The international roundtable. Top, clockwise from Emily: Maybell, Claude, Andrea, Alex US, Alex UK. Bottom, continuing clockwise from Alex UK: Echo, Crela.
The occasion: We knew some cool people and we met some other cool people, and we thought they should meet, so Peter and I put together a small dinner party a few weeks ago.
It was a truly multi-cultural ‘do. The Chinese side of the guest list was composed of Echo and Crela, and Maybell and Claude. For the Westerners: There was Andrea, an Italian businessman who has lived in Luzhou for nearly a decade. He got in touch with us through Flickr when he recognized the city in our photos. And there were Andrea’s friends, Alex from the U.K. and Alex from the U.S. (“A Double Alex!” Claude exclaimed when we ran down the roster.) The two of them are ESL teachers at a school just south of Luzhou city.
It made for a nice mix: a crew of teachers, current/former Chinese students and a long-time expat Luzhou-ite. Shop talk, tips and advice passed in all directions. We also covered general language and cultural differences — translating jokes for one another that didn’t always make it into the other language. The food got eaten and the beer got drunk and people seemed to have a good time. Hosting success!
"You promised an international party, and it really was an international party,” Crela told us afterwards.
Ever since we’ve arrived, I’ve been singing a little song to Peter that goes, “Please, won’t you let me hold your baby?” Because the babies are everywhere and oh-so-cute. Until recently, this request has gone unfulfilled, because who wants to let some strange woman hold a baby.
Then, last week, it happened! Some mother gave her child to me to hold!
A relevant fact: Instead of diapers, a lot of kids wear split crotch pants and just widdle wherever when they feel the urge. So my first thought — after, “Yes! It’s finally happening!” — was, “I hope he doesn’t pee on me, like a gerbil.” Peter’s response, “You didn’t think of that before?”
Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.
We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?
At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.
They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.
Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily
In the interim between vacation’s end and school’s start we received just enough invitations out to keep us from going stir crazy (though not too many that they cut into our glorious just-us time). Listening was home from university, so we got together with him and Crela and Echo for a lazy lunch date one January afternoon.
Our local friends introduced us to pig cake (zhuerbao), a Luzhou specialty dumpling with a glutinous rice shell and a savory pork filling. They are rich and delicious, and a steady supply came streaming out of the kitchen in bamboo steamers stacked higher than a man’s head. The kids talked about their various plans to get to America. We advised that waiting tables would be a better situation than washing dishes, but all three of them seemed eager for any opportunity.
After lunch, we walked down by the newly facelifted riverfront. Down toward the city center, there’s now a giant, “ancient” city gate and temple. “The [local] government has too much money and nothing else to build,” Listening told us when we asked about the “why”. The doors to the temple are locked, and there’s nothing inside. He pocketed his camera, not desiring photos of a tourist trap. We’ll take pictures of anything, though.
Right: We spent some time goofing around in a small photography studio which provided costumes and backdrops for your shutterbugging enjoyment. Crela and Listening accompany me as I get my wings.
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.
Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.
Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.
Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.
The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.
Sanya is pretty touristy, but occasionally you get glimpses of the “real” China.
Outdoor dining at the Mandarin Oriental is a fabulous experience.
The pizza at Surf Circus isn’t the greatest, but it is late-night satisfying.
My new friend Sissi, from the DolphinBaile Bar, on the boardwalk, rocked nightly.
The pools at Nantian Hot Springs are relaxing and fragrant. The pool on the right is filled with those fish that nibble on your dead skin!
Greater Sanya, as seen from a cab, is certainly still a part of the China we know and love, but the beachy areas exist solely on Planet Resort. We were there between the slight lull between the January 1 New Year and the start of Chinese New Year on January 30, so things were a bit sleepy, which is just the way we like it.
Beforehand, we had decided that the theme for the trip was: “Try the seafood, you might like it.” That lasted for a few days before we decided that we didn’t like it, and didn’t need to work so hard on our vacation. The one exception being the tasting menu during our fancy-pants night out at the Mandarin Oriental, where Peter described feeling like Little Lord Fauntleroy dining seaside on rock crab, turbot, red snapper and crème brûlée
Instead, we just relaxed. There are virtually no turkey sandwiches in China outside of this little strip of paradise, so we gave in to our western cravings and oscillated between burgers at the Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill and pizzas at beachfront bar Sanya Surf Circus. Sometimes — many times — we hit both places in the same night. By the end of the trip, I was on hugging terms with Dolphin waitress Sissi, whom we saw was beloved by most everybody in the place.
We watched a crop of new police recruits goof their way through a boardwalk inspection. (I’d totally watch a sitcom about beach cops.) We traded English and Chinese vocabulary with masseuses. We ate junky and satisfying beach food. We got way overcharged on coconuts, but bargained sharply for a cheap pair of flip flops.
We met Teana, the MO bartender, who spent a lovely evening talking with us and fixing up extravagant cocktails. She’s Sichuanese, and right away we bonded over love of hot pot. Her English was so good that I thought for sure she had studied abroad. Nope, she picked it up solely through hotel work. “I was nervous the first time I spoke with a foreigner,” she told us. But she made herself do it, over and over, and now she’s quite fluent.
We visited the Nantian Hot Springs, and spent a day hopping in and out of scalding pools of various flavors, steeping like tea and absorbing the supposed health benefits. Emboldened by Teana’s spirit, I powered through some challenging chats that I might have brushed off with an embarrassed, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”
Our 10 days lazed by gloriously, though it still felt like it was over in a snap. But that was OK. We were refreshed and restored by the sunshine in January. And ready to get back home.
Left: Peter, bundled up for cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental; right: Our room, with its glorious yoga nook
Our winter break started January 3, and we celebrated by heading to the beach resort of Sanya on the island province of Hainan. Known locally as “China’s Hawaii” Hainan is just southwest of Hong Kong, and neighbors with Vietnam. The January weather was pleasantly warm during the day — people, not us, went swimming at the beach — but cool enough at night that, say, the outdoor bar at the Mandarin Oriental was serving up blankets with its Winter Warmers cocktail menu.
We stayed in the area known as Dadonghai Bay, which is super touristy and caters pretty heavily to a Russian crowd. In fact, it took me a few exchanges with touts and salespeople to realize that it’s not that they speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with, but that they were talking to us in Russian. “我们是美国人。 说汉语,” was an absurd thing I found myself saying. “We are Americans. Speak Chinese.”
Our hostel was the Blue Sky International, and our room offered a fantastic view of the beach, which was about a five minute walk away. The room also had a lovely yoga alcove by the windows; down-dog and sea breezes. And we were just around the corner from Corner’s Deli, the best western grocery store we’ve found in all of China. They had an actual deli counter with imported turkey from the U.S. Peter started eating meat just in time.
Within two days of arrival, we were researching job opportunities in this island paradise. Within four, we were toasting the sunshine but reaffirming our original Yunnan plans. Kunming, there’s no one else but you in our hearts — although if winter there continues to be as cold as we hear, we know a great place to escape to.
Peter is “pre-sick,” according to our reflexologist. “If you went to a hospital, they’d say you were fine, but I can tell you’re very unhealthy,” he told us through a translator.
Now, reflexology is bunk, but massages are lovely, so we go back. The beauty of working essentially part time is that there’s plenty of time to pamper yourself. And our reflexology guy runs a nice place; massage is a social event in China, so neighborhood kids are always about, and pop-in friends and other customers are always up for a chat. It’s actually a great chance for me to practice my Chinese while our aches and pains are soothed.
Chinese medicine is all around in China. But most people take it as seriously as Americans do their folk beliefs such as “no swimming an hour after eating,” or “cold weather + wet hair = instant cold.” Our Chinese friends are quick to recommend drinking hot water as a curative for about everything, and cite the restorative benefits of certain foods, but they’ll also take ibuprofen for a headache and antibiotics for a bacterial infection. We’re not practicing witchcraft, over here.
"Do you eat fish?" our reflexologist asked Peter during one visit. "You should." This actually seemed pretty reasonable to Peter, who had recently been connecting the dots between his feeling terrible all the time and his vegetarianism. So that night, he welcomed animal proteins back into his life with some nibbles of chicken. And he’s feeling a lot better. (Nutritional science! Now that’s a thing.)
Our reflexologist hasn’t said anything, but he’s stopped squeezing Peter’s big toe and saying “Your stomach is bad.” Healthy meat, healthy feet, I guess.
Linda asked us if we could play at this year’s school talent show, so we asked her if she could find a student who could drum for us. “I’m learning to play the drums. I can do it!” she said. And a trio was born.
Teachers generally don’t perform at these things, but we’re the Meiguos, and people love to have us be a part of things. (I once gave an impromtu speech, in English, to a room full of Chinese speakers because I wandered into the wrong room on Parents’ Day.) We chose Joe Jackson’s “Got the Time” because it’s short, peppy, and has a swingin’ bass line. Linda met with us a couple of times to practice, and urged us to trim the 3:30 song. She explained our role thusly: “We’ll come out and it will be a big surprise. And then the surprise will be over!”
On the day of the show, we lived up to expectations. Peter, Linda and I took the stage to a huge roar of applause; we cranked out our song and the crowd clapped the beat along; and then we were done before anyone realized that I had forgotten all of the words and basically sang nonsense syllables for about a minute and a half. It was fantastic.
There’s probably video extant somewhere; half the audience had their cellphones raised in salute. But … I think a still photo makes us sound a lot cooler.
It’s been a little hard to keep track of time now that we’re down to working two days a week (with Friday being our last classes until February!), and so both of us forgot that today was December 31 until we inadvertently crashed some giant banquet dinner at one of our restaurants. The staff, however, found room for us in a corner and served us as usual.