Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The People's Liberation Summer Camp

Last night, without much enthusiasm, I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and trudged down the stairs to hit the track. I don’t really enjoy exercise (shocker, I know), but I’m making yet another go of it this semester. Slow and steady, right? I’ve just been a bit heavy on the slow and a bit light on the steady.

Our track, like most, I imagine, is usually pretty sparsely attended in the evenings. There are a few students who run, more who stroll, and a generous smattering who lurk in dark corners making out with their girlfriends. From time to time I think of purchasing one of those battery-powered emergency floodlights and bringing it and a megaphone to the track at about 8:30 PM. You can get pretty close to those making-out couples before they notice you, and the comedic possibilities are endless. But I digress.

When I got to the track last night, it was completely overrun with students in groups of twenty, each girl wearing a full uniform and clutching a water bottle. At the head of each group was a young man in an army uniform – our students were still in the throes of freshmen military training.

It isn’t compulsory military service; at least, not in any recognizable sense. As far as I can tell, it seems to exist mostly to instill a vague sense of patriotism and discipline in the students. It only lasts for a week, and it consists primarily of three things: wearing bright blue camouflage uniforms, standing or sitting in ranks, and listening to speeches from real soldiers. There’s also a bit of marching and running, although the marching is a little shabby looking, since they only have a week to perfect their technique. In my mind, any productive military training would have to involve weapons of some kind, but I concede that the officers in charge might have a better idea of what constitutes ‘productive’ than I do.

Last night, the students were sitting in groups, watching their commanding officers make speeches, sing songs, and tell jokes. Two of the officers appeared to be putting on a skit of some kind, and another officer on the other side of the field was conducting vigorously while his group belted out what I took to be some martial chorus. Other officers (I say officers, but they were wearing camo and it was dark, so I’m not sure) practiced martial arts forms. It was intimidating at first, walking across a track full of soldiers, but a rigorous lack of discipline became apparent pretty quickly. One of the students waved me down.

“Hi, Dave!” she called. “I am Snoopy! Do you remember me?” She was attempting to master an advanced technique that involved marching in lockstep, turning her head ninety degrees, and saluting (presumably at a flag), but she and her allies kept getting about three goose-steps into the march and dissolve into giggles.

Other students broke ranks to wave or laugh. “Hello, I love you!” one girl shouted every time we passed her, to the laughter of her squadmates. Others were clapping and singing, and one girl was trudging across the field in her camo jacket and cap, neon green gym shorts, and flip-flops. Even the soldiers were less imposing than they had first appeared – one was away from the others, putting the moves on an older student, and another waved and said “Hi, hi! Hello!” as we crossed behind his group.

What looked rather ominous from a distance turned out, on closer inspection, to be rather benign. In fact, it was a lot like the Wilds, with more camouflage and communism. The only question I have now is this: where in the world are you supposed to hide if you’re wearing bright blue camo?


P.S. Forgive my lack of pictures ... something's not coming up on the site. I have a picture, and I'll post it as soon as I can, I promise!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Mind of a Child

If you're a parent and/or a thoughtful person (in the sense that you think about things, not in the sense that you don't ask your impoverished grandmother to pick up your lunch tab for you), you may have wondered what babies think about.

I certainly do. Chloe emerged two months ago. She sleeps, eats, and ensures that her excretory system is in good working order. She waves her arms, clenches her fists, wiggles her fingers and toes, and kicks her feet vigorously. She looks at things around her (especially lights and other bright things). Sometimes she frowns; sometimes she smiles. Last week, I discovered that if I caught her eye (harder to do than it sounds) and grinned, she'd smile, too, and even laugh. Sometimes she cries, and occasionally she out-and-out screams.

And that makes me wonder. What's going on in her brain when she does all this? Does she think "I wonder what that light is for?" "I wonder why I can't get any milk out of Daddy's arm / the chair / the carpet / my hand?" Does she even realize that the hand is hers? Does she experience life like the sperm whale in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

I have a theory: that being born is kind of like being shown onto the deck of the U.S.S. Enterprise. "Here's your ship!" the attendant says, and then walks out, leaving you with no crew and no instruction manual. So you spend the next four or five years pushing buttons and pulling levers more or less at random, trying to figure out what to do in order to reverse the polarity on the deflector array or reprogram the warp nacelles or something. Occasionally you figure out that this sequence of buttons does this thing, and eventually, everything works so well that you can't remember not being able to do things (like we are as adults). But in the meantime, the captains of the vessels around you have a good laugh at your expense as you beam the mess hall into space, shoot yourself with your own phasers, and commit other various indignities.

The real kicker is that once Chloe's old enough to actually tell us what she's thinking, she won't be able to remember any of it. All we can do is hope that she gets control-savvy enough to manage the waste disposal sooner, rather than later.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Grandpa's Backyard

Lying back and crushing spikes of grass,
Blueness reaching out eternally on every side,
Except a thousand maple leaves above us
That keep us cool and shady;
Chloe and I, staring up at the sky.
She laughing,
I loving.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Life of the Party (on the Plane)

If I was still in sales or worked in marketing, I might begin my post today like this: Do you travel much? Do you ever wonder how you can ingratiate yourself with your fellow travelers? If so, I have some great news for you – a SURE-FIRE, 100% GUARANTEED method of making friends FAST! There are no tricks – no strings attached – no gimmicks – and you can master this method in TEN MINUTES! When you get off the plane, everyone around you will LOVE YOU!

Sorry about that. I get these little ads that pop up on Gmail or Facebook with some regularity that say things like “SECRETS YOUR DOCTOR WON’T TELL YOU!” as though he hates you and is out to get you. Invariably, the text under the ad has something like what I’ve written above. But seriously, this would work – so maybe you’re curious. The way to win friends and influence people on an airplane is to bring one little thing with you … (wait for it) … a baby.

Or, more precisely, a tiny, cute, (and most important) sleeping baby. There are three steps in the process of winning the hearts and minds of your fellow travelers:

First, get on the plane carrying a baby. This will immediately make you the center of attention, mostly consisting of sideways glances as you walk down the aisle and whispered prayers of “Please, not next to me, please please please not here …” This might not seem like a good thing, but it’s a crucial first step because it gets everyone focused on you. If you walked down the aisle by yourself, nobody would give you a second glance, and they probably wouldn’t be that impressed with you later on.

Now we’ve got everyone’s attention, and particularly that of the people who are sitting near you. They’ve probably flashed you a few tight-lipped smiles. The really blunt ones might be ignoring you, making faces out the window, or scanning the rest of the plane for empty seats. A few friendly people might be complimenting you on your baby, but even they are wondering just how colicky she is and how long it will be before she wakes up. This is where step two comes in: apologizing in advance and showing off the kid. You know everyone’s thinking of your child as a ticking time bomb of misery, so you may as well acknowledge it and clear the air. A wry grin, and a sincere “Sorry-for-my-child-disturbing-your-sleep-later-but-she’s-only-three-weeks-old” will ingratiate you with your fellow passengers. It establishes you as not being one of the Evil Parents who view the world as a stage for their children to shine on, since you’re acknowledging the inconvenience. Plus, she really is cute, so the non-hardened people will feel a little bit guilty for wishing you ill earlier. They’ll probably admire the baby and then settle back down into their chairs, assured in the knowledge that at least you didn’t bring the child maliciously in order to inconvenience them.

Step three is the tricky one: ensuring that the baby sleeps for the remainder of the flight. (I recommend putting in a request for a sleepy kid when she’s conceived.) It’s best if she wakes up once or twice, and even if she cries a little (say, less than thirty seconds). This will awaken fear in those who are around you, which will then be immediately assuaged and will further convince them that there’s nothing to worry about and that your kid really is very cute.

By the time the plane lands, the people who inwardly cursed you when you got on will be smiling and complimenting your infant as you shuffle around and wait for the first-class passengers to get off. Even the most unfriendly will grin at your baby as you walk out of the plane, and everyone in your vicinity will remark (silently or aloud) at how surprisingly good your baby was and how they were dreading the flight for nothing. Their whole day will be brighter, and all thanks to you and your child!

The only thing I haven’t gotten down is the marketing aspect of this plan. Maybe I could sell a realistic sleeping baby doll that frequent flyers could carry around with them in order to make friends. I’d buy one myself, but I’m all set with cute sleeping babies for right now.


Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let me see! I want to see!

There’s some basic human impulse, deep within all of us, that makes us want to see what other people are seeing. Who among us could resist the temptation to look up, if we saw half a dozen other people staring at a point above our heads? Let’s call it the me-too response. For some reason, the human psyche is hard-wired to want to know what the interesting thing is that other people are looking at.

As you might know if you’ve spent much time traveling, basic human impulses like these are expressed differently in different cultures. And if we can call this impulse, as experienced by North Americans, the me-too response, then in China, it’s the me-four or me-eight response. Nothing draws a crowd like a crowd.

This afternoon, Des and I went to the local supermarket to pick up some groceries. The baby, dozing in her stylish sling, accompanied us. Chloe is adorable, especially in such fashionable gear, and so naturally she draws looks and comments wherever she goes. But today, we did something we haven’t done before: we stopped to let someone admire her. A pair of old ladies, trailed by a little girl, corralled us and insisted on doting on Chloe for a few moments, which we were happy to let them do. A few seconds later, a college student stopped and began to translate their questions and remarks. A housewife wandered over from the vegetable stand. A sunburned man peered over my shoulder and chuckled at Chloe’s little hands waving in the air. In less than thirty seconds, we were obstructing the aisle, and people were converging on us from every display within a hundred feet. We fled the scene while there were still escape routes open to us.

On Sunday, a friend and I were driving through one of the busier parts of Shanghai when traffic came to a complete standstill. We inched forward for five minutes until we came in view of perhaps fifty or sixty people standing in the center of the intersection blocking traffic. Old men in their pajamas, guys in suits, hardhatted workmen stripped to the waist with shovels over their shoulders, ladies holding shopping bags, and the like were crowding in, trying to get a glimpse of what was obviously an accident. There were so many people that, even as we drove by, I could hardly see what was happening. I spotted what I think was a guy sitting on the pavement, and possibly a policeman talking to him. The cops weren’t even trying to get people to leave.

Maybe this is just another way that gregarious, uninhibited societies like the Chinese express themselves, and things are the same in places like Brazil. Or maybe the traffic accident was a fluke, and my daughter has some kind of mysterious Pied Piper-like power over other people, even in her infancy. As long as I’m immune, I’m hoping for the latter.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Nine things I did not expect to happen when I became a father

* The hospital food to be delicious. I mean, seriously – whoever cooked those vegetables, can I get a recipe?
* My child to be cute. I’m well aware of massive bias that may be warping my perceptions, so take this one with a chunk of salt. But for what it’s worth, it’s not just that I think most newborns have a semi-human, vaguely Cro-Magnon appearance, it’s that I expected my daughter to look like that too. Take a look at the pictures and form your own judgments.
* Thirty-seven students and co-workers to come and visit us. I definitely didn’t expect people that I had never even met to come by just to see the baby. It was a lot of fun.
* Thirty-seven people to bring presents for the baby, from finger puppets to peaches to dresses to ceramic figurines to custom-made calendars to Italian language-learning toys.
* To be given six blocks of imported Extra-Sharp Cheddar because one of our friends knew that western people like cheese, and it would help Desiree recover quickly to eat her favorite food.
* To discover that the baby can be made to stop crying by tossing her up in the air. She doesn’t seem to like it, but she stops crying. Weird, huh?
* To feel compelled to take pictures of little Chloe in every conceivable position and activity. I think I’ve taken more pictures in the last two weeks than in the previous two years combined.
* To be deluged by traditional Chinese advice, mostly for Desiree (“You shouldn’t walk! You shouldn’t get out of bed! You should have stayed in the hospital for another two weeks! You should turn off the air conditioner! You should drink tea/ginger/weird stuff! You shouldn’t take any medicine! You should make your husband do all the cooking and cleaning!”), much of which seems to be ignored by the advice-givers. Well, except for the part about me doing all the cooking and cleaning.
* To derive so much enjoyment from a non-sentient, non-aware, mostly unconscious and basically non-interactive person. And I figure it can only get better from here.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The REAL Ghost Towns of the Yangtze (or maybe the Huangpu)

I don’t know much about economics. In my cart at Amazon.com there is a copy of Economics for Dummies. I added it a few months ago when Iceland went bankrupt. I spent a week reading articles online trying to figure out why and being stymied by byzantine paragraphs occupied with things like transnational investment funds. Occasionally, I see things (other than my Roth IRA statement) that seem to me to be connected in some way with the global finance crash, but I mention this deficiency of mine at the beginning of this article in order to caution you that there may actually be no link between my observations and the current (recent?) economic crisis. Draw your own conclusions.

Right now Desiree and I are staying at a friend’s house while we wait for the baby to arrive (she’s four days late as I type this). Our friend is employed by an important multinational corporation which has put him up in a nice duplex; the second-largest dwelling I have seen during my two and a half years in China (the largest was inhabited by a British employee of an even more important multinational corporation).

It, along with a few hundred similar duplexes, is part of a big community, fully equipped with a wall, two gates, a complement of uniformed guards, three or four playgrounds, a decorative canal filled with water lilies, and other such pleasant amenities. I was out strolling through these amenities tonight when I came to a small river dividing this property from the one next to it. Across the water was a cluster of low- and medium-rise apartment buildings, painted a muted blue. It reminded me vaguely of a prison.

I had been walking along the river for a minute or so when I suddenly realized what was so uninviting about those apartments: all the lights were off. In all the windows. Another moment’s inspection confirmed that there were no strings of clothes hanging out to dry (a completely ubiquitous feature of any Chinese apartment building), no curtains, no posters, and no vehicles in the parking lot. It was completely uninhabited.

I walked the length of the wall that abutted the river, and did some counting. There were eleven small buildings, each with forty-eight visible units, and six large buildings double the size of the small ones. That means that I could see eleven hundred apartments (give or take) – all empty.

It definitely wasn’t an old complex, nor an uncompleted one. The paint job looked as fresh as any paint job ever does here, and the runty little palm trees that had been installed as landscaping starters were still surrounded by slabs of turf that showed ugly seams of earth between them, like Frankenstein stitching along the ground. There was a bright and shiny and un-played-upon playground, and I could see the green glow of EXIT signs through the stairwell windows on every floor.

So that means that someone, or more likely, a lot of people, decided to build one thousand one hundred plus apartments, with all the accoutrements, without ever obtaining one single human being to live in them.

Now maybe that’s par for the course. I’m not a builder or an investor. But I do know two things that seem important to me. First, an empty building is not a happy building. Somebody built that thing with this kind of math in his head: (1100 apartments x (3000 yuan per month – regular expenses)) – overhead = Lots of money for MEEEEE!!! And now he’s having to do some less pleasant arithmetic. I used to see abandoned buildings in Greenville – the empty Future Shop and K-Mart on Laurens Road, or the perpetually failing restaurants on Wade Hampton, across the bridge from BJU. They never looked happy either.

Second, I’ve seen far more empty buildings here in Shanghai than I ever did in Greenville. The complex that I saw tonight is less than half of the size of a major community on the same road as our school. It was empty for two full years, and even now only appears to be about one-quarter full. I’ve probably seen ten more just like it, all new. If you’re counting new and old abandoned buildings, then I have no idea how many I’ve passed.

So what gives? Is it that Shanghainese builders were banking on an emerging market that never emerged? Did the crash in investments prevent a new wave of Chinese professionals from obtaining newer, better accommodations? Is this some weird Shanghai way of doing business, necessitated, perhaps, by local laws and permits? Are the apartment buildings actually being used by invisible space vampires, bent on world domination (beginning with the Pudong district)?

Unfortunately, I have no idea. I sent an inquiring message to the Oracle of Stephen the Guy Who Knows Something About Everything, but I never heard back. If anyone else has any keen insights, feel free to pass them along. Until then, I’m steering clear of those empty complexes. Just in case it’s the vampires.


Under the Radar

You may have been wondering why we haven’t posted on this blog since May. Some of you have asked me as much. While busyness and sloth play their usual role, the main reason is that the blogger.com domain has been unavailable to us (and to everyone in China) for about a month and a half. Safe in the warm embrace of the Motherland and protected by the vigilant gaze of the guardians of social conformity, we have been saved from falling into that abscess of lawlessness that is blogging. Thanks, guardians!

And in the meantime, of course, we’ve been prevented from contributing to that abscess. I’ve finally decided to work around this wonderful safety net by sending our compositions to a buddy in the States, who posts them for us. Anway – we’re back! Tell all your friends!


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why I hate electronic translators: Part II

You might remember a previous post about this same problem, but recent student papers have made us remember our loathing of these little tools. What can we say, there's a reason that people still need to learn languages. But some of our students still need to learn this lesson....

From one student's research paper:

"Although collects the impression profound breadth, some regions have not represented, for example the watering can, in the Japanese sado's Ming time last stage and the cake tray the incense and candle box which does. Overall, [the topic] has some 7,000 Chinese artware--from Stone Age to the present--900 are just now bright the ceramics. Although collects makes the person impression profound breadth, certain domains have not sent representative to attend, if supplies the watering can, incense box and cake tray in latter Ming dynasty time Japanese sado."

Anyone want to guess her topic?


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Top Seven Things I Have Learned from Student Papers

Well, it's research paper season, and even though we're only in the outline stage, I have already discovered some surprising new facts from my students. If you're into facts for the day or top ten lists, please enjoy the following trivia for this week:

7. The Eiffel Tower was built for the French Revolution.

6. Winfrey’s mother can not stand the crazy child’s behavior, she intends to put the Green into the justice, the beds happen to children is full, she was out. (What I really learned from that sentence: Electronic translators are bad! . . . Oh, wait, I already knew that.)

5. The mummies of the Egyptian pyramids had been protested well.

4. Princess Diana was a good mother because she never let her sons join the recreation.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr., signed the emancipation proclamation.

2. If you stand under the Eiffel Tower, you can feel lots of poems and writers who are come from the last century.

1. The destruction of Pompeii was not a bad thing because it can promote tourism development.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Pregnancy Pictures

Sorry! I posted some pictures on Facebook and totally forgot to put them on our blog. But for those of you interested . . . here they are! This is at about 6 months.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Name Game

It was always a girlish dream of mine to sit around with my husband and discuss baby names. (You know, girls are forever discussing these kinds of things—like wedding colors, for instance.)

That dream ended shortly after Dave and I got married.

While there are loads of things that Dave and I enjoy discussing, it became obvious very fast that naming our future children—especially those who would be female—was not going to be one of them. Conversations went something like this:

Her: What about Madeline*?
Him: No! That sounds so pretentious.
Her: Oh! I know! Sylvia*! I love the name Sylvia!
Him: That makes me think of an old lady. . . Hey! How about Prometheus!
Her: Dave! That's not even a girl's name!
Him: Promethia?
Her: Dave!
Him: You know what I think is a cool name? Magor-mis-abib! It means "Fear on every side."
Her: ::Stunned silence::

So we stopped talking about it—until it became absolutely necessary. In fact, I decided I wasn't even going to bring up the subject until we knew whether we were having a girl or boy—to cut down on the discussion as much as possible.

After we found out we were having a little girl, my mission could not be put off any longer. I had us both sit down and write a list of at least 10 names that we both liked. (Dave ended up with 8, and I ended up with 15, but it was a good start.) It was a surprising success for two reasons: 1) The name Magor-mis-abib did not appear on either list, and 2) we actually had quite a few names that we both liked!

In case you're interested, here they are (in no particular order). We're going to keep thinking about them until Baby Talbert actually makes her appearance. Please feel free to comment on them or give us other suggestions!

Possible first names:
Katherine (to be called Kate)

Possible middle names:
Marie (my middle name)

We'll see what actually happens come June (or July).


* I apologize if this is your name. Please know that I love your name. It would have been one of my first choices!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Through a Student's Eyes

The following is an only-slightly-edited paper that was turned into me for the assignment 'write a detailed description of one of your teachers.' If you're not a friend of mine, this might not do much for you, but it left Des and me in tears. I've included a recent picture of myself for reference.

Dave is a tall and big man. He has a large strong body with a small head. He does not have very dense hair on his head. But he has bushy eyebrows and big eyes. So he has big eyes, his eyes are shortsighted. I always have many questions about College English and the Art of Public Speaking. I always go to ask his question and stand beside his large strong body as a monster. I like standing his large body side because it looks just like bird.

There are dense brown moustaches on mouth. The brown moustaches has a little long. The appearance that Dave touches the moustaches is handsome curiously just like a supter start. His mouth is not very big with pink color as a cherry. Dave’s skin is more white than me as the Princess White Snow. His mouth matches with his nose. Dave’s hand with much meat. I think you have very great power. I can feel that when his interviews me, he shake hands with me.

Dave’s waistline is one time the size of me. Through Dave’s clothes, I can see your chest swell proud flesh. When he takes our class and he was so excited that his chest became electric motor. He feet are so huge that they can endure a heavy pressure. Dave is always wearing a blue-color shirt and brown-color overcoate like Helmet first. I don’t know whether Dave always wears the same trousers.

The first time I saw Dave was in front of building Eight. Dave made me surprised and frightened. He is too huge that maybe can crush me to pieces. After Dessire described her husband at class. He is tall, fat, bald and so on. I know Dave and Dessire has married. Dave is very humorous when having a class.

Dave’s personality is as lovely as his body. He always make all the student largh. He have expression used for overstating very much when speaking Maybe if Dave don’t give me many lovely and beautiful vocabulary, excited quiz and test, and difficult homework*, he will be a perfect man in

by [name withheld to protect those on Facebook]


*I have an in-class habit of always describing my quizzes, tests, handouts, and homework in glowing terms, hoping that my enthusiasm will rub off on the students. So far it hasn't.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hooray for Food Poisoning!

Well, maybe not quite "hooray." But a year or so ago, a friend of mine was robbed, and he sent an email (in the spirit of Matthew Henry) enumerating what he was thankful for on that occasion. I've been thinking about that email recently, particularly since I spent half of this week moaning and groaning and hanging out close to the bathroom door.

I don't know why I got sick. The popular Chinese phraseology would be that "I ate some not fresh food." That seems about right, although nothing that I had consumed in the 24 hours leading up to my attack of the plague appeared suspicious. For whatever reason, though, I did, and I've put together a little mental grist for just such a situation. I am thankful ...

• That I had only food poisoning, and not Sumatran Creeping Doom or flesh-eating disease or that thing I saw on Star Trek where your head turns into grape Jell-O.

• That although food poisoning can be lethal, it did not prove to be so in my case. I’m not even paralyzed! Not even from the waist down!

• That I was afflicted only with gastrointenstinal suffering, and not with breathing difficulties. I’ve had breathing problems before – worst feeling in the world.

• That I have a job where I can take time off if I’m sick, rather than being employed as a U.S. Marine or an enslaved salt miner or something like that where they make you work no matter what you feel like.

• That I had an illness that actually allowed me to do a lot of desk work, rather than being confined to my bed.

• That I could stay at home instead of going to a hospital and being put in a quarantine ward with nurses in HazMat suits. My insurance probably wouldn’t cover that.

• That I have an audiobook version of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (a modest 33 hours long), so that I could listen to something interesting even if I felt too sick to read. Some people can only listen to the radio or watch TV – two possibilities worse than silence.

• That I have an incredibly kind and loving wife who took care of me and made pitying faces at me all week instead of spending her time rereading the life insurance policy.

• That I have a lot of loving friends who live close to me and kept dropping by, asking about my health, offering me medicine, etc.

• That a lot of those friends are nurses, so their offers of medicine have actually helped me instead of making me shrivel up and die or go into raving delusions.

• That I live in a nice little apartment with a modern bathroom instead of in a tent out on the tundra somewhere.

• That I got better after only three days and was actually able to reschedule some of my classes, so I’m only a little behind.

• That my students sent me kind (if occasionally incoherent) messages wishing me good health and a speedy recovery and offering me sometimes dubious medical advice. They didn’t even seem to be too upset when I revived in time to teach a few English classes on Thursday.

In short, it really turned out great. In fact, writing this list has me half-convinced that it was some kind of a vacation.

Then again, that might just be the medicine talking.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Baby bump benefits

Last week, I accomplished a great feat. Last week, I succeeded in looking pregnant.

This is an important task in China because being pregnant (as long as it is accompanied by looking pregnant) comes with a few key benefits.

The most important of these is The Right to Sit in the Yellow Seat. You see, all buses in China have three sections:
1) The standing section--the sad domain of the majority of travellers. It is uncomfortable because of the terrible braking and veering that inevitably tosses you around, and it is especially bad when the bus is crowded because it means that you may end up practically plastered to the slightly inebriated gentleman or the woman carrying the live chicken (common occupants of the bus realm).
2) The normal seats (usually blue, green, or gray). This is the best you can hope for. People have been known to trample slightly inebriated gentlemen and women carrying live chickens for one of these seats.
3) The special seats (a.k.a. the yellow seats). These four or five seats are reserved for three types of people: Women with babies, old people (usually frail-looking old people), and pregnant women. Other people may sit in them, but they will be quickly be shown to the standing section by the ai-yi* if one of the privileged types boards the bus.

The other day, I got on the bus, saw that no seats were available, and tried to find a comfortable corner to stand in for the rest of my trip. With my coat on, I didn't think that I looked pregnant enough to try to take advantage of my new status. However, after she took my money, the ai-yi patted my tummy for confirmation and suddenly grabbed at the man sitting in the closest yellow seat. She indicated that I should sit and seemed to even apologize to me (I heard her say, "I didn't know!").

This weekend, I went shopping with some students and had to take a dreadfully crowded bus. I didn't think that the ai-yi could even see me, and I noticed that at least two of the yellow seats were already occupied with mothers carrying small children. Almost immediately, my two students called out in unison to the ai-yi, and she made her way to the last yellow seat, plucked out the student who had been sitting there, and told everyone to let me sit. I was very thankful to have a seat on that bus ride in particular, and afterward, I told my students how much I appreciated them speaking up. One of them responded, "No problem. It is your right!"

So, while prenancy in China does have a few disadvantages (such as being scolded by students any time I hop, jog, or use my cell phone), it definitely has its privileges. I just better not use my cell phone while I'm sitting in the yellow seat.


*Pronounced I.E., this is the woman that gives out bus tickets. Actually we use this Chinese word (which literally means "aunt") for almost any woman in a blue-collar job.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Useful Things I Have Learned This Week

1. If you take three things to the copy center and and ask them to make 115 copies of each, and then you accidentally leave your lesson plan there, the copy center staff, ever diligent (and unable to read much English), will make 115 copies of your lesson plan. These can then be used for paper hats.

2. If, while making a serious point in class during which is it crucial to have the attention of all sixty students, you accidentally launch a glob of spit onto a girl in the front row, your serious point will be lost in a chorus of shrieking and laughing.

3. If your class of sixty students is shrieking and laughing, and one girl in the front row is jumping up and down and wiping her coat with a kleenex, it will take a minimum of thirty seconds to restore order.

4. If the students' Chinese psychology teacher happens, out of an interest in English, to drop in on your class and observe your lesson, the students' responsiveness and attention to said lesson will increase markedly.

5. If you teach a critical thinking class in which your definition of logic plays a central role, and the same students in your English class the next day cannot recall that definition, nor any of the words therein, nor even if there be such a thing as logic, you will be disappointed. Don't take it too hard. You probably did that to your teachers, too.

6. If a student fails a test, sometimes she will cry. This is a bit awkward, but pretending to receive a phone call and rushing from the room is not the wisest course of action.

7. If you steal a french fry belonging to your wife and replace it with a lemon slice of roughly the same size and weight, she will still somehow see through this clever ruse. I recommend that you try this with your own spouses and resport the results; perhaps mine is preternaturally alert.

8. If your sister tells you that she is planning to make an explosive device "just for fun" when she visits her friends over the weekend, and you point out to her that this is completely insane and on the level of someone who says she is going to learn to juggle flaming chainsaws over the weekend, your sister will think you are angry.

9. If your exercise routine for the past three months has consisted of strolling down to the kitchen to see if there are any brownies left, pushups are hard to do.

10. A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.


P.S. You didn't really think I did that to the crying student, did you? I gave her a tissue. I mean, what else could I do?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Whatever You Do, Don't Click on the Penguins!

This is entry number eleven on today’s to-do list: get group computer set up. Looks small and innocent enough, doesn’t it? But oh, how deceptive small sentences can be.

Most of the teachers who work here own their own laptop computer. One (a Mac cultist) even went so far as to lug his humongous Apple desktop in his suitcase. We also have a wheezing, grimy old group computer that sits in the kitchen. Mostly, it gets used when someone’s personal computer is acting up, or when you just want to check your email really quick in between chopping the carrots and stirring the pasta. At least, we did have a group computer. One day last semester, it let out a monstrous groan and went dark.

A few moments later there was a tap at my door. One of my colleagues stood there, looking apologetic. “Hey, Dave. Something’s wrong with the computer . . . ?” I get this a lot. I love computers. I worked in IT for six months, and I’ve studied for (though not yet taken) my A+ certification exams. In the land of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king. So I’m happy to tinker with people’s equipment – always have been. It’s an opportunity to help out. But with seventeen teachers, the position of unofficial computer support person is sometimes rather time-consuming. Especially in China.

You might think that since all of the computer equipment you own (usually down to the component parts) is stamped with MADE IN CHINA, working on computers in the far east would be essentially the same as working on computers in North America. You’d be wrong. Today’s computer setup (the group computer replacement) was pretty standard – I worked on it for three hours, and it’s almost functional.

Sure, we have our normal issues here – slow connections, mysterious error messages, and spam emails. But we also have more unusual difficulties. In the interests of helping computer users who may find themselves here in the Middle Kingdom, I shall enumerate some common problems and my recommended solutions.

1. Dancing penguins. In our offices, these are known as the Penguins of Death. The frolicking little beasts, which merrily skip about your open web browsers, are feared and loathed as harbingers of doom. With appropriate prayers and repeated virus scans, the deadly arctic fowl may be driven away. If they appear on your desktop when no browser is open, you have been Infected and your computer will soon die. Other users will shun you. Should you attempt to use a USB flash drive in someone else’s computer after being Infected, that person is within her rights to physically attack you to prevent you from doing so. There is no known cure for the Penguins of Death. I recommend that you format your hard drive, then take it out and burn it.

2. Printers. Perhaps there is a printer on your desk which is not printing your documents. This is by design, to encourage you to improve your penmanship. There is no printer paper, anyway. Only one computer in the entire building can print, and it belongs to Annie. She accepts Visa and Mastercard. I recommend Mastercard.

3. Windows Validation Notifier. You may be perturbed by the messages that constantly appear in the corner of your screen, telling you in a concerned-aunt tone of voice that your copy of Windows XP may not be legitimate. The only way to make these disappear is to actually purchase a valid copy of Windows. Unfortunately, only two such copies are available in all of China, and they are currently held up in customs. I recommend that you treat the message as a little in-joke between you and Bill Gates. Imagine him reading it and winking.

4. Cables. Not all computer cables (network cables, power cables, and the like) are created equal. Functional ones are produced in China and exported to the rest of the world for sale. Factory rejects are bundled in brightly-colored packaging and sent to Chinese retail. Connecting your computer to anything – the wall, another computer, the network, your mouse – is an exciting process, since you never know what will happen. I recommend that you smuggle some extra cables in your luggage when you come over to China from somewhere else. And bring some for me, will you?

5. The Internet. The network here is likely to be a low-cost solution. That means that using the internet is kind of like a hundred people with straws all trying to drink from one can of Coke. There isn’t that much to go around (unless you wake up at three in the morning and drink a bunch of Coke while the other hundred people are sleeping. This is a valid strategy and I recommend it if you don’t mind being up at three in the morning). You may also find that the port in the wall may suddenly decide to stop connecting you to the network. This problem can only be resolved by the Computer Staff Member. Unfortunately, our school has no Computer Staff. One will be dispatched within the week. I recommend that you take up Ping-Pong or knitting while you wait.


Monday, February 9, 2009

Roman Candles in Shanghai

As I write this, I can hear the explosions. Some are close – just across the canal behind our school – and others farther away. Some are loud, booming reports that echo through the open spaces between buildings; others are fast strings of staccato pops, like the frenzied death knell of the world’s biggest roll of bubble wrap. It’s been going on since four thirty, and it will continue until midnight or so. If there’s one thing you can count on in a Chinese holiday, it’s fireworks.

Tonight is the Lantern Festival. I haven’t been in any Chinese homes today, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that there are lanterns aplenty. In our school (nadir of eastern values that it apparently is), there’s nary a one. I didn’t even realize that it was today until a student sent me a text message with holiday wishes. Really, though, the pretense doesn’t matter. People here just like to set off fireworks.

It was a little nerve-wracking for the first week or so of my time here in China. I kept thinking that I heard gunshots, and since there didn’t seem to be anything near our school to hunt (seeing as it’s all semi-suburban), I chalked it up to some kind of sporadic military exercise . . . or something. The first time I saw fireworks at night over the city, I poked my head out into the hall to alert my colleagues. “Hey, guys – there’re fireworks out there! What holiday is it?” My experienced co-workers shrugged indifferently. “Who knows?” said one. “Probably just a wedding or something.” “They shoot off fireworks for weddings?” I asked, somewhat incredulously. She laughed. “They shoot off fireworks for everything.”

It’s true. I hardly notice them now. There’s an old commune-style housing center directly across from our school. It’s surrounded by tiny patches of crops and inhabited by maybe ten families of farmers. But those ten families are shooting off firecrackers – and sometimes full-fledged rockets – at least a couple of times a month.

As you probably know, fireworks (a development of gunpowder) originated in China some 700 years ago. Since ancient times, they’ve been an expression of celebration and a symbol of good luck. The people here use them to celebrate weddings, birthdays, the arrival of a new child, the opening of a business, the completion of a building, and any number of other positive developments that fall along the same lines. And of course, for holidays.

In Canada, land of my youth, fireworks are a controlled substance, like industrial dynamite or nuclear warheads (OK, maybe not exactly like nuclear warheads). I remember as a child going with my parents to a hill overlooking Calgary and watching the feeble four-minute display of fireworks that City Hall put on to commemorate Canada Day.

In China, by contrast, I’m told that the fireworks are constant throughout the week-long New Year’s festival (the main event in the Chinese calendar). I told a friend last year that Des and I hadn’t been able to be in China for a New Year’s festival yet. “Lucky you,” he said, only half-joking. “At least you got some sleep.” “Was the partying that noisy?” I asked. “No,” he said, “it’s the fireworks. They never stop, and the noise keeps me up. I’m a mess at New Year’s.”

Of course people get hurt every year. In a city with sixteen million people, most of whom are interested in at least lighting a sparkler or two, simple math leads you to the conclusion that there will be some casualties. But even though I’ve mentioned that I’m not a fan of the lassiez-faire approach that the Chinese take toward safety, I think my homeland could learn a thing or two from them. Standing on my balcony with the wind in my face, with my wife snuggled up against me for warmth (and the occasional kiss), watching the lights blossom and shimmer on the dark horizon and listening to the all-percussion ensemble, it’s hard not to love it.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Don't Brust To Me. I'm Serious.

I have four days left. In four days, a horde of students is going to descend upon my classrooms, filled with all the joie de vivre and enthusiasm for knowledge that you might expect from a post-holiday student, or possibly from a floor lamp. I have anticipated this difficulty, and I'm trying to get ready for them by making English IV as exciting as possible.

But before I can do that, I need to organize what I left behind in a hurry at the end of English III. As I'm poking through dangerously precarious stacks of student writing, I'm finding some good stuff.

As usual, a lot of it comes from students wrestling with slang. I taught them one slang phrase in each class: knock it off, what's up?, give me a break, chill out, take it easy, and the like. Students' brains, however, are often a bit like blenders: what you put in isn't exactly destroyed, it just doesn't come out in the same configuration.

That's why, when I asked them to write a sentence using the slang phrases above, I got answers like these, from the close . . .

I am working hard, so please give me a bread.
Just break me off!
You are bothering me. Cut it off.

. . . to the not-so-close.
I hope you will fed it out soon.
Don't brust to me.

Even specific questions didn't always pan out. Those irregular verbs are tough!
36. Write a sentence using the word 'dude.'
Answer: She dude the test carefully.

We spent some time last week visiting my parents in Canda. While we were there, my father picked up a bar of dark chocolate that was 99% cocoa. Inside the wrapper was a foil insert labelled "Tasting Guide," which purported to tell you how to enjoy chocolate that's 99% cocoa (short version: you'll probably hate it the first few times; just keep eating it until you like it). In the same vein, I offer you a reading guide to the final slang screw-up: for best results, imagine one of my students actually attempting to greet an English-speaking person using these words.

42. What is the slang phrase used to greet someone?
Answer: gerk
This is crossed out, and after a little space is written nerd.
This is again crossed out, followed by nut.
This is scratched out, and she finally decides on jerk, which she underlines for emphasis.

At any rate, I'd better get back to my piles of paper. I know I've been delinquent with this space, and I intend to improve it in the coming semester. Until then, give me a bread, OK? In fact, make it a whole sandwich. It's lunchtime over here.


Friday, January 16, 2009

All Grace

Shanghai is the business and industrial capitol of China, and it shows. There are certainly enough impressive office towers and walled-off factory compounds to go around – they loom on every corner, with bored guards lounging in shacks by the entrances. But driving down the street, you’re likely to see just a few basic kinds of establishments: restaurants (of every shape and kind), shops selling 80’s-style clothing in appropriately tiny sizes, shops selling mobile phones, street vendors selling counterfeit DVDs, shops and street vendors selling bottled drinks and snacks, and places offering massages.

I was a little suspicious of the latter when I first arrived here in China. I’d been raised to believe that “massage parlor” was just a polite way of saying “brothel” (although I knew that there were legitimate masseuses out there; there was something suspicious about the word “parlor,” apparently). But it didn’t take me long to realize that unlike back home, everyone got massages in China.

I don’t know enough to say why, although I’d guess it’s related to the deeply ingrained Asian folk culture of health and holistic medicine. Whatever the reason, massages are popular, and massage shops ubiquitous. For about fifty yuan (nine dollars), a masseuse will rub, pound, knead, and otherwise abuse your back, neck, head, and shoulders for half an hour or so. That’s just the beginning. Most of these establishments also offer foot massages, aromatic oil massages, Japanese massages, pedicures, manicures, and a host of other more ominous-sounding services with names like “hot earwax cleansing” or “traditional physiotherapy.” It’s inexpensive enough that everyone can afford to have a massage once a month or so without putting a serious dent in her pocketbook. You can get them even cheaper if you’re not too picky about how clean the place is.

I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t really notice storefronts offering massages. They’re just part of the landscape of our semi-urban Chinese lives. But for the past two days, I haven’t been living my normal semi-urban Chinese life. Since we’re expecting our first child sometime around the end of June (for those of you that I thought I told already, but didn’t – surprise!), Desiree and I thought we’d do one last weekend getaway, just the two of us, and explore a little bit of this gargantuan city that we live in. We booked a nice, relatively low-cost hotel just off the Bund, the old and glamorous riverfront drive that makes up the heart of Shanghai. We’ve spent the time looking at French colonial architecture, sneaking pictures of the birthplace of the Communist Party of China, and wandering around old streets.

We were walking back to our hotel Monday evening after snooping around some beautiful European Concession buildings on the waterfront and eating Japanese noodles for dinner. We wanted to get something to drink, so we made for the lights of a small convenience store about a block from our hotel. Having purchased a few suitable beverages, we strolled back down the street through scattered Chinese commuters. I glanced idly up at the lighted storefronts as we passed them: a collection of dirty shops selling socks, phone cards, or battered tools arranged in plastic trays, each with a bundled-up shopkeeper staring vacantly into a tiny television on the counter. A massage shop caught my eye for professional reasons: three-foot letters along the top of the window read MGSAGGE, accompanied by a string of Chinese characters. I grinned and looked past the sign into the store. It was normal enough: a front desk, two low couches with a glass coffee table, a few sick-looking office plants in the corners, and a doorway leading into the back. Three remarkably attractive young ladies were perched on the couches, waiting for customers. They were laughing – one of them had apparently just made a joke. Another of the girls was bent over, wiping the glass coffee table with a rag, and I noticed intricate inked patterns swirling across her shoulders and upper arms. “Cool tattoos,” I commented to Desiree, nodding at the girl. “What makes them cool?” my wife shot back playfully. I was preparing a suitably witty reply when I glanced one final time into the shop and immediately looked away again. On the back wall was a huge poster that would have been more at home in the pages of Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition, or worse.

I was momentarily puzzled as I stepped around an electrical pole and dodged an oncoming cyclist. Then everything clicked in my mind: the shocking poster, the massage shop in the middle of the hotel district, and three beautiful young women wearing skimpy summer clothes in January.

I’ve never seen a prostitute before, to my knowledge. I knew they existed, of course. I’ve seen suspicious pamphlets in Chinese hotel rooms marked “Spa – Men Only” with spa prices ten times the normal amounts. I’ve even heard stories from friends about getting phone calls in their rooms from strange women when they check in. But I’d never encountered one myself.

There was something deeply disquieting about seeing them there, clustered all together on the end of the couch, looking for all the world like a group of my fresh-faced nursing students giggling over some secret joke. I can see them now in my mind’s eye – just waiting for customers; ready to sell their attentions to the next out-of-town businessman who walks through the door. Ready to sell themselves.

What must it take, to press a hot iron onto your conscience night after night, to feel the disapproving glances of the grandmothers who hurry past your shop or to meet the gaze of little girls who peer curiously and innocently through the glass? What must it take to enter into employment in such a business – to walk into the shop for the first time, to meet the other girls, to check out the magazines, to have your outfit inspected as though it were a costume in a play?

I can answer that question. It takes humanity. It takes a fallen, cursed nature that rebels against the law written in our hearts. It’s the same human nature that it takes to enter such a place of business and to put your money down on the counter as though this woman were selling a haircut or a loaf of bread, and to push from your mind the fact that she has brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles; that she attended elementary school somewhere; that she frets over the price of makeup and has a beloved cat named MoMo; and that she is not simply a tool for temporary amusement.

I felt weary as we walked back into the hotel, and I cast sideways glances at everyone I met, suspecting them of the most heinous sins. Those girls disturbed me because I knew that I was not different. Deeply entrenched in my soul is the same deviant impulse that rips at the restraints of conscience and that calls out eagerly to temptations, “Yes! Take me with you!” That impulse is what it takes to beat down conscience, self-respect, and public morality for the sake of money or pleasure.

And even in the midst of those disturbing thoughts, I felt thankful. Not, God forbid, that I am not as other men, even as this prostitute, for I fast twice a week and give tithes of all that I get. But instead that He has been merciful to me even though I am like her. I am no less desperately wicked inside – inside, where it counts. And in spite of that, He loves me. He has rescued me from the enemy. One day, He will utterly liberate me of that wrongness and I will be free indeed.

And I hope – I ask – that He’ll do the same for them. Maybe one day I’ll meet that girl with the tattoos again at the foot of His throne, and I’ll give her a hug and we’ll talk about how it happened. I know it will have been grace – all grace.