young jane

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!

May 12, 2013

清明节: At long last, Zigong

Our arrival in the big city is heralded by bugs and rain

Outside our hotel window
The bed in the room
Our hotel room wasn’t much larger than the bed, but it was a place to stay out of the rain.

Sarah was baffled that we were going to stay on in Zigong for not one but two more nights — “I’ve already shown you everything!” — but she helped us check into the Rongguang Business Hotel anyway. Our accommodations were basic and small, but cheap and clean. And the TV had CCTV-News. Luxury!

Nestled in the elbow of the Fuxi River, we were ideally situated for tourism Emily and Peter-style, which involves wandering around until we get lost and/or find something interesting, and then seeing what we could find to drink. Our plans were thwarted, however, by the unrelenting swarms of bugs that were everywhere. Seriously, Peter was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt, and every couple of seconds it was completely covered in black. It was almost Biblical.

Out in the marketZigong sceneryPeter found a Spider-Man toy at the bookstore
We found many treasures at the bookstore, including this Spider-Man puzzle!

The problem was, the aforementioned river was running quite low, and the marshy exposed banks were a fertile breeding ground for these icky little guys. The whole region, including Luzhou, had had quite a dry spell, and for weeks the cities had been trying to seed the clouds for rain, our boss Linda had told us.

We took cover from the bugs in a western restaurant, and while we were testing the bartender’s ability to make every cocktail pictured in the menu, the rain finally came. And did not stop until we caught a cab for the bus station out of town two days later.

But, damn the rain! We came here to see Zigong. We grabbed umbrellas and got walking.

The small hill in front of our hotel led up into a pedestrian path lined by small shops. This eventually tapered off into a small market street. Taking a zag up to the main road, we walked by the bigger chain stores that you see pretty much everywhere: Spider King (shoes), Aiyaya (make-up), Septwolves (men’s clothes), KFC (chicken) … All in all, slightly different scenery but pretty similar to Luzhou.

On the way back to the hotel our first evening, a young man greeted us in English. It turned out that this young Zigonger attended the Luzhou Teachers College, where I taught a course this summer. (He wasn’t my student.) We asked him what he thought of Luzhou. “The buses are very crowded,” he said.

Just after we exchanged numbers with our representative of This Small World, we got a flurry of text messages and calls from different Chinese friends. Melody sent a text asking about dinner plans. Young Jane called demanding to know where we were. (For the life of me, I could not get her to understand the word “Zigong.” When I saw her later that week, she told me that she thought I was saying the Chinese for “fish pond.” Also back in Luzhou, Tina told us that one of her classmates had seen us cavorting around the city.) It was a fun moment, to be on the road and realize that we’ve actually made a home in China. And that it missed us.

Jan 6, 2013

Dinner with Young Jane

Meet some of our junior friends

At chuan chuan with Alix, Young Jane and KOKO (not pictured)
We go shopping at the stationary store before dinner
Alix and Jane pose together outside of the stationary store. KOKO declined to be photographed.

I have another student named Jane, one of my juniors. And there is very little chance I’d confuse the two. Young Jane is incredibly loud and outgoing. On my first day in her class — when her classmates were shrieking in awe and running away — she strode right up and asked me, “You eat 串串, right? And drink 啤酒?” Apparently her home is near sticks, and she had seen Peter and me there eating dinner and drinking beer.

She can be a bit of a loudmouth sometimes, but in an incredibly endearing way. “Emily, that hat is not fashion,” she told me about my winter toque. “Well then, don’t wear it,” I replied.

A few weeks ago, she invited me to go shopping. And the rule is: Always say yes. So we made a date. The morning of our appointed day, she pointed out about seven students who were going to come with us. Although when it came time to go, we were joined by only Alix (a quiet and incredibly with-it kid; while her mouth is closed her eyes are open) and KOKO (I had to say KOKO’s name about 17 times before I got it right). They chattered away as we walked towards the center of the city. I can tell you that shopping with 12 year old girls in China is much the same as it is in the US. KOKO bought a pen, but it was mostly window shopping and then something to drink.

It was decided that after shopping we’d go to dinner, so I called Peter to meet us at 串串. On the way there, the girls taught me some words in Chinese and in the local dialect. In class, I don’t let the students know that I understand some Chinese, because it’s supposed to be a fully immersive English experience and some of the students are reluctant to participate as it is. But my guideline is that if you’re motivated to seek me out after class, you can probably handle the fact that I do know a tiny bit of the language. So I let the girls become my teachers for our walk. And let me tell you, they were as strict with my pronunciation as I am with theirs. It was really difficult!

Over dinner we chatted some more, and laughed and had general fun. They confirmed for us that the terrible erhu busker is playing bad on purpose so that you’ll pay him to go away. He’s been poking us for money — literally — since we’ve been going to sticks, and we had always suspected that he was just being obnoxious, so we hadn’t given him any money. “He’s so boring,” said Jane.

At the end of the meal, they managed to snake the bill from us. If you’re following along and getting the impression we get a lot of meals paid for by other people, you’re exactly right. It’s pretty remarkable. That’s why we try to do things like the pizza party to try to karmically balance it out.