Hello Uncle Foreigner

learning chinese

May 6, 2018

The simple beauty of translated Mandarin

Uncle’s Shorts #6

The menu at the bakery inspired this Uncle’s Shorts musing on language and translation. Also, in the past seven years, there has been an incredible increase in the amount of English that is just out and about all over Luzhou. And more and more, it’s English that makes sense.

Jun 14, 2014

The victory lap

Leveling up in Luzhou

The kids and us at Egg Bar, with the boss
Our buddies at Egg Bar, in Tai’an
Briefly, there were hot dogs
Sadly, after a strong opening, the hot dog guys fell prey to a decline in quality and we haven’t actually seen them in a few weeks.
The Luzhou pig cakeTaste that savory meat
猪儿粑, or Pig Cake, is a delicious Luzhou specialty that our friend Listening introduced us to earlier this year.
Post-flood Yangtze RiverThe river walk today
Left: One month after the 2012 flood, makeshift tea houses reclaimed the crumbled banks of Yangtze Riverfront. Right: These days, the walk along the river has been greatly spiffed up.
Far-away-hot-potThe crew of far-away-hot-pot
Far-away-hot-pot has some truly delicious meatballs.
At Chinese Bar with Claude and MaybellDownstairs Chinese Bar
After a spicy meal at far-away-hot-pot, we love to stop at Chinese Bar for an old-fashiony night cap.
The kids at Around the Corner restaurantSome buddies at Snaggles'More young friendsA friend on the road
We’ve made all kinds of friends out in the village of Tai’an.
The old, rickety carnival by the riverShiny, new Spirits Land
Left: The old carnival by the river; right: The rollercoaster at Spirits Land
Is it a Transformer?The X-Men branded swings at Spirits Land
At Spirits Land, everything looks a little familiar.

A new vendor appeared at the bottom of the hill behind the Old School in early April. Next to the ladies selling dumplings, cold noodles, and fried 串串 snacks, two young guys set up the Little Bear Hot Dog stand. And their efforts were delicious: Perfectly savory dogs — the Chinese tube meats we’d come across before tend towards the sweet — on homemade buns served with pickles and real French’s mustard (“It’s American, just like you!” said the guy in the mask, in Chinese). We quickly made Little Bear part of our Old Campus routine. And joked to each other that this represented a huge level up in our ongoing RPG of a life. “Achievement unlocked: American-style hot dog.”

As spring progressed, it felt like less of a joke. Luzhou is changing and we are changing, and everything feels a bit more comfortable. For maybe the first two years, I’d look back every few months and think, “I have no idea how we even survived without the knowledge and experience that I’ve just gained. We were such ignorant fools until now!” But recently, so slowly that I’ve barely noticed, my mindset has become, “Hey, we’re doing pretty well these days. China’s awesome and we’re awesome!” Some of that’s due to small things, that are really more Luzhou’s doings than our own, mostly having to do with what gets stocked in the imports section at at the supermarket. There was even butter, for a short while.

But, we’re the ones who’ve found the fun at far-away-hot-pot and Chinese Bar. Far-away-hot-pot is our latest hot pot find: A place that does it up Chongqing-style, located 15-minutes in the direction away from the city center from our Old Campus apartment (hence our name for it), right on the Yangtze River. It has a beautiful view, a friendly staff and fantastic meatballs. We introduced it to our friends Maybell and Claude, and they too really liked it. Chinese Bar is the actual name of an historically themed Chinese restaurant, where the waiters dress in old fashioned river worker costumes and we drink rice wine out of ceramic bowls. Both establishments seem to be where the young and cool of Luzhou hang out. And now, it’s where we hang out, too.

We’ve also established ourselves out in Tai’an, chatting often with both the locals and the many construction workers who are in town to make this little hamlet into a city. I’m working pretty hard on my Mandarin, and these conversations are more in depth than ever before. People are starting to accuse me of speaking the local dialect, even.

The lovely spring weather has seen us get out and about nearly every weekend — whether to destinations remote and spectacular, like the Bamboo Sea, or far flung corners of Luzhou city, like Spirits Land. Spirits Land is the English translation of Luzhou’s new amusement park. According to Listening, Crela and Echo, after the flood of 2012 wiped out the scrappy old rides by the river, the city carved out a space to rebuild all that kind of thing on the outskirts of town. When we visited, mid-May, the park was only half complete, but 100% safer looking than the river carnival had been. The new park had multilingual signage in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, French and English; and willy-nilly copyright infringement: The Krusty Krab and the Chum Bucket were places to buy snacks, X-Men characters festooned the “Hurricane Fly Chairs”; and good-old Mickey ears sat atop the entry ticket booth.

During all this travel and fun, Peter and I talked constantly about our upcoming move, and how much we were going to miss Luzhou. The more we reveled in our first Chinese hometown, the more fiercely attached we felt to it. One afternoon, in conversation with our boss, we successfully floated the theoretical idea of a raise. “What if we stayed?” we started wondering.

After the first time that was voiced, it didn’t take too long for our “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour to turn into a campaign advocating for “Bonus Year in Luzhou.” Over lunch at corner restaurant (we call it that, because it’s on a corner) we called our boss Linda to sign on for another year. “God bless you,” she said.

Kunming will still be there in 2015, and we’ve finally found our footing here. So we’re staying, to revel in our achievements and to enjoy the comforts we’ve worked so hard for. Bonus round: GO!

An afternoon at Baizitu

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

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

May 12, 2013

清明节: Two dinners

An adventure for the face

Hot pot in Zigong

The double-whammy of it all is that not only is Chinese really difficult, but my natural tendencies toward introversion mean that every conversation with a stranger is one I don’t want to have. The other night at dinner, I told Peter that if I could just have someone else order beers for us — something that I’ve had more than a year of practice doing — I would do anything for that. Anything but ask, that is.

Given this reality, it’s really very easy for us to fall into a rut. When we order the same thing at the same restaurant every night, they bring us what we want without anyone having to say anything! It’s so comfortable … but also so limiting. Enduring a little social discomfort opens up exciting new worlds of food and vocabulary for us every time. So this Anglophone introvert has to keep pushing herself.

Travel is the obvious way to shake things up. In Zigong, of course we wanted to try the hot pot. There is intense regional competition regarding whose food is the best/freshest/spiciest, and we want to judge them all.

After a meander through the narrow market streets near our hotel, we found a clean, well-lit little place with the tell-tale burners sunk into the tables. “You want the spicy broth?” the server asked, I think. Whatever she said, I said yes. We also ordered cukes, lotus root, winter melon, cauliflower and potatoes. Delicious, and a whole different spice than our Luzhou usual. Hot, but we could handle it.

A new kind of pot in Luzhou

The night of our return from Zigong, emboldened by our recent, we set out to try out one of the Pot Pot restaurants by the river. We had no idea what 锅锅香 was, beyond the fact that a meal seemed to consist of a shallow pot of food atop a bucket holding a heat source. But we had been curious about it since we’ve arrived here, and we were feeling brave.

One of the hostesses beckoned us to her restaurant — there’s a cluster of about five or so in this particular area— and we obeyed. I picked at random one of eight options, and ordered up the beer: 4 bottles, cold please. They brought us out a bucket containing a red hot brick (yes!) and a small pot of pork belly (OK!). It also came with sprouts, cabbage, winter melon, potatoes and glass noodles. This dish, for a change, was not spicy, but more like a hearty pork and beans stew.

This place … is not yet a favorite. The broth and fixins we got were fine, but pork belly is so fatty and I just don’t have a taste for it. I left behind an embarrassing pile of blubber.

But, we went back a second time. This time I ordered spare ribs, which were fantastic for me … but that soup didn’t really come with enough vegetation for Peter. When we’re not Jack Sprat and his wife, sometimes I think we might be Goldilocks.

We’re determined to keep going back, however, in search of the perfect dish for both of us. There are six more things to try. And they already know how we like our beer.

Apr 8, 2013

We can fly … mostly

Tianfu Middle School Kite Festival 2013

The Tianfu Middle School kite festival

Last week, the whole school was atwitter about the upcoming kite festival set for Easter Sunday. (Well, they just called it Sunday). The Monday afternoon prior, my class 24 taught me 风筝, the Chinese word for kite, and all week different students asked if we would attend. “It starts at 8,” our boss Linda told us, which, of course it did.

Sunday morning, we hauled ourselves out of bed at 8, hoping to miss any opening Kite Festival speeches and arrive fashionably late. When we got to the sports field, the students were already loaded into the bleachers, but there were a bunch of kids at the field level making their last-minute preparations.

Last minute repairs on a kiteThe students speak English with meHiding from the sun

The way it worked, a student filled us in, was that each class was to have made two kites. There would be prizes for the most beautiful, highest flying, etc. Some classes had spent days and days on theirs — though some were starting from scratch right then and there — and we saw some beautifully decorated specimens. My favorites were the few that were made from plain newspaper with hand-painted Chinese characters; gorgeous in their simplicity. Phoenixes, the school’s mascot, were popular, as were other birds. One class took it even further and did an Angry Birds kite.

Fish and snakes rounded out the animalia theme. There were a couple Chinese flags, and a 100RMB bill. One kite looked like an angel or a ghost. She didn’t fly very well, sadly, though it would have been cool if she did.

We chose a seat high up in the center of the bleachers, which happened to be where Peter’s gifted classes had been placed. There was a lot of homework and reading going on among these kids while they waited for the event to begin.

A couple of students asked us if American schools hosted kite festivals. No, we told them, Americans kind of think of kite flying as an old-fashioned pastime. When we turned the question around on them — Do you fly kites often? — most of the students said that it was something they did when they were little, but not anymore. “I am from the countryside,” one boy said, “I don’t have time to fly kites.”

After about an hour, the event began in earnest. Groups of 10 or so lined up at one end of the field and showed their stuff. There was little wind to speak of, so the kids had to run hard to get their kites aloft. The students in the stands cheered on their classmates, though as far as competitive sports go, kite flying is awesomely nonsensical.

Peter chatted with one of his boy students, while I spoke to a few of his girls. This is definitely a recurring pattern, and possibly one of the reasons that the school prefers to hire couples as foreign teachers. One of the girls told me that she prefers physics to English … this in pretty decent English; I’m pretty envious of Peter’s gifted classes sometimes.

One of the most impressive kites was a gigantic snake that cast a large shadow over the field as it undulated across the sky. The kids traded off flying it, because they had to run like the dickens to keep it in the air.

After the last competitors left the field, the wind finally picked up. Taking advantage of this, a kite free-for-all broke out. It must be said that the store-bought kites did fly better than their homemade counterparts, but as Peter’s student pointed out, the students do feel proud when something they made flies.

Mar 17, 2013

The eating continues

Homestyle in the hometown

Hot pot for dinner
Note the peppers. Sichuan cuisine is hot, hot, hot!
Mix up some cilantro and corn, and a Chinese dish tastes kind of Mexican
A cobbled-together taste of Mexico, right here in Luzhou.

It’s been a good season for Chinese food, or, as we like to call it in Luzhou, food. Our January Penang foodventures reignited our local explorations — after our initial fall push, we fell into a rut with some new olds — and we’ve expanded far beyond sticks and noodles.

The search for new has also put us in the position to consume much more culture and language. (Yum! It’s all delicious!) One of the boys at 串串, where we’re still regulars, has started teaching me vocabulary. 醋, he said one evening, as he delivered a small pitcher of vinegar. And then there was 芫荽 or, cilantro. He’s become one of my best teachers. (He’s second only to bodega lady, with whom I’ve been having conversations ever increasing in complexity pretty much since we arrived. She cheered on the day I said my first sentence in past tense! That sentence: “We ate chuan chuan.”)

At 串串 we’ve also learned that it’s no problem to order food from other restaurants to be sent to your 串串 table. The place next door does a fantastic corn and hot pepper salad — which, when mixed with cilantro, scallions and rice actually has a wonderful Mexican flavor — and the lady proprietor is tickled when I try out new words on her, too.

Out in the countryside, we’re no less social. At corner restaurant, over a meal of eggplant and pork with fried greens — the most vegetarian thing I have managed to order there — we had a chat with one of my old students one night. His father runs a clinic a few doors down, and he had “heard that there were foreigners out here and I thought it might be you.” He informed us that the restaurant owners’ son was in Peter’s class! Something, we then realized, that she had tried to tell us in Chinese several times. (“你听不懂,” or, “You don’t understand,” is a phrase we are now very familiar with.) There was general merriment all around that the facts were finally conveyed.

Our boss hates that we do this. Go out and talk with the people, I mean. We still hear about the time that we walked home to the new campus with a bunch of laborers. She’d much prefer that we spent our free time locked in our apartment, eating plain white rice and talking to no one. Our explanations that we’re meeting with friends and students and parents and fellow teachers falls on deaf ears. She just changes her lecture to “spicy food is bad for you.”

That only makes it more delicious.

Once again, finding (and being) the hot new thing

Tofu soup at our neighborhood place

We do a fair bit of hanging out in our little countryside town, and we were starting to feel like people were finally getting used to us. We wave and exchange brief words with the people we know. People help us get taxis back to school when the cab drivers give us a hard time. We’ve got a favorite vegetable stall at the wet market.

But a small change in location recently revealed that we are still the 外国人, and that still causes a big stir. In between BBQ sticks and corner restaurant, there’s a place that does a shared tofu soup that’s a lot like the one that we tried in the city with our friend Alex. A few weeks ago, when our noodle place was out of noodles(!), we decided to give it a go.

The table next to us was immediately interested. The leading man took our basic history — Teachers, Americans, Tianfu Middle School, and so on. Pleased with us — (a foreigner who can understand Mandarin is an entertaining curio; the Chinese know how hard their language is) — our inquisitor pointed at our water bottle and then his own, and said something like, “You have water, but I have some hooch! Want some?” It was 1 pm and we still had work to do, so we declined. But we have since taken up many similar offers when it was appropriate.

Last weekend, there was the two-table banquet party, men at one table and women at the other in the traditional way. The men were shy at first but they were drunk later, and found the courage to approach us with questions and toasts. It was one of the loudest rooms I have ever been in. One fervently friendly guy needed Peter to accept his gift of a cigarette. Fortunately, he didn’t insist on lighting it. We deflected with a toast, and I think he forgot about it. It’s weird to call this kind of experience normal, but it’s a situation we’re included in more often than not.

There’s a 10-year-old boy associated with the place who we actually met a few weeks before we ventured into the restaurant. He hangs out with a pack of kids who keep us company at the bus stop sometimes. He also knows a little bit of English, so we managed to have a brief chat one night. These days, he gives us a hello when we come in, and spends his after-dinner playing with the children of the neighboring businesses out in the streets. His main partner-in-crime seems to be the wild-haired girl next door, who is missing her two front teeth. They make for good dinner theater.

Birthday disasters turn fun and instructional

Birthday dinner at the Riverside Restaurant
Darting some balloons
After dinner, I tried my hand at the darts game that was set up across the street from the restaurant.

Our explorations don’t always go smoothly. Things can go wrong both geographically and linguistically. And my birthday dinner was a two-fer: The riverside restaurant we were meaning to visit for ages was a pile of rubble. It was a disappointment, and we were hungry and tired of walking. Both things ratchet up my anxiety about trying something new in another language. But we were not to be defeated. A short walk down the riverside promenade, we found a good-looking place with comfy outdoor chairs.

Between my translation notebook and the picture menu, we managed to order a fantastic feast: Sweet corn; barbecued scallions with a spicy, oily rub; garlicky cucumbers; fried rice; and chicken feet.

More than sense memory associations, mistake memory I think is even stronger. And now I will never forget the difference between 瓜, melon, and 爪, claw.

Having accidentally ordered them, though, I did feel I had to try what is really a very common Chinese dish. Chicken feet are kind of like chicken wings, where the point is really more the sauce they’re doused in rather than the minimal meat that you can free from the bones and cartilage. And, the little fingers scrabble at your face while you’re trying to nibble. It’s an odd sensation. I don’t think I liked them, but if you want, I can order you a plate.

A family holiday with kind strangers-turned-friends

I'm ready to eat

The discovery of Golden Hans taught us to look up. And on Chinese New Years Eve we scaled the heights to third-floor traditional hot pot restaurant. (This was only after visiting a fifth-floor enterprise that turned out to be an internet cafe.) Many places were actually closed for the holiday, so we were lucky that this place sat us as the last customers of the night. Our final alternative was going to have been McDonald’s.

We lucked out again in that our two servers both spoke a little bit of English. We’ve done hot pot many times before — it’s Sichuan’s signature dish — but this was our first time on our own. The four of us worked our way through the menu together — there was some drawing involved — and the woman triple checked that we wanted the spicy broth. Yes! We love the spice!

Our spread was delivered to our table on a three-tiered cart, and it included potato, lotus, sliced tofu, cabbage, winter melon, cucumber, and spicy beef slices. Happily, all deliverables conformed to my expectations. The service team hovered for a minute, to make sure the Americans knew what they were doing — Don’t eat the raw meat! Wait until the pot is boiling! — and then sat down with the rest of the staff to enjoy their after-work holiday party a few tables away. They were having a good time by the sounds of it. Throughout the meal, our guys returned to our table to toast us, wish us happy new year, and bring us small treats from their feast, including this wonderful Sichuan peppercorn cured pork sausage.

Peter and I tried to eat fairly quickly; we didn’t want to be lingerers when they were keeping the restaurant open only for us. But the staff party still died down before we finished. We are the slowest eaters in China! Our servers were gracious, however, and the man asked to take a photo with us before we left. 新年好!

Would you like fried with that?

One of our most useful recent food discoveries was maybe the most obvious: Fried rice is available pretty much everywhere, even if it’s not on the menu. Some things you know about China are true.

The basic dish that everyone serves is rice with egg and a bit of scallions or other greenery. It’s so simple but super delicious. We’ve added it to the regular rotation at BBQ sticks, which does our favorite version.

We’ve come a long way from our first time at 串串, when we stood nervous on the sidewalk wondering “How do we get them to give us some food?!” Once we figured that out — simply say yes to a question that is probably “Do you want a table?” and then grab some sticks — we spent at least six months eating dinner there nightly, because we were too scared to try a new place. Pointing and pantomime are still useful weapons in our menu-navigation arsenal, but some basic literacy has made our lives so much easier. And so much more enjoyable.

Every couple of months, I look back on how much I learned since we arrived in China, and am astonished that we were ever able to survive on the paltry knowledge we had then. And I can’t wait to see what will happen this spring.

Jan 5, 2013

Firing up the BBQ

Camping out, on our own back porch

Our new grill set up on the porch

At the old campus, we live next door to a camping supply store where we’ve spent a surprisingly large amount of time given that we’re not outdoor people. But, they have good travel backpacks and it is one of the few places that we can find big enough pants for Peter. It also doesn’t hurt that the people who work there are super nice.

When we found out that our new apartment was going to have a small porch, the first thing we thought was: we need to get a grill. Never mind that most people just use that space for hanging clothes to dry and storing broken appliances — we’ll show them the real American use for a porch.

Peter and the grillBBQ breadTiger Striped Peppers

And the camping store had a perfect little hibachi, that wasn’t too expensive, either. This was in the midst of our mad bus trips back and forth between the old and new apartments, when we were functioning as our own moving van, so we didn’t actually get the grill over to its proper place for a few weeks. Once we did, the obvious problem of charcoal finally stared us in the face. I realized that I had been assuming that we could just pick up a bag of Kingsford at the True Value or the A&P. But, WE DON’T HAVE A TRUE VALUE OR AN A&P! AND NO KINGSFORD!

We did search our supermarket, to no avail. Then, Peter had the bright idea to ask the camping store people where to buy our charcoal! Of course, they would know.

And they did. The trouble was communicating it through our language barriers. I could ask the question: 在哪里买木炭 [At where do you buy charcoal]? But unless the answer was pointing out a location visible from where we were, there was no way I could understand the answer — I realized way too late.

Fortunately, the woman working that afternoon had a friend with some pretty good English. As she translated for us, a crowd of people gathered, excited to see one of their own talking in English with the foreigners. But though we were speaking the same language, it was still too confusing (“How long is your camping trip?” “We just want to cook dinner!” “Yes, but for how many nights?!”) The eventual solution: The camping store woman would go buy us some charcoal, and we would pick it up from her the following week. How incredibly generous!

And it worked out! We picked up the coal, hauled it out to the new campus and have been grilling away for months. We’ve done flat breads, curried veggie scrambles, dry-rub tofu and much more. Peter has even been perfecting the Tiger Striped Hot Peppers that we were introduced to at BBQ Sticks. (It’s thanks to our Fuchsia Dunlop Sichuan cookbook that we were able to identify the dish; thanks Lizzy and Jesse!)

Teachers are still startled to look out and see us relaxing out in our clothes drying area, but we’re having a lot of fun.

Our grilled sandwich meal

Jan 1, 2013

你好, 老外!

“They’re saying ‘Hello, foreigners!’”

A walk home with new friends
Pull up a chair, have a drink

From time to time, at 串串 in the city, people take notice of us. They’ll practice their English within earshot, or dare someone to come 干杯 with us. Recently, a little girl, seeing that we had no meat on our table, brought me over some beef sticks. They were really, really delicious, and I’ve since added them to the rotation. But for the most part, we’re left alone. In the city, people are cool. “Yeah, we’ve got Americans. No big deal.”

Not so in the countryside. We attract tons of attention at BBQ Sticks, our favorite countryside haunt. And that’s part of the fun.

The restaurant belongs to the small, built-up oasis that sits in the middle of kilometers and kilometers of farmland. If you live out our ways, and you don’t live at the school, you probably live here. And if you live here, you probably socialize out on the street — that’s where everyone is. Including us.

Young children are generally equal parts terrified and fascinated by us. They try to catch glances without getting caught, or sometimes we’ll here a small voice yell out, “Hello, 老外[foreigner]!” from behind the restaurant’s tarp. If they’re with parents, the adults will encourage them to talk to us. They resist, despite our most enthusiastic 你好s.

Teenagers and adults are a little more brave. Teens, because they have to study English, are often a little more confident in approaching us, though often they’ll check with the restaurant owners first if it’s OK to ask to take a photo. I think the owners are amused by their roles as our agents.

Some of our best nights happen when someone is brave enough to sit down with us. Often the first foray is a tentative beer toast. He’ll drink with us (it’s pretty much always a man), and then return to his table. And then the others come, one by one. Sometimes they offer cigarettes to Peter, which is a little awkward to refuse; it’s a gesture of good will and male bonding, and saying no is tantamount to saying, “We’re not friends.” But neither of us wants Peter to start smoking again just for social niceties.

If the mood is right, our tables merge. We’ll run through the few Chinese phrases I know — “We’re Americans. We’re teachers at Tianfu Middle School. Are those your kids? Very beautiful. We love China. Let’s be friends!” It’s one of the greatest tests and exercise of my language skills, and very good fun. It feels like such a win every time I can understand a new phrase or make something understood.

Some brave students

Occasionally, our new friends will go behind our back to pay the bill. It’s incredibly generous of them, a real example of Chinese hospitality. Other times, we’ll have companions for our walk home — it was in this way that we met some young students who are bound for Tianfu next year. And every once in a while, our fellow teachers will spot us waiting for the bus and give us a ride back home. It’s funny for them, I think, to see the Americans out in the wild. But they, too, have felt the call of the barbeque, and they understand.

We definitely still have curiosity status in the neighborhood, but our experiences at BBQ Sticks are starting to make us feel part of something. Part of it is the fact that I’m getting more language — even a bit of the local dialect — but I think it’s the food that brings us together. Peter and I are total weirdos here, but we can share some hot peppers and laugh over a beer. And it’s nice to have friends.

Oct 19, 2012

Summer vacation: Street dinner

“他吃素。他不吃肉。”

Mystery dinner tastes great
Eat on the streetWhere are we?

I talk a lot about all of the western food that we eat while we’re on vacation because a lot of it is stuff that we don’t get back at home. But, when I can figure out how to order things, we really enjoy Chinese food, too.

After a night at Beer Mama’s, we needed a little something before bed. There was an outdoor restaurant around the corner, and we plopped down and scanned the menu for characters we recognized. We were feeling really ambitious.

I tried to explain to our guy that Peter is a vegetarian and doesn’t eat meat. We came to some sort of understanding, and he hurried away. On his return, he brought some meat skewers (which I had asked for by pointing out someone else who had them) and a very tasty meat and mushroom soup. But, this is life for a hungry veggie in China. Peter ate around the meat and pronounced it “delicious, and that’s coming from a vegetarian.”

Would you like to play a game?