Hello Uncle Foreigner

China

Mar 23, 2018

Finding a cure for the common cold

Or, a much less traumatic experience with Chinese healthcare

In the past year, I’ve been getting pretty comfortable with the clinic two blocks from my house. The doctor there has a better hit rate than the pharmacy, and she works really hard. She’s there all day, so she has to do a bit of living out in public; When I went in for a follow-up visit recently, she was doing an afternoon mud mask.

Anyway, check out the video above to see what a basic visit to the Chinese clinic is like.

May 24, 2016

School is in session

What is it that you actually do?

Teaching from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

We don’t talk a lot about teaching on this blog, because … well, that’s just not what we’ve decided that this blog is about. But, as both a teacher of English and a learner of Mandarin, language is a huge part of my life. Recently, I’ve been really into phonics. Not because perfect pronunciation is the be-all and end-all of language success, but because learning to hear a foreign language’s phonemes properly goes a long way towards making that language a comprehensible set of inputs, rather than just some strange noises. And I think that process is fascinating.

Lily and Lisa are good friends with each other, but they have slightly different abilities in language learning. Lily is much more focused on reading skills, while Lisa has a lot of energy that can be channeled into lively activities. They are a goofy pair of nine-year-olds, curious and outgoing. Their class was a lot of fun for me, because they were eager learners with just enough inclination for getting off task as to keep me on my toes. Tangent-prone kids are often the most interesting.

The video above is an hour lesson condensed into ten minutes. We hit the four critical components of language — speaking, listening, reading and writing — and, of course, do a little phonics work. Check it out.

Sep 15, 2013

Kunming: Returning to Spring City

A gentle landing in China

The temple in Kunming
On the planeDad!Mom!Peter and Emily in Green Lake ParkEating at Heavenly MannaMom and dad at the templeMore temple

Kunming is just truly lovely, and — as we confirmed during our visit in July — a great first destination for a newbie in China. So post-Penang, we ushered my parents back to our former accommodations at the Lost Garden Guesthouse — where the staffers all greeted us with friendly, welcome-back smiles — and ensconced ourselves in the city center.

It worked out really well, because we were able to show them some things that we had discovered last time, and the city is walkable and foreigner-friendly enough that they were able to do some exploring on their own. We were only there for a few days, but we mixed it up with some western food and some local Yunnan cuisine, and my parents checked off their first Chinese temple, 圆桶寺.

欢迎光临中国! Or, Welcome to China!

Sep 1, 2013

All across Asia: 26 days on the road

Chengdu • Penang • Kunming • Dali • Luzhou • Jiading • Shanghai

The breakneck itinerary

This August, my parents came to visit! They were our first visitors in two years, so we planned an epic trip across China (with a little Malaysia thrown in for comfort).

Peter and I started out in Chengdu, because that’s where the international airport is, and then we flew to meet my mom and dad in Penang, Malaysia. We figured a week on the beach in an English-speaking country would be a good introduction to a new continent for the folks.

From there, we eased into China in “the City of Eternal Spring,” Kunming, and backpacker haven Dali, both in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. We amped up the foreign in our hometown of Luzhou, and then continued further east to the municipality of Shanghai.

Jiading is a small city outside Shanghai proper, and we spent a few days bumming around the suburbs before ending our journey in what’s known as both the New York and Paris of China, Shanghai. It was a whirlwind trip, with a full spectrum of experience – balmy to sizzling, countryside to urban, pizza to dumplings, and past to future.

Jul 27, 2013

A taste of the international

Willkommen! Bienvenue! 欢迎!

Green Lake, in the center of its park
Other foreigners in Green Lake ParkBoat rides in Green Lake ParkMore Green Lake ParkMore foreigners in Green Lake ParkGreen Lake Park
Green Lake Park is a lovely hangout spot in the center of Kunming.
Dianchi LakeA park near Dianchi Lake聂耳 at his museumThe cable car up the West HillsDianchi Lake from the West Hills
The West Hills and Dianchi Lake are just a short cab ride outside the city. Don’t skip the 聂耳 museum tucked away behind the cluster of tourist eateries; it’s really cool!
Salvador's on Wenlin JieHeavenly Manna on Wenlin JieWenlin JieNighttime on Wenlin Jie
The cool kids hang out on Wenlin Jie.
Jinbi Square
Shopping in Jinbi Square; there’s a Carrefour around here somewhere.
The Hump RestaurantGoat cheese Burmese curry at the Hump
Get the goat cheese Burmese curry at The Hump.
Central KunmingCentral KunmingA sandwich in central Kunming
Street scenes around central Kunming
The mall where we found the Indian restaurantOur Indian meal
The Indian restaurant we went to was in a gigantic mall just outside the Second Ring Road.
The little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseThe little alleyway where you can find the Lost Garden GuesthouseLost Garden's rooftop restaurantSnacks on the rooftop loungeLost Garden has pizzaThe real fire oven at Lost Garden
Lost Garden Guesthouse and environs were peaceful and beautiful. And their pizza was excellent.
Sunnyside massage centerBeauty spots in Kunming
There’s something fun tucked around every corner!
Fishing at Dianchi LakePineapple and cucumber -- yes, please
Left: A party of fishermen and -women at Dianchi Lake. Right: Yunnan food knows how to use its pineapple effectively.
A perfect bloody MaryA view from the rooftop at Lost Garden
A good drink in a relaxing hideaway: Bloody Marys on the terrace of our hostel were just too wonderful.

When we arrived in Kunming, it was almost like reverse culture shock.

I mean, we were still clearly in China. But it was a much different China than the one we’d been living in.

For one thing, Kunming is actually beautiful. There are green spaces, walkable neighborhoods, trees everywhere, architecture in a style other than “Communist Poured Concrete” … It’s the first city we’ve been to that visually dazzled.

It helped that we stayed right around the corner from Green Lake Park, an impeccably landscaped green space surrounding the titular body of water. We passed through there daily, and, it appeared, so did everyone else: tourists and locals, foreigners and nationals. Available activities: Snacks, street musicians, small pedal boats, people watching.

Further afield, we explored the beautiful West Hills overlooking Dianchi Lake, about a half-hour’s drive from the city center. As you ascend, there are temples and traditional structures interwoven into the nature, as well as an interesting museum about 聂耳, a young musician from Yunnan who rose impressively quickly through the ranks of the Communist party before dying at age 23. You can hike the mountains, though we took a bus and then a cable car across the lake. Fun, natural fun!

Between those two extremes was a city still ringed by the ginormous highways that define all Chinese cities, but tucked in between those were funky-cute nabes, with space for urban rambling, and trees and shops and people and traffic. We loved it.

Keep in mind, we are city people, however.

Peter from America: Do you like Kunming?

Peter from Malaysia: No. The oxygen is so bad.

— Malaysian Peter, a two-year Kunming veteran, introduced himself to us when we stopped at a street side stall to buy an icey coffee drink. We traded travel stories (“You’re from Malaysia?! We’ve been to Malaysia!”) while our drink was being made.

The other big loop thrower was how international our experience was. By which I don’t just mean the fact that there were other westerners, but that all cultures — Western, Chinese, local ethnic minorities, other Asians — mingled together in a hip, cosmopolitan way.

Particularly the neighborhood around Wenlin Jie — which felt like a transplanted Lower East Side with Chinese Characteristics — was lousy with foreigners, but exuded an “All are welcome” vibe. The bars, and there were many bars, served up western-style cocktails alongside Chinese nibbles (beware the mustard potatoes; they’re like boiled fries drenched in wasabi!). The crowds were always international and mixed. We did, however, run into three separate expat meet-up groups in that area over the course of our time there.

Outside of that area, it was less common to glimpse obvious foreigners, but we could tell that we were turning many fewer heads. Which was a nice thing. It’s fun being a superstar, but it’s also a constant reminder that we’re in but not of the place we’re calling home. We want a pot in which to melt, please.

Drunk Beijinger: Where are you from?

Emily and Peter: We’re American.

DB: [accusing, but friendly] I thought you were Italian!

Emily: Well, we’re not!

French friend of DB: I’m French. We can’t all be perfect. [leads drunk friend away]

— A nighttime encounter at a bar on Wenlin Jie. Later, when we went over to say goodbye, the pair said that they could tell we were English teachers because we spoke so slowly and carefully.

Actually, the extreme (to us) cosmopolitanality of Kunming was disorienting at times. It may have looked and sounded like we were just around the corner from somewhere familiar, but that really wasn’t the case. It led to confusing situations like when I asked the (Chinese) server at French Cafe if we could “sit outside.” He looked at me in panic and turned to get an English speaker. I realized my mistake, repeated my question in Chinese, and wondered what made me do that.

Emily: [reading a poster at a small Burmese cafe] Oh! They have a farmers market here on Sundays. That’s so great. We’ll have to come here … What am I saying?! We live in the middle of a farm.

— It only took a few days to forget my current countryside life. My only excuse is that I’m an urban girl. The Burmese curry, it must be mentioned, was fabulous.

But it was a relief to be reminded that we are still in China after all. We like living China! We like learning the Chinese language! And we love eating the Chinese food!

We didn’t get to eat as much Yunnan food as we wanted (we didn’t get to eat as much food as we wanted, full stop), but the one meal we had, at Heavenly Manna, was terrific. We, of course, ordered the fried goat cheese, which was light, gentle and delicious. We possibly “did it wrong” by dipping our triangles of cheese in the tangy sauce that came with the cucumbers and pineapple dish, but whatevs. I also got a fantastic pork and coriander plate, and we completed the meal with curried mashed potatoes, which should be eaten every day, all day.

And we wanted to. But we were too dazzled by all the options available to us. In one week, we did pizza, Mexican, Indian, felafel, Carrefour picnic, sandwiches, dumplings, french fries. Some of it was junk and some of it was the best, but all of it was different. All we knew was that there just weren’t enough meals in the day.

There is a fear
That it’s a misplaced bit of meat
Or an undercooked morsel.
But maybe you just ate too much.

— A late-night Emily original

On the first night (over wood-fired pizza at our hostel), we both decided that Kunming was the place for us. And then, we reminded each other to stay real. The second day (after hour-long massages and cupping treatments), we decided again that Kunming is the place for us. And then, again, we tried to keep our heads level. It became a joke for one of the other of us to declare, “I know it’s not cool for me to decide unilaterally, but we’re moving here.” But by the end of the trip, it wasn’t a joke, we know that Kunming is the place for us.

We love that you can get western food, obviously. But more than that, we’re really excited to see that fusion that occurs in an international city, where everyone has different ideas and wants to share them. It’s a city where language exchange programs are hosted in every other cafe; where the guy at the next table is more likely to ask to take that extra chair than to take your picture (that was embarrassing!); where there’s room for a couple of westerners to not only exist alongside and separate from the local goings on, but to integrate, interact and participate. We may not always understand each other (sometimes literally), but there’s a willingness and desire to have fun trying.

Chinese server: [handing over two wonderfully spiced bloody Marys] Can I ask you something? How do you like this kind of cocktail?

Peter and Emily: We love it!

Server: Really? I think it’s too crazy!

Peter: Well, it’s the best of this kind of drink that we’ve had in China!

Server: [big smile] Thank you!

— We spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace at our hostel, because it was beautiful, the staff was super friendly, and they had great drinks.

Peter at Dianchi LakeEmily on the roof at Lost Garden

Jun 7, 2012

“Have you eaten?”

It just means “hello!”

Have you eaten?

A lot of times when we run into people we know, one of the first things they ask is, “Have you eaten?” When we first moved here, we worried that this was leading to an invitation; not that we wouldn’t like to spend more time with our friends, but dinnertime, especially in the beginning, is often a time for us to decompress and process what living in China means.

But, of course, it was never a dinner/lunch invitation. It’s just a polite thing you ask for small talk - much like “How are you?” in America. We’ve read that part of that comes from the Great Leap Forward, when there wasn’t enough food and people were starving. In fact, a lot about current day China focuses on having enough food. There’s a New Year tradition of having a giant fish that you don’t finish until the next day, because that shows that you have so much food that it spills over into the New Year. And of course, at formal banquets, the host purposely orders more food than is necessary. It’s a matter of pride and reassurance, I think, that there is enough food.

So, “Have you eaten?” becomes small talk. The answer is usually either “Yes, we had a delicious meal,” or, “No, but we’re going to eat something great in just a little bit.” What we’re all saying is really, “Isn’t it great that we’re not starving!”

Mar 22, 2012

6 months in China!

So let’s eat more sticks

Yesterday marked six months to the day we landed in China! We celebrated, of course, at sticks!

There are two things we’ve learned for sure: China is always loud, and we like our food spicy.

Feb 22, 2012

Living in a different part of the world

Sometimes it’s the same!

For the most part, living in Luzhou doesn’t feel that different from living in New York. People dress the same here (jeans and Chucks are standard), they participate in global pop culture (one of my kids asked me this week if I had heard about Whitney Houston; we had a good chat about why drugs are bad), and while our neighbors keep chickens, so do these guys in Brooklyn.

And over the past five months, we’ve adjusted to the fact that there’s no indoor heating anywhere, and that we boil our drinking water and throw our toilet tissue in a waste basket instead of the toilet. That’s just the way life is.

But we do live in a developing nation. And the most jolting reminder comes every so often in the form of a power or water outage. Sometimes we get advanced warning and sometimes we don’t, but about every other month, one or the other will go out. (Thankfully they haven’t yet both gone out at once.) And because it happens so frequently, we just work around it. We’ve learned that tomorrow the power will be out, so we have to prepare lessons that we can teach without the use of the computer and projector. (At our school, all information is imparted via Power Point.) It’s not a terrible hardship; it’s more annoying that we spent hours making these beautiful slides that now we can’t use. But it’s still kind of amazing that even without power, everyone will get up and go to school. The kids will sit in darkened classrooms and behave as well as they normally do - which in some cases is excellent and in others, not that great - and the teachers will give the best lesson they can. There will be no slacking off just because the power is out.

That’s just the way life is.