Hello Uncle Foreigner

Changjiang River

Feb 28, 2017

The restaurant business is a tough game

Our corner of the sky goes through some changes

The new gang at New Friends
We’ve met a new gang at New Friends.
Four rivers, for rent
We were sad to stumble upon a Four Rivers that was “for rent.”
We met Dave at Old Friends
Emily, with our friend Dave, outside of Old Friends in busier times.

There’s a corner in Luzhou, behind the supermarket, just on the Changjiang river, where we’ve spent more time than anywhere else. Wrapped around it were two restaurants: Four Rivers and Old Friends. Over our five years here, we split our time between these two places, watching the people, talking about life, making important decisions. And now, they’re gone.

We’ve lost restaurants before. In fact, just opposite that very corner years earlier, that weird churrascaria we liked — with the fresh-brewed German-style beer — turned into a seafood restaurant that we didn’t particularly care for. But these two places were near and dear to our heart, and it was really sad to see them both go, especially just one after the other.

Four Rivers was not called that. But we called it that, after a confusing conversation with a young girl who stopped to chat with us there. It was a well-known place in Luzhou, she and many others told us. They faced out toward the river, and served traditional Sichuan food that was just slightly fancy; our favorites were the corn, and the pork rolls. They also did a great vermicelli and mustard greens soup. With just enough spice.

We went there for my first birthday in China. At that time, just four months in, it was the furthest afield we had ventured, and one of the first meals we had eaten on our own that wasn’t 串串. After we moved out to the countryside, it became a place where we frequently whiled away lazy afternoons post-big city grocery shop. And it was a major stop on our “Is it all still here?”-tour after going there and back again. The staff gave us a friendly 好久不见 that really meant a lot to us. But now, there are for rent signs in the window, and we never did get to try their crawdads.

On the inland side of the corner, we found Old Friends. Their deal was modern Sichuan food for the young and upwardly mobile. The first time we went there, we sat down for lunch and stayed through dinner. We came back again the next day for more. Beautiful spicy chicken wings, oxtail and tomato soup, silky mashed potatoes, pineapple fried rice, and this crudité platter with paper-thin tofu skins that was just fantastic. The chef, we came to learn, had worked in Germany, and was applying the western techniques that he had learned to local dishes.

Because we were there so often — twice a week and most holidays, at the height of our mania — we became friends with the owner, Kristy. She even drove us to the airport when we left for Lijiang. And she’s kept us updated on her goings on, which mitigates the sadness, somewhat. Since we’ve been gone, she placed Old Friends in the hands of her sister to go run a 串串 franchise. She even got a grant from the city government to do so. Oh, and she also runs a successful seafood restaurant that imports shellfish daily from Guangzhou. But Sister’s heart wasn’t in Old Friends, so they made the decision to close down a few months ago. We miss that oxtail soup. But we still have Kristy.

Change doesn’t always mean saying goodbye, however. This Chinese New Year’s Eve, with no plan for the fact that so many restaurants are closed that night (some things don’t change), we found ourselves wandering in the vicinity of our old corner. The lights were on, and people were bustling in and out of the spot where Old Friends used to be. It was a new 串串 place. They gutted the inside of all of Kristy’s hip decor, though they kept the long bench that ran along one side wall, a bench that knows our butts well. We stayed for dinner that night and came back for a lunch the next week. The new owners are wonderfully friendly, and the food is so good we can almost forgive them for not being our old hangout. Among ourselves, we’ve taken to referring to the place as New Friends.

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.

Mar 29, 2014

Down time in Luzhou

Walking and eating

The new old buildings by Changjiang River
Hanging out on the parapetI chat with Listening and CrelaOthers frolic on the "old" templeI'm an angel
We spent some time goofing around in a small photography studio which provided costumes and backdrops for your shutterbugging enjoyment. Crela and Listening accompany me as I get my wings.

In the interim between vacation’s end and school’s start we received just enough invitations out to keep us from going stir crazy (though not too many that they cut into our glorious just-us time). Listening was home from university, so we got together with him and Crela and Echo for a lazy lunch date one January afternoon.

Our local friends introduced us to pig cake (zhuerbao), a Luzhou specialty dumpling with a glutinous rice shell and a savory pork filling. They are rich and delicious, and a steady supply came streaming out of the kitchen in bamboo steamers stacked higher than a man’s head. The kids talked about their various plans to get to America. We advised that waiting tables would be a better situation than washing dishes, but all three of them seemed eager for any opportunity.

After lunch, we walked down by the newly facelifted riverfront. Down toward the city center, there’s now a giant, “ancient” city gate and temple. “The [local] government has too much money and nothing else to build,” Listening told us when we asked about the “why”. The doors to the temple are locked, and there’s nothing inside. He pocketed his camera, not desiring photos of a tourist trap. We’ll take pictures of anything, though.

Apr 20, 2013

Snaps: Peter in the wall

Abandoned riverside cafe

I don't think this business is open anymore

Last summer’s flood left behind some strange rubble, some of which still hasn’t been reclaimed.

Mar 17, 2013

The eating continues

Homestyle in the hometown

Hot pot for dinner
Note the peppers. Sichuan cuisine is hot, hot, hot!
Mix up some cilantro and corn, and a Chinese dish tastes kind of Mexican
A cobbled-together taste of Mexico, right here in Luzhou.

It’s been a good season for Chinese food, or, as we like to call it in Luzhou, food. Our January Penang foodventures reignited our local explorations — after our initial fall push, we fell into a rut with some new olds — and we’ve expanded far beyond sticks and noodles.

The search for new has also put us in the position to consume much more culture and language. (Yum! It’s all delicious!) One of the boys at 串串, where we’re still regulars, has started teaching me vocabulary. 醋, he said one evening, as he delivered a small pitcher of vinegar. And then there was 芫荽 or, cilantro. He’s become one of my best teachers. (He’s second only to bodega lady, with whom I’ve been having conversations ever increasing in complexity pretty much since we arrived. She cheered on the day I said my first sentence in past tense! That sentence: “We ate chuan chuan.”)

At 串串 we’ve also learned that it’s no problem to order food from other restaurants to be sent to your 串串 table. The place next door does a fantastic corn and hot pepper salad — which, when mixed with cilantro, scallions and rice actually has a wonderful Mexican flavor — and the lady proprietor is tickled when I try out new words on her, too.

Out in the countryside, we’re no less social. At corner restaurant, over a meal of eggplant and pork with fried greens — the most vegetarian thing I have managed to order there — we had a chat with one of my old students one night. His father runs a clinic a few doors down, and he had “heard that there were foreigners out here and I thought it might be you.” He informed us that the restaurant owners’ son was in Peter’s class! Something, we then realized, that she had tried to tell us in Chinese several times. (“你听不懂,” or, “You don’t understand,” is a phrase we are now very familiar with.) There was general merriment all around that the facts were finally conveyed.

Our boss hates that we do this. Go out and talk with the people, I mean. We still hear about the time that we walked home to the new campus with a bunch of laborers. She’d much prefer that we spent our free time locked in our apartment, eating plain white rice and talking to no one. Our explanations that we’re meeting with friends and students and parents and fellow teachers falls on deaf ears. She just changes her lecture to “spicy food is bad for you.”

That only makes it more delicious.

Once again, finding (and being) the hot new thing

Tofu soup at our neighborhood place

We do a fair bit of hanging out in our little countryside town, and we were starting to feel like people were finally getting used to us. We wave and exchange brief words with the people we know. People help us get taxis back to school when the cab drivers give us a hard time. We’ve got a favorite vegetable stall at the wet market.

But a small change in location recently revealed that we are still the 外国人, and that still causes a big stir. In between BBQ sticks and corner restaurant, there’s a place that does a shared tofu soup that’s a lot like the one that we tried in the city with our friend Alex. A few weeks ago, when our noodle place was out of noodles(!), we decided to give it a go.

The table next to us was immediately interested. The leading man took our basic history — Teachers, Americans, Tianfu Middle School, and so on. Pleased with us — (a foreigner who can understand Mandarin is an entertaining curio; the Chinese know how hard their language is) — our inquisitor pointed at our water bottle and then his own, and said something like, “You have water, but I have some hooch! Want some?” It was 1 pm and we still had work to do, so we declined. But we have since taken up many similar offers when it was appropriate.

Last weekend, there was the two-table banquet party, men at one table and women at the other in the traditional way. The men were shy at first but they were drunk later, and found the courage to approach us with questions and toasts. It was one of the loudest rooms I have ever been in. One fervently friendly guy needed Peter to accept his gift of a cigarette. Fortunately, he didn’t insist on lighting it. We deflected with a toast, and I think he forgot about it. It’s weird to call this kind of experience normal, but it’s a situation we’re included in more often than not.

There’s a 10-year-old boy associated with the place who we actually met a few weeks before we ventured into the restaurant. He hangs out with a pack of kids who keep us company at the bus stop sometimes. He also knows a little bit of English, so we managed to have a brief chat one night. These days, he gives us a hello when we come in, and spends his after-dinner playing with the children of the neighboring businesses out in the streets. His main partner-in-crime seems to be the wild-haired girl next door, who is missing her two front teeth. They make for good dinner theater.

Birthday disasters turn fun and instructional

Birthday dinner at the Riverside Restaurant
Darting some balloons
After dinner, I tried my hand at the darts game that was set up across the street from the restaurant.

Our explorations don’t always go smoothly. Things can go wrong both geographically and linguistically. And my birthday dinner was a two-fer: The riverside restaurant we were meaning to visit for ages was a pile of rubble. It was a disappointment, and we were hungry and tired of walking. Both things ratchet up my anxiety about trying something new in another language. But we were not to be defeated. A short walk down the riverside promenade, we found a good-looking place with comfy outdoor chairs.

Between my translation notebook and the picture menu, we managed to order a fantastic feast: Sweet corn; barbecued scallions with a spicy, oily rub; garlicky cucumbers; fried rice; and chicken feet.

More than sense memory associations, mistake memory I think is even stronger. And now I will never forget the difference between 瓜, melon, and 爪, claw.

Having accidentally ordered them, though, I did feel I had to try what is really a very common Chinese dish. Chicken feet are kind of like chicken wings, where the point is really more the sauce they’re doused in rather than the minimal meat that you can free from the bones and cartilage. And, the little fingers scrabble at your face while you’re trying to nibble. It’s an odd sensation. I don’t think I liked them, but if you want, I can order you a plate.

A family holiday with kind strangers-turned-friends

I'm ready to eat

The discovery of Golden Hans taught us to look up. And on Chinese New Years Eve we scaled the heights to third-floor traditional hot pot restaurant. (This was only after visiting a fifth-floor enterprise that turned out to be an internet cafe.) Many places were actually closed for the holiday, so we were lucky that this place sat us as the last customers of the night. Our final alternative was going to have been McDonald’s.

We lucked out again in that our two servers both spoke a little bit of English. We’ve done hot pot many times before — it’s Sichuan’s signature dish — but this was our first time on our own. The four of us worked our way through the menu together — there was some drawing involved — and the woman triple checked that we wanted the spicy broth. Yes! We love the spice!

Our spread was delivered to our table on a three-tiered cart, and it included potato, lotus, sliced tofu, cabbage, winter melon, cucumber, and spicy beef slices. Happily, all deliverables conformed to my expectations. The service team hovered for a minute, to make sure the Americans knew what they were doing — Don’t eat the raw meat! Wait until the pot is boiling! — and then sat down with the rest of the staff to enjoy their after-work holiday party a few tables away. They were having a good time by the sounds of it. Throughout the meal, our guys returned to our table to toast us, wish us happy new year, and bring us small treats from their feast, including this wonderful Sichuan peppercorn cured pork sausage.

Peter and I tried to eat fairly quickly; we didn’t want to be lingerers when they were keeping the restaurant open only for us. But the staff party still died down before we finished. We are the slowest eaters in China! Our servers were gracious, however, and the man asked to take a photo with us before we left. 新年好!

Would you like fried with that?

One of our most useful recent food discoveries was maybe the most obvious: Fried rice is available pretty much everywhere, even if it’s not on the menu. Some things you know about China are true.

The basic dish that everyone serves is rice with egg and a bit of scallions or other greenery. It’s so simple but super delicious. We’ve added it to the regular rotation at BBQ sticks, which does our favorite version.

We’ve come a long way from our first time at 串串, when we stood nervous on the sidewalk wondering “How do we get them to give us some food?!” Once we figured that out — simply say yes to a question that is probably “Do you want a table?” and then grab some sticks — we spent at least six months eating dinner there nightly, because we were too scared to try a new place. Pointing and pantomime are still useful weapons in our menu-navigation arsenal, but some basic literacy has made our lives so much easier. And so much more enjoyable.

Every couple of months, I look back on how much I learned since we arrived in China, and am astonished that we were ever able to survive on the paltry knowledge we had then. And I can’t wait to see what will happen this spring.

Sep 8, 2012

Flood: Cleaning up

One day later, things get on the road back to “normal”

Cleaning up
Cleaning up
For some, cleaning up was not a priority. This shoe store got straight to the selling. And, many of their customers got straight to the buying.

By July 24, the water had subsided. (And the power came back the day after that.) We suspect it was so fast due to some jiggery pokey with the Three Gorges Dam. So the clean up began.

The whole neighborhood smelled of low tide and bleach. The first thing to do was to get the muck and garbage out of your store. There were huge piles of detritus along the street, and hardworking store owners were covered in mud. Small groups of soldiers went from here to there, wearing life vests and carrying brooms.

Along our Zhongpingyuan Road, the whole process lasted about a day or two; they were soon up and running with the merchandise that they had rescued from before the flood. Some businesses took the opportunity to upgrade or move out or move in.

As you approached the river, however, recovery took a little longer. Many of the KTVs and teahouses immediately adjacent to the river are still rebuilding. (Although some threw open their doors as soon as they were sufficiently dry, thus explaining a heavy mildew smell we found in one of these establishments over Christmas break.)

Cleaning upCleaning up
Furniture from some KTVs still sits in a pile across the street from where it belongs, waiting for repairs and upgrades to be finished.
Cleaning up

The flood waters stripped the river bank of all the (admittedly, somewhat rickety) structures that had been there, and left behind a lot of garbage that has yet to be picked up.

Cleaning upCleaning up
Before the flood, a giant carnival was set up at the water’s edge.
Afterwards, enterprising folk have set up outdoor tea rooms in the newly free space.
Cleaning upCleaning up
This frightening, lakeside swingy ride before the flood …
… and the after.
Cleaning up

We were glad to see a cleaning brigade at sticks on the day after the flood, but in the subsequent days, no one came back. We checked every day! By the time we were ready to leave town a couple of weeks later (summer vacation stories coming soon!), there was still no sign of life. Had the flood wiped out our 串串 for good?

Sep 7, 2012

Flood: What are you looking at?

It’s not a disaster, it’s an event!

Looking at the flood

I was definitely not the only one running around with a camera that day. Spectating may be the Chinese national sport. You’ll often run into crowds of onlookers huddled around anything from a car accident to a cellphone demonstration to a construction site. (Sometimes they’ll actually wander around a construction site, just to see what’s up.) So people were out en masse to soak up the spectacle.

Looking at the flood
Police had put up caution tape where water overflowed into our street, but many people just ignored it.
Looking at the flood
Don’t worry. The guys in the boat are official.
Looking at the flood
The recently completed bridge by our house provided an excellent view of the area that was underwater. This was as crowded as it’s been since the bridge opened.
Looking at the flood
This is possibly more tourists than the Luzhou Laojiao factory gets when it’s not underwater.
Looking at the flood
A quiet spot, away from the crowds
Looking at the flood
The man on the right-hand side of the photo is guarding his living room furniture.
Looking at the flood
Some citizens took it upon themselves to sweep the water back down into the river.
Looking at the flood

Next, the waters recede …

Sep 5, 2012

Flood: Getting down to business

A little water would never get in the way of sales

A man cleans off his stools in the flood water
A man cleans off his stools in the flood water
Adults invade school grounds
Hey! These people aren’t students!

One of our first clues that something was different — besides the power going out, which happens often enough — was the presence of a ton of adults on the school grounds. The school year had wound down and the campus had been mostly empty for the weeks prior to the flood, so it was weird to see anyone, let alone grown-ups.

Of course, out in the street, the answer was obvious: Our school was a dry throughway from Zhongpingyuan Road (aka Low Road) to Jiangyang Middle Road (or, to us, Middle Road).

The astonishing thing was that this was not an emergency route, necessarily. The uptick in traffic through the school was just errand-runners, picking up groceries, going to see friends, browsing for shoes, continuing life as usual. And, out in the street, everyone was just working around the flood like it was a minor inconvenience. People whose homes were flooded sat at the edge of the water, guarding piles of their furniture and things. As for the shops and businesses in the neighborhood, if it was dry, it was open. If it was underwater, the owners were getting ready to open as soon as the waters receded.

The streets become canals
The flood made canals of some of the lower-elevated city streets. Which here provided this family with a waterside table for dinner.
This mahjong table's got to go somewhere
Street traffic consisted of motorbikes, zipping around where cars couldn’t reach, and people moving mahjong tables and other valuable equipment to safety.
The generatorSorry, baby. C-Best is closed.
A few stores were powered by very noisy generators.
Bigger chain stores — like Cbest, our supermarket — opted to close their doors.
Whiskey and a radio show, the best cures for a power outage

After running around and taking photos all day, it dawned on me that we might need some emergency supplies. As the sun was setting, I went out for bottled water and candles. Shops were starting to close down due to darkness, but I was successful in my mission, grabbing the last large bottle of water from the little market down the street and two packages of candles from the near-by hardware store. (I had both written down the characters and made a little drawing of a candle — though the owner was stationed in the doorway next to a gigantic pile of candles, making my efforts unnecessary.) My Kindle had some juice left, and I had just downloaded a few episodes of “That Mitchell and Webb Sound.” So we poured a couple of glasses of whiskey, lit the candles, and settled in for a night around our makeshift radio.

For some, the flood was the event to be at. Stay tuned for more details …

Sep 4, 2012

Flood: The water rises

It’s raining, it’s pouring … it’s flooding

The muddy, churning water of the Yangtze
The churning waters of the Changjiang River
Zhongpingyuan Road, at the bottom of our school
The river rises

The rain was quite heavy this summer, but we thought nothing of it, as the rain had been pretty heavy all year with no surprises. Until …

Sometime during the night of June 22, our Changjiang River burst its banks and flooded the streets and buildings that surrounded it. No one was killed, my friend Kristy told me later, but it was the worst flood Luzhou had seen in 50 years.

The water reached Zhongpingyuan Road, which is the back boundary of our school campus. That’s almost half a kilometer from the river, and up a significant incline. Buildings on the river front were drowned to their second story. From the bridge, you could see rooftops that were now at water level, and trees that looked like bushes, because their trunks were entirely submerged.

The before (left) and the after (right)

Above is the Luzhou Laojiao factory, which is right around the corner from our school, and a major tourist attraction for the city.

Tomorrow, a look at our neighbors’ reactions …

Jun 21, 2012

Snaps: By the Changjiang River

Also known as: The mighty Yangze

The river viewI'm touching the water!

On a walk down by the river (which you probably better know by the name Yangtze), we saw these tourists taking photos. I laughed at them a little bit — why do you need a photo of yourself in the river? — but then immediately wanted to go touch the water for myself. (Which would be the first time, even though we’ve been here many months already.) Peter snapped a photo, and we ended up with the same picture that I laughed at someone else for taking!