Hello Uncle Foreigner

Feb 2, 2015

Make room for banh mi

We’re going to Vietnam!

To Vietnam

In Mandarin, the words for Vietnam the country and Yunnan the province sound very similar, resulting in some confusion when talking to our students and friends about our winter break plans. “No, it’s in a different country. To the south.” (If they say something about “Spring City,” I know that communication has failed.)

But Ho Chi Minh City is our destination this winter — to get a break from the cold, to eat some fantastic food, and to up our level of travel difficulty, just a little bit. To prepare, we’ve watched every episode of television made by Vietnamese Australian chef Luke Nyugen. He’s given us a long list of dishes to try. And to facilitate the eating, I’ve been studying the language a bit. Is it hard? Kind of: Vietnamese has six tones to Mandarin’s four, but it is written using the Roman alphabet not characters. (Let comics artist Malachi Ray Rempen show you the difference between the Asian scripts.) There are at least six different words for “you,” depending on the number and gender of the people that you’re talking to, but verbs don’t need to be conjugated and often can be completely omitted. After about a month, I feel pretty solid on asking where the bathroom is: Nhà vệ sinh ở đâu?

So we’re ready to go! We start tomorrow for Chengdu and arrive in HCMC on Thursday. It’s going to be delicious.

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Jan 21, 2015

You’re invited to the wedding

By the way, it’s tomorrow!

Wedding from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The best dressed guestOur luxurious seafood-rich banquet lunch
Right: The best dressed guest had all of the photographers snapping. Left: Lunch was spectacular and delicious.

Wendy called at about 9 o’clock the night before. Her brother’s son was getting married, and would we like to come? The occasion for the invitation was that her nephew was practicing some English to drop into his speech, which made Wendy think of us. (Ultimately, she advised him against using a foreign language; “He’s not that good,” she said.)

This was my first time attending an actual Chinese wedding ceremony, but I had learned a thing or two already. For example, the actual, legal, “we are officially married” thing is not what I would be witnessing. That happens in a government office to very little fanfare. When our friends Maybell and Claude got married, they did this part in matching hooded sweatshirts one morning when they were both free. But then, of course, you have to have a big, flashy party after — and this is what I was invited to.

Wendy’s nephew’s big, flashy party was at one of Luzhou’s premiere five-star hotels. The event started in the lobby, where there was a backdrop for arrival photos and a welcome table staffed by Xi Xi — Wendy’s daughter — and some other cousins. They gave out candy and packs of cigarettes to incoming guests, and in turn, the guests handed over fat magenta wads of 100 yuan bills as gifts for the happy couple.

The ceremony itself was upstairs in a grand ballroom. The bride’s village sat on one side and the groom’s on the other, Wendy explained. She scooted me towards the stage as her nephew walked the center catwalk, starting the proceedings. The bride emerged from under the stage in a shower of rose petals, and the host made an impassioned welcome speech. The whole spectacle was reminiscent of the televised variety shows that are so popular here.

There were more speeches, the presentation of the parents, toasts with tea and toasts with wine, and the all-important red envelopes given from the parents to the couple. The bride and groom sealed their vows with a hug and a chaste kiss. And then there was lunch.

A spillover room across the hall from the ballroom was allocated for last minute invites, like me. I estimate that there were about a hundred of us happy surprises, because Chinese hospitality is no joke. And our banquet lunch was your usual abundance; dishes piled on one another in the center of the table. “This fish is very expensive,” Wendy proudly told me.

Unfortunately, I had to teach a class that afternoon, so I could only join in one baijiu toast (Wendy wanted me to do six!). And then I cut my own celebration short. But the party raged on well into the evening, I hear. And that’s how you get married in China.

Jan 20, 2015

Welcome to the new and independent Hello Uncle Foreigner

We say goodbye to Tumblr and a media empire is born

The new site, Jan 2015

Update your bookmarks: Today, we’re very excited to launch the new Hello Uncle Foreigner under our domain! Tumblr’s been a good home, but Peter and I are looking forward to taking this project even further, now that we can write our own code.

Making the transfer, we’ve had the opportunity to go back through all of our old stories which has been both fun and educational. If you haven’t been with us from the beginning, we invite you to go on back to September 27, 2011 and see how it all began.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Jan 1, 2015

Video: Give sports a try

We’re all the winner

Give Sports a try from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: “I’m Not Even Going to Try,” David Devant and His Spirit Wife.

The kids of Tianfu middle school don’t have to try; they were born cool.

Dec 22, 2014

Snaps: Should your potatoes taste like bacon?

Yes. Yes they should taste like bacon.

Potatoes and bacon

We’re particular eaters with limited vocabulary, so we’ve established a fairly consistent routine for dinner. At Riverside Hot Pot we get the pork meatballs, at Pork Rib we get the pork rib, and at Beef Hot Pot we get the Dragon Boat. We add to this from time to time, when we’re feeling adventurous or when I get some new vocabulary. And occasionally, our restaurant owner buddies make some suggestions.

The woman who runs Around the Corner restaurant in Tai’an knows us pretty well, and the other night she gestured toward another table and said something about potatoes. We went for it, and the result? Homemade potato chips fried with cured pork. We have a new winner!

Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Nov 29, 2014

Snaps: Winter is here

And everyone loves Peter’s hat

Peter's sherpa hat keeps him warm in the cold.

We may not have 35 feet of snow, but the cold season has hit Luzhou. So it’s time to break out the winter fashions. Peter’s Iron Maiden sherpa hat has been getting compliments all over town.

Nov 22, 2014

Video: Life along the Yangtze

Viewing the world from our perch in Luzhou

Traveller from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Devin Townsend, “Traveller”

A typical fall afternoon, hanging out by the river.