Hello Uncle Foreigner

city life

Sep 13, 2016

Home for the (hot, hot) summer

And it’s time to pay the bills

Our Luzhou high rise

Take a video tour of our new apartment complex in Luzhou.

We’re going on our sixth year in China, but this is actually the first time that we’ve spent an August in Luzhou. Previously, we’d always arranged to travel during this month — or move cities entirely — because locals assured us that August is unbearable.

Having lived it this year, I can report that “unbearable” seems strong. But between the heat and humidity, it is, like, three-shower-a-day weather. Showers seemed like the best solution, given that this, our first August in Luzhou, is also our first August in Luzhou that we are paying our own electric bill.

It feels good to pay our own electric bill, though. It feels good to be in charge of all of our own utilities ‘n’ stuff, actually. After living the life of a kept pet on campus at Tianfu Middle School for our first four years, it feels like we have more of a grown-up life. Like we’ve graduated.

But renting in China is not really at all like it is in America. In fact, renting in Luzhou is not even like renting in Lijiang. And moreover, we know from our initial online research, how we do it out west is different from what goes on in Beijing and in Shanghai. Yeah, we’re one country/one timezone and all that, but regionality isn’t going away.

Let’s talk Lijiang. Our apartment there was in a small complex on the edge of the city — goats were our neighbors — and it was beautifully furnished. Our friends lived in the same complex, and they spotted the landlord’s phone number on a “For rent” sign on the apartment window. We handed over a year’s rent, plus two months’ deposit, and then didn’t see our landlord until we moved out a year later. (When she gave us back slightly less than out two months’ deposit, because we had burnt a hole in her couch with a space heater.)

As far as utilities went, every three months, the guard at the front gate of our housing complex would flag us down to pay our water and electric bill. And every six months, he’d add in the maintenance fee. In his little hut, I’d pay the property manager — who was just kind of always hanging about — then sign my name in the book and get my receipt. Propane for the stove was delivered by a man on a motorbike strapped up with way too many tanks; we’d just call in an order when we were running low. And phone and internet were taken care of in one yearly payment at the China Telecom store. All of this was done in big, fat wads of cash, by the way.

We were so proud to figure all this out. Now we know how the Chinese go about the business of living!

And then, in Luzhou, none of that applies. We found our wonderfully spacious apartment here through a broker who went to school with one of my coworkers. This apartment is also furnished, with pieces that are just slightly not falling apart. (In fairness, yesterday the landlord installed a brand new light fixture in our living room — because the old one had blown up.) And rent is payed quarterly.

Electricity — we have a little card that we can put money on at any bodega that has a State Grid sign out front. There’s one pretty close to our apartment, and we just re-up whenever we’re running low. For our internet and phone bill, we go into the China Telecom store once a month to 交费 (pay the fee). Water and maintenance are also monthly, at the property office at our apartment complex; but because more than 2,000 people live in our complex, it’s up to us to remember to go in. Gas for our stove and hot water heater … we haven’t figured out how to pay our gas bill yet, but I think that I saw someone do it at our grocery store.

One thing is the same, though: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

Actually … another thing that is the same is that because this is just the way that everybody does it, no one really offers to explain how any of this works. It’s so basic, they just assume that you know. (Even though it’s all done differently a province over.) For example, here’s how I figured out how to pay the Luzhou electricity bill: My landlord handed over the card. My coworker said, “I think you can 交费 at that supermarket.” That supermarket said, “We don’t do it here. But maybe you can go to the bank.” And then, walking around our complex, I noticed a little store that had a small sign that matched the logo on my card. And now I just know to look for the sign, and I never have to think about it again.

In this RPG we call China, it’s all part of the … life, I guess.

Apr 29, 2012

Along the Yangtze in the Springtime

The sun is finally here

So far we’re really enjoying the spring in Luzhou. The temperature is comparable to the fall weather - mid-70s - but in this part of the year, we actually can see the sun most days! That grey haze that was all over everything back in October is gone. (It still rains pretty often, but in brief thunderstorms rather than an all-day ooze.)

The city is a lot more beautiful in this light, and it’s more evident why Luzhou has been named a “China Excellent Tourist City.” Compare the pictures above with the riverside photos we took in the fall. Our more recent photos definitely look more like vacation fun-time.

Nov 12, 2011

Other foreigners

We’re not the only ones

It’s quite possible that we are the only Americans in Luzhou. But, we have been seeing a lot of Middle Eastern people recently in the grocery store — a lot being more than one, more than once. I was talking to a couple of the kids the other day, and they mentioned that they see other foreigners working at Zhongshan Park, which is a small amusement park in the center of the city. “They’re from Pakistan,” the girls told me. Which actually makes sense, as Pakistan does boarder China in the East. They’re still a long way from their home — but they’re much closer to home than we are.

Oct 25, 2011

Some facts of China life

A non-definitive FAQ

We did a lot of research before we moved from New York to China, but there was a whole subset of questions that I had a really hard time finding answers to, mostly dealing with basic daily life. So I’m laying out here some answers I’ve learned (some are educated guesses) just in case you’re curious too.

Do expats drink tap water?

No. But neither do the locals; initially, we thought we couldn’t drink it because of foreign microbes or something, but it turns out it’s just too polluted for anyone to drink. We either boil the tap water or drink bottled water. I’ve found that I’m mostly drinking tea, because once the water is boiled, why not? It feels a lot like medieval times when people used to drink beer because the water wasn’t clean.

What about brushing your teeth?

For this and showering, etc., we do just use tap water. But we never swallow it.

How do you deal with produce?

If we’re going to cook it, we just rinse it in tap water. Because the veggies and stuff we buy are clearly fresh from the farm, they are usually covered in dirt. If we’re going to eat it raw, we’ll soak it in vinegar for a few minutes - fresh from the farm also means natural fertilizer, the germs of which we want to kill, of course. We do this with our eggs too, which even from the grocery store still have visible dirt on them. It’s kind of nice to see, actually, because it’s a sure sign that our food is not the product of a factory farm. “Organic” farming is a matter of course in our area, because no one is wealthy enough to afford big machinery and pesticides.

Is street food safe to eat?

So far we’ve had no problems. I look for: is there a high turnover of food, or has it been sitting out for a while? I’ll take a pass on food that’s been out, but if I can watch someone cooking it in front of me, that’s a go. We also don’t go for any raw fruit - this is just my suspicion, but I don’t really want to eat something that someone else peeled and exposed to the city glunk for however long.

Can I get a cold beer here? I hate this room temperature stuff.

You can, but you have to ask for it. We noticed that even the water restaurants serve is on the warm side. This is not, as I initially thought, because it had just been boiled (though it has just been boiled). But rather, the Chinese think warm liquids are just better for you - there’s an idea that it will help with digestion, where as a cold drink will solidify fats in your stomach, making you ill.

Eating and drinking here just requires a little more care than at home, but it’s not something to drive yourself crazy over. I spent our first week worrying about what would or would not make us sick, but that’s no fun. I’ve gotten food poisoning in America, anyway. So now, I’m willing to err on the side of caution (see: street fruit), but I’m trying to be adventurous. No scorpions on a stick yet - and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there - but there’s plenty of, “I wonder what this is? Let’s try it!”

Oct 23, 2011

A surprise trip to the Old Cellar

We’re, like, supermodels, or something

Luzhou Laojiao

This morning we were awakened by a phone call from one of our bosses: “A photographer who works with our school wants to take photos of you. Can you meet him in half an hour?”

I managed to buy us a whole hour, and we jumped in the shower and made ourselves presentable for what was explained to us as a “3-4 minute photo shoot.”

The disembodied drinker

We met the photographer at the gate of the school, along with two students - Cindy and Alice - who were to be our translators. We followed them, not to a photography studio, but the Old Cellar. This factory, which is right in our backyard, produces a liquor called Luzhou Laojiao. The locals call it wine, but it’s a white spirit brewed from sorghum, and it tastes INTENSE. This liquor has been brewed here for nearly 2,000 years, and it’s the pride of the city. Cindy told us our students receive two small bottles of it as a traditional gift upon high school graduation. She says she doesn’t drink it, because it’s too strong. (She’s about 16, I think, but there is no drinking age here.)

We were met at the factory by another photographer and a tour guide, Angie. It was very surreal. Angie gave us a private tour of the factory - which we had actually been intending to visit one of these days - with English help from the two students. Meanwhile the two photographers were snapping away. They posed us in front of everything. They even took pictures of Peter taking pictures of me. (Peter, fortuitously, thought to grab our camera on the way out the door.)

A bottle of Luzhou Laojiao

The tour itself was pretty simple; because of the language difference, a lot of it boiled down to, “this is a thing.” Having toured wineries and breweries before, I’ve seen how alcohol is made, and it was much the same here; take a grain, heat it up, store it away. It did take about an hour, though, because we had to keep stopping to pose for photos. The photographers snapped us listening to the tour guide, looking at stuff, reading plaques, joking with the kids, sitting on benches …

At the end of the tour, we had a small sample of the liquor in the ceremonial hall. It was about 11 in the morning, but why not? They sat us at this large wooden table with beautiful chairs and served us a small shot in a traditionally shaped porcelain glass. Much like a wine tasting, there’s an elaborate process to sipping the spirit, involving sniffing, sipping and inhaling. They even had us rub a little on our skin, although I don’t think that’s a traditional part of the ceremony.

And that was that. We went back out front, where the photographers had Peter and I kiss in front of the giant rock at the entrance. And then, our modeling job was over.

We exchanged phone numbers with Angie for possible language exchange, which would actually be pretty cool. She was very nice, and we’re definitely in the market for new friends here. But no explanation was offered for what we had just done, or why. Though we did get a nice private tour out of it in English. Check it out for yourself:

>An early-morning tour of a liquor showroom
Check out the full album of our tour.

This city is really serious about the liquor. Luzhou Laojiao is known throughout all of China. You can buy it EVERYWHERE here. There are liquor stores next to liquor stores, all selling those red boxes. Here’s just a small sample of shops that we’ve seen around town:

Stores selling baijiu
So many liquor stores!

Oct 16, 2011

On the other side of the other river

A tour of the supermarkets

Today we took the bus over to the far bank of the Tuojiang, the river to the west of us. We went in search of a Carrefour, which is a French supermarket chain, but what we found wasn’t all that different from the other supermarkets we’ve been in. We did buy some “sesame catsup,” which smells like it might be tahini.

But we had a nice walk around a different neighborhood. The riverside street there was dotted with tea houses, much like our riverside street, but it was a lot quieter. Inland, it seemed much more commercial, with stalls hawking everything from socks to tape.

We walked over the bridge back to our side of the river, and found this enormous market. In front of the brick-and-mortar stores, entrepreneurs had all set up their own racks and carts and stalls of merchandise. It seems if you have stuff to sell in this city, you just roll up on a piece of pavement and do it.

Tuo Jiang River
Check out the full album.

Oct 15, 2011

It’s playtime

Old fashioned toys

The girl with a stick and hoop

We saw this girl the other day playing with a hoop and a stick, like something out of the 1820s, but what I’ve noticed is that people here — not just children — seem to go in for old-fashioned modes of entertainment; I’ve seen more little boys doing tricks with yo-yos in the past three weeks than I ever have in my life.

I don’t know whether it’s the city we’re in or the entire culture, but here there seems to be more life lived out in public than even in New York City. On our evening walks, we meet plenty of people taking similar strolls, and we pass countless groups of people at tea houses and what seems to be semi-private clubs playing cards or Mah-jong - they seem settled in and like they’ll be there for a while.

Anecdote: I asked one of my students what his favorite weather was, and he said rainy. When I asked why, he said it was because then he was allowed to stay in and play video games. I asked the whole class, “When it’s sunny, do your parents make you go out and play?” A resounding yes was the answer.

Whatever the cause, the people are on the streets, and it’s awesome. This city has a really lively energy that’s exciting to be a part of - and the language barrier is blocking less than we feared; everyone understands a smile (New Yorker Emily is barfing over in the corner and making faces, to be sure).

Oct 6, 2011

A sunny day = long walk through the city

And slideshows galore!

Baizitu Square

Today was our first real sunny day here in Luzhou, and we definitely took advantage of it. We successfully took the bus west to the bank of the other river (which we found out is called the Tuojiang River) and scoped out the area around Baizitu Square. This square, one of our colleagues told us, is also referred to as the 100 Children Square, for the 100 children that are carved into the pillars around this amphitheater. We can’t find anything online to back this up, but it sounds good. The city holds concerts here from time to time, which we’re looking forward to seeing.

But the whole area along this river is very nice. We saw a lot of families out for a stroll. It’s evidently a very historical spot, though everything is in Chinese, so we’re not sure what kind of history.

A boy on the stairs of the 100 children square
Click through to see a full album of Baizitu Square.

After we soaked up the mystery history, we turned down Jiangyang Xilu (which means West Road of Jiangyang district, our neighborhood) for a long walk back toward our house. The architecture and neighborhood structure is very variable in Luzhou, which we could especially see on this walk. The main road will have big expensive looking stores and government/utilities buildings, but branching off from that will be little lanes with tiny shops and chickens running everywhere. New construction sits right next to buildings that are falling apart, and its hard to predict where a given path will take you. We traversed a dirty lane that passed by falling down shacks, luxury apartment construction (I’m coming back to that in a second) and a fancy looking mall. We also saw a gorgeous park; a posted sign said it was Datibu Culture Square, the Luzhou government website calls it Terraced Square, but there’s further information on neither. Though I can say with authority, it was, like all public spaces here in Luzhou, hopping.

Back to the construction: There are luxury apartment buildings going up at an incredible rate here. Construction crews work around the clock (we hear them all night), and there just seems to be a mad rush to get things built. Is there such a demand for the space? It’s tough to say, especially only having been here for two weeks. But I can say that there’s more development here than in New York City, and developers there are still having a hard time filling their buildings.

The west of Luzhou city
Click for a full album of Jiangyang Xilu.

Then it was back to the Yangtze, our favorite walk. It looks a billion times more inviting in the sunshine. We ran into a couple of our students here, and they said the river walk is very popular with their peers; the street has a lot of karaoke places where the kids like to go. We were starving, so we bought scallion pancakes from a street vendor - these are quickly becoming our favorite street treat.

Pancakes by the Yangtze River
Click for a full album of the Yangtze River.

Oct 5, 2011

Along the Yangtze

A nice place for a ramble

Luzhou is nestled in and expanding around the junction between the Yangtze River and one of its tributaries (we’re just calling that one “The Other River”). We live a few blocks from the Yangzte, and it’s one of our favorite walks so far. We’ve gotten down there just about every day.

It is nicer in the northern part of our slice of river. Toward the south, there’s a sad looking beach with chairs and tables; it’s not very inviting. Up north, though, the riverside street is lined with tea houses and cafes one side and trees and small parks on the other. It’s a very popular spot with the locals for an evening ramble. There’s also what looks like a permanent carnival set up between the street and the river, as well as some river-front cafes. We love walking down here and seeing the sights, and greeting all of our gawking neighbors.

One thing we’ve learned: If we hear a “Hello” ring out, it’s definitely aimed at us.

The rain comes on the Yangtze River, and a lone woman braves the wet
Check out a slideshow of the river in the wet.

Oct 5, 2011

To market

Give us some food

We’ve done a lot of shopping in the larger supermarkets around here, but mostly for supplies like paper towels, a broom, etc. They also have a good supply of import goods (like ketchup and peanut butter), that we may go for if we’re feeling homesick. For our daily food, however, we’ve been hitting up the local produce market.

We muddle through with a lot of pointing and gestures. As for the exchange of money, I try to get a glimpse of the scale so that I can see the price. If I miss that, I’m learning the hand signals for numbers. If that doesn’t work, I just hand them a 10rmb note and let them make change. It’s worked so far, and I always make sure to say thank you.

Buying Eggs
This actually is just around the corner from the market. But we wanted eggs and we saw eggs, so we went for it. I picked out 6 from the tray, and she’s weighing them in that blue bag. Later, we found out, these are duck eggs. Still delicious.
Market view one
This is the market proper.
Here's some chicken
This is the window where you can buy a whole bird: chicken or duck.
An actual meat market
It’s pretty common to see just meat pieces sitting out. Organs, too. It’s all fresh, though, so it doesn’t smell as bad as you might think.
Turns out, almost every culture loves garlic
Here, I’m buying garlic. This guy has all kinds of spices, nuts and beans.
Market view 2
More veggies.
Fresh pasta, yes please
This guy makes fresh pasta in the room behind the little girl. You can get all sizes of noodles, as well as dumpling and wonton skins.