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.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Easter eggs

Easter was a beautiful day in Shanghai. Before the weekend, however, I shared a little bit of Easter tradition with my students. We talked about how Americans celebrate this day, and that led to one activity I just couldn’t pass up: coloring Easter eggs. This required that I first purchase 130 eggs from the market near the school. I bought 40 one day and 90 the next. I think that the people at the market think I’m crazy. The first day, I had a crowd of about 7 people watching me as I counted out the eggs. The second day, the man that I had purchased from before was not there. When I looked around for eggs, one of the girls saw me and said, “Egg” as she pointed to the next store.

I tried to find the lightest colored eggs that they had. The duck eggs were white, but I wanted to stick with what I knew (and most chicken eggs we find are brown here). The first day, I really hit the jackpot: 40 cream-colored eggs.

My next set of students weren’t quite so lucky. I warned them that the eggs I was used to were white and that the brown eggs might not turn out how we expected. But that didn’t keep some of my students from attempting to dye a brown egg purple. One of them came up to me after she had created a sort of brownish-gray egg. “Purple!—Awh?!” she cried, more than a little disappointed. But most of the other colors turned out quite well.

Then, to make sure that all of the people at the market definitely think that I’m crazy, I went back to buy 15 more to make colored eggs for the teachers. When I walked in, all of them just stared and smiled at me. They must think, “Wow, Americans really like eggs.” I know that few if any of them have heard of Easter.


As you wish . . .

Today, since we were all caught up in the textbook and I wanted to do an extended listening exercise with my girls, I borrowed Elijah's digital projector and watched The Princess Bride. Four times. In a row. And all I have to say is . . .

This movie is awesome! It's probably been ten years since I watched this movie (before today), but I have to say that if you're one of the few people I know who hasn't seen it, you're missing out big time. It's got something for everyone. A few favourite exchanges:

"Truly, you have a dizzying intellect." "Wait till I get going! . . . where was I?"

"We'll never survive!" "Nonsense; you're only saying that because no-one ever has."

"Give us the gate key." "I have no gate key." "Fezzik, tear his arms off." "Oh, you mean this gate key."

And of course, our personal favourite: "It's possible . . . pig." If you haven't ever heard Des and I say this, just get one of us to say "It's possible." The other has to finish the quote!


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Driving Miss Crazy

Transportation in China is an interesting proposition. With 1.3 billion people and a transportation infrastructure lagging behind a bit, most people use bicycles or public transportation. In fact, on city streets, there are three lanes to a side -- two for vehicles, and one for bikes . . . and the more impatient motorists. You won't see many of the traditional rickshaws (in fact, I haven't seen any; sorry Dad W.), but you'll see lots of busses. And taxis. Tons of taxis, in fact. Floods of taxis. Forests of taxis. Taxis everywhere. Accessibility of transit is not a problem.

The transit itself, however, is . . . well, like most other things here, it's a bit different. Busses are generally clean and comfy (if you get a seat; good luck with that), and many around Shanghai are even equipped with television screens to display the local and world news. Bus drivers here don't put a premium on smooth shifting, however, and you can pretty well expect to do your best unintentional headbanger impression. Some, in fact, appear to be only marginally aware of the existence of the clutch, and cheerfully lurch from one gear to the next while completely stopped -- a transition accompanied by the most hideous grinding noises.

Taxis are much smoother and, naturally, quicker. The incredibly low cost of taxis by comparison with the Western world make them very useful when speed or space is at a premium. We took a taxi from downtown Shanghai to our front door in thirty minutes last night and spent 90 RMB (split three ways; it works out to about $3.75 a person). The same trip by public transit takes two hours and costs 10 RMB, or about $1.25.

The really interesting part of travelling around urban China is the driving itself. Chinese drivers have only one goal in life: to overtake the person in front of them, no matter how close or far away that person may be. Oncoming traffic in the other lane merely provides an amusing challenge. Lane markers are viewed as the barest of suggestions, rather than fixed rules, and I have only once ever witnessed the use of a turn signal (it was probably a terrible oversight on the driver's part, and I pretended not to notice).

When changing lanes, passing, turning, tailgating, speeding up, slowing down, or doing anything else, Chinese drivers honk their horns. This can be a bit alarming to a first-time passenger in a Shanghai taxi (did I mention that taxis have their seatbelts removed?), as his driver will zoom through red lights, nearly annihilate bicyclists, execute U-turns on the highway and the like, all the while honking furiously. I have been in the front seat of a taxi which attempted to pass an entire caravan of slow-moving trucks by driving in the opposing lane for perhaps a quarter of a mile while the driver laid on the horn and oncoming busses swerved into the bicycle lane to avoid hitting us.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this chaos is that no-one seems to be bothered by it. Drivers do not shout, curse, or even gesture at other cars. It seems that a few honks suffice, no matter what the offense. I have not yet witnessed an accident (though pedestrians are responsible to avoid accidents, not motorists), but hey -- there's a first time for everything.

I just hope I'm not in the taxi when it happens.