Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But its China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days..

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

Dec 28, 2017

The winter chill in Southern China

Everyone’s cold, all the time

We’ve threatened to do so in the past, and now we’re following through: It’s a vlog series. I hope you enjoy this Uncle’s Short, and the many more to come. And bring a jacket, it’s cold inside.

Dec 12, 2017

Big changes

You may have noticed some changes around here. A new facelift, and Hello Uncle Foreigner is now responsive and mobile-friendly. We are ready for the future!

And the changes are not just cosmetic. We know that the in past few years posting had slowed to slightly more than nothing. Since mid-2015, we were busy moving across the country — twice! — but more than that, Hello Uncle Foreigner entered into a period of rumination. After four years of regular blogging about our daily life, travel, and hot pots, we had reached the end of what we wanted to say on those fronts. We went dormant. And then Peter got sick.

But that doesn’t mean we had given up. During our two-year time out we still worked and traveled and ate hot pot, and refilled our creative reserves. Now, I’m excited to say that Peter is well on the mend, and … we’re back! We’ve got so many new stories to share, and so many different ways in which we want to share them.

First up, we are extremely proud to present, “Hello Uncle Foreigner: America.” Peter and I spent a month of summer 2016 back in the U.S., and basically eating everything in sight. “What’s it like to be back?” was the main question people had for us, and at the time, we struggled with a good answer. More than a year later, I think we can explain how that felt …

We’re very grateful to all of our friends and family who hosted us, partied with us, and just generally showed us a good time. To those who didn’t make the final cut (there was a 45-minute version, but even we were bored by it), just know that you’re too much fun for Peter to waste his time with you behind a camera. And, uh, to those who did make the cut … you’re just too telegenic to leave out!

Our other big news, you’ll have to go elsewhere to find. This summer I spoke with Chengdu rap group Higher Brothers, and you can find my article in the September issue of NYLON magazine. It was great fun to exercise those muscles again: chasing leads, contacting strangers, asking invasive personal questions, and writing and rewriting on deadline. The guys are really talented artists. I don’t know if they’ll successfully cross over to the American market, but I do know that they deserve some attention.

So, keep an eye on this space! There will be many new movies and other projects coming down the pike in the next few months. It’s our goal to join the greater discussion going on about China and Chinese culture, as well as share the fantastic stories that Luzhou (and beyond) has to offer. But mostly we’re just excited to keep pushing ourselves to the limit of what two people, a blog, and some a/v equipment can do.

Nov 21, 2017

“Well, that happened, and that was weird”

Ten weeks in a Chinese hospital

Peter in his wheelchair in the park
The wild man lookFresh as a daisy after a haircut
Left: Peter tools around the park in his new wheelchair.
Right: In the hospital (top) Peter preferred the wild man look. He told me that trimming a beard was a man’s prerogative — when I offered to do it for him. These days, he’s going for a more civilized style (bottom) after a trim at the salon.

Early-August, we had big plans. A website relaunch, video premieres, a podcast, a vacation. And then … Peter’s back started hurting, more than usual. And then, he couldn’t walk. And then, he lost his mind.

Don’t worry, he’s on the mend now. And the hallucinations were only temporary. Years of hard living and not eating enough will take a toll on a body and the brain. Which is how we found out that the doctors at the Luzhou Medical College hospital are fantastic. And ten weeks in LMC hospital is … a lot.

Here’s what you might find in your Chinese hospital room: It’s always loud, and visiting hours are always. You’ve got more roommates than it feels like should be in one room, but at least you weren’t given one of the hallway beds. One of your roommates moans so loudly in his sleep that the other of your roommates — the one with a prosthetic leg — will just up and leave in the middle of the night. The medical care is fine, but orderly service is not included in the price of your bed, so some relatives choose to schelp their own patient’s full bedpan to the bathroom. (Not me. I paid for the help.) Also, you need to provide your own tissues, soap, towels, a basin for washing, and food. There’s no heat or air conditioning because we live south of the Yangtze River. But they will provide blankets. And one pillow.

They sent him home on October 23, and these days we go to outpatient physical therapy three times a week. Peter can do most things for himself, except for walking. But he’s close. Tomorrow, he’s going to try the parallel bars to hold himself up while he gets those legs back in shape, and after that, he’ll get to shuffle down the PT ward’s hallway. It’ll be another month or two, according to Dr. Yu. And then we’ll be back to your irregularly scheduled 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.