Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Why I hate electronic translators . . .

. . . and why I feel certain the world will continue to need English teachers

From a paper I recently received:

One is not the how profound movie, even is simple so has divorced from the reality, does not have the too winding strange plot, has not the magnificent scene which the human is dazzled, has not made the stunt effect which one praises to the heavens, only then simple black and white, actually because of had him and she among, but lets us immerse, the feeling time is unable to cancel purely and happy, closely is affecting the innumerable happy young moods.

Remembered is on 12 year-old Sunday warm afternoons, first time looked the [movie title], all of a sudden completely is charmed. Has been infatuated with the purity which the Hofn graceful makings are ignorant of affair, but has been infatuated with the parker erudite Confucian scholar the humorous gentry charm. At that time, only thought she was in this world the most perfect female, but he is in this wolrd the only perfect man. Because of [the movie], I have remembered the Hofn pure beauty, also has remembered the parker affection look.

Ten points to anyone who can name the movie this paragraph is about!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Love Story: A Fairy Tale by Cherry and Vivian

Once upon a time, there was a group of animals in the forest. A tiger named Rake was very ferocious. He lived nearby the river, and ate many animals around the river. All the animals were afraid of him.

Another rabbit’s family lived near the river. There was a rabbit named Mary lived in this family. She was very beautiful. Her hair was very white which looks like the white snow. Her eyes were like rubies. She was the most beautiful rabbit in the forest.

One day, while Mary was walking along the river, Rake was going out of his house. Rake watcher her for a long time and was fascinated by Mary’s beautiful eyes. At that time, Mary didn’t know anything. She bent her head and was taking a walk slowly. Suddenly a loud voice came up to her, “hello.” Mary raised her head quickly. She saw the tiger was dumbfounded. The tiger’s appearance made her so frightened that she fell into the carelessly. Rake quickly ran into the river and then saved her. Later, Mary was moved and they fell in love. After that, Rake never ate in animal.

Every afternoon, Mary and Rake would meet beside the river. They loved each other very much. They would play together and chat together.

After 3 years, Mary and Rake decided to marry each other. The Mary told her mother the whole story, but her mother didn’t allow her to marry Rake. Mary was very say. She asked her mother why she couldn’t marry Rake. Her mother told her that Rake was their enemy. Fifteen years ago, Rake killed Mary’s father and then ate him. After hearing the truth, Mary cried sadly and ran out of the house. She ate an poisonous mushroom. Because she blamed herself so much, she killed herself in order to make up for fault.

Mary’s mother was very sad, she told Rake the bad news. Rake suddenly dumped into the river and also killed himself. At last, Mary and Rake became two mandarin ducks and lived together forever!

Dave (weeping mixed tears of sorrow and joy)

P.S. That's the last of my student fairy tales. Hope you liked them!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The King and the Tiger: A Fairy Tale by Sylvia and Yvonne

Once upon a time, in a far country, there lived a king who was very bad and despotic. He did not love the inhabitants in the kingdom at all. He killed many animals. He was very aggressive, and always declared war on other countries.

The years went by, the inhabitants couldn’t bear having such this king, so they went to the fairy’s house. The fairy was nice and provided with bewitchment. When she heard that, she used the magic to make the king become a tiger. “You did a lot of bad things, as punishment, I make you become a tiger. If you can do three good things, then you can become the king again,” said the fairy to the king.

The tiger knew that he was wrong, so he wanted to offset his offences. The first thing he did was planting a lot of trees around the country to make the country clear and beautiful. Then he killed the worst man in a country close by and saved many proles. On his way to the kingdom, he saw a girl was seized by some bandits. He killed the bandits and saved that girl.

The fairy knew the tiger had done three good things already, so she used the magic to make the tiger the King again. Then the King became kind and loved his inhabitants.

A few days later, the girl saved by the King came to the kingdom. Actually, she was the princess of another country. When she knew the tiger was the king, she was very surprised. In the end, she married the King.

Dave (nodding approvingly at the moral recovery of the King)

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Oriental Health Safety Abomination: OSHA East

To be honest, I've never considered myself much of a safety nut. I mean, sure, I'm afraid of heights, so ramps without handrails make me queasy, and yeah, I did injure myself at work seven years ago, but that was my own stupid fault. A lot of the guys that I've worked with over the years seemed to regard safety regulations as the evil twin of Orwell's comparatively benign Big Brother. Especially when I worked for a year at a construction-related company, guys were always griping about how much easier/better/cooler things would be if we didn't always have those OSHA party poopers breathing down our necks.

What a difference a little comparison can make. Shanghai is in a constant state of construction. I can see cranes from any window I look out of, and the dulcet tones of drills and jackhammers are never far away. They're putting up an entire apartment complex and shopping center (I think) across the street from our school, and they're building a new bridge across the canal behind the school. And no matter where you are, new construction is never more than a block away.

All that exposure means that you're bound to run into a few things that are different. Now, I'm no expert, but there are some . . . common practices, we'll call them, that just strike me as downright crazy. I'll let it go that they build all of their scaffolding out of bamboo tied together with twine, no matter how tall the building is. I guess it must not actually collapse, and I'm sure it's light and cheap. Just seems a bit less sturdy than it might be otherwise. And while leaving huge piles of rubble everywhere rather than carting it away might not be aesthetically pleasing, it's probably not unsafe.

No, I'm talking about things like setting up said scaffolding on a building face and leaving space for people to walk into the front door underneath it. Doesn't sound dangerous? No, I didn't think so either, until the workers above me started dropping their wrenches and screwdrivers down to their mates while I was walking by. I'm talking about pushing brick-laden wheelbarrows over the bamboo slats above . . . with bricks falling off.

The real killer was the time that we saw a crew of guys cutting plywood. They had a circular saw set up on the edge of a table at the bottom of a short flight of stairs so that they could cut a few pieces and then pass it up to their comrades working at the top of the stairs. Of course, these stairs were also being used by people walking in and out of a building (including yours truly). I watched incredulously as the entire group of workers carried some wood up to the front of the building, and then sat around, chatted, and took a break. While saw was still running. Unattended. On a waist-level platform. At the bottom of a flight of stairs. Broken, uneven stairs.

All it would have taken was one misstep, and I'd have been dictating this blog post. So the next time that you see some poster urging you to work safely, don't roll your eyes. Be thankful—it beats going through life being called 'Stumpy.'


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Meet Unexpectedly: A Fairy Tale by Becky and Alisa

There was a pig in the forest and she is the only one in the world. She had no friend because all other animals thought she was so ugly that it had no qualification to be their friend, so she felt inferior and sad. Thereupon, she decided to leave this forest. When she walked along a river, she became sadder and sadder. At that time, it became dark gradually. She suddenly had a thought that she wanted to commit suicide. Then she walked to the river. The moment the water had submerged half of her body, a farmer suddenly held it in his arms from the river and gently put it on the riverside. She turned round and saw the farmer. To her surprise, the farmer was her husband in the past, but he didn’t recognise her and she can’t be acquainted with him because there are something happened between them in the past . . .

In the past, she was a fairy. She came down to world, and she fell in love with this farmer. Even she got married with the farmer furtively. However happy life was very shot. Her father knew her thing and he was furious and asked her to come back, otherwise they will be punished. She was not willing to come back, so they receive penalty together. The cruel penalty is that the farmer can’t recognize her and she become a pig.

When she saw the farmer again, she didn’t want to die and she bent on following the farmer and protecting him. Marvellously, the farmer realized her thought. Then farmer lived happily with her as a pet.

Dave (sniffing and wiping his eyes)

P.S. Here's a gem I missed from the last test: "When two people love each other, they can destroy everything." I think she was going for "overcome anything," for what it's worth.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Love of Prince: A Fairy Tale by Betty and Jesse

This is one of the fairy tales that my students wrote for me last week. Enjoy :-)

Long long ago, in a desolate castle, there lived a cat named Tom and a mouse named Jerry. Tom always wanted to eat Jerry, but he never succeeded. Jerry hadn’t eaten anything because of escaping from Tom. In the midnight, Jerry was so hungry that she must look for something to eat. She shambled along the wall. Suddenly she saw a cheesecake beside Tom who was sleeping. Though she was very afraid of Tom, the delicious cheesecake attracted her very much. As she touched the cheesecake, Tom rushed to Jerry and caught her. Tom ate Jerry at once.

Suddenly, a shadow fell over the whole castle. The desolate castle became magnificent. Tom changed into a handsome prince. He reminded everything. One hundred years ago, he lived with Jerry who is a very beautiful girl, but a witch was very jealous of their happy life. She put a curse on them that prince was changed to a cat and Princess was changed to a mouse. They would be opposite forever until Tom eats Jerry.

Tom was so regretful, but everything happened. Later, Tom killed the witch. He never falls in love with other girls in his rest of life.

Moral: True love is beyond life.

Dave (struggling to hold back tears)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Happiness is a Frog Prince

This past week has been crazy-running-around time. Between Thanksgiving, class observations, two writing assignments, and a test, I confess that I haven't thought much about the blog.

On the other hand, all that student writing provides me with ample material for your amusement . . . or at least, for my amusement. If you don't think it's funny, get your own blog ;-)

We've been studying fairy tales, and I assigned the students to write their own fairy tales. Some of those were hilarious. Here are a few choice lines. Those crazy words make so much difference!

-The farmer saw an injured snake, and decided to help the snake to its feet. (one of those pre-Fall snakes, apparently)
-The demon laughed and said, "I am not a true demon. I am an angle." (Whew! Just some innocent geometry . . .)
-Pam saw Cindy playing with a ball. He ran to her and pillaged the ball.

I also had some humorous responses on the test. One of the questions asked what nearly every fairy tale taught would make a person happy. The rather obvious choice, of course, is true love. One student, either from poor reading comprehension skills or truly bizzare priorities, wrote that what makes people happy is Frog Prince.

I mean, it's on my Christmas list. Stay tuned for some fine examples of student fairy tales.


Monday, November 12, 2007

Seeing double

**SURGEON LT.’S WARNING** Due to the potentially boring and soporific content of this blog post (i.e. grammar), please do not read while operating heavy machinery. Come to think of it, you probably shouldn’t read anything while operating heavy machinery, except for, say, instructions for said machinery.

One of the projects that Dave and I are working on this year is a massive vocabulary list to use as a foundation for our two-year English curriculum. We hope to use this list to teach our students some of the most frequent and useful English words. That’s when we found [drumroll, please] . . . the Oxford 3000. Yes, the Oxford 3000! The keywords of the Oxford 3000 have been carefully selected by a group of language experts and experienced teachers to fulfill all of your vocabulary needs! . . . Well, maybe not, but it’s a pretty good list, and while 3000 words might seem like overload, have no fear, the list begins with a and includes words like Thursday, November, and teacher. So we’re hoping to pare it down quite a bit by finding out what words most of the students already know.

The past few days, we’ve been talking a lot about words. And once again I’m reminded of how difficult this crazy language is. Take the word light, for example. Did you know that it has no fewer than 15 different definitions? Or how about words like subject and record. They can be nouns; they can be verbs. We don’t change the spelling if we use them as verbs or nouns, but we do pronounce them differently (by emphasizing the first or second syllable). Or how about those countable and uncountable nouns? (We can have three apples, but not three rices.) Those really trip up the Chinese, who have neither plural forms of nouns nor articles. And what about nouns that can be both countable and uncountable? (The three gossips spread gossip all over town.)

But I think nothing is more troublesome than the word double. The basic meaning is simple, but the nuances in usage are a nightmare. You name a part of speech, it’s there. (The Oxford 3000 lists it as adj., det., adv., n., v.) According to the American Heritage ESL Dictionary, it has 18 different definitions of its own, not to mention the trail of other entries listed after it (double-breasted, double-check, double-cross, double-digit, double standard, etc.). And I can’t just ignore it—it’s everywhere. Can you double that? I need that on the double! Would you like double cheese? Give him a double dose. It doubles as a paperweight. Still haven't quite figured out how to approach it, though.


**Photo: A Chinese wedding cake with a traditional wedding wish on top: "Double Happiness!"

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Friday: Round Two

We had just been prodded, poked, weighed, measured, and ultrasounded (see "Friday: Round One"). We were hungry and restless, so we headed out for our trip to YuYuan (or, in English, Yu Garden).

I'd heard about Yu Garden plenty of times from the girls; apparently it's something of a shopper's paradise made up of little stalls and big stores all selling pretty well everything you can imagine. Not really being the shopping type, that description didn't excite me much. But the girls kept talking about it, and since we were already well down into Shanghai proper, I figured I might as well go and see what all of the fuss was about.

It's really a lovely place. I don't know the origins of the area, but it looks like a large complex of original pre-Communist buildings (which, outside of the Bundt, are less common in Shanghai than I could wish for), so the architecture is all classic Asian: sloped roofs, black tiles, and big wooden beams with characters painted on them. That was enough to ingratiate Yu Garden to me, even if it is just a glorified mall.

Once inside, we chowed down on some traditional Asian McDonalds food and headed out to look at the shops. This can be a bit hard to imagine if you've never been outside North America. In the West (at least, most places I've been), you tend to have several big stores. Here, you see dozens of tiny stores (and tiny is no exaggeration; some were just big enough for a display counter and a chair), most of which sell the same thing. If you want to buy a scarf, there are probably twenty tiny shops that sell scarves. If you want fancy chopsticks, please check out any of our fifty chopstick specialists, most of whom will be carrying the exact same items. It's kind of weird at first, but you get used to it.

My main interest was in "authentic" Chinese items; art, gifts, clothes, etc. Of course we wanted to get some gifts, but I think that traditionally-styled Chinese art is very beautiful, and I just like to look at it. Although I did get one bit of art as a present for someone, my personal acquisitions consisted of incense (to freshen up the room a bit), a deck of playing cards (purchased because every card features a picture of Our Glorious Leader, and the top card on the deck had a shot of Mao with the word JOKER stamped across it in big letters), and some kind of hacked Nintendo DS game.

The main activity in Chinese-style shopping is bargaining. When someone (particularly a rich-and-stupid-looking foreigner) strolls into a shop, picks up an item, and asks the price, the discerning Chinese shopkeeper will quote a price three (or more) times higher than what they are willing to sell it for. The seller and buyer then engage in verbal fisticuffs: the former bewailing his poverty and the needs of his family, while the latter decries the apalling greed of the former and repeatedly insists that the item is really worth nothing at all, and that he is interested in it only by way of boredom or charity. Even if you don't want anything, merely entering a 10' zone surrounding the seller is enough to make them start shouting "Hello! Hello! Looky-looky! Best price!"

If you don't spend at least two solid minutes arguing about the price of something, you're getting ripped off. I learned this with my deck of playing cards; I asked the price, and she said 40. "Si shi [forty]?" I scoffed, "Ar shi [twenty]!" "OK," she replied. D'oh! I should have paid five! The negotiations often become personal. When I was haggling with the seller over my DS game, the seller began to reinforce her offers by telling me that I was very handsome, and she was offering me the handsome price.

Fellow teacher Paul Wagner learned the hard way that even attempting the ridiculous is no guarantee of being left alone. We were standing by a ladies' clothing store, waiting for my wife to finish purchasing a jacket, when Paul made the tactical error of glancing in the direction of a fancy chopsticks shop ten feet away. The shopkeeper immediately lunged across the counter and thrust a few of her choice products under Paul's nose. "Very nice! Very beautiful! Only 350!"

Attempting to escape, Paul mumbled "Tai kue le, tai kue le" (too expensive).

"What's your best price?" countered the seller.

"Uh . . ." responded Paul, thinking not quite fast enough, "50."

"50?" the woman fairly screamed, feigning a myo-cardial infarction, "No, no! True best price?"

"50," repeated Paul stubbornly, hoping that the woman would move off. His hope was in vain. For the next fifteen minutes, Paul argued with the chopsticks-seller. Each round, she would offer a slightly lower price. Each round, Paul would doggedly reiterate that he would not pay more than fifty. After the first such exchange, he began to add that he did not really want the chopsticks at all and that he was just waiting for someone. Several times, he attempted to leave the shop area, only to be seized by the diminuitive owner and physically dragged back to the bargaining counter. When Des was ready to leave with her coat, Paul was the not-so-proud owner of a fine pair of jade chopsticks, purchased for a mere fifty RMB. And I have to say, he's an inspiration to us all.


Monday, November 5, 2007

Friday: Round One

One of the delightful Oriental cultural experiences available to those working here is -- you guessed it -- the visa application process. My colleagues and I were informed a while back that we would all have our files submitted for the "Foreign Expert" qualification. Now, this is actually very helpful; it means that we won't have to have our visas renewed every ninety days, and it just looks good sitting there in your drawer, you know what I mean? Of course, we had a few papers to submit: a current resume, photocopies of all of our academic and professional qualifications, passports, eight 3x5cm photos, and a health certification. And we had to submit them by the next day. C'est la vie, as the French say. At least, they do when they're in China.

The problem, of course, is the health certification, which none of us had. So the school cancelled all of our classes this past Friday and herded us onto a bus at (or shortly after) 7:00 AM. We were going to get physicals!

The bus drive lasted for approximately 7,000 years -- years which seemed longer because the bus was made for much shorter people than I am and because we had been instructed not to eat before we went. Some of us were a bit hungry. Matt told us that he was dying (this statement was shouted down by the nurses, who set about explaining to him the vast reserves of energy that his body possesses. Such killjoys, nurses). It probably also didn't help that the driver (not our usual guy) appeared to have a rather dim acquaintance with the area. At one point we drove half a block down a one-way street (the wrong way, of course). This wouldn't have been so bad, except that it was under construction. And that there was no place to turn around. And the bus doesn't really reverse so well. At one point, we were moving construction barriers around so that the bus could drive on top of the roadwork-in-progress in order to escape.

We arrived at the Foreign Clinic at 9:30ish, and were (in the greatest medical tradition) given forms to fill out. We did so. And waited. After another hour or so, during which Matt claimed that he could feel his stomach chewing its way out of his body, we were whisked into another room and given numbers.

They took us, one at a time, into the Back Hallway and gave us our Approved Medical Attire, which consisted of a one-size-fits-all bathrobe and little purple footies to place over your shoes. The problem, of course, was that one size does not fit all. At least, it does not fit me. I was deeply grateful that I was allowed to retain my pants (as, no doubt, was everyone else). I was then seated in the hallway, clutching my form, with my bathrobe ties creaking ominously. It was Foreign Expert Medical Exam Time!

My blood was taken by a hematological choreographer who alternated between stabbing, drawing, telling people to "press hardly!" on their wounds, and hurrying them out of the room, all the while maintaining a pleasant expression. I was given a chest X-ray by a couple of technicians who were (rather ominously) laughing as they dismissed me. My blood pressure was taken, although the cuff didn't fit (they solved this problem by jamming up as high as it would go on my elbow). I was given a vision test. I received an ultrasound (!) during which it was confirmed that I do, in fact, have a liver. A serious-looking doctor listened to my breathing. And finally, I was given an EKG (a rather off-putting experience, if you've never had one; I kept expecting the doctor to unveil a huge switch connecting the clamps all over my body to a lighting rod, or to say something like "I've just sucked one year of your life away. I might one day go as high as five . . ."). The whole time, the various clinic personnel were marking off boxes on my form as though I was part of some kind of medical scavenger hunt ("Person with a liver: check!").

To tell you the truth, though, I wasn't really bothered by anything except for the last blank on my form. I was greatly relieved when they told me that I could get dressed and I gave the form back with that blank unfilled. I just don't know that a gynecology exam would agree with me.


Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Making Lemonade from Chinese Lemons

Life on the outskirts of Shanghai carries with it certain inescapable realities. One of those is distance. There are approximately twenty million people who live in the greater Shanghai area, and although the population density here is truly remarkable, you still have to account for some spreading out. Of course, there are plenty of amenities close to home, but several of the things that we teachers enjoy from time to time(western restaurants, English-language establishments, museums, cultural whatnot, and the like) are right down in the heart of Shanghai.

Getting to that means bus rides. Now, I have nothing against buses per se; I rode a bus to and from Henry Wise Wood High School every day when I was younger, and I have served three tours of duty in taking the Greyhound from Calgary, Alberta to Greenville, South Carolina (and let me tell you what, there's nothing like riding on a bus for three unshowered, unshaven, barely-sleeping days to give you some perspective on people). The Chinese bus rides are just rather longish (generally between sixty and ninety minutes one way), and I often don't have a seat, which means that I'm either wedged into a corner with people jabbing me in the side with their elbows, or I'm trying not to fall down as the driver shifts from third to park without a clutch. Or both.

That's where technology comes in. Three years ago, I succumbed to the pressures of society and purchased for myself an Apple iPod Mini. This device is now hopelessly outdated and obsolete, but my geriatric MP3 player and I have powered our way through many a boring bus ride. In my opinion, an iPod is to a Chinese bus ride as general anesthetic is to major surgery; they make a painful necessity bearable.

I listen to music sometimes, though the bus is usually too noisy for me to properly appreciate the delicate strains of a Bach organ fugue. More often, I tune in to class. I've worked my way through both semesters of David Calhoun's History lectures from Covenant (found at and am currently chewing on John Frame's class on Apologetics at Reformed (, both of which have been excellent. Other teachers here listen to the latest lesson from Mark Minnick, Jim Berg, or someone else. Elijah would spend his time practicing Chinese.

Whatever you happen to enjoy, it helps pass the kilometers. Even if you are standing in the corner.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I don't know what it is, but it likes ESPN2...

Sorry for the lack of posting last week . . . I'm a bad Dave! Bad! One of my big goals for this term was to post every week, so hopefully getting it out in front like this will spur me on. It's not like nothing ever happens here.

I gave my first test last week, and as bonus questions, asked them to write a sentence using one of the slang phrases that I've taught them. A few students got them right. Many more failed in spectacular ways. Most of the difficulties centered around the phrase "couch potato." Seems simple enough, right? Maybe to you. A few of the (erroneous) attempts at capturing this phrase follow.
- He is a couch tomato.
- I was a sofa tomato.
- We should not be couch pasta (I know it's some kind of starchy food!)
- We are sofa and Pomato on the holiday.
- My sister likes laying Tomato, she always sitting on sofa.
- Tom A Couch Plato (These are not the ultimate Doritos, but merely shadowy copies of the true form).
- you watch TV, you will be crouch potato (Looks like the three-point stance to me)

And, in a guess at "baby boomer":
- After the 2th World War, many boom babies borned.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Does this tie go with these bunny slippers?

One of the quirks that I've observed here in China is the Chinese attitude toward clothes. Sure, my students wear clothes -- often the same clothes for a week at a time -- but it's what they wear that strikes me as a bit . . . different.

For one thing, the Chinese seem to love uniforms. Everyone has a uniform. The nurses have uniforms, the guards have uniforms, the cleaning ladies have uniforms, the gardeners have uniforms. Des wanted to go to a hair salon last week to get her hair trimmed, and every single man working there (it was a big place) was wearing what looked for all the world like some sheriff's uniform, complete with spangled epilauts and (I kid you not) holsters. Holsters with scissors and combs in them.

For another thing, they just don't really seem that concerned about what they wear around. I've never been to Europe, but I've been told that in Paris, Berlin, Rome and the like, people tend to dress up to go out, even if it's just to do some shopping. Here, it's kind of the opposite, at least for men. It's not at all unusual to see men walking around wearing sleeveless t-shirts ("wife-beaters," as we called 'em in college) or even no shirt at all. Sure, it's hot here. But I hardly ever saw anyone in Greenville doing that.

The thing that really threw me for a loop, though, were the pajamas. They wear pajamas outside. I've kind of gotten used to seeing groups of girls in their PJs and slippers wandering over to the campus store at 8:00 PM. I had sort of assumed it was a kid thing. After all, they are pretty close to their rooms. Yesterday, though, I learned differently. Des and I were riding the bus down to Puxi. At the Century Mart stop (about 10 AM), the doors opened and man scrambled on. He was wearing blue plaid cotton jammies (button-up shirt and pants) and a pair of blue flip-flops. He rode the bus down four or five stops and hopped off. This guy was probably forty years old.

So I'm thinking about teaching next week in my bathrobe. I mean, why not? The students might appreciate that I was finally coming around to their point of view.


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

T-Shirts I Have Seen This Week

A shirt with a picture of Snoopy (who is extremely popular here), underneath which are the words "Sometimes I feel compelled to justify my existence . . ."

A pink shirt bearing the picture of a party balloon and the words "Microtube Technology? Piece of Cake!"

A sweatshirt with a leaping bunny, his rump emblazoned with a capital A, shouting "I want to be your dog!"

A shirt (worn by one of my more tiny and adorable female students) with the word STUD written across it in flowery sequined letters.

Kinda makes you wonder if your friend's Chinese tattoo really says "Love," doesn't it?


P.S. I would love a shirt like the one in the picture :-D

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Chinese proverbs on books and learning

A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

A book tightly shut is but a block of paper.

Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.

He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever.

Typhoon Wipha

Our students were very disappointed in the typhoon today because it didn't give us enough rain or wind to convince our school to cancel classes. Right now we're getting some rain off and on and of course we keep getting burst of wind. But so far, the typhoon has steered clear of us. We'll see what happens next.

Last night several of us had tickets to go to a Women's World Cup match in downtown Shanghai, but we were asked to stay home. (Apparently someone in the government called our program's administrator to tell him that all foreigners should stay at the campus.) People have been evacuated, but those have mostly been people in mobile homes or dilapidated housing. We're all snug as a bug in our nice apartment building, teaching during the day and then staying dry the rest of the time.

Thanks for thinking about us. We'll continue to give updates if anything changes.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I Sold My Soul on E-Bay (no, not mine!)

I Sold My Soul On Ebay
This book was a gift from a friend. Actually, as far as that goes, I’m not really sure what you’re trying to communicate, Katherine. Are you suggesting that I would identify with the author? That I should give it a try? That I already have?

OK, kidding, kidding. In fact (as Katherine suspected) I enjoyed reading this account of a self-described “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta who sells service attendance to the highest bidder online. He goes to a very, very wide variety of assemblies, ranging from traditional to liberal to emergent to parochial. He then critiques each of the services that he attends on how well (in his opinion) it reached him.

In general, Mehta’s broad assessment of the need to ‘walk the walk,’ particularly in meeting people’s physical needs, was a valid comment (though overstated). I also appreciated his oft-repeated refrain that there often seemed to be a vast gulf between the current practitioners of the movement in question and its founder. What Mehta writes about Ted Haggard was extremely interesting to me in light of recent events. Of course, hindsight’s 20/20, but the things that bothered him about Haggard should, I think, have bothered him.

On the other hand, he was entranced by Joel Osteen and was delighted that such a high-profile leader has been able to set aside doctrinal issues to get to the real heart of things. This, unfortunately, misses the point entirely: without doctrine, there are no real issues. In addition, the things Mehta heard that he was most disturbed by were often things that lie at the core of true exposition (such as his distress at the line “every knee will bow”). He is so well-entrenched in an atheist worldview that he entirely misses the significance of some of the things he heard, reasoning that since “that’s not my truth, there must be some other explanation.” It apparently never occurs to him that there may in fact be a truth that is truer than his.

Overall, it was worth a read and provoked some valuable self-examination. Thanks, Kat.


P.S. If you're feeling a bit lost by some of my vocabulary choices, I understand your frustration. There are, unfortunately, some things that I can't just come right out and say on this blog. Hopefully you understand.

The Great Divorce (no, not ours!)

OK, people. You must read this book. And I mean read it next, not just put it on your list. If I could just pick one recommendation from all summer, it would be this. Let me enumerate the reasons that you, and not only I, must read this book:

1) It’s short. Some people quail at reading lists, envisioning all the time gone by. I read this entire book out loud to my wife in about four hours. So can you. Well, unless you don’t have a wife.

2) It’s different. I mean, it’s a book about a guy who takes a bus from hell to heaven. Top that.

3) It’s by C.S. Lewis. Maybe you don’t like some of Lewis’s ideas. Neither do I. But for crying out loud, why would you only read books you agree with? Lewis is worth reading, if for no other reason than for his absolute mastery of concise language and his ability to use narrative to cut instantly to the heart of a problem.

4) It’s brilliant. Lewis manages to capture (in my opinion, far better than anyone else I’ve ever read, including Bunyan) what’s at the heart of life after death. He masterfully explains why and how people choose which direction they go, and he illustrates his points with riveting dialogues between the damned and those (now exalted) who were their friends in life.

5) It’s thought-provoking. His ideas force you to back to the text (no, not Lewis’s text) in order to reconcile what exactly we are told about these things. Does he get it all right? I don’t think so. Lewis (as in much of his writing) places too much emphasis on philosophical symmetry. But for those of us who share a similar background, it’s a welcome and necessary challenge.

So open up a new window in your web browser, go to Amazon, and order this book. Now. When it arrives, cancel your plans for the evening (or better yet, gather a few friends) and sit down to think about what comes after you die.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chinese proverb of the day

Chinese proverb
Don't open a shop unless you like to smile.

My version
Don't teach English in China unless you like to speak slowly and repeat yourself.

So maybe it's lacking that proverbial pithiness. But it's so true!


Saturday, September 15, 2007

The full Chinese experience

Well, last night was Friday, what I like to call "Date Night" (even though the real date night typically happens only one Friday a month). Dave and I planned to go into Zhou Pu for dinner and to buy some groceries. At lunch, the duo became a trio when a new acquaintance, Jim, asked if he could go with us. Jim is one of the very first male Chinese students to form a friendship with us. (Students in our particular program are all female, and most male students do not usually strike up conversations with us--we're not sure why. It may be standoffishness or maybe just lower English ability.)

But Jim is decidedly different. He first met Dave out at the track and field and began a conversation, which led to lunch, which led to a group outing to Zhou Pu. Unlike most students, Jim is not from Shanghai but from a about 5 hours north, so he is unable to go home during the weekends. The school looks like a ghost town after 3:00 on Fridays, so we were happy to be able to spend time with Jim and keep him from a lonely evening in the dormitory.

Going out with us also gave Jim the opportunity to practice his English. (And whatever Jim lacks in vocabulary and grammar knowledge he makes up for in bravery--he certainly doesn't shy away from trying to use his English.) Even during the few days between seeing Jim on the track and eating lunch with him, his skill had already improved. Friday evening would stretch him even further and would give us a good lesson in culture (and as it ended up, patience).

Upon entering the town, we asked Jim where he wanted to eat, only to discover that he wasn't hungry. (Hadn't we told him we were going there for dinner?) So we walked around a bit to work up an appetite. After a while, we all decided to find some Chinese food, Jim leading the way to a good restaurant. He felt responsible to show us around, but unfortunately, because he doesn't live in this area, he knew his way around even less than we did. Finally we made our way to a familiar restaurant, one that has a dish that we actually know how to order. This is when Chinese regionalisms became apparent.

Again, Jim wanted to help by ordering for us, but he didn't know what the food was called. (In his area, they apparently have different words for it.) This is what led to what I like to call the full Chinese experience: taking 5 times longer than you expect to order something, only to then get something other than what you ordered. In our normal, insulated state of being around Americans and Chinese who speak English quite well, we don't get to experience this very often. I felt like the night was a success, really. You shouldn't live in China and never experience these kinds of things. How dull would that be?

The real fun came when we started back for home and asked Jim if he would come back with us or stay and visit an internet cafe (Jim had told us he likes to "surf the net" in Zhou Pu):

Us: "It is time for us to go back home."
Jim: "Oh, yes, it is late."
Us: "So, will you come back with us, or will you stay here and surf the net?"
Jim: "Huh?"
Us: "So, will you come back with us, or will you stay here and surf the net?"
Jim: "Yes, it is time for you to go home. You are very busy."
Us: "So will you go back to the school, or will you stay here?"
Jim: "Yes."
We stop asking questions and wait to see if Jim will get on the bus.

When we got back, Dave and I just laughed. It was like being on a first date where both people are trying to think of things to do, each trying to do what the other person wants even though they don't really know what that is. You end up feeling like neither of you actually did what you wanted. But, hao, it's ok. We wanted food, and Jim wanted to practice English and get out of the dorm. But as we patiently helped each other, we get something more: friendship.

And, actually, what I've come to learn about teaching in China is that friendship with students is definitely part of the experience.


Friday, September 7, 2007

First few weeks

Several helpful souls have given me rules for the first few weeks of teaching: Don't smile. Don't laugh. Be very strict because it's always easier to lighten up than to get tougher toward the end of the semester. Not sure about the last one. But as far as the first two go, I'm failing miserably.

I know this because the first day, when I asked my students to stand up, introduce themselves, and tell us all a few things they like to do outside of class, three of them came out with comments like, "I hope we will become best friends!" "You are very beautiful!" "I love your smile." I sigh, knowing that a dutifully dour-faced teacher would not be subjected to such heinous words. Words that spell impending doom for class discipline.

They certainly don't make it easy for me. What's a teacher supposed to do when a student stands up to introduce herself and says, "Hello. My name is Alice. And I like to eat meat." (Fortunately for Alice, she also likes to play sports, so her meat-eating is not a problem, she promises us.)

Seriously, though. I can't help but smile when I look at all of these fresh faces, surprisingly eager to learn and to get to know their foreign teachers. Today was Teacher Day in China. I have received M&Ms, Dove chocolate, and two Hello Kitty lollipops. I love my students. And I cannot help but smile and look for ways to speak with them and learn about them and teach them what I can about this crazy English language.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Reading, Part I

I read a lot this summer, though still not as much as I would have liked to, given the time that I had available. That said, I still think I have too many to put into one post. If you have one in your area, I highly recommend Half Price Books (which we stumbled upon in Ohio) for their excellent selection. Here's a brief rundown of books read in alphabetical order:

A Separate Peace
This was a gift from a very well-read friend. She gave it to me when I asked for something short, compelling, and not greatly taxing to read on the flight back. It's a beautifully written and thought-provoking coming-of-age story that deals with love, hate, war, and jealousy (even if you can guess the ending from about the fifth page onwards). It's something I'd like to give to a mature teen. Thanks for the recommendation, Alison.

The Bear and the Dragon
I had read a Tom Clancy book a long time ago and remembered enjoying it. Since this one was about China, I picked it up. I don't know if I had just forgotten about all of the objectionable stuff in the other book or if there was a lot more of it this time around, but I heaved it into a trash can after about two chapters. Now I'll never know if they meant to kill Golokov or not.

Beyond Suffering
Started on Dr. Talbert's (Uncle Layton to certain of us) study of Job entitled Beyond Suffering, and greatly enjoying it so far. I plan to finish this one up as my next reading project. If you haven't read his work on providence (Not By Chance) it's worth picking up. And I promise that's not just nepotism.

In Complete Armour
Still chipping away at William Gurnall's monolithic Puritan classic. I'm not quite "in comlete armour" yet; I'd say I only have about one glove on, though I think some of the credit for my slow progress has to go to Gurnall's exhaustiveness. At about page 200, I'm on the phrase "we wrestle not against flesh and blood." He's just spent 10 pages expounding on the word "wrestle." Although I certainly am finding it worthwhile, at my current rate I will finish it in approximately 2050.

The City of Light
I read an interesting book that I just stumbled across entitled The City of Light, which is apparently an account of a 13th-century Jewish Italian merchant's journey to the Chinese port city of Zaitun. I say "apparently" because there is some controversy about the genuineness of the manuscript, but the evidence for it being a fake is (in my mind) not at all convincing. Worth reading, especially for the shockingly modern philosophical perspectives that he encountered (and, in some cases, espoused). Truly, there's nothing new under the sun. If you do pick it up, skip chapter 5. I didn't, and wish I had.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I'd read the first three Harry Potter books about five years ago in undergrad (got 'em from Mack Library, as a matter of fact), and since we were staying with a Harry Potter-crazed family during the time surrounding the release of the last book, I thought I might as well see what all the fuss was about, especially since I recalled enjoying the first three. The books were entertaining; I especially liked her characters (Hagrid, Luna, and Neville being my favourites). The weakest part of the books, in my humble opinion, is Harry himself. He generally comes off as a whiny, selfish, demanding teenager. An accurate portrayal of the modern teen mindset? I suppose. Fun to read? Not so much. He grows up quite a bit in the last book, thankfully. Overall, I could take them or leave them.

A History of Asia
I started in on volume one of Samuel Moffat's history, which was recommended by a professor in a history course I took. I'm liking it so far and looking forward especially to his discussions of the revival in the Tang dynasty and to the rapid modern expansion in South Korea.

In the Presence of My Enemies
I read Gracia Burnham's autobiography, which I recommend (if you don't remember her, she and her husband were kidnapped by terrorists in the Philippenes a few years ago). I remember her being given an honor during the commencement exercises in 2003 (a medal, if memory serves); her account of the time she spent in captivity is moving and prompted a healthy amount of introspection.

The Writings of John
Since I'm teaching through John, I decided to take my study time during this vacation to read all of the works of John over and over. His emphasis on love made a particular impact on me, and has formed the basis for some of our group discussions here already.


A retrospective

This morning I woke up in Shanghai. It's a nice feeling to be home and to have a semester of work ahead of you. Here's what I was doing in the US instead of posting on this blog:

Learning Chinese: Des and I are working on Pimsleur's Conversational Mandarin (thanks in part to the persuasion of our good friend Elijah Wilcott, who's probably in classes in Chengdu right now; he is sorely missed). It's a great audio program (I impressed our administrator Mr. Wang last night with a few phrases in Mandarin), but I feel like a total dope trying to make it come out right. When nearly all of your skillsets rely on your mastery of language, starting over again can be disheartening.

Reading: For this, I'll probably post something in greater detail next week. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed a great deal of reading during the vacation.

Playing: If you know me, you know that I like to play games. I gave Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword a thorough playing and loved every minute of conquering the Germans (and the Incans, and the Romans, and everyone else) right off of the planet. Benson Quattlebaum (my very oldest friend; we've been hanging out for like 22 years) and I made the world safe for democracy in Battlefield 2, and Adam Dierking (my great college buddy) and I defeated the alien menace in Unreal Tournament 2004. Carrie Sapp, Des, my sister Laura, and a bunch of Carrie's friends (including her mother) tested our kung-fu moves on one another and quested for treasure long into the night. The Snyder brothers and I combated terrorists at some arcade and tested our moves in DDR (at which venture I utterly triumphed). It was all grand. Games can definitely be fun by themselves, but games + friends = great.

Working: We had the unexpected opportunity to go up to Ohio and help my mother clear out my grandfather's house in order get his affairs in order and prepare his house for rental. Grandpa is living in Texas right now with my aunt, and he's no longer being treated for his cancer. Since my parents were in the US, he asked Mom to take care of things there in Ohio for him. The three of us (and my sister Laura later on) spent a week cleaning his house, organizing his belongings, and selling many of them in a giant garage sale. I reflected at length on the truth of Solomon's words when he says that it's better (when confronted with death) to go to a funderal than a party, since "that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart." I also decided that, from this point on, I am pursuing a minimum-stuff approach to life. Grandpa's house was crammed to the gills, mostly with stuff that wasn't worth saving, and I don't want anyone to have to try and organize all that on my behalf someday.

Visiting: I was particularly happy to be able to visit Mt. Calvary while we were in Greenville. There's nothing like old friends. While we were in the States, we were greatly impressed by the generosity of our friends and family in insisting on putting us up. I was reminded many times of what John recorded about love for others being the cardinal distinctive of our lives. We spent time staying with the inestimable Sapp family in Greenville, my wife's parents in the Chicago area, and our great friends the Snyders in Detroit. Since words cannot express how I feel about these people, I won't even try. These are the best of the "good things" that he fills my life with.

There's more, but this post is already too long. I'll probably write more about the vacation later. For now, I'm going to be trying to get things in order for my first semester teaching the sophomores. That's enough for me.


Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Those Who Can't: A Case Study

Before I came here, I thought of teaching as a simple and relaxing occupation, somewhat akin to professional mattress testing or food sampling. After all, a teacher had a comprehensive grasp of his or her subject, so the actual teaching part was simple: just go into the classroom and talk about whatever bit of knowledge strikes you as important. Unfortunately, this has not proved to be the case.

I had also been told that in Chinese culture, teachers are held in high regard and are treated with reverence and respect. I had visions of students clustering eagerly around me, pleading with me to dispense just one more gem from the English language. The textbook I was given only reinforced this delusion with such ridiculous propositions as “Have the students form themselves into small groups to discuss the environmental challenges facing the world today. Because of the specialized vocabulary, some students may be tempted to use some Chinese words. This should be discouraged.” I now suspect that the developers of the textbook created their exercises in a more rarified environment, such as the Garden of Eden.

What I did not envision was a classroom full of students who snoozed at every opportunity, text-messaged their pals, chatted with their classmates in Chinese, and shouted “Class is over!” at each lull and "This is so boring! We hate it!" at every new activity. Clearly, this was going to be somewhat more challenging than I had imagined.

Thankfully, things like that usually only happen on the bad days. I hustle out the door at ten to eight, clutching my briefcase and water bottle, the two non-negotiables of teaching. I drink a lot of water. The first thing I do when I leave the building is sweat; Shanghai is on the same latitude as Austen, Texas, and the low altitude and coastal setting make for some hot, humid days. It would be warm even if the classrooms had air conditioning (which, naturally, they do not), but I make do by swigging water like it’s going out of style and keeping the shirt sleeves rolled up and windows open.

I teach 8:00-4:00, Monday through Thursday, which keeps me hopping. Each class has its own personality, and what flies with my studious and subdued Class 1 usually blows up in my face with my raucous Class 4 or the downright adverserial Class 2. That means that I always have to be ready to change up the plan if things get too hairy.

Part of the problem is that intermediate foreign-language study is not as fascinating a subject as, for instance, boyfriends and mobile phones (two topics my students are deeply interested in). So I try to compensate by being highly animated and by involving the students as much as possible. This caused some problems early on with my students, who were more used to traditional Chinese lecture methods. “Stop walking around!” they complained. “You make us feel sick!” At the beginning, the most common question I got from my students is “Are you crazy?”

After class, I generally stagger back to my office and collapse, but I rouse myself to grade the seemingly never-ending stream of papers, to write tests, or to meet with students who have English (or non-English) questions to discuss.

In the evenings, I work on the next day’s lesson or spend time with Desiree. We also use this time to try to get closer to students by playing games, talking, watching movies, or doing anything else we can together when our school duties (on both sides) don't preclude it. It’s often difficult since everyone’s time is limited, but we continue to work on new ways of making friends.

This week was final exam week, and I bid a fond farewell to my students. Even in the space of three and a half short months, I've grown attached to them. Teaching here may not be the utopian lifestyle I had imagined it to be, but it is eminently rewarding and challenging. And for those who may be considering their options: I recommend it over mortgage brokering.


Monday, June 18, 2007

No place like home

Well, we've have had a slight change in plans for the summer.

Instead of coming back to the States on July 25th, we'll be going home on July 7th. We're very excited to have some extra time to visit family and friends, so please be in touch. We'd love to see as many of you as we can.

(Extremely) tentative plans:

Arrive in Greenville July 7

Leave Greenville TBD (maybe August 7)

Head for Illinois

Head for Michigan August 18

Return to China August 28

If you don't have our contact information but would like to meet up with us during this time, please leave a comment, and we'll e-mail you. Also, please keep us in your thoughts these next few weeks as we teach our last two weeks of classes and then give and grade final exams.

Can't wait to see you!


Monday, May 28, 2007

Thanks, Dave!

Well, here are some of the photos that Dave wrote about last week. I have to say how thankful I am for the wonderful anniversary gift. It will always be a special memory of our first year in China.

My student, Lucy, who was the one responsible for organizing our little adventure, was so kind and patient. Of course, I think she rather enjoyed dressing up her English teacher in different outfits and seeing her get all fixed up. Dave was bored the whole time, but he was a real trooper, in spite of having to dress up in a suit, sit around doing nothing, and being told to smile and tilt his head at just the right angle. (I was also told to curl my little fingers--note my hands holding the umbrella. I guess it's a symbol of femininity or something.) Sometimes I even suspected that he was enjoying himself.

We took photos in traditional Chinese clothing, Japanese clothing, and Western clothing. (Well, I dressed up in different clothes—Dave stuck with the traditional black suit due to the fact that the traditional Asian outfits were traditionally small.)

One of my favorite parts of the day was watching the lady who did my hair and makeup. She was amazing! I felt like I was back at Rodeheaver Theater getting ready for a production. I learned all about traditional hairstyles. The most impressive was the Japanese. I never knew I could have so many different things stuck to my head! (There were flowers, chopsticks, a comb, jewelry, hair extensions, and a sufficient amount of hairspray to anesthetize a small animal.)

I also love how the Chinese aren't afraid to use photoshop. They seem to have this thing for making pictures perfect. Even when we went into Zhoupu several weeks ago to get passport pictures, the guy ended up playing with them a little--erasing a stray hair here or there, fixing the lighting. It was much better than my quick-jump-in-the-car-and-go-to-Walgreens-at-10:30p.m. passport photos from the states. And they were about the third of the price.


Sunday, May 27, 2007

He's good at what?

I had occasion a little while ago to show Pride and Prejudice to my students, and, as always, had them write about what they had watched. As with the Princess Bride, this produced some humorous results.

Chinese students sometimes have difficulty with English names. In the essays, I encountered main characters named Elizarbeth, Elizabtth, and Euzabeth. The leading men fared no better, as students variously transcribed their names as Dancy, Parcy, Daray, Darzy, and Binghy.

Their attempt to render the plot in English was also somewhat . . . less than accurate sometimes. Said of the first ball: "They all fall in love with themselves." Oh, what a difference those silly pronouns make.

"Mr. Bennet had five burly daughters." Y'know, 'burly' is not what springs to mind when one thinks of Keira Knightley.

Speaking of which, some people had difficulty grasping the relationship between the movie, the book, and the real world: "In the book, Elizabeth's name is Keira Knightley."

Neither were they entirely clear on the origin of the story: "The director is Jane Austen." Alternately: "The book's name is Jane Austen."

As always, the most bizzarely mangled English comes from those students who rely too heavily on direct translations with their electronic dictionaries: "Mr. Bingley looks kind, good at sociable smell hormone." And that, my friends, is the most important quality in a refined aristocratic gentleman.

It almost makes me want to show Macbeth, just for kicks.


Enjoy it without me!

A little while back, I was accosted in the hall by one of the tiny office staff. “Dave!” she said, “Will you be enjoying fishing on Monday?” This is a typically Chinese construction (at least, it is around here; everyone sounds like they read books with titles like Greater Motivation Through Your Vocabulary Choices), and the obvious answer, of course, is “Yes.”

Apparently, the last time I went fishing I was four years old. I say “apparently” because I have no memories of the event (doubtless I repressed the horrific experience of killing and disemboweling a helpless ichthyoid), but I have seen incriminating photographs. I figured that the worst that would happen was that I’d have lots of time to read my book and practice my Chinese, so I stowed the necessary reading material in Charlie’s bag and headed out. I was particularly looking forward to getting out into the great green beyond (there is precious little of this in Zhoupu, which sometimes appears to be shooting for “Most Post-Apocalyptic Town of the Year” award). I knew we’d be doing this because Victoria had messaged us telling us to bring some food for lunch. We would be fishing “in a wild place where there is no restaurant.” Great! Less concrete = better.

We clambered onto a bus, plus Wang Xin (our adminstrator) and Victoria (a secretary and friend of ours) and took off down the Zhoupu side streets. After a stop to purchase some fishing gear, our bus stopped in front of an apartment building, and our guide stood up. “Now let’s enjoy fishing!” Wang Xin said brightly, gesturing toward the bus door. I peered out the window. Apartments to the left. Stores behind us. Peach orchards to our right. Buildings everywhere. Somehow, my Western-Canadian trained mind had envisioned “wild place” as involving more wilderness and less . . . humanity.

My sense of doubt increased when we walked through another block of apartments and rounded a garlic field. A tiny canal stretched listlessly in front of us, complete with algae-covered light bulbs bobbing against the shore. Surely not, I thought. “Here we are!” exclaimed Wang Xin. A dead fish looked mockingly up at me from the bank. A feeling that was not quite encouragement washed over me.

Once I got over my initial disappointment, however, it really wasn’t bad. There was a nice grove of bamboo overhanging the far bank which provided great amusement, as Charlie immediately and inextricably entangled his line in a bamboo shoot while attempting to cast into the shade. His gyrations, and the Chinese guide’s accompanying shouts of dismay, provided all the hilarity I could have asked for.

I have heard otherwise intelligent and deep-thinking men extol the virtues of fishing. It promotes introspection, they say. It puts you in touch with creation. It’s relaxing. It’s the thinking man’s sport. Baloney, I say. There’s nothing I did while I was fishing that I couldn’t have done lying in my bed in my air-conditioned apartment, except get a sunburn. I cannot imagine an activity more boring.

“What about catching fish?” I hear you cry in protest. Yeah, you tell me, punk. What about catching fish? I wouldn’t know, as I certainly didn’t catch any. My method consisted of baiting the hook with some kind of cornmeal mixture, putting the line in the water, waiting fifteen minutes, pulling my line out of the water, and looking at my now-empty hook. I would sometimes spice up this routine by looking across the canal at the Chinese dude, not one hundred feet away, and watching him reel another one in. It was disgusting.

From now on, I’m sticking to tuna sandwiches. The lousy fish can stay where they are.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Who knew English was so difficult?

idiom (ĭd'ē-əm) n. A speech form or an expression of a given language that is peculiar to itself grammatically or cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its elements*

teaching idioms (tēch'ing ĭd'ē-əmz) n. The process of imparting knowledge of idioms to non-native speakers of a language, sometimes resulting in confusing and humorous turns of phrase**

e.g. Throw out the person with the bath water.
Throw out the baby with the window water.
Throw out the philology with the toto water. (This is what happens when electronic dictionaries go bad.)
When you are clumsy, you are all fingers and tongues.
When you are eager to listen, you are all years.
You were born with a deep skin in your mouth. (Silver spoon + skin deep)
If you are rich from the womb, you were born with a golden soup in your mouth.
If you die suddenly, you bite the bust.
I escaped by the skin of my knowledge!
He can hardly sit still. He has cats in his pants.
Hurry up! Stop dragging your pants!

When we were little children, we expect urgently to grow up. We will roll out the red carpet to welcome the coming of puberty.

*From the American Heritage Dictionary
**From the Talbert Dictionary of Teaching English in China

Monday, May 21, 2007


Well, this weekend we had another one of those crazy cross-cultural experiences. The 10th was our fourth wedding anniversary (doesn’t seem like it, though), and since my first anniversary present for Des fell through, I was open to suggestions for something else. That’s when I found out about the photo studio.

Many women that I’ve met have this weird idea about pictures. If I go to some amazing scenic place, for instance, I’m going to be taking pictures of the scenery, not of myself and my wife (for some reason, she doesn't share this perfectly rational outlook). And if someone suggests that we get our picture taken at some professional studio, my reaction is invariably, “Why? I know what I look like.” I just don’t see the appeal. In fact, I go one step further – I hate sitting around getting my picture taken.

So I was less than excited when I heard about an AMAZING OPPORTUNITY that had just presented itself – there was a professional Chinese-style portrait studio near a student’s house, and wouldn’t it be a great idea if we all went and got our picture taken? Maybe. But there was a bright side to all this: Des was gleeful about the possibility of getting her picture taken, and I was in need of an anniversary present. You can guess what happened next.

That was how I found myself sitting in a photo studio waiting room with my wife and student on Friday afternoon, watching a Chinese model in a funky blue feather dress get glitter applied to her face and shoulders. These studios aren’t like your Wal-Mart Quick-E-Photo back home; think Glamour Shots. Plus some.

After a short wait, we were hustled across the street and up a flight of stairs into the studio itself, where the make-up girl went to work. And work. And work. This gal has some serious skills. Des, as you may know, was a professional makeup artist for a while when she worked at BJU, and she was duly impressed. I was duly bored, since I had nothing to do but sit in the chair, listen to Mariah Carey (the same CD, on repeat, for four hours), and try to remember my Chinese vocabulary. The photo assistants were happy to help me perfect my pronunciation, since they had as much to do as I did (read: nothing).

After a short ice age had passed, my wife was clad in some kind of traditional outfit, topped with traditional hair, covered with traditional makeup, and ready for the traditional digital camera poses. Me? I was wearing a black suit. They brought out a few traditional outfits for me to try on, but . . . yeah. I could get the vests on (sort of), but I would have split them if I’d clapped my hands.

The shooting itself was hilarious. None of the staff spoke any English, and of course, we don’t speak any Chinese worth mentioning. This meant that the patient photographer would elaborately pantomime whatever he wanted us to do. If that didn’t work, our student companion (the inimitable Lucy Liu) would bounce around, gesturing and alternating between English instructions and Chinese clarifications. When even those failed, the photographer’s assistant would impersonate both my wife and myself as we ought to be – sitting just so, holding his head just so, looking just so. It was hilarious.

He also brought a never-ending stream of props for the photos – a parasol, a fan (held just so! No, just so!), a book for me (the People’s Liberation Army Manual, in fact), flowers, balloons, more flowers, a shawl, different flowers, etc. The funniest were the bubbles. The assistant balanced precariously, on one foot on a rickety stool, and leaned out over us; then, while the photographer barked orders, he blew stream after stream of bubbles down on us.

So of course you’re wondering at this point where the pictures are. Patience, friends. We expect them in about a week. Probably Photoshopped and all (just like our passport photos). Wait and see.

P.S. “Hao” is Chinese for “good.” “OK-Hao” is one of those multicultural encounters you keep hearing about. It was all our photographer ever said.


Wednesday, May 9, 2007

A vigil of gratitude

Well, caffeine doesn’t usually affect me, but tonight it did. That was a good thing while I was grading papers until 10:30, but not such a good thing when I lay down to go to sleep at 11:00. So I decided to do something useful with my wakefulness and write down a short list of things that I’m thankful for. And I decided to go ahead and share it with you.

• A friend in Guam who sends me chocolate (and really good coffee : )
• Family and friends who love me and read my blog to find out what’s going on in my life
• Family and friends who keep me in their thoughts while I’m in China
• A husband who has officially (as of May 10) been married to me for four years
• A mother who sends me chocolate all the way from America
• Students who turn in all of their homework (this was not my experience when I taught in the States)
• Students who seem to really want to learn and who work hard at improving their English
• Fellow teachers who help me as I learn the ins and outs of teaching
• People who can translate Chinese to English and vice versa
• Someone who provides for all of my needs and answers my requests
• Someone who forgives me when I fail
• Someone who watches over me and protects me (I’m especially thankful for this anytime I’m on a bus in Shanghai.)
• A five-minute (walking) commute to work
• Facebook, Gmail, and Blogger
• May holiday (China’s spring break/labor day)
• Really good, really cheap Chinese food
• Beautiful, 75-degree (that’s in Fahrenheit) weather
• The ability to rest

I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Goodnight, friends.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Electrophorus electricus

Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m interesting in . . . well, pretty much anything. One of the things that I have always found particularly fascinating is biology. I remember when I was a kid, I found this book on the family bookshelf called “I Am Joe’s Body,” which was a collected series of Readers’ Digest articles about different organs in the human body. It sounds mind-numbingly dull, but I thought it was awesome and read it like three times.

Anyway, this week was May Holiday (more on that later), and on Wednesday, we went with some students up to the Shanghai Aquarium. I really like aquariums, and I wasn’t disappointed. They had lots of cool fishies, neat tank setups, sea turtles, sharks, jellyfish, and some electric eels.

I was so fascinated by the electric eels that I read a bunch of stuff on the Internet about them as soon as I got back to the room (for this, I refer you to I just thought I’d pass some SUPER-AMAZING info along about one of the humbler parts of creation. Keep in mind this is the very-simple-and-possibly-even-slightly-wrong version, as befits my unscientific background. Any marine biologists, feel free to correct me.

Almost the entirety of the electric eel’s long snakey body is taken up with it’s electrical organs -- all of the vital organs are squeezed into the front bit just behind it’s head. The electrical organ responsible for zapping the unwary is basically just a big organic battery made up of long chains of weird muscle cells. The thing that’s weird about them is that, unlike regular muscle cells, they don’t contract when they’re stimulated. Instead, by an amazing process of chemical wizardry, the cells’ polarity changes and they discharge electricity. This, frankly, isn’t that impressive, since each cell only discharges a teensy-weensy bit of juice—not even enough for an adult human to feel, probably.

No, the impressive part is this—there are thousands of these cells all jammed in together. Now we’re getting somewhere. There’s just one problem, though; the cells are arranged lengthwise along the body, which means that some are further away from the brain than others. That means that the nearer cells will receive their signal from the brain sooner than the farther cells. Normally, that’s not a big deal when you’re doing something slow and clumsy like walking and chewing gum. But when you’re talking about electrical discharge, it’s important for the cells to all fire at once; otherwise, instead of one big ZAP!, you’d just get a longer, weaker PHHBBBBT. So, get this! The nerve cells connecting to the NEARER battery cells are doubled over into all kinds of squirrelly loops, so that they’re longer and thinner. Longer means that the signal takes longer to travel, and thinner means that the signal travels more slowly. Who cares, you say? Well, this AMAZING mechanism allows all the battery cells to receive their signal to discharge at the same time instead of at different times.

That means (for an adult electric eel) that five to seven hundred watts of pure electrical power can go blasting into whatever the eel is touching, stunning or killing it so that the eel can have a tasty fishy snack. In case you didn’t know, by the way, 600 watts is enough to kill an adult human under the right circumstances, so kids—don’t try this at home!

So why even bring it up? Who cares? Aside from the fact that it’s just SO AMAZINGLY SUPER COOL, it’s frankly pretty incredible to look at an ingenious and intricate design like this and think that it all just evolved out of . . . amino acid chains. Yep, pretty incredible . . . in-credible, I say. “In” being the operative prefix.


Saturday, April 28, 2007

What English are we teaching?

Ok, quiz time everyone. Can anyone guess which of us is #1 and which is #2?


70% General American English
10% Yankee
5% Southern
5% Midwestern
5% Upper Midwestern

50% General American English
20% Yankee
15% Southern
5% Midwestern
5% Upper Midwestern

What Kind of American English Do You Speak?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

A land flowing with . . . squirrel-shaped weavers

About a month ago now, Dave and I hopped into a bus with one other teacher (a Brit named Bob) and about 20 Finns, who have come as foreign exchange students, and headed to the “Paradise of China”: Hangzhou. We were really excited about the trip—not because we believed the guidebook, which told us that it was “a land that flows with milk and honey”—but because it
was our very first opportunity to leave Shanghai and see other
parts of China. Four bus-ride* hours later, we arrived at this beautiful city.

The best part was that there were green, living things all around us. (As opposed to Shanghai, which is very metropolitan and quite
gray.) One of the main
attractions is West Lake. People walk around the lake or take boat rides. It’s absolutely beautiful, even on a rather hazy day.

We also visited a tea house (which ended up being 80 percent sales pitch) and saw a Chinese show that included amazing costumes, acrobatics, singing, a story (mostly in Chinese) of the history of Hangzhou, and several outstanding special effects.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip happened shortly after visiting the Leifeng Pagoda. We took a nice stroll around the lake and then stopped for a quick lunch. We are somewhat limited as to what places we can eat at because we really like to order food from a menu that has either English or pictures. We found a place that looked promising, so we took a seat and started perusing the menu. As soon as I saw the words “Squirrel-shaped weaver,” I knew what I was going to order. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to find out a weaver was, not to mention a squirrel-shaped one. Dave and Bob ordered something sensible, and then we waited . . . and waited.

Now you have to understand that food here normally takes about 5 to 10 minutes to prepare back in the kitchen. I guess it’s the nature of stir-fry. So after 20 minutes passed, we got the waitress’s attention and pointed at the receipt. We were running out of time. She was really nice—she took our receipt and headed back to the kitchen. But then she returned a few minutes later and casually set the receipt back on our table. Another person from the wait staff passed. And we had a replay of the same actions. Finally, after 30 minutes had passed (and we now had no time to eat our food), we had to leave. I guess I’m doomed to live without knowing what a squirrel-shaped weaver looks like.

What followed next was a rather brisk walk back to the bus and a trip of about 4 hungry-bus-ride** hours back to Shanghai. All in all, a really fun time. Hope you enjoy the pictures that follow.


* 1 bus-ride hour seems equal to approximately 1.25 normal hours, making our trip feel like 5 hours.

**1 hungry-bus-ride hour seems equal to at least 1.5 normal hours.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

File under "Juxtapositions to Remember"

Elijah brought this to my attention and it was too funny not to pass it on, given my academic heritage. This is from an article entitled The World's Most Controversial Religious Sites. That Foreign Policy (hardly a third-rate rag) could put these places in the same category blows my mind.


Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Princess Bride: Through Chinese Eyes (But English Tongues)

Some of the things that our students write are inadvertantly hilarious. When we watched Princess Bride a while back, I asked them to tell me what their favourite and least favourite characters were, and why. Here are a few that elicited a laugh (at least from me).

Christina's Favourite Part:
Westley fights with the big animal which is like a chimpanzee. He is very in dangerous, but in the end, he wins.

Jessie's Character Evaluation:
Who is your favourite? Farm boy. Why? Handsome. Who is the worst in the film? Buttercup. Why? I love farm boy, but he loves Buttercup.

Janet's Least Favourite Character (so much for damsels in distress):
Who is the worst in the film? Buttercup. When her lover Westley has danger she becomes stupid don’t know what to do.

Helen's Least Favourite Person:
I hate the little boy. He always interrupt the story when I really want to know what happened next.

Jacky's Favourite Line (somewhat lost in translation)
"Hello, I'm Inigo. Prepare to die!"

Meet the Press

Friday we had a press conference. By "we," I mean the Shanghai Institute of Health Sciences. We were all 'strongly encouraged' to be there, so I figured, hey, why not? Can't be too bad. I thought it would be best if I wore a suit, since I didn't know who else would be there or what they would be wearing. This proved to be my great mistake.

When we arrived, the Finns (Finnish exchange students who are always extremely cheerful, despite understanding even less of what's going on than we do) were already there. We all trooped over to the big conference room, made ourselves comfy in the big leather chairs at the back of the room, and waited. And waited.

After about half an hour of dozing in the fancy chairs and checking our watches, there was a sudden flurry of activity and the administration of the school, trailed by twenty or thirty reporters and cameramen, trooped in. 'Great,' I thought, 'Now we just sleep in our back-row seats for the next hour or two, and-- '

But it was not to be. The head of the international division bounced up and imperiously gestured at a chair at the conference table. "You will sit here, yes?" It wasn't a question. Curse my fancy suit! I was the only teacher wearing one.

I sat at the table for the next hour and a half, looking seriously and thoughtfully from speaker to speaker, wishing I could understand Chinese and praying that no-one would ask me a question. Knowing a few words in Chinese is perhaps better than knowing none at all, but it makes the speeches sound like this: "Blah blah blah blah we blah blah blah two blah blah blah blah blah Shanghai blah blah we blah blah. Ha ha ha ha!" This kind of thing is rather trying to one's nerves.

I actually spent most of the time darting envious glances at the reporter across from me, who was entirely engaged in trying to prop his chin up on his notepad so that he could sleep. He wasn't even pretending to stay awake. The only really scary part was when one of the reporters stood up and began speaking in English. As soon as she did, I knew she was going to ask me a question. Thankfully, I babbled some pablum about how Chinese students work hard to secure a better future for themselves and sat down again without embarassing myself too much.

Maybe I'll show up on the Shanghai evening news. It's happened to other teachers. Next time, I'm wearing my pajamas.