May 2, 2012

A Buddha emerges from the mist

On the far side of the river

The Buddha in his grove

As I said last week, springtime here is sunny, whereas autumn was not. Because of this, we’re noticing all kinds of things that we haven’t seen before. Including this giant statue of Buddha built into the mountain across the river from where we usually sit.

Here’s a wider shot of him to give you some sense of the scale:

Look at the other side!

I’ll report back if we find out any more about this guy.

May 1, 2012

Happy International Workers’ Day!

So take the day off

Today, we had yet another day off of work, because it’s International Workers’ Day. When I asked our boss about the holiday, she explained, “It’s like Labor Day, and because you labor for us, you get a day of rest.” She added that sometime later this week, she’d like to take us out to dinner to celebrate. Pretty sweet!

Apr 29, 2012

Along the Yangtze in the Springtime

The sun is finally here

So far we’re really enjoying the spring in Luzhou. The temperature is comparable to the fall weather - mid-70s - but in this part of the year, we actually can see the sun most days! That grey haze that was all over everything back in October is gone. (It still rains pretty often, but in brief thunderstorms rather than an all-day ooze.)

The city is a lot more beautiful in this light, and it’s more evident why Luzhou has been named a “China Excellent Tourist City.” Compare the pictures above with the riverside photos we took in the fall. Our more recent photos definitely look more like vacation fun-time.

Apr 24, 2012

Snaps: On the stairs

Enjoy the view

Stairs snaps

Here’s some kids hanging out on the stairwell of the science building between classes.

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

一点儿

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 22, 2012

Pizza party

So delicious

The final result

As I said in my last post, more food ingredients are coming into focus out of all of the visual clutter. I’m also getting much better at writing down characters from Google Translate and at guessing where a given product might be found (unlike with the plunger hunt). And that’s enabled us to recreate all kinds of non-Chinese food; we’ve done Mexican, Brazilian, Indian, Thai, American, Italian and random fusion of all sorts of cuisine.

Pizza in the wok

One thing we do really miss is pizza. They serve something called pizza at the Western Restaurants around town, but we have to be really desperate to go for that. But, over the past few months, cheese has shown up in a couple of the grocery stores. It’s mostly processed singles, but one grocery store has an analog of Laughing Cow cheese that, if we’re being generous (and we are!), has a texture like goat cheese. Tomatoes here are treated like a fruit — meaning ketchup, juice, et al. are on the sweet side — but the international sections of most bigger supermarkets carry recognizably Western tomato sauce. (Of course we could stew our own sauce in the rice cooker; that’s a goal for next time.) And, the last piece of our puzzle, using our translation notebook, we found yeast last weekend at the spice man’s stall at the farmer’s market.

And what does that all spell? PIZZA!

We used our good friend Martha’s recipe for pizza on the grill and just did it on the wok. As you can see above, we piled on the fresh vegetables, which were really good. The cheese behaved just as I had hoped it would, getting slightly crispy on the outside and ooey-gooey in the middle. We added some smokey tofu crumbles to one of the pizzas for a smokey-facon flavor (that was the best one). The crusts came out OK for my first time making them, though I think I’d like a little more practice before serving our homemade pizza to our Chinese friends.

It was pretty much a full day of work (not to mention all the ingredient hunting in the week before), but it was so worth it. Even with the not-perfect crust, the pizzas were delicious! It was also really satisfying to figure out how to make the impossible possible.

Apr 18, 2012

Beans, the magical fruit

Sometimes they’re sweet

These are the beans

Past the sixth month mark, we’re noticing a lot of new (to us) things popping up. It’s almost as if there’s so much to see that it has taken this long to take it all in. But something that’s recently come into focus is beans! We found some dried beans at the market a few weeks ago, and made some spicy bean dip with nachos made from fried wonton skins.

And then, last week, we went to get some takeout from the fried rice joint across the street from the school (it still tickles me to get Chinese takeout in China). I can muddle through our usual order OK, but some English-speaking students were helping us out and teaching me some new Chinese words. They got an order of the bean soup you see above, and it looked good, so we got an order too. Only to be surprised that it’s a sweet dessert not a savory entree!

Which, had we been paying attention, we should have suspected. We’ve had sweet bean cookies, sweet bean bread, why not sweet bean soup? It’s just, for a part of the world that does spicy so well - Sichuan cuisine (or Szechuan, if you like) is known around the world for its heat - how do they miss the fact that spicy beans are so delicious?!

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.

Apr 16, 2012

Je suis tres sportive ici

Not really

I’ve run 23 miles of my goal of 50 for the month of April (an extraordinary pace that will not be maintained into May), and I just had a quick basketball session with some of my students in which I did not fare too badly. I’m so sporty over here!