Hello Uncle Foreigner

Dec 31, 2013

Three times Christmas in Luzhou

We learn that we know nothing and stuff blows up

Our festive apartment
Some little toys from the kidsA cross-stitch from the teachers I taughtA print from a studentTraditional Chinese parasolsThe bare-bones before shot of our apartment
Most of the decor in our apartment is gifts from students. Below, the apartment in a barer state.

Formerly, I thought Christmas for the Chinese was just about shopping and sales, but our friend Chris just told us that it’s also tradition for people to give apples to each other, because the words for apples and for Christmas Eve (which is translated as “Peaceful Night”) sound alike. So you give apples to your friends and family to wish them peace. Chris said that the practice is so common that apple sellers jack their prices in the few days before Christmas. Peace can be pricey.

There were no apples for us this year, but one early December afternoon our friend Tina tracked us down in the hallways between classes to give us her gift, a beautiful hand-painted umbrella. “It’s very small,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money.” We told her that we loved it, because that’s the truth, and we gave her a big hug.

This year, the one thing Peter and I really wanted for Christmas was the Dragon Boat of Meat from our favorite beef hot pot restaurant across town. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve having (a perfectly nice) dinner with our bosses, and Christmas night waiting in the rain and not getting picked up by cabs. But on Boxing Day, we made it.

The Dragon Boat of Meat

The Dragon Boat of Meat is spectacular. It is also a carpaccio — a fact that had to be repeated and mimed several times by our bemused servers before we understood that we were supposed to eat it raw. We basically know nothing about anything. Peter actually kept cooking it on the sly even after we were positive that it was supposed to be eaten as is, because he wasn’t crazy about the uncooked texture.

Boxing Day was also when the mall in the center of the city blew up, though we didn’t learn about that until the following day, when we tried to go shopping there. We needed a new laptop bag. Actually, we had a weird lunch first, at a tofu soup place we like. They refused to bring us beans or turn on the table-top burners, but they didn’t want us to leave either. It was only slightly more confusing than usual.

After lunch, we walked out to the main road and saw the fire trucks and soldiers. Little boys in big coats, actually, guarding the smoking wreckage. The road was cordoned off to vehicular traffic and hundreds of gawkers crowded the sidewalks. “Well, we’re not going shopping.”

Local rumor, we found out later from Chris, is that one of the restaurants was doing something dodgy with their cooking equipment. Whatever it was, it caused an entire city block to blow up. Many people were hurt and four people died. Reportedly, people in the movie theater thought that the explosion was some kind of 3D effect. This is my worst fear, justified.

Life goes on, though, and four days later traffic is mostly back to normal, and the spectators are down to a minimum. Tofu soup still doesn’t have any gas, and the local McDonald’s remains shuttered; I suspect the underground damage to the gas lines is pretty extensive. But we bought a computer bag elsewhere, which I’m sure is what you were worried about most.

The movie theater blew up!

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an

Dec 18, 2013

Baby, it’s cold inside

And there just aren’t enough layers in the world

The cold city streets of Luzhou

“It’s going to rain this weekend, and then the temperature will fall,” our boss Linda predicted last week. And she was absolutely right. It was 49 degrees this morning, and we are dying.

Now I know that all of America is drowning in monstrous amounts of climate-change snow. Complaining about a dip below 50 degrees may seem small potatoes. But in China, the cold is defended against only with more and more clothing. Maybe an electric hand warmer, if you’re lucky. (I take two to bed with me these days.) Fuel is expensive and heating systems are poorly designed and inefficient. Effectively, you are outside all the time. And it’s the WORST.

But, mercifully, some of our classes turned on their heaters today! This is the first time in 3 years that either of us has seen that happen. I could even remove my hat and gloves, it was so warm. I kept my coat on, though. It’s not that warm.

Dec 14, 2013

Snaps: The box it came in is always more fun

The bustle of Tai An

This kid found a lovely new hat.

We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An. Our favorite spot is a place we’ve dubbed Egg Bar (which was formerly Old Man Bar) because the proprietress sells eggs as well as beer. We like it there primarily for the dumplings, but also for its perfect view of the busy little alleyway.

Dec 2, 2013

A new couple enters the mix

Snow and Jeff host us for an amazing lunch

Jeff and Snow with all their friends

Snow is a native Luzhou-ite who is the director of the foreign languages department at Sichuan Foreign Language high school. Jeff, her husband, is an Australian who taught ESL at the school about a decade ago. They recently returned from a stint teaching English in Mozambique (Snow was on sabbatical), and looking for expat friends, they got in touch with us through our boss Linda. A lunch invitation was issued; “Snow loves to host parties,” Jeff told us.

Jeff and Snow
Jeff and Snow host a mean banquet

And he was not underselling. Expecting a modest bite of noodles or something, we were instead presented with an out-and-out midday banquet with a half-dozen of Jeff and Snow’s other friends. There was the writer for the local newspaper, a couple from Chengdu who own a hair salon in here in town, a woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a few teachers recently returned from a trip to Thailand, and, last but not least, a chef who catered the entire affair who was about to leave China for a job in New Zealand.

Most of our friends are pretty young, so it was interesting to hang out with a crowd of established locals with such an international outlook. It’s actually really expensive for the average Chinese person to get a travel visa to America, but that just means that these people set their sights elsewhere. Luzhou may be a small town, but that afternoon was spent excitingly with people from a small world.

Nov 30, 2013

The return of Hank and Summer

Our first friends show us a new place

Hank and Summer treated us to a Mid-Autumn Festival feast.

After 2+ years in Luzhou — plus, now, gallivanting around the countryside — Peter and I feel like we know our city pretty well. I know where to buy the good beers, how to go to the doctor, and where and how to get dry cleaning done. We’ve got friendly relationships with shopkeepers and restaurant owners all over town, and I can tell cabdrivers how to take the short cut to our home.

But by no means are we experts. As we repeatedly have to learn.

We’ve recently reconnected with Hank and Summer (our very first friends in China!), and they knocked down a presumption that we were absolutely sure was correct: There is no live music in Luzhou. (Other myths we’ve invented about Luzhou-ites: They don’t buy canned food. OK, they do, but they don’t have can openers. The corn is terrible here. Maybe the stuff the street vendors sell is leftover cattle feed. They don’t eat chicken eggs, only duck eggs. They don’t have garbage bags. They adhere strictly to the one-child policy. And so on … We now know that we know nothing.)

They treated us to a National Day dinner, with their other friends Fayla, a local piano teacher, and her boyfriend Sid, a Pakistani student at the Medical College. (Not from the terrorist part, he assured us, after Hank made a joke about bombs.) But the real action happened after dinner, when they took us to their friend’s wine bar — real wine being another thing we assumed didn’t exist in Luzhou — where a live band played rock standards and backed up karaoke singers from the audience. Summer didn’t sing; she had done so previously and garnered a less than lukewarm reception. “No one would look me in the eye,” was her recollection. Apparently, this audience took their singing of other people’s songs seriously! But, undaunted, Fayla and I each took a turn, and Peter jumped on guitar to play along with China’s favorite song, “Country Roads.”

I'm singing!Hank is arm wrestling!Peter is playing guitar!The host is auctioning off a bottle of wine!

And music wasn’t the only fun. In between sets, a vibrant host took the stage, working the audience and giving away bottles of wine and beer. Then there was the arm wrestling competition. Hank was our table’s champion, showing off some surprisingly spectacular guns even as he lost.

It was a little like being one one of those crazy Chinese variety shows that dominate the airwaves here, and definitely a new experience for us. So, yeah, even a small city way out in the bumbles of western China still holds some surprises. Which is awesome, because we still have another year here.

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Oct 9, 2013

Snaps: Waiting for the bus

Are you gonna go my way?

Oh, just waiting for the bus by the side of the highway

On our first intercity bus trip, we were astonished that the bus stopped in an area very much like this to let some passengers off. “This is a highway!” we said. “This is not a place to stop!”

But, actually, turns out there are legitimate city bus stops all along the highway. This is where we catch the bus out to the little countryside village where we eat dinner from time to time. Surprised drivers — not expecting westerners out here — call out hello to us as they pass by. “Keep your eyes on the road! Not on us!” we answer back.

Oct 8, 2013

Shanghai: Crusing through the most populous city in the world

Ready, set, go! … And then, go home

Looking at the Bund from the cruise
Me and my dadBusy Shanghai
The European-style architecture on the Bund

Shanghai was the last stop on our mad dash across China, but we mustered our remaining strength to make a go of the country’s (and the world’s) most populated city. The verdict in our family is split on whether Shanghai is Manhattan with a different skyline (says mom) or some sort of spectacular future city (says dad). (I did go pick up bagels on a Sunday morning at a brunchy spot with a line out the door, so there’s that.) But the international hustle and the bustle made an interesting contrast with the sleepier western China that Peter and I know and love so well.

Now, Shanghai is big, right? And we had limited time. But with an hour-long river cruise, we floated right past the Bund and the Pudong new town, checking off two major tourist sights. The Bund is the area of the city where all the European banks and trading houses set up shop in the early 20th century. These days it’s a stunning strip of preserved Euro-architecture that houses expensive restaurants and boutiques. Pudong is the riverfront area that if you’ve ever seen a photo of the Shanghai skyline, that’s what you’re looking at. It’s a collection of crazy new architecture that includes the Oriental Pearl Tower, named for it’s two globular bloops along its height; and the Shanghai World Financial Center, which looks like a bottle opener. Reportedly, you can buy a functioning Bottle Opener replica in the building’s gift shop.

We were also able to squeeze in a quick walk around the French Concession, an area of trendy shops and hipster people-watching; soup dumplings, a delicious Shanghainese specialty that you simply must try; and some hard-core bargain shopping. We braved 艾敏临时珍珠, a multistory market in the Jing’an District that houses hundreds of booths. The sales people are incredibly aggressive salesmen, and consider incidental eye contact an opening of negotiations: “Need any watches? 500 kuai … 400 kuai … hey! Don’t walk away!” My mom played the game well, however, picking up some souvenirs at, like, a tenth of the original price. (“Hmm … I don’t know,” was her big gambit.)

And then, just like that, three weeks was up and my parents had to go back to America. (Peter helped me stay cheery-not-teary, after their departure.) Peter and I were lucky enough, however, to have a couple more days. We relocated to a hostel downtown, and basically soaked up the neighborhood — the trip had us pretty beat by this point. Our temporary home, Le Tour Traveler’s Rest Youth Hostel, was in a laid-back, urban-chic residential area. We had Lanzhou noodles around the corner, bagels down the street (there it is!), felafel also down the street, and Burger King a short walk away for one late-night emergency fast food fix. It was chill for a day and a half, and then it was time for us, too, to return home. Our summer of traveling was finished, and it was time to prepare for the exciting school year ahead.

Oct 4, 2013

Jiading: Drinking tea with Mark

Another new friend living a good life

The tower in the center of JiadingMark in the tea house with mom and dad
Mark, left, shows us some of his tea house friend’s treasures.
On the stairsJiading is a city of canals.

Just outside of the city of Shanghai is a suburb named Jiading. I’m not sure that it will ever be a big tourist draw on it’s own, but it does have a quaint little ancient town, some nice parks, and a couple of really well-curated museums. It was the hometown of diplomat Wellington Koo, Important Communist Hu Juewen, and, most significantly to our family, Mark — the owner of a lovely apartment listed on Airbnb.

Mark hosted us to the full extent of the word, taking us to late-night noodles upon our after-midnight arrival and giving us a fantastic tour of the neighborhood in the light of day. He was always available for expedition advice or just a friendly chat. And, of course, restaurant suggestions. He pointed us toward a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant that had the first dumplings that Peter was able to eat in China. (“Delicious!” was the verdict.)

On our first morning, Mark guided us through the local temples and museums with commentary and context where signage was obscure or unhelpful. For example, a piece that was just captioned “poem” was actually written by Chairman Mao, Mark told us. And he could point out other cultural details we missed, like details in the clothing and housing that meant a family had a particular social station. Forget audio guides, all you need is a Mark.

“When you have success, usually you are Confucian. When you fail, usually you are Daoist,” Mark explained the changing and pragmatic Chinese relationship with spirituality. He himself seems to have his own affairs pretty well in order: After losing his government-sponsored job because of the birth of his second son — a big no-no under the One Child policy, but Mark and his wife didn’t want to raise an only lonely (a pretty common motivation for Chinese to break this particular law) — Mark contracts from home for an American company in the mornings, and devotes his afternoons to reading and writing novels. He also noodles with a traditional Chinese zither from time to time. And, when the opportunity presents, he shows around visitors from all over.

We took tea one afternoon at his friend’s tea house. The female servers all wore hip-classical linen uniforms that were designed by another friend of Mark and his wife. (They run with kind of a boho crowd, for China.) After tea, the owner showed us around his establishment, which had classrooms in the back for teaching tea ceremonies and calligraphy, and he gave us a tour of his art collection.

Our time in Jiading coincided with the Bo Xilai trial, a media spectacle on the order of OJ Simpson over here, and one that set records in China in terms of TV viewership and Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) activity. Even Peter and I watched a little; it was the only thing on, every channel. Mark, however, was not part of the spectating horde. He told my mother, you can find more human truth in novels than on the news.

It was hard to believe we were just on the edge of one of the biggest conurbations on the planet; the Shanghai sprawl is pretty massive. But our time with Mark was wonderfully peaceful.