Apr 3, 2012

Chinese poetry

At the recital in the gym

Should we be paying attention?

At the recital from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

All last month, we’d see large groups of kids tucked into basically every corner of the school grounds reciting poetry together. Finally, last week, we returned home after dinner, and we could hear something going on in the gym. It was a poetry recital!

The funny thing about events like these is that they’re not at all formal - off-stage. On stage, everyone’s taking it very seriously, but in the audience, people wander in and out, the kids talk to each other, do each others’ hair, etc. I guess attendance is encouraged, but attention is not necessary. And we only stayed a few minutes. Not knowing any Chinese, there wasn’t a whole lot for us to grab onto. But the kids we saw seemed like they were doing a good job.

Mar 23, 2012

My first conversation in Chinese

I’m learning

There’s a new waitress at sticks and she’s been hovering around our table for the past couple of nights, I think trying to get us to talk to her.

Waitress: [Something in Chinese, obviously directed at us.]

Me: [In Chinese] I’m sorry, I don’t understand.

Waitress: [Something else]

Me: [In Chinese] I understand English.

Waitress: English?

Me: [In Chinese, pointing at me and Peter] American

Smiles all around!

It’s not much, but I was proud.

Mar 23, 2012

China will rock you

Or, the story of how I ended up singing Queen’s 1977 hit with a room full of Chinese 15-year-olds

A little background first: Each week for our lessons, Peter and I create a PowerPoint presentation based on the themes and vocabulary in the students’ textbook. The format of the lesson is basically: Read this sentence in English, or repeat after me as I read this sentence in English. But, we can never be sure that all of the equipment will be in working order in every classroom.

Today, in my Senior 1 class, their computer couldn’t read my flash drive. This was the second week in a row that this happened in this particular class. Last week I had a cold, so I just let them do their homework for the duration. But this week I couldn’t let them get any further behind, so I just told them that we were going to read last week’s and this week’s lesson from the book. And, you know, use good, old-fashioned chalk and the blackboard. I’m not terrible at improvising this way - I have to do it once every couple of weeks - but I don’t love it.

Just as we’re finally getting started (a couple of students and I messed around with the computer, trying to get it to work for a while), the power went out. Argh! There was still enough natural light that the kids could see the board, but it was just plain disruptive. I froze and tried to figure out if it was worth it to continue or give them another homework period.

One of the kids passed me a piece of paper, with the lyrics to “We Will Rock You” handwritten in English and Chinese. The class had reached a consensus: ditch the lesson and teach us “We Will Rock You.” “Do you all have this?” I asked, a little nonplussed, waving the lyrics sheet. “YES!” they all replied.

So that’s what we did. I went line by line, explaining the meaning of each, and then we sang the whole thing together. I asked them how they knew the song - “It’s older than me!” I said - and they said it’s from an English movie, but they couldn’t tell me any more than, “It’s a movie with a fight in it.”

After that, I drew some natural disasters on the board - that’s this week’s lesson - and then they put on more music: “Billie Jean.” Everyone sang along and some of the boys even did their MJ dance. They really love Michael Jackson over here.

Mar 22, 2012

6 months in China!

So let’s eat more sticks

Yesterday marked six months to the day we landed in China! We celebrated, of course, at sticks!

There are two things we’ve learned for sure: China is always loud, and we like our food spicy.

Mar 18, 2012

Always be ready to go on stage

That the rule

Rule number one is “Say yes, if you can.” But a good contender for rule number two is “Always be ready to go on stage.”

Yesterday, our boss called to see if we would be around to meet some of the parents of next year’s juniors today. I said yes, so this morning I went to meet her outside the office, expecting to go upstairs for an informal meet-and-greet. Instead, she whisked me away to the gym which was full of hundreds of parents and prospective students. Three of our five principals were on stage talking about the school and the new campus which will open next year. (Linda translated some of it for me. “The kids in the dormitory are safe because they won’t have electricity,” was offered with no other explanation.)

As she ushered me up front, Linda explained that they just wanted me to say a few words along the lines of “we’re happy to be teaching here, I’ll see you next year.” Not a big deal, but certainly not was I was expecting. I’m really glad I dressed up for that.

Mar 16, 2012

Spring time for basketball!

It’s gorgeous out here

It's gorgeous out here

This week, the weather has been absolutely gorgeous: sixties and sunny every day! It could be a coincidence, but there’s also been a school-wide basketball tournament going on all week. We have six courts here on school grounds, and each court has been packed with four teams playing half-court. And the whole rest of the school has come out to support them. Even us! For a few minutes, anyway.

Mar 9, 2012

Winning a photo contest

And figuring out what it was all about

Some students mistook this for our wedding photo

One of our first weekends here, our head teacher called early in the morning to summon us to a tour of the nearby Luzhou Laojiao factory - a historical hotspot that’s pretty much in our backyard. When we got there, we were met by a photographer and his assistant as well as a tour guide. The team took photos of us for two hours, and then we went home, baffled by what had just happened.

Months later, head teacher called to say that the photographer would like to enter the photos of us in a contest, and would that be OK? “Of course,” we said.

This week, we found out that a photo of us had been chosen as the first place winner! (It’s the one up top. You can see more of that photo set here.) There was a small ceremony this afternoon where we finally put the whole story together: This was a photography contest sponsored by the Luzhou Laojiao liquor company, asking photographers to take snaps of their beloved brewery.

The ceremony, in a normal-looking office building
See all of our photos from the ceremony here.

The ceremony was in a small conference room, and they had made up name plates for me and Peter - although, strangely, not for our photographer, who was also there. The manager of the company spoke first, they showed the winning photos, and then we were invited up front. The MC (through our friend) asked Peter what he thought of the historic Luzhou Laojiao square (“Very beautiful,” he said), and then they asked us to kiss. There were a lot of cameras documenting the whole thing. It felt very strange - kind of like we had been mistaken for famous people and were nervously playing along. They presented us with a gift box of their most expensive liquors and then we sat back down. The judge (or a judge) then spoke about the winning photos, calling the one of us “a masterpiece.”

Once our part was over, we sneaked out (which is ideally how I like to end all meetings - leaving immediately after the attention’s no longer on me) because we both had classes to teach.

Mar 5, 2012

A small city looks abroad

Getting out of town

Everyone wants to learn English from me.

Last week, I helped one of Linda’s former students prepare for an interview for a position in the UK. (That’s him above, with Linda, on the left; he took us out to dinner to say thank you.) His English is pretty good; he currently works on an oil rig with American and Canadian co-workers. I mostly added some polish and gave him some advice on Western interviews (for example: Don’t bring up your faults unless they ask you. And then, bring up a fault that actually shows how excellent you are.)

It was pretty cool to help him out, and interesting to realize that he’s one of many Luzhou-ites we’ve met that have a real possibility of going abroad for work or study. In comparison with the rest of China, Luzhou is small. The east coast considers this part of the country backwards and unsophisticated. But the people here have global aspirations. The Singapore kids that we work with are all hoping to go to university in Singapore, and many of our other students are starting to ask how they can go to college in the U.S. A few of our fellow teachers have been educated overseas. It’s not what we expected when we moved to a town that other Chinese people refer to as a backwater. But the longer we’re here, the more we see that our school is pretty ambitious and progressive. They have big hopes for their students, which is a really great thing to be a part of.

Mar 2, 2012

School photo

There are a lot of teachers here

All the teachers at Tianfu Middle School

On (Western) New Year’s Eve, before the sports meeting and dinner, the 300+ staff of the school gathered on the front steps for a photo. We just got our copy, which you can see above. Can you find us?

We’re right in the front row, next to the principals.

There we are!

Feb 22, 2012

Living in a different part of the world

Sometimes it’s the same!

For the most part, living in Luzhou doesn’t feel that different from living in New York. People dress the same here (jeans and Chucks are standard), they participate in global pop culture (one of my kids asked me this week if I had heard about Whitney Houston; we had a good chat about why drugs are bad), and while our neighbors keep chickens, so do these guys in Brooklyn.

And over the past five months, we’ve adjusted to the fact that there’s no indoor heating anywhere, and that we boil our drinking water and throw our toilet tissue in a waste basket instead of the toilet. That’s just the way life is.

But we do live in a developing nation. And the most jolting reminder comes every so often in the form of a power or water outage. Sometimes we get advanced warning and sometimes we don’t, but about every other month, one or the other will go out. (Thankfully they haven’t yet both gone out at once.) And because it happens so frequently, we just work around it. We’ve learned that tomorrow the power will be out, so we have to prepare lessons that we can teach without the use of the computer and projector. (At our school, all information is imparted via Power Point.) It’s not a terrible hardship; it’s more annoying that we spent hours making these beautiful slides that now we can’t use. But it’s still kind of amazing that even without power, everyone will get up and go to school. The kids will sit in darkened classrooms and behave as well as they normally do - which in some cases is excellent and in others, not that great - and the teachers will give the best lesson they can. There will be no slacking off just because the power is out.

That’s just the way life is.