Hello Uncle Foreigner

New Friends

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.

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.

Jun 14, 2015

Goodbye to Vietnam, back in China in time for the New Year

After all this time, finally leaving Baiyun International Airport

Some delicious noodle soup in a Guangzhou alleyway was just what my cold wanted.
The view from the Lazy Gaga hostel in the center of Guangzhou city
Check out the view from our hostel window. We stayed at the Lazy Gaga, mostly because it was called Lazy Gaga. But it turned out to be a great place to stay, right in the city center. The staff, in particular, was super friendly and helpful.
Canton TowerThere are crazy rides at the top of the Canton Tower.
The Canton Tower — at 600 meters tall, the fifth tallest freestanding structure in the world — was one of the few local attractions that was open during the holiday. Also, we had seen it on a recent season of “The Amazing Race,” so we had to check it out. At the top, there are some crazy rides.
Our international New Year's Eve dinner
Our brand new Chinese friends, from far-flung corners of the country, treated us to a New Year’s Eve BBQ feast.

Guangzhou, in southeast China, was the last stop on our trip, between Vietnam and home. It’s the vibrant capital city of Guangdong (formerly romanized as Canton) Province, world famous for it’s cuisine. For us, this was an exciting chance to leave the somewhat terrible Baiyun International Airport — a place we’ve layed-over about half a dozen times in the past few years. Though, after 16 days on the road and a contracting mild colds, we were determined to take it easy.

Guangzhou was happy to cooperate. We landed a few days before Chinese New Year, and the city had that the-extended-family’s-home-and-a-lot-of-stuff-is-closed feeling that you find in America in the run up to Thanksgiving. A kind of relaxed frenzy; the streets were busy with happy relatives trying to find something to do. We took in the sights and snacked our way through the city center.

New Year’s Eve was a beautiful, clear night, and Guangzhou is far enough south that the weather was quite warm in February. Walking by the Pearl River, we fell in with a group of young Chinese travelers who invited us to dinner. Traditionally in China, Spring Festival is a time for family, but in recent years, more and more young people are using the time off to explore their country, and abroad.

Over BBQ, we shared our stories, making quick friends of strangers in the manner of the Canterbury Tales. We had all been brought together that day by Luo Ao from Xi’an, who had left his phone number at reception, looking for someone to have tea with. Our ringleader was a soft-spoken young man, pale with boyishly chubby cheeks. He told us that he was studying technology at university in Chengdu, but that his dream was to transfer to school in Leicester, England. It was a dream deferred, however, as he recently failed the IELTS. But he is determined to try again.

Sheng Gaole — “Call me Lawrence,” he said — from the eastern city of Hefei in Anhui province, had been the first to answer Luo Ao’s invitation. He was a tall and angular fellow whose whose calm demeanor belied a rebellious streak; traveling alone in Guangzhou against strict orders from his father, he was making plans to go and visit a friend in Ohio. His father was ready for Lawrence to settle down and get married, but Lawrence wasn’t having it. “You are so free,” he told us wistfully, as we shared our own stories.

By coincidence, Kevin Lee and Quan Hui were originally from the same small city in inner Mongolia, though they had only just met tonight. Quan Hui, by far, was the quietest of the bunch. She said that she had studied English in university, but after a few years, it was starting to fade. She was happy just to soak up the conversation, I think. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite confident in his speaking ability. Another recent graduate, he works as an engineer at a firm in Shenzhen with many international connections. He may even get sent abroad, a possibility that really seemed to excite him.

The night was festive but not too wild. We toasted the holiday and each other, and ordered more and more food until everyone was very full. We talked about our jobs, our lives, and our dreams. “When do you stop getting the hong bao?” I asked, referring to the traditional red envelope full of cash given to children at this time of year. “When you get married,” said Quan Hui. “When you get a job,” said Lawrence.

When the meal was over, our four companions consulted over the check with our waitress. At the conclusion, they informed us that it was their treat, and that they got a bargain, too! It was a Happy New Year all around. They bundled us into a cab, and we were home in time for midnight. A group of travelers crowded the couch in our hostel lobby, watching the annual CCTV New Year spectacular. We, however, headed up to bed and listened for the illegal fireworks that never came; because Guangzhou is far enough east that rules are followed.

Sep 8, 2014

Natural wonders in Jiuzhaigou

And some people who get to call this place home

The amazing ponds of Jiuzhaigou are fantastic colors
Our hotel room had a good view of the mountainsThe hotel
Our hotel in Jiuzhaigou had an amazing view of the mountains. (Oh, and heads up: That Sauwastika there is a Buddhist symbol and has nothing whatsoever to do with National Socialism.)
Out in Jiuzhaigou, the townThe wild riverBar street in the hostel area
Jiuzhaigou-the-town has its beautiful spots as well.
Peter gives a whiskey pouring lesson
Peter gives a whiskey lesson to the staff at Minibar Tavern.
Our rainy walk through the parkThe mountains in the park
Our day in the nature reserve was rainy, but beautiful.
The mirror pool
The lakes are so clear that they make perfect mirrors.
Our guide, LisaPeter and Emily in the landscape
Lisa, in the photo at left, took fantastic care of us.
More fantastic colors
Those are the real colors of this pool. It’s pretty amazing.
Us and the many touristsMany, many tourists
Did I mention that we were only two of about eleventy-billion other tourists that day?
Oh, those colors. And the water is so clear.
This pool is actually many hundreds of meters deep.
Lisa's sister dresses Emily in a traditional costumeEmily as a Tibetan
Lisa’s sister kitted me out in a traditional Tibetan costume.
The forest in the park is beautiful.More colorsThe Great Falls
The Great Falls … and the end of our journey.

Jiuzhaigou is about 2 and a half hours north of Songpan, a bus trip that wends on a 2-lane highway through peaceful mountain greenery. The ride itself is a remarkable journey with incredible views that will make you feel you’ve traveled to another world.

Jiuzhaigou proper, however, is a for-real deal tourist extravaganza. The nature reserve is at the center of about 5 kilometers of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops set up to handle many thousands of visitors per day. August is the high season, so the place was filled to capacity. It’s a small world, though: On our first night in town, we ran into our friend Meichen. Never was I so surprised to hear my name called out on an unfamiliar street. But that was nothing compared to the shock we gave all the onlookers watching a white woman and a Chinese young adult running at each other for hugs.

East of the park, the collection of homes-away-from-home is called Longkang Village. This is where we stayed, and it also contains the delightful Bianbian Jie, a cobblestoned river walk with a bunch of cute little restaurants. When we were there, many of the shops were closed down (some by apparent government order), making the walk a pretty peaceful place to escape the crush of humanity up on the main road.

To the west is Pengfeng Village, mostly similar to Long Kang. Pengfeng’s standout attraction is the small cluster of funky Lonely Planet-approved hostels. In this small cluster is also an area called Bar Street. This is the place in which we met Lisa, the encounter that changed our whole trip.

It was at the Minibar Tavern. Peter asked for a shot of whiskey, but the staff wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Which resulted in every ex-pat drinkers’ dream situation: They asked him to show them how it’s done. They covered, in English, the vocabulary words “neat,” “with ice,” and “chaser”; and he showed them how to use their fingers to measure the proper amount.

Lisa was the young woman who had been doing most of the translating. This was her sister’s new bar, and later we would learn that this was Lisa’s first visit since the bar opened. Lisa and her brother, Peter (a double Peter!), were local kids, and they offered to show us around the park for free the next day, in gratitude for the bartending lesson. “I’ll give you the quality tour,” she promised us.

We would be fools not to take them up on this. So early the next morning, we met them outside of our hotel and they took us to the park. Lisa, actually, had been born there. Her family, she told us, was one of three large extended families that made up 荷叶, or the Lotus Leaf village, a small village inside the park. (There are a few Tibetan villages inside the park.) This made her and Peter extremely knowledgeable guides. (Though Peter seemed a little shy about his English.) They showed us all the best views, where to take the pictures, which walks were the most interesting, when it was advisable to take the bus between sights, and even where to sit on the bus for the best vantage point. The lakes of Jiuzhaigou are startlingly brilliant and even in person unreal looking. “I know. It looks Photoshopped,” Lisa said.

But she said so much more than that. In the midst of this natural wonder, Lisa answered my million nosy questions about her life and family, giving context and reality to our otherworldly surroundings, even as we crushed along surrounded by thousands of other tourists.

She’s the daughter of a Tibetan father and a Han Chinese mother, a match which made all the parents grumble at the time, but it’s been a long and happy marriage, “so no one can say anything now,” Lisa said. As a child, she and her brothers and sisters and other extended family members — whom, by custom, Lisa explained, are all referred to as brother and sister; for example, our aforementioned Peter is actually a younger cousin — were turned out to play in the park as their own 700 km2 playground. “There are no bad guys out there,” her mother reasoned. They swam and fished in the pools, rode horses through the forests, picked wild strawberries and mushrooms in the hills. It all sounds like the perfect countryside childhood. Her father was even part of the team that rounded up the wild pandas to bring them to the Wolong Panda Reserve.

Lisa said a few times during our trip that too many people come now. She’s understandably very protective of the land. As we walked, she pointed out stray litter as well as the little boat they use to go clear trash from the ponds. There are 2-3 cleaning people for every 1-2 kilometers, Lisa told us. And they do excellent work; the whole reserve was remarkably clean, given the fact that there were tourists everywhere munching on disposable cup noodle and rice dishes.

Lisa was on familiar terms with pretty much all of the park vendors and employees, throwing out friendly waves and stopping for a chat here and there. “That’s my uncle,” she said of a passing bus driver. After a quick hello with some young jewelery sellers, she told me, “We’re almost all relations.”

One sister, a much older woman, ran a stall with traditional Tibetan costumes. The idea was that you’d dress up and take a photo with some Jiuzhaigou-ness in the background. This sister never went to school; she worked in the park since she was very young. Because I was with Lisa, she let me try on a costume for free. It was a funny interaction. Lisa pointed out that I was a native English speaker, speaking Mandarin with a woman who spoke Tibetan. The sister told me I was pretty all dressed up, though. I understood that.

Lisa said that her father thought that education was very important for her and her siblings. His mother, a woman Lisa spoke very fondly of, worked really hard to send him to university, and he in turn wanted the same education for his children. So she went to middle and high school in Chengdu, and now studies accounting at university in Leshan. During her vacation time, to make a little money she and Peter used to sell watermelon and other snacks to tourists in the park. Now that they’re older, they give tours to people like us.

Though much of her family has found some employment in the park, not everyone stays. Once she finishes university, Lisa said that she was uncertain whether she would return. Another sister — who is actually Lisa’s niece but older than her — just married an English man. But they came back to the village to have a traditional week-long Tibetan wedding ceremony. It sounded wonderful, with lots of delicious foods: wonderful breads baked with fresh wild vegetables.

Jiuzhaigou is such a wonderfully strange sight to see. You have the fantastic natural formations: the outrageously colored lakes, the soaring mountains, and fertile forests. And then there’s just people, everywhere. All of them taking pictures, so much so that the outstretched arms and digital screens become part of the scenery.

After a photo scrum at the Giant Falls, we took a rest that turned into the end of the line for us. Sitting down, we realized that we were tired, wet, cold, and after almost 4 hours, fully sated with nature. Lisa kindly assured us that the two sights we were skipping — the Long Lake and the Five Color Pool — are similar to lakes we’ve already seen. It’s just a lake that’s long, she said of the former, and we’ve seen all five colors in other lakes. We said our goodbyes and she dropped us off at the bus to the exit. And she rushed off to go help her mom somewhere in the park.

Jiuzhaigou is a beautiful landscapeThe Falls, again

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

Jul 28, 2012

A plan to make a plan

Let’s get together sometime

Emily and Alex make a plan
Emily and Alex at the rice shop

So, we meet a lot of people just by walking down the street. They usually just want to take pictures, but if they have a little English, they’ll chat with us for a little while. Sometimes, they ask for our phone number. We gladly give it, though they rarely call, which is a little disappointing. (Abdullah Paco — I’m dying to know where you got a Spanish name!)

Our friend from the other day Alex, on the other hand, did not ask for our phone number but did call! We were still in Chengdu at the time, but we were really glad to hear from him. (He tracked down our number from teachers at his school who knew teachers at our school.) He wanted to hang out and we wanted to hang out, so we made a plan to meet for lunch to make plans for more hanging out.

Alex met us at the gate of our school, armed with a notebook full of suggestions for us — from what to eat right then for lunch to every sight we might possibly want to see in Luzhou. He even had a classmate illustrate each option for us, so there would be no confusion.

From the lunch menu, we selected fried rice.

Over lunch, he showed us his American flag-decorated folder, and we discussed American things. He filled me in on the latest doings on “Gossip Girl.” He also presented our sightseeing options. (On the Luzhou Museum: It’s boring, but students like it because they can use the computers there.) “Make a check mark next to the ones that you want to do,” he told us. We didn’t want to be too greedy of his time, but as we kept checking things off — the library, the small Sichuan opera theater — he encouraged us to check off more. So we checked them all off!

Our tour began immediately after lunch. Alex walked with us around our neighborhood, pointing out some small sights. He also helped us buy a map of Luzhou, which is something we’ve been looking for since we landed. We parted ways with plans to meet up again that Saturday to tackle more of our list.

Jun 1, 2012

Happy Children’s Day!

Making new friends

Our new friend on Children's Day

I ran into two of my Junior students today at lunch, and they informed me that today is Children’s Day in China.

“Stay right there, and we will bring you some candy,” they instructed me, and ran across the busy street. I tensed up as I watched them dodge cars (we haven’t addressed it yet, but the traffic here is frightening), but they returned safely with two lollipops that they gave to me. It was very kind, although I’m a little puzzled that they gave me sweets rather than the other way around.

But back at home, I looked up Children’s Day. It’s a Chinese holiday that, obviously, recognizes children. Sometimes the kids are given a half or whole day off from school. Our juniors were given the afternoon off for a celebration in the gym, as I found out when I arrived to an empty classroom later that day.

At dinner, we celebrated Children’s Day by making friends with a child (he’s pictured above). Kids of his age do nothing to hide their astonishment at seeing us, which is always funny to see, and we usually wave and smile and say 你好. Because his family was sitting right next to us at dinner, he had the chance to move in closer and closer to our table.

There are different levels of amazement that we see people express towards us: First, there’s “Look at that!” Next up is, “It speaks!” Then there’s, “It speaks to me!” — I think for many little kids who have only seen westerners on TV, there’s an element of surprise that we can break the fourth wall with them. And, finally there’s “It speaks! To me! In Chinese!”

We sped through all four stages when I said to the boy, “我是 Emily. 他是 Peter.” He really liked Peter’s name. He repeated it over and over. I also asked him his name, but the Chinese slipped out of my head as soon as I said it.

(Peter pointed out that I’m at a good level for conversation with children; they don’t ask a lot of questions and a whole exchange can comprise “How are you? What’s your name? Great!”)

The family finished their meal soon after our little conversation, and they all said good-bye. I said to the mother, “Very cute!” (in English; “cute,” like “OK,” seems to be a word known universally) and she smiled.

Feb 9, 2012

The return of the Karaoke Kids

This time, with less karaoke

Karaoke kids know how to have fun

After our initial outing with the Karaoke Kids, they called to invite us out again but I had a bad cold and we had to refuse. This happened twice (they were eager and my cold was a lingerer). And, we could have called them after I got better, but we got busy and forgot. It looked like our adventures with our new friends were over before they began.

Which is why we were so excited to run into them again last weekend, at sticks! They called us over to eat with them, which we did, and we stuffed our faces. And we made many toasts to each other. (I learned over the holiday that toasting your host is a sign of respect — which makes sense.) We didn’t do karaoke, but there was a renewed promise of future good times.

Jan 27, 2012

Chengdu: Return to the Bookworm

Reading and wine are so divine

Learning goes good with wine

We liked the Bookworm so much, that we went back again the next afternoon. Also, on our first night there, we missed the new books! The bulk of their stock is second-hand, and the new books are tucked on a few racks into a corner in the second room, which we didn’t enter the night before.

But, new books! We browsed for a good while and then Peter and I bought one book each: “Mother Night,” by Kurt Vonnegut (who I’ve always meant to read more of) and “Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present,” by Peter Hessler (obviously a relevant subject to us). We also bought a set of Chinese-English flashcards.

Once we had made our purchases, we sat down for lunch and some afternoon wine. (We really don’t drink as much as these vacation stories seem to indicate, I swear! We just don’t have access to much in Luzhou.) While we waited for our food, I pulled out the flashcards and we started to look them over, each sharing gleaned tidbits of knowledge and educated guesses about how characters function in the Chinese language.

Here's Tony

The guy sitting at the table next to us (we actually caught him in a photo of the book store, left) overheard us talking about learning Chinese and asked us if we had tried Rosetta Stone. (Answer: Not yet. But it’s on our radar.) This morphed into a long discussion about China and U.S. international relations - he had spent long stretches of his life in the U.S. and Canada, though his parents were still in Sichuan. We listened more than we spoke (both out of old journalistic habits and because it’s good ex-pat practice here), but it was interesting to hear his perspective on world events. He spoke pretty candidly with us, and I think that was partially because we were obviously already interested in China and Chinese culture, given the flash cards, and when he learned we were English teachers in a pretty small city … well, I think that really impresses people here.

Dec 5, 2011

Gaoxing, gaoxing!

or, Always bring the camera

“Always bring the camera” is the rule we’re supposed to be living by, and its importance was reiterated Saturday night.

We were just going for sticks, a dinner which has been well documented, so we left the camera at home. And most of dinner was uneventful. Delicious, but uneventful. However, just as we were down to our last few sticks, a group of local young men (we estimate mid- to late-20s) invited us to join them.

Two things: In Chinese culture, an offer to host you for food is a very serious piece of social currency. We could have said no, but it just would have been very uncool (jumping ahead - when they offered to pay our bill as well, we gave weak protests but relented easily, because in a related way it’s incredibly impolite to refuse such an offer). Also, part of our strategy for living here is to say yes when ever possible.

They didn’t really speak any English, but I told them that we were Meiguo (American), and they loved that. They made several toasts to us, and we started having a tentative good time. But there was still the issue of dinner. We had already eaten a lot, and their bowl of broth was filled with mostly meat. One of the boys got on the phone and handed it to me. A woman’s voice speaking pretty good English explained that they wanted us to eat with them. I told her that we were very grateful for the offer, but we had just eaten a lot. But we would like to sit with her friends and have a drink or two.

More toasts resulted. “Gaoxing!” the boys kept saying, which we figured out meant “happy.” Soon we were all yelling “Gaoxing! Gaoxing!” which was to be our mantra for the night. Karaoke was proposed. Karaoke seems to be the main form of nightlife around here, but Peter and I had yet to go. It wasn’t something that we would do on our own, and while there had been talk about going to KTV with some of our Chinese friends and coworkers, there had been no action.

We were curious, but we also have a 10 pm curfew (it was almost 9). The phone was brought out again. Our faceless translator explained they wanted to take us to karaoke. I explained about the curfew.”What about 11?” she asked on behalf of the boys. “We live at a school, and they’re pretty strict,” I explained our somewhat embarrassing circumstances.

Finally a plan was made. We’d abandon dinner and go to karaoke NOW! And they would make sure that we got home by 10. Everyone made the gesture for 10, so it was clear we all understood.

In the car on the way there, the boys were furiously working the phones. I heard the phrase “Meiguo pengyou!” used several times, which means “American friends!”

The karaoke place - or perhaps I should say karaoke palace - was amazing. It was on the second floor, and the elevator doors opened onto a gaudily opulent lobby, with every filigree gilded in gold. The people who worked there were all wearing bellhop uniforms, and one such guy led us to our private room. It was huge, with a giant screen taking up one wall - for the karaoke-ing, obviously.

The attendant brought in beer (and filled our glasses as quickly as we could empty them) and a few fruit plates, and we set to work picking out songs to sing. The guys all wanted to hear us sing, and since I was more willing than Peter, I ended up singing the first three songs. One of them was a duet in Chinese - they brooked not the fact that I knew neither the song nor the language. I was able to pick up the tune, kind of, and they didn’t seem to mind that the noise I was making was not even close to words in any language. (I figured out when we got home that the song was “Beijing Welcomes You,” which was hugely popular in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics. I think they just couldn’t believe that I wouldn’t know it. When they sang the chorus (because everyone sang the chorus), they changed it to “Luzhou Welcomes You,” which was very cute.)

More and more people arrived, and the party really got going. Everyone wanted to meet the Meiguo pengyou, and some of them actually had a little bit of English.

There was a little spinner on the table for a game, and a few of us sat down to play. The rules were simple: spin the spinner and do what it says. Most of the commands were drink related (you drink, you choose someone to drink, everyone drinks!) and karaoke related (sing the next song).

Then the room demanded a duet between Peter and me. They chose “I Want It That Way,” by N’Sync, a song Peter didn’t really know. But again, no matter. I sang and Peter made some supportive noises, and they loved it! Later, Peter told me that this was the very first time he had actually sung at karaoke.

Sadly, after that, it was time for us to go. “Eleven! Eleven!” some cried. But we really did have to go. We said our goodbyes and we got a cab, bummed that we had to leave the party early. And super bummed that we didn’t bring our camera.