Jul 6, 2018

English names for Chinese kids

And naming myself in Chinese

The way this video came together … well, originally I had intended it to be a short. Peter was encouraging me to film my thoughts on my way to and from work with my cellphone, straight-up vlogger style. So one day on my way home for lunch, I filmed the first piece (which I think appears third above; it’s the bit with the gray T-shirt, about the process of giving out names to my students). But this led to more and more thoughts, so I kept adding pieces. It turns out, I have a lot of thoughts about names.

It can be a fraught topic. I have had students decline to take an English name; for whatever reason, they don’t want one. Which I can understand. As a kid, I didn’t like it when people made nicknames out of my given name — everyone has a preference of how they’d like to be addressed, and I try to respect that. It’s much easier now that I have a little more Chinese, but also that my class sizes are no longer 60+ kids. If one out of eight wants to be called by their Chinese name, I can make that happen. It does take me longer to commit their name to memory, but I get there.

Another theme, that only briefly touched on in the video, is that the English name is far from permanent. Our friend Patrick has gone through a few different names in the time we’ve known him as his relationship with English has grown and changed from a high school student tucked away in Luzhou to a citizen of the world who interacts regularly with people from other countries and cultures. I think he’s living in Mexico these days. We also know a couple of students who’ve grown up and chosen to be exclusively called by their Chinese name. For example, I don’t think Curly answers to that name anymore. But that’s all part of the fun of trying out a new identity.

Jun 11, 2013

The many faces of Listening Ling

A king of masks in training

Listening, after the show

Our friend Listening Ling (formerly called Alex) has been studying the Sichuanese art of Face Changing this past year, and we were psyched last night to go see him in his first public performance. We met up with our new Australian friend Cori (whom we me through Listening; if you speak English in Luzhou, Listening with find you) and waited in the city center for Listening to come pick us up. And then, Listening called and said that the restaurant was too crowded for us to come; we were basically planning to crash his graduation party, so we were bummed but we understood.

As an alternative plan, we decided to take Cori to Golden Hans for some good dark beer — in the week and a half we’ve known him, we’ve basically been giving Cori a dissertation on the beers of Luzhou, whether he wants that or not.

At Golden Hans, who should we run into, but Listening! The restaurant was in fact very crowded, but we squeezed into a table at the back. Listening came to visit with us periodically, updating us on the status of his performance. We could tell he was very nervous and we tried to pep him up. “My friends are all singing or telling jokes,” he told us. “I’m the only one doing the face changing.” “So then you’ll be the best,” I said. “That’s too much pressure!” he said.

But the show must go on. Listening changed into his costume, and we gathered at the front stage with the rest of the restaurant. Everyone had their cameras out, even people, I think, unconnected with the school crew. This was a special event.

And it was amazing! Listening did a “Gangnam Style”-inspired dance and his masks appeared from nowhere and then disappeared back into the air. He had previously told us that the kids these days are losing interest in the traditional arts, and it was important to him to modernize the form. We think he was a total success!

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 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 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.

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.

Jul 28, 2012

A plan to make a plan

Let’s get together sometime

Emily and Alex make a plan
Emily and Alex at the rice shop

So, we meet a lot of people just by walking down the street. They usually just want to take pictures, but if they have a little English, they’ll chat with us for a little while. Sometimes, they ask for our phone number. We gladly give it, though they rarely call, which is a little disappointing. (Abdullah Paco — I’m dying to know where you got a Spanish name!)

Our friend from the other day Alex, on the other hand, did not ask for our phone number but did call! We were still in Chengdu at the time, but we were really glad to hear from him. (He tracked down our number from teachers at his school who knew teachers at our school.) He wanted to hang out and we wanted to hang out, so we made a plan to meet for lunch to make plans for more hanging out.

Alex met us at the gate of our school, armed with a notebook full of suggestions for us — from what to eat right then for lunch to every sight we might possibly want to see in Luzhou. He even had a classmate illustrate each option for us, so there would be no confusion.

From the lunch menu, we selected fried rice.

Over lunch, he showed us his American flag-decorated folder, and we discussed American things. He filled me in on the latest doings on “Gossip Girl.” He also presented our sightseeing options. (On the Luzhou Museum: It’s boring, but students like it because they can use the computers there.) “Make a check mark next to the ones that you want to do,” he told us. We didn’t want to be too greedy of his time, but as we kept checking things off — the library, the small Sichuan opera theater — he encouraged us to check off more. So we checked them all off!

Our tour began immediately after lunch. Alex walked with us around our neighborhood, pointing out some small sights. He also helped us buy a map of Luzhou, which is something we’ve been looking for since we landed. We parted ways with plans to meet up again that Saturday to tackle more of our list.

Jun 26, 2012

Replace your passport: Luzhou interlude

Meet Alex

Chapter 4: Luzhou Laojiao Tianfu Middle School

Objective: Wait for your passport to be ready

Back in Luzhou, we wrapped up our teaching duties and said goodbye to all of the kids. We also busied ourselves with creating our essay/video diptych depicting our experiences.

As part of my farewell to the kids, I gave them my contact info, including my QQ number. (QQ is a Chinese IM service.) They get in touch for little chats, though we don’t discuss anything too deep; they usually say hi, ask how I am, if I’ve eaten, apologize for their poor English (to which I always say: “It’s OK, you’re learning!”) and then they say goodbye.

Introducing Alex Ling

Which is part of why I was so impressed with Alex. One afternoon, on the way back from grocery shopping, he introduced himself to Peter and me. He’s a senior 2 student from a nearby middle school, and is absolutely crazy about America. In the short walk back to our school, he peppered us with questions about our home country, including “How can I move there?” (“Save up a lot of money,” was sadly the best we could offer.) I was impressed, first of all, by his moxie in approaching us, and then, secondly, by his skill in English. Even my better students tend to trip over their insecurities, but Alex was a smooth conversationalist, even if his grammar wasn’t perfect. (And his grammar was very, very good.)

It would be great to have had him as a student, but it’s even nicer to have him as a friend.

After waiting the requisite 10 days, an email from the U.S. Consulate informs me that my passport is ready for pick up. Back to Chengdu …