Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jul 3, 2013

In search of good beer in China

Oh, how hard life is!

Year of the Snake beer

We love beer. China does not. At least, there is no real mainstream beer culture to speak of. And we’ve accepted that, as part of living here, for the most part the drinking is going to be water-light Bud imitations. It goes well with spicy food, anyway.

Which is not to say we don’t find our nice surprises from time to time. Qingdao, with it’s German-founded brewery, had its special local dark brew. Locally, we’ll always have Golden Hans. And, most of the grocery stores stock at least a German brand hefeweizen and stout in their import sections. Sometimes you can even find a pilsner or a dunkel. Last summer, there was even a canned shandy that hit the shelves for a minute. This winter, Kaiserdom put out a special Snake Year dark lager. You’ve just got to keep your eyes open.

This is the most expensive PBR we've ever seen!

Our most recent find was a bottled PBR, at 10 times the price of the good old canned PBR (that gleaming blue ribbon is widely available here, and costs about US$1) it was beautifully intriguing. Popping it open, we found a dark, viscous liquid, reminiscent of that Sam Adams that costs a billion dollars. The Navigator, as it’s called, was more like a complex liqueur than the expected yellow swill. A delicious quaff, although too expensive to be part of the regular rotation. But we’re keeping an eye on the shelf for when it goes on sale. (I’m pretty sure no one else is buying it.)

Import beer from the grocery store, however, doesn’t come with bar buddies, and that’s something we still really miss. But we’re slowly expanding our social circle — we’ve gone from zero friends to some friends! — and recently our friend Maybell’s Boyfriend invited us to come out with them to a place that had “beer even better than Golden Hans!”

Real beer from a real keg

We met Maybell and BF (ugh, I’m sorry; he doesn’t have an English name, and Chinese characters are still sliding from my brain mere seconds after I hear them) at a restaurant that served fresh kegs from the Moutai brewing company. Moutai is a nationally famous brand of baijiu produced in Southwest China, but their beer production, according to BF is not widely known outside of our area. The joint was hopping, and large tapped carafes of lights and darks were continually being delivered to tables full of revelers. They had two fruit beers, too, but only girls drink those, so I was dissuaded from ordering a carafe for the table. Though I did get my own pint; it tasted like a melted blueberry popsicle.

The food was fantastic. (I feel like I’m always saying that, but it’s so often the case.) Spicy cucumbers, green beans, delicious pork bits on a bed of hot peppers, edamame …

And, it turned out, we were celebrating. Maybell had just attended her official college graduation ceremony the day before. And, they excitedly told us, the were going to get married this year. Just an official ceremony; they’re going to have a big reception with friends two years from now. But, still, what fun news!

We talked about the job market — both Maybell and her boyfriend are lucky to have good jobs they like, but their classmates are having a tough time of it. Kids signed on for conditional contracts are being laid off after their first year is up, and others can’t find jobs at all. Maybell said she doesn’t like talking about her ample teacher’s vacation time with them, because she feels like she’s rubbing it in her unemployed friends’ faces.

We toasted each other, shared travel ideas — Maybell gave us some great advice on an ancient town located just an hour outside of Luzhou — and made future plans. BF is really interested in cocktails, so we’re hoping to have a bartending night sometime soon. And we want to host them to a real American BBQ one of these days. We shared jokes, cultural tidbits, the meaning of life — all that kind of fun philosophizing that beer was meant to accompany.

At the end of the night, Maybell got a server to write down the address and phone number for us, so that we can return one day. And we will, because BF was right, the beer is even better than Golden Hans!

Delicious dinner with good friends

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.

Jun 11, 2013

The many faces of Listening Ling

A king of masks in training

Listening, after the show

Our friend Listening Ling (formerly called Alex) has been studying the Sichuanese art of Face Changing this past year, and we were psyched last night to go see him in his first public performance. We met up with our new Australian friend Cori (whom we me through Listening; if you speak English in Luzhou, Listening with find you) and waited in the city center for Listening to come pick us up. And then, Listening called and said that the restaurant was too crowded for us to come; we were basically planning to crash his graduation party, so we were bummed but we understood.

As an alternative plan, we decided to take Cori to Golden Hans for some good dark beer — in the week and a half we’ve known him, we’ve basically been giving Cori a dissertation on the beers of Luzhou, whether he wants that or not.

At Golden Hans, who should we run into, but Listening! The restaurant was in fact very crowded, but we squeezed into a table at the back. Listening came to visit with us periodically, updating us on the status of his performance. We could tell he was very nervous and we tried to pep him up. “My friends are all singing or telling jokes,” he told us. “I’m the only one doing the face changing.” “So then you’ll be the best,” I said. “That’s too much pressure!” he said.

But the show must go on. Listening changed into his costume, and we gathered at the front stage with the rest of the restaurant. Everyone had their cameras out, even people, I think, unconnected with the school crew. This was a special event.

And it was amazing! Listening did a “Gangnam Style”-inspired dance and his masks appeared from nowhere and then disappeared back into the air. He had previously told us that the kids these days are losing interest in the traditional arts, and it was important to him to modernize the form. We think he was a total success!

Jun 7, 2013

What’s that you’re eating?

Or, why we keep showing you photos of boiling pots

Hot pot 1Hot pot 2Hot pot 3Hot pot 4Hot pot 5Hot pot 6Hot pot 7Hot pot 8Hot pot 9

“Yeah, that’s not hot pot, that’s 串串,” people would correct us when early on we would go around talking about our favorite meal on sticks. “Whatever,” we would think, “It’s hot, and it’s in a pot. That’s hot pot.” But now, almost two years into our Chinese journey, we’re finally catching on to the subtleties of Sichuan cooking.

There are 33 distinct Chinese terms for cutting, according to our Sichuanese food guru Fuchsia Dunlop and 63 shapes into which food can be cut. And that’s just the specificities of prep work. When you scale it up, a pot of 豆花火锅 (tofu soup) is an entirely different thing than 串串 and neither of them are what people mean when they’re talking about traditional Sichuan 火锅。Hot soup isn’t just one thing, it’s a whole genre.

The traditional style 火锅 is a spicy broth that the table shares, with platters of beautifully cut meats and vegetables to dump into that broth. Distinguished from it’s poorer cousin 串串 by the quality and price of everything. And, of course, the sticks.

But, what else could be different? Well, everything: Is there one communal pot, or does everyone get their own? What’s the base of the broth? How spicy is the broth? What goes in the soup, ingredient-wise? What goes in the soup, spice-wise? Does the soup come fully prepared, or do you order ingredients a la carte? What’s the quality of meat that comes with the meal? Are we talking fish, chicken, beef, sheep or what? How are the vegetables sliced? Are there any vegetables? What goes in your spice bowl that accompanies the meal? Do they have a spice bar?!

There’s a meal for all spice levels, and there’s a meal for all price levels. A night out at 串串 usually sets us back about about US$8 (including beers). A recent adventure at a fancier beef hot pot place came to about US$30 (again, including beers), which is a major splurge for us. For reference, that kind of money can buy two bus tickets to Chongqing.

Speaking of which, start all over from the beginning in Chongqing, because they have a completely different flavor profile there. Chongqing spice is much sharper, more in your face as opposed to the creeping numbness of the Sichuan peppercorn, and just more … red. It’s a little hard to describe. But we were very proud when upon revisiting a 串串 chain that we had read was based out of Chongqing and could definitely taste the regional flavor. Which, upgrade us from Brand Newbie to Not Completely Lost!

Jun 5, 2013

Snaps: Rocking closer to home

The cool kids make some noise

A concert on the school grounds
Our rock band

Shortly after arming ourselves with new instruments, we found that Tianfu Middle School had been training up some little rockers as well. It was showcase day for the school’s various clubs, and one of those clubs was rock club.

The group gave a performance, rotating in new singers for each song. They ran into some sound issues — like you do, in China — but it was a pretty cool show. Mixed in with the poppy tunes were some proto-post-Joy Division droners. Extremely cool.

Jun 2, 2013

Guitar shopping

And bargaining practice

Our family of guitars

With rock in our ears as we returned to Luzhou, we decided it was time to go guitar shopping. It was about time we acquired a cheap acoustic for the old apartment.

On our initial recon trip to the half dozen music stores that surround the old campus, we walked away with a brand new ukulele. The instant I picked it up, I just wanted it. The price tag was 860 yuan — a little over US$100 — though we accidentally bargained the clerk down to 840, because she waved away our debit card and 840 was all the cash we had on hand. Score!

After spending the afternoon with the newly christened Ramona Mona Ramone, Peter decided that what he was really after was a nylon stringed classical guitar. So the next day, we returned to the most promising of the shops. There was a cool-looking crew hanging out there: An older manager-type, a young man expertly jamming on an electric Paul Reed Smith, two post-high school girls with a little English who seemed to work there, and an additional girl who looked girlfriendy.

They all watched — well, not the girlfriend, she was busy with her phone — as Peter tried out the guitar he wanted. A small step up from the cheapest of the cheap, it was a huge leap in quality, and it was to be ours. The price tag said 1600 yuan, but “I’m going to ask for less,” I told Peter in English. Then in Chinese, I tried to say it was too expensive. Whatever I did manage to say, they understood my meaning, and the manager knocked 300 off.

They also didn’t take cards, so I had to run to the bank for cash, leaving Peter with all of our stuff. Peter took a spin on the young man’s guitar. “Oh, wow! So cool,” his audience cooed. As he was looking through a Fender catalogue, one of the girls asked Peter if he liked Fender. “I do. But they’re very expensive,” he said. They all laughed, knowingly. (They may have the catalogues, but most of the guitars we see in the stores here are knockoffs.)

There was a poster of Ibanez guitars on the wall, and Peter pointed to it and said “That’s what I play.” The girl retrieved an Ibanez catalogue from the back, and flipped to a picture of Steve Vai. She pointed to the boy with guitar and said “That’s his favorite guitarist.” Peter said “Me too!” And the boy launched into some Steve Vai songs. He was pretty good, too.

Luzhou’s not a live music town — everyone tells us that we have to go to Chongqing or Chengdu for that. But, of course, the kids who like music hang out at the guitar stores! Duh. Some things are not so different between the US and China.

Jun 1, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Going to the show

RAAAAAAAAAAWR!

Punk Rock at Nuts Club

A punk rock show was enticing enough, but when we found out that the Chongqing Punk Festival was to be headlined by SUBS, we were totally committed. The Beijing-based garage punkers come up in any discussion of yaogun as one of China’s foremost practitioners, and we leaped at the opportunity to see them live.

Stickers in the bathroomBlood on the bass

The Nuts Club, the evening’s host, is a small rock club near the campus of Sichuan University. Much like (New) Little Bar in Chengdu, the ground floor space is intimate and modern with a well-stocked bar. The walls are covered in arty posters, and the walls of the bathroom are stickered with various band names. Think CBGBs but much, much cleaner.

We skipped the early afternoon skateboarding portion of the festival, and arrived in time to catch Hell City. The band was fronted by a tall, mohawked man wearing a dress military jacket — totally punk rock. Their sound had a delightfully aggressive metal edge to it. “I would fight anyone for these guys,” I wrote in my notes. They ended their set with a rollicking cover of “Death or Glory.”

The Wheels took the stage shortly after Hell City left it, and they were a fun bunch of guys. Kind of Green Day-ish with a machine gun for a drummer. The bassist literally bled for us, and the crowd enthusiastically moshed for the first 10 seconds of each song.

As much buzz was in the room from the start, there was a noticeable uptick in energy as SUBS took the stage. Fronted by Kang Mao, a wild-child punk siren, SUBS captured the crowd and whipped us into a frenzy. Kang was all over the stage, screaming her guts out into the mic, and pounding on the keyboard. At one point she dove into the crowd, and she grabbed my hand! It was intensely Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Battles meets Birthday Party, but a thing that was all its own. Both Peter and I agree, this ranks up there with some of the best live shows we’d ever seen.

After the show, we searched in vain for merch. I even asked Kang, who was exiting through the front room, if they 有 CDs. She told me to look online. As the club emptied out, we followed the exodus to the parking lot next door, where an enterprising crew had set up a BBQ situation. We midnight snacked on broccoli and lotus root (this is why we’re thinner in China), and yelled to each other about how awesome the show was.

We found delicious BBQ outside after the show

May 24, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Back to Ciqikou

The rat-free Perfect Time is the perfect place

We found a great hot pot place by Ciqikou

We probably never would have gone back to Ciqikou were it not for punk rock. The Chongqing version of the ubiquitous replica “ancient” town doesn’t really invite repeat viewing, and the hostel there is too far from the city’s central peninsula to be convenient. But, it’s not far from Chongqing’s Shapingba district, home of the Nuts Club, host of this April’s Chongqing Punk Festival. When we heard about the concert, we had a reason to return. And this time around, we were quite charmed by the neighborhood.

It started when staying in such a touristy area meant that I could actually tell cab drivers where to go, instead of thrusting a page of scrawled out characters in their faces, which is my usual move. I feel so cool when I can talk to people!

After we settled in at the hostel, we ventured back out into Ciqikou for some Chongqing hot pot. There’s something of a rivalry between Sichuan and Chongqing (which used to be part of Sichuan but is now its own municipality) as to whose hot pot is the hottest, and there’s a hot pot restaurant pretty much every few feet in Ciqikou. We chose one that was just outside the neighborhood’s entrance gate, because it was the most crowded with people looking like they were having the most fun.

Look at this spice
This here, that’s only Meiguo spicy.

So, I’ll put it up front, Chongqing hot pot is SPICY! Spicier than we’ve had in Sichuan Province. They really aren’t messing around. They even held back on us, I think, seeing our non-Chinese faces. (Which, honestly, was a good call on their part.) We saw other tables’ pots packed with chili peppers — also a healthy scoop of lard, which initially surprised me, but accounts for the richness of the broth.

We got our usual array of vegetables, plus a few wild cards: rolled-up tofu skins — which weren’t a hit — and something that turned out to be the Mexican fruit! When that was delivered to our table, I pulled out my translation sheet and copied down the relevant menu item. Our waitress watched over my shoulder, cheering me on. Generally, I get a lot of smiles when I pull out this sheet — mostly copied from the menu at Tofu Hot Pot.

On our way home, walking through the closed down and mostly empty Ciqikou streets, we heard the sounds of Radiohead wafting on the breeze. This was a surprise, because most of the music we hear while out and about in China is of the terrible pop variety. It was even more surprising when we realized that it was live.

Without really even discussing it, Peter and I both turned down the small alley from where the music was coming. The alley ended in a series of stairs leading to a giant temple, but just before the temple entrance was a small bar. Led inside by our ears, we found a Chinese band playing American rock hits. It was magical.

Unfortunately, it was also quite short. We arrived almost at the end of their set. “I’m sorry, it’s over,” they said to us in English after they finished their last song. We were the only people besides the employees in the bar, so I’m not sure who was more disappointed in our timing. But we had a drink and a good time anyway.

Hey, there's a wedding
Hey! There’s a wedding outside our window!

Saturday we took it easy, resting up for the night’s concert. We breakfasted on roti pancakes, and coffee from a cute little coffee shop near the front gate of Ciqikou. After a quick Carrefour run to replenish our stocks of foreign herbs, spices, and olives, we mostly lazed about in the hostel, enjoying both the English-language channel on the TV, and the view of the river from our window. There was a giant inflatable slide set up outside, and we watched babies and their mother teeter up to the terrifying top and then make their dizzying descent. It was more exciting that it had any right to be. We also watched a wedding take place on the top floor of one of the floating seafood restaurants in the river. It was a big day for someone!

And then, before we knew it, it was time to rock.

May 18, 2013

Friday in China

May 10, 2013 • 2013年 05月 10日

Can you spot Uncle Foreigner?

Fridays, we teach Juniors, and it’s Peter’s earliest day. His first class is second period, 8:40am. For me, it’s my sleep-in day; my first class isn’t until third period, 9:30am.

The kids today are more rambunctious than usual. Opening class with “How are you?” gets me answers of “Unhappy!” and “Terrible!” Their parents are coming in for school conferences.

I hear more about it at lunchtime. Peter is taking a nap and I am done for the day, so I walk down the hill with my student, Amy. She is wearing a shirt that says, “We are all greedy bitches.” I know that she knows what the word “bitch” means, because she keeps calling her history teacher one. “I know what the rules are! I never break them,” she complains to me, her voice quivering with the rage of the unjustly wronged. And yet, her history teacher yells at her a lot, and will presumably give a bad report to Amy’s mother and father. Amy is also worried what her parents will think about the 0 she got on her math exam. “I don’t like math,” she says in defence. She did, however, get a 95 in English.

After we say goodbye, I go up to the track. On my second lap, a Senior 3 student, Zhang Rae, joins me. We try to run together every week, and he’ll practice his English on me. He tells me he really liked the movie “Silence of the Lambs.”

We discuss films, future plans, Chinese history … everything. “Many young people think Deng Xiaoping was a great man,” Zhang Rae says. They don’t like Mao. But, he adds, Mao was a great man.

On my way back to my apartment, I’m met by one of my neighbors, an older man in his 70s. With Zhang Rae’s translation help, we have our first conversation: He sees me running all of the time! Would I like a plant that will cure my freckles? Chinese people really don’t like freckles.

Curious, I take him up on his offer. The plant turns out to be aloe — my neighbor is cultivating, like, hundreds of aloe vera plants. He chops me a few stalks and mimes rubbing them all over my face. When I run out, I am free to pick some more, he tells me.

After the lunch break, Peter goes to his final class. Ten minutes later, he returns. It turns out parent-teacher conferences are happening during afternoon classes. Not for the first time, our classes are cancelled without anyone telling us. But it’s a hardship we’ll bear. The internet is out, so we spend all afternoon reading comic books and playing cards.

For dinner, we are meeting a new friend, Melody. She spotted us at chuan chuan a few weeks ago and introduced herself. Her English is really good. She’s actually a former English teacher from our school, and these days she does private tutoring while she stays home with her baby. She keeps current on her English by watching and reading American TV and books.

While we wait for Melody, at the corner near chuan chuan, one of Peter’s students spots us. Walking with her father, she proudly says hello. They disappear around the corner … and then she comes running back. She offers us a bag of delicious flaky pastries filled with red bean paste. We eat two on the spot and have the rest for days.

Before dinner, Melody takes us to get Chinese massages. These are the best massages either of us have ever had. More theraputic than, like, a pamper-yourself spa package, they treat all of our aches and pains. As we’re finishing up, Melody asks if we’d like to try cupping. “Does it hurt?” I ask. Not really, she said.

Peter got cuppedMelody brought us to a new restaurant
Left: Peter’s post-cupping back. Despite the welty look, it doesn’t hurt. I promise. Right: Melody and me, and the many fine cuts of beef we ate.

Cupping is one of those things that the hosts of Chinese travel documentaries have to try out, always with an air of, “Isn’t Chinese medicine wacky?!” But it didn’t really feel any stranger than other poking and prodding I’d been through in the name of beauty and comfort. I was thinking of Gwyneth Paltrow, though, the whole time the cups were suctioned on my back. In the end, I felt great and Peter said that his 22-year-old back injury felt better than it ever had.

In this state of bliss, we go on to dinner. Melody takes us to a new hot pot restaurant that specializes in beef. We get individual pots, and a large spread of delicious food. They also have a spice bar there, and Peter and I go a little nuts. Looking at our bowls, Melody says she can tell we are newbies because we took so many different things. But I need garlic, peanuts, oil, 2 kinds of peppers, tahini AND sesame seeds!

The conversation is equally as delicious. We talk about what it means to live a good life and how to follow your heart, both philosophically and pragmatically. We also talk English; Melody asks us what a trust fund is — something she’d come across in her reading. “The characters are always saying, ‘Don’t touch my trust fund!’” she says. She’s surprised when we tell her that not all Americans have trust funds.

After dinner, we say goodbye to Melody and cap off the night at Manchester United. They always have interesting music there. Tonight on rotation: “Rock and Roll All Nite,” KISS; “Personal Jesus,” Depeche Mode; “Get it On (Bang a Gong),” T.Rex. Why? Who can say. That’s just China.

We ate BEEF

May 12, 2013

China gets excited about “Iron Man 3”

Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi steal the show

Iron Man

So, you may know that we got to see a different version of “Iron Man 3” over here, with some extra special Chinese scenes. It was pretty easy to tell what those scenes were, because they were all in Chinese with no English subtitles. And they seemed to be spliced in from a different film.

We went last Saturday afternoon — opening weekend, of course — and the theater was packed. Not quite sold out, but the most people we’d seen there in all our movie-going adventures. We were an excited and attentive audience, and the film just dived right in with no previews. It was awesome and exciting, and if you’re a fan of fun, you should go see it.

But, given all the hype (but none of the advertising), I was expecting a lot of the action to be set in China. *Spoiler alert*: It wasn’t. The Chinese bit was really just tacked on at the end. Tony goes to China for heart surgery, and the doctors — played by well-known Chinese actors — trade quips as they scrub up. The audience laughed, so it must have been funny.

The Chinese moment that got the biggest reaction, however, was completely unintentional: There was a widely reported bit of product placement for a popular bean drink, and when it showed up on screen as one of the doctors’ drink of choice, we all roared.