Hello Uncle Foreigner

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 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