Dec 31, 2012

Happy New Year!

Eat up!

The teachers feastThe cooks get their turn

Yesterday, we had our annual Teachers’ Field Day and banquet. All teachers and staff from both campuses convened on the new school’s field in the afternoon for some raucous sporting … and ridiculous cheating. But it was all in good fun. The events included the three-legged race, balance the ping pong ball on the badminton racquet, jump rope, two people transport a volleyball using their backs and not their hands, and a good old-fashioned relay race. I was part of the latter, and my team WON! All in good fun.

After the games, everyone retired to the cafeteria for a holiday banquet. It wasn’t quite as luxurious as last year (they may have run through a lot of money opening the new school this fall), but it was really delicious, and everyone had a lot of fun. Dish after dish piled up on the table, and the cafeteria workers switched off serving so that they could also enjoy the feast. The principals made the rounds, toasting each table with the traditional baijiu … and then 30 minutes after it started, the fun was done.

We’re still getting used to the pace of Chinese formal dinners, but it was a nice time with our co-workers. Happy New Year!

Dec 26, 2012

Middle Country Christmas wishes

“Did you know there’s a church?”

Luzhou's church

Yesterday and today, we got many kind wishes of “Merry Christmas” from our Chinese friends and students. Not everyone is clear on the details, but everyone knows that Christmas is part of our culture and that the time to celebrate is now-ish. It’s very thoughtful.

Alex even called for a Christmas chat (which, speaking your second language on the phone is really difficult, so props to him). During our talk he asked if we knew that there was a church in Luzhou — which interestingly enough, we had just stumbled upon about a month ago while doing some city wandering.

“Do you think they had many activities today?” he asked.

I’m pretty sure they were pretty busy, I told him.

Dec 24, 2012

Surprised by Christmas in Luzhou

Santa shops in China

Buying a new coat
Peter, wearing his new winter coat, in Bao-en Pagoda plaza

For Christmas, we have today and tomorrow off, but we didn’t really plan on doing anything beyond vegging and puttering. Christmas isn’t a Chinese holiday, and we weren’t going to get a big tree or make a big deal for just the two of us.

But, though Christmas isn’t really celebrated, it is recognized — with sales! On our Saturday afternoon provisions run into the city, we were ambushed by the sights and sounds of Christmas deals. Stores on Middle Road were festooned with be-Santa-ed signs reading “Your Text Here Merry Christmas Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet!” Peter, again, got really lucky with a winter coat that caught his eye; price tag 399RMB [US$64] which rung up as 239RMB [US$39].

Peter Santa
This time, Santa’s sack is full of coal for some good ex-pat teachers.

Finally fully realizing we were on holiday, we stopped for an afternoon beer at a place we just noticed that overlooked Bao’en Pagoda Plaza in the center of the city. Below was all hustle and bustle, and we took a long minute to be relaxed and happy.

In the supermarket — our next stop — listening to the strains of a Chinese version of “O Holy Night,” we’d decided that we caught the Christmas spirit. It was decided: we’d go home and watch “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” which, it turns out, with its focus on commerce and thrift, is a pretty Chinese Christmas tale.

Before returning to the countryside, we had one more stop. We swung by old apartment to pick up some charcoal for our grill (stay tuned). And then, while we were hailing a cab, we caught a glimpse of Santa.

Happy Christmas, everyone!

Nov 23, 2012

Holiday shopping

Don’t miss out on the National Day sales

Outdoor market
Emily's new coatPeter's new coat

Whereas Mid-Autum Festival is a harvest feast holiday like American Thanksgiving, National Day Week is a time for shopping … much like the day after American Thanksgiving.

We didn’t really intend to do much shopping — saving’s the name of the game for us — but we both scored new coats; Peter’s at a phenomenal sale price of 300RMB [US$48] down from 1,200RMB [US$192]. For most of the week, however, we just enjoyed the window dressing. A big strip of new stores went up in late summer along Middle Road, and the merchandise there was much higher end (and covet-able) than what was there before. We didn’t buy anything, but it was fun to see what could have been (in our closets).

Where there’s shopping, of course, there’s eating. For the holiday week, the vendors who sold snacks in the streets around the city center were allowed to set up right in the main pedestrian plaza, creating a big outdoor food court. Except this was no Panda Express/Blimpie-type operation. You could choose from noodles, spicy potatoes, crispy pancakes, meat on sticks, sushi and much more, and it was all delicious. Even on a rainy day, plenty of people stopped to pull up a stool under the tarps. Everything was a little wet, but no one minded too much.

Nov 22, 2012

Tofu soup and spelling contests

And shampoo jeans

Alex introduced us to tofu soup

During the National Day holiday, we made a date to meet up with our pal Alex. He was preparing for a big speech competition that was to be held in the following month, and he had asked for our help. Of course, lunch was part of the deal as well.

He took us up a windy road to a set up that looked a lot like our 串串, with burners set into the middle of tables and a bubbling pot on top. But, in fact, it was something totally different: A tofu soup!

(Now Peter and I both enjoyed tofu in the states, but coming to China we’ve realized that the way tofu is served in the US is often the most totally boring way you could do it. No wonder no one likes it. Here in China, tofu is treated as a real food and seasoned and cooked with accordingly. So when you read tofu soup, don’t think “Ugh,” think “Yum!”)

The soup was a live bubbling broth with tofu, veggies. beans, and a delicious cured pork. We ordered some extra cabbage from an extremely long menu of side dishes (“I don’t even know what everything on here is,” Alex said.), and a few lunch beers. It was vacation after all.

Alex showed us his speech, which was an incredibly thoughtful meditation on being a teenager and what your youthful opportunities and responsibilities are. I copy edited the crap out of it, and tried to reassure him that I’ve marked up native English speakers’ work as much. And then we just chatted. For the kids willing to take advantage of it, fluent conversation is really the best resource Peter and I can offer in terms of English language acquisition. It’s fun to have friends, but it’s also really cool to know that we’re helping those friends just by sitting around and talking.

At this lunch, we also solved a mystery that we’d been thinking about for the past year. Our favorite Chinese pop song came on — a song we had been calling “Shampoo Jeans.” And I started to sing along with our made up words. “You know this song?” Alex asked. We explained to him what “shampoo jeans” is and he laughed at us and revealed that the song is actually called “伤不起” [pronounced Shang Bu Qi]. Give it a listen and try not to hear “shampoo jeans” in the chorus.

Nov 22, 2012

Manchester United

The best bar in Luzhou

The barPeter with a Luzhou martini

How often have I whined about the dearth of decent cocktails here? Very often.

But I never gave up hope. And during our National Day explorations, we found Manchester United. The bar is in the square around the White Tower — an area with a ton of bars that serve lukewarm, expensive Budweiser. But ManU had a cocktail list in English and an Anglophone bartender.

Service is kind of slow — despite the fact that the bar has this menu, I think those drinks are rarely ordered and the bartender has to look up what’s involved. But they make a decent Black Russian. An even higher recommendation is that the crowd seems much older and relaxed than in other places we’ve tried, and there’s 100% less vomit on the floor of the bathroom there.

We can and do make better and cheaper drinks at home, but it’s nice to finally have an option for an occasional fun night out. Before returning home in time for 10pm curfew, that is.

Nov 18, 2012

100: What’s for lunch?

Bellying up to the celebratory buffet

After we changed out of our dressy Anniversary Celebration clothes, we hit the cafeteria — because we were hungry and it was the only place we knew of (at the time) to find food out in New Campus Land.

Instead of regular lunch service, however, we found a special Anniversary Celebration buffet! Which made sense, because if you cart thousands of special guests out to the countryside for a four-hour long assembly, you’d better feed them. The food was typical cafeteria fare (which is actually pretty delicious; we’ll get into that in a coming post), but because it was a party — and our school’s sponsor is a beloved liquor company in the city — everyone was encouraged to take beer or Luzhou Laojiao with their meal. (It’s been really hard to suss out if China/Luzhou has a drinking age or what it is. On this special day, anyway, the kids were able to grab a beer without ruffling any feathers.) This made the atmosphere extra convivial. A few happy parents/alumni came over to toast with us as we ate, and we were happy to be included in their fun.

After lunch, the anniversary was solidly over … and the National Day Holiday began! Everyone had vacation from school for the next week, so we packed up some things and joined the throngs of students catching the bus back into the city. (While our new campus apartment was nicer, it didn’t yet have internet.) Let the relaxing commence!

Nov 11, 2012

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival (Belated)

Have a sweet and savory snack to bulk up for winter

The mooncake

This year, Mid-Autumn Festival, or 中秋节, fell on September 30. It’s timing coincided with our National Day holiday — which is actually a week-long holiday kicking off on October 1 — so it felt extra festive.

Mid-Autumn Festival sounds very similar to our Thanksgiving. It’s a celebration of the harvest where you have a big meal full of fatty foods with your whole family. Instead of turkey, however, the star is the mooncake — a dense pastry that can be filled with a variety of ingredients, and often delivers the equivalent of a half-day’s worth of calories. (You are supposed to share, though.)

Earlier in the week, the school gave all the teachers a large box of mooncakes, which I chowed down on for days. They were delicious with a cup of tea. Peter did not partake, because — Surprise! — part of the filling was candied bacon. All the better … more for me!

On the afternoon of the actual holiday, we ran into some students who gave us some mini mooncakes, so that night we had a tasting party, with me on point to sniff out any meat. Flavors were as follows: bland Fig Newton; Meaty Fig Newton; sunflower and cranberry autumn delight. The last one was obviously our favorite.

Jul 31, 2012

A typical Chinese family

It’s not a celebration without lots and lots of food

The family photo
The exterior shot
The exterior of Alex’s apartment.

After the race, Alex brought us home for lunch. He lives with his grandmother, grandfather, granduncle, father, stepmother, brother and cousin. CORRECTION: His extended family, including grandparents and a granduncle, was staying over for the holiday.

They introduced themselves as a “typical Chinese family.”

Their home was the first Chinese home that we’ve been invited into, and we were honored to be part of their family celebration. The eight of them live in a two-bedroom apartment; big enough that everyone has their own space, but not much bigger than that.

Alex showed us his sleeping space, which is in an alcove off a room that he shares with his grandparents [EDIT] when they are in town. Above his bed, he had posted baby pictures (I don’t think these were his idea) and magazine pull-outs of some of his favorite stars. (The “Gossip Girl” actresses featured heavily.) He also had a bunch of maps of different parts of the world. We showed him on his map of the U.S. where we came from, and traced our journey to China on his world map.

Everyone was really kind and they were really excited to host us. Alex had to translate, as he was the only one there who spoke both languages, but the conversation flowed freely. They asked us a lot about America, and then suggested that we start a side-business giving speeches about America to curious Chinese. “You could make a lot of money!” they told us. They also asked, through Alex, how Alex’s English was. We told them that they should be very proud of him.

The dinner table

Grandmother cooked us an absolute feast! Eggs, pork, chicken, duck, plenty of veggies … and, of course, the traditional Zongzi. Peter and I ate with the men at a small foldout table, while grandmother bustled back and forth from the kitchen and stepmother supervised the smaller boys watching TV. Because it was a special occasion, we toasted each other with baijiu throughout the meal. There were toasts to us, to America, to our hosts and even to the fact that Peter and Alex’s dad are both in their 40s — “We’re same century people!” Alex’s dad said.

Between our morning romp in the sun, the wonderful food that we were encouraged to eat more and more and more of, and, of course, the baijiu, at the end of the meal Peter and I were ready for a big fat nap. Before we took our leave, Alex called in a neighbor to take photos of us with the family. As a parting gift, they presented us with a laminated family photo from a few years ago.

Alex is such a nice kid that it was no surprise that his family was so kind and loving.

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.