Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

I was at a Western hotel a few weeks ago and saw an advertisement out front for a Christmas Party Extravaganza called "Bling X-MAS", Guangzhou's Biggest Christmas Bash. For 245 RMB, guests receive unlimited Bacardi cocktails and all the fun they can handle. Suggested attire, according to the poster: "Attitude!"

I would have more details about "Bling X-MAS" if I could remember them, but I can't remember them because today I had a Christmas Bash of my own called "What Happens to a Moleskine Notebook in a Washing Machine."

That's what I get for washing my pants on the extra attitude cycle.

I'll be out of town for Christmas next week, so posting here will be sporadic or possibly nonexistent. Catch you all in the next decade, when the century enters its tween years. iVillage calls this period an "awkward, unique, and often difficult time," which sounds a lot like my current life. Trust me, guys, you'll love it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Chinese Songs for Singing

What's this? A box?

But what's inside? Off the top of my head, probably cookies in the shape of the letters of my name.

Also, a gingerbread man. A Christmas gift from two of my students! Thanks, guys.

If you think my students love me now, just wait until I participate the following contest which I was invited to today via email:
GZTV I-Channel is holding a new event: “Music without Boundaries 2010”--The Second Guangzhou Amateur Foreign Songs Competition, which Chinese people are required to sing in foreign languages and Foreigners are required to sing in Chinese!

As long as you love music and love to sing in Chinese, you are welcome to join! You can also invite your friends to join! Attached are more details about this singing competition. You may also log on for the latest.

Merry Christmas and best wishes for the New Year!

My qualifications for this contest are that I am an amateur and that I am foreign, but apparently that's all you need. (Though the application does also ask me to list my "hobbies", of which I have none, thanks for asking.) I already have my song picked out. I've been a fan of it for a while, but my fervor intensified after coming here and hearing it approximately once a week in restaurants around the city:

Sorry for the youtube link; I couldn't find it on Hype Machine.

The email also included a promotional poster.

My b, that's the logo of Andrew Lloyd Webber's hit musical "Starlight Express."

Sorry, that's the Apple logo.

And that's a clipart image of a ballerina.

Ah, there we go.

A Got a Feeling

On paper, I was a math major at Princeton, though if you look closely at that paper you'll see that I spent very little time actually taking math classes, and instead spent most of my time taking introductory language classes for languages which I will probably never become actually proficient in. (Is two semesters of German enough to read Goethe? Probably no.)

But what I really learned (buckle up for the segue!) is that cultures basically let it all hang out when they write example sentences for language learners.

Want to know about the French? Pick up any introductory textbook (likely entitled "Bienvenue!", "Allons-y!", or "C'est ça le fromage!") and I promise it contains the sentence "Qu'est-ce qu'on peut acheter à la charcuterie?" ("What sort of things can you buy at a deli?"). Only when learning French is the word for "readymade pie crust" presented so early, and with such scorn.

Want to know about German? There's a famous college textbook called "A Practical Review of German Grammar," in which you will find, from the section on prepositions, "Die ganze Welt ist gegen mich." ("The whole world is against me.") From the section on the passive voice: "Leider wurde nicht applaudiert." ("Unfortunately, there was no applause.") And from the section on modal particles: "Ich bin nun einmal sehr unbeliebt." ("I am very unpopular (and there is nothing to be done about it).")

If you want to konw about Chinese, you can probably start with a textbook which is part of the mandatory elementary school curriculum in China called 《难忘的一课》(A Memorable Lesson). It is structured around the phrase “我是中国人,我爱中国” ("I am Chinese. I love China.")

Or, you could look up the word 花费 ("spend; expenditure") in an online Chinese dictionary, as I just did, and find the following example sentence:
It costs 20 RMB to have a photo with a ladyboy.
Which is a stumper. I mean, what does this say about China, really, that this the example they have for "expenditure"?

And what does it really say about my apartment that the entryway smells like Mountain Dew?, because that is a question that I am also considering at this time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Liveblogging our Cantonese Lesson

6:06 p.m.: In an hour and 24 minutes, Serena will be coming to our house for our biweekly Cantonese lesson. She will be bringing a friend, and we will, as she calls it, "put our learning into practice."

(A note: We usually speak Mandarin with Serena, but sometimes we use English whenever she wants to work on her fluency or pronunciation. Her English is generally quite good; since she's a student at the Business Management school, though, she uses semi-awkward-cute fixed/formal expressions when we talk. We've been planning today's session for a while, and every time she talked about it, she would say (in English) that it would give us a chance to "put our learning into practice," with the fevor of someone who was looking to put her learning of the phrase "put your learning into practice" into practice. Incidentally, I looked at her English textbook last week and the dialogue I opened to started with, "Stephanie, did you properly input the packing information into the order form?" This is from a textbook she called "super interesting.")

The idea of putting our Cantonese learning "into practice" is laughable on face, not only because we know essentially no Cantonese but because putting it into practice would require that we use our Cantonese to complete some meaningful task, which is difficult when our lessons revolve around teaching us how to ask each other what time the football game is, which task is not only meaningless but also totally outside my experience as a human being. I've never asked that question in English.

7:33 p.m.: Serena just called to say she's going to be late because she coulnd't find a friend with free time to come chat with us. No wonder! They're all probably at the football game! Hey, what time was that, anyway?

7:40 p.m.: I'm working hard to memorize a passage from our textbook that for some reason I promised I would recite, but then failed to work on it at all during the week. It involves a three year old girl guessing how much candy a four year old boy has in his pocket. I find the sexual subtext distracting. I fail to remember the proper Cantonese measure word for a small piece of candy. (It's 粒, Cantonese pronunciation nap7.)

7:55 p.m.: OK, they're here.

8:37 p.m.: Gus is making tea. We have exhausted almost all of our Cantonese, having already asked Serena's friend (named Anita) how old she is, where she's from, and whether she likes to eat roast goose. Serena suggests that we act out the dialogues in the textbook. We accept.

9:20 p.m.: We officially end class after acting out the dialogues in our textbook. Both Serena and Anita ask me how much candy I have in my pocket; I have no choice but to tell them. After class ends, Anita immediately asks if we'd like to see some magic. We accept. She makes a coin appear from behind her subway card. Actually she was palming it the whole time. I tell her she's "awesome", because that's one of the few Cantonese words I can remember how to say.

9:38 p.m.: Serena tries to juggle.

10:15 p.m.: Serena and Anita decide they should probably go after having spent 35 minutes in our apartment throwing Gus's balls around. We walk them to the front gate; I can't help worrying that everyone we meet assumes that they are prostitutes. We pass two students who say hi and then just stare at us as we walk by. I'm sure they won't tell anyone about seeing their foreign teachers walking attractive young Chinese women out of their apartment.

12:21 p.m.: OK, I'm finally getting around to posting this record. Most of the time between 10:15 and now has been spent taking all of my clothes off and reading an article about organ donation in my underwear. I was in the middle of changing into my pajamas, but you know how it is with good organ donation articles. Hard to tear yourself away.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

开 Party

Editors note: This post was supposed to go up last night, but then our Cantonese tutor came over and hung out for 6 hours. You know, the women, they just can't stay away.

Some big news: SJ is no more. Yesterday, our beloved Cantonese tutor told us that she had finally decided on an English name. From here on out, she will now be known as Serena. I can think of two possible inspirations for this name:

Serena, from the TV series Sailor Moon

Serena Williams, who told a Japanese line judge that she would shove a "fucking ball" down "[her] [the judge's] fucking throat."

I guess we'll never know.

Serena is currently sitting on the couch next to me helping Gus with his graduate school applications. She just said that something "应该OK啦!" Note the appearance of OK in that sentence. This proves the point that I mentioned in my last post. Learning Chinese is super easy; you just need to make some sounds, then say the English word that you want to say ("OK", "cheap", "cancer"), and then say some more little words. And if you plan a cough or sneeze for the time you're supposed to be saying the Chinese words, you don't even need to make any of the noises. Everybody wins.

Example: Last night, 我们开了party! Or, in non-Oriental: Last night, Gus and I held a Christmas party for all our friends. Throwing parties in China is somewhat stressful. There are some things that are difficult to find. You have to worry about what the best way is to invite everyone in Chinese. There's also the feeling that before you have a party in your apartment you should really get something done about that gaping hole in the floor of your bathroom, get it closed up or something, except that's what most of your guests would refer to as a "toilet". And you don't need to take it out, you need to put tissue paper in there so that partygoers can wipe themselves after squatting over the hole in your floor.

For once, the confusing collision of American and Chinese culture which defines my daily life would happen inside my house. The Guangzhou Castle of Americana. The beating heart of democracy inside red China.

Of course, this is exactly what our guests were hoping for. A real American party! Like, if you search for "开party" on google (sure, I'll wait), the second result is "美国人开party玩什么游戏?" which means "What type of games do Americans play at parties?" Everyone wants to know what it is exactly that we do.

Number one, obviously, is that we don't really play games at parties. One of the responders at the website above hit the nail on the head:
american party 一般都是在家里举行的,大家买很多酒和蛋糕就可以了。
American parties are usually held at one's home, and it's enough to just buy lots of alcohol and cake.
I was really hoping for a lots-of-alcohol-and-cake party rather than a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, bobbing-for-apples party, but then every single Chinese person that we invited asked us what types of games we were going to be playing at our party. So I was fully prepared for the possibility that it would turn into a Chinese party despite our best efforts.

And it basically did. We all sat around drinking soda, eating chestnuts and throwing the shells on the floor (the floor of our American apartment) while we played Mafia. Which I find slightly more challenging in Chinese.

And then at the end, all of the Chinese people there realized that it was picture time!, because every Chinese party ends with pictures. So here's a group shot from our Rocking China Christmas Party.

This Christmas, there will be no peace on earth. Also, four people had to leave early. There were more than nine people at our party.

I actually had a really good time. Take that America! Party managed.

Friday, December 18, 2009

My mother has a first tongue, it's E-N-G-L-ISH

Title to be sung to the tune of the Oscar Mayer jingle.

When I moved to China, I started to think more about English.

Ok, an apology: the biggest danger of moving to China and starting a blog (besides being interrogated by police officers and then imprisoned) is sitting down to write at the end of the day and finding yourself trapped in Great American Clichés about living abroad. It's strange but, somehow, just the same! All it takes is a smile! The world is small! We all "know" these are true, just like I "know" that they make me want to vomit. I find them both loathsome and comforting, which I guess is how people feel about pork rinds. I do not understand the appeal. (Oh my god, the Wikipedia article on pork rinds says that some pieces may still have hair attached. What? What?)

And yet, and yet, apology continues, I think in general great bloggers (and essayists/novelists/tone poets/whatever) don't bend themselves out of shape to avoid clichés, but consider them obsessively, turn them over and over again until their familiarity roughens and they resolve into something a little less apt, and the cliché catches, and holds.

Moving to a foreign country teaches me about English. This is a cliché. A bad one. This is the sort of thing that you would hear someone say at at a youth hostel, and then you'd have to say how true that is, man, and then complement them on how much use they've already gotten out of that Eurorail pass, and are you going to hit up Amsterdam?, because I hear it's siiiick. But it is true that you get to hear English with a foreign ear when you start teaching it to non-native speakers in a foreign land. When I texted "no prob" to a student yesterday, I first worried that she wouldn't understand it, then I worried that she might start to use "prob" in other contexts, like, "I don't understand the last prob on the exam" or "I have a prob with bullies at school." These are real concerns.

Wednesday mornings, we sometimes get to hear English dialogues played over the school P.A. system. My favorite dialogue so far this year involved a family sitting down at the dinner table. They exchange pleasantries. Then,

Father: "Son, can you think of a time when you were both angry and hungry?"

Son: "Yes, after my soccer game last night, I felt angry about our loss, but also hungry because I played really hard. So I was both angry and hungry."

Father: "Good! Daughter, how about you? Can you think of a time when you were both angry and hungry?"


No one thinks to give the obvious answer, which in my mind is "Shit yeah, I can think of a time. Let's say we start eating and stop discussing feelings that end in -gry." (I have been both angry and hungry at the same time, but I'm an angry vomiter. Not sure if this is universal.) I expect that next week Dad will ask the kids if they can remember a time when they held a profession that involved three consecutive pairs of double letters, or whether they are fans of Christian Bök.

That last set of associations may make sense only to me; if so, apologies.

One thing that gets me thinking about English is learning Cantonese, specifically because Cantonese speakers say many more English words than you'd expect them to say (zero). Mandarin doesn't actually have many loan words, and most of them are re-phoneticized past recognition. Cantonese people say English words all the time. The experience for a native English speaker is like day and 黑天.

I can give an example from my Cantonese text book. The vocab lists have a space for the new words, the pronunciation (in Cantonese), and then the meaning (in Mandarin). A normal entry looks like this.

唔该晒 (Phrase)
m4 goi1 saai3 (Pronunciation)
非常感谢 (Meaning)

(This means "thank you very much".)

But one entry in the same lesson looks like this.

say 声 sorry
sei1 seng1 so1 li4
说一声 “对不起”

Note that "sorry" is rendered so-li, and also that they give it tones.

Other useful popular phrases listed in our book are "好 cheap" (cheap), "see-through 装" (see-through clothing), "生 cancer" (get cancer).

They don't even bother making up characters for this. I am paying a woman 50 Chinese RMB an hour to teach me English. This is ridiculous. I'm a celebrity get me out of here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Good news: I am no longer sick. You can all relax, or whatever. Lawyers from Papa John's, let me now be perfectly clear. I did not get swine flu from your very clean, well-lit Guangzhou eatery, though it is possible that I did catch a 24-hour bug of some kind there.

The Chinese name for Papa John's is “棒!约翰”, which means "Awesome! John", which is a great name, even if it sort of does lose steam at the end there. Basically all downhill after that exclamation point. Awesome! John is the only International Pizza Chain that I have been to in China, and it felt totally American. Yes! This, finally, this is what America is! I cried to my Chinese companions, as we sat on low, low, regally, ludicrously low leather lounge chairs and drank warm lemon-scented water out of small teacups at the start of our meal. I will say, far more teacups than I have ever experienced at a pizza joint. Just throwing that out there.

The food descriptions on the menu embraced the Awesome! spirit and therefore prepared me for the greatest meal of my life. The copy for every single pizza began with an exclamation: "A flavor explosion!", "Don't miss this taste!", etc., and went on to promise all sorts of things about how this pizza would make me feel (except sick, it did not promise that it would make me sick, but that is exactly how it made me feel). I also saw a drink called a "Snow Kiss," which was described as "Bubbly Sprite with a scoop of fruity, strawberry ice cream -- A taste you'll love...forever." This is not the most menacing food description I've ever read (winner: Wagon Wheel Pancake: "You only need ONE.", restaurant somewhere on the California River, ca. 1999, seriously it was a huge pancake), but still. I don't like to remember tastes (ellipsis) forever. And "Snow Kiss" sounds like the name of a Batman villain.

Or, worse, a Thomas Kinkade painting. Or, better, a puppy with snow on its muzzle and paws. And now you've got me thinking about puppies.

Ok, I'm back. Look, again, the biggest promise that Awesome! John made was that it would not make me sick (such promises were not made explicit), but it broke that promise, so next time I'm going to Pizza Hut. Which is more popular in China than General Tso's Chicken. Because General Tso's Chicken does not exist here. They just call it "chicken"!

No, but seriously, a) there is no such thing as General Tso's anything in China b) they really like Pizza Hut.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Got Swine Flu From a Papa John's(*)

* Just kidding; please don't sue me, Papa John.

I was all set to write a post about my weird experience at one of Guangzhou's Papa John's restaurants yesterday, but now I have a fever, headache, and muscle pain, so it is possible that I have swine flu. How do you like them 苹果 ?

Anyway, I'll be out of commission until further notice. Enjoy your holiday.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Example #22

It's Friday night, and even though that should be a night dedicated to brewskis with one's bros (or manischewitz with one's mishpocha; Happy Hanukkah!), because I work on Saturdays it's just another weekday night for me.

This week, we continue with our culture unit, and what an exciting continuation it is. We did an activity where we handed out the lyrics to several English songs with some words left out and had the students fill in the blanks while they listened. (We played Laurie Anderson's album "Big Science". Just kidding, she's way too poppy.)

One of the songs that we heard was "Rehab" by Amy Winehouse, which I do not think has aged particularly well but which has a clear structure, fairly catchy melody, and a Profound Account of the dark side of showbiz and crack smoking. You may remember the part of the song where she sings
I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a bottle near,
or, as it was presented to our students,
I'm gonna, I'm gonna lose my baby
So I always keep a _______ near.
This word is a little difficult to hear in the song, so almost none of my students got the correct answer, if by "correct" you mean the word that actually appears in the printed lyrics of the song. If by "correct" you mean "better than the original", then one of my students did get the correct answer, which is: towel.

It's reasonable. It scans. It's a nice thing to have around if you're "gonna lose [your] baby." I think that "Rehab" would be a better song if, instead of being about a drug addict and alcoholic who is reluctant to attend treatment programs, it were about a woman who's looking for sensible solutions to spills and messes around the house. ("There's got to be a better way!") Get on it, Lefevre. The thing writes itself.

No more real thoughts about this week. A little repetetive (when was the last time you spent a week explaining what a "shot glass" was 11 times to groups of 30 16-year-olds? (So many numerals in that sentence! It's like a math party up in here)) but basically fine. Oh, one more thing: another addition to our ongoing "You Know You Live In China If" series.

You know you live in China if you notice one of your "bad girl" students playing with something during class, and you think she might be texting or something so you crane your head to get a better look and realize that she's absent-mindedly solving a Rubik's Cube over and over again under her desk while she's listening to you lecture. America, we're doomed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The End of an Era

I came to China over 3 months ago, but until today I felt like I had still been living with one foot planted firmly in America. Two feet, sometimes. I didn't want to cut ties with the things I left behind, but sometimes you outgrow things that you love, and you have to abandon them because they're holding you back. I hated to do it, but I made the decision to move on. One step at a time.

I bought new shoes.

Let's take a moment to remember my old shoes, which I purchased in Mexico almost a year ago and have worn faithfully ever since.

My old shoes, Hootie (l.) and The Blowfish

Hootie and TB replaced Gene and Grace Kelly, another pair of black and white vans that I had owned for approximately a year before that. Those replaced a pair of black vans (DuBois and Booker T.) which I bought Freshman year. Before that, in what would prove to be a brief flirtation with nonconformity, my vans were brown.

I've been looking to replace the ol' Fairweather Johnsons for the past few weeks, but finding shoes that I liked seemed pretty much impossible. I spent a couple of hours going around to malls in the area, and all I was able to find were bright white sneakers and sk8er shoes made for and/or by the blind. Last week, though, Gus saw an ad in the paper for a new shoe store opening up in Guangzhou, and so last weekend we tried to go and see what they had. As it turns out, we accidently went to the wrong address and ended up at their corporate headquarters rather than at a store.

(The people there were very nice and printed out directions to the actual store location, which was in a totally different part of town. The only strange part of that experience (other than walking into an office building and attempting to buy shoes) was when one employee walked by and asked if we could speak Chinese. We said, yes, we could, a little, and then she laughed and walked away. Interaction managed!)

Today we finally got around to going to the actual shoe store, located on Guangzhou's historic Beijing Rd. It was a fairly good shoe store, actually, and it had a Vans section. I headed straight over there and asked to try on a pair of (black and white) vans, and the man asked me what size I wanted, and I told him and then he said that the biggest size they had was an 8 1/2. An 8 1/2 is way, way too small for me. Basically the only way I could fit into an 8 1/2 would be to have the bones in my feet systematically, rituatlistically broken over the course of several years before my sexual maturation.

So I couldn't get Vans, but I really needed new shoes, so I bought vastly inferior Converses, though I am glad that they are like my old shoes in certain ways: black and white, low-cut, and completely lacking in arch support. Some things should never change. Love will find a way.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Don't worry girl, I know a place

As Gus and I were walking to dinner tonight, we passed a group of six women handing out advertisements on one of the bridges near our house. They were all walking in a clump and they were all dressed in what looked like flight attendants' uniforms. Normally people dressed as flight attendants handing things out would trigger some deep-seated "snack mix" reflex which would cause me to immediately accept whatever they were passing out, but I've been burned so many times by boring, incomprehensible, poorly-produced Chinese advertisements that I've decided to stop taking things that people give me on the street.

(Also, all of the women said, "Hello, Hello, Hello" to us over and over again as we passed, which is a straight ticket to no-thank-you-ville. Trust me, ladies, a 你好 really would work much better.)

Gus, being a more trusting and probably better person than I am, continues to grab advertisements from people on the street. That's actually turned out to be a fairly good move for us, because we've discovered two new restaurants that way, including a Vietnamese restaurant that sells delicious Vietnamese coffee for 5 RMB a cup. 5 RMB! For reference, that's cheaper than the attractive new coaster that I bought today for 8 RMB. (The coaster says "The Godfather Part III" on it. I had to buy it as part of a set because I needed the first one to show to my cinema class.)

Tonight, as is his habit, Gus took the advertisement that the flight attendants on the bridge were handing out. I don't have anything else to talk to you about, so I thought I'd share it with you now, because it's sort of troubling in a ha-ha-ew sort of way.

(Speaking of sort of troubling, I was just reading a Harper's Week in Review article which quotes the Ugandan minister for ethics and integrity, who supports a measure to make homosexuality a crime punishable by life imprisonment: "We believe there are limits to human rights. We are talking about anal sex. Not even animals do that." Look, gay rights activisits, let's get one thing straight: we are talking about anal sex. I mean come on. I'm surprised the legislators are even able to discuss it without throwing up.)

So, the ad.

Let me unpack this for you with a little bit of my Chinese skillz. The 休闲房 at the top means "leisure room," and the red writing below says that this leisure room rents for 100 RMB per 4 hours. (Exchange rate: 20 cups of Vietnamese coffee, 12.5 copies of The Godfather Part III.) Below that, the red writing means "Buy 6, Get 1 Free." I'm not sure whether that means 6 hours or 6 different 4-hour uses. Either way: that's a lot of time with prostitutes in a leisure room.

There are two fun things about this ad. One is that the red 送可乐 next to 休闲房 means "Free Cola!" Not only do you get 4 hours with the prostitue of your choice for 100 RMB an hour (prostitue not included), you get a delicious cola, which you can enjoy before, after, or during sex with your prostitute.

The second fun thing is that this ad isn't an ad at all: it's a pack of tissues! Usually only restaurants give out tissue packs as ads (because napkins are not free at Chinese restaurants; you have to buy small packs of tissue with your meal), but I think it's somehow appropriate that the Hanting Express also uses tissue packs to sell their product. (The Hanting Express is the name of the hotel chain, but I'll race you to UrbanDictionary.)

One more thing about tonight: based on the response of the school security guards, city construction workers, and the rest of Guangzhou's citizens, I'm happy to tell you that the daily flood of what seems like hundreds of gallons of feces-scented water coming out of a small hole in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the school is no cause for alarm!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Grab Bag

Some more things from this week, which you can feel free to grab at your leisure.


Apropos of my last post, on the subject of Team "Things You Cannot Serve Both God And", I will say that one of my students actually did know what mammon means (well, she said "greed", which was closer at least), and I find that terribly impressive. I think there are a lot of native English speakers who think that mammon is either a religion or a type of fish. Or possibly the name of the guy who wrote "Glengarry Glen Ross."

It's also another example of the fact that my students know way too many words for their own good. I had to explain the word "dignity" to my film class on Saturday, and after explaining it, one precocious student said, "So it's sort of like 'augustness'?" I mean, yes. But also no.


Gus and I had colleagues from Hong Kong visiting this weekend, so on Sunday we took them to a nearby mountain and climbed the heck out of it. At the top of the mountain there were dozens (or as one of my students said at English corner last week when describing a large amount, "scores." Scores! What is this, the Guangzhouysburg Address? Mr. Abe Linchan over here? Watch out for the John Wilkes Booth-shu pork! The jokes just keep coming! Now back to your regularly scheduled main clause) of old Chinese people playing hacky sack (毽子 in Chinese).

Now, I see old Chinese people hacking-sacking all the time. I have seen more hacky-sack hackers sacking it here than I ever have before in my life, and I truly believe that Guangzhou must have the highest concentration of senior citizen hacky sack players anywhere in the world, except maybe Burning Man. I have also done more h-sacking here than I ever have before in my life, which is probably because before coming here I refused to touch a hacky sack, believing it to be less of a fun game and more of a pellet-filled tool for making me look foolish.

Well now I know that it is a fun game, and it does make me look foolish. Especially when we're hacking at the top of the mountain on Sunday with our two friends from Hong Kong and several Chinese people decide to join us and just give us a good sacking right then and there in front of everyone.

At one point, the hacky sack got stuck in a tree, and I was like, Oh, no, God, what a shame, that hacky sack's just going to have to stay in the tree while we stop playing and go on with our previously hacky sack free lives. But then one our industrious Chinese companions got it down by repeatedly throwing water bottles into the branches. And then we got to play hacky sack for 15 more minutes. Great day.


Ok, I don't want to say anything too specific about this because I don't want to break anyone's trust, but I do want to tell you that we've set up some of our students with American pen pals through an American teacher that knew a previous Guangzhou fellow. The American students (all 8th graders) sent their first letters to our students this week, and one letter begins "Hello my name is ________. My life is awesome, because I am awesome." I think we have no choice but to take him at his word.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

When the homeroom bell rings is the naming of things

Busy weekend, so a brief brief update:

This week, our Oral English class began its "Culture" unit, our third unit of the semester. For reference, the other two units were "People" and "Language". (The culture unit is going to be about American and Chinese people and their customs. The language unit was about American and Chinese people and their language, the people unit was about American and Chinese people. In particular, their culture and language.)

We decided to kick off our culture class by playing a game, and before the game started, we gave each group a chance to choose team names. In the very first class, the representative from the very first group stood up and said that they wanted their name to be "mammal." "Ok," I said, writing "mammal" on the board. "Team 1 will be 'mammal.'"

Everyone in the group begins to laugh uproariously; one guy waves his hands and mouths "No" over and over again.

"Not, mammal," the representative finally manages to say. "Mammowln."

"I'm sorry, what?"


"Can you spell it?"



"Yes," the representative says, and then turns to the rest of the class and says smugly, "It means 'rich man.'"

Yeah, that's not quite true. But they liked the name anyway, and so in the end Team "Mammon" it was. Versus "Eggplant City." Versus "Happy Birthday, Milk Sister." In a heated battle of cultural wits.

Later in the week, an entire class reduced itself to tears (I was not involved) during the Team Name portion of the class. Their team names, in order, were,





Pure Man

Brother Big

Everyone was laughing after "Sabio", and after "LRB" one student took his cell phone out to take a picture of the blackboard, on which were written what I can only assume to be the Fourteen Funniest Letters in the World.

A team in another class named itself "SOBs", and when I asked what it meant, they laughed and said, "Oh, nothing." I then saw one of the students lean over to a classmate and say, "It means son of bitches!" And they both grinned and looked to see if I had heard them.

Guys. I'm a native English speaker. I know what SOB means. You are not fooling me with your acronyms. Except when your acronyms are JRB, RSE, and LRB, because then you clearly are fooling me. Like, really well. Because I have no idea what those mean.

(Unrelated: remember when one of my students watched "Mulholland Dr." after I recommended it to the class? Well this morning another student texted me and asked me to recommend a recent American novel, and without really thinking I told her to check out Cormac McCarthy's "The Road". Strike two!)

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Perils of Machine Voice Recognition: A Case Study

I have a few posts on the back burner here, but I've been busy so I'm just going to let those stew while I slap something from the refrigerator right on the front burner and serve it up so that everyone doesn't get too hungry. This is the grilled cheese sandwich of blog posts, or possibly the 5-layer dip of blog posts, if your 5-layer dip has a "hot" component (doesn't everyone's?). Metaphors!

I use Google Voice™ to keep in touch with my family members and friends in the states, and one nice feature of this service is that it transcribes any voice mails that I receive so that I can get the gist of the message before listening to it. According to Google Voice™, this is the voicemail that my sister left me yesterday.

Hey Jonathan, I just wanted to call and then i grandma's and if you see if you can since we are no one's she's kind of hurt. Kind of this to you today about the bye. Yeah, I'd, clean up, coming out about but I just wanted to remind you. Okay, call me back if you get this. I don't think voices. We had a chance. Lee, but I just Sat. Okay love you bye alright.

Reading this transcription, you might think that my grandmother is hurt, and that my sister wants me to remind me to "clean up, coming out." And then there's the bit about the "voices" and the "chance", which makes it sound like she's trapped in a caved-in coal mine. Lee and Sat, people I've never met before, also make cameo appearances.

In real life, the voicemail was about the time my sister and I cleaned up dog vomit while at my grandmother's house:

For those of you who don't want to listen to the clip, she says at the end, "I don't think Google Voice™ will be able to translate what I just said."

So, if you've just watched 2001: A Space Odyssey (like I did last night) and are concerned about the coming computer menace, I say to you: humanity: we've still got it!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ghost, ghost, I know you live within me

The first warning that Gristle's friend gave us before we got to the ghost house was "just make sure that the ghost doesn't kill you right away."

"Wait, how do we make sure that the ghost doesn't kill us right away?"

"There's no way to be totally safe," he said. "I'm just letting you know that it could happen."

Ladies and gentlemen, let me tell you what happened on the night of Saturday, November 28.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Few times I been 'round that track

Before I get to the teachers sports meet (which shit was "bananas", by the way), something super weird: today's New York Times and LA Times crosswords have the exact same theme. I imagine that the constructors (and editors!) must have been as shocked as Lindsay Lohan was after fencing with her long-separated identical twin at camp at the beginning of The Parent Trap remake, or as shocked as Kirstie Alley must have been at the end of It Takes Two. (To give you a sense of how flimsy the premise of the second movie is (if you haven't had the pleasure of seeing it), the first sentence of the wikipedia plot summary is "Two unrelated young girls happen to look identical and they suddenly meet.")

To anyone who has only solved one of the puzzles and was looking forward to solving the other, sorry for ruining it for you. But not that sorry, because after three months as a teacher I'm already used to ruining dreams.

Saturday dawns cool and bright, and the Guangzhou morning fills with an anxious, expectant hush. After a long pan over the student dormitories, we alight on the window of the apartment where two young strong handsome Americans, GUS (Brad Pitt) and JON (Michael Phelps, in his first film role), sleep fitfully as their bedside alarm clocks slowly tick off the seconds, bringing them closer and closer to TEACHERS SPORTS MEET: REVENGE OF THE CHINA (roll titles).

Who needs film school? I can smell Sundance from here!

Friday, November 27, 2009


Tonight, Gus and I got together with some of our best friends in Guangzhou and had pizza and beer and thought about all the things we're thankful for.

I'm thankful for my school and my students, who are even more intelligent, receptive, and kind than I could have hoped, and I am thankful that they have welcomed me so generously into their lives.

I'm thankful for all the people that I've met so far here in Guangzhou: Fangfang the artist and her sister Rachel; former PiA-er David and his girlfriend Shaohui; the Yale-in-China fellows; Gus, my partner in crime; Gristle, sweet Gristle, endearing, infuriating, sometime penguin Gristle; and SJ, our Cantonese tutor, who called us tonight and told us that she had a gift for us, and then met us at our apartment to deliver the two turkey legs that she had somehow managed to find at a Guangzhou supermarket, and to wish us happy thanksgiving.

And I'm thankful for you, my friends and family, the people I love. If you read this blog, chances are that I think of you -- you, specifically -- every single day, because you are one of my favorite people in the world, and by now you're so much a part of me that I could no more go a day without thinking of you than go a day without thinking at all.

Thank you, everyone, and have a happy thanksgiving.

Also I'm thankful for Lady Gaga, because I have watched the Bad Romance video an obscene number of times in the past week and it never. gets. old.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


So this week in class, we're teaching a lesson on American jokes. Never has their been a comedy audience simultaneously so perfect (in that they haven't even heard the "A man walked into a bar and said, 'Ow'" joke) and so awful (in that some of them don't know what the word "bar" means).

Many of you might be grumbling that there are a lot more important things than jokes, and many of you might be right, but I will say that many non-native English speakers don't know how to properly participate in knock-knock jokes, and so I'm doing them a real service by teaching them that. Of course, every time I teach this lesson, halfway through I remember, oh wait, I hate knock-knock jokes. "Dwayne the bathtub, I'm dwowning" can only get you so far in life, comedically speaking.

There are good knock-knock jokes, but most of them are anti-knock-knock jokes (including my favorite one, which is unfortunately impossible to type), and the ones that aren't involve September 11th. So what's a teacher supposed to do?

Well, what a teacher is supposed to do is look on wikipedia, which is exactly what I did, where I found what I believe to be the best knock-knock joke of all time.

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
Sobers. [The reader at this time thinks that the legendary Gary Sobers is perhaps at the door]
Sobers who?
Sau baras se khatkhata rahen hain, Ab to darwazaa kholo. [This last Hindi line meaning "I have been knocking on the door for a long time; please open it" changes the complete orientation of the reader, where Sobers becomes "Sau baras" or a hundred years (figuratively signifying a long period)]

Wikipedia obviously knows me very well, because my thought process while reading this joke went something like: "Wait, could it be -- it is! The legendary Gary Sobers!!!!!!!!!!! wait why is someone talking to me in Hindi." But if Gary Sobers comes to your door, man -- better ask him to sign your Wifflepoofter. I challenge anyone prove that that is not a real cricket term.

Anyway, one of the jokes that I tell to my students (or, actually, have one of my students tell to the rest of the class) goes like this:
Q: What does the elephant say to the naked man?
A: It's cute, but can you really breathe through that thing?
I don't explain the joke (because I don't want to get accused of sexual harassment haha!!), but I give the students a few seconds to think about it, and, invariably, the female students who get the joke react with revulsion and terror. Welcome to China, where to 16 year old girls the very idea of the existence of a penis is utterly horrifying.

Hey, speaking of jokes, guess what came in this beautiful silk lined golden package?


The protein powder that Gus and I bought yesterday, another step in our (seemingly quixotic) quest to weigh more than 140 pounds.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Sporty Spice

As I mentioned once before, our students had a sports meet last month. I never followed up on that day, but we went to the opening ceremony and it was just as cute as I had hoped it would be. Gus took a video of our favorite student performance, a reenactment of the Iraq war:

The basic outline of this story will be familiar to you from Seymour Hersh's reporting for The New Yorker, but for those of you who are not willing to watch this 70 second video, a summary: George Bush and Saddam Hussein have a fistfight while someone holds a "NO WAR" poster in the background, then a Chinese athlete stops the war by carrying an olympic torch through the fistfight, then everyone begins to dance.

Anyway, that was the annual students sports meet. Guess what happens this Saturday? (Hint: it rhymes with "peachers ports skeet" and involves my being humiliated by colleagues and coworkers in front of my students.)

Everyone who guessed "Teachers Sports Meet" gets to help me bang erasers after class. Just give them a good banging. Bang 'em on up.

So this past Friday, Kai from PiA was back in town on his way out of China, and we had lunch with him, our boss, and our boss's boss. (A fun linguistic situation: Kai doesn't really speak Chinese, the big boss doesn't really speak English, and since our boss is an English teacher we usually speak English with him because that validates his English expertise, but when we're around other Chinese people we just usually use Chinese, so party like a rockstar.) This was a classic Cantonese liquid lunch, in that it involved both soup and a fair amount of alcohol. Just like at the banquet at the beginning of the year, the alcohol policy is simple: our boss runs around refilling our cups as fast as we can all think of new things to toast to. Chinese people are remarkably sincere about this whole toast thing, so over the course of lunch (which, let's remind ourselves, had exactly five people in attendance) we toasted the future our our school, the blossoming relationship between the United States and China, and Barack Obama.

I had never met the uberboss before, by the way, and he was a fascinating man. He pulled out some cigarettes as soon as he sat down at the table and offered some to us, which we politely declined. "No?" he responded. "You don't smoke? You should try it. A lot of people in China like to smoke." Later during the lunch, he asked us whether drunk driving was a big problem in America. We said that it was, and he said that the police had recently gotten much more serious about drunk driving in China. "That's why I'm only having a bit of wine," he said, holding up his glass. "I have to drive later. It's these new rules. Before I could have been drinking with you guys." Truly a role model for China's youth.

Over the course of this lunch, our boss asked us if we had signed up for an event at the sports meet yet, and we replied that we hadn't. I guess we were planning on signing up for something, but I was sort of hoping that everyone would forget about it and we would never have to compete in anything as obviously barbaric as a teachers sports meet. But our boss decided that we needed to sign up NOW, so he pulled out his phone and called the organizer of the event to sign us up right away.

He asked us whether we liked running, and I said, sure, I guess I like to run, and so he said that we were going to be doing running events. Then he asked what distances we'd like to do. Gus said he'd do the 400 and the 100 while I hemmed and hawed, and then our boss said to me, "I'm doing the 800. Why don't you do the 800? Do the 800." And that's how I got signed up to run the 800 meter race.

Now obviously, obviously, this is awful. The 800 is really, really hard. You might thing that my longish legs and height advantage here should give me an edge, but Gus is taller than me and has longer legs than me, and last year he came in dead last when he tried the 800. (Sorry, Gus! That context is necessary for the story.) So I can't bank on anything. And it's not like I'm captain running.

That's why we called the lady today and told her in no uncertain terms that I would not be running the 800 meter race, and that I would like to run only the 400. I opted for that instead of the 100 because I'm more of a long distance runner than a sprinter. Really I'm more of a sit down read a booker than a runner of any kind, but if there's one thing I'm definitely not it's someone who can run 100 meters in a non-embarrassing amount of time.

So in 5 days Gus and I are going to compete in this contest of sport. Which is why tonight at 11 pm, when no one was watching, Gus and I snuck onto the track at the school and tried to train for approximately 10 minutes before calling it a night and going back to the apartment to watch Arrested Development. Next stop, fitness! And competition glory! The more likely option is that I (and, by extension, America) will end the week in total disgrace. CAN'T WAIT.

Oh speaking of total disgrace, more lunchtime fun. Our boss's boss was complementing Gus and me on our looks (what else is new), and he asked one of the waitresses, pointing at me, "Wouldn't you say he's a handsome boy?" And she responded, "I don't think he'd really count as handsome in Guangzhou" and then she said a sentence in Cantonese, and then our boss's boss turned to me and said, "She say's you're...pretty. Very pretty."

So, verdict: I'm a pretty boy. Who still sucks at running.

Monday, November 23, 2009

I'm a Soy Sauce Man!

Today, after our Cantonese lesson, our tutor SJ started telling us about a Chinese celebrity: the soy sauce man. It's this guy:

Before we talk about the soy sauce, or why the subtitles say 关我X事,with an "X" rather than a Chinese character, we need to go back to the Edison Chen Photo Sex Scandal. My bet is that you haven't heard of it because you don't live in China, and I know you don't live in China because China blocks access to blogspot. But that's neither here nor there.

Eidson Chen is (was) a Hong Kong-based Chinese film actor, rapper, Cantopop singer, model, record producer, fashion designer, and a pop icon. (Thanks, wikipedia!) Also, incidentally, in 2008, 465 pictures of him having sex with lots of famous Chinese actresses happened to surface after his computer went in to be repaired. In Chinese, this incident is called 艳照门, or "Sexy Photo Gate", where the gate, naturally, is a reference to Watergate, because in Chinese they also name their scandals by putting "gate" at the end (seriously). But that, again, is neither here nor there.

Anyway, so this caused a big firestorm in China, as you can imagine. The worst part was that the women who appeared in the photos were almost universally condemned in public opinion, even though my gut feeling is that Edison Chen is probably at fault for taking over 400 pictures of himself having sex. (How terribly were the women treated? From an article on the scandal: "Gillian Chung [met] with fans prior to her 65-second press conference...a female voice was yelling out..."black abalone". This is one of the nicknames that netizens are using for her, in reference to her vulva and its color." But that's neither here nor there.) Many news organizations interviewed everyday citizens to get their take on the scandal and its aftermath.

Enter the soy sauce man.

A Guangzhou TV station went out onto the streets to get footage of people talking about Sexy Photo Gate, and most people reacted with all sorts of moral outrage and condemnation.

But then one man, when asked what he thought of the Edison Chen sex scandal, said “关我屌事,我出来买酱油的.”, which means, "I don't give a fuck, I'm just out buying soy sauce."

I should clarify that this isn't some weird Chinese expression or anything. This is just a guy who doesn't give a fuck and, also, needs to buy some soy sauce.

China now loves this man. For instance, here is a picture I found online of the soy sauce man's head inserted into Liberty Leading the People:

This makes sense in Chinese, because soy sauce is 酱油 (jiangyou) and liberty is 自由 (ziyou). The second character sounds the same. Whatever.

So now soy sauce man has become an internet sensation among the ol' netizens, and now when people don't care about something, they'll say that they're just "buying soy sauce."

Also, why is the subtitle written as 关我X事? Because, translated literally, 关我屌事 means "concerning me fuck stuff": 屌 means "fuck" (it's one of the "Magnificent 5" -- the 5 dirtiest words in Cantonese!), and so I guess the TV station didn't want to write it. But if you search online for screencaps, you'll see that some stations also wrote the subtitle as 关我鸟事, which means "concerning me bird stuff", because "bird" is a common polite substitution for "fuck". When SJ told us the story, she actually said 鸟 rather than 屌, which is not surprising, because I don't think that SJ knows any curse words of any kind. But that's neither here nor there.

Final digression, a headline from China's Global Times, from a few weeks ago: "Injection to replace bullet to the head." Evidently criminals facing the death penalty in Beijing will no longer be killed by a gunshot to the head. Score one for human rights!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

While you were out:

Look at this; three days, a half week, nearly, already, without any posts here on The Guangzhou Story (TGS, to fans). I apologize -- it's been a strange and strangely busy week, but I'm ready to get back into the game, so let's get started.

Here are some things that happened while you were out:

- I got a haircut. I think it's somewhat worse than the last haircut I got, but it's already gotten rave reviews from one student. (She: "You got a haircut." Me: "Yes." She: "Well, it looks better.") When the woman at the hair cut place saw that I was only wearing a light sweatshirt, she said, "Aren't you cold?" and then called to her coworker, "Hey, look at what this guy's wearing!" And then when I told her that I didn't want it too short, she said, "Well of course not! It's wintertime! You have to keep warm!"

Guys, it's 53 degrees. (Actually warmer now. High today was 61.)

- I got a cold. I woke up this morning with a bit of a sniffle and a bit of a tickle in my throat, and then taught class for three hours. I told my cinema students that my sore throat meant that they should participate more this week, but that doesn't work when I'm trying to teach is "Vertigo", a film which, despite having been released in 1958, contains sentences like "Maybe he's on the bum and wants to touch you for the price of a drink." Not 100% accessible to non-native speakers.

Anyway, to combat this cold, I bought another bag of 感冒茶 (catch cold tea), a traditional Chinese remedy, which, as I noted last time I got a cold, could literally be made of anything, since I didn't understand any of the words on the back.

This time I decided I might as well bite the bullet, pull out my dictionary, and see what is actually in this stuff that I've already had 4 cups of today. Here is what it says under ingredients on the back of the bag, translated literally.
Ingredients: sucrose, guard the wind, thorn mustard, small firewood mustache, tree passage, burdock grass, forsythia, three fork bitterness, gold cup silver plate.
I have no idea what any of these things are. I was really scared when I saw "burdock" (牛蒡 in Chinese), because 牛 means beef, and so in the time it took me to walk from the kitchen to the dictionary in my bedroom, I was mentally preparing myself for the possibility that the delicious sweet drink I had been enjoying was partially made of cow. Luckily it's only made of small firewood mustache.

- I watched a movie called "Cow" (《斗牛》, but since it's about a (female) cow, it should be clear to Chinese speakers why this title presents a translation challenge). You can see the trailer on YouTube, but it won't give you a good sense of the plot because it downplays a crucial aspect of the movie, which is: the cow. Typical attempt to bury the cow subtext of the film -- the studio was probably scared by how poorly cow-related movies have done with audiences and critics in the past. Who even remembers the criminal neglect of the classic "Dial M for Mooder"? Starring Grace Cowley. Directed by Alfred Hitchcow. Badda bing badda boom sometimes words sound sort of like other words and that's how "jokes" are born.

More to come as the situation develops. Keep your ear to the ground.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

and go south in the winter. ("The Show Must Go On" edition)

Remember how I was complaining about the heat and humidity in Guangzhou a mere two and a half months ago? (Have I been here this long already?) I said in that post that "you should just assume that I'm sweaty all the time, unless I explicitly say otherwise."

I have big news: I am not currently sweaty. It was a blustery day in Guangzhou, city of heat and humidity, except, it appears, when it's totally not. Chinese friends (really, I mean Gristle. Only Gristle.) say that this is the earliest, coldest winter in recent memory, and my students are freaking out. Most of my students were wearing turtlenecks, jackets, and scarves. One student had mittens attached to his (his!) scarf, and consequently spent the entire period with his hands in front of his fact, periodically blowing on his fingers to keep them from freezing.

Guess what temperature it was today based on the weather applet on my computer. Go on, guess.

53 degrees.

I wore a shirt and blazer to class today and my students reacted with horror and anger at my apparent invulnerability to the cold. I told one of my classes that I thought the weather was actually pretty comfortable, and I saw the following actual reactions from actual students: one girl's mouth fell open, another one shook her head in shock and disbelief, and one guy put his head in his hands. I am blowing their minds. Just another day in the life of Awesome Teacher Jon.

The security guards who patrol our school are wearing coats that look exactly like this:

Guys, it's 53 degrees.

Also, I found that picture by googling "communist jacket." First image result, baby. Do I know my communist jackets or what?

The surreality continues: Gristle came to our apartment this evening dressed in his cold weather gear.

Please everyone ignore my hair. It is windswept. And my strange face. It is [other excuse]. I just want you to focus on the fact that Gristle's cold weather gear makes him look like he just stepped out of a community theater production of "Waiting for Godot".

Sometimes when it's cold out, my mom will say that it is "frickin' freezing." This is my segue to Asians and swearing.

Our students' knowledge of English swear words is unbearably precious. Like, they have some weird lacunae in their dirty word vocabulary -- they don't know "poop" and "butt", but they know "shit" and "ass". Sometimes I hear them saying swear words, and it always makes me happy, because it shows that they're getting the hang of oral English.

Anyway, we were discussing the week in the countryside in class today, and one of my students said that one of the problems with living in the countryside is that there are lots of animals around, which means there are lots of "shits in the street." "Excellent," I said, "but we only use 'shit' in the singular. So actually there was just a lot of shit in the street. Can everyone say that with me? 'Lots of shit in the street'? Good." In the teaching biz, we call this a "teachable moment", and, as you can see, I taught the shit out of it.

And again, this evening, I was working with my (Korean) tutee on some idioms, and she told me that she had a question to ask me about English swear words, and that she was embarrassed to talk about it. I got excited and asked her in a whisper which English words she wanted to talk about. She said there was a word she had heard on a TV show, and that she had heard some kids using it, and she wanted to know about it. She blushed and said she didn't want to say it out loud.

No, I said, it's fine. There's no need to be embarrassed.

OK, she said. They were calling each other...loser. And they were making this gesture.

And then she slowly made an ell shape with her thumb and forefinger and held it down by her waist, grimacing at the obscenity of her gesture.

No, I said, sighing. That's fine.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Heartbeat (500) Days

I never got around to seeing "(500) [Days] {of} *Summer*" while I was still in America, so I picked up a copy when I saw it on sale on the street today. I don't really feel like writing anything tonight, so I leave you with the description of the movie from the back of the DVD package. (Usually pirated DVDs just use the original American art and copy, but this is blessedly not the case for this movie.) Without further ado, 心跳(500)天:

Acquaintance of a pair was removed around 500 days of the attractive men and women, male and daughter, women do not love men, be limited to development of relations between lovers fall out breaking up an appointment to go to bed, which specify the actions disrupt the timing from the presentation, read out a new definition of endless love. First-come, first 488 days notice, A heart has been put on a wedding ring; fell back 1 day, Tom finds that she is a dream, see a lover, every minute and every second of her heart; but to the first date, she has been warning you do not believe love. A soup concept of ultra-romantic love, A heart and a man fast intimacy, each opera are all close to the pulse of the era of love. This is not a love story, but the interpretation of love, deconstruction'S NOTE gratification, love ... ...

China is the gift that keeps on giving. And you know, whenever I talk about love, I always trail off at the end, but I don't use some worn-out single ellipsis to show how much I trail off, because that's some lame ass bull shit right there, I trail that shit off, double ellipsis style, when I interpret love, spitting my game all over that gratification, I'm talking opera, I'm talking deconstructions'S NOTE, I'm talking soup concepts ... ...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Return of the Nanking

Well, this blog post won't write itself, so let's get this trip to Nanjing over with so that I can get back to basics around here. I'm sure many of you are saying, "that Tongli museum was sexy and all, but hearing about your life is even sexier," and to those people I say, "let's meet up. msg me for face pic. no fatties."

One thing I forgot to say about the Tongli Sex Culture Museum is that, even though there were a lot of statues which were clearly penises, there were also some which were just poles sticking out of the ground. The placards next to them claimed that these statues had "penis meaning". Look, I'm sure that the curator is very learned and skilled, but I don't think that you should be allowed to call things art just because they remind you of penises. As much as I might want to. I mean, you. You might want to.

But, as everyone knows, every vacation, even the most penis meaningful vacation, have to come to an end, so after two days in the Suzhou/Tongli area we returned to Nanjing for one last hurrah. This hurrah involved a visit to the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, a large memorial museum built next to a mass grave from the 1937-8 "rape of Nanking". I don't really want to talk about it. I don't think I'm up to describing it -- not because the event "renders words impotent", as I've heard it said (how could it? Isn't it words that trivialize events?), but because I'm not a writer and every time I try to describe it I can only think of words that everyone has used before: nausea, horror, obscenity, disgrace.

One silver haha lining in this cloud of doom was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall gift shop, which sold hot dogs and a series of soft-porn DVD entitled "Comfort Women". I am, unfortunately, not joking -- Gus has pictures on his flickr. Also, don't look now, but there are some cute-ass ducks at the top of his photostream as we speak. Let's all take a look at the delicious ducks and try to forget the bad taste of Nanjing rape.

See, it's hard to forget the rape, right? Welcome to my vacation.

Our last day in Nanjing also included a trip to one of David's ancient Chinese classes, which was pretty interesting (and much easier to understand than the catalog class we went to on Monday that Gus blogged about), but which convinced me that I have no serious future in ancient Chinese, or maybe in the Chinese language in general. Apropos of that revelation, want to hear a funny joke? Knock knock. Who's there? I'm going to be living in China for two more years.

And then we came back to Guangzhou and restarted our life. The best part of coming home was hearing someone in the airport say "just now" as 啱啱 (Cantonese "ngaam1 ngaam1") instead of as 刚刚 (Mandarin "gāng gāng"). If you have a Cantonese speaker handy, have them say 啱啱 for you, because I promise it'll be the most fun you'll have all day.*

* Promise only valid if you live in a foreign land, are separated from friends and family by 10,000 miles, and are still a little bummed out from having seen a mass grave the day before.

And now our lives have basically returned to normal. Like today, when Gus and I sat with SJ (our Cantonese tutor) in the McDonalds for two and a half hours while I tried to explain transubstantiation to her and she just laughed and laughed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

I hear Venice is the Suzhou of the Occident

No seriously, everyone's talking about it.

Sorry for the lack of a Jiangsu post last night (I know, you were crushed), but I was too busy kicking a whole lot of Chinese ass at Settlers of Catan. I credit my capitalist upbringing and my ability to stab friends in the back.

So, as much fun as we were having in Nanjing (site, let's not forget, of the eponymous slaughter and rape), we decided to take a two-day trip out to the city of Suzhou, 2.5 hours away by bus, which is notable both for its canals and also for its lack of an oppressive collective memory of slaughter and rape.


Suzhou is great blah blah blah; I don't want to describe it too much because it'll just make me want to go back. I will say that they have a Silk Museum in Suzhou which is all about: silk. Ask me a question about silk or silk production, and I promise you I don't know the answer, because I spent 10 minutes in the silk museum before deciding that they could keep my 20 kuai because I was tired of silk.

Whatever, I'm not going to say much about Suzhou because during our trip to Suzhou we stopped in Tongli, home of the world famous 中华性文化博物馆, which is to say the Chinese Sex Culture Museum. The rest of the info about this museum is after the jump. Don't click through if you are offended by dirty words, statues of people with large sex organs, or naked pictures of me. (I don't think there will be any naked pictures of me, but I haven't written it yet and I'm not willing to make any promises.)

In case you don't know what sex is: when a man loves a woman, and he actually wants to make love, to her, something very very special happens, and uh, with deep, deep concentration, and great focus, he is often able to achieve an erec-

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Happy Singles' Day!

Today is November 11th, which means it's Singles' Day in China! Why? Because November 11th is 11/11 -- a row of four 1s, presumably feeling just as lonely as single people do every day of their lives! This is the sort of fun holiday that only people in relationships find funny. The way that people traditionally celebrate singles' day is by eating 油条, long sticks of hot fried dough, which look like the number 1. And, incidentally, like a penis. Just me?

Anyway, some updates from today before I get back to Jiangsu tonight (I promise it will happen):

- Remember the hen from yesterday? I FOUND THE HEN. I FOUND IT. I AM A THE HEN MAN.

I got up early this morning to skype with someone and while I was making tea I saw the hen on the ledge outside my kitchen window. I texted my student, but the problem is that there is no obvious way to get out onto that ledge, since all the windows have bars over them. I told her that I thought she should probably just ask a security guard to get a ladder, and she responded:
Oh thanks a lot. i'll tell my parents the hard situation and ask for help. thanks from the bottom of my heart :D
I sent her a quick "No problem. Good luck with your hen!" and then she fired back with:
Ha, god bless me. that's really funny.
I think the phrase that she was looking for was "bless my life", but the moral of the story is I'm a hero and I'm also hilarious. I'm, like, the perfect guy. I'm the fireman who comes and gets the cat out of your tree and then sweeps you off your feet and takes you inside and makes gentle, sweet, riotously funny love to you. Who's interested, ladies? Ladies? Hello?

- My friend Mark commented on my Legally Blonde post that a video of that performance surely would attract a million YouTube hits. That reminded me that Gus actually did take a short video of the opening scene, which you can see here:

The. Best. Day. Of. My. Life.

- It rained today, so Gus and I are currently walking around our apartment shirtless (topless?) while our shirts dry. Singles' Day, more like Sexy Day, am I right??? Seriously, no ladies are interested in a piece of this action? Come on!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I just got the best text message I will ever get in my life, so the rest of you might as well stop trying

Have you seen my hen? seems that my hen has fell down to the 2nd floor...if you see a missing hen, please tell me. thanks a lot.

[one of my students]


Will you get another Jiagsu post tonight? Only time and my ability to not go insane while grading math homework will tell...

It's Jiangsuper!

Let's start talking about Jiangsu!

Actually, before we start talking about Jiangsu: I just heard today that Claude Levi-Strauss died while we were on vacation. I did not realize he was still alive. Nevertheless, this is sad news. Especially since I had all sorts of great structural anthropology jokes planned for this post which I'm going to have to can. "Too soon" my tuchus.

The first day.5 of our trip after the ol' jump. Some pictures, too. All copyright Gus Tate. Used with permission.

Monday, November 9, 2009


Another night, another not Jiangsu post. All this vacationing really takes it out of you, you know? But I couldn't go to bed without sharing a brief anecdote about Gristle, light of my life, fire of my lo meins. We saw him tonight for the first time since leaving for Jiangsu, and a week without Gristle is like a week without this weird type of sunshine that isn't really a good friend but more just sunshine that hangs out and stores stuff in our fridge (and who, incidentally, sometimes uses a bag that is clearly a purse intended for ladies.)

Gristle was over at our house tonight for our weekly Cantonese lesson, and at the end of the lesson he was talking to us about Halloween. We said that we went to a Halloween party with Chinese students at Nanjing University (I promise that you'll get to hear about this if I ever post about our trip to the Godot of the East), and he said that he had also been to a Halloween party! A foot fetish party.

And I was half tuning Gristle out, as I sometimes do because he talks a lot, and so I half nodded along to this last admission before stopping suddenly, because he said foot fetish party, which is a party, he said, where men and women wear tight black stockings and partygoers are invited to stroke and kiss them with impunity, which is a type of party that I have never been to, nor heard of, nor known to exist except in pansexual Central American love communes, which will throw you any kind of party you like. Seriously. Anything.

Or so I've heard.

So China has foot fetish parties, which, despite involving neither costumes nor the demanding of treats, are sometimes held on Halloween. AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO THINKS THIS IS CRAZY? WHAT THE EFF IS HAPPENING AROUND HERE? AND WHY AM I HERE?

(You see, I have absolutely nowhere else to go.)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

No Jiangsu post tonight

Because I am tired and since I am "supposedly" a real teacher I "supposedly" have math homework to grade. Hey, remember that time when I had to teach the proof of Fermat's Little Theorem to 40+ non-native English speakers, at least 8% of whom have no interest in math and are only taking my class because of my good looks? Because I remember that time like it was this morning.

I just wanted to clarify some time zone information for everyone on the East Coast. The end of daylight savings time means that I am now 13 hours ahead of you, so the easiest way to go is just add one hour to whatever time it is there and then change am to pm, or vice versa. Or as I like to describe it, "put a one down, flip it, and reverse it". (Incidentally, it's that sort of streetwise explanation that makes my math class so fun and approachable for my students. Or it would, if only I could stop referencing American hip hop songs that no one in China has ever heard of.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Cities and Desire, 1

So I'm back from Jiangsu and I'm all set to write a series of moderately snarky posts about the trip (one of the benefits of having a blog is that I see everything through protective layers of sarcasm, irony, and self-deprecating humor without having to emotionally experience it (this may seem like a drawback to you rather than a benefit, but let's talk after you try emotionally experiencing a Chinese public restroom where someone had a case of the mamsy-poopsy-mams)), but before I embark on my journey into the past (which I hope will take less time and effort than my series of posts about Hubei) I have some relatively non-snarky comments on the trip.

The two main cities we went to, Nanjing and Suzhou, are wonderful places. Suzhou especially: it's nicknamed the "Venice of the East", and, even though I'm probably going to make a joke about that name in a later post, it's not an unreasonable description for a city filled with tree-lined canals and Italian coffee shops which happens to be in The Orient. Going to Suzhou reminded me what things I miss when I'm in Guangzhou. Those things are so irrelevant that it's hard to name them without hearing a voice inside saying, "surely you aren't complaining about that", and they aren't hardships as much as compromises that I make with myself so often that I forget that I'm making them. And usually I chalk these differences up to China, and I swallow them in the name of cultural assimilation and new experiences. But then I take a 2 hour plane ride and I feel like I could have it all if only I didn't live in Guangzhou.

I don't really feel that way now that I'm back, though. Guangzhou is harder to live in because it is more callous and more complicated, but I do actually believe that it's a good experience to live in a complicated place. Suzhou feels comfortable because it's a beautiful tourist destination. Tourists go there because they see in Suzhou a reflection of their own city, and eventually some of them move to Suzhou and try to construct an imitation of their city there, and the cycle continues until no one can quite remember what they liked about Suzhou in the first place except that it was the first place they had gone in China that felt like home.

Plus, one of the days we were there it was cold as balls outside, and no one likes that.

Amusing tales from Jiangsu still to come! What do the song "When You Believe", the movie Legally Blonde, and jade dildos have in common (other than being insert your own gay joke here)? They'll all be featured in Jiangsu wrap up posts appearing this week! For now, content yourself with this picture, which is what happens when Gus pushes the button on the camera before I'm ready.

Also, everyone had to fall back in the US last week, but the time didn't change here because we sprinkled the blood of a Tibetan lamb on our lintel. This means that my convenient 12-hour time difference from the East Coast no longer works. So, bad news for my friends on the East Coast, but good news for my friends on Prince Edward Island, which Canadians assure me is a real province and not simply a long-standing cartographic joke. (Newfoundland, as I discovered just now, is in the half time zone UTC-3.5. Now that's a joke.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Has anybody seen my tambourine?

It's already Halloween in China and this Halloween I'm dressing up as "foreign teacher who has a week off from school and so is taking a trip to Nanjing." It's a costume that will last from today until next Friday. Don't go crazy in my absence.

We have a week off because our students are going to the countryside to study agriculture and harvest rice. This is despite the fact that most of them are bound for prestigious colleges and government positions. Princeton's Fall Break was created so that students could work on political campaigns; the fall break at this school was created so that students can appreciate the fruit of the communist revolution. Welcome to my life.

I will be out of internet contact until we return on Friday, and so I won't be checking email or text messages. I am still available by phone if you need to reach me, though (and I should have clarified this last time) I can neither check my voicemail nor make outgoing calls, so you should make sure you actually speak to me if you have important information to relay.

I don't want to blow my wad right now, but I do want you to know that we are going to both the Nanking Massacre Memorial Museum and the Chinese Sex Culture Museum, which sort of runs the gamut as far as "museum funness" goes. I would call it an Emotional Roller Coaster, if this black heart of mine could feel.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ok, maybe China isn't the only country crazy about snakes

From BBC News Europe: Customs find snakes taped to man.

Gather 'round, for I have news!

I know I keep posting about Chinese news organizations, but they're just so damn entertaining, it's impossible to resist.

Before I begin, a quick update on the battle for "China Daily Headline Which Most Resembles A Daily Princetonian Headline". Winner: Campus club gets failing grade from critics. Runners up: Thousands applying for gov't jobs, Google chief Schmidt maps out future of internet, Cats and dogs use more energy than cars. At least the China Daily doesn't have film reviews, which I promise is an improvement over the Daily Princetonian situation.

So, the China Daily. I've talked about how entertaining it is in the past, but it really isn't quite as funny as Chinese-language news, which, as you may remember from my post about the Black Man article, is just crazy talk. (I had "jive talk" written for a second, but I think that's somehow racist in this context.)

But earlier this week, I realized that my love for Chinese language news could be communicated to you without my having to translate a lot of articles, because the China Daily runs translated blurbs from news agencies all around China in a section called ChinaScene (the fact that it's all one word means that it's hip). So today I'm just going to list all of the headlines from one day of the ChinaScene section. I'm not going to add jokes of any kind. (Hecklers in the audience are now free to shout, "so it'll be just like normal!!" or something to that effect.) I just want you to see what life in China is like.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Judgment Day

Today is literally judgment day for me and Gus: a PiA representative is here in Guangzhou to observe one of our classes and comment on our general living situation in Guangzhou. He is literally our boss and he is literally the first real guest we've had in Guangzhou, and if we do poorly we are literally going to be on a roller coaster to hell.

It's true: Kai from PiA is here, and he's sitting in on one of our classes, which, this week, happens to be about the difference between literal and figurative language. During class, we're having our students write skits which highlight the differences between literal and figurative language. (The similarities between those last two sentences speak to the clarity and specificity of our pedagogical goals!) Highlights include a group of Chinese high-school students shouting "my brain is literally going to explode", which marked the point where a skit about math homework turned into a gripping counterterrorism saga complete with a ticking time bomb scenario. It was like 24, if everyone on 24 could not really speak English, and also could not stop giggling.

Since Kai is here, we gave him the full Guangzhou treatment, which involved going to dim sum in the morning and then coming home and taking a nap until class. His excuse is that he had jet lag after a 16 hour flight; our excuse is that we take a siesta (or 睡午觉, in Chinese) basically every single day. So, if I ever tell you that my life in Guangzhou is "busy", I mean it's busy after you factor in a good 2 hours of totally committed napping.

The rest of the day was pretty good. Our students are really stressed about the Sports Competition happening this weekend, which begins on Friday morning with an opening ceremony at which every class will perform a choreographed routine. All the students are performing in the ceremony and some of the teachers seem to be involved too, so I have no idea who the audience is going to be for this thing. Our students have asked us several times to come, so we're definitely going, but we may be literally the only people in the stands.

We had English corner again this afternoon, like we do every Wednesday, and this week it ended with Dark (of Chinese Democracy fame) singing the Daniel Powter song "Bad Day" in falsetto. He then let loose with a few Michael Jackson numbers. Then he made a blowjob joke.

So yeah, I Had a Good Day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

More Cantonese Bragging

Gristle said today that we pronounce Cantonese words approximately as well as Northerners! So we still sound ridiculous while speaking, but only as ridiculous as non-Cantonese speaking Chinese people. The trend is up.

I will now attempt the impossible task of communicating something which was incredibly unable-to-breathe-you're-laughing-so-hard funny at the time but now just seems bizarre. Gristle was over for our joint Cantonese/ukulele lesson (he teaches us Cantonese and in return we teach him English and Gus teaches him to play the ukulele) and he decided to tell us a story about his nearly getting robbed on the street. The story was fairly long (approximately 10 minutes in the telling) and convoluted. We listened to it politely once and then at the very end he said, "it was weird how it happened right outside the subway station. I mean, I was walking along and this guy came up to me..." and then he started telling THE EXACT SAME STORY AGAIN. So I notice this and start laughing, and then I notice Gus is also laughing and I start laughing more, and so I spend all 10 minutes of the second telling wiping my eyes because I'm crying because I'm laughing because Gristle is totally, totally oblivious.

I promise it was really funny.

Also, Gus and I wrote an article for the a student-edited English publication called "Dream Catchers" (catch those dreams!) about "Our Lives at Princeton", and now the editor wants us to supply pictures of ourselves and our friends at Princeton. I tried looking through my facebook photos, but so many of them contain inappropriate elements (outrageous faces, alcohol, partial nudity) that it might be a lost cause.

But, my friends from Princeton: your image may be appearing in Dream Catchers sometime soon! I will make up elaborate, implausible backstories to tell my students about you and your many accomplishments. I've already decided to tell them that Callie used to be a champion figure skater before injuring her knee while water-wrestling an otter.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Crazy Chinese!

Last year there was an article in the New Yorker about Crazy English, the English-learning craze that's sweeping the nation (of China). In brief, it's English, but Crazy! Read the article if you want more info. There's a lot of shouting involved. It's pretty fascinating, if you're looking for info about how young Chinese people are being exposed to English these days.

Anyway, I had several good Chinese experience this weekend that I wanted to share with you.

The first: I successfully spoke a Cantonese sentence to someone other than Gus, Gristle, or our cantonese tutor SJ. Usually whenever we're on the street I'm too nervous to speak to anyone in Cantonese so I just chicken out and use Mandarin.* But we were walking around with SJ and a woman heard us speaking Cantonese with her and seemed shocked and asked SJ what was going on, and then I said: 佢系我哋嘅粤语老师。(Keoy hai ngodei ge jytju lousi.)

Mandarin translation: 她是我们的粤语老师。 (Ta shi women de yueyu laoshi.)
English translation: She's our Cantonese teacher.

Look, some of the words are the same as the words in Mandarin, but some of them are different. Plus they're all pronounced differently. So I had to do some work to produce this sentence. Someone give me an effing medal.

(*I never mentioned this on the blog, but when we were first looking for a Cantonese tutor we put out an ad and got 5 respondents, so we held interviews so we could find our favorite. Anyway during one interview, we said that we wanted to learn enough Cantonese to complete simple daily tasks like buying food and asking for directions. The lady cut in, "Why would you need to ask for directions? Just use Google Maps." I think this is when we decided that she was not the right tutor for us.)

The second: A friend of mine was in town yesterday shooting interviews with local Chinese people about their feelings on brand-name clothing. And since his Chinese is not good, I got to conduct the interviews. Which was really fun and very gratifying since it made me feel like my Chinese was actually useful for something. One of the interview subjects worked in government and he said my Chinese was very good, so, Wu Laoshi, you can take that B+ you gave me in Chinese 403 and shove it.

Also, we were filming in front of a store in the mall and one of the employees came and said we couldn't film there. But then she giggled and asked me for my phone number. When God closes a door, he opens a window. Or, she may have just wanted my phone number to submit to the police so that I could be hauled in for questioning.

So yeah, we hung out with her for a while. Not a lot of complaints, if you know what I mean. At least not from the girl. And he had to drive her home afterwards so I think I did pretty good. Pretty damn good. (Note: this is not true; it's a quote from Arrested Development. Obviously neither of us had to "drive her home afterwards," because everyone here takes the subway.)

One more thing: I learned that GeoCities is being shut down and all GeoCities sites will disappear today. This is sad news: the internet will be a little bit less useful without the StarCraft:Brood War-themed GeoCities page I made in 1998.