Sunday, September 25, 2011

Strange-taste horsebeans

Today I am 34 years old. Yesterday I wan't quite 34 years old yet and we spent the day biking and hiking on Tea Mountain.

Tea Mountain ridge

Some of the locals

Among the bamboo

A tourist climbing some stairs
After a disastrous lunch-ordering experience which ended up with us facing two plates of expensive entrails, we returned to Yongchuan motivated to do better. After some practice runs on the way to the restaurant I managed to order XiHongShiChaoJiDan and fried eggplant without a hitch... which was both a tasty meal and an encouragement that we may one day be able to survive in China without having to eat entrails. Speaking of entrails, we today discovered an alley by the river in Yongchuan where Chinese life in it's realest form was in full swing. We walked past tiny storefronts with sleeping lofts built in above each one, tables crammed with people playing cards and mahjong, live poultry ready for the chopping block, the chopping block, and a lady in the early stages of preparing a dog for dinner.

Yohchuan riverfront... the upscale section just before dead dog alley
And finally... here are my latest favorites from our never-ending supply of peculiar English slogans:

My new mug - "You are all evil, I'm the only angel"

Wherever you go, take pirate beer. Sound advice I think.

Yes, this is a real pen.

I have yet to confirm how strange these horsebeans taste

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Cucumber Surprise

Today we went on another exploratory bike ride to find a road I saw on Google Earth. As usual with China, the reality on the ground was a little different to what Google's all-seeing-eye saw from space, but we found our way up onto another ridge outside of town and rode along it... then down the side to find some noodles. Success. Little did we know that we had in fact scaled the mighty Cucumber Mountain. Who knew! Luckily, back in our apartment the Internet has allowed us to learn exactly how lucky we we were. Photos of that business can be seen here:

If your interested in looking at our Yongchuan travels, I've been mapping them right here on this, err, map.  It only really works using the satellite picture view, due to some kind of bureaucracy that makes the streets not line up with the GPS when you look at the map view. It all looks lovely if you use the satellite view though.

View Yongchuan.kmz in a larger map

That was the light-relief section of this post, so now it's time for some introspection. I've been thinking about life in China as I know it so far, and here's what I have to say...

Food in China is great. All the principles I have been trying so hard to live by in Canada; eating local food, eating seasonal food, and eating fresh food are the default here. Of course, these things would have been the default everywhere once... but such is progress. The disadvantage of all this local fare is that most of the things you'll eat in a "rural" Chinese city are made from the same ingredients. Right now, we are eating a lot of a kind of spinach-ish thing called "Hollow Heart", green beans, mushrooms, squash, potatoes, tofu, and cabbage. Meat can be a bit of an adventure and pork is definitely the most common. As a recovering vegetarian, pork has been pretty low on my list of things to eat until now, but I have been enjoying some of it here. Beef is also a good choice I have found as due to its higher price you'll get less meat and more vegetables in a beef dish - which suits me fine. Though the ingredients are fairly predictable, we have been shown variety is still possible. The regular haunts of the Maple Leaf School teachers are The Dive, St Paddy's, Baby Noodle, The Clay Pot Place and the street barbecue (names bear no relationship to the actual names of these places, which we can't read). The Dive specializes in classic Chongquing specialities, served in an "informal" setting. It's mostly oily stir-fried things including some of my favorites: kung-pao chicken, eggplant, and fried egg with tomato. Almost everything is pretty spicy. Baby Noodle does a mean noodle soup with optional fried-egg on the side, St Paddy's caters to the local university student population with more classic local dishes, and The Clay Pot Place serves up a tasty pile of rice and vegetables sizzling in a clay pot. Last night we were guided to a new place and had a kind of chicken stew, which contained every imaginable part of the chicken... including a foot proudly placed on top of the vegetables. It's tradition that every Chinese meal should contain rice or noodles... or it would not be considered filling, so once we had cleared most of the vegetables and chicken artifacts from our stew a few plates of noodles were put into the broth to finish it off. You need to pace yourself when eating out in China...

Before arriving in China I had read a few things about Chinese culture. Some were complimentary, saying how welcoming and generous the Chinese people are... some less so, focusing on the smoking, spitting in the street, and the hierarchical system of respect and friendship that is difficult for foreigners to penetrate. My experience has been more the former. Whilst our appearance and everything we do is hilarious and fascinating to the locals, the atmosphere has been very welcoming. Parents bring their small children over to look at us and say "Hello!", shorty followed by "Goodbye!". Whenever we are out in the evening, groups of Chinese drinkers will want us to join them for a drink and to give us cigarettes. Refusing a gift is very impolite in China, so I have learned that accepting the smokes and keeping them behind your ear "for later" is the way to navigate this social minefield. We have only been able to have conversations with a few Chinese people as not many speak English here, and my Mandarin so far only extends as far as ordering rice or noodles. We have met a few Chinese university students who are studying English at the university in the hope of becoming interpreters and this has given us some insights into life in China. It's amazing to most young Chinese that in Canada Lina and I do not live with our parents. What motivated me to leave a job in Canada that required many years of study and effort to get and come to teach English in developing interior of China is also hard to communicate. The luxury of choosing to take a break from more gainful employment is something relatively few Chinese have experienced. 

Whilst my overall experience of our current home is positive, Yongchuan seems to be a town where any remnants of its old soul are being rapidly extinguished and replaced with shiny new apartment buildings and extravagant parks. Development here seems to be happening the opposite way to what I am used to seeing in The West. Instead of infrastructure always being one step behind the growing demand... here in Yongchuan a big city is being pre-fabricated, ready for the people to arrive. Where these people are coming from I have no idea, and I hope that whoever did the sums got their numbers right. We are surrounded by cavernous new buildings which are largely empty, meanwhile new construction is in progress all around. It's hard to imagine what Yongchuan will look like five years from now... but the plan is clearly for it to have a lot of people living in it. My concern is that with the focus on building more and more new things, the barely finished projects that are only a few years old are neglected. At what point will the rate of collapse meet the rate of new construction? I have an image of a city where the ever-growing periphery surrounds a crumbling core.

Finally, my life as a teacher. I never imagined myself as a High-School teacher, let alone in China. The experience so far has been quite difficult. The standing in front of the class part has been quite easy; partly due to having gained quite a lot of experience in dealing with other human beings through my various employments, and the fact that the students are generally very respectful of the Canadian teachers.  What has proven to be far more difficult is making sense of how formal education works.  Despite having been to school myself, once upon a time, I am struggling to understand the logic of teaching and assessment in a school system.  The fact that I know very little about the technicalities of my native language is not helping much either.  Sometimes I wonder if I am learning more than my students…

Finally, a reward for anyone who labored through all that (or cleverly scrolled down here without reading it). My greatest teaching triumph to-date was playing Poopycat, also boringly known as Telephone Pictionary,  with my classes on Friday. I knew from experience that the most talented players of this game are those who have English as a second language, so imagine a whole class of non-native English speakers paying.  In the example below, the jump from “superman” to “supermarket” really brought the game alive. The potential here is enormous.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Curved Nasty

At the conclusion of our first full week teaching in Yongchuan I was ready to escape my shortcomings as a teacher and do something that didn't involve speaking very slowly or wondering how to make my lessons less boring. So we made our second summit attempt on the mighty edifice that is "Tea Mountain" to the north of town. Last weekend we were turned back by the long arm of the law who had closed the road for some reason. As we approached the turn for Tea Mountain, the "road closed" sign was in the ditch and no law enforcement was to be seen, so up we went. After a few minutes we found a sign that we were on the correct route for some renowned tourist sites.

There was also the beginnings of the tea hedges (is that the right word?) that the "mountain" is famous for. With the mist hanging heavy on the hillside we took a sniff along the "Tea fragrance terrace". Fragrant it was... and very nice when we're more used to the more robust smells of the town below.

We continued on up the road towards our objective. Coming the other way we saw four unexpected things... other people riding bikes for fun (!). The Tea Mountain road seems to be the local recreational cycling hot spot. As we reached the ridge line, our greatest challenge awaited us... the Tourist Welcoming Center. It turns out there is a fee to ride the rest of the road along the ridge, though with some help from a very nice English-speaking Tea Mountain visitor, we learned that we could sleep in a farmer's house if we paid our fee and carried on along the ridge through the tea plantations. We decided that this should be our objective for my birthday weekend in a few weeks.

A tourist pointing at a fake concrete rock
Another tourist lurking in some (not fake) tea bushes
Satisfied with our day's research we set off for the descent back into town. Luckily there was some advice on the road conditions ahead...

Sound advice
Lina grappling with a curved nasty
Back at home we headed out for a late lunch armed with our freshly prepared Chinese words for "One bowl of noodles with beef" and "I am a vegetarian, one bowl of noodles". Having successfully managed to order five bottles of beer last night I was feeling ready for a new challenge... plus we were pretty hungry. I'm pleased to say that our meal ordering resulted in minimal frustration with the noodle lady (who laughed at us) and the food we wanted appearing. Success!

GPS geekery of our trip up "Tea Mountain"

Monday, September 5, 2011

If you like it then you should put a stick in it

I'm three days deep into my teaching career and whilst it's been no plain sailing, I think I will survive. Standing in front of the class has been easy, which I think I have mainly my work with Our Community Bikes customers to thank for. The tough part is figuring out how and what to teach the kids...

Now, in culinary news I think we have some real headlines. We've eaten plenty of great food (mainly derived from pigs) here, but Sunday was a tour-de-force of budget cuisine triumphs. Let me elaborate:

Lunch: Cold noodles with soy sauce, oil, chills, peanuts, some herb-ish green things, and some magic spices. So simple... but so good on a hot day. This feast (with a bowl of alarming-looking cold kidney bean soup, which is actually really good) costs around 4 Yuan per head (that's 62 cents Canadian).

Desert: A frozen blob of peas attached to a stick and covered with frozen yogurt. Trust me on this one... it's the future. Frozen peas on a stick covered with yogurt? Yes. Amazing. Oh, and the price... about 16 cents each.

Dinner: The joy here is really the ambiance. Sitting on a tiny plastic stool on the sidewalk around a low table, listening to a small child singing karaoke through PA system of a mobile-phone vendor. Take your pick out of an amazing selection of vegetables, eggs, fungi, tofu, steamed-buns, and meat if you want. Pile it on a tray and give it to the lady to barbecues it and brings it back tasting amazing (and probably laden with MSG... I but I try not to think about that). A hearty feast for 2 will set you back around $4.50. Oh... and if you want a beer with that, add 80 cents. Unfortunately the beer is awful, so maybe just have a few more interesting mushrooms instead.

There are some photos of our other weekend bicycle and running-related fun here: