Hello Uncle Foreigner


Oct 8, 2014

Video: Hello, Uncle Foreigner!

What if we were living a sitcom?

Hello, Uncle Foreigner from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Josh Pike, “Clovis’ Son.”

We bought a new camera. Can you tell?

Oct 6, 2014

Video: Impressions of Luzhou

About town, 3 years

An original Whoop Wu production. Original score by Peter Sikoski (with some familiar voices).

Oct 2, 2014

The Dragon’s Eyes are ripe

And there’s no escaping them

Emily-the-model poses in Zhongba Woods
We went for a photo shoot in the Longan Forest. This tree is more than 100 years old.

Longan fruit — a cousin of the lychee — is a Luzhou specialty, and they’ve recently come into season. Also known as the dragon eye fruit, these little fleshy baubles grow on trees all over the countryside around here, and when it’s time, farmers and salespeople cart them into the city by the bushel. You can buy them in the markets and from the street vendors, even along the highway. And, really, you don’t even need to buy them.

It started a few weeks ago when the owner’s young daughter at Around the Corner restaurant showered us with handfuls of the fruit upon our arrival.
Later that evening, we were small talking with some fellow diners and one asked us if we had eaten any longans yet. His buddy pointed at our piles and said, they have some right now, you goof!

Since then, our local shop owners, friends, and strangers keep sending us away with arms filled with the fruits. Last weekend, our photographer friend brought us out for a photo shoot in the park near the school. (Oh yeah, we’re models in China.) The Zhongba Woods Park is a landscaped upgrade of a hundreds-years-old longan forest, and our friend took many, many pictures of us picking, eating, and throwing the fruit. We fed each other the fruit, we posed with other park goers whose arms were also full of fruit, we avoided bees that were fat and drunk on the fruit. And we somehow went home with more longans than we started with.

The thing is, we don’t really love longan fruit. The actual meat is succulent and tasty, but thanks to a tough outer skin it’s a lot of work to get at, and each piece has only a little bit that’s edible. But the whole city is excitedly celebrating the longan fruit season, and it is fun to be a part of that.

Aug 12, 2014

Snaps: The Guitar Lesson

The best way to learn is by teaching

Crela teaches Echo some things she learned on the guitar
Our friend Crela, left, has just had her first guitar lesson with Peter, and now she’s showing what she’s learned to our other friend Echo.

Something we hear a lot from our students and friends is that they’d love to learn guitar, but their teachers, parents, et al., agree that there’s no time and it would be distracting from their school work. But! Once high school is over and the high marks are in on the all important gaokao, the kids are allowed some measure of free time. And then, they finally get to pick up that guitar.

Jul 9, 2014

Happy birthday, Mr. Hu

Stopping by the bar on a summer evening

We toast Mr. Hu, the birthday boy
Here comes the birthday cake

We dallied outside Chinese Bar for a few minutes before going inside; though it’s called Chinese Bar, it’s actually a restaurant with a closing time of 9:30, but they serve the best rice wine in fun little ceramic bowls. At nine o’clock, there were still plenty of people eating, so we went for it.

Up on the second floor, we settled in a few tables over from a large party. We ordered our regular small carafe of 米酒, and one of the woman from the other table approached us. I am from Tianfu Middle School, she told us in English, we are having a birthday party for our friend and we invite you to sit with us. And thus our nightcap turned into party time.

Mr. Hu, the husband of a history teacher from our school, was turning 52. The group included some Tianfu junior school teachers — some of them who taught one of Peter’s classes — and politics teachers from other schools. We caught them at the tail end of their dinner, but our arrival occasioned a new round of toasting. They were drinking the good stuff, Moutai, and they were considerate enough to pour us small sips, as that stuff is potent!

After the cake, it was time for karaoke. Here’s the thing about KTV: I always find the most boring part is when I’m not singing, but being a guest at these kinds of events, I don’t want to hog the mic either. Peter, on the other hand, doesn’t sing and hates all of it. But it’s the default of socializing here, so we both get it together and do what we need to do. And we had a lot of fun with our new friends. And we left, before things got too wild.

Jun 20, 2014

See our desk, see our desk!

And all the rest…

Our new desk, at home
The delivery truck
All packed up and ready to go.

Instead of an apartment, we bought a desk. To replace the precariously wobbly glass table that our computer had been living on for the past two years.

We bought it out at the Southwest Trading Center of China mall, which now has actual stores in it. Arranging for delivery was ridiculously easy. “Is today OK?” the shop clerk offered. “Like, right now?” The movers drove us and our new treasures home in their pickup truck, and blammo, new home office.

Jun 19, 2014

Apartment hunting in the countryside

You’ll pay extra, but that river view is fantastic

In 2012, the construction was just beginning
In 2012, the construction was only beginning its invasion of our countryside campus.
The golf cart takes you through the incomplete housing estateYuzixi International Community is sprouting up across the street from our schoolLooking at the property
Yuzixi International Community is a nearly completed condo development across the street from the school.
The incomplete bottom of the buildingPut on your booties
Our tour guide walked us through an active construction site to the show apartments. We were provided with booties, right, for cleanliness.
With real western toiletIt's a kitchenThe show apartment living roomThe show apartment bedroom
The show apartments were way classy.

The area around the New School has been subject to intense development over the past two years. What was once hilly countryside has been levelled, and is now home to luxury condos!

The afternoon that we made our fourth year official, in the mood for adventure, we took a detour to the “Yuzixi International Community” across the main road from the school. We were actually drawn by a sign advertising a bar/restaurant, which turned out to be just for show, but the management office had a scale model of the planned finished development and an army of helpful young women selling condos. So we joined a tour.

“Are you looking to buy today?” our guide asked us as we rode the golf cart across the grounds to the model apartments. She didn’t seem too bothered that we weren’t. The show condos were on the 7th-ish floor, in a building that was still actively under construction. (It was hard to keep count, as some of the flights of stairs were actually make-shift ladders.) But the apartments themselves were beautiful.

A luxury apartment on the outskirts of a prefecture-level city in China will run you between 780,000-1,280,000 RMB, we found, depending on the size. (That’s US$125,468-$205,897.) The larger apartment has two master bedrooms and one small bedroom — perfect for a couple, their parents and their one kid.

The most surprising thing about our visit was discovering that, if we stopped traveling and just saved for a few years, we could actually afford a down payment. It’s really more space than we need, though, so we probably won’t.

The condos have stolen our river view

Jun 14, 2014

The victory lap

Leveling up in Luzhou

The kids and us at Egg Bar, with the boss
Our buddies at Egg Bar, in Tai’an
Briefly, there were hot dogs
Sadly, after a strong opening, the hot dog guys fell prey to a decline in quality and we haven’t actually seen them in a few weeks.
The Luzhou pig cakeTaste that savory meat
猪儿粑, or Pig Cake, is a delicious Luzhou specialty that our friend Listening introduced us to earlier this year.
Post-flood Yangtze RiverThe river walk today
Left: One month after the 2012 flood, makeshift tea houses reclaimed the crumbled banks of Yangtze Riverfront. Right: These days, the walk along the river has been greatly spiffed up.
Far-away-hot-potThe crew of far-away-hot-pot
Far-away-hot-pot has some truly delicious meatballs.
At Chinese Bar with Claude and MaybellDownstairs Chinese Bar
After a spicy meal at far-away-hot-pot, we love to stop at Chinese Bar for an old-fashiony night cap.
The kids at Around the Corner restaurantSome buddies at Snaggles'More young friendsA friend on the road
We’ve made all kinds of friends out in the village of Tai’an.
The old, rickety carnival by the riverShiny, new Spirits Land
Left: The old carnival by the river; right: The rollercoaster at Spirits Land
Is it a Transformer?The X-Men branded swings at Spirits Land
At Spirits Land, everything looks a little familiar.

A new vendor appeared at the bottom of the hill behind the Old School in early April. Next to the ladies selling dumplings, cold noodles, and fried 串串 snacks, two young guys set up the Little Bear Hot Dog stand. And their efforts were delicious: Perfectly savory dogs — the Chinese tube meats we’d come across before tend towards the sweet — on homemade buns served with pickles and real French’s mustard (“It’s American, just like you!” said the guy in the mask, in Chinese). We quickly made Little Bear part of our Old Campus routine. And joked to each other that this represented a huge level up in our ongoing RPG of a life. “Achievement unlocked: American-style hot dog.”

As spring progressed, it felt like less of a joke. Luzhou is changing and we are changing, and everything feels a bit more comfortable. For maybe the first two years, I’d look back every few months and think, “I have no idea how we even survived without the knowledge and experience that I’ve just gained. We were such ignorant fools until now!” But recently, so slowly that I’ve barely noticed, my mindset has become, “Hey, we’re doing pretty well these days. China’s awesome and we’re awesome!” Some of that’s due to small things, that are really more Luzhou’s doings than our own, mostly having to do with what gets stocked in the imports section at at the supermarket. There was even butter, for a short while.

But, we’re the ones who’ve found the fun at far-away-hot-pot and Chinese Bar. Far-away-hot-pot is our latest hot pot find: A place that does it up Chongqing-style, located 15-minutes in the direction away from the city center from our Old Campus apartment (hence our name for it), right on the Yangtze River. It has a beautiful view, a friendly staff and fantastic meatballs. We introduced it to our friends Maybell and Claude, and they too really liked it. Chinese Bar is the actual name of an historically themed Chinese restaurant, where the waiters dress in old fashioned river worker costumes and we drink rice wine out of ceramic bowls. Both establishments seem to be where the young and cool of Luzhou hang out. And now, it’s where we hang out, too.

We’ve also established ourselves out in Tai’an, chatting often with both the locals and the many construction workers who are in town to make this little hamlet into a city. I’m working pretty hard on my Mandarin, and these conversations are more in depth than ever before. People are starting to accuse me of speaking the local dialect, even.

The lovely spring weather has seen us get out and about nearly every weekend — whether to destinations remote and spectacular, like the Bamboo Sea, or far flung corners of Luzhou city, like Spirits Land. Spirits Land is the English translation of Luzhou’s new amusement park. According to Listening, Crela and Echo, after the flood of 2012 wiped out the scrappy old rides by the river, the city carved out a space to rebuild all that kind of thing on the outskirts of town. When we visited, mid-May, the park was only half complete, but 100% safer looking than the river carnival had been. The new park had multilingual signage in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French and English; and willy-nilly copyright infringement: The Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket were places to buy snacks, X-Men characters festooned the “Hurricane Fly Chairs”; and good-old Mickey ears sat atop the entry ticket booth.

During all this travel and fun, Peter and I talked constantly about our upcoming move, and how much we were going to miss Luzhou. The more we reveled in our first Chinese hometown, the more fiercely attached we felt to it. One afternoon, in conversation with our boss, we successfully floated the theoretical idea of a raise. “What if we stayed?” we started wondering.

After the first time that was voiced, it didn’t take too long for our “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour to turn into a campaign advocating for “Bonus Year in Luzhou.” Over lunch at corner restaurant (we call it that, because it’s on a corner) we called our boss Linda to sign on for another year. “God bless you,” she said.

Kunming will still be there in 2015, and we’ve finally found our footing here. So we’re staying, to revel in our achievements and to enjoy the comforts we’ve worked so hard for. Bonus round: GO!

An afternoon at Baizitu

Apr 25, 2014

Snaps: Crosstown traffic

You gotta get where you’re going

This baby stops traffic

Traffic is notoriously terrible here in China, but locals of all ages take it in stride.

Apr 19, 2014

Return to Longan Forest

A walk in the (now finished) park

The longan forest park is very big and beautiful
A pavillion with a tea houseWedding photos
In China, wedding photos are a big, multi-day production and you can get them done anytime, any place, in many different costumes. The big white dress is not traditional here, but more and more popular as China looks to the west for style tips.

Early April in Luzhou is that sweet spot between the cold, rainy winter and the relentlessly sweltering summer — I guess you call that spring — so during that time, it’s priority for us to get out into that sweet, sweet sunshine as much as we can. This year’s Qingming Festival gave us a three-day weekend at the beginning of the month, and Peter and I (and hundreds of Luzhou families) took advantage of our holiday Monday to visit the Longan Forest Scenic Area, which is just a short walk from our countryside campus.

Our first visit to the park was more than a year ago, when it was still under construction. It’s finished now, and really pretty — all manicured greenery and delightful garden paths. It’s big, too. We spent hours walking the hilly grounds from end to end, and it was a 30 kuai cab ride back to our neighborhood afterwards. (Generally, a taxi from the city center out to the new school is half that.)

When the walking started to become more tiring than fun, we stopped at a tea house for a flowery cuppa. Now a stationary target, we attracted bunches of children who wanted to show off their English and parents who wanted to show their kids foreigners. It’s all part of the job.

Water everywhereA man-made waterfall