Hello Uncle Foreigner

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Nov 1, 2015

Party down for Halloween

Your traditional Chinese pizza and grillin’ stuff

SpeakEasy Halloween 2015 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Last night our school hosted a Halloween party, and it’s actually the first party we’ve been to in a long time. And it was fun. We mingled and selfied with the guests, who were all mostly students at the local tourism college; and had pizza and beer and BBQ — pretty Halloween-y.

Aug 26, 2015

All summer in a day

Why do we keep moving places in the rainy season?

Rain from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Rain ... forecast forever

Lijiang is beautiful and all, but for all everyone talks about the fantastic weather … it has rained every single day that we’ve been here. Just the other day, even when it was sunny, it was also raining at the same time. And the rainy season is probably going to last for at least another month. And yet, it’s also the high season for tourism, because everyone’s out of school. The tour must go on, I guess.

Aug 2, 2015

Lijiang welcomes us

And we love it

Last month, we made our big move from Luzhou to Lijiang city, in Yunnan Province. Lijiang is about an hour’s flight southeast of Luzhou (if there were such a direct flight), up in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. And it’s gorgeous.

We’ve had a hectic time settling into our new home — imagine all of the logistics of a cross-country move, in a language you’re not that great at understanding. Oh, and you have to keep the local police looped in on your whereabouts. But we’re super-psyched to be here. We’ve got a back-log of stories in the queue that we’re excited to get to soon. In the meantime, enjoy this video of our arrival in Lijiang.

Peter and Emily arrive in their new hometown of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.
Music: “悲傷的採購” & “荔枝角公園,” My Little Airport.

Jun 18, 2015

Video: Guitar with Mr. Super

No more school work, let’s make music

Guitar with Mr. Super from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Graduation time is here, releasing a new crop of students out into the world, and freeing up their time for guitar lessons.

Zhang Yu Jie — formerly Mr. Super, an English name that he’s discarded — has been our friend for the past three years. Determined to improve his English, he would practice with us as much as he could, finding us between classes, walking with us wherever, getting in those precious few moments of face time during his busy school schedule.

On our part, we learned that he is a really sweet, hard-working young man. Raised on a farm by his grandparents with his twin sister Lily, he has big dreams. The video above takes from an interview we conducted last spring, and a group guitar lesson Peter gave last month with Lily and a few friends.

Jun 14, 2015

Sunday on the mountain in our backyard

Eating some seeds

The mountain in our backyard from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Just a ways down the road from our school, there’s a small mountain path that breaks off the main highway. After staring at it curiously from the bus window for years, one night we shared a taxi — in Luzhou, it’s not uncommon to hail an occupied cab if it’s going your way — with a couple who took us on a detour up that way. As we whizzed up the curvy mountain road, Peter and I both though to ourselves: we’ve got to come back. And bring a camera.

So one sunny Sunday afternoon, we did. The yellow rapeseed flowers that take over Luzhou’s countryside were in full bloom. We joined the ranks of the few walkers on the road; most of the traffic was motorbikes — there’s a big business in the neighborhood in ferrying people up and down from the highway bus station. There are two small villages along the road, 光明村 and 咀阳村. When we reached the uphill edge of 咀阳村, after about two hours of walking, we were ready to take a break. There was a group of ladies congregated on the benches outside of a small general store, and so we joined them for some Sunday afternoon kibitzing.

Feb 25, 2015

Celebrating the brand spanking Year of the Sheep

Happy Chinese New Year!

Some delicious ducks hanging in an apartment window in Chengdu.
Ducks drying in the window of a Chengdu apartment for a tasty meal

This year, we took our winter vacation a little later than usual, which meant that we were on the road for the start of Chinese New Year. And preparations for the two-week long holiday began before we left, in early February. Restaurants rolled out spiffy new dishes and menus, families brought home nice fat chickens and ducks, and the city hung red lanterns all over everything. Because Spring Festival, as it’s also called, is a big deal.

A significant percentage of China’s population is on the move at this time of year — and the same is true in Vietnam, where the related Tết festival is celebrated. At the start of our journey, when we stopped in at the Pug in Chengdu (where we were greeted like the regulars that we bizarrely are), the staffers were excited about their upcoming 11-day vacation. It’s a working holiday, they told us, at the owners’ new outpost in Bangkok. “It’s nice that everyone can have more than one day off at a time,” the bartender said.

As we continued our travels, the most significant signs of the holiday were the crowded airports and the fact that a lot of stuff was closed. But it was a lot of fun to be a part of the bustle. More and more young people are using the holiday as a chance to travel, not just home but also around, so we made some cool road friends along the way. And now, back at home, we’ve been the surprise guest stars at three different nights out so far. (Watch me kind of speak Chinese in the video above!)

新年快乐, everybody!

Feb 2, 2015

Video: Eating Barbecue with Dave in Naxi

You’ve got to try the pig intestine

Dave lives in Naxi, a suburb about 20 minutes south of Luzhou. He works construction for money, but he is a dance teacher for fulfillment. When we first met him — he approached us at a restaurant to practice his English — we discovered that he had known and befriended the Double Alex! Their school is close to where Dave lives. Sadly, they themselves are no longer around. (Their school, as it turned out, was not licensed to have foreign teachers.)

But life must go on. Now Dave is our friend, and he recently took us to a Naxi barbecue place that he and the Alexs enjoyed. It was delicious. And I had my first taste of Sichuan specialty, pig intestine!

Jan 21, 2015

You’re invited to the wedding

By the way, it’s tomorrow!

Wedding from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The best dressed guestOur luxurious seafood-rich banquet lunch
Right: The best dressed guest had all of the photographers snapping. Left: Lunch was spectacular and delicious.

Wendy called at about 9 o’clock the night before. Her brother’s son was getting married, and would we like to come? The occasion for the invitation was that her nephew was practicing some English to drop into his speech, which made Wendy think of us. (Ultimately, she advised him against using a foreign language; “He’s not that good,” she said.)

This was my first time attending an actual Chinese wedding ceremony, but I had learned a thing or two already. For example, the actual, legal, “we are officially married” thing is not what I would be witnessing. That happens in a government office to very little fanfare. When our friends Maybell and Claude got married, they did this part in matching hooded sweatshirts one morning when they were both free. But then, of course, you have to have a big, flashy party after — and this is what I was invited to.

Wendy’s nephew’s big, flashy party was at one of Luzhou’s premiere five-star hotels. The event started in the lobby, where there was a backdrop for arrival photos and a welcome table staffed by Xi Xi — Wendy’s daughter — and some other cousins. They gave out candy and packs of cigarettes to incoming guests, and in turn, the guests handed over fat magenta wads of 100 yuan bills as gifts for the happy couple.

The ceremony itself was upstairs in a grand ballroom. The bride’s village sat on one side and the groom’s on the other, Wendy explained. She scooted me towards the stage as her nephew walked the center catwalk, starting the proceedings. The bride emerged from under the stage in a shower of rose petals, and the host made an impassioned welcome speech. The whole spectacle was reminiscent of the televised variety shows that are so popular here.

There were more speeches, the presentation of the parents, toasts with tea and toasts with wine, and the all-important red envelopes given from the parents to the couple. The bride and groom sealed their vows with a hug and a chaste kiss. And then there was lunch.

A spillover room across the hall from the ballroom was allocated for last minute invites, like me. I estimate that there were about a hundred of us happy surprises, because Chinese hospitality is no joke. And our banquet lunch was your usual abundance; dishes piled on one another in the center of the table. “This fish is very expensive,” Wendy proudly told me.

Unfortunately, I had to teach a class that afternoon, so I could only join in one baijiu toast (Wendy wanted me to do six!). And then I cut my own celebration short. But the party raged on well into the evening, I hear. And that’s how you get married in China.

Jan 10, 2015

Huun-Huur-Tu comes to Chongqing

And we do, too

Huun-Huur-Tu on stage at NUTS Club in Chongqing, December 2015
Peter filming 小舟 at 16th Bystreet Music Bar in Chongqing
Peter, in action, at 16th Bystreet Music Bar
A mixologist at NUTS Club
The bartender pours some kind of ’tini at Nuts Club.

I’m not going to lie, this weekend away was a little difficult. We only had a few days free, Peter had a cold, and the trouble I was having purchasing concert tickets at one point had me in tears. (A Chinese-language website, international banking and computer-related issues all conspired to let me know that I was a failure as an adult.) The dark, cold winter days only amplified our discomfort.

But we weren’t in Chongqing to be comfortable, we were there for the music. And the hot pot. But, mostly the music.

First up, 小舟. We dropped in on our favorite hole-in-the-wall venue — the 16th Bystreet Music Bar — to find him and his friends doing a loosey-goosey jam. 小舟, unbeknownst to us at the time, is actually a Beijing folk-rock artist of some renown. Sound at the Music Bar is kind of crap — the house drum kit has the timbre of a bucket of nails — but these guys were really great. With each new player to take the stage, the style meandered from traditional to funky, or sometimes both at once. The audience was small but into it, and the staff particularly was having a good time. You could tell that they love working at a live music venue.

The whole reason for our trek, however, was the legendary Tuvan throat singers of Huun-Huur-Tu. Peter has loved these guys since the early ’90s and the second he saw that they’d be at Nuts Club, he said we had to be there.

Nuts is now in the basement of a downtown shopping mall. (Lots of stuff is in malls in China.) Jogging through the empty corridors, past closed-down shops — we were late, because getting anywhere from anywhere in Chongqing takes FOREVER — we followed the sound of music to find our destination. New Nuts is slightly bigger than the old club, and they now have one of the best bars in China with a meticulous staff.

When we arrived, the four men of Huun-Huur-Tu were already on stage, wearing their traditional Tuvan costumes. Between songs, Sayan Bapa — one of the group’s original members — addressed the crowd in English, explaining the meaning of each piece. “Each of our songs is a short story,” he said. About friendship, love, loss, homesickness and, of course, horses. All very human things, but some more specific to the nomadic Tuvan culture than others. Before a song about caravan migration, Bapa joked, “[it] usually takes three months, but we’ll play a shorter version.”

Some of their songs are as old as the 12th century, he told us. And the group plays mostly traditional instruments — including one wooden clopper that mimics the sound of horse hooves perfectly. But their vital spirit and the plain emotion that comes through the music keeps the experience from feeling musty. Live, the overtone singing becomes something you feel as well as hear, and it was almost as if you, too, were there on the central Asian grasslands, with the nomads. And the horses. It was a truly fantastic performance.

After the show, the guys changed into street clothes, and sat around the merch table eating takeaway noodles. We shook their hands on our way out, but being shy (and unsure of which language to address them in) we didn’t say much beyond “thank you” (and 谢谢).

Huun Huur Tu from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Jan 1, 2015

Video: Give sports a try

We’re all the winner

Give Sports a try from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo. Music: “I’m Not Even Going to Try,” David Devant and His Spirit Wife.

The kids of Tianfu middle school don’t have to try; they were born cool.