Mar 30, 2013

The chickens of Luzhou

Didn’t have to pay to get it in

To the chickens!

Click on the photo above for 6 pictures of chickens!

Pork is the preferred protein in our part of the world, but I’d say that chickens are a close second. People raise ‘em and sell ‘em all over the city. Sometimes we even see live chickens taking the bus.

Aug 12, 2012

Dogs on the street

Are these four-legged friends doting or delicious?

Our neighbor with her dog, Rose.
Our downstairs neighbor with her puppy Rose.

Before we got here, we read that the Chinese are not big on keeping dogs as pets. And, like most of the sweeping generalizations we read about China from America, this has been totally unsupported by our experience. The people we’ve seen love their pet dogs! Though, at times the dogs we see are more like living accessories than family members: They dress them up, dye their ears fabulous colors, carry them in handbags, etc. …

Dog pants
Dog pants! As seen on the streets of Chengdu.

But … the Chinese eat dogs, right? Well … to my knowledge, we have never been in a place that serves dog, but we have heard that, yes, dog can be on the menu. We’ve also heard that there is increasing Chinese awareness that westerners look in askance at this practice, and that it’s much less popular than it used to be. Beijing even shut down all restaurants that serve dog during the 2008 Olympics.

All I can say for sure is that we’ve found way more boutiques selling doggie outfits than I ever expected anywhere. And, given the love they heap on these little guys, I would not be surprised to find a restaurant that serves dogs as customers rather than as entrees.

A meeting of the dogs

For a slideshow of 17 dogs on the street, click on the picture above.

Jul 30, 2012

The Dragon Boat Festival

With a local guide we finally join in on some local fun

The dragons on the lake

We’ve been present in China for many holidays, though because of our status as outsiders, we don’t really know how, why or where any given festival is celebrated. Like, imagine Thanksgiving from the perspective of someone living in Akron, OH, who doesn’t really speak English and doesn’t have a television or any local friends: You’d have no idea that you were supposed to be watching a parade on TV and eating turkey, you’d only know that most of the stores were closed.

But, now we had Alex! And his generous offer to be our guide at the Dragon Boat Festival.

Poet Qu Yuan
A statue of the poet Qu Yuan
Traffic was heavy on the way to the festivalHere's a good place to sell cars
Some enterprising car dealer set up a sale alongside the path to the festival.

On the morning of June 23, he met us at our school steps, and we grabbed a cab. The festival itself was a 9 yuan drive out into the countryside. Along the way, Alex gave us a bit of history: Around 300 BC, the poet Qu Yuan either fell or jumped into the river and drowned. Fish started feeding on his body. To get the fish to stop eating him, people paddled out into the river in dragon boats to throw Zongzi to the fish. To commemorate the event, we now have a dragon boat race every summer.

This is, at least, what my heat-addled mind got from his explanation. Check the Wikipedia if you want a more detailed account.

The festival is a bigger deal in the east of the country, but there was still a significant turnout for Luzhou’s celebration. The cab let us off about 10 minutes away from our destination, and we joined the throngs of revelers walking towards the lake. City buses were still allowed to traverse the crowded roads, as were enterprising motorbikers who were offering rides from the main road to the festival site. Police were on hand to coordinate the slow ooze of traffic between all the people on foot.

There was a huge crowdStreet meat kabobs
Alex bought me some delicious kebabs.

When we reached the site — a scenic park wrapped around a medium-sized lake — the sun was high in the sky. It was crowded, but we found a spot with a good view. Sweat dripped down my back as the four boats took their time drifting into place for the race. Vendors weaved through the crowd peddling bottles of water. Many hid from the sun under umbrellas. I patted myself on the back for remembering sunscreen. Alex disappeared for a minute, and returned with fans for us: a lady-like flower print for me, and a manly display of calligraphy for Peter.

Finally, the race began. One of the boats was sponsored by Luzhou Laojiao, the company that sponsors our school. I would have rooted for that one, although I wasn’t sure which one it was. On their trip to the far end of the lake and back, you could see that skill seemed to have been allocated in alphabetical order; Boat A won handily, and Boat D’s rowers were comically out of synch. But we all cheered for A, and that was that.

We found out later from Alex’s grandmother that the outcome is fixed. “It’s a show, not a competition,” she told us.

A view of a countryside pond

Take a look at our slideshow from the Dragon Boat Festival by clicking on the picture above.

Jul 2, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Blinded with science

Time for museuming

Sichuan Science covers the whole world
Chairman Mao overlooks Tianfu Square

☆ Side Quest: Sichuan Science and Technology Museum

Objective: Learn something, fools

The museum is set back from Tianfu Square, behind a giant statue of Chairman Mao. The day we visited, it was also behind a large construction site. But we’ve learned that construction sites are not necessarily off limits to civilians, and after traipsing right through, we found that the museum was open for business as usual.

The museum is mostly geared toward children, as most science museums are. But, I’ve never seen rides at a science museum before. Yes, that’s right, there were rides: In the Aviation and Spaceflight hall, there was a human gyroscope and a spaceflight simulator; In the Virtual World, you could play an arcade-style car racing game wherein your controller was an actual motorbike. Each of these extra special interactive experiences cost an extra 5-10 kuai.

Take a nap

A lot of the installations were closed for repairs, or just plain broken. On one floor, we caught a docent sleeping. Also, the rigor of each exhibition was wildly variable. The astronomy wing was just a bunch of old astronomical instruments, presented without much comment, while the mathematics wing actually engaged with the basics of calculus in a series of interactive installations. (Nerd alert: Maths was my favorite wing.)

But it was it was an amusing and somewhat educational way to spend the morning. And, our trip coincided with the day of China’s launch of Shenzhou-9, carrying Liu Yang — China’s first female astronaut. When we got home from the museum, we put on the English language CCTV channel to watch all the coverage. It’s a really exciting time to be in China!

The robot band at the Sichuan Science Museum

Click on the photo above for a slideshow from the Sichuan Science Museum.

Chengdu continues to provide good times …

Jun 29, 2012

Replace your passport: The nature of Chengdu

A walk in the park

☆ Side Quest: Wangjianglou Park, aka, The River Viewing Pavilion Park

Objective: Commune with nature

A Qing dynasty-era building

Chengdu has a reputation for being an ugly city. The architecture tends toward large, looming and concrete, and the atmosphere is hardly helped by the southern Sichuan weather that envelopes everything in gray for most of the year.

The city’s parks, however, are lovely. We had a free sunny afternoon, so we made our way down to Wanjianglou Park, which sits along the Jinjiang River (hence the “River Viewing”) in the southeast of the city.

Much like Renmin Park, which we visited in January, Wanjianglou is a hive of social activity. Scattered over the grounds you can find tea houses, restaurants, mahjong tables, etc. But the main attraction of the park is its Historic Preservation Area - home to luscious groves of bamboo and some beautiful Qing-era architecture.

The garden area of the park was gorgeous. It actually reminded me a lot of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens. The landscaping was meticulous, with little sculptures and fountains tucked into cozy little groves. Each species of bamboo was labelled in English, Chinese and Latin - a surprising amount of the bamboos’ namesakes were westerners.

Nestled in and among the bamboo was a small compound of Qing Dynasy-era buildings, dating from the late 1800s. This may not seem terribly historic, especially in the context of the thousands of years of history China has, but until recently, preservation hadn’t really been something that the Chinese were very interested in. There are some pretty complex reasons for why that’s so, but to sum it up as I understand it (with a huge debt to Peter Hessler’s “Oracle Bones”, among other sources), Chinese re-creation of the past is more tied up with language and narrative-building rather than structures and artifacts. Written Mandarin is pretty much exactly the same today — barring Simplification — as it was from the beginning, meaning that ancient texts are still perfectly legible. Meaning that the past didn’t need to be divined from ancient shards of pottery, etc. It wasn’t really until the last century that Chinese scholars started pursuing archaeology in any academic way.

I'm taking notes

Add to that the fact that structures were often built from degradable materials that weren’t intended to last — fun fact: most of the original Great Wall has crumbled into nonexistence; what you can visit now is a modern reconstruction — and that China as a concept is essentially a 4,000-year series of extreme political upheavals all in the same place … well, permanence is just not a expected or valued quality. This means that buildings from the 1800s qualify as old.

Tang dynasty poet Xue Tao

So in the park, the buildings are very nicely preserved. During our visit, we saw maintenance crews all over the grounds. At the entrance to the Chanting Pavilion, a kid with a clicker sat making sure visitors heeded the warning: “National Cultural Relic: Wooden architecture of Qing Dynasty, Only 50 people are allowed on pavilion at one time in order to avoid resonance.”

These buildings were not intended as a monument to themselves, however. They were built to honor Tang Dynasty poet Xue Tao (ca.768-832). (See, it’s all about words!)

Xue Tao served 11 Sichuan governors in her day. (I’m not sure what exactly that means, but I’d like a world where more government had artists-in-residence.) The buildings are miniature museums devoted to her work, displaying huge stone inscriptions of her poetry, as well as murals and small statues depicting the poet herself.

Out in the courtyard, old men practiced their calligraphy on the slate. They used long-handled brushes that looked homemade and cans of water, to write out poems that would exist only for a moment before evaporating away. This is a pretty common sight anywhere there is a nice, clean expanse of tiled ground, but it felt especially resonant to see the living practice of such an old art. They took the writing work seriously, there seemed to be a real camaraderie between the old guys, with plenty of laughing and joking going on between them.

Outside the preservation area, as I said, it was your basic urban park. But we did stumble upon what appeared to be a shrine to garlic. It was a small, bamboo hut, decorated with large, wood-carved bulbs of garlic on the outside, and garlands of real garlic inside. We were pleased to see garlic getting its due.

The other striking sight we found on our way out of the park. There were stalls selling drinks, souvenirs, toys, etc, all over, but sandwiched in between two little shops was a fully functional art studio. We saw two artists inside, working on paintings that seemed to incorporate western and Chinese influences. It was a perfect symbol of what appeals to us so much about Chengdu.

Wanjianglou Park in Chengdu

Click on the photo above for a slideshow of pictures from the park.

We’re on a roll now …

Jun 4, 2012

Real wide and narrow alleys

In old Luzhou

The narrow alleys of Luzhou

One of the things from our January visit to Chengdu that we were amused by was the Kuanzhai Xiangzi, or, literally, the wide and narrow alleys. To refresh your memory, it was an area of about three square blocks that had been constructed to look like Qing Dynasty architecture. To us, it felt like, Disneyland Sichuan, full of expensive restaurants and tourist traps.

Since we’ve been back in Luzhou, we’ve been exploring the little nooks and crannies around our city. We’ve found our own wide and narrow alleys, which aren’t as old as Qing Dynasty but they are still places where average people live and work. We think they’re pretty cool. Take a look:

This alley is really old and really narrow

Click on the photo above for a slideshow of Luzhou’s authentic “Wide and Narrow” alleys.

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.

Apr 29, 2012

Along the Yangtze in the Springtime

The sun is finally here

Some fishermen and their net alongside the Yangzte

Click on the photo above for a springtime river slideshow.

So far we’re really enjoying the spring in Luzhou. The temperature is comparable to the fall weather - mid-70s - but in this part of the year, we actually can see the sun most days! That grey haze that was all over everything back in October is gone. (It still rains pretty often, but in brief thunderstorms rather than an all-day ooze.)

The city is a lot more beautiful in this light, and it’s more evident why Luzhou has been named a “China Excellent Tourist City.” Compare the pictures above with the riverside photos we took in the fall. Our more recent photos definitely look more like vacation fun-time.

Apr 13, 2012

The world-wide sports meeting

Our very own Olympics

This kids is fast

Through a confluence of events, from March 31 to April 15, we will only have had to work 4 days. And that’s paid time off.

We’ve had a national holiday 1, the kids had midterms, and now we’re in the middle of a school-wide track and field meet.

Yesterday morning was the opening ceremonies. They did ‘em Olympics-style, with each class from Junior 1, Senior 1 and Senior 2 (Senior 3 gets some days off, I guess) representing a different country. Each country’s representatives marched around the school track, stopping in front of the panel of judges in the bleachers to perform a little dance.

We actually marched with Argentina (Senior 2, class 22). Wendy, our neighbor, is their teacher, and she came over the night before to ask if we could dance with her class. We were very hesitant about the dancing, but we said that we’d go watch them practice. By the time we got down there, our potential roles had evolved into drumming on a plastic water bottle. That we could do.

By later that evening, our roles had changed again: Now we were to march in front of the group and carry the Argentinian flag they had made. Even better.

The festivities began at 8 am. Our group was second to last, so we sat up in the bleachers to watch the students. There was varying amounts of effort among the different classes put into costume and choreography, but they all were fun to watch. America (Senior 1, class 1 - my students!) was very funny - the class incorporated soldiers, Native Americans, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Santa and Michael Jackson into their display. This is not an inaccurate picture of how they view the U.S.

It was a little difficult to identify all the other countries - I’m pretty terrible with the flags of the world, and often there wasn’t any clue other than that as to each class’ nationality.

When we saw Argentina lining up, we ran over to join them. (On the way, we caught a glimpse of the kindergarteners next door having their own field day.) We unfurled our flag, and marched toward the podium. After we finished, the games began.

One of the classes in the march of countries

Click on the photo above for a slideshow from our Olympic games!

UPDATE: Argentina came in second!

1. April 4 was Qingming Festival, or Ancestors Day. It’s a public holiday where families go visit the graves of their deceased relatives, clean them off (the graves, not the relatives), and set off fireworks. Now the thing is, April 4 was a Wednesday, and the three-day weekend is not a foreign concept to the Chinese. But, whereas in the U.S. we’d move the holiday to be observed on a Monday, here, we moved Monday and Tuesday’s work to the Saturday and Sunday before. Having no ancestors here, we bought a computer instead.

Nov 28, 2011

Hong Kong: Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui

A beautiful day in the neighborhoods

On our third morning, we grabbed breakfast and took the ferry across the harbor.

Real English-style breakfast is available at 18 Grams
Check out our album of photos in Tsim Sha Tsui.

Kowloon and Tsim Sha Tsui are two neighborhoods on the island to the north of Hong Kong Island. Whereas on our side of things, the shopping seemed to be more high end (we had Max Azria, Louis Vutton, etc.), in TST, things were a little more casual. I bought months and months worth of leave-in conditioner, and we browsed Tom Lee for an hour.

The streets were wide and crowded, somewhat like Fifth Avenue in midtown. Indian men were hawking fake designer watches every couple of feet, with very few takers.

After shopping, we hit up the Hong Kong Science Museum. I know science museums are usually for kids, but I love them. Tickets for both Peter and I cost HK$60, which is less than US$10. Attractions and public transportation are really cheap here.

Headless Emily at the Hong Kong science museum
Check out more photos of our trip to the Science Museum.

The museum’s special exhibit was on food science. They were sponsored by, or had the cooperation of - or something - McDonald’s and 7-Eleven. It was really weird to see those American brands splashed all over. Especially because the exhibit was put together by a Japanese institution.