the nondescript government building guarded by men with guns.

The inside looks just like a typical American government office - imagine your local post office, with a bunch of Chinese nationals waiting on line to apply for a visa. Even the bathrooms felt American: There was no wastebasket for used tissue, which meant that the plumbing could handle toilet paper! … Am I obsessed with bathrooms? I’m starting to wonder. Although in my defense, we read later that Chengdoo magazine rated the bathroom at the consulate one of the six best public restrooms in the city. It really is something to see.

Once I filed my paperwork and paid for my new passport, I had to raise my hand and swear that all the information I provided was truthful to the best of my knowledge. They gave me a flimsy receipt, told me not to lose it and come back in 10 business days.

The saga continues …

Jun 24, 2012

Dinner with the bosses

A Chinese western meal

This is a full table

About once a month, our bosses like to take us out to dinner. We chat about how work is going, how Peter and I are doing in China, if the apartment is falling apart or not. The basics. Their management style is pretty hands-off — there are times that we have gone weeks without talking to them — so it’s nice to reconnect at these dinners.

The past couple of times we’ve gone out, they’ve taken us to some local “Western Restaurants.” We’ve gone to a couple of these on our own, and they each do a varying job on recreating American-ish food. But this last one, called the 3-D Coffee Bar (“Coffee Bar” means “Western Restaurant” in Luzhou), was actually pretty good. The funny thing, though, is that they serve western food, we still ordered Chinese style - meaning we got several entrees to share among the four of us. Which is really more fun. I do want a little bit of everything, thank you.

Jun 21, 2012

Snaps: By the Changjiang River

Also known as: The mighty Yangze

The river viewI'm touching the water!

On a walk down by the river (which you probably better know by the name Yangtze), we saw these tourists taking photos. I laughed at them a little bit — why do you need a photo of yourself in the river? — but then immediately wanted to go touch the water for myself. (Which would be the first time, even though we’ve been here many months already.) Peter snapped a photo, and we ended up with the same picture that I laughed at someone else for taking!

Jun 21, 2012

No context quote of the week

I mean it, no context

Here's OK, right?

“The traffic here has gotten much better since the government outlawed driving while drunk.”

— Our new friend Alex

Though the parking still isn’t great.

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.

Jun 19, 2012

Luzhou Laojiao Tianfu Middle School

Fact Dump

Can you spot Uncle Foreigner?
  • This October, Luzhou Laojiao Tianfu Middle School will celebrate it’s 100th year as a learning institution.
  • The school comprises grades Senior 1, Senior 2, Senior 3, as well as, for the first time this year, Junior 1. Next year they will add Junior 2. Peter taught Senior 1 classes, and Emily taught both Senior 1 and Junior 1 classes.
  • The school day starts at around 7:30 am, and older students may have class as late as 9:30 pm. Our earliest class was 8:40 am, and our latest was 4:50 pm.
  • Older students have classes most Saturdays, and sometimes even on Sundays. We generally worked Monday through Friday because our boss knows Americans like weekends.
  • Chinese classes traditionally place an emphasis on rote learning and memorization. By contrast, our classes looked like unstructured, foreign-language playtime. But learning was going on, I swear.
  • Many students live with their families in Luzhou, but there is a large population of dormitory students who live on campus.
  • The out-of-towners come mostly from the neighboring cities of Zigong and Yibin. Yibin is known in China for baijiu and the Bamboo Sea. Zigong is known for dinosaurs and salt.
  • The boys dorms are right near our apartment. Some nights we can here mischievous screaming coming from the building. One of the students told us that this is because the showers don’t have hot water.
  • The students are responsible for keeping their classroom and the school grounds clean. These activities are overseen, not by a teacher, but by a class monitor who has been chosen by their peers.
  • The class monitor is a responsible student who gets good grades - and is well-liked and respected by their classmates. It’s cool to be smart and hardworking here!

Jun 11, 2012

Snaps: Upstairs, Downstairs

It happens just like that

BeforeAfter

One morning we woke up and found a new set of stairs had been carved in the hill, where all the students had been cutting their own path anyway. By the time we made our way back from dinner, the stairs were completed.

Things can be slow to start here in China, but once changes start happening, things move quickly.

Once the stairs were finished, the kids started cutting through the foliage at a different part of the hill. What are you going to do?

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!”

Jun 4, 2012

Real wide and narrow alleys

In old Luzhou

The narrow alleys of Luzhou

One of the things from our January visit to Chengdu that we were amused by was the Kuanzhai Xiangzi, or, literally, the wide and narrow alleys. To refresh your memory, it was an area of about three square blocks that had been constructed to look like Qing Dynasty architecture. To us, it felt like, Disneyland Sichuan, full of expensive restaurants and tourist traps.

Since we’ve been back in Luzhou, we’ve been exploring the little nooks and crannies around our city. We’ve found our own wide and narrow alleys, which aren’t as old as Qing Dynasty but they are still places where average people live and work. We think they’re pretty cool. Take a look: