Hello Uncle Foreigner

Luzhou

Apr 21, 2018

What it’s like to live in China as an American expat

The same, but different, as living in America

Living abroad long term can start to make the abroad part fade away a little bit — turns out, you’re just living. There are some parts of the expat lifestyle in China that remain distinct from our lives back in America. Everyone wants to take you to karaoke, for one thing. And the food? It’s all Chinese food! But we’re not so different, you and I; we all agree that Chinese TV is terrible.

In this video, we highlight some of the major aspects to life in China that stick out to us, some that are quite different from an American lifestyle, and some that are surprisingly similar. You may not have WeChat (yet), but did you know that we have Uber? And Tinder?

Mar 31, 2018

An adventure into the Stone Sea, Yibin, Sichuan

I finally make good on a student home visit

In China, watch us on YouKu.

The visit to a student’s home, we assumed, was an English-teaching standard. After all, Peter Hessler was close to all of his students. The offers must come flying, one after another. But after a solitary invite my first year teaching, that we were unable to take advantage of, I had to wait four years for my next one.

Lydia had been my student at Tianfu Middle School in my first year teaching and then again in my last year. From the very first, she was a hard-working young woman. The junior class she was in was somewhat rowdy, but I could usually count on her to answer my questions. Except for one day, when she wanted to do her homework in class. “We’re in the middle of my class,” I told her. “You can’t!” What I didn’t add, but was desperately thinking was, “I need someone to be paying attention.”

In our last year at Tianfu, Lydia and her friend Serena — who was Peter’s student — would spend their afternoon break at our office hours, asking us about our lives and practicing their English. When they found out I was studying Chinese, they’d bring me lists and lists of idioms and contemporary slang so that I’d sound cool. And that Labor Day, they planned a full-day event for us — an adventure out into the nearby Stone Sea geopark. It’s one of the lesser-known places to visit in China, but in our neck of the woods, it’s a big deal.

I had set Lydia up as a pen pal with my cousin in Minnesota, and the day of our outing, she was texting with him during our morning drive. “Have fun on the family field trip,” he wished us. It was great to have this time with the girls. I sat in the back between Lydia and Serena so that they could each have a side. It was reminiscent of family trips with my own sisters, when they would make me sit in the middle because I was the shortest. This time, I was not the shortest, so I could eventually request a window seat.

We got to talk about everything through the course of our day: boys, future plans, even specialized English vocabulary — Karst, limestone, sinkhole, cave. It was a long day, but the girls were so proud to have arranged it. They thought of everything, from car snacks for the early morning drive to a visit to a flower show while dinner was being prepared. After dinner, when the men started smoking, we took a walk down Jiangmen’s main street. Lydia’s younger cousin joined us as a tag-along. She hadn’t been interested in English before, but now that we were all speaking it, she was dying to know what we were talking about.

To cap the night off, all of us went out for post-meal BBQ with more friends and family, including Lydia’s former English teacher. It was funny to have a snack after such a nice meal, but it was a holiday! BBQ was much more relaxed than the formal dinner. Lydia and Serena relaxed, too, and the focus was finally off entertaining The English Teacher. Everyone asked me about the girls, for a change. How they were doing out in the world, in the big city high school. They were genuinely proud to see their girl speaking English so fluently, and I was proud too.

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.

Jul 5, 2016

Five years in China!

A video scrapbook

Five years in China from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

In September, we will have been in China for five years!

When we first got on that plane, oh so long ago, we had no idea what to expect. But our time here has been filled with good friends, delicious food, wacky students, and exciting adventures. Enjoy this video scrapbook of our “DVD extras,” scenes from Luzhou, Lijiang, Chengdu, Vietnam, Thailand, and some of the smaller villages in and around those places.

Jun 15, 2016

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Let’s make some zongzi with the grannies

Jun 14, 2016

It’s Luzhou ... we’ve moved back to Luzhou

We wish to see the world

Homecoming from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Summer 2015 brought us to a crossroads. It was the end of our fourth consecutive year of teaching at Tianfu and, according to Linda, Chinese law says that we were due a break. We could teach somewhere else, we could even come back in a year, but we couldn’t stay at Tianfu.

And personally, we were wondering if it wasn’t time to explore a whole new city. I mean, if we had to find a new job anyway … and what were the chances that Luzhou — where we landed arbitrarily, on a job offer from a friend of a friend — was really the best place for us in all of China? For years, we’d been publicly planning on relocating to Kunming, and every year that we didn’t, we kind of worried that maybe we couldn’t. After hoisting ourselves all the way across the ocean from the U.S. to China, maybe we were stuck and getting stucker in the first place ever to offer us a warm bed and a hot pot.

It was time, we felt, to either move for real or truly commit to Luzhou. And we chose to move. Although, like a true Chinese plan, we submit to a last minute change and chose Lijiang as our new destination. And we had a great year. (Well, 10 months if you’re counting.) We learned a lot, met new people, saw new things, basked in Western-style comfort. We’ll tell you all about it in entries to come. But … it never felt like home.

I started joking-not-joking pretty early on that “if things don’t work out, we could always go back to Linda/Luzhou.” But we gave it our all, and it was fun until it wasn’t. Then Peter came on board and it turned out I wasn’t joking after all.

In the meantime, Linda hired someone else! Which was great, because then I found someplace else: i2 — a growning, Chengdu chain of training schools that was looking to expand to Luzhou.

So, we’re back … and I guess we’re lucky enough that we got to choose both moving and committing to Luzhou. We’ve been back about a month, and seen old friends and made new ones. And we’re really looking forward to everything this latest chapter will bring.

Jun 14, 2015

Sunday on the mountain in our backyard

Eating some seeds

The mountain in our backyard from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Just a ways down the road from our school, there’s a small mountain path that breaks off the main highway. After staring at it curiously from the bus window for years, one night we shared a taxi — in Luzhou, it’s not uncommon to hail an occupied cab if it’s going your way — with a couple who took us on a detour up that way. As we whizzed up the curvy mountain road, Peter and I both though to ourselves: we’ve got to come back. And bring a camera.

So one sunny Sunday afternoon, we did. The yellow rapeseed flowers that take over Luzhou’s countryside were in full bloom. We joined the ranks of the few walkers on the road; most of the traffic was motorbikes — there’s a big business in the neighborhood in ferrying people up and down from the highway bus station. There are two small villages along the road, 光明村 and 咀阳村. When we reached the uphill edge of 咀阳村, after about two hours of walking, we were ready to take a break. There was a group of ladies congregated on the benches outside of a small general store, and so we joined them for some Sunday afternoon kibitzing.

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.

Nov 22, 2014

To the top of Fangshan Mountain

Luzhou’s own scenic spot

A scene at the top of Fangshan Mountain, outside of Luzhou city
Peter on the bus, behind a man and his basket of produceEmily on the busBeside a row of teahouses at the top of the mountainMany teahouses had hammocks for restingA monk and a worker have a chatThe temple, from afarThis chicken is delicious and completely fakeA kitchen full of vegetablesAt the base of the mountain, a monk gets a haircut

The bus out to Fangshan is a small, green, rickety affair, bringing the phrase “bucket of bolts” to life. Our companions on the ride out were a small group of tourists, and farmers with their big woven baskets full of produce and rice. Also, some packages that were making the trip independently. This was a multi-purpose bus. The route to the mountain wends through narrow country roads along the Yangtze River. We passed farms and small villages, and a granny-type who handed the driver a lunch box through his window. The journey isn’t that far — only about 45 minutes — but it felt like traveling worlds away from our city life.

At our destination, the way opened out into your typical tourist structures: noodle huts, incense sellers and ticket booths. The “bus station” here is an informal group of benches across from a couple of reserved parking spaces. Immediately off the bus, some people asked to take a picture with us, the foreigners at the base of Luzhou’s prized attraction.

Fangshan — shan, or 山, meaning mountain — bills itself as a mini-Emei and one of the eight wondrous Buddhist mountains of Sichuan Province. Personally, I think it’s lovelier than Emei; the surroundings feel more lived-in and intimate, and on the day we were there, there were far fewer tourists. (Although a student of mine warned that it can get busy during the holidays.) Active temples and monasteries climb the mountainside, and the natural mixes freely with the man-made. I had a little chat with one of the staff members who was delighted to find that I could speak Chinese. “And so am I,” I said to Peter, relating the encounter.

At the top of the mountain, there is a hotel. Catching the sunrise is a major attraction at Sichuan’s Buddhist mountains, and the best way to do that is to sleep over, I guess. There are also a bunch of scrappy little restaurants and teahouses; most of them with hammocks strung between their own little cluster of trees. Hanging out, of course, being all of Sichuan’s favorite pastime. We opted, instead, for the walking path through the forest out to Knife’s Edge Ridge.

The day was quite overcast, like many autumn days in Luzhou. Our walk through the woods was serene and felt almost otherworldly. At the ridge, the trees fell away and the path became two shallow parabolas, hammocked between a pair of short pagodas. It was a misty, beautiful view, like you see in movies about China. We sat and contemplated our surroundings, marveling that this was in our own backyard.

Mid-mountain, there is Yunfeng Temple — this was the main reason we were there. After three years of making and breaking plans to visit Fangshan, we recently learned from our friend Andrea that the temple restaurant makes amazing fake meat dishes out of tofu (a Buddhist tradition). And if there’s anything that motivates us, it’s food.

It was a late lunch for us. We ordered “chicken” in a scallion and mushroom broth, a side of intensely spicy cucumbers, and the house special — which turned out to be more tofu. Our vegetarian chicken wouldn’t fool anyone (and our server made sure we understood that nothing was made with meat), but it was delicious. Savory and chicken-y with a real fleshy texture. It hit the spot after our morning’s ramble. If the restaurant wasn’t halfway up a mountain, we might go more often.

As it stands, we’d already like to return to Fangshan. There’s really no excuse not to. It’s such a short, easy — if bumpy — bus trip, and there are many more paths to explore. Not to mention the caves and waterfalls that we missed. At the very least, we’d like to try the “fish.”

Knife's Edge Ridge unfurls into the mist
Knife’s Edge Ridge affords a striking view.

Oct 18, 2014

Help and friends, and how that works

Hey, we’re more than getting by …

our new spa chair at home
It was a pretty big ordeal getting our new spa chair home.

Everywhere we go, people know us

When we lose our way, people show us

When we break down, people tow us

And send us on our way with a smile and a little wave

“Meeting Mr Miandad,” The Duckworth Lewis Method

The big question our students ask us basically boils down to: “If you don’t speak Chinese well, how do you get stuff done?” (A close second is, “Teacher, why here?” But to that I say, why not here?)

The answer is, the kindness and goodwill of friends and strangers is overwhelming. In all of our travels throughout China (and, really, the rest of the world, too), we’ve found that most people want to help. And doesn’t hurt that we’re willing to look like fools when necessary; I once, in a prolonged performance, acted the part of a dying mouse to a shop clerk who eventually figured out that we needed traps and showed us where they were.

My Chinese is steadily improving, too, which means daily life stuff is getting easier. But, sometimes a little information is dangerous. Like, for example, in the case of the Man who Helped Us on our way Home with Heavy Packages. We had a massage chair, and he had a taxi — I thought. Fantastic, because we needed a taxi. In fact, what he actually must have said was something like, “Let me help you carry that heavy thing to the bus stop,” because that’s what he did. And it was the wrong bus stop; there was just miscommunication all around.

But, are you going to be mad at that? This guy very sweetly came to our (perceived) aid and helped carry our giant massage chair kind of a long way. With — more! — help from an English-speaking student also at the bus stop, we sorted out what went wrong. Then, all that was left to do was to shake hands and part ways. “朋友,” Peter said to the man as we said goodbye, friends. And we got into a taxi.