Hello Uncle Foreigner

Feb 2, 2012

Happy New Year: Karaoke time!

Let’s sing

Karaoke on New Year
More karaoke pictures here.

The night after they first invited me to celebrate the holiday with their family, Wendy and Xi Xi invited me again to their clan’s continuing New Year’s party. (Peter, again, was still recovering from his cold.)

After another great feast, we all went out for karaoke. It took some doing to find an open room; this is apparently what all families were doing that night. But eventually, after many phone calls and some driving around, we found an open spot. In addition to the singing, there was also a lot of dancing. You can see me, in the video below, dancing with Xi Xi’s uncle, the evening’s host. You can also hear some of the karaoke-ing going on. Make sure your volume’s not too high.

Karaoke New Year’s from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Feb 2, 2012

Chengdu: Xiao Tong Alley

Where the hipsters are

Hanging out at a funky bar on Xiao Tong Alley
Here’s an album of photos from Xiao Tong Alley.

I’ll wrap up the story of our stay in Chengdu with a little bit about the area where our hostel was. (As I mentioned before, it was funky!)

We were on a street called Xiao Tong Alley (remember, “Xi” is pronounced “shə”), which we learned was a newish neighborhood that sprang up in the past year. It’s attracted a really young, vibrant, artsy crowd; I joked to Peter that we had found the Bushwick of China.

Whereas in the southern part of the city everything was huge and stark and modern and neon (the generally desired aesthetic of modernizing China), here everything was small-scale, home-made, rustic and, our favorite, artist-run. These places were decorated by someone who had an eye; we found edgy murals and distressed French-countryside chic - stark contrast to most of what we’d seen up to this point: the two dominant stylistic modes seem to be sidewalk roughness or super-sterile luxury. It was really cool to find “Alterna-hip.”

We spent a good chunk of each night somewhere on the street, and everywhere we went, we found someone who wanted to talk to us - and, importantly, who we wanted to talk to. From the bartender from Luzhou who was excited to jam out some Clash tunes with us, to the London-educated finance grad who now works with a bar-owning artists’ group, we mingled with some really interesting people who belong to the emerging creative class of China.

It was a Paris-in-the-’30s/Soho-in-the-’70s vibe that we weren’t sure that we’d find in China, but were supremely glad to do so.

Jan 31, 2012

Spring is just around the corner

Even though it’s very cold

We’re smack in the middle of Chinese New Year — aka, Spring Festival — and while most people have returned to work, there’s still a party atmosphere in the city (and a ton of firecrackers). Today, also, was the first sunny day in a while. And, the weather is starting to get warmer.

All of this added up to: “Too nice to stay inside.” So we took our camera and got out there.

Accordion

A group of musicians giving an impromptu performance by the river.

on the corner

The chaotic traffic of central Luzhou.

We found a new bar! You can hear people doing karaoke in the background, of course.

Jan 27, 2012

Chengdu: Return to the Bookworm

Reading and wine are so divine

Learning goes good with wine

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

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

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

Here's Tony

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

Jan 26, 2012

Chengdu: The Subway

Clean and fast and where we want to go

Underground in the Chengdu Subway
More photos, here!

Chengdu has a subway system!

OK, “system” might be a little overselling it. So far they have one line that just opened recently, with a plan to expand it in the next few years.

But what they’ve got is clean and fast, and it took us close to where we wanted to go.

Jan 26, 2012

Chengdu: International Night

America, India, Ireland ... in China

Peter, eating Indian food at Namaste
Check out more pictures from International Night.

On the fourth section of Renmin Road - Chengdu’s main street - we found a cluster of different establishments catering to different foreign tastes. So we made a night of it. An international night!

We started off at The Bookworm, an English-language lending library/bookshop/bar-restaurant. (Why has no one done this in America?) We lingered over a plate of hummus and a couple of cocktails reading second-hand travel books; our table was right next to the travel section.

Our second stop was Namaste, one of a few Indian restaurants in the city. Indian food might be second only to Mexican in terms of cuisine that we miss. The restaurant was empty when we arrived, which we found puzzling as it was a Friday night. But the restaurant got pretty good reviews online, so we sat down anyway. And while we were waiting, an Indian family came in and sat down, which we thought was a good sign of the restaurant’s authenticity. (That, or they read the same reviews we did.) And it was pretty good. It definitely filled our need for naan.

Our next and last International stop was the Shamrock Bar, which we had seen mentioned on all the Chengdu ex-pat boards. It definitely did the Irish super-pub thing well, and it did play host to an interestingly diverse group of people, both nationality and age-wise. I have to say, however, that it wasn’t really the bar for us. It was loud and smoky, and there was just a real fratty vibe that we weren’t into. Also, it was expensive, which we really weren’t into. So we had one drink each, watched bemusedly while a drunk guy danced to the Michael Jackson tunes the DJ was spinning (yup, there was a DJ), and went back north to what we were now thinking of as “our neighborhood.”

Jan 24, 2012

Happy New Year: I ate goat and rabbit tonight

Spring Festival with friends

An healthy spread for Chinese New Year
More pictures of our New Year’s celebration!

Our neighbors Xi Xi and Wendy invited us to dinner tonight with their family - during Spring Festival (that’s what they call Chinese New Year), family members take turns hosting parties for their whole clan. Peter has been fighting a cold for the past few weeks, and it has not been responding well to travelling, going out and staying up late, so he’s trying out staying home and resting. But I’m not sick, so I went along.

It was a lot of fun. Wendy’s sister-in-law is also an English teacher, and everyone there spoke at least a little bit of English, so I had someone to talk to all night. Like usual, there were many toasts, and everyone was excited to try out their English on me.

The issue that’s a silly issue for me is that the Chinese eat a lot of meat, and they’re much more OK with whole-animal eating that Americans-in-general and me-specifically are comfortable with. I guess you could describe my diet as “very picky,” and it’s a different kind of thing to negotiate than Peter’s vegetarianism. There are some things that I don’t feel bad about turning down outright; offal, poultry feet (once, someone offered me “duck’s paw”) or anything super cartilage-y, brains … But other than that, I do feel obligated to try everything that’s offered. Which is part of the experience; I’ve had to choke down some meat of a texture I didn’t really enjoy (according to a Christmas-present Sichuan cookbook [thanks Lizzy and Jesse!], the local cuisine is all about textures that are pretty foreign to the American palate), but I’ve also tried some stuff that I really enjoyed. As the heading says, I ate rabbit tonight, and that’s something I’m getting to really like. The goat … it wasn’t baaaaad, but it’s not my favorite.

But, regardless, the night was a lot of fun, and it’s such a great privilege to be invited to a family gathering for such an important holiday.

Jan 23, 2012

Chengdu: Renmin Park

Tea by the lake

We’ve got a large album of photos from Renmin Park right here.

Renmin Park — or, the People’s Park — is a large park close to the center of the city. Popular with locals and tourists alike, even on the cold January day that we were there, it was a bustling scene.

Where we entered the park, there was a pretty cool amusement park area called Kids’ Paradise. In our wanders, we also saw the lake where they were renting out paddle boats, several tea houses and a monument to the Railway Protection Movement. In every free corner, there were groups of people dancing, doing tai chi, watching live music performances or just watching the world go by.

We sat for a bit by the lake to enjoy some tea, which is served loose in small cups with a lid to keep it warm. It also comes with a thermos of hot water so that you can refill your cup as much as you like. Lingering is encouraged and expected.

While we were sitting, we were approached by a local man who has been running tours for foreigners for the past 22 years. His speciality is taking tourists “off the beaten path.” We chatted about what we do, where we’re from, etc., and he gave us some good suggestions of places to visit. He also tried to sell us tickets to the Sichuan Opera, but he was OK with it when we said no.

Jan 23, 2012

The Nian Will Not Come Tonight

Happy Spring Festival!

01 Xin Nian Hao

(This is not camera noise in the video above. There are so many people setting off stuff that it’s just that loud.)

So, tonight is New Year’s Eve. From what we can gather, the entire holiday is observed for 15 days, but the real heavy lifting is done in the first three days.

We went to the grocery store this afternoon in the mind of buying three days’ worth of food, and we were glad we did. There was almost an end-of-the-world feel, or at least a battening of the hatches.

At about 6 pm, the fireworks started. These were not city-organised; we passed by several stores that had been specially converted for the season to sell crackers and heavier to anyone who wanted. We bought a pack of snappers for the equivalent of 20 cents.

As midnight approached, it got loud. According to wikipedia, the celebration of New Year’s started with frightening off a beast called the Nian with loud noise and the color red. I think we achieved our mission this year.

02 Xin Nian Hao

Jan 21, 2012

Chengdu: Kuanzhai Xiangzi

The wide and narrow alleys

Shopping in the wide and narrow alleys of Chengdu
Check out our photo album of the Wide and Narrow Alleys here.

A few blocks from our hostel was a pedestrian area called Kuanzhai Xiangzi - which literally translates to “Wide and Narrow Alleys.” It was an apt description.

These wide and narrow alleys were lined with restaurants, tea houses, bars and tourist shops, and the architecture was meant to mimic the style of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). We found out from some friends we made that this area was just built a few years ago - which makes sense; nothing about the area looks remotely historical.

The area was naturally filled with tourists. It was a funny little walk - you could have an overpriced (I presume) version of cuisine you could find for much cheaper around the corner, we found a Qing-style Starbucks, and, I had a Brooklyn Lager at a German Beer Hall! Now that’s fusion.