Saturday, March 27, 2004

No, this isn't a proper post. I have just been assigned an additional 12 hours a week of classes and I'm beat. I will post something soon, but until then, here are some funny things my students have done or taught me.

1. Britney Spears is fat.
2. Eating in the wind will make you sick. This is because the cold air sneaks into your lungs when you open your mouth to take a bite.
3. The Chinese don't learn to swim because they are afraid of drowning.
4. In class we had a discussion game. The students chose ten people (famous and otherwise) to be in a hot air balloon together. The balloon suffers and tear and the students must choose who gets thrown out in what order. In one class the final decision came down to me and Chairman Mao. None of the students could bring themselves to voting me out of the balloon, but only three openly said that I should live instead of Mao. Feeling their tension, I sacrificed myself. I did win out over Bill Gates, Michael Jordan and Thomas Edison, however.
5. Clothing in China doesn't "fit;" clothing is "suitable."
6. "Famous" is pronounced "fay-murs," because the dictionary says so (Chinese-English dictionaries really do say so).
7. KFC is gourmet dining.
8. Whitney Houston is admirable because she had to "overcome the people looking down on her because is black."
9. If someone was born June 18, 1982, they are 23 years old. At birth, the Chinese are one-year-old, and another year is added at the new year (though not on the birth date). This makes me 25.
10. Although most of my students cannot differentiate "it" and "eat," all of them know the difference between "shit" and "sheet."

Saturday, March 20, 2004

**I am working on post about St. Patrick's Day that I was going to post a couple of days ago. That's not working out, so here is something a bit shorter about the city.**

The students are slowly warming up to me. In my most difficult class, the class with the three bad girls (who I've moved to the front of the class with positive results), the students have actually started to ask me personal questions. "What do you do in your free time? Where do you eat? Do you like to go shopping? Do you have any friends here? What are your plans for the weekend?" This came as a quite a surprise, and relief, as all I usually get from this class is blank stares and timid glares.

We talked about shopping and they told me that the shopkeepers are probably ripping me off because I'm a foreigner. "I know," I said gravely, then in pantomime, I illustrated how I shop. The first step, I explained, after item selection is to approach the shopkeeper and ask "Duo quan?," how much? (The students were impressed that I had come this far already.) Then the shopkeeper gives me some outrageous price, then I say "wo bu dong," I don't understand. (They laughed.) Then I gesture for the shopkeeper to write it down for me. The shopkeeper does so. I look at the outrageous price, put my hand to my chest in shock, gasp, let out a dramatic "bu hao!," no good!, then quickly walk away. (The students liked this.) Inevitably the shopkeeper calls me back, we haggle and I walk away with the desired item and less money in my pocket than I should have put out.

"I pay too much!" I lamented. "Because you are foreigner," they said as if it wasn't obvious. As I already had my students' attention, I taught them the verb "to bargain," and asked them how much I should really be paying for things. "Start at 25%" confirmed several of the girls, "only pay a little more." "25%?!" I asked. I really was paying much to much. "Yes, next time we help you," they volunteered. "My mother is very good at bargaining," I told them, "if the shopkeeper says 100 kuai, she's say 5 jiao!" (If a kuai is a dollar, 5 jiao is 50 cents) They laughed. "Because she is Chinese," the students concluded. Then one girl, one of my three bad girls, so aptly said, "all mothers are good at this."

As indicated my students' favorite pastime, capitalism is alive and well in China. You can buy almost anything here in Dalian (except corn tortillas and refried beans) and on the weekends, you can buy it in the streets. On the 10 minute walk between the bus station and Carrefour (the French supermarket) you'd be hard pressed not to trip over any of the dozens men and women hawking wares from their arms or from carts or sacks set up on the sidewalks. Peddlers flank either side of the wider sidewalks and from their plots they yell out at passerbys. On any given Sunday on any given sidewalk you can find skewered meat hot off the grill, roasted corn on the cob, dried dates sold by the ji (Chinese mass measure), apples, pineapples (peeled, with the eyes removed), socks, pantyhose, lace curtains, red bean mochi, foreign and domestic cigarettes, posters, CDs, hair pins, shoelaces, belts, lighters, shoes, rubber slippers, candied hawberries, strawberries, grape tomatoes, toilet paper, super-absorbent cleaning cloths, kitchen knives, Q-tips by the hundred, peanuts, roasted chestnuts, cast-iron kettle popped popcorn and even puppies--tiny, furry, puppies showcased from a duffle bag. (I put all of my self-control into not stopping for the puppies. If I did I know I'd have problems with the school for bringing one home.)

I made my way through pavement exchange to meet Brummie and Michael at Carrefour last night. Brummie invited me and and through me, Michael, to a laowai party. Every other the month, the foreign teachers at his school, Liaoning Normal University, get together to indulge in wine (a luxury), cheese (more of a luxury) and English and French conversation (a welcomed change from the Chinglish we normally hear).

The party was hosted by Rodney, a sharp, nearly-sixty, retired teacher from England. There were also a few French teachers, an Italian teacher and several Chinese English students. The only other American was Bob, a pasty faced face man from southern Illinois with long, stringy white hair hanging from a balding head. Bob, who looks like he left his 50s at least a couple of years ago, spent much of the night occupying the attention of the few young Chinese girls in attendance. (A note to my male pals reading this: PLEASE COME TO CHINA. Americans are few and far between and the only men the Dalianese see are dirty and old and on the prowl for a young Chinese girl to snatch up. If you guys came, at least there'd be a range--you'd be dirty, young men on the prowl for a young Chinese girl to snatch up.)

The conversations, as I can see it only appropriate when a group of teachers get together, revolved around teaching and the differences between Chinese and Western schooling. These conversations generally boiled down bitch sessions (You have overhead projectors?! I dream of overhead projectors! We still use chalk at my school!), which was good, as it seemed that everyone needed to do a bit of venting. What was interesting, though, was that the Chinese students there joined in with their own complaints and observations. This I have never seen before. The only explanation that I have for this sudden release of independent opinion and voice discontent is that, being in a group of Westerners, the students felt safe enough to do so. Not only did they gripe about their educational system and make suggestions for improvement, they also griped about their lot in life in general.

I talked with one girl, Ashley, who spoke very good English and decent French, for some time and she told me about her own early 20s crisis. She asked me why I left Los Angeles when I studied filmmaking and I told her I didn't like it and thought that it was more important to travel and study as much as you can when you're young. "Will you go back to work in the movies?" she asked. "In one way or another I would like to," I said, "but we shall see." She nodded in agreement. "I understand," she said, "I had a job after I graduated for more than a year. It made me very unhappy, very depressed. Like I was suffocating." These were her words exactly. "So I quit my job and now I study French only."

We really are all the same. I used to think that the affluence in the U.S. and the insatiable need to "keep up with the Joneses" or whoever happened to be on television that week, were, in large part, responsible for the culture that has bred the unhappy 20-something. While I'm not sure if I've changed my mind, yet, the phenomenon is obviously a lot more widespread than what my limited eyes have seen. If there was ever a group of people to develop a way to live without ever having to have a job, without a question in my mind, my generation would be it.

Sunday, March 14, 2004

What the hell is going on out there? First Haiti, and now Spain? Has the world always been fraught with such constant crisis? I am somewhat limited in my access to world news here (maybe a good thing) and much of my news comes from the BBC World Service, so I can't imagine what you are seeing on Fox News (the most played up and terrible, most likely) and CNN (somewhat accurate, we hope). There is an English station here, but I never watch because the news anchors' English is just painful to listen to. That and the news itself is poorly presented and obviously filtered. A lot of what I hear on the radio runs along the lines of "it's just a sign of the times" and "terrorism is the 21st century's plague" blah, blah, blah. Any comments?

It never ceases to amaze me that, despite the media becoming more and more of a pervasive force in our lives (as Westerners), there hasn't been much effort made to raise public awareness of how media is made. People just absorb without question. Often, anway. Just think about it how much the word "terrorism" is thrown around the media. It once had a very specific and powerful meaning and now it's used like pepper and table salt. Take a boring topic, add "terrorism," and now the story is interesting and people get scared and upset. Just like when that asshole Cheney called the teacher's union a "terrorist group"--yeah, it was a stupid thing to say and a lot of people got pissed, but I bet a greater number of people heard it, didn't think about, but felt it. And now, on a very, very, small level, but on a certain level indeed, a large number dimwits associate the word "terrorist" with "union." People are simple and the media is powerful. This is my take anyway, and I have digressed.

We have lost two of the foreign teachers. One returned to New Zealand for "family reasons" (the reason could be found at the bottom of a bottle, I reckon) and the other, a middle-aged American who is not bashful about telling anyone who will listen that many of his students remind him of his ex-girlfriend, left because he felt the students were "unteachable." The more I see the more I find that the "teaching in China" market is rampant with middle-aged men who couldn't hack it in their home country so they come here looking to pick up a young girlfriend who doesn't have the cultural wherewithal to sort out the losers from the not, or even the uglies from the not. (How lucky I am to be biracial!) The flipside of this however, is that many of these girls take to these creeps for fairly selfish reasons, anyway, namely money and the possibility of getting to leave China. So I guess it all works out. Plus, this also means that there will be more hapa-haoles in the future and that's a good thing 'cause I plan to unite them and take over the world. We are genetically superior, after all.

I digress again. Yes, two teachers are gone. One has been replaced already by the ideal laowai: blonde hair, blue eyes, big nose and the fact that she's Israeli and speaks with a heavy Hebrew accent doesn't seem to bother anyone. She and her Chinese husband moved in a few days ago AND they put her in charge of teaching AMERICAN AND BRITISH CULTURE. As the only NATIVE SPEAKING person AND the only AMERICAN here, I can't imagine why the blonde-haired, blue-eyed ISRAELI got the class, but that's China for you.

After re-reading this I find a certain negative tint to this post. Not my intention. I'm actually pretty content.

I've lightenen up on my classes, that is more music and games, and my students are slowly starting to respond. I did lay down a pop quiz last week and most of them failed it. (Several failed because I caught them cheating. "The beast" came out on quiz day. No talking, no dictionaries and no cheating. The first one I caught cheating got their paper ripped from them and crumpled in front of the class.) My pop quizzes have only five questions: three vocabulary words, one sentence to write and a throw-away, "Tell me ANYTHING else you have learned." Most of the students were baffled by the throw-away and didn't even answer it. (Independent thinking is definitely not a strong suit of the Chinese. All they expect from oral English is to memorize dialogues.) I was pretty disappointed that my students did so poorly and they were pretty embarrased for being poor students. I told them that if they bombed the next quiz I'd start loading them up on homework, which I don't like doing (more homework for them means more homework for me and I know they're already busy writing lines and lines of words like "agoraphobia"). Thankfully, I think the quiz made them take me more seriously and since I've seen more notebooks and just a little more participation. I think I might throw another quiz at them just to keep them on their toes.

I also got a haircut. It's very short and now I look like a Chinese girl. Or boy. Maybe not that short, but definitely short. Canuck took me to the hair salon, but his coiffure vocabulary proved less than helpful and I left the floor with more hair than I have on my head. But it looks alright and I'm getting used to. It will grow back after all. And I only paid 10 kuai. (That's the going rate. About $1.25. For a salon cut with shampoo. I see now why all my students look like rock stars.)

Yes, this post is boring. I will try better next time.

Friday, March 12, 2004

Yes. It has been some time since my last post. Please accept the usual excuses.

Brummie and I went out for a night on the town on Saturday. The Birmingham native (UK not Alabama) is also a Dalian teacher and blogger (you can check out his blog at and I first got in touch with him before coming to China. As it turns out, the guy is a real kick to the head (good thing).

We met at the train station and made an impromptu shopping stop at Victory Square (just a name, there's actually little square about it). The shopping center at Victory Square is actually a sprawling network of shops UNDERGROUND and anyone who enters risks never coming out again.

Brummie and I, both being film geeks, me more so, only made it as far as the DVD store closest to the entrance. We played "have you seen this? well it's not as good as his first know, the one with {name of obscure Hungarian actor here}” and then agreed that Drop Dead Fred is a good movie. About 20 minutes into our game I got the feeling someone was watching me. A well-dressed businessman in his fifties standing next to me shamelessly stared. I moved to the other side of the very small store and he followed. I made eyes at Brummie and he returned the look, acknowledging the guy's odd behavior. I looked back to the guy and half-smiled. "You speak very good English!" he yelled at me. "Yes, I do," I said, taken aback. "How?" he asked. "It's the only language I know," I said English teacher slowly, as I've learned to do with most people here. "You're British!" he concluded. (Everyone here thinks I'm British. Pear-shaped tones, Dad.) "No, I'm American," I told him. "Your parents are Chinese?" he asked. "My mother is Chinese. My father is American," I explained for the hundred and seventh time that week. "But you have black hair?!" he said as if I've really ruined his day. My hair is really brown. "All people with Chinese mothers have dark hair," I announced. Basic genetic theory is clearly amiss in Chinese education. "You don't have blue eyes and gold hair," he argued. (Blonde is not in the Chinese-English vocabulary.) "No. No one with at least one Chinese parent has blue eyes. My father has blue eyes," I offered. He stared at me some more and said, "I look you outside. I think you are Chinese woman." Realizing this guy has been watching me much longer that I thought, I got uncomfortable. Fortunately, Brummie jumped in to rescue me with "Have you see this one with Tom Hanks?" and I left the businessman to his own mental quandries.

The Chinese have taken bargaining to an art form. The skill with which my own mother can haggle someone to a half penny brings tears to my eyes. Haggling, however, requires a certain command of the language of transaction, as well as a bit of theatrics and the ability to just walk away if an agreeable price cannot be determined. I have yet to refine my haggle skills here, but I make an effort at every chance. With Brummie in tow, who speaks enough Mandarin to get by, I figured we stood a chance. We made our selections and I lumped them together for bargaining power. The sales girl told Brummie 60 kuai for the lot. I looked at our loot, then at the sales girl, pokerfaced. "Tell her 40," I ordered. He did. She looked at us with feigned exasperation. "No! No! Impossible!" she said in broken English. "Yes! Yes! Good!" I said. She looked at me realizing that I, not Brummie, was in charge of the deal. "No! Too little," she said. "Yes!" I said again. Then I grabbed my collar and said "good customers!" And then something happened that I didn't expect. She buckled. "45," she offered and I handed her the cash.

Foreigners are routinely ripped off because 1) they don't know the going rates for things, 2) they don't know how to haggle and 3) things are so cheap anyway that they'd rather just put down the asking price and not bother with the routine. The Chinese know this and milk it for what it’s worth. This was the first time I have successful haggled on my own in China and Brummie was duly impressed. "I've never been able to get them down at all," he said. "Whenever I try, they just flat out reject and then I give them more than what they asked for, just out of guilt.” We made off with our goods and a glow of a victory (immediately followed by the feeling that I should have started at 30 instead of 40).

Lonely Planet lists the Xinhua Bookstore as an English language bookstore. In my humble opinion, a copy of a Portugeuse-English dictionary, the Berlitz guide to Cuba and William Shatner’s (only, hopefully) sci-fi novel, does not an English bookstore make. There were loads of how-to-learn English books, but those don’t count. Brummie and I browsed stacks of books, just for their covers (I wonder if Winona Ryder knows she’s on the cover of the Pride and Prejudice) and split without a purchase (the first time in a long time I had been to a bookstore and not bought anything).

Dinner was had at a curry house (a nice change) and then we made our to Er Chi Square to go to a jazz bar that Brummie had been to before.

Dalian is a fairly developed city. The population of the city center is somewhere around 2 million. Different countries have occupied the port city, namely Japan and Russia, so one would think that the sight of a foreigner wouldn’t rouse more than a longish glance. Not so. I can slip through a crowd and as long as I don’t open my mouth I get pushed and shoved just as any of the 1.29 billion others. Brummie, on the other hand, has blondish hair and green eyes and wherever we went we got attention. Lots of attention.

“It’s got its perks,” said Brummie when I asked him about it. “For example, whenever I don’t know what to do, I just look lost and someone will come to my rescue. It’s how I get by,” he said proudly and that fact was only proven as the night continued.

We got to Er Chi Square by a cab driven by a man only too excited and proud to have not one, but two foreigners as passengers. Brummie did all the talking and the only part I understood was “America! England!” with a hearty thumbs up. We got out of the cab and Brummie said “this is the part where I tell you I’m not too sure where the bar is because I was drunk the last time I was there. I do remember what the front door looks like, though.” (Brummie studied philosophy at university and the comment didn’t surprise me.) We walked. In circles. And triangles. The great thing about being in a new city is that getting lost is really more an extended tour than annoyance. Even in the cold.

We eventually came close to where we started when a car beeped at a us. We looked over to see the our cab driver who asked us, I can only assume, what we were doing walking around in circles. Brummie got out his phrase book and asked for the jazz bar. Cabbie didn’t know, so he got out of his car and hailed down another cab. They had a brief discussion then made the general hand-circling-in-the-air gesture for “somewhere around here.” Second cabbie drove off and first cabbie stopped another. More hands circling in the air. First cabbie looked at us again then shrugged his shoulders.

We continued into the night until we came upon an English school. “They’ve got to have somebody there who can speak English and point us in the right direction,” I reasoned, “let’s stop in here.” He thought about it for a second, “oh yeah, right.” We marched in and said “hello” to the man behind the counter. “We’re looking for the jazz bar,” Brummie said. The man behind the counter looked at me and started rattling away in Chinese. “What’s he saying?” I asked Brummie. “I don’t know,” he said. Then I said very slowly “wo bu hui shuo putonghua,” I don’t speak Chinese. The man ran into a back room and brought out another gentleman. “Hi, we’re looking for the jazz bar,” I said. “I don’t speak English,” the second guy managed. “Isn’t this an English school?” I asked. “Yes, English school.” Brummie got out the phrase book and between the four of us we determined that the jazz bar was, in fact, somewhere in the area. A third guy came out, words were exchanged and then someone said “wait a moment.” The third guy at the English school, who also did not speak English, did know where the jazz bar and offered to take us there. Most of the way, anyway.

The jazz bar is located across the street from Augustus’s Pub (Vegas has Caesar’s Palace and Dalian has Augustus’s Pub). The bar serves imported beer and all of the waitresses are pretty and wear yellow dresses. The bar also proved to be quite the laowai hangout and Brummie and I played my new favorite game, count the fat, old, ugly white guys with the young Chinese girlfriends. Forty minutes of the game produced a total of 6 couples.

The waitresses are used to laowai and are good at small talk in English. One of the waitresses, however, was especially curious about me and kept repeating a word neither of us understood. Brummie handed her a Chinese-English dictionary and she perused it for several minutes before arriving to her meaning. She pointed to me and pointed to the word: half-breed. I laughed. “Yes, I’m a half-breed,” I told her.

Brummie and I had several imported beers, blathered about not much, spoke French to some Canadians (one of whom’s girlfriend wrote down the name of my school in Chinese so I could make it home), and got out. Brummie needed cash, so we walked to the ATM and on the way a small girl selling roses attached herself to him. Literally. She wrapped herself around one of his legs and refused to let go. Brummie dragged her for 25 yards yelling “wo bu yao” (I don’t want), but she held on fast. I stepped in to pull her off, but to no avail. Brummie shook her off and we made a run for it. “What the hell was that?” I said. “Oh, doesn’t that ever happen to you? Happens to me all the time. It’s annoying,” he said. The down-side of being a laowai.

We had a shot of Jose “Luervo” at Augustus’s Pub, then got a cab home. The cab came right up to my building on campus, then took off, leaving me in the cold (not a problem), slightly intoxicated (not a problem), to grapple with a front door chained from the inside (a problem). Shit.

I tugged on the door as if it made a difference. It didn’t. I walked around the building for an alternative entrance. No dice. I looked for an open window and found two, both barred. I yelled up into the night for the Canuck. Dust in the wind. I looked over at one of the dorms to find all kinds of activity. If worse came to worse I could knock on a door and crash there until morning. I came back to the front of the building. One window, on the third floor, was illuminated by a flashing television. Somebody was up, I reasoned. I rummaged the ground for rocks. No luck, but I did find a peach pit and a bottle cap. Good enough. I chucked both up at the window and the peach pit nailed it. I recovered both objects from the dark and tried again. I continued this shameless behavior until I lost both the peach pit and the bottle cap. I went back to the front door to see if it had undone itself while I was drunkenly lobbing small blunt objects at a window when the building manager came running out. “Dui bu chi” I said, “I’m sorry!” She returned the gesture repeatedly and let me in. Then she gestured “I heard something outside and came down to have a look and I’m glad I did because here you are and what are you doing out at this hour anyway?” “Xiexie,” I managed “thanks,” and I went to bed.

The next morning Canuck came down and I told him the story. “Why didn’t you just ring the doorbell?” he asked. “What doorbell?”

Friday, March 05, 2004

Last night I went out with Michael for dinner. I ate, he paid (much to my feigned refusal). We chatted for some time and I learned two things about him of exceptional note: 1) he is 193 centimeters tall, that is 6 feet 6 inches! and 2) he is "outstanding."

"No really, I am," he affirmed. This topic came about because he first told me that he thought I was unusual. "Very unusual. I haven't met any foreigners who like jiao zi," he said. "I love jiao zi. My mother used to make very good jiao zi," I told him. "You have some Chinese thinking," he concluded, "very unusual." I then heaped garlic and red pepper into my dipping sauce. "You like this?! Foreigners don't like spices! They like plain food only!" he said, "hm, yes, very unusual." Tired of being scrutinized, I looked at him at said, "You're very unusual, too. You are not like other Chinese people I know. And you are not like any of my students." He looked very proud of himself and that's when he declared, without the slightest trace of condescension, arrogance, or exaggeration, "Yes, I am outstanding." He works hard at it, he informed me. He went on to tell me that believeing in your own outstandingness is the only way to succeed in life (ironically, my mother says exactly the same thing and that's not Chinese--the longer I stay here the more I see that my mother is truly exceptional). Then he listed a number of other outstanding attributes including taking first prize in the schoolwide English speech contest, without proper training, AGAINST all the English majors. "I know I'm the best student in the school," he said matter-of-factly and with very good humor.

Michael is also very popular. During the course of my meal and the walk home he bumped into at least half a dozen people he knew. I mentioned it and he said, "well, yes, I'm very tall."

I'm afraid only my Boston friends would get this comparison, but if you took all the defining qualities of Myles and combined them with Komla's, take away the philosophy angle and put a Chinese face on it, Michael is what you'd end up with.

Canuck knocked on my door five minutes after I got back from dinner. "I'm fucking pissed," he declared using the British/Commonwealth meaning of the word. "No shit," I said to the staggering, head rolling man whose pores were releasing Tsingtao beer. "Today's my birthday," he announced, "let's go get a beer." We went down to the local restaurant where you can get a liter bottle of Tsingtao beer for 2 kuai (24 cents). I snacked on pumpkin fries--my new favorite--while I listened to him ramble. The beer in front of him was his fourth in two hours. "You're the only one in the restaurant who can understand me," he slurred. "I want a woman," he yelled out, "but no dogs!" The other patrons looked at us in a very polite Chinese under-my-breath kind of way, and we laughed. "See?! No one understands." We finished our beers, I headed home and Canuck went out into the night in search of a haircut. (Some of you hip to the Chinese way might catch on that more than a cut can be rendered at a hair salon, especially late at night. Canuck, however, really was looking for a haircut and I heard him go up the stairs just a few minutes after I came home, having failed in his search.)

Something I ate that evening came back to haunt me in the middle of the night and by morning I was in no mood to even attempt to teach anything to my students. My first class consisted of a writing game where each student takes out a piece of paper, writes two sentences, the beginning of a story, then folds the sheet over leaving only the second sentence in view. They pass the sheet around the room, each student adding a sentence based on the one seen and by the time it reaches the original author, a silly story is created. Little is gained from this exercise, save for a couple of giggles and lots of time wasting. The activity worked remarkably well, I did practically nothing AND it took up almost the entire class time. My second class did the same activity, which they managed to fuck up as many of the students suffer from I-know-everything-so-I-don't-have-to-listen-to-anything syndrome, and we did a listening exercise with the Beatles song "Hello, Goodbye." My intro to this activity included a bit about the band and one girl knew who John Lennon was. "What happened to him?" I asked. "Dead," she accurately stated. "How did he die?" I pressed. Whispering. "Anyone?" I pleaded. More whispering. "He got very ill," one person ventured. "Suicide," another guessed. One guy in the back who never opens his mouth made an effort to speak. "Alan?" I coaxed. "Accident," he said in a way that sounded more like "acid trip." "What?" I queried. "Accident. Car accident," he managed to let tumble. Most of the kids are my sister's age, and I know it's Communist China, but really, the Beatles are the grand pubas of the "pop" that my students are always raving about (in a way that make ME feel very old). "No, no, no," I said disappointed, "c'mon guys, this is history. John Lennon was killed by a fan. He was shot. It was a very sad day in America. You need to know this. It was December 8, 1980, to be exact." Eyes started to roll back into their more familiar housings and I started the activity for fear of losing them. Afterward I asked the class what they thought of the song. "Very boring," said one of my more eager students. "We want a love song next time."

It is in this second class that I have the three dissident girls. Each one of them came up to me at break, meekly apologized for their behavior in the previous class, and two of the three turned the "special homework" I assigned. The other girl, in lieu of said assigned "special homework," gave me a two-page hand-written letter explaining her "not politeness behavior" came from a lack of understanding "because you are foreign." (Yeah, I'm sure she'd pull this shit on one of her Chinese teachers.) There was also a thick layer of ass-kissing in the letter ("you're pronunciation is so good, just like tape," "I know you are serious teacher") and I was about to re-assign her the task, but realized she probably put more time and effort into it than the other two who both asked to learn more about Disneyland.

My new approach to lesson planning is more games, more music, more pronunciation (their pronunciation is GOD AWFUL, as Canuck put it after sitting in on one of my classes) and fuck the grammar. The students who care will make an effort and the others will leave me with more time to watch bootlegged DVDs in my palatial "foreign expert" digs. Not that I'm getting cynical, but I think that's just the way things work. No point in killing myself when good enough is just that.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

I keep my curtains drawn almost always. As my sister put it, my room is a batcave. I don’t know when I developed this habit, or why, but it has been with me for some time. The plus of living in a batcave is, on days like this when my first class isn’t until 10A, I can sleep in without interruption. When I did eventually decide to emerge this morning, I slipped on my school issued pink rubber slippers, accented with Chinese characters and soccer balls (a Dalian thing, I think), and clapped into the kitchen in search of some breakfast. My eyes adjusted to the bright light of day and lo! it was snowing out! Everthing was dusted with half an inch of the the white stuff and fluffy chunks slowly came down to make their contribution. A survival instinct, developed during my time in Boston, kicked in. IT IS SNOWING--MUST DRINK TEA. I ran downstairs for some hot water. (You can’t drink the tap water here. Everyone has a giant thermos to carry boiled water and every building has a boiler.) IT guy was downstairs. “It’s snowing!” I told him. Nothing like stating the obvious. “Yes. It’s very cold today,” he said. I heard Benny, he and IT are roommates, down the hall. “Benny! It’s snowing!” I ran over to him and he acknowledged me, but without any humor. “Yes. I’m busy. See you later.” He said something in Chinese to IT guy and they left. I looked at one of the women who keeps up the building. She doesn’t speak English, but no matter, I pointed out the window and said “Look! Snow!” She looked at me, then grabbed her elbows and said “cold.” These people don’t know how good they have it.

Today’s classes were Business Administration majors. We started the class with a warm-up exercise using “he,” “she,” “his,” “her,” something the Chinese have a huge problem with as they don’t make gender distinctions in their language. The exercise was pretty simple, I admit. The students stand up, one assigns “he,” “she,” “his,” or “her” to five people or objects in the room, passes the buck to another student then sits down and it goes until everyone is sitting. We got to the back of the room where there were three girls who hadn’t gone, but were sitting. “Why are you sitting?” I asked. Three blank stares. I repeat my question, this time very slowly (I find blank stares often mean that I am speaking too quickly) Pause. “This is too easy,” one girl explained, “we know this already.” Another goes on to say that the previous foreign teacher went over the material and they felt that they don’t need to participate because they already understand. “Are you prepared to read a text and not make any mistakes,” I asked half-threatened. More silence. The bravest of the girls said she’d probably make some mistakes. “Then what’s the problem?” I asked, “the other students are doing it.” The Chinese are very much like the Japanese in that conformity is a big deal; most will fold under peer pressure. More silence. I asked another student why she thought we were doing the exercise and she, rightly, said it was because Chinese people often make gender mistakes. By this point all eyes were on me and the three girls. The students still standing and waiting for their turn were looking nervous. I looked back at the girls. If any foreigner were ever prepared for a stare down with Chinese women, it would be me (thanks, Mom). One girl managed a weak, “it’s too easy.” Not wanting to make the situation more uncomfortable than it was, I said “Fine. If it’s too easy, it’s too easy. Fine.” I quickly finished up the warm-up.

The rest of the class went poorly, at best. Lot of sighs, yawns and praying (that is heads knocking against desks). The classes here are set up a lot like how they were in grade school. The good students sit up front while the bad students sit at the back and pick their noses. At break one of the “up front” students told me “We would have more patience for your class if you sang some songs.” What the fuck is up with the Chinese and wanting me to sing songs? Another girl chimed in, “Yes, we like songs.” “I don’t know any songs and I can’t sing,” I said definitively. “That’s okay, you can teach easy songs,” the first guy offered. “What kind of songs?” I asked. The girl said “Love songs! We like romantic songs!” I desperately scanned the are for something to affirm that I was in fact in an institute of higher learning. “Maybe,” I said.

Romantic songs girl then asked me if Chinese students were any different from American students. I looked around to see my college sophomores giddily flipping through fashion magazine and girls, with arms linked, sitting in each others’ laps (they also hold hands, and as much as I’ve seen it, it still catches me off guard). “Yes,” I said. “How?” she eagerly pressed. Not wanting to get too into it, I told her that in my experience, many college students travel great distances to go to college, far from their families, and they must become very independent. I added that in class discussion in very important. “The students always speak in class,” I said, hoping she’d catch my drift. “Oh,” she said, “what else?” I knew any other response would reveal certain frustration, so I said “they’re just different.”

The Chinese educational system revolves around rote memorization and English is taught piecemeal. On more than one occasion I have caught my students writing row after row of vocabulary words like “reconnaisance” and “contemporary,” for their other English classes. Before my hour and a half of Oral English, my class of 31 must endure another hour and a half of Business English. The class is taught by a Chinese English teacher who uses a giant textbook with lessons that revolve around things like “the affability of his rhetoric falls within the constructs of established...” They have a ten-minute break, then come to me where I grapple with convincing them that their friend Mary is a “she” and most sentences really do need verbs.

Foreign teachers are hired, almost exclusively, to teach Oral English--to be the real McCoy in sound and ear. What has happened, and I don’t if it’s because most teachers here are inexperienced and often poorly educated themselves (this is changing), or if it’s the Chinese view of Westerners, is that proper lessons have been replaced by a foreign song and dance. (I can’t imagine the students get away with all this singing and dancing with their Chinese teachers.) I was told by the other foreign teacher that for many students, Oral English is a bit of a blow-off, and given the work load from the other classes, a welcomed one. (This isn’t always they case. I have four or five students in every who really do make an effort to learn.) So the schools bring in these foreign teachers, at a pretty penny, I might add, they garner the prestige of having “foreign experts” on their faculty and very little learning actually goes on. I can only think that the school is aware of this, but I have seen no effort on their part to create an effective learning environment--as a teacher, I haven’t even seen a syllabus, a school calendar or any indication of what is expected of me and it took them a week to get me the class textbook. The book, and you can only call it that because it’s two covers with pages between them, is hated by students and teachers alike; with good cause--it’s crap. I expressed my concerns to a teacher at another school and he assured me that all of this is completely normal. “We had quite a rigorous training session before I started teaching,” he said. “Really?” I begged with a glimmer of hope in my eyes. “Yes,” he said, “it went something like ‘teach English good.” Enough said.

I pulled teeth until lunch and I felt so bad that I let the class go without any homework, EXCEPT THE GIRLS IN THE BACK. Ooooohhhs! poured from the walls. The rest of the students scampered out and I made my way to the back of the room, conscious to keep it cool. I took a very diplomatic approach to it all and in a way that bordered passive aggressiveness (I hate passive agressiveness--it is so unlike me), told them that I appreciated them expressing their opinions and that communication between students and teachers is very important. Then I told them they had special homework. I assigned them to go home and write down 20 things they wanted to learn and find more interesting than my exercises. They didn’t know what to make of it. One girl said “20? Too much.” I replied, “You’re very clever, you can come up with 20 things. Each.” Smiles all around and I let them go to lunch. We shall see what they come up with, but I swear, if I get three identical or highly similar lists, fucking-A, they will do it again!

To spin things 180 degrees, one of the three girls returns to class moments later with an extraordinarily (by Chinese standards) tall guy named Michael. “His oral English is very good. He wants to meet you,” she says. (At least she got the “his” and “he” part right.) Michael starts rambling away in very good British-tinted English. “I’m very nervous,” he said. I’m went about packing my things and he followed me around the room, out the door, down the hall and down the stairs. “I like English very much,” he announced. “Here it comes,” I think. Canuck prepared me for this: he wants English lessons.

Michael is a third year computer science major. He explained to me that he took all of the English courses available in his major. After that he was left to his own devices. “The other foreign teachers, the Australian guys (he said ‘guys’), they were good friends of mine,” he continued. So good, in fact, that one of them let Michael sit in and audit one of his classes. “But then that ‘terrible woman’ who is in charge found out and made me leave because I was not paying for the class. Now, I am not allowed in this building,” he said as we left the building. “I WANT to pay for a class, but they won’t let me.” Aside from being the tallest person I’ve seen in China, next to the little kids at the English Corner fiasco, he speaks the best English. The Chinese English teachers speak pretty well, but their listening skills are crap and they can’t follow natural conversation (too many contractions, phrasal verbs and slang). Michael, on the other hand, has a keen sense of linked sounds and uses a lot of slang himself. You can tell he’s spent a lot of time with English speakers. “The students in this building don’t care about English. They don’t want to learn. I WANT to learn.” You can’t say he isn’t observant.

We continue outside where a group of students were apparently waiting for me. A group of my better students. Skylar, who oozes “teacher’s pet” (but at this point, I need allies), apologized profusely for today’s class. “We were very boring,” she said. “No, don’t worry about it. Maybe I was just boring today.” I told them I appreciated that they worked very hard, and smiles all around, they went to lunch. Michael kept following me.

“I want to be your friend.” (I want English lessons.) “Did you come to China alone,” he asks. “Yes,” I reply. “I can be your guide!” he offers (I can exchange something for English lessons because I don’t want to pay.) “Do you speak Chinese?” he queries. “Idiar,” I make out. It means “a little.” “I can help you! he exclaims. (You need me. And I need English lessons.) We made it to the dining hall and he offered to buy me lunch (See! I’m a nice guy! Please give me free English lessons!). I beat him to the card swipe (we all have debit cards), but he bought me a manto. It was rapid fire questions all the way. “Are you a student?” he asks. “No,” I said. “You must be a recent graduate,” he concludes. “No, I graduated three years ago,” I inform. “But you’re younger than me,” he reasons. What?! “I never told you how old I was,” I retort. “The other students told me,” he said. The man had done his homework.

I told Michael I had to get back to my apartment because I had things to do. “Oh, you live on campus!” he said, “you must live in the foreign experts apartment!”

Ding! Two nights ago Canuck came down and asked me if someone had called that evening. No one unexpected had and he told me that someone he didn’t know just called and he was pissed about it. “It’s starting,” he said with a ring of paranoia. “They know where we are. Crank calls, students calling at 7A and pleas for English lessons. Goddammit.” He stomped off to find the foreign affairs liaision to ask if he had given the number out.

“Did you call the other foreign teacher the other night?” I asked. “Yes,” he said proudly, “I wanted to introduce myself, but the teacher said he was very busy and didn’t like being called by people he didn’t know. He seems very arrogant.” I explained that Canuck had taught in China for some time and he’s very protective of his time and privacy. Michael put two and two together. “So you must live in the apartment where the Australians lived! I have you’re number. Can I call you?” (Somebody should have my number. I don’t.)

So here I am trapped like a rat. How funny is it that I’m paid to teach lethargy with eyes while the one person on campus who really cares about English my is up my ass for free lessons.

“Maybe we can work out an exchange,” I offer. I’ve been meaning to get a Chinese tutor, but before I make that suggestion I ask him where he’s from to assess his accent. “This is my city. I am a Dalian boy,” he says proudly. (Michael is very different from any of the other people on campus that I’ve met--I’d go so far as to say that he has a personality. So far, the only people I’ve encountered with any kind of character are the local salesmen--but what is Michael, really?) Ding! Ding! Ding! Better than Chinese lessons, here is somebody who can get me off campus and into the real city! (This has been a goal of mine of late. The school is highly protective of me. I’ve asked them more than half a dozen times to show me where the local pool is and even for that they blow me off. The foreign affairs guy has gone as far as telling me that the buses to town stop running at 7P, when the signs on the bus say they go until 10P at least.) Furthermore, Michael is not one of my students and not a colleague--no conflict of interest and no claims of favoritism or excessive demands.

“Give me your number,” I told him. “I want to see the city. And what time does the main gate really close? I was told it was 10P.” He looks at me to gauge if I’m serious. “The gate never closes. Who told you that? I go out late to the movies all of the time,” he said. He walked me back to the apartment building, telling me about how much he likes English and how he hopes to study in England one day. Then he says, “Don’t forget. I’m Michael. Very tall. Like Michael Jordan. Easy to remember, right?”

I get back to my apartment and five minutes later Michael called. “Sorry to bother you,” he said, short of breath, “I wanted to tell you I just went down to ask the guard about the gate and he said it never closes. Also, here is your telephone number.”

Talk about yin and yang for one day. My next class went rather well. We had a discussion and talked about linked sounds which was a completely new concept to my students (they actually have had years of listening class and not a one of them knew that “was a” sounds much more like “wuza” in normal speech). You win some and you lose some.