Jun 1, 2012

Happy Children’s Day!

Making new friends

Our new friend on Children's Day

I ran into two of my Junior students today at lunch, and they informed me that today is Children’s Day in China.

“Stay right there, and we will bring you some candy,” they instructed me, and ran across the busy street. I tensed up as I watched them dodge cars (we haven’t addressed it yet, but the traffic here is frightening), but they returned safely with two lollipops that they gave to me. It was very kind, although I’m a little puzzled that they gave me sweets rather than the other way around.

But back at home, I looked up Children’s Day. It’s a Chinese holiday that, obviously, recognizes children. Sometimes the kids are given a half or whole day off from school. Our juniors were given the afternoon off for a celebration in the gym, as I found out when I arrived to an empty classroom later that day.

At dinner, we celebrated Children’s Day by making friends with a child (he’s pictured above). Kids of his age do nothing to hide their astonishment at seeing us, which is always funny to see, and we usually wave and smile and say 你好. Because his family was sitting right next to us at dinner, he had the chance to move in closer and closer to our table.

There are different levels of amazement that we see people express towards us: First, there’s “Look at that!” Next up is, “It speaks!” Then there’s, “It speaks to me!” — I think for many little kids who have only seen westerners on TV, there’s an element of surprise that we can break the fourth wall with them. And, finally there’s “It speaks! To me! In Chinese!”

We sped through all four stages when I said to the boy, “我是 Emily. 他是 Peter.” He really liked Peter’s name. He repeated it over and over. I also asked him his name, but the Chinese slipped out of my head as soon as I said it.

(Peter pointed out that I’m at a good level for conversation with children; they don’t ask a lot of questions and a whole exchange can comprise “How are you? What’s your name? Great!”)

The family finished their meal soon after our little conversation, and they all said good-bye. I said to the mother, “Very cute!” (in English; “cute,” like “OK,” seems to be a word known universally) and she smiled.

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 27, 2012

The Singapore Five

A lovely parasol

Our school prides itself on its strong academics - I learned today that it’s regularly ranked among the top 10 high schools in Sichuan Province. And some of the best and brightest take part every year in something called The Singapore Project.

In the last five to ten years, Singapore has been making a huge push to beef up their science and engineering sectors. This involves sending their top students to the best schools abroad and recruiting top science students from all over Asia to come study in Singapore. At the beginning of this year (or possibly late last year), more than 100 students were invited to try for a brass ring in the form of a full-ride scholarship to one of two three top engineering schools in Singapore.

The kids — who are now in their second to last year of high school — faced a series of tests and interviews that whittled the group down to seven very talented students. They were all incredibly gifted in both the sciences and in English. Classes are taught in English at the universities — which is why Peter and I have been working with these kids since November.

The final interview was last weekend, and Peter and I spent many hours coaching the kids in the week prior. I have to say, every single one of these kids was the ideal college applicant. Beyond grades, each one was able to communicate a genuine love of learning, and they all had impressive extra-curriculars that you could tell were more than resume fodder. They are all dream students and all-around nice kids.

In the end, five students got in. (One of them, a member of the handicrafts club, made the parasol pictured above, which she gave to us as a thank-you present.) They’ll be heading to Singapore in July for some studies. Then, I think, they come back here to finish their final year of high school, and enroll the following year. CORRECTION: They ship out in July to do their last year of high school in Singapore with an intensive focus on English, and then apply to one of three engineering universities there.

It’s an amazing achievement, and I’m extremely proud that we were able to help them even a little bit.

It’s a bit of a bummer that two of the boys didn’t make it — their head teacher was really shocked that they didn’t get in (and kind of shocked about two of the boys that did). But they’re both so talented that they’ll have a bright future whatever happens. I’m sure that next year, when they start applying to domestic universities, they’ll get into the school of their choice, no fuss.

It was an interesting look at the college application process here in China. The criteria for acceptance seems to be similar to what American colleges look for: Good academics, with supporting activities that make you stand out as a positive community member. And we’ve all heard a lot about the competitiveness of academics in China - students studying their brains out, sometimes with the help of illegal stimulants, at education factories that are only interested in producing knowledge-bots - but we don’t see any of that here. These kids work hard, sure, but they all also seem happy and healthy, and have cultivated interests outside of school. (One of the boys said that his favorite thing to do outside of school is play Plants vs. Zombies, so there’s plenty of time for video gaming.) They’re well-rounded, intelligent human beings that will go far in whatever they choose to do in life.

Our last session with them was the Wednesday before their Sunday interviews, and at the end their teacher wrapped it up with a very American pep talk: “You are all well-prepared, and every one of you deserves this scholarship. Get plenty of rest between now and the interview, and make sure to relax.” Hardly whip-cracking at all. But it got the job done.

May 26, 2012

Snaps: Spring in bloom

And the purple flowers are here

The purple flowers

From very early on, Peter’s student Yang Yang has put herself forward as a girl enthusiastic about learning English. The other day, she grabbed Peter between class and dragged him away saying, “Hurry, hurry! Come with me.”

She took him up to the walkway between the science building and the main senior classes building and pointed something out. She couldn’t quite articulate what she wanted Peter to look at, but then he saw the beautiful blooming purple flowers on the tree. “Oh, the flowers!” Peter said. “Yes!” said Yang Yang.

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 22, 2012

Southwest Trading Center of China

Time for shopping

Way back in October, we got on a bus that we educatedly guessed was the tourist loop - one of our fellow teachers had mentioned that there was a good tourist bus (with a very specific look that she described) that went all around the city.

Something obviously was mangled in both translation and interpretation, because this turned out to be a regular city bus that took us out to the edge of the city and dumped us out in the middle of this construction site. (We’ve since learned that buses here don’t loop, they just pendulate from one end of their route to the other.) There were two other people on the bus with us, and they were just as confused as we were. I’m sure our teacher didn’t mean to send us to a construction site, but we never resolved what she really meant when she told us to get on that bus.

But, anyway. Recently, ads touting the finished product of that construction have popped up all over town. It’s called the Southwest Trading Center of China, and it’s a giant mall! Some of the ads even show an Ikea! Last weekend, we went and checked it out.

The bus ride was way more populated this time, but it still let out at the edge of the city. Only now we were confronted with the biggest mall complex I’d ever seen. It was seriously giant. It was also still under construction, even though there were posters celebrating the grand opening on April 29. But some stores were up and running.

All of the stores somehow related to home building, which makes sense because a quadrillioin apartment buildings are going up here every day. Can the local economy support such construction? Beats me! But STCoC is ready to supply everyone who needs its wares. (It could possibly supply every home builder in Asia.) Each giant unit of the mall had a different focus. There was the ceramic tiling unit, with 30 different stores selling tiles; the bathroom fixtures unit, with western and Chinese toilets; the kitchen fixtures unit, which made us salivate with envy because our kitchen is so badly designed for our big, western bodies; and so on. Everything on sale was shiny and new and expensive-looking.

Like I said, we weren’t the only ones to make the ride out there, and I got the impression that the other people weren’t really shopping either. Like us, they were there to get a gander at the flashy new city (basically) that was erected right outside our old one. We didn’t spot an actual Ikea, which was disappointing but expected; it’s common practice to use clip art - sometimes clip art you don’t actually own - in making advertisements. (The other day I spotted a McDonald’s ice cream cone in a sign for a mom-and-pop scoopery.) But in a few months, we’ll go out there once more to see what we see. And I’m still hoping for an Ikea, if only to see if Chinese Ikea still serves Swedish meatballs.

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!

May 14, 2012

Snaps: Down the lane

Summer approaches our neighborhood

Couple in the sunshine

It’s only May, but it feels like summer is here.

May 10, 2012

Cold beer

It’s very refreshing

A nice cold beer on a hot day

The temperature is in the 90s already, and it’s soooo humid. And, as the summer tends to do, it’s only going to get hotter. Our head teacher is very concerned that we have never experienced a Luzhou summer before, and she’s looking out for us. In fact, at our request, she found us some teaching work for July and because it’s going to be so hot, she’s making them pay us more. Even though the classrooms will be air conditioned. I am not complaining about either fact.

Tonight, we figured out something that should make the hot, hot heat a little more enjoyable: I figured out how to ask for cold beer! We’ve been getting served room-temperature beer no matter the room temperature since we arrived, and we figured that would continue forever. But, last night at sticks, when we asked for another beer about halfway into our meal (you generally order all the beers you’re going to drink at the start of the meal), our waitress said something like “Ping-ah” to which I said yes. And then she brought us a refrigerated beer!

So tonight at sticks … well, first: Because we’re regulars they just bring us three beers and the vinegar Peter likes without us asking. So tonight, before they brought anything out, I said “Pijiu, bing-ah.” (The word stuck in my head mostly because the second part sounds like “Ahhhh!”) And this resulted in three deliciously cold beers. What a happy ending!

May 6, 2012

Movie time: “The Avengers: 3-D”

Blockbusters are the same all around the world

In the lobby

“The Avengers” opened here yesterday, which was a good enough motivator for us to figure out how to go to the movies. We had done some recon a couple of months ago which led us to both the ticket kiosk and what was possibly the theater entrance (the two were not near each other) of the movie house in the center of the city. We also had a flier with the theater’s website on it, so using Google Translate, we were able to make certain that the film was playing about once an hour, and that it would be in English. We looked up how to say tickets, and we were on our way.

At the ticket kiosk, I asked for 二门票. The ticket woman nodded, asked me something in Chinese and pointed at her watch. What showing would we like to see? I was totally stymied.

It's a real theater

A bit of a line built up behind us while I was frantically looking for something that would have movie times on it. I recalled that there was a showing in the 4:00 pm range, and that they do a 24-hour clock here, so I said “16” in Chinese to the woman. She had no idea what I was trying to say. So I stepped out of line to regroup.

Once out of line, of course, the poster with the times on it was clearly right next to the hole in the window through which I was talking to the woman. 4:20 was the time we wanted. So I practiced, 四, 二十. This got the message across. She picked out seats for us (the theater had assigned seats), but then said something else including a phrase I know very well: 没有, which means “don’t have.” I repeated 没有 back to her, and then she printed out our tickets. We spent the rest of the afternoon speculating about what it was they “don’t have.” Air conditioning? Snacks? 3-D glasses?

We got to the theater on the early side, and were confronted with a multiplex that looked just like an American movie theater, air conditioning and all. We even ordered a popcorn and soda combo using a coupon we had gotten with our tickets. (Actually, it was really helpful to have the coupon, because I’m not sure how I would have acted out that order.) The one thing that was different was that the theater ladies made us all wait until about 4:15 before we could enter the theater. There’s assigned seating, so there’s really no reason to be in the theater too early.

Before the movie, there were previews, of course. And then it began, just like the website said it would, in English with Chinese subtitles. Here’s a fun tidbit for you: Most Chinese entertainment is subtitled, even if the dialogue is in Mandarin. There are huge dialectal differences in speech from region to region here in China - people we met in Chengdu, a city 4 hours away from Luzhou, told us that if we learned Chinese in Luzhou, we’d speak noticeably differently than if we learned it in Chengdu. But, the written language is the same everywhere - and has been for thousands of years. So, TV and movies are usually subtitled.

What was the movie actually like? It was awesome! Peter said that the 3-D was really cool. In fact, the whole experience — the familiarity of the movie-going experience, coupled with characters we’re familiar with cavorting [*MILD SPOILER*] in New York City — was really transporting. When we walked back out onto the street, it was almost a surprise that we were still in China. We keep up with our American TV shows, podcasts, movies, etc. at home, which can make us feel sometimes like we’re simultaneously living in two worlds. But the movie theater made us feel like we we’re really back home. It was kind of disorienting for a bit. Though then we went for dinner at sticks and we were right back in Luzhou.