Hello Uncle Foreigner

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.

Nov 22, 2014

To the top of Fangshan Mountain

Luzhou’s own scenic spot

A scene at the top of Fangshan Mountain, outside of Luzhou city
Peter on the bus, behind a man and his basket of produceEmily on the busBeside a row of teahouses at the top of the mountainMany teahouses had hammocks for restingA monk and a worker have a chatThe temple, from afarThis chicken is delicious and completely fakeA kitchen full of vegetablesAt the base of the mountain, a monk gets a haircut

The bus out to Fangshan is a small, green, rickety affair, bringing the phrase “bucket of bolts” to life. Our companions on the ride out were a small group of tourists, and farmers with their big woven baskets full of produce and rice. Also, some packages that were making the trip independently. This was a multi-purpose bus. The route to the mountain wends through narrow country roads along the Yangtze River. We passed farms and small villages, and a granny-type who handed the driver a lunch box through his window. The journey isn’t that far — only about 45 minutes — but it felt like traveling worlds away from our city life.

At our destination, the way opened out into your typical tourist structures: noodle huts, incense sellers and ticket booths. The “bus station” here is an informal group of benches across from a couple of reserved parking spaces. Immediately off the bus, some people asked to take a picture with us, the foreigners at the base of Luzhou’s prized attraction.

Fangshan — shan, or 山, meaning mountain — bills itself as a mini-Emei and one of the eight wondrous Buddhist mountains of Sichuan Province. Personally, I think it’s lovelier than Emei; the surroundings feel more lived-in and intimate, and on the day we were there, there were far fewer tourists. (Although a student of mine warned that it can get busy during the holidays.) Active temples and monasteries climb the mountainside, and the natural mixes freely with the man-made. I had a little chat with one of the staff members who was delighted to find that I could speak Chinese. “And so am I,” I said to Peter, relating the encounter.

At the top of the mountain, there is a hotel. Catching the sunrise is a major attraction at Sichuan’s Buddhist mountains, and the best way to do that is to sleep over, I guess. There are also a bunch of scrappy little restaurants and teahouses; most of them with hammocks strung between their own little cluster of trees. Hanging out, of course, being all of Sichuan’s favorite pastime. We opted, instead, for the walking path through the forest out to Knife’s Edge Ridge.

The day was quite overcast, like many autumn days in Luzhou. Our walk through the woods was serene and felt almost otherworldly. At the ridge, the trees fell away and the path became two shallow parabolas, hammocked between a pair of short pagodas. It was a misty, beautiful view, like you see in movies about China. We sat and contemplated our surroundings, marveling that this was in our own backyard.

Mid-mountain, there is Yunfeng Temple — this was the main reason we were there. After three years of making and breaking plans to visit Fangshan, we recently learned from our friend Andrea that the temple restaurant makes amazing fake meat dishes out of tofu (a Buddhist tradition). And if there’s anything that motivates us, it’s food.

It was a late lunch for us. We ordered “chicken” in a scallion and mushroom broth, a side of intensely spicy cucumbers, and the house special — which turned out to be more tofu. Our vegetarian chicken wouldn’t fool anyone (and our server made sure we understood that nothing was made with meat), but it was delicious. Savory and chicken-y with a real fleshy texture. It hit the spot after our morning’s ramble. If the restaurant wasn’t halfway up a mountain, we might go more often.

As it stands, we’d already like to return to Fangshan. There’s really no excuse not to. It’s such a short, easy — if bumpy — bus trip, and there are many more paths to explore. Not to mention the caves and waterfalls that we missed. At the very least, we’d like to try the “fish.”

Knife's Edge Ridge unfurls into the mist
Knife’s Edge Ridge affords a striking view.

Nov 1, 2014

Video: A Good Night in Tai’an

Dinner in our favorite countryside neighborhood

A good night in Tai’an from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

For dinner most nights, rather than go into Luzhou city, we hang out in nearby Tai’an. And it’s always a good night.

Oct 18, 2014

Video: Postcard from the Moon

Fun on the night of the eclipse

Postcard from the moon from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Dancing around after the October 8th Blood Moon. We missed the blood, but we found the dance. Music: Pugwash, “Answers on a Postcard”

Oct 18, 2014

Help and friends, and how that works

Hey, we’re more than getting by …

our new spa chair at home
It was a pretty big ordeal getting our new spa chair home.

Everywhere we go, people know us

When we lose our way, people show us

When we break down, people tow us

And send us on our way with a smile and a little wave

“Meeting Mr Miandad,” The Duckworth Lewis Method

The big question our students ask us basically boils down to: “If you don’t speak Chinese well, how do you get stuff done?” (A close second is, “Teacher, why here?” But to that I say, why not here?)

The answer is, the kindness and goodwill of friends and strangers is overwhelming. In all of our travels throughout China (and, really, the rest of the world, too), we’ve found that most people want to help. And doesn’t hurt that we’re willing to look like fools when necessary; I once, in a prolonged performance, acted the part of a dying mouse to a shop clerk who eventually figured out that we needed traps and showed us where they were.

My Chinese is steadily improving, too, which means daily life stuff is getting easier. But, sometimes a little information is dangerous. Like, for example, in the case of the Man who Helped Us on our way Home with Heavy Packages. We had a massage chair, and he had a taxi — I thought. Fantastic, because we needed a taxi. In fact, what he actually must have said was something like, “Let me help you carry that heavy thing to the bus stop,” because that’s what he did. And it was the wrong bus stop; there was just miscommunication all around.

But, are you going to be mad at that? This guy very sweetly came to our (perceived) aid and helped carry our giant massage chair kind of a long way. With — more! — help from an English-speaking student also at the bus stop, we sorted out what went wrong. Then, all that was left to do was to shake hands and part ways. “朋友,” Peter said to the man as we said goodbye, friends. And we got into a taxi.

Oct 12, 2014

Our surprise friend

A local kid continues our education

We made a new friend who sat and talked with us at River Restaurant

This summer and fall have been particularly lovely in Luzhou: Not too hot, not too much rain and way more blue sky days than you’d expect from a country with such a problem with air pollution. So we’ve been finding every excuse to spend our time outside. And one of our favorite outside haunts, we’ve been referring to as the River Restaurant. (Formerly, My Birthday Restaurant, because the first time we were there was to celebrate my first birthday in China.)

A few weeks ago, we met a new friend — a bold 12-year-old girl who pulled up a chair and sat with us for about a half hour. We practiced a little English, but mostly she peppered us with questions in Chinese. Do you have children? Is New York the capital of America? The usual. She also gave me a rapid-fire lesson on the Chinese holidays; at this point Mid-Autumn festival was just around the corner. We took a photo with her, and she left, with a vague promise that we’d meet again someday.

And then we did see her again, just two days ago. Her home is near the very tip of the Luzhou city peninsula. She walked with us to dinner (this time at Pork Rib restaurant), announcing to the staff proudly that we were her 美国朋友 — American friends — and telling us that the staff were her 中国朋友 — Chinese friends. Then she flitted off into the wind once more.

Oct 8, 2014

Video: Hello, Uncle Foreigner!

What if we were living a sitcom?

Hello, Uncle Foreigner from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Josh Pike, “Clovis’ Son.”

We bought a new camera. Can you tell?