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.