Hello Uncle Foreigner

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.

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Drinking beer at the mall

Hoops and Tsingtao on a hot summer night

Echo picks up our beer carafe.
Listening at workAt a beer festival, you've got to have snacks.This guy is a pretty famous Chinese basketball star.Mom takes a turn at the basketball game.I try out soccer.

At our friendship dinner, Listening mentioned that he had picked up a job as a videographer at the Tsingdao Beer Festival (the first of its kind in Luzhou), which just happened to be that weekend. He wrote down directions for me and we promised that we’d stop by.

The festival was set up outside the Southwestern Trading Center of China, the giant mall on the outskirts of the city, and it was huge! At the main entrance there was a stage set up with live music, and there were booths galore selling food and, of course, beer. We had to text Listening to get directions to his area.

He was manning a camera at the basketball exhibition, where there were various carnival games set up, as well as a small court and a bar (where he hooked us up with free drinks in exchange for posing for the camera as Americans enjoying Tsingtao). “All people [are] stars,” was the theme of the area. Shortly after we arrived, a very tall man trailed by a large entourage took his turn at the games. “Is he a Sichuan basketball player?” I asked Listening. “Absolutely,” he told me.

After the excitement died down, my mom and I tried our hands at the games. We were not as good, although my mom did alright at the “Get as many baskets as you can in a minute,” or whatever it was called.

Corina and Echo popped by, and we abandoned Listening to his work to go try out some of the special-flavored festival beers. There was the pineapple beer, which tasted like soda, and the stout, which tasted like amazingness. There were a lot of families at the festival, which was kind of surprising given, well, beer, but kind of not, given China. We did see a small fight break out, though: Someone was selling fake beer tickets, and the duped parties were not pleased to find that they had been duped.

The threat of rain meant that it was time to go home, before we became witness to/participants in a fight over taxis. (Kidding! Kind of!) We said goodbye to the girls with promises to talk soon

In the beer garden

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Taking a lesson

An international education colloquy

We took tea with the teachers.
Mom and the art teacher's daughter work on a painting.The art teacher pours the tea.Afterwards, we went to lunch for a typical Luzhou chicken hot pot.

My boss Linda very nicely arranged for us to meet with both a physics and an art teacher from our school while we were in Luzhou. (My mother is a physics teacher and a painter.) We all gathered one morning for a lesson in traditional Chinese painting. Mr. Li, the art teacher, brought his daughter to translate — although as a shy a middle school student, she was a little timid about her role. Li was very hands on with his lesson; everyone got a chance with the brush, even Mr. Chen, the physics teacher.

After painting, we sat down for some tea. Li expertly handled the Chinese tea brewing rituals — a complex dance of leaves and hot water that is way more involved than you’d think — and the conversation turned to American and Chinese teaching styles. From what I can tell, it seems that China is about a generation behind what’s going on in America — although Linda did point out that reform is ongoing. For example, Chen’s science lab sounds a lot like my high school experience: the teacher teaches an equation/principle, performs an experiment to demonstrate, and then the students replicate it. Whereas in my mom’s classroom, it’s flipped around: the students take the lead in experimentation, and from their results they derive/prove the equation themselves. “Student-led learning,” I believe is the buzz-phrase.

To follow up our discussion, Linda brought us all out to a banquet lunch! Chicken soup hot pot, which is a very typical formal Luzhou meal. It’s actually almost like two meals: First you have the chicken — a whole chicken, beaks, claws and all — and then, top up that broth, because it’s time to throw some veggies in there and start all over again.

Throughout the meal, our hosts were very attentive, refilling our bowls and glasses as quickly as we could drain them. We all walk away quite stuffed. And, as always, with a Chinese banquet, the conversation was lively and boisterous. Even across two languages!

Giving a lesson in Chinese brushpainting.

Oct 1, 2013

Luzhou: Eating frog with old friends

A typical Chinese good time

The feast with friends at Moutai Square
Echo and mom share a joke.I'm listening to Listening.Frog looks an awful lot like a frog even after it's cooked.

All spring, when we told people that my parents were coming to China this summer, our friends were very excited for us. “We want to meet them!” they all said. Sadly, when the time came, not everyone was in town, but we did manage to put together a little dinner party with Maybell and Boyfriend, Listening (formerly Alex) and his/our friends Echo and Corina. We picked Moutai Square restaurant, for the fun atmosphere, the good food, and, most importantly, the fine beer.

I was a little nervous throwing together these three separate groups who only had knowing-Peter-and-me in common, but it very naturally turned into a party. Listening and the girls helped me order, and our menu included duck’s necks, spicy boiled frog (that still looked like frog), fish-flavored pork, green beans, and a tomato and egg soup. Some of the dishes were more challenging than others for the American contingent. I’ll readily admit, chewing on a frog’s leg while it’s still attached to its little body is somewhat creepy. But the dinner was tremendous fun. Conversation flowed freely and we all enjoyed a typical Chinese meal with some typical (but some of our favorite) Chinese people.

Our guests and our food

Oct 1, 2013

Luzhou: Landing in the hometown

And melting in the heat

The view of the city from the Jiucheng Hotel
The view from the hotel room of the mighty Yangtze River
Breakfast timeMy parents with Amanda, the helpful concierge
My mom and dad with the super helpful Amanda

Our flight from Kunming landed in Luzhou at the bright and early hour of 8:30, because that’s when the one daily flight from Kunming lands. We had hoped to show my parents around the countryside neighborhoods that we frequent, but after a quick spin around the new campus we all decided that it was just too hot. Way too hot. Hotter than Penang, even. Melt your face off hot.

So instead, we took them to check in at the Jiucheng Hotel, where Amanda, the English-speaking desk clerk, right away recognized my face from when I had made the reservations a month earlier. We enjoyed the air conditioning as she checked us in.

For the duration of the Luzhou leg, the hotel staff took good care of my parents. There was fruit, there was swimming, and plenty of smiles. On the first morning, at breakfast, a few staff members were helping them figure out the food situation. There was a big buffet of familiar and unfamiliar dishes, and some of it was translated into English. (They did have to play charades for “blood,” however.) My mom pointed at the breakfast a man at a nearby table was eating to say, “I’d like something like that.” Everyone hopped to, including the man eating that breakfast, to get his meal to her. “No, no, no!” my mom cried. “Something like that. I don’t need his breakfast!”

That’s Chinese hospitality for you!