Hello Uncle Foreigner

Dec 26, 2011

The search for salt

What are we missing?

One of the interesting things here is seeing what we can easily find and what we can’t. For instance, I can find the same exact brand of face wash that I used in the states and replacement razor heads for my razor. But they don’t have leave-in conditioner. Also, for our party, we found disposable cups and bowls … but our guests were amazed that we had them. They were also astonished by the colored tea lights that I had found at a local gift shop; it was something they had never seen before!

But something that we’ve had a really hard time finding is table salt. We’ve looked at several grocery stores, and we just can’t find it. We can find plenty of MSG, but no salt. But it’s not that they don’t use salt here: We see it at restaurants all the time. We live two hours away from the salt capital of China! (Zigong, if you’re interested.) Our neighbors brought over some salt to cook with for our party even, so it’s not a rare thing. We just can’t find it anywhere.

It’s a mystery!

Dec 25, 2011

Christmas Eve in Luzhou

We throw our first party

A small party in our living room
Take a look at our Christmas Eve photo album.

Our teachers have been very kind to us at Christmas. Tonight, they threw us a pot luck party at our apartment - we provided the alcohol; they liked the sangria and gamely took tiny shots of Jack Daniels. We finally performed “Just Like Heaven” — I was sick when we were supposed to perform it at a school-wide assembly — and they loved it.

After dinner, we went to karaoke at one of the places by the river. We had a private room, and they asked me to sing every English-language song. Peter also helped me sing one song. It was very silly fun. And it made for a nice foreign Christmas.

Dec 23, 2011

An apple for the teacher

Merry Christmas

Our students know it’s Christmas this weekend, and it’s also nearing the end of term. So this week a couple of our kids have given us apples as a gift! Cliches are true!

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.”