Hello Uncle Foreigner

Sep 13, 2016

Home for the (hot, hot) summer

And it’s time to pay the bills

Our Luzhou high rise

Take a video tour of our new apartment complex in Luzhou.

We’re going on our sixth year in China, but this is actually the first time that we’ve spent an August in Luzhou. Previously, we’d always arranged to travel during this month — or move cities entirely — because locals assured us that August is unbearable.

Having lived it this year, I can report that “unbearable” seems strong. But between the heat and humidity, it is, like, three-shower-a-day weather. Showers seemed like the best solution, given that this, our first August in Luzhou, is also our first August in Luzhou that we are paying our own electric bill.

It feels good to pay our own electric bill, though. It feels good to be in charge of all of our own utilities ‘n’ stuff, actually. After living the life of a kept pet on campus at Tianfu Middle School for our first four years, it feels like we have more of a grown-up life. Like we’ve graduated.

But renting in China is not really at all like it is in America. In fact, renting in Luzhou is not even like renting in Lijiang. And moreover, we know from our initial online research, how we do it out west is different from what goes on in Beijing and in Shanghai. Yeah, we’re one country/one timezone and all that, but regionality isn’t going away.

Let’s talk Lijiang. Our apartment there was in a small complex on the edge of the city — goats were our neighbors — and it was beautifully furnished. Our friends lived in the same complex, and they spotted the landlord’s phone number on a “For rent” sign on the apartment window. We handed over a year’s rent, plus two months’ deposit, and then didn’t see our landlord until we moved out a year later. (When she gave us back slightly less than out two months’ deposit, because we had burnt a hole in her couch with a space heater.)

As far as utilities went, every three months, the guard at the front gate of our housing complex would flag us down to pay our water and electric bill. And every six months, he’d add in the maintenance fee. In his little hut, I’d pay the property manager — who was just kind of always hanging about — then sign my name in the book and get my receipt. Propane for the stove was delivered by a man on a motorbike strapped up with way too many tanks; we’d just call in an order when we were running low. And phone and internet were taken care of in one yearly payment at the China Telecom store. All of this was done in big, fat wads of cash, by the way.

We were so proud to figure all this out. Now we know how the Chinese go about the business of living!

And then, in Luzhou, none of that applies. We found our wonderfully spacious apartment here through a broker who went to school with one of my coworkers. This apartment is also furnished, with pieces that are just slightly not falling apart. (In fairness, yesterday the landlord installed a brand new light fixture in our living room — because the old one had blown up.) And rent is payed quarterly.

Electricity — we have a little card that we can put money on at any bodega that has a State Grid sign out front. There’s one pretty close to our apartment, and we just re-up whenever we’re running low. For our internet and phone bill, we go into the China Telecom store once a month to 交费 (pay the fee). Water and maintenance are also monthly, at the property office at our apartment complex; but because more than 2,000 people live in our complex, it’s up to us to remember to go in. Gas for our stove and hot water heater … we haven’t figured out how to pay our gas bill yet, but I think that I saw someone do it at our grocery store.

One thing is the same, though: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.

Actually … another thing that is the same is that because this is just the way that everybody does it, no one really offers to explain how any of this works. It’s so basic, they just assume that you know. (Even though it’s all done differently a province over.) For example, here’s how I figured out how to pay the Luzhou electricity bill: My landlord handed over the card. My coworker said, “I think you can 交费 at that supermarket.” That supermarket said, “We don’t do it here. But maybe you can go to the bank.” And then, walking around our complex, I noticed a little store that had a small sign that matched the logo on my card. And now I just know to look for the sign, and I never have to think about it again.

In this RPG we call China, it’s all part of the … life, I guess.

Jul 5, 2016

Five years in China!

A video scrapbook

Five years in China from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

In September, we will have been in China for five years!

When we first got on that plane, oh so long ago, we had no idea what to expect. But our time here has been filled with good friends, delicious food, wacky students, and exciting adventures. Enjoy this video scrapbook of our “DVD extras,” scenes from Luzhou, Lijiang, Chengdu, Vietnam, Thailand, and some of the smaller villages in and around those places.

Jun 15, 2016

Happy Dragon Boat Festival!

Let’s make some zongzi with the grannies

Jun 14, 2016

It’s Luzhou ... we’ve moved back to Luzhou

We wish to see the world

Homecoming from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Summer 2015 brought us to a crossroads. It was the end of our fourth consecutive year of teaching at Tianfu and, according to Linda, Chinese law says that we were due a break. We could teach somewhere else, we could even come back in a year, but we couldn’t stay at Tianfu.

And personally, we were wondering if it wasn’t time to explore a whole new city. I mean, if we had to find a new job anyway … and what were the chances that Luzhou — where we landed arbitrarily, on a job offer from a friend of a friend — was really the best place for us in all of China? For years, we’d been publicly planning on relocating to Kunming, and every year that we didn’t, we kind of worried that maybe we couldn’t. After hoisting ourselves all the way across the ocean from the U.S. to China, maybe we were stuck and getting stucker in the first place ever to offer us a warm bed and a hot pot.

It was time, we felt, to either move for real or truly commit to Luzhou. And we chose to move. Although, like a true Chinese plan, we submit to a last minute change and chose Lijiang as our new destination. And we had a great year. (Well, 10 months if you’re counting.) We learned a lot, met new people, saw new things, basked in Western-style comfort. We’ll tell you all about it in entries to come. But … it never felt like home.

I started joking-not-joking pretty early on that “if things don’t work out, we could always go back to Linda/Luzhou.” But we gave it our all, and it was fun until it wasn’t. Then Peter came on board and it turned out I wasn’t joking after all.

In the meantime, Linda hired someone else! Which was great, because then I found someplace else: i2 — a growning, Chengdu chain of training schools that was looking to expand to Luzhou.

So, we’re back … and I guess we’re lucky enough that we got to choose both moving and committing to Luzhou. We’ve been back about a month, and seen old friends and made new ones. And we’re really looking forward to everything this latest chapter will bring.

May 26, 2016

Sitting on the porch, watching the sunset

Intermittent vlog #1

Lijiang Thoughts from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

There was a lovely little youth hostel near our Lijiang apartment — the House & White Lakeside Lodge — where we loved to go hang out when we had free time. They had cold beers, a piano, and a porch that overlooked the reservoir. It was a great place to spend the evening and think about life.

May 24, 2016

School is in session

What is it that you actually do?

Teaching from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

We don’t talk a lot about teaching on this blog, because … well, that’s just not what we’ve decided that this blog is about. But, as both a teacher of English and a learner of Mandarin, language is a huge part of my life. Recently, I’ve been really into phonics. Not because perfect pronunciation is the be-all and end-all of language success, but because learning to hear a foreign language’s phonemes properly goes a long way towards making that language a comprehensible set of inputs, rather than just some strange noises. And I think that process is fascinating.

Lily and Lisa are good friends with each other, but they have slightly different abilities in language learning. Lily is much more focused on reading skills, while Lisa has a lot of energy that can be channeled into lively activities. They are a goofy pair of nine-year-olds, curious and outgoing. Their class was a lot of fun for me, because they were eager learners with just enough inclination for getting off task as to keep me on my toes. Tangent-prone kids are often the most interesting.

The video above is an hour lesson condensed into ten minutes. We hit the four critical components of language — speaking, listening, reading and writing — and, of course, do a little phonics work. Check it out.

Apr 28, 2016

Lamma Island, Hong Kong

A ferry ride to paradise

Lamma Island from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, we decided: Forget the city! Let’s check out the outlying islands. Lamma Island is home to a small community of local Hong Kongers and ex-pats. There are no cars on the island, and a series of small alleyways winds through tiny, cute villages. We fell in love immediately, and decided we needed to do whatever we could to move there. It was one of those kinds of vacations.

At home, cooler heads prevailed. But the seed was planted, and we were dead set on moving … somewhere.

Mar 1, 2016

Some nights in Bangkok

Eat the chicken

Dec 28, 2015

Merry Christmas, from Lijiang!

In which Peter and Emily attend a party

Xmas from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Our school threw a little party for the kids this Christmas. And Santa was there. It was lots of fun.

Dec 28, 2015

The Ballad of Sprinkles and MacNeil

Meet the neighbor dogs

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

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

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

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

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