Sep 24, 2018

Pop quiz on this

Learning Chinese at the school of life

Some foreigners get annoyed with the small talk questions that strangers tend to pepper us with, but not me. I look at it as a pop quiz … and I am a very good test taker.

Oct 9, 2013

Snaps: Waiting for the bus

Are you gonna go my way?

Oh, just waiting for the bus by the side of the highway

On our first intercity bus trip, we were astonished that the bus stopped in an area very much like this to let some passengers off. “This is a highway!” we said. “This is not a place to stop!”

But, actually, turns out there are legitimate city bus stops all along the highway. This is where we catch the bus out to the little countryside village where we eat dinner from time to time. Surprised drivers — not expecting westerners out here — call out hello to us as they pass by. “Keep your eyes on the road! Not on us!” we answer back.

Jul 30, 2013

Deeper into the countryside

Luzhou continues to offer fun and adventure

Our first time at Egg Bar!
Just waiting for the bus on the highwayA little guy in the hill by the highwayMore little guys in the hill by the highway
A narrow pathway leads from the highway bus stop to a small shrine ensconced in bamboo.
Luzhou Laojiao's countryside factory
As we suspected, the small brewery in the city center is not where China’s supply of Luzhou Laojiao is manufactured. It takes an “Industry Development Zone” to quench that thirst.
Out in Tai'anOut in Tai'anIt's hot out, so we're having some cool beers at Egg Bar
It’s hot. Peter’s melting.
Some kids in the alley
The small residential area we found offered everything we were looking for, including fun times at and around the old man bar.

They’re building a highway through the site of our regular countryside bus stop, and we returned from vacation to find that we were essentially cut off from the small village where we usually eat and hang out. The trip into the city requires a longer walk to a different bus stop, and it’s hot out and that’s annoying. So the only sane choice was to go further out into the countryside — via a third and much closer bus stop — to see what we could see.

Our initial expedition led us down the highway into nothing and nowhere and then the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery Industry Development Zone. It was presented as a tourist sight, so we figured it was worth checking out.

There was a nicely decorated factory, though not one that really seemed open to unscheduled tourism. In fact, if anything, we were the sight to see; all the drivers and packers and other workers gave us startled hellos as we passed.

We did find, however, an open bodega next to the highway — and where there is a bodega, there are cold beers. We sat at the rickety table out front and had a couple of cold ones, lamenting the fact that we didn’t really find any alternatives to our now inaccessible Tofu Soup neighborhood but being proud of ourselves for trying.

We took a different bus back … and passed right through the very type of residential area we were looking for. Restaurants and shops and teahouses and people, just a few stops from the school! We rushed off the bus and out into the street.

We spent the afternoon tucked away in an old man bar down an alleyway, watching the street life unfold. Kids darted by the entrance, doing kid things and occasionally stopping to get a peek at us white weirdos. The big doings in the bar was that the TV remote had died. The men made sure keep us in the loop — the proprietress had gone in search of batteries, they indicated, oh look now it’s back on, do you like this show?

We’ve been back to the neighborhood a few times, trying different restaurants, and we’ve already befriended a new bodega owner. There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing when were out in areas where there haven’t been many foreigners before: People will take surreptitious glances at us but generally leave us alone until one brave person approaches. Once I start speaking Chinese, a whole crowd will gather. Not everyone will have the courage to say anything, but they all want to get their curiosity satisfied. And I can offer a few biographical details: American, teachers at Tianfu Middle School, yes we like spice. And then the crowd will disperse, and we will be a little less strange.

Buying some watermelon

Feb 1, 2013

Winter break: Teksi!

Riding around Pulau Penag in style

Our taxi driver

The public bus system in Penang is extensive — but kind of confusing, and the appearance of the buses themselves is rather infrequent. So, after a few instances of waiting for the wrong bus for upwards of 40 minutes, we decided that despite our love of mass transit, it was taxis for us.

Which added a whole new dimension to our trip: talkative taxi drivers! Occasionally we’d get a guy who didn’t speak English — or didn’t want to speak English with us — but for the most part, everyone who picked us up was delighted to have the chance to show us around their home.

At the very least, the driver would point out the different tourist sights as we passed them. Many had travel suggestions as well — it was on a taxi driver’s word that we visited the Chocolate Boutique, and he was not wrong. We’re still enjoying our chili-infused chocolate, one piece each, per night.

Beyond this, we got interesting insight into what Malaysians think of America. “Americans can shoot you if you invade their homes,” said the driver who picked us up from the Clan Jetties. “Romney should have been president because he’s a successful businessman who gives thanks to God for his success,” said Michael, who brought us out to the Queensbay Mall. “Americans don’t know where Malaysia is,” said Balan, our driver on the way to the beach at Batu Ferringhi. This last one kind of had the ring of truth about it.

We discussed real estate with a driver who was also dropping his son off at school. Balan had a lot to say about financial development in Penang; besides tourism, computer and pharmacological factories make up a lot of the industry in the area. Michael told us ribald jokes (that cab ride was pretty strange, actually). Our clan jetty man suggested, upon hearing that we were from China, that we visit Yunnan Province when we get back; he’d been to visit 8 times!

Pretty much everyone who picked us up or dropped us off in Desa Permata asked why we were staying out there, but our mistake ended up putting us into contact with a lot of interesting locals, via the long rides we needed to take. It was definitely more rewarding than visiting the Blue Mansion.

The Penang taxi

The cost for all this joy riding? Well, drivers are supposed to use their meter, but Balan was the only one during our entire time in Penang who did. Otherwise, we negotiated a flat rate which seemed to conform to 10RN [US$3] within Georgetown center to 35-40RN [about $12] to go out to Desa Permata. Totally worth it, every time.

Dec 16, 2012

A routine emerges

The people on the bus go squish, squish, squish

Our crumbly bus stop sign

“Next week it will be easier,” was our refrain from the beginning of our two-apartment life. Sunday night, we pack up our two backpacks — and often many additional shopping bags — full of the things we need for the next three days at the new campus, and wrangle our way onto a bus, hoping we didn’t forget anything too important. Wednesday night, we repeat the process in the opposite direction.

Since September, we’ve gotten a little better at the commute and we have managed to cut down on the poundage that we carry back and forth. But by this point, I think we have to accept that there’s a minimum amount of stuff that we’re always going to have to carry with us. And that amount of stuff is going to be heavy.

The journey on paper is a short, door-to-door bus trip. And sometimes we can even get a ride from the school car. But, in reality, it’s been like living our own version of “The Amazing Race.” Do you have the guts to cram onto a bus that’s already overstuffed by eleven people? Can you madly pack everything you’ll need for the next few days before the school car leaves without you? Will you find a cab driver who can understand the address that your coworker scribbled down for you? Answers: Sometimes. No. Eventually.

It could be so much worse, however, and we know that we’re lucky to have two apartments that are fairly nice by Chinese standards. We have someplace else to go when the power is out at one place, for one thing. But two apartments also means two homes full of things that break. This is leaking here, the heater is broken there, the mold is encroaching everywhere. It’s why people with two homes are usually also have a Mrs. Bale to help them with it.

Coming off of an internet outage at old apartment during last week and a power cut at new apartment yesterday, Peter remarked, “It would be one thing if we were living in a mud hut. This would be expected.” But our life in China so often resembles our life in America that we forget that it is actually the second world. We’re so close to comfortable that we expect it all the time, and when it’s not, we get cranky. And we can’t even blog about it because there’s no power or internet.

But, when we put it into perspective, these are somewhat petty inconveniences. And the adventures we’re having here wouldn’t be possible without a little discomfort. It’s a worthwhile trade. So when our boss asked us to stay for a third year, we said yes. (Actually, what we said first was, “Can we have some more money?”) It’s just too much fun to stop now. And we’re getting really good at elbowing our way onto the bus.

Up on the roof

Dec 6, 2012

Chongqing: The bus station

Going home on the biggest travel day of the year

The bus station in Chongqing

Because our trip was kind of a last-minute whim, we didn’t really realize what it meant to be travelling during the last weekend of National Day — which is one of the biggest travel times of the year. Think day-after-Thanksgiving, only in China, where there’s about a bajillion more people.

Our bus was delayed, but everyone waited pretty patiently, and eventually we found ourselves on the long road home.

Nov 5, 2012

A bridge to somewhere

What’s all that noise?

Bridge construction
October, 2011: The big, white building sporting the mini-Epcot hat is our school!
Bridge construction
December, 2011

On our first morning in China, our boss, Sarah, and her husband drove us around our new home, pointing out various city landmarks. A main feature of the tour were the four bridges that connected the peninsula of the city center with greater Luzhou. We drove back and forth over the Tuo Jiang and Chang Jiang rivers. And Sarah pointed out with pride the under-construction fifth bridge — which was going up practically in our new backyard.

This bridge, she explained, would connect the city with the southern countryside, where they were building a new campus for Tianfu Middle School. We crossed the Chang Jiang to take a spin through an expansive pile of dirt and scaffolding that would become the new school in the following year.

Peter and I took it in, all jet lagged and bewildered, and returned to our apartment to unpack and sleep.

In the months that followed, 24-hour construction ensured that the new bridge grew at a rapid pace. When we walked by, we joined the crowd of lookie-loos that stopped to supervise the work. Extra-keen citizens would breech the safety walls to get an up-close look at the equipment and rubble, though we were happy to inspect from the sidelines.

The noise moved further and further away from our bedroom window, and the scaffolding moved out to the river and then disappeared, leaving a solid structure in its place. As summer approached, and we had confirmed our second year at the school, our other boss, Linda, talked with excitement about the new school, which was also nearing completion. We had many discussions about how and when we would get out there. If we lived at the old school, maybe we’d learn to take the bus out to the countryside. If we lived at the new school, maybe a school car could drive us into the city to do our grocery shopping.

One day, when out for a stroll by the river, we looked up and noticed people streaming across the bridge. It had been open to pedestrians, though not yet to cars. Though there wasn’t yet anything on the other side, everyone wanted to walk the span, including us. (The first morning of the flood, the bridge was a popular platform from which to view the risen waters.) It was strange to walk down the middle of what was designed to be a major roadway — very “I Am Legend.”

The first cars started crossing in about August — though traffic was light, because, as I said, there’s nothing really on the other side yet. When we finally took a ride over, many of the roads were still more of a plan than a reality. Even today, the bus we take from old to new school crosses dirt in places to get there.

But big changes are expected, as can be surmised from the size of those roads that are being built over on the other side. It’s definitely changed things for us, as now we live part time in the countryside. Much more on that to come …

The bridge is open, but there's no traffic

Nov 5, 2012

Welcome to the new school

Now we are at: Destination. Please ex-EET through the rear door.

No bikes, no walking

As new as it is, our countryside campus is already the terminus of two city bus routes. Bus 226 and 265 take us right to the back door of the school. And this is the last strip of winding roadway before you get there. It can be quite the roller coaster ride, if the driver gets going fast enough.