little challenges

Jan 5, 2013


Out go the lights, again

Car headlights light the way home

Power cuts are just part of life here. I would estimate that this past term saw an outage about once every two weeks — sometimes for a few hours, sometimes the whole day. It’s unpredictable, and you just have to roll with it.

The kids study in the cafeteria, which has an emergency generator
Drinking beer by candlelight

Part of rolling with it is making sure the students get enough study time in. During one particular power outage (coincidentally, the water had been out all day the day before), Peter and I decided to cope by going into town for dinner with the hope that the electricity would be on by the time we got back.

No such luck.

We returned to a brigade of teachers illuminating a passage for the students with flashlights and headlights. The kids were all trucking their books from the dark classrooms to the emergency-generator lit cafeteria. This was prime homework time, and there was no reason to miss out on it just because it was dark.

We walked through the cafeteria to get home, and witnessed the excited chaos of a routine interrupted. Kids had all their books out, but were taking their time getting settled into work. As we walked by, they called out and waved excitedly to us. It felt a little bit like celebrities visiting the displaced in a storm shelter. It was definitely an “our life is so weird” moment.

At home, we poured beers by flashlight and lit emergency candles, resigning ourselves to a technology-less night. And then, a little more than three hours after everything flickered out dead, and directly after we sat down, the lights were back on. That’s just how it goes.

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

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner


Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?

Apr 17, 2012

In your face

Know your new culture

You may have heard already about the Chinese concept of “saving face.” It’s a little different than the American connotation of that phrase, but as I understand it, it loosely implies that everyone in a given conversation has the responsibility to make sure that everyone looks good to everyone else. Don’t blatantly contradict another person or insult them, and don’t say anything that would make your conversation partners uncomfortable - even about yourself. It’s a slippery concept that can be difficult for straight-shootin’, in-your-face Americans.

One of the tools we’ve been using to help make sense of Chinese culture is a show called “Local Laowai.” (Laowai basically means foreigner.) We recently watched an episode that put this concept of “face” in terms of a Chinese business meeting, which was quite helpful. As they explained it, if your boss asks you for input, they don’t necessarily want you to just echo their ideas, but you have to be very careful with your constructive criticism. Start with saying you like their idea, then present the evidence that will support a different idea, and then present your different idea. You have to ease everyone in the meeting into the fact that you are supporting an idea that is contradictory to your boss’. This way there’s no confrontation, and also you avoid looking show-offy and arrogant - another thing that might create discomfort.

Extrapolating from this, I think I can now explain an interaction that I keep having with my students. Here’s an example:

Student: Where did you go last week?

Me: Um … nowhere. I was here last week, teaching your class.

Student: OK. I went to Beijing. I was the representative of Jamaica in the Model U.N. hosted by Harvard University!

Me: That’s wonderful! I’m really proud of you!

Obviously, my student was really excited to tell me that she had accomplished such a prestigious academic achievement. It baffled me at the time - if she wanted to tell me her exciting news, why didn’t she just start with that? But, if I’m interpreting this correctly, I think according to the rules of “face” she couldn’t just lead with, “Here’s why I’m so great!” It’s too abrupt and forward. She had to give me a chance to possibly share some good news first.

“Face” is a really tough thing to get a handle on. Fortunately, as foreigners, we’re given some leeway in how we conduct ourselves. But without understanding the concept, Chinese behavior can sometimes appear really strange to us. So figuring out each little piece of the puzzle helps us immensely.

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.

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 22, 2011

Bake me a cake

Life without an oven

The cake

I made a cake! In our rice cooker!

I used this recipe, and it came out OK. Not my best work; I over-cooked it by a lot, so the whole thing bowed upwards and the bottom was pretty crunchy, and I substituted five-spice for the matcha powder she used - which gave the cake kind of a strange taste. But, for what I had to work with (the only measuring tool I have is a tablespoon), that it came out at all was a success. It’s really dense, kind of like coffee cake, and I think if I try it again, it’ll result in something that I could actually call dessert. Which is pretty darn amazing considering we have no oven, no dairy and no measuring cups.

Oct 21, 2011

“If you need glasses, you should wear your glasses!”

C’mon, kids!

I’d say probably about seventy percent of our kids wear glasses, at least. But then there’s another good handful of kids who have glasses, but do not wear them. And as someone who wore glasses at that age but desperately wanted not to, I understand where they’re coming from.

Some of them won’t wear them, but hold them up backwards or folded up to their eyes, kind of like opera classes. I had a couple of girls today who were sharing one pair of glasses, even though between them they possessed two pairs. It’s very weird. But most the exasperating is when you come to a kid and ask them a question and they have to put on their glasses to see the board and answer me. This means until I addressed this student directly, they were getting nothing from the lesson! (Which is separate from there are a few kids who I can tell need glasses, but don’t have them. When I catch that, I make them come up front.)

So many of the kids wear glasses that it seems like it wouldn’t be a stigma, but still some of the kids just won’t wear them unless they absolutely have to.

Oct 20, 2011

The plumbing saga

Where the heck’s the toilet plunger gone?

The story of a plunger
(Photo illustration by the non-graphic designer of the house, FYI)

Yesterday, we were having some trouble with our toilet. I like to be a fix-it-yourself girl whenever possible, so before calling for help, I went out to see if I could find a plunger. This turned out to be harder than I thought.

I looked up the Chinese translation for plumber and I armed myself with my trusty notebook (fig. 2). I wrote out both the characters and the pinyin, just in case my characters were actually meaningless scribbles to a Chinese person. I also drew the top plunger as a visual aid.

My first stop was the hardware-looking store right next door to our school. I showed the shopkeeper and another customer the characters and the drawing. Blank looks. The shopkeeper went into the back to make change for his customer while she continued to try and help me figure out what I was trying to say. I did a little pantomime of plunging, and made a “pchew, pchew, pchew” sound. Suddenly, comprehension. She shouted back to the shopkeeper in Chinese. After he sent her on her way, he started looking around for something for me. Nails. Unfortunately, the woman interpreted my moves as hammer and nails. So I did it again for him. He had a realization, and wrote down the characters on the slip of paper in fig. 3. I think the second line was an address.

I took off in the direction he had pointed, excited that I was probably hot on the trail of a plunger. I saw another, more industrial-looking hardware store across the street. I showed the girl at the counter my paper, but she just shook her head. I noticed it was pretty much all lighting supplies, not really general hardware. Not the place to have a plunger. (Or a bicycle pump, as it turns out I was really asking her for, stay tuned …)

Nearby, there was what looked to be the equivalent of a dollar/variety store. I show the proprietor fig. 3. She nods and goes to get something: a bicycle pump. (There it is.) Oops. So I show her my original drawing, to which I’ve now added the squat toilet on the bottom left. She shakes her head no.

I continue on to a toilet supply store. They have both squat and western-style toilets, so I show the woman working there my notebook, and then do my miming over an actual bowl. She nods in recognition, but then indicates that they do not sell plungers. But she does say “zhu sai,” which is what Google translate said that I was looking for.

Moving on. Inspired by the toilet store, I do the drawing on the bottom right of fig. 2. I come to another hardware looking store and show her the whole thing. She does recognize it. But they don’t have it. She gives me directions in Chinese, though, indicating that somewhere back the way I came I can find what I need.

I turn around and go back the way I came. At this point it’s been an hour, but I’ve confirmed that I can communicate to a Chinese person that I need a plunger (and I’ve found where to buy a bicycle pump, should the need arise). I veer off onto a side street and find another thing shop. I show my notebook to the man here and he nods and goes back into his store. Success! He comes back with the item on the left of fig. 1. It’s brittle plastic and costs about $.30. I’m pretty sure this will not be effective, but I pay the man and take my prize.

Tired and discouraged, I head for home. Coming at the entry of the school from the other side, I see right in the front of another general thing shop an honest to goodness recognizable plunger (fig. 1, right side). Elated, I purchase it.

It’s also kind of crappily made, but I set out to buy a plunger and by gum! I got one. Those of you who know anything about plumbing and toilets can already guess how this turns out, however.

After a failed plunge and some research, I discovered that this is not the right kind of plunger to use. I tried the little plastic one for fun - and it was not that fun - which also didn’t work. Given how hard it was to find these, I decided against going out again and called our boss lady to say, “Help! Our toilet’s clogged!”

They sent over a pro, who got the job done in two minutes with some fancy snake machine.

The grisly conclusion: I suspect that, despite it’s modern, western look, our toilet may not be up to the task of handling toilet paper - I’ve seen it before in developing areas that you have to throw your paper in a waste basket, not the bowl. The pipes just can’t deal with it. But, as has been our mantra thus far, we didn’t move to China because everything would be the same …

Oct 20, 2011

Hangman update

Every other one of my classes has gotten the game pretty much right away. I don’t know if I’ve gotten subtly better at explaining it, or what. Some of the classes even grasp it so quickly I can have one of the students come up and pick their own word. I’ve dispensed with the hanging man, because I don’t want to cut them off when they’re finally getting the rhythm of it, so it’s more of a “guess the letters” game, but they seem to be having some educational fun.