Hello Uncle Foreigner

Jan 18, 2012

Chengdu: The city to the north

Slideshow time

A street scene in Chengdu
The Chengdu photo album is here.

After a false attempt in October, we finally made it to Chengdu last week. And we were pretty much in love with it from the minute we got there. It’s a much bigger city than Luzhou (“very modern” all our students say about it), with a much more cosmopolitan flair. In fact, it’s known throughout China for its love of mixing of international styles. We could (and did) find everything from tacos to Indian food to spaghetti to cool local street snacks. And these were enjoyed equally by locals and ex-pats alike. (OK, the tacos were at a total ex-pat hang.)

It’s not actually that nice looking of a city; everything’s all grey and concrete, and modernization here tends to equal giant, sprawling highways and shopping complexes. But the spirit of the city has little to do with the horrible architecture.

It’s a city for relaxing and hanging out - almost a cafe culture, but with walls and chairs optional. Anywhere there is space to, people gather with friends to drink tea and chat or play cards and what have you. They do this in bars and restaurants, in the park, at little noodle stalls, on their front stoops, anywhere. It’s all about straight chillin’. And, from glasses of wine in the book store to cups of tea in the park, we loved it.

Jan 18, 2012

REPOST: Metal Maneki Neko

Bring us money and METAL!

Metal Cat

Since we’ve been here, we’ve had an eye out for a lucky cat for our home. We finally found one last night (in a shop right next to the school). Peter made a few mods so that our lives will be filled with metal, as well as wealth!

ETA: There should be a video above. If you can’t see it, let me know in the comments.

Jan 15, 2012

Universal truths

How much was your rent?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that when two people who’ve lived in New York meet — even in China, even if one of them is a Chinese national — they must discuss real estate prices.

Jan 11, 2012

We Cheng-did it!

Pandas, pizza and a rock show

We’ve arrived safe and sound in Chengdu, the big city to the north of Luzhou. Activities planned: Pandas, pizza and a rock show! The hostel we’re staying in is the cutest, with art by local artists on the wall and dark wood distressed floors. We’re very excited for the week ahead.

Jan 10, 2012

New pants!

Lookin’ snazzy

Me in my new pants

Xi Xi, our neighbor friend, took me out shopping the other day, on the hunt for pants. I had told her that Peter and I had both lost a ton of weight since moving here (“Oh, that’s wonderful,” she said.) but that we were still larger than the largest sizes that most stores carry. I think she didn’t quite believe me.

She brought me to a mall that I hadn’t been to before (Luzhou has 4 malls, she said. They’re all located pretty close to one another.), but it had many of the same stores I had seen in other malls. First store, no luck.

Let me back up here and say that size is only part of the problem. The style for jeans in this city seems to be: the gaudier the better. Rhinestones, stone washes, weird patches … it’s hard to find a pair of jeans that doesn’t incorporate some of that into the design. So I have to narrow my search down to the plainest pair of jeans first, and then hope that they have my size. And like I said, first store, no luck.

Second store, though, they had a few pairs in my size, in black and blue. I chose the blue pair and tried them on. I don’t think you can see in the picture, but they have a weird vein-y pattern faded into the material, with fake rips all up and down the leg. It’s subtle as far as these things go, but I would not be out of place at a Bon Jovi concert circa 1986. This gave me pause.

On the other hand, they fit! They weren’t falling off my body like my old jeans, and they were not skin tight like other jeans I had tried on. And they were on super sale. And the only people who would look and think they’re not fashionable would be me and Peter, and Peter doesn’t really care.

So I went for them. Xi Xi asked if I wanted to look around more before buying them, but I said, “No. This is the first pair of jeans in two months that has fit. I don’t need to look around anymore.”

As the saleslady was ringing us up, she told Xi Xi that my jeans were the biggest pair of pants they had in the store. They were meant for me!

Jan 10, 2012

New food on sticks

Very similar to the old food on sticks

New sticks
Fish boat

Part of our explore-the-city mission is to find places to eat other than our beloved sticks pavilion. With that in mind, last week we got gussied up and went out.

Our intention was to finally hit up one of those boat restaurants we see along the river. Turns out - and we totally should have expected this — they are fish restaurants. You can even go pick out which fish you want. Unfortunately, we wanted zero fish, so we left. Strike one.

Looking for a rotating restaurant

But, we had heard about this rotating restaurant on the top of the Luzhou Hotel! So we went to search that out. When we found it, it looked like the whole building had been closed for quite a while. Strike two.

Fancy pants chain

Our next thought was to try this street near our house where we had seen several indoor eating establishments that looked cool. We picked one - and it was more food on sticks! It was a little more upscale than our favorite outdoor place - there were wooden benches instead of plastic stools and there was a wider selection of food. We got a bowl that was split in two, one side with super spicy broth and the other with a vegetable stock. It was a nice change of pace to have a similar meal with different flavors.

It was slightly more expensive than our usual place, but we’d definitely go back.

Jan 10, 2012

Crossing the river

Ferrying across the Yangtze

Get on a boat
Check out our album of photos from the Changjiang River.

So we’ve actually been on vacation for the past two weeks, and while we have some travel planned starting tomorrow, we’ve been taking this opportunity to explore our own city a little more.

Last week, we had a not-cold, not-rainy day, so we went out for a walk by the riverfront. We finally decided to try out one of those tea places that we always walk past. I pointed at some drinks on our food list, and we ended up with some hot sugar lemon water, which was actually much better than it sounds. As we sat, vendors wandered by, offering their services to the few patrons who were out that day. A very aggressive ear cleaner came by, but one of my life rules it to limit how many strangers I let stick pointy things into my ear, so we said no until he went away.

While we were sittin’ and sippin’, we noticed that one of the boats that we had mistaken for a restaurant was actually a ferry landing. “We should go across the river some afternoon,” Peter said. “How about this afternoon?” I said.

The boat was oooooold looking, but not unsafe. There was a basket full of life-preservers in the middle of the passenger area, and some people took them up. Not knowing the protocol, and wanting to err on the side of caution, we took some too. Once the boat got underway, it became clear that we didn’t really need them.

What a different scene on the other side! It was like we stepped back in time to what I imagine pre-’80s China might have looked like. The architecture was very utilitarian, and everything was a little bit crumbling. It was just dark, gray and concrete. As we walked further away from the river, the high-rises gave way to shorter buildings with storefronts on the bottom floor selling everything from salt (now that we know what we’re looking for, its everywhere!) to novelty socks to dish detergent.

I don’t think we’ll go back there, but it was interesting to see.

Jan 7, 2012

We saw a monkey tonight at dinner!

But we can’t show you

Unfortunately, we violated rule No. 1, so you can’t see it, but while we were at dinner we saw a guy with a one-armed monkey! The guy was going around from restaurant to restaurant, showing the monkey off and asking for money.

China sure is different.

Jan 7, 2012

New Year’s Eve, part 2

Time to eat

Dinner and karaoke are the perfect New Year's Eve celebration in China.
Check out the full New Year’s album here.

After the sports meeting, the school hosted all the staff for a big dinner at the Luzhou Laojiao headquarters. Luzhou Laojiao is the local liquor company here that is known throughout China. We have some connection with them - our school is named after them - but I’m not exactly sure what. Anyway, the city provided a few buses and we bussed over to the LL banquet hall.

The room was definitely decked out for a party, with lanterns and garlands and a bottle of Luzhou Laojiao on each table (by the end of the night, much more than that would be consumed). We were sat at the head table with the principals and a woman from the Laojiao company. Linda told us that it’s still uncommon in China for women to hold high corporate positions, so this woman was pretty cool.

Before the dinner, the principals made speeches and there were a few toasts to the school. Fortunately Linda was sat with us so that she could translate. Then the food started streaming out of the kitchen. When the table was full, the servers started stacking plates on top of plates. It was incredible! And really delicious.

After a while, Linda asked me if I would sing karaoke for the crowd.

She took me in the back and showed me some English-language songs, saying, “Pick something up [tempo], to match the mood of the crowd. It’s a party atmosphere.” Something I’ve run into in the few karaoke situations that I’ve been in here is that while the Chinese love American pop, they’ve fallen for songs usually that I’m not actually familiar with (or that I actively hate). But I always find something. This time I found “Wannabe,” by the Spice Girls, an oldy but a goody. When I started to sing, the whole crowd got to their feet. People started taking photos and videos on their phones and a few guys even offered me toasts while I was singing! When I finished and was walking off stage, an encore was called for. I looked to Linda, because I didn’t want to hog the whole night, but she nodded her head and I said I’d do it. “I love you!” cried our downstairs neighbor and she gave me a hug. This time I picked “Baby One More Time …” by Britney Spears. It went down a storm, again. But when I was finished, I ceded the stage to other performers.

They sang a mix of Chinese pop and traditional songs. Crowd members offered the singers little gifts during their performance, like fruit and one guy (joking around) offered one of the plants from the stage. This is a thing, I guess. While people sang, there was more eating and more toasting. But at a certain point, there was a collective, unspoken decision that dinner was over. (This turned out to be during while one of the principals was singing - I don’t know if that was related or not.) We’ve read, and seen, that the Chinese don’t tend to linger after dinner parties. There’s no: let’s retire to the living room and have some port and talk for hours. It’s more: food is done, let’s go.

So people slowly started getting their coats on and leaving. Though not everyone. There was still a ton of food left, and Luzhou Laojiao, and some were sticking around to enjoy it. But we were ready to leave. We got a ride home in the school car with some school officials. They helped me practice my new phrase that I learned, “Xin Nian Hao,” which means “Happy New Year.” (Pronunciation tip: “X” is pronounced with an “Sh” sound, so the phrase kind of sounds like, “Shin Nyan How.”)

It was only about 8 pm when we got home, but it had been a big day. So we rang in the New Year drinking beers and watching English-language television on our computer. Not too shabby.

Jan 5, 2012

New Year’s Eve, part 1

Let’s have a Field Day

The teachers jump rope
Check out the best of our Field Day photos here.

The Gregorian New Year isn’t a huge deal here in China (except for the fact that there are even more sales on). A Chinese friend, when we told her we celebrate New Year’s Eve with a big party, said,”But didn’t you just have one at Christmas?” But our school has an annual Field Day and dinner for the staff members on December 31.

Linda, my head teacher, told me to join them in the school gym wearing my sports clothes, which I had trucked halfway across the world and not worn yet, so I was happy to have the chance. For the rest of the teachers, “sports clothes” apparently meant, maybe bring sneakers or comfortable shoes to put on with your normal work clothes. So I was the odd one out, in my NY Running Club-acquired gear. (And, oh yeah, the gym is open to the outdoors, so that’s why everyone is wearing coats.) But, I pretty much stick out no matter what, so I couldn’t be too embarrassed about it. (Peter was an event photographer, so he was dressed in street clothes, too.)

We were divided into four teams by the grades we taught: Junior 1, Senior 1, Senior 2, and Senior 3. Because I teach Junior 1 and Senior 1, I did one event for each team. The events were: Horse Crossing a River, wherein each pair had to traverse the gym together stepping only inside the two hula-hoops that they inched down the gym floor; a sack race, which I had only ever seen done on TV before; jump rope - the handle had a counter and the idea was get as many rotations as you could in one minute; and a relay race. I did the last two. There were varying levels of athleticism on display - and a lot of falling over during the sack race - but everyone laughed and cheered everyone else on.

They announced the winners at the end. My teams both lost the events I was in (not because of me, I hope; I think I performed decently), but everyone got prizes. I won a badminton set! Now Peter and I will have to learn how to play.

Then it was on to dinner. See you in part 2 …