Hello Uncle Foreigner

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Dec 28, 2015

The Ballad of Sprinkles and MacNeil

Meet the neighbor dogs

The puppies!A rare Sprinkles sightingPeter, making friends with the dogs
Top: The puppies! Left: Sprinkles is the white one. She’s both more skittish and clearly the boss of MacNeil, the red one.

They are anxious, these dogs that live in our apartment complex. Really anxious. They’re terrorized by a much larger dog, who likes to come and pee on them. But they have each other. Sprinkles and MacNeil. It’s them against the world.

I once met them in the road, standing hind-quarter to hind-quarter, glaring at everyone they saw. They bark like mad every time I drive by them on my bike. They also bark like mad if there are clouds, or someone’s cooking dinner. But I think they reassure each other. They’re always upset, but they’re upset together.

Recently, one of them had puppies. It’s tough to say which one; the puppies look like neither of them, and they both guard ’em fiercely. The puppies are all named Snuggles; dogs aren’t very clever about names. And gradually, we’ve been able to make friends with the whole family.

They still bark, of course. That’s what they do. Sometimes, from inside our apartment, we can hear Sprinkles calling, “MacNeil! Come here. I need you.” But I think that means that everything is alright.

Jun 18, 2015

Video: Guitar with Mr. Super

No more school work, let’s make music

Guitar with Mr. Super from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Graduation time is here, releasing a new crop of students out into the world, and freeing up their time for guitar lessons.

Zhang Yu Jie — formerly Mr. Super, an English name that he’s discarded — has been our friend for the past three years. Determined to improve his English, he would practice with us as much as he could, finding us between classes, walking with us wherever, getting in those precious few moments of face time during his busy school schedule.

On our part, we learned that he is a really sweet, hard-working young man. Raised on a farm by his grandparents with his twin sister Lily, he has big dreams. The video above takes from an interview we conducted last spring, and a group guitar lesson Peter gave last month with Lily and a few friends.

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Oct 12, 2014

Our surprise friend

A local kid continues our education

We made a new friend who sat and talked with us at River Restaurant

This summer and fall have been particularly lovely in Luzhou: Not too hot, not too much rain and way more blue sky days than you’d expect from a country with such a problem with air pollution. So we’ve been finding every excuse to spend our time outside. And one of our favorite outside haunts, we’ve been referring to as the River Restaurant. (Formerly, My Birthday Restaurant, because the first time we were there was to celebrate my first birthday in China.)

A few weeks ago, we met a new friend — a bold 12-year-old girl who pulled up a chair and sat with us for about a half hour. We practiced a little English, but mostly she peppered us with questions in Chinese. Do you have children? Is New York the capital of America? The usual. She also gave me a rapid-fire lesson on the Chinese holidays; at this point Mid-Autumn festival was just around the corner. We took a photo with her, and she left, with a vague promise that we’d meet again someday.

And then we did see her again, just two days ago. Her home is near the very tip of the Luzhou city peninsula. She walked with us to dinner (this time at Pork Rib restaurant), announcing to the staff proudly that we were her 美国朋友 — American friends — and telling us that the staff were her 中国朋友 — Chinese friends. Then she flitted off into the wind once more.

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 30, 2014

In the kitchen with Jessi

Our first class is on their way

The girls in our kitchen
From left to right: Yi, Meichen and Jessi, preparing a feast in our kitchen.
Jessi made a fantastic Sichuan-style dinner
Our meal of pumpkin soup, egg and scallion, and mildly spicy pork with peppers.
Hanging out with the kidsHave some dumplings
Left: This was our first time entertaining so many people at the new apartment; we had to borrow dishes from next door. Right: Jessi and the mountain of dumplings we made.

“I think students are closer to there teachers here in China than they are in America,” I said.

Jessi agreed. It’s because they spend more time together, she told me, they’re more like family. She was, at the time, mincing up some pork for the dumplings she was making me. I was nominally helping, cleaning the chives, but really the bulk of the work fell on her.

Jessi had been my student in my first year of teaching. (She’s namechecked in this essay.) Overwhelmed by our new lives that year, Peter and I didn’t make too many real connections with our students, but Jessi and a few of her friends were wonderful exceptions. We’ve kept in loose touch since then, and this summer she’s come over a few times to cook for us — she’s quite accomplished at Sichuan cuisine.

Our first meal together was an absolute feast, and she brought with her Kevin, Meichen and Yi. It was great catching up with the kids. Kevin, whom we used to refer to as the Crane, was back from his training year in Singapore and is now pretty fluent in English. He starts university in Singapore in the fall, and we can tell he’s having an amazing adventure abroad. Meichen, one of Peter’s top students from his top class, has not waited to start her advanced education — she’s already taken an English course from online university Coursera. Meichen and Kevin talked books and translation with Peter for much of the evening. Yi is a new friend, and very shy — though she seemed to have fun. She did tell me that I taught her mother when I did that course at the local teacher’s college!

Jessi will be staying in Luzhou for school, attending the city’s Medical College. During one of our very first after-class chats she told me that she wanted to be a doctor, so I’m fantastically happy for her. Likewise, I’m happy for myself, because if she stays nearby, she can come over and make me more delicious dumplings.

Apr 15, 2014

The international dinner

Let’s get together, and eat some beef

An international crowd at beef hot pot
An international crowd at beef hot pot
The international roundtable. Top, clockwise from Emily: Maybell, Claude, Andrea, Alex US, Alex UK. Bottom, continuing clockwise from Alex UK: Echo, Crela.

The occasion: We knew some cool people and we met some other cool people, and we thought they should meet, so Peter and I put together a small dinner party a few weeks ago.

It was a truly multi-cultural ‘do. The Chinese side of the guest list was composed of Echo and Crela, and Maybell and Claude. For the Westerners: There was Andrea, an Italian businessman who has lived in Luzhou for nearly a decade. He got in touch with us through Flickr when he recognized the city in our photos. And there were Andrea’s friends, Alex from the U.K. and Alex from the U.S. (“A Double Alex!” Claude exclaimed when we ran down the roster.) The two of them are ESL teachers at a school just south of Luzhou city.

It made for a nice mix: a crew of teachers, current/former Chinese students and a long-time expat Luzhou-ite. Shop talk, tips and advice passed in all directions. We also covered general language and cultural differences — translating jokes for one another that didn’t always make it into the other language. The food got eaten and the beer got drunk and people seemed to have a good time. Hosting success!

“You promised an international party, and it really was an international party,” Crela told us afterwards.

Mar 29, 2014

The girl gang

Pinkay and friends down Qian Dian Alley

I run wild with the girl gang by Changjiang River

Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?

At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.

They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.

Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.

Me and the girls at chuan chuan
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily

Feb 22, 2014

A beach vacation for non-beach people

Do we join Fish Club?

Real China and resort China intermingle in Sanya
Sanya is pretty touristy, but occasionally you get glimpses of the “real” China.
Outdoors at the Mandarin OrientalPeter and his dinner at the Mandarin Oriental
Outdoor dining at the Mandarin Oriental is a fabulous experience.
I get a late-night pizza at Surf CircusPeter at the bar at Surf Circus
The pizza at Surf Circus isn’t the greatest, but it is late-night satisfying.
Me with Sissi, the server at the Dolphin
My new friend Sissi, from the Dolphin
Out on the boardwalk, trying some fishThe real beer kegsThe house band at Baile Bar
Baile Bar, on the boardwalk, rocked nightly.
In the rose tub at the hot springsFish nibblers at the hot springs
The pools at Nantian Hot Springs are relaxing and fragrant. The pool on the right is filled with those fish that nibble on your dead skin!

Greater Sanya, as seen from a cab, is certainly still a part of the China we know and love, but the beachy areas exist solely on Planet Resort. We were there between the slight lull between the January 1 New Year and the start of Chinese New Year on January 30, so things were a bit sleepy, which is just the way we like it.

Beforehand, we had decided that the theme for the trip was: “Try the seafood, you might like it.” That lasted for a few days before we decided that we didn’t like it, and didn’t need to work so hard on our vacation. The one exception being the tasting menu during our fancy-pants night out at the Mandarin Oriental, where Peter described feeling like Little Lord Fauntleroy dining seaside on rock crab, turbot, red snapper and crème brûlée

Instead, we just relaxed. There are virtually no turkey sandwiches in China outside of this little strip of paradise, so we gave in to our western cravings and oscillated between burgers at the Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill and pizzas at beachfront bar Sanya Surf Circus. Sometimes — many times — we hit both places in the same night. By the end of the trip, I was on hugging terms with Dolphin waitress Sissi, whom we saw was beloved by most everybody in the place.

We watched a crop of new police recruits goof their way through a boardwalk inspection. (I’d totally watch a sitcom about beach cops.) We traded English and Chinese vocabulary with masseuses. We ate junky and satisfying beach food. We got way overcharged on coconuts, but bargained sharply for a cheap pair of flip flops.

We met Teana, the MO bartender, who spent a lovely evening talking with us and fixing up extravagant cocktails. She’s Sichuanese, and right away we bonded over love of hot pot. Her English was so good that I thought for sure she had studied abroad. Nope, she picked it up solely through hotel work. “I was nervous the first time I spoke with a foreigner,” she told us. But she made herself do it, over and over, and now she’s quite fluent.

We visited the Nantian Hot Springs, and spent a day hopping in and out of scalding pools of various flavors, steeping like tea and absorbing the supposed health benefits. Emboldened by Teana’s spirit, I powered through some challenging chats that I might have brushed off with an embarrassed, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Our 10 days lazed by gloriously, though it still felt like it was over in a snap. But that was OK. We were refreshed and restored by the sunshine in January. And ready to get back home.

More hot springsMore hot springsMore hot springsA regular swimming pool at the hot springs

Dec 25, 2013

The people in our neighborhoods

Making friends of all ages

Blue's birthday party
The birthday boy

So, it’s perfectly OK to bring beer to a 7-year-old’s birthday party, but you should know that the birthday boy himself will want to toast with wine.

Our new friend Snow had invited us ‘round for a dinner party, which turned out to be a celebration for her young neighbor Blue. He was in good spirits, even though he had a big exam the next day. Also in attendance were a few other kids from the building, as well as some of Snow’s adult friends: The young woman from the Luzhou Planning Museum, a doctor who works in a traditional Chinese medicine clinic, and a woman who designs construction sites.

A few of the kids are siblings. Snow says this is tolerated because their parents run their own business. Out in this part of the country, if you violate the one-child stricture, you can just pay a fine and get on with your life; although government workers would probably be fired.

Peter, Snow, and I hung out with the kids while the ladies prepared dinner — as she does not consider herself a chef, Snow’s favorite trick is to invite fantastic cooks to dine on meals of their own preparation. Terrific smells wafted in from the kitchen as Snow coached Blue and his friends to introduce themselves in English. They were pretty good.

Once dinner was served, we all gathered around the table. Snow poured a small measure of wine for each kid, and we toasted Blue’s seventh year. Then we toasted Halloween. And then we toasted Blue’s impending exam. The children gobbled and then split to go play in the next room.

The adults lingered at the table for hours, sharing stories with the help of Snow’s translation. (Though the other women had some English; the doctor, in particular, appeared to understand a lot more than she could speak.)

The partiers say goodbye
Our parting shot, before all the kids went home to crash in bed.

We collectively decided … In south China, men and women share cooking and household duties; In the north it all falls to the ladies. Does geography influence character? A friend of Snow’s had studied in Lincoln, Nebraska, and found the weather and the people cold. Americans eat don’t know the joys of seasonal produce. The Chinese don’t like to travel. Americans should love 串串, and, hey … business idea!

Around midnight, the kids were still throwing themselves around the place with a manic tiredness, but their mothers had arrived to take them home. We took some group photos and wished Blue well one last time.

Maybell and her students
Maybell, the blur on the right, puts together a fine dumpling party.
Let's play a game in English
She also knows how to host an exciting card game.
Peter tunes the guitar to perform
Peter prepares for his performance.

Dumplings are delicious, but work intensive to make, so it’s a common Chinese social event to hold a dumpling party where everyone pitches in. Maybell hosted us to such a party with a few of her top students. Again, we brought beer, and again we were surprised that our fellow guests were so young: 12 years of age. But Maybell’s boyfriend — who now goes by the English name Cloud — was happy to partake with us.

We stuffed and folded our dumplings with Jenny, Snowy, Iris, Lucy, and Bill, who was quite dapper in a camel-colored blazer. Bill was quite comfortable among all the girls; Maybell told us, as a matter of fact, that because of the company he keeps she initially thought that Bill was a girl.

Many hands make light work, and before we knew it, we had a huge pile of dumplings. Maybell and Cloud took them into the kitchen to steam them up. They shuttled back and forth bringing out more and more food, and it was clear that they both had worked hard to prepare a delicious feast. The kids egged each other on to speak to Peter and me in English.

After dinner, we all retired to the living room for songs and games. We played some party card games that had been meticulously prepared by Maybell. During game time, the kids got a lot less shy about speaking to us foreigners, although they occasionally needed some translation help from Maybell and Cloud.

It was actually quite impressive that these 12-year-olds could hang for an entire evening of immersion English. They are some of Maybell’s best students, and it was obvious, interacting with them that they are very eager to learn. Peter and I were also impressed with Cloud, who now seems very confident in his English, as opposed to when we first met him and he was hesitant to say anything at all.

Tai-an alley 1

Sometimes a little change in routine can make a big difference. We’ve been spending a lot of time in the countryside neighborhood of Tai An since the summer, but just recently we added lunchtime to our rotation. We tromped the village like idiots one afternoon, looking for dumplings at tea houses. (“We serve tea here.”) A witness to our bumbling took pity on us and directed us to the restaurant that he was eating at. “It’s cheap,” was roughly his sales pitch, “6 kuai a person.” (This is about US$1.)

We settled into lunch. And then the neighborhood kids started gathering. They hovered at the threshold of the restaurant at first, and then one brave girl approached and asked us for our names. She produced a small piece of paper for me to write them down. And then the avalanche came.

Kids crowded the table with small pieces of paper, and then ripped up pieces of cigarette cartons to get a signature. Peter drew a self portrait for one child, and then everyone wanted one of those, too. All told, there were probably around 40 kids coming and going in the mob around us. Impressively, they were all very patient, and they politely waited their turn.

The initial brave girl stayed on hand, keeping an eye on things and monitoring the kids’ interactions with us. “They’re Americans. They’re from Tianfu Middle School,” she’d explain when another person would ask. As things were winding down, she told me in English, “Your eyes are like stars!”

Signing autographs for the kids of Tai'an