Hello Uncle Foreigner

video

Oct 8, 2014

Video: Hello, Uncle Foreigner!

What if we were living a sitcom?

Hello, Uncle Foreigner from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: Josh Pike, “Clovis’ Son.”

We bought a new camera. Can you tell?

Oct 6, 2014

Video: Impressions of Luzhou

About town, 3 years

An original Whoop Wu production. Original score by Peter Sikoski (with some familiar voices).

Jul 4, 2014

Once more in Chengdu, the old and the new

It’s never the same river twice

Belly Dancing at the Sultan
I don’t know if every night at the Sultan is film-shoot exciting, but the food is always top notch.
The Pug's new location
The new Pug is hidden away in a huge shopping complex, but inside it’s delicious business as usual.
The abandoned side of the street on Xiao Tong Alley
Taggers have hit the abandoned buildings of Xiao Tong Alley pretty hard.
Live music in the German Bar
We weren’t expecting much from the parade of pop singers at the German Beer Bar, so we were really blown away by these two who were actually fantastic.

School’s out for the year, and we just got back from a little retreat to Chengdu for some international-style R&R. It was a trip conceived primarily with the goal of stuffing some tacos in our faces at the Lazy Pug; beyond that, we weren’t really aiming for anything other than revisiting our old favorites: Middle Eastern food at the Sultan, wine and book shopping at the Bookworm, maybe a performance at New Little Bar.

Checking in at the Loft — never stay anywhere else — the desk clerk recognized us from our last stay a year ago. As the sage voice of Uncle Foreigner, Peter and I like to pretend that we’re fade-into-the-background observers, but of course we stick out everywhere we go. That same day, Dana, owner of the Pug, clocked us as returners as well.

The Pug, by the way, has moved. South of the city, in a new mall, but the tacos are still fantastic. (I gorged to the point of physical discomfort.) So too has the Sultan relocated. Their new home, hidden down a quaint little alleyway, is fantastic with outdoor banquettes facing small private dining rooms all decorated in a fresh, beachy color scheme. The night we were there, a local television station was filming a piece about the place, and we were treated to a belly dancing performance with our meal.

Meanwhile, on Xiao Tong Alley — where the Loft lives — more and more of the south side of the street has been abandoned (a process we saw beginning almost 2 years ago). On the north side, however, there’s Joker Bar, a phenomenal new beer bar with a list of more than 100 brews — including a locally brewed IPA. Tasty. We made it our regular for the duration, and had some good chats with the owner’s girlfriend. Her English is great, and she keeps sharp watching “Breaking Bad.” She informed us that the government is moving everyone out of the south side of the alley so that they can tear it all down. My guess is that they’re running a metro line through there.

We did make it to Little Bar to catch Fat Shady, a local Chengdu rapper, and his posse. Peter and I laughed a little at the idea of Chinese rap, but they were really, really good. You could here shades of influence of everyone from Busta to Eminem — in a way that showed these kids knew their stuff, not that they were derivative. The crowd loved them, responding enthusiastically to English exhortations from the stage to “Put your hands up” and “Make some noise!” It was a lot of fun and we are definitely converts.

The big surprise of the trip had to be the German Beer Bar in the touristy fake “ancient town” of Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our first visit was in January 2012, and we were the only customers in the bar. This time, however, the joint was jumping. They had a stream of live performers playing mostly harmless pop tunes that made for nice background noise. One woman, with a voice that ranged from Keren Ann delicate beauty to Melissa Ethridge strength and intensity, just killed it, however. She took that night from “fine” to “KA-POW.”

We try some Chengdu hot pot
We were a little underwhelmed by the Chengdu hot pot, but the place we chose was definitely a tourists-only affair. The atmosphere was pretty fun, anyway.

Jun 3, 2014

Cruising through the Bamboo Sea

By car, through the air and on foot

Nature is pretty cool

— Emily

Yeah, especially when it’s been harnessed by man.
Or as I like to say: Fixed.

— Peter

A sea of bamboo
Our room was simple and serviceableBamboo right outside our window
Our hotel was pretty basic, but beautifully situated.
Drinking the bamboo wine
There were many ways to enjoy your bamboo, including a locally made bamboo wine, in which we indulged our first night …
Our wildman driverOn the road
… making the swift and twisty ride through the mountains the next day extra exciting! Who doesn’t like battling the threat of vomit in a stranger’s car?
here is some meatOne of the Bamboo Sea's small villages
We stopped for a lunch of Yibin kindling noodles (they’re fiery!) in the small village of Wan Li.
The waterfallAt the top of the waterfallThe glory of the Dragon's Head FallsWalking down the fallsWe took a little boatNear the bottom of the fallsCow stone
The views from both the top and the bottom of the Dragon’s Head Falls are pretty awe inspiring. To get from one level to the other is a twisty, steep 20 minute hike, which includes a short boat ride across the falls.
The path to the cable carCable car number oneGetting a ride
Cable car number one is at the end of a long, beautiful walk through the bamboo, and involves a short ride across a deep gulch.
High above the gulchOur cable car was very crowdedLook at the valley!
On our return trip, two young kids clamored into our car to see the waiguoren, and then hid from us for the duration of the ride, choosing instead to scream in fake terror “救命了! 救命了!” (Save us! Save us!) as the gondola swung high in the air.

If all goes according to our Kunming plan, we’re about to embark on a pretty big series of changes to our China life. It’s exciting and scary, and a little bittersweet to think of leaving our first home in Luzhou. But, we’re ready to be ready to move on, and as part of that process, this spring we’ve been conducting an ongoing “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour.

Our most recent destination: Yibin’s Bamboo Sea. About an hour and a half away from anywhere (we took a bus to a bus to a bus to a cab to the park), this is true countryside that’s been bounded and sculpted to be impressive and inspiring, but also safe and comfortable. The Bamboo Sea is a self-contained resort: 11 kilometers of rolling mountains covered in massively tall stalks of bamboo, housing two small villages, clusters of hotels, and a small community of local farmers. Hiking trails crisscross the mountains leading to dazzling views of waterfalls, caves, and, of course, bamboo. The movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed there, as many, many people will tell you. It’s gorgeous and serene and lovely.

But it’s also a strangely mediated experience of nature. Each short hike through the bamboo is isolated in its own lush Thoreau-ian enclave, which then spits out into a parking lot, from whence you drive the couple of kilometers to the next spot. All the tourists have the same map, and all of the local service people want to help ferry you through the same route. It’s kind of like a Disneyland for nature walkers. Which is totally our speed: Peter hasn’t been camping since he was a kid, and I’ve been informed that a weekend in a Girl Scout tentalo does not an outdoors-woman make.

The most efficient way to “do” the Bamboo Sea is to hire a driver to take you around to all the spots. Or, you know, have your own car — which many of the other tourists did. (This is where I’ll mention that by our observation, the Bamboo Sea is definitely a destination for China’s celebrated emerging middle class.) We got a guy our first afternoon and were scooted through a series of the best sights in a little red Hyundai Elantra. We had a bit of a battle of wills when we wanted him to stop in one of the villages so we could have some simple noodles for lunch. “Why didn’t you eat at the hotel?” he asked us. All the hotels served sumptuous feasts made of stir-fried bamboo specialties. We were obviously doing it wrong. But we got our noodles and they were delicious.

Day two, we were determined to get somewhere on our own two feet. Fortunately, according to our map, our hotel was a short walk (along a sidewalk-less road) from two recommended sightseeing points. One was a spectacular cable car ride that floated us slowly, in a gondola for two, over the striking gullies and peaks of the sea. The quiet hum of the cable machinery only punctuated the eerie silence of the up in the air. From time to time, returning passengers would call hello, but essentially we felt alone, hanging from the sky above acres and acres of susurrous bamboo.

At the other end of the ride, there was a crumbling pagoda which afforded some fantastic views of the mountain landscape, perfect for your nature photography needs. We also took some glamor shots with some other tourists who were excited to see some Americans on their vacation. Everyone’s dressed in their very best, Peter observed, because this rollicking, green wonderland is one giant photo op.

Upon returning to our side of the cable car line, our next destination was represented on the map as a short, looping walk to nowhere in particular. In reality, this represented an hour and a half hike through the bamboo that turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. A stone path meandered here and there, by small streams, sheer cliff faces and burbling waterfalls. There was technically no sight to see — no paddle boats, no temples or shrines — so the trail was mostly ours. The bamboo made hollow clacking sounds as it swayed in the wind, and Peter and I walked in near silence through the green, unsure of the final terminus, but continuing confidently on.

The magic ended in a small parking lot, of course, where we circled back to home on the asphalt road. And then, actually, someone offered us a lift back to our hotel along the way. We were back in time for bamboo dinner. And then a bamboo snack at the hotel next door. (There’s not a lot of nightlife in the bamboo sea.)

The day of our departure was actually the first official day of the May 1 holiday — being foreign teachers, our vacations are always slightly off from everyone else’s. On our way out of the park and into town, we bused past a miles-long inbound line of Audis, Volkswagons and Range Rovers; the woman running our hotel said that they were bracing themselves for the rush as we were leaving. We felt lucky to have experienced the relative calm of the few days prior. And after another bus, cab, bus and a cab, we were back home. We went out to celebrate — Labor Day, our trip, and just life — in the chaotic environs of our favorite Tai An restaurant. Ah, back to the noisy city life!

Cable car twoA pagodaHigh on the hills of the bamboo seaPeter and the PagodaThe pagoda areaEmily and the Pagoda
Cable car number two is definitely the more spectacular (and spooky) ride. At the summit, there is a small pagoda for picture taking.
An overlooked trailMore waterfall action
Here's a cliff
The bamboo trail
We had this trail almost all to ourselves, and it was easy to forget that the rest of China was out there.

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

Jun 11, 2013

The many faces of Listening Ling

A king of masks in training

Listening, after the show

Our friend Listening Ling (formerly called Alex) has been studying the Sichuanese art of Face Changing this past year, and we were psyched last night to go see him in his first public performance. We met up with our new Australian friend Cori (whom we me through Listening; if you speak English in Luzhou, Listening with find you) and waited in the city center for Listening to come pick us up. And then, Listening called and said that the restaurant was too crowded for us to come; we were basically planning to crash his graduation party, so we were bummed but we understood.

As an alternative plan, we decided to take Cori to Golden Hans for some good dark beer — in the week and a half we’ve known him, we’ve basically been giving Cori a dissertation on the beers of Luzhou, whether he wants that or not.

At Golden Hans, who should we run into, but Listening! The restaurant was in fact very crowded, but we squeezed into a table at the back. Listening came to visit with us periodically, updating us on the status of his performance. We could tell he was very nervous and we tried to pep him up. “My friends are all singing or telling jokes,” he told us. “I’m the only one doing the face changing.” “So then you’ll be the best,” I said. “That’s too much pressure!” he said.

But the show must go on. Listening changed into his costume, and we gathered at the front stage with the rest of the restaurant. Everyone had their cameras out, even people, I think, unconnected with the school crew. This was a special event.

And it was amazing! Listening did a “Gangnam Style”-inspired dance and his masks appeared from nowhere and then disappeared back into the air. He had previously told us that the kids these days are losing interest in the traditional arts, and it was important to him to modernize the form. We think he was a total success!

Jun 1, 2013

Chongqing Punk Fest: Going to the show

RAAAAAAAAAAWR!

Punk Rock at Nuts Club

A punk rock show was enticing enough, but when we found out that the Chongqing Punk Festival was to be headlined by SUBS, we were totally committed. The Beijing-based garage punkers come up in any discussion of yaogun as one of China’s foremost practitioners, and we leaped at the opportunity to see them live.

Stickers in the bathroomBlood on the bass

The Nuts Club, the evening’s host, is a small rock club near the campus of Sichuan University. Much like (New) Little Bar in Chengdu, the ground floor space is intimate and modern with a well-stocked bar. The walls are covered in arty posters, and the walls of the bathroom are stickered with various band names. Think CBGBs but much, much cleaner.

We skipped the early afternoon skateboarding portion of the festival, and arrived in time to catch Hell City. The band was fronted by a tall, mohawked man wearing a dress military jacket — totally punk rock. Their sound had a delightfully aggressive metal edge to it. “I would fight anyone for these guys,” I wrote in my notes. They ended their set with a rollicking cover of “Death or Glory.”

The Wheels took the stage shortly after Hell City left it, and they were a fun bunch of guys. Kind of Green Day-ish with a machine gun for a drummer. The bassist literally bled for us, and the crowd enthusiastically moshed for the first 10 seconds of each song.

As much buzz was in the room from the start, there was a noticeable uptick in energy as SUBS took the stage. Fronted by Kang Mao, a wild-child punk siren, SUBS captured the crowd and whipped us into a frenzy. Kang was all over the stage, screaming her guts out into the mic, and pounding on the keyboard. At one point she dove into the crowd, and she grabbed my hand! It was intensely Yeah Yeah Yeahs meets Battles meets Birthday Party, but a thing that was all its own. Both Peter and I agree, this ranks up there with some of the best live shows we’d ever seen.

After the show, we searched in vain for merch. I even asked Kang, who was exiting through the front room, if they 有 CDs. She told me to look online. As the club emptied out, we followed the exodus to the parking lot next door, where an enterprising crew had set up a BBQ situation. We midnight snacked on broccoli and lotus root (this is why we’re thinner in China), and yelled to each other about how awesome the show was.

We found delicious BBQ outside after the show

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.

Dec 17, 2012

The Singles Day English speaking competition

In which true love is found, a love for language

Our talented English-speaking friends
Alex and Justin, left, preparing to go onstage to perform their play. With them is fellow student Crela Chan, the play’s author.

That speech competition that Alex had invited us to was on 11/11 — which was until recently Corduroy Appreciation Day, but is still in China known as Singles Day. It’s a sort of contrapositive of Valentine’s Day, and there are lots of sales. Of course.

But thirteen dedicated students, from four local high schools, gave up the chance to find a good deal, to spend the morning speaking English. We were there to support Alex — as well as four students from our own school whom we had spent the previous week coaching. Our teachers were surprised to see us there, because they hadn’t actually invited us, figuring it was too early for us.

But the shock wore off, and we took our seats next to a few of Alex’s friends, but also near to our kids. For part one, each contestant gave a five-minute personal statement on the topic of “The Youth in China.” Speeches like this are often very formulaic — “Now I will tell you my five reasons for …”, “Now that I have said that, I ask you to confirm my original statement …”, “People may say this, but they are wrong, and here’s why …” — and there were plenty of platitudes and list making. But some of the kids (Alex! Alex!) made some pretty heartfelt personal reflections. Also, one of the girls made a reference to the show “Two Broke Girls” as a good example of youthful self-reliance.

Part two consisted of questions from the judges that each speaker had to answer on the spot. This is where things got tricky. While the kids’ English was uniformly excellent, the judges were not fantastic speakers. (We confirmed this after the competition to many upset students and teachers.) Listening to them, I was itching to jump in and read the questions myself. And, eventually, they asked me too. So, this round threw the contestants a little off their game, to say the least.

But things picked up again in part three: the performance round. Each of the four high schools presented a short scene. First up, “Little Red Riding Hood” starring the hammiest wolf ever. In the end, he’s gunned down by a hunter with an assault rifle. These guys were really great and really funny.

Next, was an original piece titled, “I Have a Dream” featuring a Chinese family with an over-scheduled 9-year-old daughter. The titular dream? No homework. Again, hilarious.

Our school was next, with an overdub of a scene from “Kung Fu Panda.” From working with them all week, we had already seen this done five or six times, but it went over well with the crowd.

Lastly was Alex and his partner, who took Justin as her English name because she loves Justin Bieber. They returned to the ground covered by “Little Red,” setting up a meeting between Grandmother and the son of the wolf she murdered. Neither has fared well. Grandmother is despondent because her youthful dreams of becoming a poet had been crushed. And the loss of his father ruined the wolf’s life, and now he’s a washed-up alcoholic who can’t feed his own family. “It’s the bureaucratic system that’s to blame,” Grandmother tries to argue. But the wolf doesn’t buy it. In a drunken fit of rage, he pushes Grandmother down the stairs. It was a laugh riot!

The competition was really early
Some friends-of-contestants were a little tired.

With the performances finished, it was time to total the scores. Students from the college hosting the competition were on hand to process that paperwork — dressed in track jackets and looking like official Olympic time keepers. The mathematics went on for a little too long, and the competitors started to get restless. “We’re bored!” they yelled — now that the pressure was off, everyone was in a more convivial mood. So Alex and one of the competition hostesses got up to sing a song for everyone. “The scores aren’t very important,” one of Alex’s teachers confided in us.

To wrap things up, the school groups gathered on the stage to take photos. We stood for photos with Alex and Justin, and then with our school. This led to photos with other kids who we didn’t know. And then photos with the hostesses and, I think, the sound man. It gets truly surreal sometimes.

The flashes eventually calmed down, and we said our good-byes. Happy Singles Day!

After the show

Nov 17, 2012

100: Let’s dance!

The show continues …

Enjoy the dancing

Music in “100 Years of Tianfu”: “Bumper Music,” performed by Drum Major Ensemble, from the CD “Master of the Chinese Musician Performance Classics Vol. 07.”

Enjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancing

Finally, after about a billion speeches by officials and money people, it was time for the actual students of the school to take the stage. Unlike school performances we’d seen in the past, these were polished and practised, befitting a production of this level. The costuming was especially improved over the usual fare.

Groups of students sang songs, performed traditional dances and synched along to Chinese opera selections. The stage-side screens rendered the action in large screen television-quality. It was pretty impressive.

And, featuring more than a dozen acts, pretty long. The alumni clapped politely after each act, but as the show went on, they payed more and more attention to catching up with old friends. We’ve noticed in China that audience attention to the stage is not a priority.

After 10 or so groups, Peter and I started to fade — and simultaneously grow pink. We didn’t expect such great weather in Luzhou in October, so we neglected our sunscreening, but almost four hours under a cloudless sky was taking its toll. So we sneaked out early, wishing silent apologies to the kids whose performances we were skipping.

Enjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancingEnjoy the dancing