Hello Uncle Foreigner

Feb 24, 2018

Eating the vending machine: America deleted scenes #1

There is a lot of talk of vomiting in this one

Way back when I used to live in New York full time, I participated in an eating contest with my buddies Max and Justin. The event was put on by an organization called LVHRD, now defunct, and if memory served, I believe one Mr. Joey Fatone was in the audience. (Or possibly Lance Bass — I know it was some ex-boy bander, but this all happened more than 10 years ago).

Anyway, on our most recent trip back to the states, I caught up with Max and Justin, and we remembered the good times. And how much we each threw up and when. And someone invented the term “therepuke.” It didn’t make the final cut for the “America” video, but it’s a fun little story on its own. Enjoy!

Feb 21, 2018

Happy New Year: We stayed home!

Welcome year of the Dog

We’re smack in the middle of Chinese New Year, and we’ve mostly been ordering take out and otherwise hibernating. It’s been wonderful. The weather is turning warmer, and maybe we’ll even get outside again soon. But for now, we’re indoor dogs.

Feb 15, 2018

The case for closed captioning

More accessibility, bigger audience

So we’re kind of jokey about it in the video, but the fact is we really did spend weeks talking about closed captioning and translations. And we did come up with something of a captioning policy, which bled over into our social media strategy. This discussion is going to get a little dry, so if you prefer messing around to analysis, just watch the video.

Firstly, the factors we considered:

  • Getting those sweet, sweet Facebook views. Like it or not, Facebook has steamrolled the rest of the internet into taking its own form. And, am I right that no one turns the volume up?
  • When we provide free content for Facebook, is there a possibility of return for us? Seems like: No.
  • According to the BBC, 35% of their online audience turns on captioning.
  • Hello Uncle Foreigner’s mission is to increase and strengthen connections between English-speaking and Chinese cultures. But we don’t speak great Chinese, yet.
  • We pay our translator, because she is performing a valuable skill and we believe that the “everything is free” mentality of the internet has tricked us all into selling all of our personal information in exchange for worse and more recycled content every day.
  • Hello Uncle Foreigner does not make any money at all. We love doing it and hope one day to score our own Netflix deal, but these days it’s a labor of love that costs us money to run.
  • Uncle’s Shorts are designed to be as friction-free to post as possible. The key to growing your YouTube audience is regular posting, and once we get all those subscribers, Netflix will come a’knocking, right?
  • YouTube as a publishing platform has its issues, but at least it’s not destroying democracy.
  • YouTube auto-captioning is hilarious but fixable — and way easier than transcribing by hand.
  • In about a month and a half of analysis, our videos get more and better quality engagement (i.e., people actually watch the darn thing) when they are posted to YouTube over Facebook. And as much as we loved Vimeo, no one was watching them over there.

If you watched “America for Foreigners”, you may have noticed that we had English and Chinese burned into the screen; there was no escaping our captions in either language. This was inspired by Chinese streaming services, which do the same for American television shows posted to Tudou and the like. We’ve heard it’s actually a useful language learning tool seeing L1 and L2 right next to each other. In lucky artistic happenstance, it helped support the point that your home country is a strange land to millions of other people on this earth. Unfortunately, it also added full days onto post-production.

So our current working strategy is this: Videos will be primarily posted to YouTube, with links posted to Facebook. Occasionally, we will post teasers to Facebook … to lure people to our YouTube channel. We will let YouTube to the heavy lifting of auto-captioning in English, and then cleaning up their weird mistakes — with priority given to videos featuring non-native speakers of English. We want to do them the courtesy of having their words represented correctly, no matter what kind of applesauce YouTube makes of it. Uncle’s Shorts will not be translated; our goal is to post at least one a week, and we have neither the time nor the money in the budget to translate at that rate. (Sorry, Milan!) But, longer, more important projects will feature Milan’s Chinese translations.

What do you think? Go to YouTube and tell us. Because our current Uncle Foreigner commenting policy is: Nope. But that’s a discussion for a different day.

Feb 9, 2018

Vietnam revisited

A videographic return to our 2015 vacation

“Maps are all hand-drawn by maniacs.”
— Peter

I don’t think it was on purpose, but Vietnam 2015 was the last big trip we took.

Well, after that, we did move across China – twice – and we returned to America for a visit. And, most recently, Peter checked out of reality for a few weeks. But no, like, tourism.

We’ve written about Vietnam in detail here. To reset the stage, it was winter break, just before Chinese New Year. We were in search of good food and warm weather – both of which were in ample supply. I remember complaining about it a bit, but from this vantage point, it was a good trip! Let’s go back someday.

In the years since, we’ve been reckoning with that experience in an audio/visual capacity. And I will admit to a toddler’s worth of writer’s block and discarded drafts. Which is why I am so pleased today to present “Vietnam, a filmkreis in three parts: Saigon, Đà Lạt, and 广州.”

And, enjoy a bonus outtake of some hijinks in the highlands:

Jan 24, 2018

New job, new work permit

The paperwork just keeps coming

After the Chinese New Year holiday, I’m starting a new job. I’m really excited about it — no more evenings and weekend classes, and only one lesson prep per week! (My current job is only nights and weekends, and I have 24 preps per week.) But one thing that jolts me out of my sleep in the middle of the night is the transfer of my work permit. Chinese paperwork freaks me out, mostly because its something that is largely out of my control. The relevant offices will stamp my piece of paper when they get to it, and there’s not that much I can do about it.

Compounding my anxiety this past weekend was the U.S. government shutdown. What does that mean for my documents? Will I run out of time? Will I have to get Peter to Lamma Island in a wheelchair?! I know that worrying doesn’t help, but my limbic system is determined to try.

But, instead of spiraling into a full-on panic attack, I channeled that energy into “Uncle’s Shorts #2: Gimme my Chinese work permit, already!”

And then the U.S. government opened back up the next day, so that’s one obsticle down. Worrying works!

Jan 3, 2018

Can you just pronounce us “married” already?

The pain of paperwork

People travel for many different reasons: to see the sights, to meet new people, to eat strange food. To have adventures; to find love or oneself; to swim with or jump off of something. We’ve been traveling a lot this past year, but for none of those reasons.

Until last July, about every sixty days for the year and a half before that, we had had to leave the country because we couldn’t prove that Peter and I were legally married. It was irritating. Some of it was our fault – Peter’s name had been backwards on our marriage license and nobody noticed it for six years. But mostly it’s because living in China as a foreigner is an exciting and unending stream of paperwork and changing regulations.

When it comes to visa runs, most of the time the cheapest and fastest thing to do is to hop over the border at Hong Kong. Usually, we’d race there and back in 2 or 3 days so I wouldn’t actually have to take time off of work. And wishful thinking had lead me to believe that each of these trips would be the last one. So each next one came as a horrible surprise.

The last time around, in April, I finally realized that while I couldn’t control the speed of the process, I could control how we prepare for it. So in early March — well ahead of time, comparatively — I bought plane tickets, took real time off work and started looking forward to an actual vacation in mid-April. And because it was an actual vacation, we thought we might try to find some actual fun vacation things to do: a concert in Chongqing and a boat in Shenzhen. That should do the trick.

What’cha looking at?

For the people of Luzhou, we have two big-sister cities: Chengdu and Chongqing. Both a short bus ride away, they each have an international airport, more shopping, better entertainment, bigger universities and more opportunities. It’s like people who live between Boston and New York – you’ve got two choices when you need a taste of big city life.

But Chongqing is by far the scrappier sister. It sprawls over nine districts, and it’s up and down topography give some areas a real “you can’t get there from here” feeling. We’ve carved out our own little area, but we definitely feel we don’t know Chongqing as well as we do Chengdu.

We were there to see Alcest, a French black metal shoegaze band, which sounded like something we’d like. We switched things up by staying at a 7 Days Inn right on the peninsula, nearer to Nuts Club, the only destination that mattered. The plan was: get in, see the band, fly out to Shenzhen.

But it was too nice a day (and too small a room) to stay cooped up in the hotel all afternoon. Peter was feeling napful, so I went for a Lonely Ringo-style jaunt around the neighborhood. This has always been my favorite way to see a place.

I was getting lost-on-purpose, down an old stairway, when an older woman asked me where I was going. “不知道 [I don’t know],” I said. “Are you looking for 十八梯 [shiba ti]?” She asked. I wasn’t – I didn’t know what that was – so we parted ways. I eventually made my way up to the Jiefangba central business district, a shopping area with a Uniqulo, an H&M, tons of Western-style bakeries and cafes.

But 十八梯 was on my mind. Was it a local way of referring to the subway? Was it a famous noodle shop I was missing out on? I always have room for a famous noodle.

OK, so according to the internet, 十八梯 was a famously old neighborhood that attracted local sightseers for many years. Now it’s a pile of rubble still attracting lookie-loos who haven’t heard the news that it’s being cleared out for a new housing development. There are still a few remaining restaurants boldly advertising their 十八梯 connections, but mostly what’s left are street vendors, hawking everything from porn to hand-crafted silver. And I had been wandering through it all along without knowing!

What’cha eating?

In Shenzhen, we finally got back to our wandering glutton … I mean, gourmand … ways. We stayed in the tiniest, cheapest place (with the hardest bed, though they were nice enough to let us raid the linen closet for extra padding) so we could spend all of the money on food.

Now, we love Chinese food, but as our followers can tell you, something we really miss is the variety available to us in New York City. We’ve been spoiled to the point of thinking there’s nothing extraordinary in having Italian, Indonesian and Indian all in the same week. So when we travel to a bigger city, we live for the hunt of the different and new. And, boy, does Shenzhen deliver. (Not literally, though; there’s no way we were staying trapped in that hotel room.)

From favorite to fine, these were the meals we found: At the Bollywood Café, there was samosa chaat, paneer tikka, and a rich dal makhani. The Istanbul Restaurant served up chicken with cheese, hummus and a fresh Mediterranean salad. Then there was a Pizza Express, of course, which remains my favorite tomato sauce in southeast China/Hong Kong. McCawley’s Irish Pub offered decent pub grub. And I had a Starbuck’s gift card from work so we snagged a muffin and some iced teas; we don’t have a Starbuck’s in Luzhou, so this was my chance.

To get to all of these places and more, we had to go to the mall, or someplace like a mall. It’s a fact of life we’re getting used to, that even while the mall is dying in suburban America, the mega cities of China are organizing their cultural life around luxury shopping centers. (Even little Luzhou has a Mix C and, word on the street is we’re getting a Wan Da in a few months!)

Cruising through Coco Park is not the same as wandering down a Parisian boulevard or getting lost down a cobblestone alleyway in Rome. For one thing, the lighting is a heck of a lot harsher. But it’s China, and they’re running out of room for charming. Or they’ve relegated it all to the fake old towns they keep building.

Where’ya going?

You can take the subway directly to the Hong Kong border at Futian, so that’s what we did. I love subways in China; despite the fact that they are generally pretty crowded, they’re really clean and the exits are so clearly marked. It’s a level of organization I’ve seen in no other Chinese enterprise.

After getting off the train, we followed the signs to the Futian checkpoint, and left for Hong Kong.

On the Hong Kong side, I bought a quick ham and cheese sandwich and some peanut butter M&Ms at 7-11. They don’t have the peanut butter flavor on the Mainland.

Then, we turned around and re-entered China, and Peter had his visa clock reset for another 60 days.

What the boat?!

Remember when I professed ambivalence about malls?

Sea World in the Shekou neighborhood of Shenzhen is a riot of western and western-influenced restaurants and bars, staged around a plaza with a dry-docked ship in the center of a large fountain. The ship is also a hotel and German-style beer bar. Peter found it about a month before our trip, and since that time we’d been saying to each other, “It’s so silly, but we have to go.”

We have a well-honed strategy for days when there’s potentially a lot of food on the table: Eat a little at a lot of places. Our first stop was Tequila Coyote’s, because it was closest to where we disembarked from our cab, and it’s called Tequila Coyote’s. Mexican, that looks like a chain (though, as far as I can tell, it isn’t), but with a dining room open to the warm spring day. Worth at least a couple of margaritas.

The tacos al pastor came with real corn tortillas, a tasty green sauce and no cheese! (I love you Peter’s Tex-Mex, but sometimes I miss the real deal.) It was an auspicious start.

Counterclockwise around the boat, we found Pizzaria Alla-torre, where we kept it light with a salad containing fresh mozzarella and Parma ham. It was wonderful. Sitting on the outdoor deck, we had a great view of the boat’s bow. We watched babies attempting getaways into the water; people of all ages posing for selfies; the mini-train carrying bemused youngsters around the square. At the next table over, a new dad was hanging out with his teething baby while presumably the rest of his family was out having fun without them.

We had time to kill before the 7pm water and light show, for which we wanted to be up on the ship, so next was cocktails at Lucky Bar. These were fine and weird.

Finishing these, we were ready to head up to the boat. The German restaurant is on the top deck, perched just above where the magic happens. They also brew their own beer, so we ordered some of that, and a cheese plate. Here’s the thing about cheese in China, quite often you’ll end up with the most boring brie or an inoffensive camembert. Not here. Our cheese plate was a flavorful (if somewhat safe) selection: expertly mixing hard and soft, stinky and mild – complete with dried apricots and fig jam. And some saltines, because, of course.

The fountain show did indeed start directly at 7pm, with water and lights dancing up and down to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” It was stirring. At our location, we could also hear the crack of each jet of water as they went off, adding unintentional accompaniment. It repeated again at 7:30 and 8, with different music. I wouldn’t say you should travel to Sea World just to see it, but if you’re already around at the right time, it’s worth a peek. Especially with a cheese plate.

After this was a surprise that Peter’s research had not turned up. Latina is the newer one of two Brazilian-style churrascarias in the square. How good could a Chinese churrascaria be? No, really, we wanted to know. So we ponied up for the unlimited meats and buffet party … and it was some of the best beef I’ve had in China. Succulent, salty, with just the right amount of fat on, juicing up the place.

I tried to heed Peter’s warning — don’t fill up on the buffet — but he knew he had lost me when he turned around and I had two plates. In my defense, the second plate was a half-size, and I needed those black beans and rice. It’s my favorite. And the cauliflower, it’s also a favorite. The meat kept coming, and I, as the Brazilian saying goes, ate myself sad. It was glorious and I recommend it.

And then plan on fasting for the next two days, because you’re going to need it.

It was a long subway ride back to our sleeping box, with me moaning the whole way about being full. But totally worth it. And overall, we had a weird but fun time on our vacation. The day after Sea World, we took a late flight home, and Peter continued to be a law-abiding tourist.

But this time, I just knew we’d get that spousal visa sorted out.

Dec 28, 2017

The winter chill in Southern China

Everyone’s cold, all the time

We’ve threatened to do so in the past, and now we’re following through: It’s a vlog series. I hope you enjoy this Uncle’s Short, and the many more to come. And bring a jacket, it’s cold inside.

Dec 12, 2017

Big changes

You may have noticed some changes around here. A new facelift, and Hello Uncle Foreigner is now responsive and mobile-friendly. We are ready for the future!

And the changes are not just cosmetic. We know that the in past few years posting had slowed to slightly more than nothing. Since mid-2015, we were busy moving across the country — twice! — but more than that, Hello Uncle Foreigner entered into a period of rumination. After four years of regular blogging about our daily life, travel, and hot pots, we had reached the end of what we wanted to say on those fronts. We went dormant. And then Peter got sick.

But that doesn’t mean we had given up. During our two-year time out we still worked and traveled and ate hot pot, and refilled our creative reserves. Now, I’m excited to say that Peter is well on the mend, and … we’re back! We’ve got so many new stories to share, and so many different ways in which we want to share them.

First up, we are extremely proud to present, “Hello Uncle Foreigner: America.” Peter and I spent a month of summer 2016 back in the U.S., and basically eating everything in sight. “What’s it like to be back?” was the main question people had for us, and at the time, we struggled with a good answer. More than a year later, I think we can explain how that felt …

We’re very grateful to all of our friends and family who hosted us, partied with us, and just generally showed us a good time. To those who didn’t make the final cut (there was a 45-minute version, but even we were bored by it), just know that you’re too much fun for Peter to waste his time with you behind a camera. And, uh, to those who did make the cut … you’re just too telegenic to leave out!

Our other big news, you’ll have to go elsewhere to find. This summer I spoke with Chengdu rap group Higher Brothers, and you can find my article in the September issue of NYLON magazine. It was great fun to exercise those muscles again: chasing leads, contacting strangers, asking invasive personal questions, and writing and rewriting on deadline. The guys are really talented artists. I don’t know if they’ll successfully cross over to the American market, but I do know that they deserve some attention.

So, keep an eye on this space! There will be many new movies and other projects coming down the pike in the next few months. It’s our goal to join the greater discussion going on about China and Chinese culture, as well as share the fantastic stories that Luzhou (and beyond) has to offer. But mostly we’re just excited to keep pushing ourselves to the limit of what two people, a blog, and some a/v equipment can do.

Nov 21, 2017

“Well, that happened, and that was weird”

Ten weeks in a Chinese hospital

Peter in his wheelchair in the park
The wild man lookFresh as a daisy after a haircut
Left: Peter tools around the park in his new wheelchair.
Right: In the hospital (top) Peter preferred the wild man look. He told me that trimming a beard was a man’s prerogative — when I offered to do it for him. These days, he’s going for a more civilized style (bottom) after a trim at the salon.

Early-August, we had big plans. A website relaunch, video premieres, a podcast, a vacation. And then … Peter’s back started hurting, more than usual. And then, he couldn’t walk. And then, he lost his mind.

Don’t worry, he’s on the mend now. And the hallucinations were only temporary. Years of hard living and not eating enough will take a toll on a body and the brain. Which is how we found out that the doctors at the Luzhou Medical College hospital are fantastic. And ten weeks in LMC hospital is … a lot.

Here’s what you might find in your Chinese hospital room: It’s always loud, and visiting hours are always. You’ve got more roommates than it feels like should be in one room, but at least you weren’t given one of the hallway beds. One of your roommates moans so loudly in his sleep that the other of your roommates — the one with a prosthetic leg — will just up and leave in the middle of the night. The medical care is fine, but orderly service is not included in the price of your bed, so some relatives choose to schelp their own patient’s full bedpan to the bathroom. (Not me. I paid for the help.) Also, you need to provide your own tissues, soap, towels, a basin for washing, and food. There’s no heat or air conditioning because we live south of the Yangtze River. But they will provide blankets. And one pillow.

They sent him home on October 23, and these days we go to outpatient physical therapy three times a week. Peter can do most things for himself, except for walking. But he’s close. Tomorrow, he’s going to try the parallel bars to hold himself up while he gets those legs back in shape, and after that, he’ll get to shuffle down the PT ward’s hallway. It’ll be another month or two, according to Dr. Yu. And then we’ll be back to your irregularly scheduled Uncle Foreigner.

Mar 9, 2017

The easiest border crossing we know

Exploring new areas in Hong Kong

This apartment building was cool enough to stop us.
We thought this apartment building was pretty cool looking, so we stopped for a photo. A local tapped me on the shoulder to point out …

As a kid, I dreamed of going to Hong Kong. I was an unrepentant Anglophile, and fascinated by its colonial English roots.

These days, I’m really attracted to spaces that seem caught between two worlds, and as an adult I’ve been lucky enough to have been to HK a lot. As is well documented, Peter and I have fallen completely for Lamma Island. This most recent trip, however, we stayed for the first time on the Kowloon Peninsula, the northern bit of the city part of Hong Kong. We bunked down in the infamous Chungking Mansion — a commercial building with approximately 5,000 cheap guesthouses crammed into every nook and cranny. Our room was spacious, for a sea voyage, but the price was right.

Kowloon, especially the Kowloon City neighborhood, has a large immigrant community, which means — food from all over! The Indian Curry King, who lived up to his name, was our best meal of the trip. Also serving food was Ebeneezer’s Kebabs & Pizzeria. It’s a good name.

Our unofficial mission for the two-day trip was to track down a Marvel Legends Iron Fist action figure. Peter has been checking our Luzhou Toys “R” Us for months now, to no avail. (And, yeah, Luzhou has a Toys “R” Us now.) We got lost all over the place and at one point ended up at a Ruby Tuesday’s for onion rings. It’s amazing the places a good quest will take you.

In the end, we never found that figure. But we did find Pizza Express! A British chain that serves a pretty decent tomato sauce on their pie. (Their crust could do with a little more time in the oven, but this is pizza in Asia, so we’ll take it.)

The famous Tiger's Head Rock, which needed to be pointed out to us.
… we were missing the real view of Tiger’s Head Rock directly behind us.