Hello Uncle Foreigner

culture

Apr 16, 2018

TV star or teaching, Foreigners in China can no longer have it all

Also, don’t hit kids ... c’mon now!

In my life, I keep getting on TV kind of by accident. It started when I was a small baby, and my mom through a wedding party for Luke and Laura that was covered by our local news. You may have heard that it’s really easy to get on TV as a foreigner in China, and that’s pretty much true … but to actually make a career of it is no longer as easy as it once was. I find it much less challenging to find teaching work, and then let the cameras come to me :).

My latest work is a cameo in a PSA against child abuse in Chinese schools. I’m a big supporter of the cause, and my colleague called me and said, “They want to film you playing with the kids. Can you come to school a little early? It’s sunny now, so we need to do it NOW!” Luzhou sun is very fickle. It’s actually just for the school’s moms and dads, but one of our parents works at a local production house, so even the school’s in-house promos are pretty well produced.

This video kicks off a series this week exploring what it’s like to live and teach in China these days. Fame, or the struggle for it, is just one aspect to life abroad. You can watch the whole “Teachers Exist in China” playlist over on YouTube, and we’ll be posting them here on Uncle Foreigner every day through Friday.

Apr 7, 2018

Haircuts in China while curly

I've started letting other people touch my hair

In China, watch on YouKu.

As a curly-haired girl, I’ve gotten a lot of bad haircuts in my life from hairdressers who just didn’t understand that I didn’t want to blow my hair out every day and live life like a straight-haired person. No. It’s going to curl, it’s going to fluff, and it’s going to frizz unless you treat it right. When I lived in New York, I found a stylist in Tribeca who got it, and paid her every penny she asked for.

I remember the last haircut I got before I left for China, and I remember giving the girl (a different girl in Brooklyn, who was also quite good but significantly cheaper) the absurd instruction that I was leaving New York for good, so I needed a haircut that would grow out gracefully. And then I didn’t get another professional haircut for five years.

I hate the feeling of hair on my neck, though, so for those five years I would either wear it up every day, or give myself the old palm tree cut over the toilet. It wasn’t great, but my foreign-ness was so distracting that people told me I was beautiful anyway.

The thing keeping me from going to a Chinese salon was that old fear of a straight-hair biased barber, and the fact that I didn’t feel confident in my Chinese. Problem two was solved on a trip to Hong Kong last year, when I got my hair cut by a Lamma Island barber. As he cut, he told me all about growing up on Lamma Island. His English was really good; he said he just picked it up over the years from his English-speaking clients.

With that threshold crossed, I just started bringing pictures to the salon — like you’d do in America anyway.

On my latest visit, the stylist gave me Chinese boy-style #5 — girls do wear their hair short here, but she didn’t quite achieve the curly, feminine pixie I showed her. But the cut itself was an enjoyable experience. And like I say in the video, it was the same price as a men’s haircut!

Mar 26, 2018

Toys R Us China, still going strong

We still had to order Iron Fist on Amazon, though

Our latest Special Report looks at some of the hubbub around the closure of Toys R Us — which here in Luzhou is nil, because Toys R Us is still open. Babies gotta have their toys. Toys R Us has actually been a big part of our China life, because Peter likes to hunt out the Marvel Legends figures. In addition to Toys R Us Luzhou, we’ve been to two in Chengdu, one in Shenzhen and at least two in Hong Kong. It’s actually given me some insight into the appeal of collecting as a hunt, rather than an act of acquisition.

That being said, we also recently figured out you can find Marvel Legends figures on Taobao for cheap.

In the video, we also go into the Bret Michaels Effect, which may explain why so many people are heartbroken by the loss of a corporation, and give you the scuttlebutt on what other western chains are coming soon to Luzhou. It wasn’t until we shot this video that I realized that the Starbucks was going in right across from Mix C — home to our beloved Peter’s Tex Mex — and next to the Dairy Queen.

It’s weird to think that just five years ago we had trouble consistently finding sliced bread.

Mar 23, 2018

Finding a cure for the common cold

Or, a much less traumatic experience with Chinese healthcare

In the past year, I’ve been getting pretty comfortable with the clinic two blocks from my house. The doctor there has a better hit rate than the pharmacy, and she works really hard. She’s there all day, so she has to do a bit of living out in public; When I went in for a follow-up visit recently, she was doing an afternoon mud mask.

Anyway, check out the video above to see what a basic visit to the Chinese clinic is like.

Mar 10, 2018

Happy Lantern Festival

A time for dragon dancing

I started a job at a new school this term, and my first official duty was to perform as the head of the dragon for the teachers’ dragon dance on Lantern Festival. It was a whole thing. I had been sick with a cold for weeks, so the dance nearly killed me, but it was a fun way to meet the kids. Now they love me!


Mar 1, 2018

Hip hop is banned in China, kind of

Be careful where you get your news, also the Internet used to be better

Fat Shady performs at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014
Fat Shady (black T and cap) and friends performed at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014.

Our latest video (you can find it below) was inspired by the news in late January that a Chinese government body issued a ban on hip hop culture and tattoos on state TV. For a really good summary and analysis of just-the-facts before you dive into what I think, Feichang Fresh has a great video.

Current events aren’t usually our deal, but Peter and I have been seeking out new music – hip hop and otherwise – in China since we landed. We were proud to discover that Chengdu has been an incubator of China’s rap scene for many years. I even interviewed the scene’s breakout stars, Higher Brothers, for a magazine article this summer. So the Time.com headline “’Tasteless, Vulgar and Obscene.’ China Just Banned Hip-Hop Culture and Tattoos From Television” definitely caught our eye.

But our video was also inspired by our own experiences of keeping in touch with America through the distorted lens that is the Web 2.0: a meme-ified news stream that features kids eating soap just alongside your cousin graduating college and the U.S. president giving all schoolteachers guns, whether they want them or not.

(“What is eating a Tide pod supposed to do?” Peter asked me, baffled that this generation’s experiments with household cleaners has nothing to do with trying to get high.)

China bans hip hop. China bans Winnie the Pooh. China bans time travel. You can state these facts – they’re all essentially true. But what does any of that really mean?

(Tide pods look like cake, right? That’s why kids are eating them?)

Peter and I, with our video, hope that we can share some context about the Chinese ban-hammer and what that means for free expression in China.

In the video, I end on a somewhat 没办法 (Eh, what can you do?) note. It’s a struggle in this global existence. What can one person do against the entrenched systems of the world?

However, because I do read more than my Facebook feed, I know that that’s not reality. Incredible activists all over the world are stepping up and making change. Black Lives Matter, the Parkland students. But it’s a frustratingly slow process. And one that’s prone to misinterpretation and oversimplification in the retelling.

In a story on “#metoo in China,” published just after news of the “hip hop ban” broke, The Elephant Room blog looked at some of the people fighting for women’s equality over here. It does not look the same as it does in western countries, but nevertheless, they persist. But, as ER notes, most coverage in the U.S. focused more on the “censorship in Big, Bad China” angle than the activism against sexual harassment. “‘Censorships[sic]? Of course,’ Qiqi [one of the movement’s activists] laughs, ‘but so? By now we all know that’s inevitable for any social movement in China. For us, censorship is part of progress, not the end of the story.’”

That’s the story I want to read. How do you keep at it and effect change – and people do – when mainstream avenues of communication are closed to you? What a powerful idea! But it’s not easily meme-able (and it’s logistically challenging for western reporters to access), so it doesn’t get as much press.

So let’s fix the media.

Back when I worked at a newspaper, in the mid-2000s, we published a columnist whom the media insiders looked down upon as a graspy, fame-seeking hack. It was a dating column, post-“Sex and the City,” so … . There were daily updates about her behavior on Gawker (this was way back, when Gawker was still somewhat devoted to actual intra-media coverage). And within our newsroom, there was constant discussion of how terrible she was. There was even, for a time, a lay person’s website devoted to anonymously hating on her every public move.

The column was not great, but it was super popular. In fact, rather than letting her go because she wasn’t up to our standards, she left us for bigger and better pastures. She’s now … not so famous that you’ve heard of her, but she’s been on cable TV. A lot.

Honestly, I think this woman worked hard to get where she is. If our paper had passed on her, she would have found opportunity somewhere else. But we disrespected her writing and we published her anyway. Because the readers ate it up.

Stupid readers. Let’s fix you.

You’re a citizen of the Internet, the training is out there: Read more than the headline. Check your sources. Open your mind to narratives that challenge your worldview. Consider that the push structure of social media is manipulated and not reflective of the world as it actually is.

To put it another way: if we only click and share the Times’ shock-jock op-ed denying climate change – in outrage or in support – that’s all anyone is going to publish. And we’ve done the Russians’ job for them.

(So, let’s fix the Russians?)

We’re all weary of the hegemony of outrage, but someone keeps clicking on it. Stop it. And maybe make something yourself. After all, it’s easier to replace a bad habit than to quit cold turkey!

I really think this might be something: Make stuff. Make anything you truly care about. Write it, paint it, dance it – whatever gets what’s in your heart out in to the world. The stuff that is meaningful to you is going to be compelling, even if it’s not objectively good. This will have three effects.

As creators, people will engage on their own terms with media literacy. You can scroll past countless NPR articles on how to tell the difference between real and fake news, but if you’re telling stories yourself, you’ll have a real stake in how narratives are created. You’ll be able to tell an out-of-context quote from a mile away.

Additionally, maybe we can drown out the fakers and liars and fear-mongers and put something good out in the world. I’m not going to lie; it takes a lot of effort to fight the incredible pessimism I feel every day. There’s a lot happening in the world right now that I feel powerless to affect. But what got me here was getting out of bed anyway and writing something that made me laugh. Filming something that felt true to me. And maybe some bored millennial will choose my silly video instead of one with the “hot take” that maybe racism is natural after all.

Thirdly, if we’re all creating our weird little projects and putting them online, maybe we can make the Internet interesting again. Maybe the real inspiration for all these one thousand words is that in the past few years, all of my favorite sites have shut down. The Toast doesn’t even have archives up anymore. There have been a lot of factors making me really feel my age these days (seeing your face blown up in HD will do that), so I’m just going to say it: When I was a kid, the Internet was way cooler. ’Cause it was just a bunch of random crap that people were passionate about.

So make something, darn it. And I will, too. If the rappers in Chengdu can do it …

Feb 21, 2018

Happy New Year: We stayed home!

Welcome year of the Dog

We’re smack in the middle of Chinese New Year, and we’ve mostly been ordering take out and otherwise hibernating. It’s been wonderful. The weather is turning warmer, and maybe we’ll even get outside again soon. But for now, we’re indoor dogs.

Feb 15, 2018

The case for closed captioning

More accessibility, bigger audience

So we’re kind of jokey about it in the video, but the fact is we really did spend weeks talking about closed captioning and translations. And we did come up with something of a captioning policy, which bled over into our social media strategy. This discussion is going to get a little dry, so if you prefer messing around to analysis, just watch the video.

Firstly, the factors we considered:

  • Getting those sweet, sweet Facebook views. Like it or not, Facebook has steamrolled the rest of the internet into taking its own form. And, am I right that no one turns the volume up?
  • When we provide free content for Facebook, is there a possibility of return for us? Seems like: No.
  • According to the BBC, 35% of their online audience turns on captioning.
  • Hello Uncle Foreigner’s mission is to increase and strengthen connections between English-speaking and Chinese cultures. But we don’t speak great Chinese, yet.
  • We pay our translator, because she is performing a valuable skill and we believe that the “everything is free” mentality of the internet has tricked us all into selling all of our personal information in exchange for worse and more recycled content every day.
  • Hello Uncle Foreigner does not make any money at all. We love doing it and hope one day to score our own Netflix deal, but these days it’s a labor of love that costs us money to run.
  • Uncle’s Shorts are designed to be as friction-free to post as possible. The key to growing your YouTube audience is regular posting, and once we get all those subscribers, Netflix will come a’knocking, right?
  • YouTube as a publishing platform has its issues, but at least it’s not destroying democracy.
  • YouTube auto-captioning is hilarious but fixable — and way easier than transcribing by hand.
  • In about a month and a half of analysis, our videos get more and better quality engagement (i.e., people actually watch the darn thing) when they are posted to YouTube over Facebook. And as much as we loved Vimeo, no one was watching them over there.

If you watched “America for Foreigners”, you may have noticed that we had English and Chinese burned into the screen; there was no escaping our captions in either language. This was inspired by Chinese streaming services, which do the same for American television shows posted to Tudou and the like. We’ve heard it’s actually a useful language learning tool seeing L1 and L2 right next to each other. In lucky artistic happenstance, it helped support the point that your home country is a strange land to millions of other people on this earth. Unfortunately, it also added full days onto post-production.

So our current working strategy is this: Videos will be primarily posted to YouTube, with links posted to Facebook. Occasionally, we will post teasers to Facebook … to lure people to our YouTube channel. We will let YouTube to the heavy lifting of auto-captioning in English, and then cleaning up their weird mistakes — with priority given to videos featuring non-native speakers of English. We want to do them the courtesy of having their words represented correctly, no matter what kind of applesauce YouTube makes of it. Uncle’s Shorts will not be translated; our goal is to post at least one a week, and we have neither the time nor the money in the budget to translate at that rate. (Sorry, Milan!) But, longer, more important projects will feature Milan’s Chinese translations.

What do you think? Go to YouTube and tell us. Because our current Uncle Foreigner commenting policy is: Nope. But that’s a discussion for a different day.

Jan 24, 2018

New job, new work permit

The paperwork just keeps coming

After the Chinese New Year holiday, I’m starting a new job. I’m really excited about it — no more evenings and weekend classes, and only one lesson prep per week! (My current job is only nights and weekends, and I have 24 preps per week.) But one thing that jolts me out of my sleep in the middle of the night is the transfer of my work permit. Chinese paperwork freaks me out, mostly because its something that is largely out of my control. The relevant offices will stamp my piece of paper when they get to it, and there’s not that much I can do about it.

Compounding my anxiety this past weekend was the U.S. government shutdown. What does that mean for my documents? Will I run out of time? Will I have to get Peter to Lamma Island in a wheelchair?! I know that worrying doesn’t help, but my limbic system is determined to try.

But, instead of spiraling into a full-on panic attack, I channeled that energy into “Uncle’s Shorts #2: Gimme my Chinese work permit, already!”

And then the U.S. government opened back up the next day, so that’s one obsticle down. Worrying works!

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.