Hello Uncle Foreigner

Chinese holidays

Jul 1, 2018

Happy Dragon Boat Festival 2018

Celebrating Chinese holidays with kids!

In my mind, Dragon Boat Festival — or duanwujie, as it’s called in Chinese — is a somewhat nebulous festival. I mean, to some extent, I’m going to view all Chinese holidays from a remove, because they are often family activities, and my family isn’t here. Our first year here, our friend took us to a boat race, fed us zongzi and told us the story of Qu Yuan, and in the years since then, we’ve pieced together more of the story. But this year, by virtue of working in a kindergarten, where they are passing all this stuff on to the next generation, I got to see some customs that I hadn’t before had access to. A lot of rituals that have to do with keeping the body healthy and safe. And, my colleague Katherine came out to explain the holiday on video for all us waiguoren.

The biggest thing I learned — that after the fact seems totally obvious — is that Chinese holiday celebrations can be quite personal. They vary from region to region, and even from family to family. To that point, in the video, Katherine conflates two stories that are both part of the origin story of duanwujie — Qu Yuan, poet, and Wu Zixu, king’s advisor. They are both men who died by suicide in a river, according to lore, and are somehow connected with the holiday. Regardless, I’m beginning to think that neither of them are actually all that central to the holiday as it is actually celebrated by real people; every time a Chinese person has shared with me their legends, it’s because they looked something up on the Internet. Not because it was something connected to something they or their family did.

Anyway, next year, I’ll probably learn even more about it. Including that I was wrong about everything I concluded this year.

Mar 31, 2018

An adventure into the Stone Sea, Yibin, Sichuan

I finally make good on a student home visit

In China, watch us on YouKu.

The visit to a student’s home, we assumed, was an English-teaching standard. After all, Peter Hessler was close to all of his students. The offers must come flying, one after another. But after a solitary invite my first year teaching, that we were unable to take advantage of, I had to wait four years for my next one.

Lydia had been my student at Tianfu Middle School in my first year teaching and then again in my last year. From the very first, she was a hard-working young woman. The junior class she was in was somewhat rowdy, but I could usually count on her to answer my questions. Except for one day, when she wanted to do her homework in class. “We’re in the middle of my class,” I told her. “You can’t!” What I didn’t add, but was desperately thinking was, “I need someone to be paying attention.”

In our last year at Tianfu, Lydia and her friend Serena — who was Peter’s student — would spend their afternoon break at our office hours, asking us about our lives and practicing their English. When they found out I was studying Chinese, they’d bring me lists and lists of idioms and contemporary slang so that I’d sound cool. And that Labor Day, they planned a full-day event for us — an adventure out into the nearby Stone Sea geopark. It’s one of the lesser-known places to visit in China, but in our neck of the woods, it’s a big deal.

I had set Lydia up as a pen pal with my cousin in Minnesota, and the day of our outing, she was texting with him during our morning drive. “Have fun on the family field trip,” he wished us. It was great to have this time with the girls. I sat in the back between Lydia and Serena so that they could each have a side. It was reminiscent of family trips with my own sisters, when they would make me sit in the middle because I was the shortest. This time, I was not the shortest, so I could eventually request a window seat.

We got to talk about everything through the course of our day: boys, future plans, even specialized English vocabulary — Karst, limestone, sinkhole, cave. It was a long day, but the girls were so proud to have arranged it. They thought of everything, from car snacks for the early morning drive to a visit to a flower show while dinner was being prepared. After dinner, when the men started smoking, we took a walk down Jiangmen’s main street. Lydia’s younger cousin joined us as a tag-along. She hadn’t been interested in English before, but now that we were all speaking it, she was dying to know what we were talking about.

To cap the night off, all of us went out for post-meal BBQ with more friends and family, including Lydia’s former English teacher. It was funny to have a snack after such a nice meal, but it was a holiday! BBQ was much more relaxed than the formal dinner. Lydia and Serena relaxed, too, and the focus was finally off entertaining The English Teacher. Everyone asked me about the girls, for a change. How they were doing out in the world, in the big city high school. They were genuinely proud to see their girl speaking English so fluently, and I was proud too.