Sorry for the delay! It seems that despite the fact I only have 17 lessons a week I’m always incredibly busy lesson planning, fighting with the internet with music downloads for class or exploring some new place (or new food more often than not). Add to that the fact I’ve managed to contract bronchitis and it’s been a very long, tiring week.
Mastering the Dragon
The previous week was full of lovely surprises. One of the first unexpected ones was my impromptu calligraphy class on Friday morning. We had Friday off due to Sports Day; grades one and two took part in the madness whilst grade three had a couple of days off to revise for this week’s exams. This was the first opportunity I had to mingle with my kids outside of the classroom for more than the few minutes in the hallways between class. It was almost like a salve after the chaffing of seeing a few of them crying that week; they were all clumped together laughing and sprinting around – smiles everywhere.
The reason I had come to school on my day off, apart from wanting to have a glance at what a sports day looks like here, was because some English students were visiting. Eva (our mentor) explained that there would be a ceremony of sorts in the morning in order to welcome the guests and that we were welcome to attend if we wished. So, we arrived promptly and found out that, in fact, we’d be having a calligraphy lesson together instead. Since the English students hadn’t arrived yet we headed over to the room early and found our teacher (Laoshi), Master Tang.
Master Tang is one of those ageless people that was probably born 70 years old – he seems like he was born wise. He has one of those relaxing persona’s that makes you think he may never have raised his voice in his entire life. And maybe he hasn’t. He’s a master of calligraphy after all. He is 73 and he has been practising the art since he was 4, it takes immense skill, presence and calm to be able to paint as well as he does. Calligraphy is about breathing as much as it is as about the brush according to Master Tang. On our arrival, since we were waiting for the others, Master Tang decided to give Adrian and I two scrolls each. My scroll read that to achieve intelligence we must study and read many books (suits me!) and Adrian’s read that to master any talent we must begin early in life (Master Tang has a sense of humour, I mean Adrian’s already ancient!… I should probably stress that I joke, since Adrian is only like 500 or 50 or something).
After Master Tang generously gifted us some of his own beautiful work, the guests showed up. We began our lesson. And for once in my 22 years I produced a piece of art that even I would call pretty. We first learnt how to paint the traditional character for dragon (the large character to the right). Whilst the others practised that I tried to replicate my Chinese name. My students in Beijing named me Little Red (Xiao Hong), but I didn’t have a family name (a last name). When Master Tang was painting our scrolls for us he asked for our names to add to the scroll. I told him mine and this prompted the search for a family name. Adrian suggested that since my last name is Troy it should be something to do with the Trojan war hence I ended up with the family name “Ma” which means horse. The characters to the left of the picture below are the traditional characters for Horse (you can see that it sort of resembles the horse) followed by little (Xiao) and red (Hong). The other Chinese teachers were milling about checking over our work and they asked if Master Tang had written my name for me, when I told them that I had written it by copying the characters Master Tang had written on my scroll they didn’t believe me. It seems that I have finally come across an artistic talent! I asked our Chinese teacher Vanessa for help locating a class where I could learn calligraphy, it’s a very relaxing, beautiful hobby even though I don’t always understand what I’m painting.
The Chosen Ones
After saying my goodbyes to Master Tang who grinned and kept repeating “Goodbye Teacher Ma!” to me in Russian (apparently the older generation of Chinese people learnt Russian at school, not English), I rushed back to my school to judge the final debate team interviews with Sean. I think I have mentioned before that there is a Sichuan-wide debate competition coming up next semester (around April time) in which we will be entering a team. If they win, they can go all the way to America in the summer to compete there which would be incredibly prestigious. So we’ve worked our way through 150 students or so and finally decided on 4. We chose a boy called Tony who we talk to regularly anyway and has incredible fluency due to his regular conversations with Andre (another foreign teacher who has been resident here for 4 years) over the years as well as his immense effort and interest in learning English. We also chose a boy I had been looking forward to seeing again after his initial interview with me. What he lacks in fluency he makes up for in expression and enthusiasm. The two girls we chose are slightly less expressionate but their English levels are impressive; one of the girls is a “Mingzhang”, a member of the special younger class who skipped a grade through junior high and came straight to high school – at the age of 13 her skill is undeniably good.
BRAKE-ing the Language Barrier.
Following that exciting morning and afternoon I then had to get in my Uber to go to my private tutoring class near Petroleum University. On the way there my taxi driver was trying to make conversation with me (he knows a little English), normally most drivers don’t bother as it is difficult for them to dredge up the English they learnt in school. Nevertheless, he was trying and I think that this may have been something to do with the fact his engine kept cutting out as he was driving which resulted in him regularly throwing the brakes on, so he was trying to tell me he would stop at a garage on the way. But since we broke the ice that night (thankfully not the engine), he obviously grew in confidence because when I went for my lesson on Friday night he had downloaded some software on his phone that he spoke into (as he drove, as is the Chinese way) so that it would translate into English. I tried to respond using Baidu translate and we had a very entertaining, if stilted, conversation through our phones. It’s these little exchanges that stay with me longer here. Don’t get me wrong, the sights and food and everything here is amazing but it’s the little exchanges that make my day. Like talking to my mate the taxi man. Or when something unexpected happens in the classroom. For example, this week, in addition to teaching them eye spy, I play a game where I teach them vocab then they have to get up and touch whatever item I shout. It’s great fun because you have 60 Chinese kids elbowing each other out of the way in order to touch a window or a door. The joke was on me though because when I shouted “touch a ring!” I realised that they aren’t allowed to wear jewellery and then found myself engulfed by 60 kids trying to touch the only ring in the room: the one on my hand. There’s also the quiet moments in the class that I find the most rewarding; for example, when I played “See you Alligator” to my kids whilst they played Eye-Spy this week nearly every class has been bobbing and swaying and snapping their fingers or shuffling in their seats and tapping their feet. Some have even been doing jazz hands! Nothing beats cultural exchange, not even the amazing food.
Laowei gotcha (cow) tongue?
Speaking of food! Thanks to our lovely Chinese teacher Vanessa, we got to visit Dujiangyan on Saturday. Vanessa invited us there for hot pot (a very popular Sichuanese dish in which various meats and vegetables are cooked in a hot, spicy broth in the middle of the table), apparently the hot pot we had with her is a very famous one. Guo Mom, the owner and creator of this particular hot pot, met us at the door and showed us to our table (see the illustrious photo she has of herself at the front of restaurant). You know she’s the bees knees because apparently she has also served Vladimir Putin hot pot there too.
On the way there in the car, Vanessa had explained that the distinctive element of this hot pot is that it has less spice than other Sichuanese hot pots and that they add chicken oil, she also taught me the word for chicken oil (jiyo, the word for chicken being jiding). As I saw Guo Mom pouring the chicken oil in I said “Oh, jiyo?” to Vanessa, but before Vanessa could respond Guo Mom chuckled and said something in Chinese which Vanessa translated “You speak textbook Chinese”. To my horror I realised that I must sound like my kids when they give their textbook answer to “how are you?” (“I am fine, and yooooou.” Must be the only sentence the whole of China knows – kind of like us and the French “Je m’appelle”). Seems I’m lacking a Sichuanese accent. Soon many, many plates were brought to our room (which had to be booked in advance thanks to the popularity of the hot pot). As they were added to the pot Vanessa and her lovely husband tried to explain each one (I found out later that her husband was incredibly kind in that he had the foresight to learn the English words for the food we were eating – they both speak English but the words are unusual and so they had to brush up on them). We tried cow tongue, pig throat, donkey, cows stomachs (they have 4 remember? And they’re different! One looked like the kind of worms you put on a baiting hook – tasted fine but the texture will haunt me for a long time), cow intestines, goose liver, duck kidneys, blood curd, duck intestines, ox gastric wall, pig kidneys and some other unusual things. It was delicious although, for the western palate, some of the textures were unnerving. We also got to try a Chinese sweet treat; delicately wrapped in little oblong bamboo leaf parcels was sweet rice which I recommend to anyone whose mouth is on fire from too many Sichuanese peppercorns.
The Irrigation System
After a TWO HOUR delicious hot pot we posed for a photo with the wonderful Guo Mom before Vanessa and her husband kindly dropped us at Dujiangyan’s most famous attraction the Irrigation System.
This irritation system is 3000+ years old, the oldest in the world still to be used. It controls the water of Sichuan, releasing it to prevent drought and holding it to prevent floods, it is indispensable to the region. Like the pyramids, god only knows how they built it all those years ago, but it is one of the best systems in the world even now. Whilst most modern irrigation systems cause harm to wildlife and landscape, this one is built to allow sand, silt and fish through gaps in the walls.
The areas surrounding the Irrigation System (in English its name translates to “bottle neck” since this its shape) were also lovely. Sweet cobbled streets with small stalls both sides lead you to a mountain you can climb and wander round a temple with a lovely view. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to climb it this time around. Which might have been fortuitous since I saw Sean eyeing crossbow and slingshots at the stalls; I hate to think what would happen if you fired a crossbow from the top of the mountain. Maybe you’d hit one of these crazy characters:
All in all, it was a lovely day spent with lovely people.
So that’s all I’ve been up to this week, apart from cuddles with this little tyrant:
As my adult class would say: “See you later, alligator!”