May 1, 2018

Labor Day is a perfect time for a picnic in the park

Outdoor meat is universally a celebration

In China, watch on YouKu.

I met Jessy on a bus, who introduced me to Michael, who invited me to Xi Jiang’s BBQ this Sunday! It was a lovely afternoon of grilled meats and outdoor karaoke. The sun chased us around the lawn a little, but we found refreshing shade in a small grove of trees.

This particular spot of green is right next to the “new bridge”. It’s a piece of land that Peter and I are very familiar with … from the window of the bus that took us in and out of the city when we worked at the countryside campus of Tianfu Middle School. As we drove by, we’d spy people out cavorting there, and wonder about the attraction of hanging out next to a major road. You can see the approach in this video that we took of that bus ride in 2015.

Having now spent an afternoon there, I can say it’s actually quite peaceful. The bridge is far enough away that it just makes for a nice view, and the landscaping is arranged so that when you’re on the lawn, you’re hardly aware of the traffic at all.

Of course, that area across the “new” bridge is hardly countryside at all any more. In the past few years, there’s been SO MUCH construction: apartment complexes, shopping malls, more schools. The People’s Hospital of Luzhou — where Peter and I get our health checks to renew our visas each year — is moving to a new facility out there, Jessy told me. I’m not loving this urban sprawl; the charm of Luzhou is that it was a little more contained (and downright walkable!) than China’s bigger cities. But, as long as the city keeps planning parkland alongside its concrete monstrosities, at least it will still be pretty. And we’ve got friends with cars.

Mar 31, 2013

A picnic in the park

A plan comes together, Chinese-style

This park is still under construction, but come on in!

A few weeks ago, our boss pointed out a new park that is very near to our countryside campus. A perfect place for an American-style picnic, we thought. We invited our friend Alex along, as he loves all things American.

The date was set for yesterday, but Peter started work Thursday afternoon, boiling some potatoes and some eggs for a potato salad. Friday evening, we shopped for more provisions, including chips, veggies for crudité, cheese and bread for sandwiches, and Peter assembled the potato salad to set overnight. We woke up early Saturday morning to put everything else together. And then we waited at the bus stop for Alex …

… who had thought we meant Sunday, not Saturday. Bad news! He had class and couldn’t make it. But the show must go on.

The park entrance
Hard at work, building the park paths
The road down to the river

The front gate to the park was big and impressive, like most park entrances we’ve seen. But, we noticed a lot of men and women in construction wear, carrying big piles of stuff around. Our boss wouldn’t have sent us to a park that was still being built, would she? Of course she would.

But, in China, just because something is under construction, it doesn’t mean that civilians can’t wander around. No one batted an eye as we walked down the dirt/concrete roadway into the future park. At one point, the path was blocked by an excavator moving dirt from here to there, but the operator ceased his work so that we could scoot by.

As we got closer to the river, there was a small foresty area, with funkily shaped rock pieces scattered about, ready to be installed as park sculpture/benches. There was also one fake stump that was flanked by two smaller fake stumps, as if it were set out just for us to have our picnic.

As we sat and ate, we watched pleasure bikers traverse the path. (We also saw them all turn around when they got to the excavator.) The funny thing was, with just trees and a simple paved road, the partially completed park felt a lot more European or American than other Chinese parks we’ve been to. You could forget that you were anywhere. Despite the distant noise of construction, which is pretty much a constant in our lives anyway, the whole world was a cheese sandwich. And potato salad.

Our American picnicIt's lovely to eat under a tree

Nov 7, 2012

New school: Under construction and open for business

Don’t step in the fresh concrete

One day, the library
A future library, we think.
Working on the stadiumStill workingWorking on the stadium

By September, that big pile of dirt and scaffolding we had seen last year was really coming along. It was not, however, finished. But school was starting, so we and the kids moved in anyway.

It was surreal to be negotiating bulldozers and other construction machines on our way from our new apartment to the new classrooms. Linda told us that some of the parents were upset to see the state of the campus when they dropped their kids off, but the students were led around campus in groups, with a teacher to keep them safe. The adults were trusted not to monkey around with anything too dangerous. Peter and I wore our heaviest boots, and forgave the pain of our pre-departure tetanus shots.

From our apartment balcony, which faces out over the western border of the school, we could watch bricks, concrete and more dirt come into the construction site. For a couple of days, a team of mules did the hauling, but once the volume decreased, humans took over, carrying the heavy loads in baskets hung on sticks slung over their shoulders.

Construction continued at a frenzied pace throughout September. October 1 was the school’s 100th anniversary, and there was a huge celebration planned — one we’d been hearing about for our entire tenure here. Important officials from Beijing and Chengdu (Sichuan’s capital) were expected, as well as a centenary worth of alumni. The work HAD TO be done by then.

Needless to say it was loud, even during the afternoon nap-time that is held so inviolable here. The work was constant, though not necessarily organized. We saw workers move bricks from here to there and then back over here, rip up recently laid tile to sink even newer cabling and tubing, and punch holes in brand new walls for doorways that apparently weren’t in the original plans. It was quite chaotic, and more than once we said to each other, “You’d never see this in America. Why would they do it this way?!”

But that’s part of life in China. Things happen that seem nonsensical, and you just live with it.

We lived with the power and water disruptions, and the no internet access. We lived with the ground-shaking explosions from the blasting being done to level out the surrounding hillside. (Fun fact: Many of my students already know the English word “earthquake.”) We lived with the ear-shattering drilling poking crumbly holes in our walls for surprise electrical wiring.

But the real lesson here: Construction always takes longer than you think it will.

Trucks in our backyard

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

Jul 25, 2012

Replace your passport: Afterword

China never stops

Our favorite painting

One of the exciting things about living in China is literally watching it grow and change before our eyes. Every day, new buildings go up, new establishments open for business and our city expands.

But, constant change in itself becomes a pattern, so in Luzhou, at least, the rapid development has become almost invisible to us. “Have you seen the new pharmacy?” “That milk store looks new. I think it used to be a meat store.” “The shoe store got air conditioning.” … It’s all so normal that it just becomes background.

The old Triple Plus
Six months ago, we ate dinner here …
Chengdu changes
… but now it was nothing.

But visiting Chengdu, we had fresh eyes. And we could see development at work on a micro level in the Xiao Tong Alley area. Between January and June, one whole side of the street had been cleared out to make way for a huge-looking construction project. This meant that hundreds of people who lived in apartments there were now elsewhere. Morning Bar, where we played midnight guitar with a guy from Luzhou — gone. Triple Plus, with the cool murals — gone. And that was disappointing. But what’s going on there looks big, and we’re eager to see what grows up in that space.

And it wasn’t all a disappearing act. Door Bar — the funky bar-cum-performance/exhibition space — was still around. The MexItalian place was still there, with a new name. Among other new cute-looking spots, there was a western-style coffee shop that looked worth trying. And even the Loft got a new pool table area out in the courtyard. Xiao Tong Alley may have changed, but it still retained its vibrant and funky feel.

We didn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing on our first trip, but we vowed to spend more time on the Alley when we came back in two weeks.

Even in that short span of time, however, things changed. On our return, new coffee shop was already shuttered and on its way to becoming another establishment! And Door Bar was slammed closed forever! We’d have to find our drinks at some place brand new — which was fine; a bar called Middle had some pretty cool artwork.

My inexpert opinion of what’s going on is that Sichuanese capitalism is very much in a phase of “throw it against the wall and see what sticks.” There’s a high turn over (both in Luzhou and Chengdu) because people here are just figuring out the rules of capitalism for themselves. Along the way, they’re taking brilliant risks and sometimes making huge mistakes. But they’re trying it out to see what works. Which makes me think that the local entrepreneurs are incredibly brave!

Jun 11, 2012

Snaps: Upstairs, Downstairs

It happens just like that


One morning we woke up and found a new set of stairs had been carved in the hill, where all the students had been cutting their own path anyway. By the time we made our way back from dinner, the stairs were completed.

Things can be slow to start here in China, but once changes start happening, things move quickly.

Once the stairs were finished, the kids started cutting through the foliage at a different part of the hill. What are you going to do?

May 22, 2012

Southwest Trading Center of China

Time for shopping

Click on the photo above for a short slideshow from the Southwest Trading Center of China.

Way back in October, we got on a bus that we educatedly guessed was the tourist loop - one of our fellow teachers had mentioned that there was a good tourist bus (with a very specific look that she described) that went all around the city.

Something obviously was mangled in both translation and interpretation, because this turned out to be a regular city bus that took us out to the edge of the city and dumped us out in the middle of this construction site. (We’ve since learned that buses here don’t loop, they just pendulate from one end of their route to the other.) There were two other people on the bus with us, and they were just as confused as we were. I’m sure our teacher didn’t mean to send us to a construction site, but we never resolved what she really meant when she told us to get on that bus.

But, anyway. Recently, ads touting the finished product of that construction have popped up all over town. It’s called the Southwest Trading Center of China, and it’s a giant mall! Some of the ads even show an Ikea! Last weekend, we went and checked it out.

The bus ride was way more populated this time, but it still let out at the edge of the city. Only now we were confronted with the biggest mall complex I’d ever seen. It was seriously giant. It was also still under construction, even though there were posters celebrating the grand opening on April 29. But some stores were up and running.

All of the stores somehow related to home building, which makes sense because a quadrillioin apartment buildings are going up here every day. Can the local economy support such construction? Beats me! But STCoC is ready to supply everyone who needs its wares. (It could possibly supply every home builder in Asia.) Each giant unit of the mall had a different focus. There was the ceramic tiling unit, with 30 different stores selling tiles; the bathroom fixtures unit, with western and Chinese toilets; the kitchen fixtures unit, which made us salivate with envy because our kitchen is so badly designed for our big, western bodies; and so on. Everything on sale was shiny and new and expensive-looking.

Like I said, we weren’t the only ones to make the ride out there, and I got the impression that the other people weren’t really shopping either. Like us, they were there to get a gander at the flashy new city (basically) that was erected right outside our old one. We didn’t spot an actual Ikea, which was disappointing but expected; it’s common practice to use clip art - sometimes clip art you don’t actually own - in making advertisements. (The other day I spotted a McDonald’s ice cream cone in a sign for a mom-and-pop scoopery.) But in a few months, we’ll go out there once more to see what we see. And I’m still hoping for an Ikea, if only to see if Chinese Ikea still serves Swedish meatballs.