Mar 29, 2014

The girl gang

Pinkay and friends down Qian Dian Alley

I run wild with the girl gang by Changjiang River

The Girl Gang from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?

At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.

They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.

Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.

Me and the girls at chuan chuan
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily

Apr 8, 2013

We can fly … mostly

Tianfu Middle School Kite Festival 2013

The Tianfu Middle School kite festival

Last week, the whole school was atwitter about the upcoming kite festival set for Easter Sunday. (Well, they just called it Sunday). The Monday afternoon prior, my class 24 taught me 风筝, the Chinese word for kite, and all week different students asked if we would attend. “It starts at 8,” our boss Linda told us, which, of course it did.

Sunday morning, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 8, hoping to miss any opening Kite Festival speeches and arrive fashionably late. When we got to the sports field, the students were already loaded into the bleachers, but there were a bunch of kids at the field level making their last-minute preparations.

Last minute repairs on a kiteThe students speak English with meHiding from the sun

The way it worked, a student filled us in, was that each class was to have made two kites. There would be prizes for the most beautiful, highest flying, etc. Some classes had spent days and days on theirs — though some were starting from scratch right then and there — and we saw some beautifully decorated specimens. My favorites were the few that were made from plain newspaper with hand-painted Chinese characters; gorgeous in their simplicity. Phoenixes, the school’s mascot, were popular, as were other birds. One class took it even further and did an Angry Birds kite.

Fish and snakes rounded out the animalia theme. There were a couple Chinese flags, and a 100RMB bill. One kite looked like an angel or a ghost. She didn’t fly very well, sadly, though it would have been cool if she did.

We chose a seat high up in the center of the bleachers, which happened to be where Peter’s gifted classes had been placed. There was a lot of homework and reading going on among these kids while they waited for the event to begin.

A couple of students asked us if American schools hosted kite festivals. No, we told them, Americans kind of think of kite flying as an old-fashioned pastime. When we turned the question around on them — Do you fly kites often? — most of the students said that it was something they did when they were little, but not anymore. “I am from the countryside,” one boy said, “I don’t have time to fly kites.”

After about an hour, the event began in earnest. Groups of 10 or so lined up at one end of the field and showed their stuff. There was little wind to speak of, so the kids had to run hard to get their kites aloft. The students in the stands cheered on their classmates, though as far as competitive sports go, kite flying is awesomely nonsensical.

Peter chatted with one of his boy students, while I spoke to a few of his girls. This is definitely a recurring pattern, and possibly one of the reasons that the school prefers to hire couples as foreign teachers. One of the girls told me that she prefers physics to English … this in pretty decent English; I’m pretty envious of Peter’s gifted classes sometimes.

One of the most impressive kites was a gigantic snake that cast a large shadow over the field as it undulated across the sky. The kids traded off flying it, because they had to run like the dickens to keep it in the air.

After the last competitors left the field, the wind finally picked up. Taking advantage of this, a kite free-for-all broke out. It must be said that the store-bought kites did fly better than their homemade counterparts, but as Peter’s student pointed out, the students do feel proud when something they made flies.

Dec 17, 2012

The Singles Day English speaking competition

In which true love is found, a love for language

Our talented English-speaking friends
Alex and Justin, left, preparing to go onstage to perform their play. With them is fellow student Crela Chan, the play’s author.

That speech competition that Alex had invited us to was on 11/11 — which was until recently Corduroy Appreciation Day, but is still in China known as Singles Day. It’s a sort of contrapositive of Valentine’s Day, and there are lots of sales. Of course.

But thirteen dedicated students, from four local high schools, gave up the chance to find a good deal, to spend the morning speaking English. We were there to support Alex — as well as four students from our own school whom we had spent the previous week coaching. Our teachers were surprised to see us there, because they hadn’t actually invited us, figuring it was too early for us.

But the shock wore off, and we took our seats next to a few of Alex’s friends, but also near to our kids. For part one, each contestant gave a five-minute personal statement on the topic of “The Youth in China.” Speeches like this are often very formulaic — “Now I will tell you my five reasons for …”, “Now that I have said that, I ask you to confirm my original statement …”, “People may say this, but they are wrong, and here’s why …” — and there were plenty of platitudes and list making. But some of the kids (Alex! Alex!) made some pretty heartfelt personal reflections. Also, one of the girls made a reference to the show “Two Broke Girls” as a good example of youthful self-reliance.

Part two consisted of questions from the judges that each speaker had to answer on the spot. This is where things got tricky. While the kids’ English was uniformly excellent, the judges were not fantastic speakers. (We confirmed this after the competition to many upset students and teachers.) Listening to them, I was itching to jump in and read the questions myself. And, eventually, they asked me too. So, this round threw the contestants a little off their game, to say the least.

But things picked up again in part three: the performance round. Each of the four high schools presented a short scene. First up, “Little Red Riding Hood” starring the hammiest wolf ever. In the end, he’s gunned down by a hunter with an assault rifle. These guys were really great and really funny.

Next, was an original piece titled, “I Have a Dream” featuring a Chinese family with an over-scheduled 9-year-old daughter. The titular dream? No homework. Again, hilarious.

Our school was next, with an overdub of a scene from “Kung Fu Panda.” From working with them all week, we had already seen this done five or six times, but it went over well with the crowd.

Lastly was Alex and his partner, who took Justin as her English name because she loves Justin Bieber. They returned to the ground covered by “Little Red,” setting up a meeting between Grandmother and the son of the wolf she murdered. Neither has fared well. Grandmother is despondent because her youthful dreams of becoming a poet had been crushed. And the loss of his father ruined the wolf’s life, and now he’s a washed-up alcoholic who can’t feed his own family. “It’s the bureaucratic system that’s to blame,” Grandmother tries to argue. But the wolf doesn’t buy it. In a drunken fit of rage, he pushes Grandmother down the stairs. It was a laugh riot!

The competition was really early
Some friends-of-contestants were a little tired.

With the performances finished, it was time to total the scores. Students from the college hosting the competition were on hand to process that paperwork — dressed in track jackets and looking like official Olympic time keepers. The mathematics went on for a little too long, and the competitors started to get restless. “We’re bored!” they yelled — now that the pressure was off, everyone was in a more convivial mood. So Alex and one of the competition hostesses got up to sing a song for everyone. “The scores aren’t very important,” one of Alex’s teachers confided in us.

To wrap things up, the school groups gathered on the stage to take photos. We stood for photos with Alex and Justin, and then with our school. This led to photos with other kids who we didn’t know. And then photos with the hostesses and, I think, the sound man. It gets truly surreal sometimes.

The flashes eventually calmed down, and we said our good-byes. Happy Singles Day!

After the show

Nov 17, 2012

100: Let’s dance!

The show continues …

Enjoy the dancing

Music: “Seasoning” composed by Western Toilet. Listen on Soundcloud.

Enjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancing

Finally, after about a billion speeches by officials and money people, it was time for the actual students of the school to take the stage. Unlike school performances we’d seen in the past, these were polished and practised, befitting a production of this level. The costuming was especially improved over the usual fare.

Groups of students sang songs, performed traditional dances and synched along to Chinese opera selections. The stage-side screens rendered the action in large screen television-quality. It was pretty impressive.

And, featuring more than a dozen acts, pretty long. The alumni clapped politely after each act, but as the show went on, they payed more and more attention to catching up with old friends. We’ve noticed in China that audience attention to the stage is not a priority.

After 10 or so groups, Peter and I started to fade — and simultaneously grow pink. We didn’t expect such great weather in Luzhou in October, so we neglected our sunscreening, but almost four hours under a cloudless sky was taking its toll. So we sneaked out early, wishing silent apologies to the kids whose performances we were skipping.

Enjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancing

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

Oct 18, 2012

Summer vacation: Underwater World

A beach activity for non-beach people

Approaching Underwater World
Underwater World

The opening exhibit of Qingdao’s Underwater World consists of our favorite genre of Chinese museum display: terrible taxidermy. Or, possibly, papier-mâché. Whales, sharks, penguins … all kinds of sea creatures, with lopsided grins and bulging eyes. There were a couple of rooms of this, and then the path led outdoors and to another building.

At this point, we were beginning to regret our entrance fee. But, here’s where it got good. A conveyor belt towed visitors through a giant tank full of sharks, sting rays, and all kinds of fish. It was like scuba diving, but you didn’t even have to move. At one turn, a flat glass ceiling showed off the underside of scads of starfish. We also caught sight of a diver in the water who was feeding the fish.

After the people-mover, there were many more tanks of various kinds of sea life — and plenty of opportunities to buy a plush crab or pearl necklaces — but the conveyor was definitely the best part.

But you don’t have to take our word for it … watch our video!

One more delicious meal, coming up …

Aug 31, 2012

Sichuan countryside

An accidental locavore is quite proud of herself

The beautiful countryside

On our second night in China – during a discussion of what vegetarianism is, and why Peter was one – our boss Sarah proudly told us that the chicken in the soup we were eating was grown locally and free range. (It’s hard to eat vegetarian in China.)


Months later, our neighbor Wendy told us, in passing, that she was going back to her hometown that weekend to get her pig. She brought me a sample when she got back, and it was delicious.

Before all that, back in New York, I was a big believer in the gospel of Pollan et al.: Our diet impacts the environment, food miles matter, CSAs are a good idea, etc. But I was a terrible disciple. The furthest I went toward living those ideals was stopping by the Union Square farmers market and picking up a bottle of Long Island wine and a wedge of Hudson Valley-made cheese every couple of weeks.

Here in Luzhou, however, it turns out that supporting your local family-owned farm is the default. Being city people, we did not give too much thought about what was beyond the city’s borders, but when we finally did venture out into the countryside, we found hundreds of kilometers of small farms nestled into the mountains. Which is, duh, where all that food at all those farmers markets comes from. And why even the menu at 串串 varies seasonally. We’re all locavores! And it tastes so good.

Now, we’ve read that there is factory farming in China, so it’s not like were living in some untouched Eden, unsullied by modern knowledge. But China, believe it or not, is actually aware of the same environmental dangers that the west knows about, and there is a growing green movement in response. (A lot of these farm houses were crowned by solar water heaters, for example.)

It’s hard to say what will happen in the future, because there are some hugely complex issues tied up in food production and feeding a population, and, again, all I do is eat here. But I do know that that was a damn good chicken soup. Even Peter agrees.

Enjoy another original production from Whoop Wu studios.

Jul 22, 2012

Replace Your Passport: Rock out!

The premier rock club in Chengdu

☆ Side Quest: (New) Little Bar

Objective: Go see a rock show

We found the rock and the roll

Here in China, pop is king. Our students are constantly asking about Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, Adele, et al. The hardest western band they’re into is Linkin Park. And the popular home grown acts are similar: all moon-eyed crooning with nary a crunchy guitar in earshot. For the last week of school, we played some rock videos for the kids and they were perplexed at best. (They were completely horrified by Sonic Youth.)

But that doesn’t mean there is no rock in China. It’s just something you have to do a little digging for. One of the mainstays of the Sichuan scene, we heard, is the New Little Bar in Chengdu. (New Little Bar is the younger brother of Old Little Bar. Both were founded by a hip collective of musicians and artists.)

As the great Sir Elton once said, Saturday night’s alright for fighting, so the Saturday night show was the one for us. One thing that’s different between Chinese and American concerts is that in China, if the show is listed from 8-10 pm, it starts promptly at 8 and the last band finishes at ten. (This includes set-up and break-down of 4 different acts!) In America, if doors are at 8, the headliner won’t even start their set until 11 p.m. or 12 at the earliest.

The little bar inside the Little Bar
The little bar inside the Little Bar.
Each member of Dongjiayan Band radiated personality.
Let’s conga!

We were still on New York concert time, so we arrived at nine — and missed the first two acts. Aside from the punctuality issue, however, walking into New Little Bar felt just like walking into Arlene’s or Rock Shop. It was dark and close, with a long bar down the side of the room and a small stage up front. The kids looked awfully hip, as well: one young man was wearing an aggressively loud button down shirt, and another had a Ramones-style haircut and thick-rimmed glasses. The scene was straight out of Brooklyn, making me realize how much I had missed going to shows.

Black River
The lead singer of Black River

The first band we caught was called Black River. Adorably, they all wore matching T-shirts, and they were decent with their instruments. But really, I was so euphoric to be back in a rock club that I just loved them.

About ten minutes after Black River left the stage, 董家堰乐队 (Dongjiayan Band) was ready to go. And they rocked from the first chord. Their style was loose and relaxed, and each band member radiated individual presence and personality. Their front man was especially charismatic — throughout the show, kids from the crowd kept coming up to wreath him with garlands. He sang at the top of his range, giving off waves of passionate, intense energy. The audience responded to that energy, pogoing and skanking all over the floor. At one point, most of the dancers joined in one large conga line and snaked around the room. When we got jostled by the dancers, that clinched it: We were at a rock show.

As their set progressed, however, my sense of “this is familiar and so comforting” was replaced by the thought that “this is really different and exciting!” I could recognize a ton of western influences: a ska beat with shades of reggae, metal, grunge, folk, British new wave … But 董家堰乐队’s music wasn’t just a mish-mash/rehash of those genres. It was something fresh and new.

We have since learned the term “摇滚” or “yaogun,” from “Red Rock,” by Jonathan Campbell. Yaogun literally translates as “rock and roll,” but as practiced, it’s a new Chinese genre that takes western music as a starting point, rather than just a Chinese version of a western sound. And I think that’s what we were hearing from 董家堰乐队, and that’s why it was so exciting.

Take a listen for yourself:

Listen to excerpts of Dongjiayan Band’s performance.

It’s time to stop goofing around and finish the darn game! Back to Luzhou it is …

Jul 3, 2012

Replace your passport: The Airship!

Getting around becomes a breeze

Item obtained: The Airship!

There were many factors, but the two biggies were that it was no longer freezing outside and that I can speak just enough Chinese. So this trip to Chengdu, we zipped around the city with ease — in taxis, on public buses, the subway … it was almost as if we had an Airship.

Enjoy a slideshow of our tour around the city, with an original score by Peter.

In the midst of our celebration, we hear music rising in the distance …

Jun 19, 2012

Luzhou school days

One whole year!

The basketball court

I’ll be honest: When we embarked on this crazy scheme, teaching was a means to an end. The job would take no more than 20 hours a week, and enable us a comfortable living with plenty of time off. Neither of us was sure that we’d like teaching, but we were psyched about embarking on a new life in China. If we had to put in time at a job we didn’t really enjoy … well, that wouldn’t be that different from what we had been doing in New York. In fact, the work would be easier and there would be a lot less of it.

A lovely bonus, however, was that we had a complete blast! We said goodbye to our students last week, but we’re already talking about how glad we are that we’ll get to see them again in the fall. (In case I didn’t officially say, we’ve agreed to teach another year.)

Real teaching is a difficult job and professionals who are good at it are worth their weight in gold. What we do is important and educational, but it’s not Real Teaching. It’s more fun-time language practice/cultural exchange. If everything goes well, class feels like hanging out with a really cool bunch of kids.

So how does it go well? Basically, it’s up to us to decide. Our bosses gave us the textbooks and said, “Do what you think is best.” Our contract forbids proselyting for any specific government or religion, but other than that, our only mandate is that we speak English with the kids. In the beginning, this was terrifying. During my first very class - senior 1, class 24 - Angie, one of my students, had to reassure me: “Don’t be nervous!”

But it was really hard. All I had at my disposal was a PowerPoint presentation that Peter and I had inexpertly thrown together the night before, with no idea of the students’ level of English comprehension or what to do to get them to engage with the language. Staring down 50 students with this as my only weapon was quite a challenge. It got worse when I used the same presentation with my junior students – who, no one had informed me, only had three weeks of English instruction. Literally, all that happened for that 40 minutes was an exchanged of alarmed and befuddled looks.

Day 2 went more smoothly than day 1, but the first few weeks were really tough. In addition to us not knowing what we were doing, the students were awed in to silence (or sometimes scared out of their minds) just by our presence. For many of our kids, Peter and I were the first and second foreigner they had ever met, and they were mortified to open their mouths in front of us. I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of our shyer students would literally try to hide from us - behind books, their hands, whatever. And each of us made students cry just by asking them to speak. (Not many, but more than one.)

Over time, however, we got used to them and they got used to us. And then the fun really started.

Kids in the courtyard

The most memorable students are the ones who very quickly stepped out of the pack to introduce themselves. There was Angie, whom I mentioned above, a girl who greeted me every week and demanded, “Do you remember my name?” until I actually did. Jay impressed Peter with his curiosity about the English language, needing desperately to know the word for a man who dressed up in women’s clothing. Jessi, one of my students, stood out early as both a talent and a jokester when she answered a question about her vacation by saying she went to Mars. “Did you enjoy the cuisine there?” “No. It was all rocks!”

Just as individual characters started to emerge, whole classes eventually started taking on distinct personalities. One day, the students of junior 1, class 2 decided that everyone wanted a turn to speak in class, and from then on they were basically falling out of their seats volunteering to read. In my senior 1, class 6, towards the end of the year they started “oohing” and “aahing,” first, whenever a boy chose a girl that he had a crush on (the students aren’t allowed to date, but love was definitely in full bloom this spring) and after that, whenever anyone chose anyone. In another class - junior 1, class 6 - the word “yellow” turned into Pee-Wee’s secret word. They went nuts every time it came up. The only explanation I ever got went like this: “Why do you guys like the word yellow?” “Because yellow is cool!” “Why?” “Because, YELLOW IS INTERESTING!”

There’s a 3-year age gap between the juniors and seniors, and I loved teaching both for very different reasons. The seniors were better at English, and we could have more sophisticated discussions. I loved the times when they would come up to me after class with pressing questions that ranged from “Did you hear about Whitney Houston? Very sad!” to “Let me tell you something about my hometown” to (after a lesson on earthquakes) “Natural disasters are very scary, but I am more worried about how humans can treat other humans so badly sometimes.” It was so exciting, and I felt so privileged to listen to the kids articulate these very thoughtful ideas in their second language.

The juniors, however, had the boundless enthusiasm of 12-year-olds who know that they’ll have to behave like grown-ups one day, but not yet. They would ask the “inappropriate” questions that the older children were too polite to ask, and a lot of the girls even sneaked up behind me and pulled on my curls. Once they decided not to be shy, they were all in. Which meant that classes were a lot rowdier, because jumping around and being silly is really fun, but my theory was that as long as we were doing it in English it was OK. To put it simply: The juniors adored me, and I adored them, and we just had a crazy good time together.

Fun on track and field

It wasn’t always a big love-fest, however. Peter and I each had two classes that were pretty difficult to control. They’d talk in Chinese or play games while class was going on, and they moaned and whinged when they were asked to speak English. We had no power to give detention or anything, so the poorer-behaved students quickly figured out there was little consequence to goofing off in our class - though I did throw a kid out once; he hung out in the bathroom until one of his Chinese teachers asked him what he was up to - and then he was really in trouble for getting thrown out of foreign teacher’s class.

The big surprise with these classes was that when we said goodbye, those students seemed genuinely sad to see us go. I think we each took it a little personally, but their misbehavior stemmed from the fact that they’re not that crazy about learning English. They liked us just fine.

Enjoy our first all-original video production from Whoop Wu Studios.

Despite the (very few) rough patches, Peter and I both feel like we really accomplished something with our students this year. Vocabulary was learned, pronunciation was polished, grammar was developed, confidence was built. But the connection we made was deeper than that. “America is a mystery to me,” one of my students told me early on. She was one of many kids dying to consume every scrap of Americana we had to offer. So we worked hard to make sure our lessons were about more than just language. We covered American experiences, tastes, touchstones and even a bit of history - anything that would expand their knowledge of the U.S. beyond Michael Jackson, the NBA and “Big Bang Theory.” It was a lot to take in, and some of it went over their heads. But when it connected, it was really exciting.

It seems unbelievably cheesy to say that they taught us as much as we taught them, but we really did learn a lot this year. The school and its people wholeheartedly welcomed us into this community, and everyone, students and teachers alike, generously shared their lives and culture. From this vantage point, it seems startling that we ever expected teaching to be just a pay check.

And, man, the vacation time is sweet!