Hello Uncle Foreigner

culture

Dec 14, 2013

Snaps: The box it came in is always more fun

The bustle of Tai An

This kid found a lovely new hat.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An. Our favorite spot is a place we’ve dubbed Egg Bar (which was formerly Old Man Bar) because the proprietress sells eggs as well as beer. We like it there primarily for the dumplings, but also for its perfect view of the busy little alleyway.

Nov 30, 2013

The return of Hank and Summer

Our first friends show us a new place

Hank and Summer treated us to a Mid-Autumn Festival feast.

After 2+ years in Luzhou — plus, now, gallivanting around the countryside — Peter and I feel like we know our city pretty well. I know where to buy the good beers, how to go to the doctor, and where and how to get dry cleaning done. We’ve got friendly relationships with shopkeepers and restaurant owners all over town, and I can tell cabdrivers how to take the short cut to our home.

But by no means are we experts. As we repeatedly have to learn.

We’ve recently reconnected with Hank and Summer (our very first friends in China!), and they knocked down a presumption that we were absolutely sure was correct: There is no live music in Luzhou. (Other myths we’ve invented about Luzhou-ites: They don’t buy canned food. OK, they do, but they don’t have can openers. The corn is terrible here. Maybe the stuff the street vendors sell is leftover cattle feed. They don’t eat chicken eggs, only duck eggs. They don’t have garbage bags. They adhere strictly to the one-child policy. And so on … We now know that we know nothing.)

They treated us to a National Day dinner, with their other friends Fayla, a local piano teacher, and her boyfriend Sid, a Pakistani student at the Medical College. (Not from the terrorist part, he assured us, after Hank made a joke about bombs.) But the real action happened after dinner, when they took us to their friend’s wine bar — real wine being another thing we assumed didn’t exist in Luzhou — where a live band played rock standards and backed up karaoke singers from the audience. Summer didn’t sing; she had done so previously and garnered a less than lukewarm reception. “No one would look me in the eye,” was her recollection. Apparently, this audience took their singing of other people’s songs seriously! But, undaunted, Fayla and I each took a turn, and Peter jumped on guitar to play along with China’s favorite song, “Country Roads.”

I'm singing!Hank is arm wrestling!Peter is playing guitar!The host is auctioning off a bottle of wine!

And music wasn’t the only fun. In between sets, a vibrant host took the stage, working the audience and giving away bottles of wine and beer. Then there was the arm wrestling competition. Hank was our table’s champion, showing off some surprisingly spectacular guns even as he lost.

It was a little like being one one of those crazy Chinese variety shows that dominate the airwaves here, and definitely a new experience for us. So, yeah, even a small city way out in the bumbles of western China still holds some surprises. Which is awesome, because we still have another year here.

Oct 9, 2013

Snaps: Waiting for the bus

Are you gonna go my way?

Oh, just waiting for the bus by the side of the highway

On our first intercity bus trip, we were astonished that the bus stopped in an area very much like this to let some passengers off. “This is a highway!” we said. “This is not a place to stop!”

But, actually, turns out there are legitimate city bus stops all along the highway. This is where we catch the bus out to the little countryside village where we eat dinner from time to time. Surprised drivers — not expecting westerners out here — call out hello to us as they pass by. “Keep your eyes on the road! Not on us!” we answer back.

Jul 30, 2013

Deeper into the countryside

Luzhou continues to offer fun and adventure

Our first time at Egg Bar!
Just waiting for the bus on the highwayA little guy in the hill by the highwayMore little guys in the hill by the highway
A narrow pathway leads from the highway bus stop to a small shrine ensconced in bamboo.
Luzhou Laojiao's countryside factory
As we suspected, the small brewery in the city center is not where China’s supply of Luzhou Laojiao is manufactured. It takes an “Industry Development Zone” to quench that thirst.
Out in Tai'anOut in Tai'anIt's hot out, so we're having some cool beers at Egg Bar
It’s hot. Peter’s melting.
Some kids in the alley
The small residential area we found offered everything we were looking for, including fun times at and around the old man bar.

They’re building a highway through the site of our regular countryside bus stop, and we returned from vacation to find that we were essentially cut off from the small village where we usually eat and hang out. The trip into the city requires a longer walk to a different bus stop, and it’s hot out and that’s annoying. So the only sane choice was to go further out into the countryside — via a third and much closer bus stop — to see what we could see.

Our initial expedition led us down the highway into nothing and nowhere and then the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery Industry Development Zone. It was presented as a tourist sight, so we figured it was worth checking out.

There was a nicely decorated factory, though not one that really seemed open to unscheduled tourism. In fact, if anything, we were the sight to see; all the drivers and packers and other workers gave us startled hellos as we passed.

We did find, however, an open bodega next to the highway — and where there is a bodega, there are cold beers. We sat at the rickety table out front and had a couple of cold ones, lamenting the fact that we didn’t really find any alternatives to our now inaccessible Tofu Soup neighborhood but being proud of ourselves for trying.

We took a different bus back … and passed right through the very type of residential area we were looking for. Restaurants and shops and teahouses and people, just a few stops from the school! We rushed off the bus and out into the street.

We spent the afternoon tucked away in an old man bar down an alleyway, watching the street life unfold. Kids darted by the entrance, doing kid things and occasionally stopping to get a peek at us white weirdos. The big doings in the bar was that the TV remote had died. The men made sure keep us in the loop — the proprietress had gone in search of batteries, they indicated, oh look now it’s back on, do you like this show?

We’ve been back to the neighborhood a few times, trying different restaurants, and we’ve already befriended a new bodega owner. There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing when were out in areas where there haven’t been many foreigners before: People will take surreptitious glances at us but generally leave us alone until one brave person approaches. Once I start speaking Chinese, a whole crowd will gather. Not everyone will have the courage to say anything, but they all want to get their curiosity satisfied. And I can offer a few biographical details: American, teachers at Tianfu Middle School, yes we like spice. And then the crowd will disperse, and we will be a little less strange.

Buying some watermelon

Jul 29, 2013

Quality time with Melody

Meat and massage

Melody's in-home classroom full of students
At dinner with Melody's familySichuan vegetarian food
Vegetarian Peter’s meal at the beef restaurant

The first person to welcome us back to town was our friend Melody. We ran into her on the street two days in a row before nailing down dinner and massage plans for the third. Melody is passionate about teaching English and living the good life, and that’s why she’s an awesome friend for us!

We met her at her apartment, which is nice and big, and overlooks the river. From what she had told us before, we thought that she just home tutored a few students from time to time, but she actually has a small classroom that holds about 15-20 kids just off the living room. She was wrapping up a class as we arrived, and we played along as special guest stars, doing a live rendition of one of their textbook’s dialogues for them. Later, Peter told Melody that her students were so impressive and that she must be a very good teacher. She hesitated a moment before accepting the compliment — deflection is the usual mode in Chinese culture — and then smiled and giggled in pride.

Dinner was at a Chinese Muslim restaurant around the corner. Muslim restaurants in Luzhou are favored for their beef dishes, Sichuan cuisine being primarily pork based. She brought along her father, step-mother and step-brother, so that we could order more and varied dishes without being wasteful. It was really great. I especially liked the steak strips with pickled hot peppers. “Do you eat these?” I asked, pointing out a pepper. “You can,” said Melody, popping one in her mouth. I sniffed one and immediately choked, so I decided to skip ‘em.

After dinner, we went to a new (to us) massage place … around the corner from Sticks! The guys there said they’d seen us eating sticks many times. The story was that this massage place was opened by the masseur who had trained many of Luzhou’s other professionals. And they were fantastic. A good life indeed!

Jul 28, 2013

Listen up Kunming

Where the rock’s at (and the yaogun and the jazz and the trad …)

Punk rockers at Camel BarCamel Bar has fun artThe crowd at Camel BarOur Camel Bartender readies the absinthe
Kunming punk band 零一路 plays Camel Bar, and the hometown crowd takes it in.
The group show at TGC NordicaTGC Nordica
When we looked a little lost after we got out of the cab, a neighborhood man knew right away we were there to see the gallery. He directed us toward the alleyway that is the home of TGC Nordica, an art and theater space/cafe. The group show on view was super cool!
Guitar jam at Wenlin MementoZoltan's Trio at Alei Lounge
l: Guitar jam at Wenlin Memento; r: Zoltan’s Jazz Trio at Alei Lounge
South Cats' keyboardist at Camel Bar
The keyboardist from South Cats, also on the bill with 零一路.
The lead singer of 零一路 at Camel BarCamel Bar's bathroom
The bathroom at Camel Bar had one of the greatest interior decorating schemes we’ve seen in China.

We were ecstatic to find that among the wide range of experiences that Kunming offers is a lively art and music scene. There’s a small but growing network of art galleries, and you can find live music somewhere, every night of the week. People make stuff here! Creative stuff!

Perusing the events calendar on GoKunming ahead of time, this is one area where we allowed ourselves heightened expectations. Our plan was to take it easy on the daytime tourist stuff, and follow an aggressive schedule of nightly rocking. Two shows a night, some nights. Venues were various, from western restaurants to dedicated rock clubs to the aforementioned art galleries, and the styles of music was similarly diverse. We were excited.

And we weren’t let down. We found music even when we weren’t looking for it. Small combos in bars played covers everywhere you turned. And in Green Lake Park, large groups gathered under every tree to play traditional tunes. Our every move was soundtracked.

As far as intentional music, there were a few standouts:

Zoltan’s Jazz Trio played abstracted standards at Alei Lounge Club and Tapas Bar, with a bass line through out that could have walked us all the way back to Luzhou. The band was two-thirds Chinese (Zoltan himself is Swedish, I believe), and the audience skewed young, fashionable and local. This is a precedent that we would happily see repeated all week. You see, even with hopes so high, there was a fear that the whole scene would be a grafted-on, expat-only social affair. Something unsustainable and exclusionary. It was great to find that this wasn’t the case.

At Wenlin Memento, a sophisticated little club with an NPR vibe and a family crowd, we caught an acoustic jam with guitarist 鄢文杰. He and his friends were wicked talented, their fingers dancing all over the fret board with speed and mellow agility. Our only complaint was that the club was so smoky that we had to leave before the performance was over.

Our favorite show, however, had to be 零一路, a Kunming punk band, at the Camel Bar. They were opening for another local band called South Cats (whom, to gauge audience reaction, was the real reason everyone was there), but to us, their scrappy little punk show was it. Incorporating influences like Nirvana with a yaogun sensibility, they totally rocked. There was a nice give and take between the bassist and the guitarist as dueling frontmen, with the guitarist prowling the stage like a wild animal kept in check by the bassist’s stern rhythm. They did a punk version of “The Powerpuff Girls” theme song, and at times they were one dissonant chord away from thrash metal.

The band played to a loving and supportive hometown crowd. (And keeping with what I’ve experienced so far in China, the genders were an even 50/50 split. Go girls! And go boys, for making the girls feel safe and welcome!) The club was spacious and large, with two well-stocked bars — we even had absinthe shots, all proper with the sugar cube and the spoon and all. It may have been here that we decided for certain that Kunming is our next home. Not because of the absinthe, though. The music! It’s all about the music.

Every aspect of our trip outstripped our expectations, but none more than the opportunity to see live shows. And I didn’t even mention that all of this was free! No cover charges anywhere. Only good vibes and excellent music. The only thing we could say is: Yes.

Jul 26, 2013

The next step: A wider world beckons

Or, why Luzhou is a great first home in China

The Tuo River
Luzhou is ChinaLuzhou is ChinaLuzhou is China
Our beloved Luzhou has been good to us, and wonderfully, unrelentingly Chinese.

We had a plan when we moved here. Or a good guess at least. We’d start someplace small and remote, get settled and comfortable, learn the new life skills we need, and hang out with people who hadn’t already seen a thousand expats come and go. From there, world domination!

Two years in, the first stage is going swimmingly. Having put ourselves in a situation where we’re truly forced out of our comfort zones — without the temptation of taco nights and perfect pizzas — we’ve made even greater strides that we’d initially hoped.

We work hard, of course, but Luzhou works us even harder. There are days that I leave the house feeling sick or tired, or lazy or shy; or I don’t want to endure a hundred stares or get my picture taken with strangers; or for whatever other reason want to give myself a break from being a foreigner. But, too bad for me: someone’s going to speak Chinese to me, and I’m going to speak it back. And it’s always amazing.

It’s also difficult and incredibly stressful. In the beginning, we’d only rarely venture more than walking distance from the school because the taxis and buses were too much to handle. Buying vegetables at the markets, I’d just keep putting down money until the merchant said to stop. (I was very lucky that no one took advantage of us!) We ate dinner at the same place every night for an entire year. We’ve gotten braver and better since then, but I’d say that China’s still winning.

Each victory, however, has been worth it: realizing the woman at our bodega was our buddy, and cheering on each new word I demonstrated to her; the first time I told a taxi where to go instead of showing the driver an address someone else wrote; finding a new restaurant other than sticks, and then more new restaurants after that, and only once accidentally ordering chicken feet; recognizing words from my Chinese lessons out in the wild and being able to have conversations; actually being able to read a note a new friend had written to us.

While we’re not quite ready to leave this all behind, we can see that it’s time to start prepping for phase two. We’ve got a good grounding in the basics of living in China, and inoculated against the pleasures and temptations of the expat bubble, we can trust ourselves to mix and mingle in a more international city. Beijing and Shanghai sound like they exist in another universe, however, and we really like being in the wilds of west China, so we looked around a little closer to home.

When we started trying out Kunming — capitol of nearby Yunnan province — as a future destination, our friends here universally cited the year-round great weather and beautiful scenery as pluses. “It’s the city of eternal spring,” every single one of them said to us. That sounded perfect, especially coming off a second winter with inadequate indoor heating here in Luzhou. Further research promised: art galleries, multiple live music venues, fried goat cheese, a clear blue sky most days, good western-style bartenders, a walkable city with beautiful architecture, affordable apartments, plenty of jobs for ESL teachers, pizza …

We tried not to mentally move there overnight. Let’s be realistic, we told each other. We didn’t want to inflate our Kunming of the mind to a cheese-paved paradise that no real life city could measure up to. But we did book plane tickets.

Kunming is also China
Look out, Kunming. We’re coming for you next.

Jul 25, 2013

Snaps: Summer school’s out for summer

Time to start on your summer homework

Time to go

Summer term for the newly minted Senior 3s and Singapore Project candidates ended this week — in China, if you’re good at school, you’re rewarded with more school — and we caught a glimpse of the exodus yesterday morning. Now, it’s just us and the guards. And very soon, we’re leaving for vacation, too.

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

Jun 22, 2013

Snaps: It’s a parade

… of savings!

Going on paradeGoing on paradeMore Parading Still parading

Shortly after our arrival in Luzhou, way back in September 2011, China celebrated the National Day holiday — meaning a few short days after we were thrown into the classrooms, we were given a week-long break. No one had told us much about what the holiday means or what people do, only that we had time off. From our apartment, we could hear drum corps marching down the streets, and so we assumed there must be some sort of holiday-related parade that we were missing.

Nope. We have since run into these roving bands of drumming women many, many times. They’re advertising local sales. Of course.