culture

Mar 19, 2019

Don’t change your clothes

It’s fine

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Content warning for existential dread and meat. This week’s vlog thoughts consider how often one should change their clothes. In our part of China, it’s actually OK to wear the same outfit for a few days in a row. Not to bed, of course. That’s what pajamas are for.

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!

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Detour — Cultural sights ahead

Watch out for temples

A statue

And so it was, on Wednesday, April 3, we were about to hit the road for our most spontaneous road trip to date. We were looking forward to bumming around in a new city for a couple of days, and, having been underwhelmed by much of the tourist must-dos in China, we were giving ourselves a break on the culture stuff. Basically, the idea was to find a Zigong beer and 火锅 place and relax.

We lucked into a ride when we asked our boss Sarah for help making hotel reservations, because she’s from Zigong, and Qingming is a major holiday and of course she was going home. When we met her at the car on Wednesday afternoon, she had an idea that she was really excited about. On the way to Zigong, she and Mr. Wang — her husband — could show us a couple of sights. And we could stop in her hometown Fushun County for dinner. And … we could stay the night and she’d take us to Zigong the next morning!

And I said, “Why not! Let’s see what will happen.”

What happened was we kind of got stuck in a loop of hospitality and politeness. But we definitely saw things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.

Longchang Ancient Town

Longchang Ancient TownCandy with a hammer

This was our on-the-way stop, a recreated ancient city of Ming- and Qing-style architecture, much like Chengdu’s wide and narrow alleys. At it’s center, however, were 18 original stone gates built in 1696-1887. Each archway commemorated a different thing: A man who lived to be 100 (at a time when the average life span was 40), filial piety, chastity, and so on.

After viewing the gates, Sarah stopped to buy us a snack. The man chiseled off some bits from a big beige pillow covered in sesame seeds and bagged it up for us. We each sampled a small piece — it was sticky and chewy and way better than it looked. “Do you have this in America?” Sarah asked. Peter explained about taffy: that you twist and you pull and pull and twist, demonstrating the action with his hands. Sarah said that was how this was made, with sticky rice. We each took another piece. And another.

Confucius Museum and Buddhist Temple, Fushun County

Outside the Confucius MuseumThe great Kong FuA Buddhist temple in Fushun CountyThe Buddha

Fushun is about a half hour outside Zigong, and “county” in the Chinese sense refers to an area that is smaller than a city, but larger than a village.

In the old part of the county, there is a Confucius museum, that at one time was a real working temple. Faded English placards gave information about the various buildings and halls, some of which were built as early as 1291. It was all very Chinese looking.

The highlight of the museum is the small statue of a naked boy perched atop the Chongsheng Hall. A telescope is set up for viewing, next to a card explaining that the statue was discovered during restoration in 1986, this sort of thing is not traditional and no one really knows why he’s there. Archeological mystery!

Outside the museum, Sarah gave us a quiz: “This building is painted red. Do you know what that means?” We didn’t. “Power,” she said.

We took a taxi over to the Fushun Buddhist temple, which was under construction. We bought tickets and went inside.

This temple evidently receives a lot more love and care. The painting and woodwork are in much better condition than they were at the Confucius museum. The main temple was at the top of the hill — closer to heaven — and housed a Buddha with a thousand arms. There were many monks scuttling around, and there was some significant bell tolling and drumming while we were there. Sarah said that the county’s Buddhists fill the courtyard on holy days.

Zigong Dinosaur Museum

Dinosaur museumThe robot dinos outside the museum

We continued our very thorough tour the next morning. Zigong’s main claim to fame is that it has a ground full of dinosaur fossils. The Zigong Dinosaur Museum is listed in the guidebooks as the thing to do. We had planned on skipping it, but Sarah thought we should go. She and Mr. Wang waited for us outside; they’d seen it many, many times.

The museum is actually a small compound, with a few buildings — one of them itself shaped like a dinosaur — and some outdoor garden spots. One of the latter is filled with large, animatronic dinosaur replicas. They jerk and sway and roar in an endless loop.

All of the most museummy stuff is in one building that also offers dinosaur rides. The coolest thing, however, is the basement replica of an actual fossil excavation.

Sarah was a little surprised that we finished up so quickly — meanwhile, the fact that she and Mr. Wang were sitting outside by the highway never left our minds. “We think it might be for kids,” was Peter’s diplomatic answer when she asked why we were so fast. She smiled and nodded.

Sanghai Salt Well, Zigong

Mining for salt

Zigong’s other big deal is salt. From ancient times, the traders traveled from all over to get some of this valuable mineral. And these days, there are not one but two different institutions wherein one may learn about its production.

Mercifully, we only stopped at the Sanghai Well, which is still in operation. It’s old and it’s deep, and while we were there we watched two sweaty guys shoveling crude salt into boiling tanks and pulling it back out. That has to be the worst job in all museum-dom.

If you like, you can buy some Zigong salt on your way out. We didn’t.

Jan 27, 2013

Winter break: Georgetown

The city

The Georgetown Heritage Area
Looking down on Georgetown, from the top floor of Komtar
Penang Road
Action on Penang Road
Khoo Kongsi
The ornate exterior of Khoo Kongsi
A drawing at Khoo Kongsi
A close-up of “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons”
The Blue MansionOn the tour of the Blue Mansion
The tour of the Blue Mansion is very thorough.

Georgetown is where most Penang visitors stay if they’re not at the beach. It’s the state’s capital, and is situated on a little nose of land on the northeast corner of the island. The city was founded by Captain Francis Light in 1786 for the British East India Company, and is home to many fine examples of British colonial architecture.

Penang’s other cultures have left their architectural mark, as well, and there are beautiful Chinese temples and clan houses, Islamic mosques, etc. The city is just lousy with gorgeous buildings with a mix of styles and cultures not seen anywhere else in Southeast Asia. In honor of that fact it was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008.

We felt we would be remiss if we didn’t at least check out some of the sights.

Khoo Kongsi and the Blue Mansion

Khoo Kongsi is a Chinese clanhouse that serves the family Khoo. It’s basically a big, ornately decorated temple with a small museum on the ground floor. There are some beautiful illustrations throughout the temple; my favorite is the one titled “Hundred Sons and Thousand Grandsons,” that being the wish for all Chinese families.

The Blue Mansion is exactly what it says, a big blue mansion built by a Chinese immigrant to Georgetown, Cheong Fatt Tze, in the 1880s. You have to join one of the three daily tours to see it, and I have to warn you, the tour is BRUTAL. We spent about 45 minutes of our 1 hour tour in the front vestibule while our guide summarized Cheong Fatt Tze’s life in excruciating detail. Her focus was largely on his money-making and saving, with a few details thrown in about the man himself and the construction of the house. Oh, and I’m forgetting, she also gave a pretty hard sell on staying in the mansion in its capacity as a hotel.

The interesting take away from these two attractions: They’ve both been stand ins for other countries in Hollywood movies. Khoo Kongsi was a makeshift Thailand in “Anna and the King” and the Blue Mansion stood for Vietnam in “Indochine,” when each production was barred from filming in their respective countries.

Somewhere in GeorgetownKomtar
Can you spot the Komtar?
At the Clan JettiesAt the Clan JettiesCity Hall

Komtar

Komtar isn’t a Heritage building, it’s a big mall and the tallest building in Georgetown. We took an elevator up to the top for some great views of the island. We also bought some jewelry at the bead store that, for whatever reason, was up in the viewing area.

The Clan Jetties

The waterfront on the south side of the city was settled mostly by Chinese families, and is still a Chinese neighborhood today. It’s a little weird to walk through people’s homes as a tourist attraction, but it makes for some nice photographs.

There are also some seafood restaurants out at the end of the piers, which would be pretty wonderful if you liked seafood. We don’t like seafood, but that’s on us, no fault of the jetties.

City Hall

We enjoyed looking at this colonial building without trying to tour it, mercifully. It’s very good looking.

Pretty much all of our efforts at cultural tourism were failures. The architecture in Georgetown is gorgeous, but the ways in which we tried for deeper engagement with it were just not that fulfilling. It was also way too hot to go tromping around the city just to look at things.

It took us a couple days to realize that we were just doing it wrong. The culture in Penang is not in institutions and museums (most of which were founded or renovated within the last 30-40 years, anyway). It’s the people, the natural beauty, and, not least importantly, the food. Eventually we calmed down and started having a lot more fun.

Don’t get all New York about it. The way to do Penang is to sit back and enjoy a good meal in the marvelous scenery.

Georgetown city Georgetown city