Hello Uncle Foreigner

countryside

Jul 19, 2018

Live stream #5: Even more babies and cheese

not at the same time, though

Our fifth live stream! We’ve got a lot to talk about, and somehow the chipmunk voice is back.

May 10, 2015

Meeting the highlands villagers

A somewhat subversive sidetrip

The Koho people are one of Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minorities, and they mostly live in tribal villages in the highlands outside of Đà lạt. Many Koho fought alongside U.S. troops in the American War — as it’s locally known — and to this day the tribes have an uneasy relationship with the central government. We visited one such village one afternoon, with a guide/translator, but we were asked to refrain from taking photos — so, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It was a fascinating trip.

Some older women let us visit with them in their one-room home. They had a pot hanging over a fire at one end, the kitchen, and small chickens wandered in and out through the gap between the walls and the ground. Until recently, they told us, ten people slept in this small space on mats rolled out over the packed earth floor. But the local government had just built them new and modern communal bedroom.

Upon our arrival, the woman were a little shy, as were we. Our guide did most of the talking. Explaining them to us and us to them. But over time they loosened up and became a loud and animated chorus to our guide’s questions. Other women from the village popped their heads in to see what the ruckus was about. “What happened in here?!?” one woman said, surprised to find a room full of “Americans” — all foreigners were American to them, our guide said. He told the women that some of us were French and German. “They all look the same to me,” one of the neighbor women replied.

We talked about life in the village. By Vietnamese standards, the Koho were quite poor and life was hard work. They live an agricultural economy, so fat and lean times come and go with the harvest. Our guide showed us some of the food that this family had on hand, including dried bush rat (which he only revealed to us after we had eaten some; first he told us it was ginger) and fermented rice gruel. There were a few fat pigs, however, wandering the village’s shared gardens.

Traditional marriages were still a big deal. In some cases, the women told us, “voodoo” (our guide’s word) was practiced to snare a mate, or smite a rival … but they may have been pulling our legs on this one. More believably, they said that the custom is for the bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a large dowry — heirloom jewelry or generations-old pottery. This particular family was too poor to afford a husband, so the daughter, now in her sixties, remained single.

Men were primarily responsible for the farming, and in this village, women’s work was handmade textiles. They gave us a short demonstration of cotton spinning and weaving. “If you go to the museum in the city, you’ll see these tools there,” our guide told us. It was pretty amazing. To do the weaving, the daughter sat on the floor and wrapped an elaborate loom around her body. She rocked back and forth to shift the threads, and passed the shuttle from hand to hand quite quickly. The resulting cloths were made into wedding costumes, though they had some “throwaway” pieces that weren’t up to snuff to the occasion for sale to outsiders.

These women were characters. Once they found their voices, they were raucous and loud, and wanted to explain everything to us. They were particularly piqued about the villagers across the river, who had stolen their land, they said. One rugged neighbor, with a pipe clenched in her teeth, told us about meeting a tiger in the nearby jungle last year. They won’t hurt with you if you don’t bother them, or run, she told us through the guide. When one of our number assured her that he had read that wild tigers were extinct in this part of the world, the women invited him to come with them and see for himself. I … would not mess with these ladies.

Things are changing in the village, however. The current generation of children go to school in the city, and they are learning Vietnamese. (The villagers speak a local dialect.) These Koho people face a challenging road, one familiar to many peoples throughout the world: Assimilation will surely mean a more comfortable life for the next generation, but how can they ensure that their communities culture and customs aren’t lost in the shuffle? This is a large part of their ongoing friction with the central government.

Before we left, the mother of the house — 82 years young — sang for us. “It’s a sad song,” said our guide. But he didn’t need to translate. Her voice keened and her body trembled as she sang, and the emotion was powerful in that small room containing many cultures. We thanked them and said goodbye. But you have to stay, said one of the women, our husbands will never believe you were here!

Oct 18, 2014

Video: Postcard from the Moon

Fun on the night of the eclipse

Postcard from the moon from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Dancing around after the October 8th Blood Moon. We missed the blood, but we found the dance. Music: Pugwash, “Answers on a Postcard”

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 27, 2014

A jaunt through Songpan and Jiuzhaigou

Getting out of the city

Fishies in a pond at Jiuzhaigou
Little fishies in a pool at Jiuzhaigou nature reserve
A Songpan side street
A side-street in the ancient city at Songpan

Our kids are constantly telling us that they prefer the countryside to the city, and now that Peter and I have gotten out and about a little, we’re starting to see their point. Yeah, you can sometimes find a taco or a rock band, but we’ve found that there’s a certain concrete sameyness to Chinese cities. Duh, says everyone else: “The city is for working,” a new friend told us, but this is home.

The “this” she was referring to was the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, in mountainous northern Sichuan Province. It’s a spectacular park where they have these startlingly colorful lakes of deep blues and greens, nestled into a series of striking valleys. You may have seen pictures; Jiuzhaigou shows up all the time on internet travel lists and email forwards containing, like, “15 Places That’ll Blow Your Face Off,” or whatever. It really is incredible looking and people have been telling us to go there pretty much since we’ve arrived in China.

So this summer, finally, we decided to go north and check it out. (It didn’t hurt that the climate up there was a good 10° C cooler than the summertime furnace of south Sichuan.) We prefixed the trip with a few days in the neighboring area of Songpan, a sleepy little ancient town that serves as a base for horse trekking and other outdoorsy pursuits. This place is not so famous: It gets a small mention in all the western guidebooks, as a place that is near Jiuzhaigou, and almost none of our Chinese friends had heard of it. But there seemed to be enough around there that would occupy our time, and we were psyched for an adventure in the mountains.

On the mountain top in Songpan

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.

Oct 9, 2013

Snaps: Waiting for the bus

Are you gonna go my way?

Oh, just waiting for the bus by the side of the highway

On our first intercity bus trip, we were astonished that the bus stopped in an area very much like this to let some passengers off. “This is a highway!” we said. “This is not a place to stop!”

But, actually, turns out there are legitimate city bus stops all along the highway. This is where we catch the bus out to the little countryside village where we eat dinner from time to time. Surprised drivers — not expecting westerners out here — call out hello to us as they pass by. “Keep your eyes on the road! Not on us!” we answer back.

Jul 30, 2013

Deeper into the countryside

Luzhou continues to offer fun and adventure

Our first time at Egg Bar!
Just waiting for the bus on the highwayA little guy in the hill by the highwayMore little guys in the hill by the highway
A narrow pathway leads from the highway bus stop to a small shrine ensconced in bamboo.
Luzhou Laojiao's countryside factory
As we suspected, the small brewery in the city center is not where China’s supply of Luzhou Laojiao is manufactured. It takes an “Industry Development Zone” to quench that thirst.
Out in Tai'anOut in Tai'anIt's hot out, so we're having some cool beers at Egg Bar
It’s hot. Peter’s melting.
Some kids in the alley
The small residential area we found offered everything we were looking for, including fun times at and around the old man bar.

They’re building a highway through the site of our regular countryside bus stop, and we returned from vacation to find that we were essentially cut off from the small village where we usually eat and hang out. The trip into the city requires a longer walk to a different bus stop, and it’s hot out and that’s annoying. So the only sane choice was to go further out into the countryside — via a third and much closer bus stop — to see what we could see.

Our initial expedition led us down the highway into nothing and nowhere and then the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery Industry Development Zone. It was presented as a tourist sight, so we figured it was worth checking out.

There was a nicely decorated factory, though not one that really seemed open to unscheduled tourism. In fact, if anything, we were the sight to see; all the drivers and packers and other workers gave us startled hellos as we passed.

We did find, however, an open bodega next to the highway — and where there is a bodega, there are cold beers. We sat at the rickety table out front and had a couple of cold ones, lamenting the fact that we didn’t really find any alternatives to our now inaccessible Tofu Soup neighborhood but being proud of ourselves for trying.

We took a different bus back … and passed right through the very type of residential area we were looking for. Restaurants and shops and teahouses and people, just a few stops from the school! We rushed off the bus and out into the street.

We spent the afternoon tucked away in an old man bar down an alleyway, watching the street life unfold. Kids darted by the entrance, doing kid things and occasionally stopping to get a peek at us white weirdos. The big doings in the bar was that the TV remote had died. The men made sure keep us in the loop — the proprietress had gone in search of batteries, they indicated, oh look now it’s back on, do you like this show?

We’ve been back to the neighborhood a few times, trying different restaurants, and we’ve already befriended a new bodega owner. There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing when were out in areas where there haven’t been many foreigners before: People will take surreptitious glances at us but generally leave us alone until one brave person approaches. Once I start speaking Chinese, a whole crowd will gather. Not everyone will have the courage to say anything, but they all want to get their curiosity satisfied. And I can offer a few biographical details: American, teachers at Tianfu Middle School, yes we like spice. And then the crowd will disperse, and we will be a little less strange.

Buying some watermelon

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!

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.