Hello Uncle Foreigner

Holidays

Jan 5, 2017

Santa comes to the MixC

Christmas 2016

This year, I took up the family mantle and played Santa for my new school. We took over the nearby mall for a variety show with singing, dancing and a short play — and because I’m the resident westerner, most of the acts were written, choreographed or conducted by me. Merry Christmas, China!

Jun 15, 2016

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Let’s make some zongzi with the grannies

Dec 28, 2015

Merry Christmas, from Lijiang!

In which Peter and Emily attend a party

Xmas from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Our school threw a little party for the kids this Christmas. And Santa was there. It was lots of fun.

Nov 1, 2015

Party down for Halloween

Your traditional Chinese pizza and grillin’ stuff

SpeakEasy Halloween 2015 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Last night our school hosted a Halloween party, and it’s actually the first party we’ve been to in a long time. And it was fun. We mingled and selfied with the guests, who were all mostly students at the local tourism college; and had pizza and beer and BBQ — pretty Halloween-y.

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.

Feb 25, 2015

Celebrating the brand spanking Year of the Sheep

Happy Chinese New Year!

Some delicious ducks hanging in an apartment window in Chengdu.
Ducks drying in the window of a Chengdu apartment for a tasty meal

This year, we took our winter vacation a little later than usual, which meant that we were on the road for the start of Chinese New Year. And preparations for the two-week long holiday began before we left, in early February. Restaurants rolled out spiffy new dishes and menus, families brought home nice fat chickens and ducks, and the city hung red lanterns all over everything. Because Spring Festival, as it’s also called, is a big deal.

A significant percentage of China’s population is on the move at this time of year — and the same is true in Vietnam, where the related Tết festival is celebrated. At the start of our journey, when we stopped in at the Pug in Chengdu (where we were greeted like the regulars that we bizarrely are), the staffers were excited about their upcoming 11-day vacation. It’s a working holiday, they told us, at the owners’ new outpost in Bangkok. “It’s nice that everyone can have more than one day off at a time,” the bartender said.

As we continued our travels, the most significant signs of the holiday were the crowded airports and the fact that a lot of stuff was closed. But it was a lot of fun to be a part of the bustle. More and more young people are using the holiday as a chance to travel, not just home but also around, so we made some cool road friends along the way. And now, back at home, we’ve been the surprise guest stars at three different nights out so far. (Watch me kind of speak Chinese in the video above!)

新年快乐, everybody!

Apr 19, 2014

Return to Longan Forest

A walk in the (now finished) park

The longan forest park is very big and beautiful
A pavillion with a tea houseWedding photos
In China, wedding photos are a big, multi-day production and you can get them done anytime, any place, in many different costumes. The big white dress is not traditional here, but more and more popular as China looks to the west for style tips.

Early April in Luzhou is that sweet spot between the cold, rainy winter and the relentlessly sweltering summer — I guess you call that spring — so during that time, it’s priority for us to get out into that sweet, sweet sunshine as much as we can. This year’s Qingming Festival gave us a three-day weekend at the beginning of the month, and Peter and I (and hundreds of Luzhou families) took advantage of our holiday Monday to visit the Longan Forest Scenic Area, which is just a short walk from our countryside campus.

Our first visit to the park was more than a year ago, when it was still under construction. It’s finished now, and really pretty — all manicured greenery and delightful garden paths. It’s big, too. We spent hours walking the hilly grounds from end to end, and it was a 30 kuai cab ride back to our neighborhood afterwards. (Generally, a taxi from the city center out to the new school is half that.)

When the walking started to become more tiring than fun, we stopped at a tea house for a flowery cuppa. Now a stationary target, we attracted bunches of children who wanted to show off their English and parents who wanted to show their kids foreigners. It’s all part of the job.

Water everywhereA man-made waterfall

Dec 31, 2013

Oh, yeah. It’s New Year’s Eve!

But there’s always room for Meiguos

New Year's Eve dinner at Snaggles'

It’s been a little hard to keep track of time now that we’re down to working two days a week (with Friday being our last classes until February!), and so both of us forgot that today was December 31 until we inadvertently crashed some giant banquet dinner at one of our restaurants. The staff, however, found room for us in a corner and served us as usual.

Happy New Year!

Dec 31, 2013

Three times Christmas in Luzhou

We learn that we know nothing and stuff blows up

Our festive apartment
Some little toys from the kidsA cross-stitch from the teachers I taughtA print from a studentTraditional Chinese parasolsThe bare-bones before shot of our apartment
Most of the decor in our apartment is gifts from students. Below, the apartment in a barer state.

Formerly, I thought Christmas for the Chinese was just about shopping and sales, but our friend Chris just told us that it’s also tradition for people to give apples to each other, because the words for apples and for Christmas Eve (which is translated as “Peaceful Night”) sound alike. So you give apples to your friends and family to wish them peace. Chris said that the practice is so common that apple sellers jack their prices in the few days before Christmas. Peace can be pricey.

There were no apples for us this year, but one early December afternoon our friend Tina tracked us down in the hallways between classes to give us her gift, a beautiful hand-painted umbrella. “It’s very small,” she said. “I didn’t have a lot of money.” We told her that we loved it, because that’s the truth, and we gave her a big hug.

This year, the one thing Peter and I really wanted for Christmas was the Dragon Boat of Meat from our favorite beef hot pot restaurant across town. Instead, we spent Christmas Eve having (a perfectly nice) dinner with our bosses, and Christmas night waiting in the rain and not getting picked up by cabs. But on Boxing Day, we made it.

The Dragon Boat of Meat

The Dragon Boat of Meat is spectacular. It is also a carpaccio — a fact that had to be repeated and mimed several times by our bemused servers before we understood that we were supposed to eat it raw. We basically know nothing about anything. Peter actually kept cooking it on the sly even after we were positive that it was supposed to be eaten as is, because he wasn’t crazy about the uncooked texture.

Boxing Day was also when the mall in the center of the city blew up, though we didn’t learn about that until the following day, when we tried to go shopping there. We needed a new laptop bag. Actually, we had a weird lunch first, at a tofu soup place we like. They refused to bring us beans or turn on the table-top burners, but they didn’t want us to leave either. It was only slightly more confusing than usual.

After lunch, we walked out to the main road and saw the fire trucks and soldiers. Little boys in big coats, actually, guarding the smoking wreckage. The road was cordoned off to vehicular traffic and hundreds of gawkers crowded the sidewalks. “Well, we’re not going shopping.”

Local rumor, we found out later from Chris, is that one of the restaurants was doing something dodgy with their cooking equipment. Whatever it was, it caused an entire city block to blow up. Many people were hurt and four people died. Reportedly, people in the movie theater thought that the explosion was some kind of 3D effect. This is my worst fear, justified.

Life goes on, though, and four days later traffic is mostly back to normal, and the spectators are down to a minimum. Tofu soup still doesn’t have any gas, and the local McDonald’s remains shuttered; I suspect the underground damage to the gas lines is pretty extensive. But we bought a computer bag elsewhere, which I’m sure is what you were worried about most.

The movie theater blew up!

Apr 30, 2013

清明节: Celebration time

Holiday dinner with a family

Sarah showed us around her hometown
Sarah, above, shows us around her hometown; some guys in the background do a double take at the foreigners.

So the actual reason we were on vacation, the Qingming Festival, dates back thousands of years. It’s a day to pay homage to your ancestors — sweeping graves, burning spirit money, pouring out a little wine. A very solemn Confucian holiday in a country that is officially atheist.

Holiday traffic

Qingming Festival has only been a public holiday on the Mainland since 2008. And while some families do observe the holiday by visiting the gravesides of their elders — news broadcasts warned of the risk of fire from people burning incense and such in rain-deprived areas — a lot of the holiday traffic (and there is a lot of it; when a billion people go on vacation, there’s going to be traffic) is people using the time to travel and sit down to a meal with their living relatives. Actually, no matter what the traditions are, this is what a lot of holidays in China seem to be for: dinner with the fam.

As our families are so far away, there’s not a whole lot of celebrating we can get up to by ourselves. We celebrated Spring Festival this year in a closing restaurant, for goodness’ sake! Occasionally, though, we have friends to include us in their fun. And, for Qingming Festival, in addition to being our tour guide extraordinaire, Sarah was also a gracious and welcoming holiday host.

The business hotel
Business hotels in China are cheap and functional, but lack the charm of youth hostels.

After showing us around her Fushun County hometown, she set us up in a business hotel down the block from where we’d be having dinner that night. Mr. Wang picked us up at 6, and drove us the few hundred feet to Thousand Spices, Hundred Taste, the soon to be site of our hot pot dreams.

The family had a private room in the back of the restaurant, and Sarah’s parents and sister were already there. More of Sarah’s siblings would join us as the night went on, as would relatives of Mr. Wang. They were a close, happy family, Sarah told us. Her parents, who are in their eighties, still cook together and walk together every day. They’re very much in love, she said.

Sarah invited us to dinner with her family
We found the xiang dofu
After more than a year, we found the delicious and cheese-like Sweet Tofu, nestled right in between the imitation crab and pork dumplings.
The spice bar
First timers at the spice bar, we may have gone a little overboard mixing up our dipping sauces, but each of our mixes were fantastic.

Brief introductions made, Sarah sent us out to pick out what dishes we wanted. Usually, the host makes all the decisions, but thinking of our American paletes and half-vegetarianism, she wanted us to make sure to have food we liked. Out in the main dining hall, there was a row of refrigerated cases full of delicacies. On Sarah’s prompting, I grabbed a big tray, which was immediately taken from me by a server who accompanied Peter and I down the row of food. We grabbed so many plates of vegetables and tofu, and a few meaty dumplings for me … and Sarah encouraged us to get even more.

While we waited for the pots to boil, we all sampled some of Sarah’s father’s homemade grape wine. It was really nice, like a sweet liqueur. Mr. Wang brought out a bottle of baijiu, and they got some beers for us. Throughout the meal, there would be much ganbei-ing.

Oh, but before we started eating, we needed to prepare our spice bowls. When you eat hot pot, you get a small bowl of oil, peanuts, scallions, red peppers, etc., in which to dip each piece of food before you eat it. In most places we eat, these are prepared ahead of time, or you mix your own from a small number of ingredients. At Thousand Spices, they had a whole spice bar where you could assemble your bowl. There were peppers, pickled peppers, smashed peppers, sesame seeds, sesame paste, sesame oil, peanuts, garlic, pickled garlic, infused garlic, vinegar … so many choices. Everything looked and smelled so good. And this was just the garnish.

Back in our room, the pots were starting to boil. Each pot had a center bowl with a mushroom and chicken broth set inside an outer ring of red-hot spicy pepper broth. Peter and I alternated between the two, because the red broth burned our faces off but we wanted to eat as much of it as we could.

Our lavish spread

The mood was jovial and festive at the table, and the whole family was so welcoming and attentive to us outsiders who didn’t even speak Chinese. Mr. Wang made sure to toast us if it looked like we were getting too quiet, and Sarah’s mother offered us more and more food, as if we weren’t gorging ourselves already. The evening reminded me of holidays spent with my family and the happy chaos of a full table.

Food-wise, everything was fantastic, but the big star was the sweet tofu. Soft and textured almost like fresh mozzarella cheese, we had had it once before — more than a year ago — and it blew our minds. We hadn’t been able to find it since. Huzzah!

Before returning us to the hotel, Sarah took us to see her Fushun home. Her place is a few floors above where her parents live with her sister. Both apartments were big and open, with four bedrooms each, and spacious, jealousy-inducing kitchens. “Chinese people like to be comfortable,” Sarah told us.

I tried hard not to compliment everything we saw, because we’ve heard that if you admire something in a Chinese home, manners dictate they offer it to you, and it’s impolite to refuse. But I managed to say I liked a piece of art that one of Mr. Wang’s students had made for him, without incident.

We sat for a while and had some flower tea in Sarah’s parents’ apartment. They turned on CCTV News for us, the English-language channel. And then Sarah and Mr. Wang walked us home. It wasn’t my family, but it was nice to spend holiday time with a family nonetheless.