Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Feb 1, 2014

Two weeks on the island in Sanya, Hainan

It’s cold! Go south!

Map: Where is Sanya?
The beach at Dadonghai Bay
Let’s go swimming in January!
Peter's all wrapped up for cocktails at the Mandarin OrientalOur room at the Blue Sky Hostel
Left: Peter, bundled up for cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental; right: Our room, with its glorious yoga nook
More beach

Our winter break started January 3, and we celebrated by heading to the beach resort of Sanya on the island province of Hainan. Known locally as “China’s Hawaii” Hainan is just southwest of Hong Kong, and neighbors with Vietnam. The January weather was pleasantly warm during the day — people, not us, went swimming at the beach — but cool enough at night that, say, the outdoor bar at the Mandarin Oriental was serving up blankets with its Winter Warmers cocktail menu.

We stayed in the area known as Dadonghai Bay, which is super touristy and caters pretty heavily to a Russian crowd. In fact, it took me a few exchanges with touts and salespeople to realize that it’s not that they speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with, but that they were talking to us in Russian. “我们是美国人。 说汉语,” was an absurd thing I found myself saying. “We are Americans. Speak Chinese.”

Our hostel was the Blue Sky International, and our room offered a fantastic view of the beach, which was about a five minute walk away. The room also had a lovely yoga alcove by the windows; down-dog and sea breezes. And we were just around the corner from Corner’s Deli, the best western grocery store we’ve found in all of China. They had an actual deli counter with imported turkey from the U.S. Peter started eating meat just in time.

Within two days of arrival, we were researching job opportunities in this island paradise. Within four, we were toasting the sunshine but reaffirming our original Yunnan plans. Kunming, there’s no one else but you in our hearts — although if winter there continues to be as cold as we hear, we know a great place to escape to.

I have a g&t at the beach bar

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Oct 8, 2013

Shanghai: Crusing through the most populous city in the world

Ready, set, go! … And then, go home

Looking at the Bund from the cruise
Me and my dadBusy Shanghai
The European-style architecture on the Bund

Shanghai was the last stop on our mad dash across China, but we mustered our remaining strength to make a go of the country’s (and the world’s) most populated city. The verdict in our family is split on whether Shanghai is Manhattan with a different skyline (says mom) or some sort of spectacular future city (says dad). (I did go pick up bagels on a Sunday morning at a brunchy spot with a line out the door, so there’s that.) But the international hustle and the bustle made an interesting contrast with the sleepier western China that Peter and I know and love so well.

Now, Shanghai is big, right? And we had limited time. But with an hour-long river cruise, we floated right past the Bund and the Pudong new town, checking off two major tourist sights. The Bund is the area of the city where all the European banks and trading houses set up shop in the early 20th century. These days it’s a stunning strip of preserved Euro-architecture that houses expensive restaurants and boutiques. Pudong is the riverfront area that if you’ve ever seen a photo of the Shanghai skyline, that’s what you’re looking at. It’s a collection of crazy new architecture that includes the Oriental Pearl Tower, named for it’s two globular bloops along its height; and the Shanghai World Financial Center, which looks like a bottle opener. Reportedly, you can buy a functioning Bottle Opener replica in the building’s gift shop.

We were also able to squeeze in a quick walk around the French Concession, an area of trendy shops and hipster people-watching; soup dumplings, a delicious Shanghainese specialty that you simply must try; and some hard-core bargain shopping. We braved 艾敏临时珍珠, a multistory market in the Jing’an District that houses hundreds of booths. The sales people are incredibly aggressive salesmen, and consider incidental eye contact an opening of negotiations: “Need any watches? 500 kuai … 400 kuai … hey! Don’t walk away!” My mom played the game well, however, picking up some souvenirs at, like, a tenth of the original price. (“Hmm … I don’t know,” was her big gambit.)

And then, just like that, three weeks was up and my parents had to go back to America. (Peter helped me stay cheery-not-teary, after their departure.) Peter and I were lucky enough, however, to have a couple more days. We relocated to a hostel downtown, and basically soaked up the neighborhood — the trip had us pretty beat by this point. Our temporary home, Le Tour Traveler’s Rest Youth Hostel, was in a laid-back, urban-chic residential area. We had Lanzhou noodles around the corner, bagels down the street (there it is!), felafel also down the street, and Burger King a short walk away for one late-night emergency fast food fix. It was chill for a day and a half, and then it was time for us, too, to return home. Our summer of traveling was finished, and it was time to prepare for the exciting school year ahead.

Oct 4, 2013

Jiading: Drinking tea with Mark

Another new friend living a good life

The tower in the center of JiadingMark in the tea house with mom and dad
Mark, left, shows us some of his tea house friend’s treasures.
On the stairsJiading is a city of canals.

Just outside of the city of Shanghai is a suburb named Jiading. I’m not sure that it will ever be a big tourist draw on it’s own, but it does have a quaint little ancient town, some nice parks, and a couple of really well-curated museums. It was the hometown of diplomat Wellington Koo, Important Communist Hu Juewen, and, most significantly to our family, Mark — the owner of a lovely apartment listed on Airbnb.

Mark hosted us to the full extent of the word, taking us to late-night noodles upon our after-midnight arrival and giving us a fantastic tour of the neighborhood in the light of day. He was always available for expedition advice or just a friendly chat. And, of course, restaurant suggestions. He pointed us toward a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant that had the first dumplings that Peter was able to eat in China. (“Delicious!” was the verdict.)

On our first morning, Mark guided us through the local temples and museums with commentary and context where signage was obscure or unhelpful. For example, a piece that was just captioned “poem” was actually written by Chairman Mao, Mark told us. And he could point out other cultural details we missed, like details in the clothing and housing that meant a family had a particular social station. Forget audio guides, all you need is a Mark.

“When you have success, usually you are Confucian. When you fail, usually you are Daoist,” Mark explained the changing and pragmatic Chinese relationship with spirituality. He himself seems to have his own affairs pretty well in order: After losing his government-sponsored job because of the birth of his second son — a big no-no under the One Child policy, but Mark and his wife didn’t want to raise an only lonely (a pretty common motivation for Chinese to break this particular law) — Mark contracts from home for an American company in the mornings, and devotes his afternoons to reading and writing novels. He also noodles with a traditional Chinese zither from time to time. And, when the opportunity presents, he shows around visitors from all over.

We took tea one afternoon at his friend’s tea house. The female servers all wore hip-classical linen uniforms that were designed by another friend of Mark and his wife. (They run with kind of a boho crowd, for China.) After tea, the owner showed us around his establishment, which had classrooms in the back for teaching tea ceremonies and calligraphy, and he gave us a tour of his art collection.

Our time in Jiading coincided with the Bo Xilai trial, a media spectacle on the order of OJ Simpson over here, and one that set records in China in terms of TV viewership and Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) activity. Even Peter and I watched a little; it was the only thing on, every channel. Mark, however, was not part of the spectating horde. He told my mother, you can find more human truth in novels than on the news.

It was hard to believe we were just on the edge of one of the biggest conurbations on the planet; the Shanghai sprawl is pretty massive. But our time with Mark was wonderfully peaceful.

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Drinking beer at the mall

Hoops and Tsingtao on a hot summer night

Echo picks up our beer carafe.
Listening at workAt a beer festival, you've got to have snacks.This guy is a pretty famous Chinese basketball star.Mom takes a turn at the basketball game.I try out soccer.

At our friendship dinner, Listening mentioned that he had picked up a job as a videographer at the Tsingdao Beer Festival (the first of its kind in Luzhou), which just happened to be that weekend. He wrote down directions for me and we promised that we’d stop by.

The festival was set up outside the Southwestern Trading Center of China, the giant mall on the outskirts of the city, and it was huge! At the main entrance there was a stage set up with live music, and there were booths galore selling food and, of course, beer. We had to text Listening to get directions to his area.

He was manning a camera at the basketball exhibition, where there were various carnival games set up, as well as a small court and a bar (where he hooked us up with free drinks in exchange for posing for the camera as Americans enjoying Tsingtao). “All people [are] stars,” was the theme of the area. Shortly after we arrived, a very tall man trailed by a large entourage took his turn at the games. “Is he a Sichuan basketball player?” I asked Listening. “Absolutely,” he told me.

After the excitement died down, my mom and I tried our hands at the games. We were not as good, although my mom did alright at the “Get as many baskets as you can in a minute,” or whatever it was called.

Corina and Echo popped by, and we abandoned Listening to his work to go try out some of the special-flavored festival beers. There was the pineapple beer, which tasted like soda, and the stout, which tasted like amazingness. There were a lot of families at the festival, which was kind of surprising given, well, beer, but kind of not, given China. We did see a small fight break out, though: Someone was selling fake beer tickets, and the duped parties were not pleased to find that they had been duped.

The threat of rain meant that it was time to go home, before we became witness to/participants in a fight over taxis. (Kidding! Kind of!) We said goodbye to the girls with promises to talk soon

In the beer garden

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Taking a lesson

An international education colloquy

We took tea with the teachers.
Mom and the art teacher's daughter work on a painting.The art teacher pours the tea.Afterwards, we went to lunch for a typical Luzhou chicken hot pot.

My boss Linda very nicely arranged for us to meet with both a physics and an art teacher from our school while we were in Luzhou. (My mother is a physics teacher and a painter.) We all gathered one morning for a lesson in traditional Chinese painting. Mr. Li, the art teacher, brought his daughter to translate — although as a shy a middle school student, she was a little timid about her role. Li was very hands on with his lesson; everyone got a chance with the brush, even Mr. Chen, the physics teacher.

After painting, we sat down for some tea. Li expertly handled the Chinese tea brewing rituals — a complex dance of leaves and hot water that is way more involved than you’d think — and the conversation turned to American and Chinese teaching styles. From what I can tell, it seems that China is about a generation behind what’s going on in America — although Linda did point out that reform is ongoing. For example, Chen’s science lab sounds a lot like my high school experience: the teacher teaches an equation/principle, performs an experiment to demonstrate, and then the students replicate it. Whereas in my mom’s classroom, it’s flipped around: the students take the lead in experimentation, and from their results they derive/prove the equation themselves. “Student-led learning,” I believe is the buzz-phrase.

To follow up our discussion, Linda brought us all out to a banquet lunch! Chicken soup hot pot, which is a very typical formal Luzhou meal. It’s actually almost like two meals: First you have the chicken — a whole chicken, beaks, claws and all — and then, top up that broth, because it’s time to throw some veggies in there and start all over again.

Throughout the meal, our hosts were very attentive, refilling our bowls and glasses as quickly as we could drain them. We all walk away quite stuffed. And, as always, with a Chinese banquet, the conversation was lively and boisterous. Even across two languages!

Giving a lesson in Chinese brushpainting.

Oct 1, 2013

Luzhou: Eating frog with old friends

A typical Chinese good time

The feast with friends at Moutai Square
Echo and mom share a joke.I'm listening to Listening.Frog looks an awful lot like a frog even after it's cooked.

All spring, when we told people that my parents were coming to China this summer, our friends were very excited for us. “We want to meet them!” they all said. Sadly, when the time came, not everyone was in town, but we did manage to put together a little dinner party with Maybell and Boyfriend, Listening (formerly Alex) and his/our friends Echo and Corina. We picked Moutai Square restaurant, for the fun atmosphere, the good food, and, most importantly, the fine beer.

I was a little nervous throwing together these three separate groups who only had knowing-Peter-and-me in common, but it very naturally turned into a party. Listening and the girls helped me order, and our menu included duck’s necks, spicy boiled frog (that still looked like frog), fish-flavored pork, green beans, and a tomato and egg soup. Some of the dishes were more challenging than others for the American contingent. I’ll readily admit, chewing on a frog’s leg while it’s still attached to its little body is somewhat creepy. But the dinner was tremendous fun. Conversation flowed freely and we all enjoyed a typical Chinese meal with some typical (but some of our favorite) Chinese people.

Our guests and our food

Oct 1, 2013

Luzhou: Landing in the hometown

And melting in the heat

The view of the city from the Jiucheng Hotel
The view from the hotel room of the mighty Yangtze River
Breakfast timeMy parents with Amanda, the helpful concierge
My mom and dad with the super helpful Amanda

Our flight from Kunming landed in Luzhou at the bright and early hour of 8:30, because that’s when the one daily flight from Kunming lands. We had hoped to show my parents around the countryside neighborhoods that we frequent, but after a quick spin around the new campus we all decided that it was just too hot. Way too hot. Hotter than Penang, even. Melt your face off hot.

So instead, we took them to check in at the Jiucheng Hotel, where Amanda, the English-speaking desk clerk, right away recognized my face from when I had made the reservations a month earlier. We enjoyed the air conditioning as she checked us in.

For the duration of the Luzhou leg, the hotel staff took good care of my parents. There was fruit, there was swimming, and plenty of smiles. On the first morning, at breakfast, a few staff members were helping them figure out the food situation. There was a big buffet of familiar and unfamiliar dishes, and some of it was translated into English. (They did have to play charades for “blood,” however.) My mom pointed at the breakfast a man at a nearby table was eating to say, “I’d like something like that.” Everyone hopped to, including the man eating that breakfast, to get his meal to her. “No, no, no!” my mom cried. “Something like that. I don’t need his breakfast!”

That’s Chinese hospitality for you!

Sep 28, 2013

Dali: Chilling in the old town

A backpacker’s paradise

Mom and dad found some friends and a sunflower field
In airport, on the way to DaliOur hostel, the Jade RooThe city walls of Dali old townIn the middle of the old townFresh vegetables outside of every restaurantA basic meal in the old townIt's not China without trafficSome buskersOn a bike ride outside the city

If you’re in Kunming, as everyone will tell you, you have to visit the nearby cities of Dali or Lijiang. Preferably both, but we didn’t have enough time; we only made it to Dali.

The city has a history as a backpacker’s haven from way back, for western and Chinese travellers alike, and its location in the mountains makes it an ideal starting point for hikers and campers. The Old Town — where we set up shop — is an ancient, walled-off collection of shops, restaurants, vendors and tourists a few blocks wide. (You can walk from end to end in about half an hour.)

You never forget that your in a touristy area, but the atmosphere is laid back and fun and international. Chinese kids busk along the streets, playing traditional tunes and western rock. Vendors sell stunning batiks and other handicrafts. Local ethnic restaurants are scattered throughout the area, as are coffee bars. There are also a few killer bakeries just along Renmin Lu. (Aside: Renmin Lu just means “The People’s Road.” There’s one in just about every Chinese city. In old Dali, Renmin Lu is where all the western restaurants and bars have set up shop these days. Don’t be fooled by “Foreigner’s Street,” which is one block over; if you’re looking for western, what you’re looking for is probably on Renmin Lu.)

Despite hosting so many temporary guests, the city is still friendly and welcoming. It’s also quite small. Picking up sandwiches one afternoon at Bakery 88, I met German owner Karine Kaffrell. We chatted a bit about living in China, and I had mentioned that I was here with my parents. “Oh yeah. I saw them!” she said, knowing, I don’t doubt, exactly who they were.

At Duan’s Kitchen, a chic Bai-style eatery that would have gotten a Times write up already if it was in Manhattan, the owner’s sister — English name Leah (“Like from ‘Star Wars’,” she told us) — went out of her way to give us a fantastic dinner. We didn’t have reservations and the restaurant was packed, so she kept the place open late, just to seat us, and planned us an off-menu meal that was beyond delicious. Tender plum beef, rich eggplant, asparagus and peach slices, a tofu and pork soup, and this superlative salad made with noodles of cheese. (Yup, you read that last bit right, cheese noodles.)

The Old Town has four city gates, one for each cardinal direction, and you can climb the city wall in some places to get an excellent view of the surrounding countryside. If you’re feeling the need to break out into that greenery — as my parents were — there are plenty of places to rent bikes and no shortage of people who will help you get where you want to go. On the road, my mom and dad teamed up with a few photography students from Chengdu who guided them around the sunflower fields and country roads. If you’re bike-averse, Peter and I can attest that there is some great scenery to be soaked while quaffing homebrewed beer at the Bad Monkey Bar. (You’ll want the outdoor seats, however, for maximum people-watching pleasure.)

We only had a few days, so we didn’t have time to check out new Dali city — a regular old modern metropolis, we hear, with some interesting sights. But Peter and I are already excited to go back.

Nothing but flowers

Sep 20, 2013

Kunming: Nerding it up at the Yunnan Cultural Industries Expo

At the anime convention, the cosplayers all want photos with us

Checking in at the Anime Convention
You can buy many weird hatsSome cosplayers wanted to pose with usThere was a small performanceMom as the HulkMore cosplayersMore cosplayers and us

Our time in Kunming coincided with the Yunnan Cultural Industries Expo, a show of local handicrafts, jade, jewelry, clothing, etc., that included a rather extensive anime convention. We had to go!

The anime hall was chock-a-block with booths selling pins, toys, cards, fans, panda hats (of course), cat ears, statues, etc. There was a tiny amount of Marvel stuff (including a Captain America shield that looked to be … unofficial), but for the most part the expo was a celebration of the local. We recognized a couple of cartoons — Doraemon and Pleasant Goat — because our junior students love those guys. Detective Conan, whom I used to watch oh so many years ago on Cartoon Network or wherever, is hugely popular here and was well represented; as was Monkey D. Luffy (gotta love that name!), a roguish pirate that my boy senior students all have T-shirts of. These guys and many others were plastered on all kinds of merch, from T-shirts to key chains.

The main attraction, though, was definitely the other attendees. Almost everyone was in costume, some of them quite elaborate. (The costume competition was fierce!) We took some photos with some of the cosplayers … and then some of them started asking to take pictures with us. We didn’t see any other westerners at the expo, and so we became a de faco exhibition!

Peter said our experience there was a lot like an American convention would be. (Besides the fact that we became accidental stars.) You know, nerds loving nerd stuff all nerdily together. It warms the heart to see that that’s just universal.