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.