students

May 8, 2019

Real and fake ... are they just constructs?

Uncle Foreigner gets really existential

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There’s a lot of worry about knock-offs and fakes in China … which was kind of our point of departure for this episode. Yes, when you search for Swiffers on Taobao you can find “Steves.” But, we wanted to push the concept further and consider the nature of reality as a whole.

Also, someone told us to “go back to your own country.” So that was special.

Nov 18, 2018

Cultivated progress: Making art, individuality & punks behind Chinese walls

Uncle’s Shorts #38

We tackle Art this week, in about 8 minutes. So, you know … it’s pretty thorough.

The ending animation we did with our new Adonit Pixel stylus and this nifty animation app I found for my iPad. Animation, as you may know, is pretty labor intensive, but it’s also a lot of fun, so we’re excited to start expanding our repertoire in that direction.

Dave’s interview takes place outside of Luzhou, actually, in a suburb called Naxi. He brought us to this great little BBQ place, where you cook your own meats right on the table. I love cooking my own meats right on the table!

Oct 19, 2018

Under the Jade Dragon Mountain: No murders today

Uncle’s Shorts #34

We’re upping our game this week; For the past month, we’ve been working behind-the-scenes on some new features for the Uncle’s Shorts. This week, we’re super excited to be rolling out some of those new bits: interviews and city shots … with much more to come in the future! It’s a way to move my face out of the spotlight, and put the focus more on Luzhou, and the cool and interesting people we know here. Both personally and creatively, it’s already been very fulfilling. We hope you like it, too.

But we don’t really mind if you don’t.

As for this episode: A massage and a supermarket cause and relieve anxiety for Emily this week, but not in that order. And, we talk to our old friend Jessi about her life.

The Kung Fu Boys were filmed in Black Dragon River Park, Lijiang in 2015. They wrote this movie for our English class. Filming was never completed due to attendance issues.

Sep 19, 2018

Humble shyness

Don’t be shy, just try!

The subhead of this post is something I used to chant with my middle schoolers, to get them comfortable with speaking while facing up to the possibility that they might make mistakes. But the substance of this weeks video is about those kids who are shy … and why they like me as their teacher.

Also, it was so hot our first week of school that the government called it off for a heat day; my first one of those. To me, it didn’t feel crazy hot … not more so than usual for Luzhou summer, but I did also spend the day in the air conditioning inside. And I’m not one to look a gift day off in the mouth. What?

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.

May 24, 2016

School is in session

What is it that you actually do?

Teaching from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

We don’t talk a lot about teaching on this blog, because … well, that’s just not what we’ve decided that this blog is about. But, as both a teacher of English and a learner of Mandarin, language is a huge part of my life. Recently, I’ve been really into phonics. Not because perfect pronunciation is the be-all and end-all of language success, but because learning to hear a foreign language’s phonemes properly goes a long way towards making that language a comprehensible set of inputs, rather than just some strange noises. And I think that process is fascinating.

Lily and Lisa are good friends with each other, but they have slightly different abilities in language learning. Lily is much more focused on reading skills, while Lisa has a lot of energy that can be channeled into lively activities. They are a goofy pair of nine-year-olds, curious and outgoing. Their class was a lot of fun for me, because they were eager learners with just enough inclination for getting off task as to keep me on my toes. Tangent-prone kids are often the most interesting.

The video above is an hour lesson condensed into ten minutes. We hit the four critical components of language — speaking, listening, reading and writing — and, of course, do a little phonics work. Check it out.

Jun 18, 2015

Video: Guitar with Mr. Super

No more school work, let’s make music

Guitar with Mr. Super from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Graduation time is here, releasing a new crop of students out into the world, and freeing up their time for guitar lessons.

Zhang Yu Jie — formerly Mr. Super, an English name that he’s discarded — has been our friend for the past three years. Determined to improve his English, he would practice with us as much as he could, finding us between classes, walking with us wherever, getting in those precious few moments of face time during his busy school schedule.

On our part, we learned that he is a really sweet, hard-working young man. Raised on a farm by his grandparents with his twin sister Lily, he has big dreams. The video above takes from an interview we conducted last spring, and a group guitar lesson Peter gave last month with Lily and a few friends.

Jul 30, 2014

In the kitchen with Jessi

Our first class is on their way

The girls in our kitchen
From left to right: Yi, Meichen and Jessi, preparing a feast in our kitchen.
Jessi made a fantastic Sichuan-style dinner
Our meal of pumpkin soup, egg and scallion, and mildly spicy pork with peppers.
Hanging out with the kidsHave some dumplings
Left: This was our first time entertaining so many people at the new apartment; we had to borrow dishes from next door. Right: Jessi and the mountain of dumplings we made.

“I think students are closer to there teachers here in China than they are in America,” I said.

Jessi agreed. It’s because they spend more time together, she told me, they’re more like family. She was, at the time, mincing up some pork for the dumplings she was making me. I was nominally helping, cleaning the chives, but really the bulk of the work fell on her.

Jessi had been my student in my first year of teaching. (She’s namechecked in this essay.) Overwhelmed by our new lives that year, Peter and I didn’t make too many real connections with our students, but Jessi and a few of her friends were wonderful exceptions. We’ve kept in loose touch since then, and this summer she’s come over a few times to cook for us — she’s quite accomplished at Sichuan cuisine.

Our first meal together was an absolute feast, and she brought with her Kevin, Meichen and Yi. It was great catching up with the kids. Kevin, whom we used to refer to as the Crane, was back from his training year in Singapore and is now pretty fluent in English. He starts university in Singapore in the fall, and we can tell he’s having an amazing adventure abroad. Meichen, one of Peter’s top students from his top class, has not waited to start her advanced education — she’s already taken an English course from online university Coursera. Meichen and Kevin talked books and translation with Peter for much of the evening. Yi is a new friend, and very shy — though she seemed to have fun. She did tell me that I taught her mother when I did that course at the local teacher’s college!

Jessi will be staying in Luzhou for school, attending the city’s Medical College. During one of our very first after-class chats she told me that she wanted to be a doctor, so I’m fantastically happy for her. Likewise, I’m happy for myself, because if she stays nearby, she can come over and make me more delicious dumplings.

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

Jun 5, 2013

Snaps: Rocking closer to home

The cool kids make some noise

A concert on the school grounds
Our rock band

Shortly after arming ourselves with new instruments, we found that Tianfu Middle School had been training up some little rockers as well. It was showcase day for the school’s various clubs, and one of those clubs was rock club.

The group gave a performance, rotating in new singers for each song. They ran into some sound issues — like you do, in China — but it was a pretty cool show. Mixed in with the poppy tunes were some proto-post-Joy Division droners. Extremely cool.