Monday, September 29, 2008

What a strange teacher we have . . .

One of the more common things that we do in an attempt to improve our students’ listening skills is dictation. This consists of reading a passage to the class while they attempt to write it down. Sounds simple, but amongst the reasonably accurate transcriptions there are sometimes rather bizarre (and occasionally unprintable) typos. Grading them can be a hilariously Mad-Gab-like exercise.

This is what the students thought I was saying as I dictated a paragraph about our vacation at the beach.

I didn’t want to go to the beech, because I thought it would be boiling. (True . . . boiling trees can be dangerous. Of course, I meant boring.)

I realized that the ocean and the sand and some guy were actually all very preteen. (Ten points if you can figure out what I said.)

I relaxed in red and interesting book.

We cut many animals that live in the water, such as carbs. (It was a very violent, but low-calorie, vacation.)

I was sorry to live. (That's what a relaxing week at the beach can do to you, folks)


UPDATE: Alfredo (see the comments section) has guessed correctly. Ten points for you, Alfredo. You can redeem those for flights starting at fifteen thousand points.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

China Sidelights I: Duck . . . but NOT RICE!

The Chinese take their food very seriously, as well they might. We benighted North Americans tend to think of Chinese food as takeout – sweet and sour whatever, various permutations of chicken, some rice, and an egg roll or two on the side. And, of course, fortune cookies. That is rather a misrepresentation of authentic Chinese food.

The Chinese have eight major schools of cuisine (or ten, if you include Beijing and Shanghai as separate schools) that are as different from each other as Amish from Tex-Mex. Each style has a dozen or more signature dishes that range from volcano-hot stewed tofu to live shrimp soaked in liquor. A formal meal here, no matter what style of cuisine is being observed, is an impressive sight to behold, and a far more impressive feat to consume (as you're aware if you’ve been following this blog).

Knowing this, we wanted to sample the specialty food of each locale that we visited. We started with Beijing Duck (sometimes called Peking Duck) in, uh, Beijing. We asked our tour guide in for directions to a good duck place near our hotel, and finally found the place some three blocks away. Its sign was nearly hidden beneath a mass of brass plaques, each one denoting an award won or some government recognition achieved. This looked promising, so we strolled in and were directed by a veritable conveyer belt of bowing, gesturing waiters and hostesses to a table near the kitchen.

Beijing duck is a pleasantly simple meal, which is good, since we had to order it all in English, and the servers were clearly not used to tourists. We ordered duck for five people, and then sat around sipping Coke and waiting for the arrival of the unfortunate waterfowl.

In perhaps ten minutes, a businesslike chef appeared, pushing a cart topped with a platter bearing our duck. It had roasted to a crispy and mouth-watering brown, and smelled delicious. Without so much as a glance at us, the chef got to work slicing the meat off of the bone in small, thin strips. As he did so, a stream of smiling servers brought us dainty plates bearing slivers of carrot, celery, and cucumber, and shallow bowls filled with the tangy black sauce for which Beijing duck is known. There was also a wooden dish containing something like flour tortillas, but very small and so thin that they were translucent.

In fact, Beijing duck is eaten a bit like a burrito – the thin tortilla-things are filled with an assortment of vegetable slivers, a few slices of roast duck, and a daub or two of black sauce, then rolled up and devoured by the discerning gourmet. It is, as the Chinese would say, very delicious.

Unfortunately for us, not all present were discerning gourmets – at least, not in the eyes of our Chinese hostess. Our companion Brian, hungry from sight-seeing and less concerned with authenticity than with sustenance, ordered a bowl of rice to go with dinner. So far, so good. When it arrived, however, he decided to supplement the diminutive little wraps, and began spooning a generous helping of it into his wrap. He was interrupted in this operation by a cry from behind our table – the hostess had spotted us.

“No, no!” she said, rushing to the aid of the hapless (and obviously clueless) American tourist who was about to ruin his culinary experience. “No” being the limit of her English, she communicated through gestures and a torrent of passionate Chinese that putting rice in one’s duck wrap was Not A Good Thing and was Not Done by cultured people. She then slowly coached Brian through the process of undoing his mistake, obviously concerned that he be educated out of his barbarism.

Brian (amid gales of laughter from his unsympathetic friends) objected that he didn’t care if it was the right way to do it or not – he was hungry! After a few fruitless rounds of protest, however, he caved in and meekly allowed the hostess to direct him.

Having cast her pearls before swine, the hostess retired, leaving Brian to furtively stuff rice back into his tortilla and cram it into his mouth before she could catch him. The exchange may not have been culturally sensitive (on either side), but I think it was the funniest dinner show I’ve ever seen.

And when combined with the fine two-liter bottle of Coke, it proved to be more than worthy of all the brass-plate endorsements I can imagine. What more could the discerning gourmet wish for?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mixed Messages: T-shirt sighting of the day

One cute little freshman was wearing a black t-shirt. On the front, in white block letters, was ARMY.

On the back, at the very top, in small glittering gold script, was call me pusspuss.

I guess she's trying to tap that aggro-cute vibe. Or something.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Vocabulary mayhem

We gave an evaluation test to the incoming freshmen last week. Whereas many of them decided to leave certain questions blank, a few brave souls attempted to write sentences for the vocabulary words we gave them.

Some were successful. Others . . . well, others were successful in making me smile while grading this afternoon. Here are some gems of malapropism.

Sneak is a very dangerous animal.

Young people should not eat more sneaks.
(No, because that would be canabalism.)

This kind of sneak is very popular with students.

Nowdays, more and more young people are interested in sneak.

Don’t tube anybody.

Tube it right now!
(To tube, or not to tube . . . ?)

English is a very important curse to students.
(Hmmm . . . I’ll assume she meant course.)

My study life is very busy. I have many curses.

Finally, the doctor cursed the patient.

She accurated me because I didn’t open the window before I left.
(And this is an example of why English is just so tricky. I believe that the student accurately identified accurate as a synonym of correct. Correct, however, can be a verb, while accurate . . . well, you know the rest of that English lesson.)

I revive the cake happily.

I have revived the book.

In order to develop my English, we should revive my English after the class.

I want to ask my friend to tell me about the meaning of devastate.
(But I’m glad you didn’t—because that would be cheating.)


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair

There’s nothing after a hot day of climbing the Great Wall of China than to head back into town and get into a refreshing . . . train. Actually, I can think of several things more refreshing than a train, but since we were determined to see all of China’s cultural relics in as little time as possible, a train was what we got. Another overnight train, to be specific – this one from Beijing to Xi’an.

One of the things that Des and I really liked about our trip was that Beijing and Xi’an are, in many ways, the opposite of Shanghai: ancient, storied, and steeped in cultural history. Shanghai, by contrast, is a thoroughly modern metropolis with practically no history at all – it wasn’t even a walled city until 1553. Of course, it's got to mean something that one of the upstart young settlements in China is twice as old as some people's whole country.

The first amazing thing that we were taken to see was the famous Wild Goose Pagoda, built at the beginning of the 6th century by Empress Wu in honor of the monk Xuanzang. No doubt you’re nodding your heads in recognition right now. The Pagoda (so named because – no joke – a bunch of wild geese once flew by it) is actually a large compound containing not only the pagoda, but also a library, temple, art museum, interpretive center, some very nice bathrooms, and a few dozen Buddhist monks. It was all pretty enough, but I mostly spent a lot of time wandering around, looking at the extremely extensive embossed brass paneling that detailed the life and enlightenment of Xuanzang and trying to figure out what on earth was going on. So now he’s on an elephant – and who are these women with what look like laser beams shooting out of their heads? – and why is this guy on fire? If anyone from the Wild Goose Pagoda interpretive center is reading this, please! Put some of those signs in English!

As thrilling as the legendary Wild Goose Pagoda was, however, surely there can hardly be a greater artifact of Chinese cultural heritage than The Terra Cotta Soldiers™ (yes, I know, I said all the same stuff about the Wall last week. I’m telling you, that’s what it’s like to travel in China!). So famous are the crumbled members of this army that you can buy terra cotta warriors of all shapes and sizes virtually everywhere. In Xi’an, however, the marketing of these earthen individuals is particularly egregious. Before we could be taken to the actual tomb of Qin Shi Huang and see the actual army which he actually ordered to be built for him, we first had to go to the Terra Cotta Soldiers™ Factory, from which millions of warriors, great and small, pour forth every year. Several thousand of those warriors, I estimate, were thrust under my nose to the shouted chorus of “Three dollar! Very nice!” As an aside, it’s always bad when you’re quoted prices in USD. Very bad.

Having escaped from the factory with my wallet unscathed, however, (much to the chagrin of the factory workers) we made our way to the tomb, which we learned is an active dig site where archaeologists (who must have had the day off when we were there) are busily extracting the remainder of the army. It was not really what I had expected, and though I very much enjoyed it, I suspect that Desiree was a bit disappointed. “I thought it would be underground,” she said more than once. “This is just like a big gym.” Which, in all fairness, it was. It was like a big, hot gym crowded with thousands of people and a few hundred priceless relics.

The warriors themselves, though rather farther away than I would have liked, were just as interesting as I had imagined. Indeed, the whole tomb was amazing – Qin Shi Huang (whom you may remember from earlier posts was the first emperor of unified China) ordered construction to begin the year after his ascension to the throne of the Qin kingdom, at the tender young age of 22, which seems to me to be a bit young to be pondering your ultimate demise. Maybe he was just morbid.

At any rate, it seems that one can have quite an impressive tomb built if one is willing to wait for thirty-six years. In fact, the only Qin building that rivaled his tomb was reputed to be his five-kilometer-long palace, which was unfortunately burned shortly after his death. The Terra Cotta guys aren't all of the mausoleum -- not by a long shot. It seems that Qin's actual resting place (the central mound of which the pottery army is only a fringe decoration) was built as a miniature replica of his earthly kingdom, complete with jeweled constellations studding the roof and flowing rivers of mercury. I was crushed to learn that this central tomb has not yet been excavated, although the archaeologists' scanning devices (X-rays, ultrasonic rays, Ouija boards, or who knows what) have given them some confidence that the tomb is undisturbed. Of course, the automated poison crossbow traps (not kidding) may have helped with that.

It is rather ironic, though, that a man as capable and ambitious as Qin Shi Huang should have met such an end. He survived numerous assassination attempts, but this king of kings, who was such a tyrant that he tried to burn all the books and execute all the scholars in all of China, apparently died from swilling mercury pills that his court doctors hoped would make him immortal.

Now, his big fancy tomb is swarmed every day by zillions of camera-wielding tourists and local entrepreneurs hoping to make a quick buck selling replicas of the replicas of the soldiers that he condemned to guard him for all eternity. Kind of funny, really.