Hello Uncle Foreigner

Dec 28, 2015

Merry Christmas, from Lijiang!

In which Peter and Emily attend a party

Xmas from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Our school threw a little party for the kids this Christmas. And Santa was there. It was lots of fun.

Dec 28, 2015

The Ballad of Sprinkles and MacNeil

Meet the neighbor dogs

The puppies!A rare Sprinkles sightingPeter, making friends with the dogs
Top: The puppies! Left: Sprinkles is the white one. She’s both more skittish and clearly the boss of MacNeil, the red one.

They are anxious, these dogs that live in our apartment complex. Really anxious. They’re terrorized by a much larger dog, who likes to come and pee on them. But they have each other. Sprinkles and MacNeil. It’s them against the world.

I once met them in the road, standing hind-quarter to hind-quarter, glaring at everyone they saw. They bark like mad every time I drive by them on my bike. They also bark like mad if there are clouds, or someone’s cooking dinner. But I think they reassure each other. They’re always upset, but they’re upset together.

Recently, one of them had puppies. It’s tough to say which one; the puppies look like neither of them, and they both guard ’em fiercely. The puppies are all named Snuggles; dogs aren’t very clever about names. And gradually, we’ve been able to make friends with the whole family.

They still bark, of course. That’s what they do. Sometimes, from inside our apartment, we can hear Sprinkles calling, “MacNeil! Come here. I need you.” But I think that means that everything is alright.

Nov 1, 2015

Party down for Halloween

Your traditional Chinese pizza and grillin’ stuff

SpeakEasy Halloween 2015 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Last night our school hosted a Halloween party, and it’s actually the first party we’ve been to in a long time. And it was fun. We mingled and selfied with the guests, who were all mostly students at the local tourism college; and had pizza and beer and BBQ — pretty Halloween-y.

Aug 26, 2015

All summer in a day

Why do we keep moving places in the rainy season?

Rain from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Rain ... forecast forever

Lijiang is beautiful and all, but for all everyone talks about the fantastic weather … it has rained every single day that we’ve been here. Just the other day, even when it was sunny, it was also raining at the same time. And the rainy season is probably going to last for at least another month. And yet, it’s also the high season for tourism, because everyone’s out of school. The tour must go on, I guess.

Aug 2, 2015

Lijiang welcomes us

And we love it

Last month, we made our big move from Luzhou to Lijiang city, in Yunnan Province. Lijiang is about an hour’s flight southeast of Luzhou (if there were such a direct flight), up in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. And it’s gorgeous.

We’ve had a hectic time settling into our new home — imagine all of the logistics of a cross-country move, in a language you’re not that great at understanding. Oh, and you have to keep the local police looped in on your whereabouts. But we’re super-psyched to be here. We’ve got a back-log of stories in the queue that we’re excited to get to soon. In the meantime, enjoy this video of our arrival in Lijiang.

Peter and Emily arrive in their new hometown of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.
Music: “悲傷的採購” & “荔枝角公園,” My Little Airport.

Jun 18, 2015

Video: Guitar with Mr. Super

No more school work, let’s make music

Guitar with Mr. Super from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Graduation time is here, releasing a new crop of students out into the world, and freeing up their time for guitar lessons.

Zhang Yu Jie — formerly Mr. Super, an English name that he’s discarded — has been our friend for the past three years. Determined to improve his English, he would practice with us as much as he could, finding us between classes, walking with us wherever, getting in those precious few moments of face time during his busy school schedule.

On our part, we learned that he is a really sweet, hard-working young man. Raised on a farm by his grandparents with his twin sister Lily, he has big dreams. The video above takes from an interview we conducted last spring, and a group guitar lesson Peter gave last month with Lily and a few friends.

Jun 14, 2015

Sunday on the mountain in our backyard

Eating some seeds

The mountain in our backyard from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Just a ways down the road from our school, there’s a small mountain path that breaks off the main highway. After staring at it curiously from the bus window for years, one night we shared a taxi — in Luzhou, it’s not uncommon to hail an occupied cab if it’s going your way — with a couple who took us on a detour up that way. As we whizzed up the curvy mountain road, Peter and I both though to ourselves: we’ve got to come back. And bring a camera.

So one sunny Sunday afternoon, we did. The yellow rapeseed flowers that take over Luzhou’s countryside were in full bloom. We joined the ranks of the few walkers on the road; most of the traffic was motorbikes — there’s a big business in the neighborhood in ferrying people up and down from the highway bus station. There are two small villages along the road, 光明村 and 咀阳村. When we reached the uphill edge of 咀阳村, after about two hours of walking, we were ready to take a break. There was a group of ladies congregated on the benches outside of a small general store, and so we joined them for some Sunday afternoon kibitzing.

Jun 14, 2015

Goodbye to Vietnam, back in China in time for the New Year

After all this time, finally leaving Baiyun International Airport

Some delicious noodle soup in a Guangzhou alleyway was just what my cold wanted.
The view from the Lazy Gaga hostel in the center of Guangzhou city
Check out the view from our hostel window. We stayed at the Lazy Gaga, mostly because it was called Lazy Gaga. But it turned out to be a great place to stay, right in the city center. The staff, in particular, was super friendly and helpful.
Canton TowerThere are crazy rides at the top of the Canton Tower.
The Canton Tower — at 600 meters tall, the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world — was one of the few local attractions that was open during the holiday. Also, we had seen it on a recent season of “The Amazing Race,” so we had to check it out. At the top, there are some crazy rides.
Our international New Year's Eve dinner
Our brand new Chinese friends, from far-flung corners of the country, treated us to a New Year’s Eve BBQ feast.

Guangzhou, in southeast China, was the last stop on our trip, between Vietnam and home. It’s the vibrant capital city of Guangdong (formerly romanized as Canton) Province, world famous for it’s cuisine. For us, this was an exciting chance to leave the somewhat terrible Baiyun International Airport — a place we’ve layed-over about half a dozen times in the past few years. Though, after 16 days on the road and a contracting mild colds, we were determined to take it easy.

Guangzhou was happy to cooperate. We landed a few days before Chinese New Year, and the city had that the-extended-family’s-home-and-a-lot-of-stuff-is-closed feeling that you find in America in the run up to Thanksgiving. A kind of relaxed frenzy; the streets were busy with happy relatives trying to find something to do. We took in the sights and snacked our way through the city center.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful, clear night, and Guangzhou is far enough south that the weather was quite warm in February. Walking by the Pearl River, we fell in with a group of young Chinese travelers who invited us to dinner. Traditionally in China, Spring Festival is a time for family, but in recent years, more and more young people are using the time off to explore their country, and abroad.

Over BBQ, we shared our stories, making quick friends of strangers in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. We had all been brought together that day by Luo Ao from Xi’an, who had left his phone number at reception, looking for someone to have tea with. Our ringleader was a soft-spoken young man, pale with boyishly chubby cheeks. He told us that he was studying technology at university in Chengdu, but that his dream was to transfer to school in Leicester, England. It was a dream deferred, however, as he recently failed the IELTS. But he is determined to try again.

Sheng Gaole — “Call me Lawrence,” he said — from the eastern city of Hefei in Anhui province, had been the first to answer Luo Ao’s invitation. He was a tall and angular fellow whose whose calm demeanor belied a rebellious streak; traveling alone in Guangzhou against strict orders from his father, he was making plans to go and visit a friend in Ohio. His father was ready for Lawrence to settle down and get married, but Lawrence wasn’t having it. “You are so free,” he told us wistfully, as we shared our own stories.

By coincidence, Kevin Lee and Quan Hui were originally from the same small city in inner Mongolia, though they had only just met tonight. Quan Hui, by far, was the quietest of the bunch. She said that she had studied English in university, but after a few years, it was starting to fade. She was happy just to soak up the conversation, I think. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite confident in his speaking ability. Another recent graduate, he works as an engineer at a firm in Shenzhen with many international connections. He may even get sent abroad, a possibility that really seemed to excite him.

The night was festive but not too wild. We toasted the holiday and each other, and ordered more and more food until everyone was very full. We talked about our jobs, our lives, and our dreams. “When do you stop getting the hong bao?” I asked, referring to the traditional red envelope full of cash given to children at this time of year. “When you get married,” said Quan Hui. “When you get a job,” said Lawrence.

When the meal was over, our four companions consulted over the check with our waitress. At the conclusion, they informed us that it was their treat, and that they got a bargain, too! It was a Happy New Year all around. They bundled us into a cab, and we were home in time for midnight. A group of travelers crowded the couch in our hostel lobby, watching the annual CCTV New Year spectacular. We, however, headed up to bed and listened for the illegal fireworks that never came; because Guangzhou is far enough east that rules are followed.

May 10, 2015

Meeting the highlands villagers

A somewhat subversive sidetrip

The Koho people are one of Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minorities, and they mostly live in tribal villages in the highlands outside of Đà lạt. Many Koho fought alongside U.S. troops in the American War — as it’s locally known — and to this day the tribes have an uneasy relationship with the central government. We visited one such village one afternoon, with a guide/translator, but we were asked to refrain from taking photos — so, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It was a fascinating trip.

Some older women let us visit with them in their one-room home. They had a pot hanging over a fire at one end, the kitchen, and small chickens wandered in and out through the gap between the walls and the ground. Until recently, they told us, ten people slept in this small space on mats rolled out over the packed earth floor. But the local government had just built them new and modern communal bedroom.

Upon our arrival, the woman were a little shy, as were we. Our guide did most of the talking. Explaining them to us and us to them. But over time they loosened up and became a loud and animated chorus to our guide’s questions. Other women from the village popped their heads in to see what the ruckus was about. “What happened in here?!?” one woman said, surprised to find a room full of “Americans” — all foreigners were American to them, our guide said. He told the women that some of us were French and German. “They all look the same to me,” one of the neighbor women replied.

We talked about life in the village. By Vietnamese standards, the Koho were quite poor and life was hard work. They live an agricultural economy, so fat and lean times come and go with the harvest. Our guide showed us some of the food that this family had on hand, including dried bush rat (which he only revealed to us after we had eaten some; first he told us it was ginger) and fermented rice gruel. There were a few fat pigs, however, wandering the village’s shared gardens.

Traditional marriages were still a big deal. In some cases, the women told us, “voodoo” (our guide’s word) was practiced to snare a mate, or smite a rival … but they may have been pulling our legs on this one. More believably, they said that the custom is for the bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a large dowry — heirloom jewelry or generations-old pottery. This particular family was too poor to afford a husband, so the daughter, now in her sixties, remained single.

Men were primarily responsible for the farming, and in this village, women’s work was handmade textiles. They gave us a short demonstration of cotton spinning and weaving. “If you go to the museum in the city, you’ll see these tools there,” our guide told us. It was pretty amazing. To do the weaving, the daughter sat on the floor and wrapped an elaborate loom around her body. She rocked back and forth to shift the threads, and passed the shuttle from hand to hand quite quickly. The resulting cloths were made into wedding costumes, though they had some “throwaway” pieces that weren’t up to snuff to the occasion for sale to outsiders.

These women were characters. Once they found their voices, they were raucous and loud, and wanted to explain everything to us. They were particularly piqued about the villagers across the river, who had stolen their land, they said. One rugged neighbor, with a pipe clenched in her teeth, told us about meeting a tiger in the nearby jungle last year. They won’t hurt with you if you don’t bother them, or run, she told us through the guide. When one of our number assured her that he had read that wild tigers were extinct in this part of the world, the women invited him to come with them and see for himself. I … would not mess with these ladies.

Things are changing in the village, however. The current generation of children go to school in the city, and they are learning Vietnamese. (The villagers speak a local dialect.) These Koho people face a challenging road, one familiar to many peoples throughout the world: Assimilation will surely mean a more comfortable life for the next generation, but how can they ensure that their communities culture and customs aren’t lost in the shuffle? This is a large part of their ongoing friction with the central government.

Before we left, the mother of the house — 82 years young — sang for us. “It’s a sad song,” said our guide. But he didn’t need to translate. Her voice keened and her body trembled as she sang, and the emotion was powerful in that small room containing many cultures. We thanked them and said goodbye. But you have to stay, said one of the women, our husbands will never believe you were here!

May 10, 2015

Real-deal Đà lat, with Rot

Out into the countryside on a guided tour for non-tourists

Rot, the Dalat tour guide who will show you all the secrets
Tour guide Rot will whisk you through the countryside on a cloud of jokes and charm.
In the courtyard at the Pink House, getting ready for the tour
We gathered for the tour early in the morning in the Pink House courtyard.
The cricket farmToasted crickets with chili sauceThe cricket farm pig
As we learned at the cricket farm, these insects are one of the world’s most efficient sources of protein. I’ll still take the pork.
A house out in the countrysideSilkworms at the roadside silkworm farm
Left: A house out in the country; Right: SILKWORMS!
Rot explains the countryside market
A large majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, and Rot explained to us that for them the death day is the most important day in one’s life. Even more important than a birthday. Each year, to commemorate the occasion, your relatives will burn paper representations of the things you might need in the afterlife; some solemn, some not so much. Here, Rot shows us a full package including glasses, slippers, a credit card, cigarettes and an iPhone. That should please the spirit of Great-great Grand Uncle.
Elephant Falls
While Peter’s seen it all, Emily thought that the Elephant Falls were quite impressive.
Rot's cousin explains some aspects of Vietnamese life
Rot’s cousin was part of the tag team that helped us hit the Đà lạt countryside.
Rot's sister's home
The home of Rot’s sister

Wherever you have a thriving tourist industry, usually at least one enterprising soul will come up with some sort of “not-for-tourists,” “real-deal” experience. Which still, of course, is patronized exclusively by tourists — but, you know, tourists who don’t want to be considered tourists. The cool ones. And sometimes, you just need a guide.

In Đà lạt, this venture is run by one Mr. Rot. And Rot is quite a character. Over the course of his “Secret Tour,” as it’s called, he filled us in on his life story: Born one of 12 children to a poor, village family, he was adopted by the family that owns the Pink House. They sent him to university, where he studied tourism. And now Rot gives tours to visiting foreigners, and does charity work and political activism for his birth village. And sings regularly at a night club in the city. He’s a charismatic showman, and somewhat of a trickster.

The tour is an all-day motorbike excursion out into the countryside. (With the option to ride along in a comfy Toyota Fortuner, which is what we did.) These days, Rot’s cousin handles the actual motorbike journey. Rot does not himself ride anymore, owing to a drunk driving accident a year ago. Among the many things he is, he isn’t a saint.

The tour encompassed a cricket farm, a silk worm farm, a coffee farm, and a curry farm. We stopped at the wet market in the small town of Nam Ban, where Rot goofed with the vendors and compared various vegetables to genitalia.

The Elephant Falls, outside of Nam Ban, was “the only place you’ll see other tourists on my trip,” promised Rot. But he insisted it was worth the stop. Both he and his cousin cautioned against buying anything at the falls’ souvenir shop; all trinkets were marked up to 3-5 times the nominal price.

There were tons of tourists there, all scrambling down the precarious rocky path to the bottom. But I thought the falls were quite beautiful. It was jungle-y and amazing. Peter and our fellow car passenger — an older European woman on a weeks-long ramble through Southeast Asia — were not quite as impressed. They’d seen better and more striking waterfalls elsewhere. We could all agree, however, that the phenomenon of young Asian women hiking these types of dangerous natural wonders in dresses and heels was pretty strange.

Lunch was at the countryside house of Rot’s sister. A Buddhist nun — Sister sister, if you will — she prepared us a simple vegetarian meal of tofu and choko over rice noodles with a soy chili sauce. We played drinking games with soda (though on past tours, I think this was done with actual alcohol). Rot and his cousin explained local customs. Crossing your fingers, a gesture of luck in North America, is a rude expression; the Vietnamese like big noses and big bellies. That kind of thing.

While at the house, we were lucky enough to meet some of Rot’s sister’s neighbors. A group of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Rot jokingly married them off to some of the guys in our group. He also got us all to say some inappropriate things in one another’s languages. Exasperated affection was pretty much the order of the day.

As we prepared for the return trip to the city, Rot nipped across the road for a quick volleyball game with some guys he knew. We were giving him a ride back in the Fortuner, so we waited while he finished up. To be honest, Peter and I were a little worried about sharing so much private time with such an energetic guy, but it turned out that Rot seemed as tired as we were, after a full day of being “on.” We rode back to the city in near silence, reflecting on the world we had just seen.