Tina

Dec 31, 2013

Three times Christmas in Luzhou

We learn that we know nothing and stuff blows up

Our festive apartment
Some little toys from the kidsA cross-stitch from the teachers I taughtA print from a studentTraditional Chinese parasolsThe bare-bones before shot of our apartment
Most of the decor in our apartment is gifts from students. Below, the apartment in a barer state.

Formerly, I thought Christmas for the Chinese was just about shopping and sales, but our friend Chris just told us that it’s also tradition for people to give apples to each other, because the words for apples and for Christmas Eve (which is translated as “Peaceful Night”) sound alike. So you give apples to your friends and family to wish them peace. Chris said that the practice is so common that apple sellers jack their prices in the few days before Christmas. Peace can be pricey.

There were no apples for us this year, but one early December afternoon our friend Tina tracked us down in the hallways between classes to give us her gift, a beautiful hand-painted umbrella. “It’s very small,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money.” We told her that we loved it, because that’s the truth, and we gave her a big hug.

This year, the one thing Peter and I really wanted for Christmas was the Dragon Boat of Meat from our favorite beef hot pot restaurant across town. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve having (a perfectly nice) dinner with our bosses, and Christmas night waiting in the rain and not getting picked up by cabs. But on Boxing Day, we made it.

The Dragon Boat of Meat

The Dragon Boat of Meat is spectacular. It is also a carpaccio — a fact that had to be repeated and mimed several times by our bemused servers before we understood that we were supposed to eat it raw. We basically know nothing about anything. Peter actually kept cooking it on the sly even after we were positive that it was supposed to be eaten as is, because he wasn’t crazy about the uncooked texture.

Boxing Day was also when the mall in the center of the city blew up, though we didn’t learn about that until the following day, when we tried to go shopping there. We needed a new laptop bag. Actually, we had a weird lunch first, at a tofu soup place we like. They refused to bring us beans or turn on the table-top burners, but they didn’t want us to leave either. It was only slightly more confusing than usual.

After lunch, we walked out to the main road and saw the fire trucks and soldiers. Little boys in big coats, actually, guarding the smoking wreckage. The road was cordoned off to vehicular traffic and hundreds of gawkers crowded the sidewalks. “Well, we’re not going shopping.”

Local rumor, we found out later from Chris, is that one of the restaurants was doing something dodgy with their cooking equipment. Whatever it was, it caused an entire city block to blow up. Many people were hurt and four people died. Reportedly, people in the movie theater thought that the explosion was some kind of 3D effect. This is my worst fear, justified.

Life goes on, though, and four days later traffic is mostly back to normal, and the spectators are down to a minimum. Tofu soup still doesn’t have any gas, and the local McDonald’s remains shuttered; I suspect the underground damage to the gas lines is pretty extensive. But we bought a computer bag elsewhere, which I’m sure is what you were worried about most.

The movie theater blew up!

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!

Jan 6, 2013

Pizza party II

Our first gathering in the new apartment

Serving the pizza

Tina and the girls wanted to come see us in our apartment so we invited them over during their free time one Sunday evening. Unbeknownst to them, we started planning the pizza party. There was a double motive there in that we wanted to show them our favorite American food … and we also suspected that they might lose track of time and miss out on their dinner, and we didn’t want to let them go unfed.

By this time, we had gotten to know the girls a lot better. Tina is the boss, the ringleader of the pack. It is on her say so that other girls talk to us and sit with us. But she wields her power generously. I’d say, next in command is Jane. Bookish and reserved, Jane has the best English, so if anyone is unsure of what they want to say, they run it by her first.

Sky is quite bold and confident. She dreams of international travel, especially to Paris, and has lots of good questions. Elaine is quiet and kind. Her manner is friendly and open, and I’d guess her to be the conciliator of the group.

Poor Helen couldn’t make it. The girl who is NOT a turkey had to study during our little get together. In fact, she’s often studying. Though she’s the same age as the other girls, there’s something of a tag-along little sister to her. She’s adorable and they clearly love her, despite the hard times they give her.

Pizza cooking on the grill
We picked up black olives on our last trip to Chongqing, and their existence made up a lot for the crummy Laughing Cow-style cheese that we’re stuck with.
The pizza party in full swing
Sky: I don’t think I can finish my last piece.
Jane: I can help you with that.

The girls arrived as the grill was getting hot; we were using our good friend Martha’s grilled pizza recipe again. They oohed and aahed over our new grill — “You know how to cook with this!?” — and were generally very impressed before the food even came out. We discussed BBQ culture in America, which they appreciated, though they were confused as to why summer is BBQ season. “You’re already hot,” they pointed out.

I was a little nervous serving them food, as I am still perfecting my bread making, but they really seemed to like it. They had never had pizza before, they told us. We beamed with pride, and I exempted myself from the fight for the last slices — which was really, really hard for me, but I did it!

A funny thing happened with our American pizza feast in that it evolved gracefully into a Chinese dinner party. As we waited for each batch to grill, the girls started to entertain us, singing American pop songs, telling jokes, and then performing a little traditional Chinese opera. Jane, in particular, was a lovely singer, demonstrating the technique singers use to vocally switch genders. “Where did you learn these songs?” we asked. “From TV,” they told us.

Too soon, they had to go back to class — yes on a Sunday evening, there is still more class. But after getting so much from them — they periodically give us little gifts and notes and cards in addition to friendship — it was nice to be able to give something to them. We’re buds for life.

Dec 25, 2012

Eating at the cool table

The Chinese kids take us in

Helen and Tina with Peter
From left: Helen (who is NOT a turkey, she’ll have you know), Peter, Tina

Our plan to connect with the students by sitting in their dining hall bore fruit pretty much right away.

Tina, one of Peter’s students, was the first to ask to sit with us. Now, we don’t feel scary, but the kids tend to consider talking with us a terrifying prospect. There’s always a lot of apologizing for mistakes and embarrassed giggling as they try to find the words they need. Some of our students can do no more than yell out hello and run away when they see us outside of class. And, seriously, no other teachers eat with the students. So for Tina to slide her tray over to us was an incredibly bold move, and we admired her right away for it.

The next day, she brought some of her friends with her — partially to prove to them that she had had the guts to eat with us in the first place. They were suitably impressed. After lunch, we all walked back to the dorms together, and Tina bashfully asked for a hug. Once the first hug was given out, Helen — one of the new girls — wanted one too. But again, Tina blazed the trail.

As time went on, our group of admirers grew. More students attracted more students. Even from ones who don’t stay, we get a surprised and friendly greeting as they pass. One afternoon, a student who was too shy to sit even gave us a drive-by taste of this delicious spicy, fermented bean paste before running off in a fit of giggles. (We’ve since gone through two bottles of the stuff on our own. It’s really quite tasty.)

In addition to getting to better know our current students, we’ve also been able to reconnect with some of last year’s kids. It’s been such a pleasure to get in touch with them again, and it’s been interesting to see kids mix it up with others with whom they might not usually interact; for example, Senior 1s and Senior 2s. At busy meals, we see multiple shifts of students as kids join and leave the party. “You have many fans,” observed one of the boys at one such dinner.

Not surprisingly, food is a big topic of conversation. Do we like Chinese food? What is American food like? Can you cook? Other big topics include our life in America and traveling abroad.

One night XiuLing, one of my former students and such a sweet girl, told Peter, “I hope you stay in China forever!” That was immediately responded to by another student: “That’s terrible.”

Our meals with the kids are always lively and fun, more than what we hoped for when we started the experiment. Tina and her friends are the most regular attendees, and recently she revealed that they brainstorm discussion topics for when they are going to eat with us. November 28th’s agenda: the upcoming Parent’s Day, American pen pals, and “Do you feel uncomfortable when we talk a lot in Chinese to each other?”

Not in the least, I told them. We’re happy they’re there.

All the girls, eating dinner
Clockwise from top: Sky, Emily, I’m-so-sorry-I-forget-her-name!, Elaine, Tina and Jane. You can see our jar of delicious bean paste in the center of the table.