Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

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.

Sep 16, 2013

Kunming: Dancing in the park

The old 两个-step

Dancing with the people in Green Lake Park

Here’s the rule: Anywhere there is open space, large groups of dancers will gather. They’ll be mostly women, and mostly older, but everyone is invited. It’s good exercise, it’s group fun, it’s something to do outside of the house … whatever!

Wandering Kunming’s Green Lake Park, we found dozens of such dancing groups, sometimes one right on top of another. Some people were dressed in ethnic costume, but most were in contemporary street wear. My mom and I joined in for a bit, causing — Peter later said — some hilarious double takes.

The key, I realized, to accurately following the moves is to, even though you may be sneaking in the back, watch the leader up front. Don’t try to copy the ladies also hiding in the back with you; they’re as lost as you are!

Sep 15, 2013

Kunming: Returning to Spring City

A gentle landing in China

The temple in Kunming
On the planeDad!Mom!Peter and Emily in Green Lake ParkEating at Heavenly MannaMom and dad at the templeMore temple

Kunming is just truly lovely, and — as we confirmed during our visit in July — a great first destination for a newbie in China. So post-Penang, we ushered my parents back to our former accommodations at the Lost Garden Guesthouse — where the staffers all greeted us with friendly, welcome-back smiles — and ensconced ourselves in the city center.

It worked out really well, because we were able to show them some things that we had discovered last time, and the city is walkable and foreigner-friendly enough that they were able to do some exploring on their own. We were only there for a few days, but we mixed it up with some western food and some local Yunnan cuisine, and my parents checked off their first Chinese temple, 圆桶寺.

欢迎光临中国! Or, Welcome to China!

Sep 15, 2013

Penang: Cooking at the Tropical Spice Garden

Pearly Kee schools us in Baba-Nyonya cuisine

A cooking lesson with Pearly Kee
The pond in the Tropical Spice GardenTaking some tea in the gardenPearly supervises Dad frying some chickenThe kitchen where we've workedOur soupPeter is cooking
Pearly is flexible with her recipes, so Peter was able to join in the fun with vegetarian versions of our dishes.

The cooking class at Batu Ferringhi’s Tropical Spice Garden opens with a thorough tour of the titular garden. The green space, which abuts actual jungle, is home to a wide variety of plants, many of them edible. The coolest part was the spices; seeing them in the wild and then smelling and even tasting them. The tour ended with tea time in a little tea time grotto, with a brew made from plants from the garden.

Then we met Pearly, an effervescent Penangite of Chinese heritage and our teacher for the morning. The class was made up of Peter and I, my parents, and Italians Andrea and his daughter Diana. Pearly walked us through the recipes for Inche Kabin and a curry mee soup, telling stories while we worked. She kept an eagle eye on us, jumping in quickly if things were about to go wrong; and her team of helpers performed our grunt work: clearing away our scraps, changing our washing bowls when the water got murky, keeping us supplied with beverages. As my mom commented, it was like learning to cook as if you were a princess.

But our meals turned out great. We brought them outside and ate lunch on the large patio. Pearly and her helpers kept the nutmeg juice (fantastic, BTW!) flowing while we ate. It was a great reward for all of our hard work.

Sep 8, 2013

Penang: Relaxing by the beach

A return to Malaysia, Truly Asia

Our apartment in Batu Ferringhi overlooked the beach
Art in GeorgetownOn Penang HillThere were some wicked rain stormsEating at Gurney PlazaMore public art in GeorgetownDad at Penang Hill

This time around, we stayed in a rental apartment — with pool! — across the street from the beach in Batu Ferringhi, the northern cost of Penang island. The area was packed with tourists, and it was a completely different experience than our last trip — where we were nestled into a local residential community — but we had a good time nonetheless: swimming with families from all over the world, drinking with the foreign retirees at the dive bar near our apartment, enjoying beach-side dinners with the other tourists.

The weather, surprisingly, was cooler than when Peter and I had visited in January, so we got to do a lot more walking around. Touring Georgetown one afternoon, we got to stumble upon the city’s public art projects that we had missed this winter while we were whizzing around in air conditioned cabs. It was pretty cool.

Of course, there was the eating. In Penang we set the food-ordering precedent for the trip: too much is just enough. The most egregious incidence of this being at Sri Ananda Bahwan, an Indian joint recommended by Liza, the woman who owned our apartment. But between the deep-fried cauliflower, the billion kinds of naan, the lovely and smokey tandoori chicken, the smooth saag paneer, and the banana leaf sets, I regret none of it.

Penang was my parents’ first stop in Asia and over our week, among us all, we compared it to: Florida, San Francisco, an Indiana Jones movie, and the Dominican Republic. Aside from some of the food, however, it was nothing like China.

Drinks on the beachBig Bamboo

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden