Hello Uncle Foreigner

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Apr 3, 2018

Egg Bar: Countryside Chinese Restaurant

aka the best Chinese dumplings

In China, watch this video on YouKu.

Emily and the adoring kids, outside of Egg Bar
Emily poses with some of the neighborhood kids, just outside Egg Bar.

It was a hot summer day when we stumbled upon Egg Bar for the first time. (Why is it called Egg Bar?!) It was back when we lived just outside of Luzhou city, at the countryside campus of Tianfu Middle School. One afternoon, we hopped aboard a bus going further out into the countryside, on the mission for a small town adventure. That bus ride actually took us out to the Luzhou Laojiao baijiu factory, which was not as fun as you might think. So we found a small convenience store and stopped for a couple of beers. (That kind of thing is done in the countryside.)

On the way back we took a different bus, which passed through the tiny suburb of Tai’an — just the thing we had been looking for. Just a few bus stops away from the school — closer than Luzhou proper — and with a few decent restaurants, Tai’an became our regular hang out when work was done for the day. Egg Bar, down a busy alleyway, was our favorite place to go. The woman in charge took good care of us. She knew we liked the dumplings best, but when she was making up something special in the kitchen — hello, seasonal fava beans — she’d give us the hook up.

It was the neighborhood hangout for all the old men, but the kids playing just outside were fascinated by us. Some days, they’d totally leave us be, but other days, one brave kiddo would come ask for our autograph or photo … and then word would seemingly spread for miles around that foreigners were making an appearance. I signed the ripped-off back of a cigarette box once. When they got too annoying — to us, the boss, the other customers — boss lady would shoot them off until another day.

There was one girl in particular who had some decent English. She was given dispensation to chat with us, and on high-volume kid days, she was kind of their leader. She’d also help translate with me and the other older people whose Luzhou-hua (the local dialect of Chinese) was too thick for me to understand. She blew my mind one time when she told me about a recent trip to Japan that she had taken with her family. I had totally assumed that Tai’an was a poor neighborhood! International travel?! Oh, well. “Ass out of you and me.”

Now we live about an hour by bus away from Tai’an, so we are not able to get out there really at all. The last time we ate there was probably more than a year ago. But, we’ll always have our memories. Though we never did get that goat. What am I talking about? Watch the video … and stick around to the very end to see a photo from our very first Egg Bar visit!

Mar 31, 2018

An adventure into the Stone Sea, Yibin, Sichuan

I finally make good on a student home visit

In China, watch us on YouKu.

The visit to a student’s home, we assumed, was an English-teaching standard. After all, Peter Hessler was close to all of his students. The offers must come flying, one after another. But after a solitary invite my first year teaching, that we were unable to take advantage of, I had to wait four years for my next one.

Lydia had been my student at Tianfu Middle School in my first year teaching and then again in my last year. From the very first, she was a hard-working young woman. The junior class she was in was somewhat rowdy, but I could usually count on her to answer my questions. Except for one day, when she wanted to do her homework in class. “We’re in the middle of my class,” I told her. “You can’t!” What I didn’t add, but was desperately thinking was, “I need someone to be paying attention.”

In our last year at Tianfu, Lydia and her friend Serena — who was Peter’s student — would spend their afternoon break at our office hours, asking us about our lives and practicing their English. When they found out I was studying Chinese, they’d bring me lists and lists of idioms and contemporary slang so that I’d sound cool. And that Labor Day, they planned a full-day event for us — an adventure out into the nearby Stone Sea geopark. It’s one of the lesser-known places to visit in China, but in our neck of the woods, it’s a big deal.

I had set Lydia up as a pen pal with my cousin in Minnesota, and the day of our outing, she was texting with him during our morning drive. “Have fun on the family field trip,” he wished us. It was great to have this time with the girls. I sat in the back between Lydia and Serena so that they could each have a side. It was reminiscent of family trips with my own sisters, when they would make me sit in the middle because I was the shortest. This time, I was not the shortest, so I could eventually request a window seat.

We got to talk about everything through the course of our day: boys, future plans, even specialized English vocabulary — Karst, limestone, sinkhole, cave. It was a long day, but the girls were so proud to have arranged it. They thought of everything, from car snacks for the early morning drive to a visit to a flower show while dinner was being prepared. After dinner, when the men started smoking, we took a walk down Jiangmen’s main street. Lydia’s younger cousin joined us as a tag-along. She hadn’t been interested in English before, but now that we were all speaking it, she was dying to know what we were talking about.

To cap the night off, all of us went out for post-meal BBQ with more friends and family, including Lydia’s former English teacher. It was funny to have a snack after such a nice meal, but it was a holiday! BBQ was much more relaxed than the formal dinner. Lydia and Serena relaxed, too, and the focus was finally off entertaining The English Teacher. Everyone asked me about the girls, for a change. How they were doing out in the world, in the big city high school. They were genuinely proud to see their girl speaking English so fluently, and I was proud too.

Mar 26, 2018

Toys R Us China, still going strong

We still had to order Iron Fist on Amazon, though

Our latest Special Report looks at some of the hubbub around the closure of Toys R Us — which here in Luzhou is nil, because Toys R Us is still open. Babies gotta have their toys. Toys R Us has actually been a big part of our China life, because Peter likes to hunt out the Marvel Legends figures. In addition to Toys R Us Luzhou, we’ve been to two in Chengdu, one in Shenzhen and at least two in Hong Kong. It’s actually given me some insight into the appeal of collecting as a hunt, rather than an act of acquisition.

That being said, we also recently figured out you can find Marvel Legends figures on Taobao for cheap.

In the video, we also go into the Bret Michaels Effect, which may explain why so many people are heartbroken by the loss of a corporation, and give you the scuttlebutt on what other western chains are coming soon to Luzhou. It wasn’t until we shot this video that I realized that the Starbucks was going in right across from Mix C — home to our beloved Peter’s Tex Mex — and next to the Dairy Queen.

It’s weird to think that just five years ago we had trouble consistently finding sliced bread.

Mar 23, 2018

Finding a cure for the common cold

Or, a much less traumatic experience with Chinese healthcare

In the past year, I’ve been getting pretty comfortable with the clinic two blocks from my house. The doctor there has a better hit rate than the pharmacy, and she works really hard. She’s there all day, so she has to do a bit of living out in public; When I went in for a follow-up visit recently, she was doing an afternoon mud mask.

Anyway, check out the video above to see what a basic visit to the Chinese clinic is like.

Mar 10, 2018

Happy Lantern Festival

A time for dragon dancing

I started a job at a new school this term, and my first official duty was to perform as the head of the dragon for the teachers’ dragon dance on Lantern Festival. It was a whole thing. I had been sick with a cold for weeks, so the dance nearly killed me, but it was a fun way to meet the kids. Now they love me!


Mar 1, 2018

Hip hop is banned in China, kind of

Be careful where you get your news, also the Internet used to be better

Fat Shady performs at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014
Fat Shady (black T and cap) and friends performed at New Little Bar in Chengdu in 2014.

Our latest video (you can find it below) was inspired by the news in late January that a Chinese government body issued a ban on hip hop culture and tattoos on state TV. For a really good summary and analysis of just-the-facts before you dive into what I think, Feichang Fresh has a great video.

Current events aren’t usually our deal, but Peter and I have been seeking out new music – hip hop and otherwise – in China since we landed. We were proud to discover that Chengdu has been an incubator of China’s rap scene for many years. I even interviewed the scene’s breakout stars, Higher Brothers, for a magazine article this summer. So the Time.com headline “’Tasteless, Vulgar and Obscene.’ China Just Banned Hip-Hop Culture and Tattoos From Television” definitely caught our eye.

But our video was also inspired by our own experiences of keeping in touch with America through the distorted lens that is the Web 2.0: a meme-ified news stream that features kids eating soap just alongside your cousin graduating college and the U.S. president giving all schoolteachers guns, whether they want them or not.

(“What is eating a Tide pod supposed to do?” Peter asked me, baffled that this generation’s experiments with household cleaners has nothing to do with trying to get high.)

China bans hip hop. China bans Winnie the Pooh. China bans time travel. You can state these facts – they’re all essentially true. But what does any of that really mean?

(Tide pods look like cake, right? That’s why kids are eating them?)

Peter and I, with our video, hope that we can share some context about the Chinese ban-hammer and what that means for free expression in China.

In the video, I end on a somewhat 没办法 (Eh, what can you do?) note. It’s a struggle in this global existence. What can one person do against the entrenched systems of the world?

However, because I do read more than my Facebook feed, I know that that’s not reality. Incredible activists all over the world are stepping up and making change. Black Lives Matter, the Parkland students. But it’s a frustratingly slow process. And one that’s prone to misinterpretation and oversimplification in the retelling.

In a story on “#metoo in China,” published just after news of the “hip hop ban” broke, The Elephant Room blog looked at some of the people fighting for women’s equality over here. It does not look the same as it does in western countries, but nevertheless, they persist. But, as ER notes, most coverage in the U.S. focused more on the “censorship in Big, Bad China” angle than the activism against sexual harassment. “‘Censorships[sic]? Of course,’ Qiqi [one of the movement’s activists] laughs, ‘but so? By now we all know that’s inevitable for any social movement in China. For us, censorship is part of progress, not the end of the story.’”

That’s the story I want to read. How do you keep at it and effect change – and people do – when mainstream avenues of communication are closed to you? What a powerful idea! But it’s not easily meme-able (and it’s logistically challenging for western reporters to access), so it doesn’t get as much press.

So let’s fix the media.

Back when I worked at a newspaper, in the mid-2000s, we published a columnist whom the media insiders looked down upon as a graspy, fame-seeking hack. It was a dating column, post-“Sex and the City,” so … . There were daily updates about her behavior on Gawker (this was way back, when Gawker was still somewhat devoted to actual intra-media coverage). And within our newsroom, there was constant discussion of how terrible she was. There was even, for a time, a lay person’s website devoted to anonymously hating on her every public move.

The column was not great, but it was super popular. In fact, rather than letting her go because she wasn’t up to our standards, she left us for bigger and better pastures. She’s now … not so famous that you’ve heard of her, but she’s been on cable TV. A lot.

Honestly, I think this woman worked hard to get where she is. If our paper had passed on her, she would have found opportunity somewhere else. But we disrespected her writing and we published her anyway. Because the readers ate it up.

Stupid readers. Let’s fix you.

You’re a citizen of the Internet, the training is out there: Read more than the headline. Check your sources. Open your mind to narratives that challenge your worldview. Consider that the push structure of social media is manipulated and not reflective of the world as it actually is.

To put it another way: if we only click and share the Times’ shock-jock op-ed denying climate change – in outrage or in support – that’s all anyone is going to publish. And we’ve done the Russians’ job for them.

(So, let’s fix the Russians?)

We’re all weary of the hegemony of outrage, but someone keeps clicking on it. Stop it. And maybe make something yourself. After all, it’s easier to replace a bad habit than to quit cold turkey!

I really think this might be something: Make stuff. Make anything you truly care about. Write it, paint it, dance it – whatever gets what’s in your heart out in to the world. The stuff that is meaningful to you is going to be compelling, even if it’s not objectively good. This will have three effects.

As creators, people will engage on their own terms with media literacy. You can scroll past countless NPR articles on how to tell the difference between real and fake news, but if you’re telling stories yourself, you’ll have a real stake in how narratives are created. You’ll be able to tell an out-of-context quote from a mile away.

Additionally, maybe we can drown out the fakers and liars and fear-mongers and put something good out in the world. I’m not going to lie; it takes a lot of effort to fight the incredible pessimism I feel every day. There’s a lot happening in the world right now that I feel powerless to affect. But what got me here was getting out of bed anyway and writing something that made me laugh. Filming something that felt true to me. And maybe some bored millennial will choose my silly video instead of one with the “hot take” that maybe racism is natural after all.

Thirdly, if we’re all creating our weird little projects and putting them online, maybe we can make the Internet interesting again. Maybe the real inspiration for all these one thousand words is that in the past few years, all of my favorite sites have shut down. The Toast doesn’t even have archives up anymore. There have been a lot of factors making me really feel my age these days (seeing your face blown up in HD will do that), so I’m just going to say it: When I was a kid, the Internet was way cooler. ’Cause it was just a bunch of random crap that people were passionate about.

So make something, darn it. And I will, too. If the rappers in Chengdu can do it …

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: