Nov 7, 2011

It just keeps getting better

Revisiting the studio

Now we've got chairs

We bought a space heater and moved the comfy chairs into the studio. This is now far and away the best room in the house.

Nov 7, 2011

I did it! I ordered noodles!

I love noodles

You know how on Chinese menus, they have Lo Mein or Chow Mein or whatever? Well, “mein” is the Chinese word for noodles! It’s pronounced with two syllables, though, something like “mee-yan.” But I said this to a Chinese person and they understood me! Of course, this was in a shop that only served noodles … but they were delicious nonetheless.

Nov 7, 2011

Back in black

Let’s not talk about paperwork

Hello friends,

Sorry again for the slow down. Between some bureaucratic matters (it takes a lot of paperwork to live in China) and us both catching a change-of-the-seasons cold (now it’s in the 60s and rainy every day, instead of in the 70s and rainy every day), we haven’t had a lot of time for adventuring.

The paperwork could be described as an adventure, but not really an interesting one. I did learn that they use the English word “propaganda” to mean information or documentation — which kind of jibes with its original Latin meaning - but it is really funny to hear someone say, “Here. Take this propaganda,” at the police station (no one got arrested; foreigners have to do a lot of checking in with the police in China). Don’t worry. I didn’t laugh.

But we’re mostly well, and near the end of the process for getting our residence permits, so I’m hoping blogging will resume as normal.

Teaser: A short trip to Hong Kong is in the works. I’m excited to possibly find and eat some cheese; Peter’s looking forward to visiting HK’s giant guitar store.

Nov 3, 2011

Dinner with our new friends

Introducing Hank and Summer

We went to dinner the other night with our brand new friends: Summer, the English teacher; Mr. Han, the manager of the music store; Lan Lan, one of the store’s employees; and Sugar and Jenny, English teachers who work with Summer.

It was a lot of fun. We went for hot pot, a local specialty. It works like this: There’s a big bowl of broth (usually very spicy) in the center of the table that’s heated to a boil. You order a bunch of things and then throw them in the broth to cook. When things have cooked, you fish them out with your chopsticks and dunk it in your personal bowl, which usually has some kind of additional flavor.

We had told our friends that Peter was a vegetarian, and they were super accommodating. We got a bifurcated bowl — on one side, there was a spicy chicken broth, and on the other we got a less spicy vegetable broth. I didn’t even know that vegetable broth was an option in this country. They were also really careful to use one set of utensils for the meat side and one for the non-meat (which Peter isn’t actually that strict about, but definitely appreciated). It was super considerate of them, and the first time in this country that anyone fully grasped the whole concept of “vegetarian.” (By contrast, at another hot pot meal, our coworker’s husband offered Peter an egg, which Peter does eat - but in the ladle he had also scooped up the chicken head that was flavoring the broth. Peter declined.)

It’s tough to guess anyone’s age here, but I’d estimate that Summer and her husband are in their mid- to late-thirties, and her colleagues were maybe a little younger. Lan Lan was a mystery. She’s finished school, but she looks like she could be as young as 19. However old they are, they’re a lot of fun. We talked about the differences between China and New York, things to do in Luzhou; they toasted us, we toasted them … it was basically a party. Mr. Han doesn’t really speak any English, but he didn’t let that stop him from a good time; he had lots of questions for us, and well-wishes, and everyone translated for him.

Toward the end of the night, one of the girls mentioned KTV (karaoke). Maybe we’d go with them one night. Now Peter and I hate karaoke. But it’s a huge social event here … and our new friends were so much fun, we were like, “Of course we want to go to KTV with you!”

I also accidentally bestowed an English name on Mr. Han. He was telling us his full name, which we dutifully repeated, but had a hard time making stick. Because Chinese names are made up of phonemes we’ve never used/heard before, they’re really difficult for us to remember. But “Mr. Han” was too formal. So Summer told us that we could call him Han-gu, which is “brother Han” - a designation that is much more friendly. I said, “Oh, that sounds like an American name: Hank.” They loved it! And everyone decided right then and there that his American name would be Hank. Later in the night, Lan Lan asked for an American name, too. I couldn’t think of anything right on the spot, so I said next time I see her, I’ll have one. I’ve thought of something, but I want to see if she likes it before I broadcast it to the internet.

We ate and ate and ate. Everything was so delicious, and the food just kept coming. Our new favorites include lotus root (which we’ve been seeing everywhere) and this tofu that almost tasted like fresh mozzarella cheese. At what we thought was toward the end of the meal, the servers brought in plates and plates of leafy greens to throw in the soup (did I mention that we were eating in a private room?). In China, it seems like they end a meal with the greens, rather than starting with a salad or something. I remarked on such, and our friends just shrugged and said, “yeah, we don’t eat salad.” I don’t know what I was hoping for them to say.

To end the meal, we had little bowls of melon-flavored ice cream. Like everything else, it was sooooo good. There were enough for everyone to have two, but mostly everyone tried to foist their second bowl on us. We were just as full, however, so we had to refuse.

So many of the people we’ve met here are so generous and gracious with us. It’s really been an honor to spend time in this city and feel so welcomed. Definitely part of it is that we’re so exotic - that’s why we get hollered at in the streets - but the people we’ve spent time with are genuinely kind to us. We’re definitely having a great time.

Nov 1, 2011

Relative sizes

I’m finally tall

Many of you asked before we left, “Do you think you’ll be tall in China?”

Short answer: We are tall in China.

More detail: Both Peter and I have students who are tall. I have many boys, especially, who are taller than me. But Peter definitely sticks out as a bigger person. I feel like I’m about the same size as most women, maybe a little taller. Until I notice that a large portion of the women here wear three-inch heels or platform sneakers. I’m finally tall!

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

Dinner with our coworkers

Mapu dofu and more

A view of the bridge

Tuesday night, our bosses took us and some of the other English teachers out for dinner. We went to a small place by the Tuo River (which you can see above). Here, when you go out with a big group, you eat family-style - this place had a kind of lazy Susan on the table, so you could easily get to the food that you want. It was really good. Because our bosses have worked with foreigners, they understand “vegetarian” a little better than the average Chinese person (although they still think it’s kind of weird to not eat any meat) so there were plenty of vegetable-only dishes for Peter. The flavors here are really intense. If it’s not super spicy, it’s really salty or even sweet (one of the dishes was a sweet boiled cabbage). I love the spicy stuff, even though it totally empties out my sinuses (actually, maybe that’s why I like it). So I become a red, teary mess, but I love it.

So there were a lot of vegetarian dishes (Mapu tofu, green beans and hot peppers, sweet corn, cabbage, some kind of sweet salad made with dandelion greens or something, eggplant, and these noodles that they said were made of sweet potato, I think). But also some meat. As some of you know, I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, only because Peter is the cook in our house. So when meat is on the table, I take advantage … to a point. They’re big on serving whole animals here, which I am a little picky about. I’ll eat a shredded chicken breast (which was one of the dishes), but I’m a little more hesitant to eat a chicken foot (which were part of our soup a few weeks ago when we went for hot pot). There was nothing too outrageous (to my sheltered palate) on the table - some fried pork thingys that I remain ignorant as to what part they actually were, a fish stew and the chicken.

But the food is only half the story. Chinese meal time is all about togetherness. And that felt really nice. Throughout the meal, everyone made toasts to us and to each other. The custom is: So you have some beers out on the table. Everyone gets a small shot glass. You can sip from this when you want, but when a toast is being made, the toaster and toastee fill their small glasses and drink the whole thing down to the bottom. It’s rude to refuse to drink, though some of the older teachers told me I could switch to tea later if I needed too. I don’t think men really have this option. (Though our friends have pretty low tolerances, so we weren’t really in any danger.)

The whole affair was a nice unofficial “welcome to our school!” It was great to sit with our new coworkers and get to know them a little better as people. They spoke a lot of Chinese with each other, but everyone made an effort to talk with us in English and make us feel a part of the group. They also, later on in the night, invited themselves all over to make us Christmas dinner. We’ll see what happens.

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!”