Hello Uncle Foreigner

Mar 9, 2017

The easiest border crossing we know

Exploring new areas in Hong Kong

This apartment building was cool enough to stop us.
We thought this apartment building was pretty cool looking, so we stopped for a photo. A local tapped me on the shoulder to point out …

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hong Kong. I was an unrepentant Anglophile, and fascinated by its colonial English roots.

These days, I’m really attracted to spaces that seem caught between two worlds, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to have been to HK a lot. As is well documented, Peter and I have fallen completely for Lamma Island. This most recent trip, however, we stayed for the first time on the Kowloon Peninsula, the northern bit of the city part of Hong Kong. We bunked down in the infamous Chungking Mansion — a commercial building with approximately 5,000 cheap guesthouses crammed into every nook and cranny. Our room was spacious, for a sea voyage, but the price was right.

Kowloon, especially the Kowloon City neighborhood, has a large immigrant community, which means — food from all over! The Indian Curry King, who lived up to his name, was our best meal of the trip. Also serving food was Ebeneezer’s Kebabs & Pizzeria. It’s a good name.

Our unofficial mission for the two-day trip was to track down a Marvel Legends Iron Fist action figure. Peter has been checking our Luzhou Toys “R” Us for months now, to no avail. (And, yeah, Luzhou has a Toys “R” Us now.) We got lost all over the place and at one point ended up at a Ruby Tuesday’s for onion rings. It’s amazing the places a good quest will take you.

In the end, we never found that figure. But we did find Pizza Express! A British chain that serves a pretty decent tomato sauce on their pie. (Their crust could do with a little more time in the oven, but this is pizza in Asia, so we’ll take it.)

The famous Tiger's Head Rock, which needed to be pointed out to us.
… we were missing the real view of Tiger’s Head Rock directly behind us.

Feb 28, 2017

The restaurant business is a tough game

Our corner of the sky goes through some changes

The new gang at New Friends
We’ve met a new gang at New Friends.
Four rivers, for rent
We were sad to stumble upon a Four Rivers that was “for rent.”
We met Dave at Old Friends
Emily, with our friend Dave, outside of Old Friends in busier times.

There’s a corner in Luzhou, behind the supermarket, just on the Changjiang river, where we’ve spent more time than anywhere else. Wrapped around it were two restaurants: Four Rivers and Old Friends. Over our five years here, we split our time between these two places, watching the people, talking about life, making important decisions. And now, they’re gone.

We’ve lost restaurants before. In fact, just opposite that very corner years earlier, that weird churrascaria we liked — with the fresh-brewed German-style beer — turned into a seafood restaurant that we didn’t particularly care for. But these two places were near and dear to our heart, and it was really sad to see them both go, especially just one after the other.

Four Rivers was not called that. But we called it that, after a confusing conversation with a young girl who stopped to chat with us there. It was a well-known place in Luzhou, she and many others told us. They faced out toward the river, and served traditional Sichuan food that was just slightly fancy; our favorites were the corn, and the pork rolls. They also did a great vermicelli and mustard greens soup. With just enough spice.

We went there for my first birthday in China. At that time, just four months in, it was the furthest afield we had ventured, and one of the first meals we had eaten on our own that wasn’t 串串. After we moved out to the countryside, it became a place where we frequently whiled away lazy afternoons post-big city grocery shop. And it was a major stop on our “Is it all still here?”-tour after going there and back again. The staff gave us a friendly 好久不见 that really meant a lot to us. But now, there are for rent signs in the window, and we never did get to try their crawdads.

On the inland side of the corner, we found Old Friends. Their deal was modern Sichuan food for the young and upwardly mobile. The first time we went there, we sat down for lunch and stayed through dinner. We came back again the next day for more. Beautiful spicy chicken wings, oxtail and tomato soup, silky mashed potatoes, pineapple fried rice, and this crudité platter with paper-thin tofu skins that was just fantastic. The chef, we came to learn, had worked in Germany, and was applying the western techniques that he had learned to local dishes.

Because we were there so often — twice a week and most holidays, at the height of our mania — we became friends with the owner, Kristy. She even drove us to the airport when we left for Lijiang. And she’s kept us updated on her goings on, which mitigates the sadness, somewhat. Since we’ve been gone, she placed Old Friends in the hands of her sister to go run a 串串 franchise. She even got a grant from the city government to do so. Oh, and she also runs a successful seafood restaurant that imports shellfish daily from Guangzhou. But Sister’s heart wasn’t in Old Friends, so they made the decision to close down a few months ago. We miss that oxtail soup. But we still have Kristy.

Change doesn’t always mean saying goodbye, however. This Chinese New Year’s Eve, with no plan for the fact that so many restaurants are closed that night (some things don’t change), we found ourselves wandering in the vicinity of our old corner. The lights were on, and people were bustling in and out of the spot where Old Friends used to be. It was a new 串串 place. They gutted the inside of all of Kristy’s hip decor, though they kept the long bench that ran along one side wall, a bench that knows our butts well. We stayed for dinner that night and came back for a lunch the next week. The new owners are wonderfully friendly, and the food is so good we can almost forgive them for not being our old hangout. Among ourselves, we’ve taken to referring to the place as New Friends.

Jan 5, 2017

Santa comes to the MixC

Christmas 2016

This year, I took up the family mantle and played Santa for my new school. We took over the nearby mall for a variety show with singing, dancing and a short play — and because I’m the resident westerner, most of the acts were written, choreographed or conducted by me. Merry Christmas, China!

Nov 11, 2016

Trump steaks

Good job, America

Wednesday afternoon, local time, we watched the news unfolding, and it wasn’t good: Too close to half the American electorate is fine with bigotry and bullying, and supports a man whose freedom of the press policy frankly looks Chinese. It still doesn’t seem real; we feel upended, confused and angry, but outside people are going about their lives as if nothing has happened.

Wednesday night, we gorged our sorrow at the all-you-can-eat buffet that just opened across the street from us. Men came over and toasted with us, kids played hide and seek with us, and a mom took a picture of her baby with us. Not because of the election; they were just having a good time and excited to see some foreigners doing the same.

Since then, we’ve both been devouring coverage. American and British; comedic and serious; MSNBC and not-MSNBC. A local friend (whose wife is in [redacted] government, no less) said, “At least you have the right [to] vote, we do not have.” But I’m still angry. From this vantage point, it looks like racism and fear have won the day.

We’ll always have crab legs. I guess.

Oct 31, 2016

Happy Halloween from Lamma Island

In which we crash a children’s party at the Lamma Grill

We’re settling back into Luzhou nicely, but from time to time we are impelled to make a quick trip over to Hong Kong for paperwork. These days, of course, when we’re in Hong Kong, we’re on Lamma Island.

Having some time to kill Wednesday afternoon, we stopped in at the lovely Lamma Grill — where a children’s Halloween party broke out around us. “I did warn you,” said Caroline, the Grill’s owner, as children in costume descended upon us. But it was fun to see all these third-culture kids — some with their parents, some with their nannies — take part in an international celebration of CANDY!

My favorite overheard moment was a British kid in a ghost costume quizzing the bartender.

Kid: What are you supposed to be?

Bartender: A clown

Kid: You’re not very funny, are you?

Sep 13, 2016

Home for the (hot, hot) summer

And it’s time to pay the bills

Our Luzhou high rise

Take a video tour of our new apartment complex in Luzhou.

We’re going on our sixth year in China, but this is actually the first time that we’ve spent an August in Luzhou. Previously, we’d always arranged to travel during this month — or move cities entirely — because locals assured us that August is unbearable.

Having lived it this year, I can report that “unbearable” seems strong. But between the heat and humidity, it is, like, three-shower-a-day weather. Showers seemed like the best solution, given that this, our first August in Luzhou, is also our first August in Luzhou that we are paying our own electric bill.

It feels good to pay our own electric bill, though. It feels good to be in charge of all of our own utilities ‘n’ stuff, actually. After living the life of a kept pet on campus at Tianfu Middle School for our first four years, it feels like we have more of a grown-up life. Like we’ve graduated.

But renting in China is not really at all like it is in America. In fact, renting in Luzhou is not even like renting in Lijiang. And moreover, we know from our initial online research, how we do it out west is different from what goes on in Beijing and in Shanghai. Yeah, we’re one country/one timezone and all that, but regionality isn’t going away.

Let’s talk Lijiang. Our apartment there was in a small complex on the edge of the city — goats were our neighbors — and it was beautifully furnished. Our friends lived in the same complex, and they spotted the landlord’s phone number on a “For rent” sign on the apartment window. We handed over a year’s rent, plus two months’ deposit, and then didn’t see our landlord until we moved out a year later. (When she gave us back slightly less than out two months’ deposit, because we had burnt a hole in her couch with a space heater.)

As far as utilities went, every three months, the guard at the front gate of our housing complex would flag us down to pay our water and electric bill. And every six months, he’d add in the maintenance fee. In his little hut, I’d pay the property manager — who was just kind of always hanging about — then sign my name in the book and get my receipt. Propane for the stove was delivered by a man on a motorbike strapped up with way too many tanks; we’d just call in an order when we were running low. And phone and internet were taken care of in one yearly payment at the China Telecom store. All of this was done in big, fat wads of cash, by the way.

We were so proud to figure all this out. Now we know how the Chinese go about the business of living!

And then, in Luzhou, none of that applies. We found our wonderfully spacious apartment here through a broker who went to school with one of my coworkers. This apartment is also furnished, with pieces that are just slightly not falling apart. (In fairness, yesterday the landlord installed a brand new light fixture in our living room — because the old one had blown up.) And rent is payed quarterly.

Electricity — we have a little card that we can put money on at any bodega that has a State Grid sign out front. There’s one pretty close to our apartment, and we just re-up whenever we’re running low. For our internet and phone bill, we go into the China Telecom store once a month to 交费 (pay the fee). Water and maintenance are also monthly, at the property office at our apartment complex; but because more than 2,000 people live in our complex, it’s up to us to remember to go in. Gas for our stove and hot water heater … we haven’t figured out how to pay our gas bill yet, but I think that I saw someone do it at our grocery store.

One thing is the same, though: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

Actually … another thing that is the same is that because this is just the way that everybody does it, no one really offers to explain how any of this works. It’s so basic, they just assume that you know. (Even though it’s all done differently a province over.) For example, here’s how I figured out how to pay the Luzhou electricity bill: My landlord handed over the card. My coworker said, “I think you can 交费 at that supermarket.” That supermarket said, “We don’t do it here. But maybe you can go to the bank.” And then, walking around our complex, I noticed a little store that had a small sign that matched the logo on my card. And now I just know to look for the sign, and I never have to think about it again.

In this RPG we call China, it’s all part of the … life, I guess.

Jul 5, 2016

Five years in China!

A video scrapbook

Five years in China from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

In September, we will have been in China for five years!

When we first got on that plane, oh so long ago, we had no idea what to expect. But our time here has been filled with good friends, delicious food, wacky students, and exciting adventures. Enjoy this video scrapbook of our “DVD extras,” scenes from Luzhou, Lijiang, Chengdu, Vietnam, Thailand, and some of the smaller villages in and around those places.

Jun 15, 2016

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Let’s make some zongzi with the grannies

Jun 14, 2016

It’s Luzhou ... we’ve moved back to Luzhou

We wish to see the world

Homecoming from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Summer 2015 brought us to a crossroads. It was the end of our fourth consecutive year of teaching at Tianfu and, according to Linda, Chinese law says that we were due a break. We could teach somewhere else, we could even come back in a year, but we couldn’t stay at Tianfu.

And personally, we were wondering if it wasn’t time to explore a whole new city. I mean, if we had to find a new job anyway … and what were the chances that Luzhou — where we landed arbitrarily, on a job offer from a friend of a friend — was really the best place for us in all of China? For years, we’d been publicly planning on relocating to Kunming, and every year that we didn’t, we kind of worried that maybe we couldn’t. After hoisting ourselves all the way across the ocean from the U.S. to China, maybe we were stuck and getting stucker in the first place ever to offer us a warm bed and a hot pot.

It was time, we felt, to either move for real or truly commit to Luzhou. And we chose to move. Although, like a true Chinese plan, we submit to a last minute change and chose Lijiang as our new destination. And we had a great year. (Well, 10 months if you’re counting.) We learned a lot, met new people, saw new things, basked in Western-style comfort. We’ll tell you all about it in entries to come. But … it never felt like home.

I started joking-not-joking pretty early on that “if things don’t work out, we could always go back to Linda/Luzhou.” But we gave it our all, and it was fun until it wasn’t. Then Peter came on board and it turned out I wasn’t joking after all.

In the meantime, Linda hired someone else! Which was great, because then I found someplace else: i2 — a growning, Chengdu chain of training schools that was looking to expand to Luzhou.

So, we’re back … and I guess we’re lucky enough that we got to choose both moving and committing to Luzhou. We’ve been back about a month, and seen old friends and made new ones. And we’re really looking forward to everything this latest chapter will bring.

May 26, 2016

Sitting on the porch, watching the sunset

Intermittent vlog #1

Lijiang Thoughts from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

There was a lovely little youth hostel near our Lijiang apartment — the House & White Lakeside Lodge — where we loved to go hang out when we had free time. They had cold beers, a piano, and a porch that overlooked the reservoir. It was a great place to spend the evening and think about life.