Hello Uncle Foreigner

Dec 22, 2011

Shenzhen: On our way home

Walking over the Chinese border

Emily, on the Shenzhen border
Here’s an album of photos from Shenzhen.

As I may have mentioned, it’s cheaper to fly back to Luzhou from Shenzhen - the city over the Chinese border - rather than going direct from Hong Kong. And the Shenzhen-Luzhou flight runs every other day at 7 am. So Monday evening, after picking up Peter’s passport, we crossed the border back into China so that we’d be ready to catch our Tuesday morning flight.

We took light rail from the center of Hong Kong right to the Lo Wu border checkpoint. A few stops before the checkpoint, a bunch of people swarmed on with huge boxes and burlap sacks. They started handing out items from the boxes and sacks that other swarmers grabbed and secured in their small luggage, making sure that nothing looked lumpy. By the time we reached the checkpoint stop, the boxes and sacks were broken down and out of sight, and everyone left one-by-one. It was extraordinary to see - out of the side of my eye, of course. This didn’t seem like an operation you wanted to get caught staring at.

The crossing itself was easy enough. We filled out departure cards on the Hong Kong side and arrival cards on the Shenzhen side. This particular border crossing is supposed to be the busiest, though we zoomed right through. It went much faster than our crossing the opposite way at Shenzhen Bay. As we were going through customs, we saw a school group doing the same thing - with 50 or so 10-year-old kids! I would not want to be a chaperone on that field trip.

Back in China, you’re immediately confronted with the grayness of Shenzhen. Customs empties out into a big paved expanse with the main rail and metro stations right there. It’s convenient, but ugly. Our hotel was in walking distance, so we walked. The scenery got a little better.

For dinner, we found another Mexican place: Amigos! They had an album of photos outside, next to their menu, showing people enjoying their food. While we were browsing, the host came out, dressed in a serape, to convince us that this was the place for us. We could hear some Australians inside having a good time. One of my travel rules is that you usually find Australians in fun places, so that sealed the deal.

The food was good enough - it was our last real cheese for the foreseeable future. And they had delicious sangria. It was a fun time when we weren’t expecting one, so that’s always nice.

We woke up the next morning at an excruciatingly early 4:30 am to get to the airport by 6. The less said of this, the better.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: Out in Wan Chai

The wall of Scotch

Scotch at Nana's Thai restaurant

To finish up our last night in Hong Kong, we had a bar crawl through Wan Chai, one neighborhood over from the one where we were staying. Seedier spots mixed in with casual pubs and dive bars, and even on a Sunday there were a few people out and about.

Our first stop was Nana’s, a cute little Thai place that specialized in Scotch (pictured). We were a little sad that we had already eaten, because the food smelled so good. It was a funny place to find good Scotch - Nana’s was definitely pulling off a tropical beach shack vibe.

The next two destinations were English pubs: The Bulldog, which leaned toward sports bar, and Trafalgar Pub, also sporty but more refined with overstuffed chairs and dark woods.

At Trafalgar, where we were sitting on the balcony, it started to rain. It was late, and we were tired of spending money, so we called it a night. On the way home, we picked up a bag of pretzels (surprisingly hard to find over here) at the grocery store, and said our goodbyes to Hong Kong. The next morning, we would be picking up Peter’s passport and crossing the boarder back into China proper.

Scotch at Nana's
Check out our Wan Chai photo album.

Dec 20, 2011

Hong Kong: The search for Mexican food

Spoiler: We find some

Our need for pizza sated, the mission Sunday night was Mexican food. We looked up a few places in Central that sounded good.

An awesome thing about Central district: It’s situated on a super steep hill, so they’ve built a giant 800-meter long escalator. There’s a break every block, so you can get off and on where you need to. It’s super cool.

The Mexican place we found was called something like El Taco Loco, and it was just the kind of disgusting cheese-covered junk food we were looking for. It was a super casual place, with tacos and burritos served in red plastic baskets, and it seemed to be super popular with the younger ex-pat crowd.

After eating, we hit up an English-style pub called Waterloo Station. Basically, we wanted to suck up all the foreign-ness that we could before we returned to China.

We found some terrible Mexican food!
Follow the full journey to find Mexican food.

Dec 19, 2011

Sichuan winter

It’s not so hot now, is it

Southern Sichuan is known for the fact that it gets very, very hot in the summertime. It’s part of their identity — Sichuan is hot.

This doesn’t mean it doesn’t get cold in the winter; the weather started turning crisp at the end of November and it’s in the mid- to high-40s these days. Not freezing, but still cold. However, I think because they think of it as hot here, they make no provisions for the cold.

We have heat in our apartment, thank goodness, as well as a space heater. But the classrooms are completely unheated. In fact, when Peter told one of his classes that schools in America are heated during the winter, their minds were blown. And the classes have air conditioning in the summer - it’s hot here, remember? Just no heat. So we teach bundled up in our coats and gloves, and the students come to class with tons of little gadgets to keep themselves warm, including electric hand warming pillows. My favorite thing that seems to be a trend with the kids are these plush dolls with giant heads for the kids to stick their hands into, like a muffler. But the best part is that the heads have these tiny little bodies that hang off them. I’ll try to get a photo, they’re hilarious.

Dec 19, 2011

Hong Kong: Tai O

Fishing for tourists

The other big attraction on the island of Lantau is the fishing village Tai O, located on the south coast. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, it was getting dark, so we only got off a few snaps before it was time to go. But it was very pretty.

A nighttime view of Tai O
A quick photo tour of Tai O.

Dec 18, 2011

Hong Kong: Big Buddha and Po Lin Monastery

And real live cows

Big Buddha in Hong Kong

Oh yeah! More Hong Kong posts.

Our Sunday in Hong Kong was spent on the island of Lantau. This is where the airport is. It’s also where you find Big Buddha and the Po Lin monastery. OK, technically he’s called the Tian Tan Buddha, but everyone calls him Big Buddha - he’s 26 meters tall, the worlds’ largest seated Buddha! And everyone also told us this was a must see sight.

We took a cable car up the mountain where he lives. The views were spectacular. It was hard to believe that such greenery was only a 30 minute subway ride from the center of the city.

At the top, we disembarked in this little “village.” The path to Buddha was lined with tourist shops galore, hawking everything from postcards to expensive jade jewelry. There were also a bunch of fast food options. Nearer to the monastery, they ask you to refrain from meat eating, so your opportunity to it was right there.

This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city, so it was very crowded, but orderly and clean. There were bubble machines blowing bubbles everywhere, and some cheesey kid activities, including a movie starring a cartoon monkey teaching the value of sharing. It was all very weird and Disney-like.

It got a little less profane as we approached the monastery. Alongside the path, the scenery changed from commerce to Buddha’s soldiers. Signs asked you to respect the Buddhist way of life, which meant no alcohol, no smoking and no meat. I had a turkey sandwich in my bag, but as long as I didn’t flaunt it, I was fine.

The monastery is still in use. In fact, a large part of it is under construction. Inside, the temple, people were kneeling with their shoes off, praying to the deities on display. People had also left them small tributes of fruit and other snacks.

Buddha was at the top of a long set of stairs. He was big! He also afforded a nice view of the surrounding country side. On his chest was a large swastika, which was a somewhat surprising sight. Although later, we looked it up, and of course it’s been used as a Buddhist symbol for thousands of years. It signifies the Buddha’s heart, as well as good fortune. Nothing to do with the Nazis.

On the way back, we spotted a cow that had wandered into the “village.” The fake village is not far from many real villages on the mountain, and the cow must have come from there. At first, I thought it was a statue, until it moved.

We're on our way, in a cable car, up the mountain
We’ve got two full slideshows of photos from our trip. Check them out one and two.

Dec 7, 2011

Translation fun

Eat up, bacon face

The noodle menu
I can’t read this!

I’ve been eating lunch pretty much every day at the noodle stand down the road from the school. It’s worked like this: The first day I went I asked for mian (“noodles, please!”) and the woman behind the counter said a bunch of stuff in Chinese that I just said yes to. I ended up with a delicious bowl of spicy noodle soup. The word has spread among the staff that this is what I eat, so I just walk in and someone brings me that same dish.

It’s a pretty convenient system, but I’ve been noticing other diners with other dishes I would like to try. One day, I tried pointing at a different dish that someone else was eating, but they smiled, nodded and served me the same thing I always have. So the solution I hit on was to take a picture of the menu (pictured, ha!) and I’ve been working on translating it at home.

In case you didn’t know, Chinese is hard, man! Some characters have a few different translations depending on context - like for example, that character at the end of each menu item (面), that’s mian, which means “noodle.” But it also can mean “surface” or “face,” which is how I ended up with a translation of “dirty burning surface” for one of the dishes. And I spent about an hour trying to figure out what “Wang surface blood broth” really might be. (I’m 80% sure it features pig intestine.)

Another dish came up as “blanket noodle.” But, as it turns out, it’s a wide, flat noodle that resembles a blanket, so it’s actually supposed to be called that.

My favorite mistranslated dish: “bacon face.”

Dec 5, 2011

An afternoon in Zhongshan Park

A greenspace in the grey

Lovely greenery in Zhongshan Park
Check out our full album of Zhongshan Park.

We’d seen it on many maps: Zhongshan Park is a large greenspace in the center of Luzhou’s Jiangyang District (which is also where we live). On Saturday, we finally found it.

Zhongshan Park, Luzhou

Zhongshan Park is actually a name for many parks around China, according to Wikipedia, as a way to honor Dr. Sun Yat-Sen. But beyond the name, our Zhongshan doesn’t betray that history. It’s just a park. Though a nice one.

It was a crisp and wintry 55 degrees out, but we still saw many other people enjoying the rare non-rain. The park has a lot of carefully landscaped nature, as well as a few ponds where you can go on boat rides, and some little amusement park rides: go-carts and the like. There was also an outdoor public pool; closed for the winter, but we’re guessing it gets jam-packed in the summer. It gets really hot here.

But even in the relative cool of a southern Sichuan winter, it’s a pretty place. Because it’s not actually that cold, the leaves on the trees are still intact, and a few people even brave the boat rides. We’re definitely planning on returning. There’s a zoo and an aviary we’d like to check out, as well as a tea house which seems an idyllic spot for sipping some tea.

Dec 5, 2011

Gaoxing, gaoxing!

or, Always bring the camera

“Always bring the camera” is the rule we’re supposed to be living by, and its importance was reiterated Saturday night.

We were just going for sticks, a dinner which has been well documented, so we left the camera at home. And most of dinner was uneventful. Delicious, but uneventful. However, just as we were down to our last few sticks, a group of local young men (we estimate mid- to late-20s) invited us to join them.

Two things: In Chinese culture, an offer to host you for food is a very serious piece of social currency. We could have said no, but it just would have been very uncool (jumping ahead - when they offered to pay our bill as well, we gave weak protests but relented easily, because in a related way it’s incredibly impolite to refuse such an offer). Also, part of our strategy for living here is to say yes when ever possible.

They didn’t really speak any English, but I told them that we were Meiguo (American), and they loved that. They made several toasts to us, and we started having a tentative good time. But there was still the issue of dinner. We had already eaten a lot, and their bowl of broth was filled with mostly meat. One of the boys got on the phone and handed it to me. A woman’s voice speaking pretty good English explained that they wanted us to eat with them. I told her that we were very grateful for the offer, but we had just eaten a lot. But we would like to sit with her friends and have a drink or two.

More toasts resulted. “Gaoxing!” the boys kept saying, which we figured out meant “happy.” Soon we were all yelling “Gaoxing! Gaoxing!” which was to be our mantra for the night. Karaoke was proposed. Karaoke seems to be the main form of nightlife around here, but Peter and I had yet to go. It wasn’t something that we would do on our own, and while there had been talk about going to KTV with some of our Chinese friends and coworkers, there had been no action.

We were curious, but we also have a 10 pm curfew (it was almost 9). The phone was brought out again. Our faceless translator explained they wanted to take us to karaoke. I explained about the curfew.”What about 11?” she asked on behalf of the boys. “We live at a school, and they’re pretty strict,” I explained our somewhat embarrassing circumstances.

Finally a plan was made. We’d abandon dinner and go to karaoke NOW! And they would make sure that we got home by 10. Everyone made the gesture for 10, so it was clear we all understood.

In the car on the way there, the boys were furiously working the phones. I heard the phrase “Meiguo pengyou!” used several times, which means “American friends!”

The karaoke place - or perhaps I should say karaoke palace - was amazing. It was on the second floor, and the elevator doors opened onto a gaudily opulent lobby, with every filigree gilded in gold. The people who worked there were all wearing bellhop uniforms, and one such guy led us to our private room. It was huge, with a giant screen taking up one wall - for the karaoke-ing, obviously.

The attendant brought in beer (and filled our glasses as quickly as we could empty them) and a few fruit plates, and we set to work picking out songs to sing. The guys all wanted to hear us sing, and since I was more willing than Peter, I ended up singing the first three songs. One of them was a duet in Chinese - they brooked not the fact that I knew neither the song nor the language. I was able to pick up the tune, kind of, and they didn’t seem to mind that the noise I was making was not even close to words in any language. (I figured out when we got home that the song was “Beijing Welcomes You,” which was hugely popular in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. I think they just couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t know it. When they sang the chorus (because everyone sang the chorus), they changed it to “Luzhou Welcomes You,” which was very cute.)

More and more people arrived, and the party really got going. Everyone wanted to meet the Meiguo pengyou, and some of them actually had a little bit of English.

There was a little spinner on the table for a game, and a few of us sat down to play. The rules were simple: spin the spinner and do what it says. Most of the commands were drink related (you drink, you choose someone to drink, everyone drinks!) and karaoke related (sing the next song).

Then the room demanded a duet between Peter and me. They chose “I Want It That Way,” by N’Sync, a song Peter didn’t really know. But again, no matter. I sang and Peter made some supportive noises, and they loved it! Later, Peter told me that this was the very first time he had actually sung at karaoke.

Sadly, after that, it was time for us to go. “Eleven! Eleven!” some cried. But we really did have to go. We said our goodbyes and we got a cab, bummed that we had to leave the party early. And super bummed that we didn’t bring our camera.

Dec 5, 2011

Hong Kong: Breakfast in Victoria Park

Fruit and croissants in the sun

People lounging on the lawn in Victoria Park
Browse our album of Victoria Park photos.

Our hostel was right near Victoria Park, a lovely expanse of greenspace. Sunday morning, we grabbed some fruit and croissants (ah, bread products!) and had a breakfast picnic.

We weren’t the only people with this idea, of course, on such a sunny day. The park was packed. Women in headscarves were selling tarps for people to spread out on the lawn. People were careful to stick to the shade, and many groups sat under parasols. I’ve finally found a culture where tan isn’t cool! (This actually gets a little creepy when people tell me I’m pretty for being so pale.)

A little ways from where we ate, there was a shallow pool where people brought their motor boats to race one another. There were several older men who seemed quite serious about it. The pool was divided in two, with one section devoted to a more “just for fun” type of hobbyist. We joined the kids in their delight at watching the different little crafts whiz by.