Wednesday, September 30, 2009

There are somethings expressly prohibited by my contract

For instance, I am prohibited from "mak[ing] comments on China’s ideology, politics and religion" while teaching at my school.

But I am not prohibited from teaching my students the English word "homoerotic." Which is exactly what I did today at English corner, more or less without meaning to. (Communist) Party foul!

She brought it up. Promise.

So, yeah. I'm a pretty great teacher. Pretty, pret-tay, pret-tay, pret-tay great.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chinin' on up!

Now we're in the big leagues, getting our turn at bat, we finally got a piece of the mooncake and bought ourselves a chin up bar.

Gus and I are getting in shape the only way we know how: by copying what people do in the movies when they're in prison and don't want to go soft and get shanked in the meal line. Having seen both The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, I can tell you that what they do is do chin ups and push ups, until they meet a friendly black man and start learning lessons about friendship and the power of positive thinking. (Note: this is not the way it works on Oz.)

Gus and I are on the road to fun and fitness. And I want you to meet someone who is very excited about this whole pull up thing..

I'm going to pretend her name is Cheryl. Cheryl's picture is on the box that our pull up bar came in, and she can pull me up anytime! If only she didn't have tragically elongated arms and torso from having to hang there for hours and hours.

She's demonstrating one use of the possible uses for a chin up bar, and I would be happy to follow her lead and just use it for hanging (a wonderfully soothing form of aerobic exercise which I'm pretty great at), but Gus and I have big goals of being able to do a non-negligible number of consecutive pull ups with minimal jumping, resting, or crying.

So far our results are not great, but just take a look at our home gym:

Note the stairstepper machine on the floor in the corner, which I never use but which we keep next to the chin up contraption in order to impress our (hypothetical) guests. But I am actually doing chin ups, and actually swimming. That makes two forms of regular exercise, which is infinity percent more than the zero forms of regular exercise that I got at Princeton. (But I did get some serious irregular exercise, if you know what I mean! Please, someone, tell me what I mean.)

Possible other song-based titles for this post: just "Chin Up" ("our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up") or "Sit Down. Chin Up."

Sit Down.
Chin Up.
The rain drops
The rain drops
The rain drops
The rain drops
The rain drops x 47


I just got a message from the American Consulate in China about two "stabbing incidents" in Beijing earlier this week.

The first incident: a French tourist was "slightly injured" in a knife attack near Tian'anmen Square. Fine, whatever. French people are always getting stabbed. I mean, who among us has not stabbed a French tourist before? That's a classic middle-school dare in Quebec. Happens all the time.

But the second incident:

"Two days earlier, two security guards were killed and 14 people wounded in a separate knife attack in the same area."

WHAT THE EFF. Two security guards were killed and fourteen people were wounded in a single knife attack? Are they serious? How does someone manage to stab 16 people in one go? That is un-believable.

Let me give you a sense of what it's like to stab 16 people.

It's like playing capture the flag against 16 people and tagging them all out at once, except to tag them out you don't have to two-hand touch them, you have to stab them.

It's like stabbing all of the members of a Rugby Sevens team twice, and then stabbing two additional people.

It's like getting a baker's dozen doughnuts, plus then ordering three more because you're super hungry, and then you stab them all, despite the fact that the doughnuts can run and hide from predators and call for help. You stab them all.

Hey, speaking of segues, get ready for a post later today about our new chin-up bar! If any of you thought that this blog was going to be full of thoughtful meditations on Chinese culture and history rather than stories about Gus and me and our huge pecs, you've been misinformed.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Forget it, Roman! It's China(town)

Breaking news:

Roman Polanski has been arrested in Switzerland

Well there goes the American dream of being able to have sex with a 13 year old and then flee the country for 31 years. Eat your heart out, Jimmy Gatz.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

One Down

[you should skip this first part if you're just looking for another funny Gristle story.]

As in "one month down", not 1-Down in Saturday's New York Times crossword ("In relation to" [7 letters]: VISAVIS).

Today is my one-month anniversary of having arrived in Guangzhou. [I had a joke in here about what might normally happen on a one-month anniversary, but then I remembered that my grandma reads this blog (hi, Grandma Joan! We should skype soon!), so I cut it because it wasn't family-friendly.] I already feel like I've been here forever. I know how to take the bus. I know how take the subway. I'm learning Cantonese and teaching English and trying to relearn dusty Mandarin in my spare time. I have a routine.

Also, I've forgotten what it's like to live in a world full of English speakers who do not revere me, as opposed to a world of Chinese speakers who do.

But I almost can't imagine that I'll be here at least 10 more months, and probably for a year after that, because I think about home and Princeton every day, and even though I think about them all the time I can't go back because I have to stay here, in China. And in my free time I look for people that will hire me after I leave China, because even then I can't go back, and I need a job so that I can feed myself, and hopefully at least one other person, and then I'll do more jobs, and hopefully I'll be happy, and then I'll die.


So what have I learned in my time here? I've learned (let's take a u-turn towards Happytown Heights, population me) that going out with Gristle is always an adventure:

This morning while Gus and I were at dim sum with the Yale in China people, Gus got a text from Gristle asking if we'd like to have dinner with him and a friend. We said that this sounded fine. Surely there's no way to misunderstand "have dinner with him and a friend." Surely this means that we would all go to a restaurant together, like it normally does when people say that they'd like to have dinner.

Proverbs for Paranoids (in China), 2: Sometimes it doesn't mean that, and don't call me Surely.

So actually what happened was that we met Gristle, and then he told us that we weren't going to a restaurant, we were going to the friend's apartment to eat dinner. Because she had purchased a new American pot, and she wanted to show us how to cook with it.

Still basically fine. We are still basically in normalville.

Until we get to the apartment and it's not an apartment but actually what looks like the set of Emeril Legasse Live!, minus the stadium seating, plus four folding chairs. Minus Emeril. Plus a 45-year old Chinese woman. Plus an uncooked chicken. Minus its feathers. Plus its head.

And then the woman gets suuuuper excited because Gristle didn't *say* he was bringing two 外国朋友 (foreign friends), and she's sort of mad because he's late, but she's excited because there are two foreigners here and she's got her foreign pots, and she's ready to perform an infomercial for us while we sit on folding chairs and watch her cook.

I will say, they seemed like pretty good pots. If I were a Chinese housewife who needed to boil fish soup, steam vegetables, bake a chicken, and make rice all at once, I would have bought these pots. The lady had a whiteboard behind her which listen the 特点 (special features) of these pots. The number 1 特点 should have been "you get a shitload of pots", because this lady used tons of these pots to make this meal. At least 8 - 10 of these pots. She kept emphasizing that "even lazy people can make meals with these pots", which doesn't seem true, because lazy people don't like to clean pots. I mean, right?

My favorite part was when Gus and I responded to one of the woman's questions and she said, "Wow! You can really speak Chinese!" We were 30 minutes deep at that point. She had been talking at us for half an hour without actually being sure if we could understand a word that she was saying.

Incidentally, all she said was, "I haven't added any oil! I haven't added any salt! Think how healthy this is! Even lazy people can make meals with these pots!" Over and over and over.


During the dinner, Gristle turned to me and said, very seriously, "魏德忠, I have a question that I've been meaning to ask you for a long time, but I didn't want to do it before now because I thought it would be rude." Everyone take a second to think about what that question might be.

When Gus and I heard this, we both thought he was going to ask the same thing. We were wrong. Gristle drew and breath and said, "Do you have more than one pair of shoes? Because these shoes make you look like a homeless man." Making friends with my dot vans.

He later said that he noticed that I always wear black socks, and he said that this was a good thing, because whenever he sees a man wearing high white socks, he always seems like the sort of man who "enjoys sexual violence." I asked him to elaborate. He said, "我只是有这样的感觉。" ("I just get that sort of feeling.")

And then he came to our house and told us a ghost story that his barber had told him in 2007. It was a story about a murdered woman who haunted an apartment. The tenant knew there was a ghost because his room was so cool in the middle of the day that he didn't have to turn on his fan or air conditioning. Guangzhou: Where Having a Comfortable Room Means That Something Is Terribly, Terribly Wrong.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Slightly More About 建国大业

Here's the trailer. Watch this and try not to be stirred. Do it. I dare you.


In other news, Gus and I went to a famous museum in Guangzhou today. I assume this is the sort of thing that archaeologists dream about when they're not going to bazaars or eating dates with Sallah: an extremely old and well-preserved tomb was found in Guangzhou in the mid 80s during construction of a mall. The tomb itself is fairly small, but you get to walk around inside it and see most of the artifacts that were discovered there. Evidently people at that time believed that jade protects against decomposition, so the king was buried in a suit made entirely out of little squares of jade, and large jade medallions were arranged around his body.

Spoiler alert: jade does not protect against decomposition. There was a glass box which claimed to contain the remains of one of the king's prostitutes; in fact, as far as we could tell, it was a glass box with dirt at the bottom. Score one for the Egyptians, because mummification actually kinda works. Though in the box of the king's remains we could see something that was clearly part of a jawbone, and he was buried with much more jade than the prostitute, so you never know.

Hey speaking of the prostitute, she was sacrificed to be buried alongside the king. Along with 16 other people. And this was not a big tomb. The remains of 6 of the people were found in a side chamber mixed with "assorted animal remains." As far as getting human-sacrificed goes, that has to be pretty much the bottom of the barrel.

Other news from the museum:

1. An exhibition hall in the museum about early Chinese religions was labeled "The World of Wizards and Deities," which, again, sounds like a Warcraft III add-on.

2. The same exhibition hall contained a section discussing the relationship between eye size and status in religious statues of the era. The case was labeled "眼睛=身份" (eyes = status), after which someone (presumably an employee, since it was behind glass) had written a question mark with a magic marker. I like that commitment to honesty in museum signage.

3. One of the corpses was labeled "Front Chamber Eunuch". I would listen to an album by "Front Chamber Eunuch", so long as Pitchfork gave it at least a 7.5.


When we got home today, I went into the kitchen and saw this:

If you cannot see the photo for some reason (to all my blind readers, thanks for sticking around! To all my sighted readers, sorry that you have to look at our disgusting tile floor!), that is a colander in the middle of our kitchen. That was confusing for us because neither of us has ever used our colander, seeing as we rarely have opportunities to make ravioli. I didn't even know we had a colander.

We figured out eventually that it probably fell off the wall, but the jury's still out. Stay tuned for more info of the case of the "why is there a colander on my floor."

Finally, speaking of food, when I was in the supermarket yesterday, I thought about buying some protein powder, but then I realized that that was a really stupid idea, because of what I will now officially call

Proverbs for Paranoids (in China), 1: Ground-up kitten brains and ground-up soybeans both are technically "protein powder", and in China you never know.

Building a Country: Great Work if You Can Get It

If you haven't already heard (i.e. if you live anywhere except China), this October 1st marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. 60 year anniversaries are especially important for Chinese people because the zodiac repeats in 60-year cycles, so the age of 60 represents a spiritual rebirth into a new adulthood.

Or something like that. All you need to know is that China is freaking. the. eff. out. The China Daily (remember?) only runs two types of front page pictures these days: smiling pictures of Hu Jintao and pictures of people smiling about the anniversary. An article yesterday talked about how marching in the Tian'anmen parade on the 1st is the "opportunity of a lifetime." (Brief China Daily aside: favorite front page headline from yesterday was "Anti-panda tirade of bat fan slammed".)

So last night Gus and I went to see the movie《建国大业》(lit. "the great work of building a country"; English title "The Founding of a Republic"), a state-funded hagiographic account of the end of the Chinese civil war and the origins of the PRC.

It was really, truly fantastic(ly awful). For starters, it certainly had the highest production values of any propaganda film that I've ever seen. (Better luck next time, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center!) Huge crowd scenes, big CGI reproductions of battles, and lots of location shooting. They obviously spent a ton of money on this movie, but I guess they're making it back, because a ticket cost me approximately as much as the food I consume in a normal day. I counted at least 15 showings a day at the theater we went to, so I think they're banking on this being a Huge Event.

It also featured essentially every Chinese actor you've ever heard of, including Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Jackie Chan's part was especially funny, because he can't speak Mandarin, so he needed to deliver his lines in Cantonese. What an idiot! But he was in the movie for about 45 seconds, and he played a reporter who didn't kick his interview subject in the kidneys, even though you could tell he wanted to.

Speaking of Cantonese/Mandarin, Gus and I were surprised and pleased to see that the movie had English subtitles. We were not expecting that. Thank God that they had subtitles, though, because even with the English the movie was largely incoherent. Everyone in China knows the story of this founding, so the film's exposition lurched from Big Famous Moment to Big Famous Moment. Most of these moments were punctuated by black and white photography, slow motion, or both. And montages. So many stirring montages. If I ever have to see one more montage of people cheering as Mao cries in awe, I'm going to shoot myself and/or send myself to the Great Northern Wilderness to starve in a re-education camp.

Anyway, the movie was actually fairly entertaining. I was worried that I was going to turn commie after seeing it, so I bought some Peanut M&Ms at the supermarket before the movie. Nothing makes you feel like a capitalist like chocolate. They were really delicious, and, if I squinted hard enough, I could pretend that this was just Michael Bay's latest inept offering, and I could pretend I was at home.


Two more unrelated notes:

1. Today's featured article on Wikipedia is Boy Scouts of American membership controversies. The first paragraph says that the policies which "prohibit atheists, agnostics, and 'known or avowed' homosexuals" are "considered by some to be unfair." This seems to me to be putting it mildly.

2. I'm trying to decorate my room, which is hard when all your walls are concrete. The first thing I put up was a "In the Mood for Love" poster near my desk, which sort of seems like a sick joke. But it keeps falling down, so I guess it's appropriate after all.

Friday, September 25, 2009

One more confusing thing

One of my students said during office hours yesterday that her teacher had told her that the best way to prepare for the writing section of the TOEFL was to watch French movies. She did not elaborate.

Ancient Chinese Secret, huh?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lies! Lies!

Oh man, I told a big ol' lie to some students today. Real whopper. Huge boner. (Who remembers when boner just meant "stupid mistake"? Because I sure don't.)

The magic of being a teacher is that you get to stand up and tell students things and no matter what you say they will write it down and believe that it is true. Like all magic, this is a powerful tool, but sometimes you can get (mana) burned.*

*If you don't know what this means, please don't google it.

So sometimes, especially when you teach the same lesson eleven times to eleven different groups of students (welcome to my life), you start to improvise and say things that you're pretty sure are true. And most of the time, you're right. But sometimes what you're doing is the equivalent of taking the trust that they've given you and grinding it down to nothing and then rubbing it all over your naked body yelling, "Who's the teacher now? WHO'S THE TEACHER NOW?? I AM ALL POWERFUL."

Sorry, got a little carried away there. Common fantasy of mine.

Anyway, some context: I love love LOVE English words and phrases of Chinese origin but which you wouldn't expect would be from Chinese. I will share my favorite examples; I hope they blow your monkey-fighting mind. (Several of these are from Gus, who has a book about this sort of thing.)

- "to lose face": this was the first one I learned. I always thought it was sort of weird that the English idiom "to lose face" is exactly the same as the Chinese 丢脸; turns out, we get our phrase from them.

- "brainwash": literal translation of the Chinese 洗脑. Somehow unsurprising, this one.

- "ketchup": got this one from Wikipedia; possibly from Cantonese 茄汁

- "Long time no see!", "No can do", "look-see" (as in "have a look-see"): word-for-word translations of 好久不见,不能做,看见, respectively. These are the ones that blew. my. mind. because in retrospect they make total sense as Pidgin English.

So anyway, my students this week have been using the English word "canteen" for what is probably more naturally termed a "cafeteria" or "dining hall." They use it so often that I thought I'd tell one of my classes that one of the other choices is better. I thought about it for a second and realized that canteen might come from the Chinese 餐厅, cāntīng, which means "dining hall" and sort of sounds like canteen. It seemed plausible that this was a word adopted by foreign traders/soldiers in China in the 19th century, which is why I associate canteens with the military.

So that's what I told my class this afternoon, minus the part where I hedged my bets with "it seemed plausible." Obviously, this is wrong wrong wrong. Canteen looks like a good English word because it comes from a good French word (cantine), which comes from a good Italian word (cantina), which comes from a good Latin word (canto). "Canteen" is about as far from a loan word as possible, given its pedigree.

Jon is my name, misinformation is my game.

One more brief linguistic point:

Incredibly, incredibly, ping-pong is not a loan word from Chinese, even though the Chinese 乒乓 sounds almost exactly the same. (Love those reflected characters too, huh?) In fact, ping-pong is an English trademark that was loaned into Chinese. Wha-bam.

Again, blown. (My mind.)

I wouldn't take "not optimistic it could be done" for an answer!

I just looked at my statz and noticed that we passed our 1,000th hit earlier this week! Congrats to me, and to you, fair reader.

If I lived in Japan, I would probably say something about Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. As it stands, I will refrain from making any comments about Sadako or her atomic bomb-induced leukemia. My restraint is admirable, I know.

1.3 billion Chinese people can't be Wong (Kar-Wai)

Apropos of the title, a graph of Chinese population over time from Wikipedia:

Two comments: 1. It's growing. 2. I am not sure what this had to do with the title of this post. I don't really know what that title even means.

Anyway, Today's lesson is called "Elective Courses: A Window into the Chinese Psyche."

That's actually not true, about electives being a window into someone's psyche. Anyone who tried to analyze me by looking at my electives in Junior High and High School would conclude that my main interests are William Faulkner, science fiction novellas, and xylophone ensembles. (I will say, though, in passing, that I did some mean xylophone improvisation at my 8th grade assembly performance. Some loves never die.)

So, now that that's out of the way, let's draw some arbitrary, unscientific, possibly offensive conclusions about China from the elective classes that my students have decided to take!

Well, actually the only conclusion that I feel like drawing right now is that Chinese people love watching movies and hate doing math. I reached this conclusion by observing the fact that my History of American Cinema class has over 50 students, and my Introduction to Number Theory class looks like it may have exactly zero students.

(The number theory class will start in a few weeks, but we had a little elective class selection fair today where students could walk around and ask us questions about our courses. The only people who came up to me were students wondering what "Number Theory" meant. When I explained it to them, every single one of them walked away.)

From these experience, I have decided that Chinese people love watching movies and hate doing math. Note that this isn't actually offensive, because it's the opposite of a stereotype! If any of you thought that the math class would be more popular, then you are super racist. And wrong. Racist and wrong.

But I think the fact that Chinese people love watching movies and hate doing math (I just called you a racist, so my fact automatically becomes true now) is just a symptom of the fact that the whole world loves watching movies and hates doing math.

Also, a word of warning for you all: if you ever decide to teach a cinema class, you may put "this class will require a significant amount of reading a writing" on the information sheet in order to discourage people from taking your class lightly. This will not work. Three of my students said in class on Saturday that the reason they wanted to take the class was that they wanted to relax with some movies at the end of the week.

In retribution, I've decided that our syllabus for the next 10 weeks will just be the curb stomping scene in American History X on repeat for an hour and a half every week, except on days when I'd rather watch Eraserhead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Guess who's coming to dinner?

This guy!

Everyone knows that Sydney Poitier starred in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?". What this image presupposes is...maybe he didn't? What if you had cast a (white) harp seal instead? More or less shocking for 1967 audiences? Goosechills! (Obviously this would not be a problem today, because Obama abolished racism forever.)

Anyway, this little bundle of love could be yours. To eat! And I'd be the one to sell it to you.

To be specific, Gus and I may or may not have been inadvertently hired as salesmen for an Amway-esque direct-marketing firm which deals in traditional Chinese medicinal remedies, including baby seal parts. We asked Gristle what you're supposed to use seal for, and he says it's for improving sexual performance. Presumably this is why they need to kill the cutest seals in the world, seen here in an actual photo from the brochure:

Note that there are five (5) pictures of seals on this page, lest you forget that you are eating baby seals. Delicious, sexy seals.

The process by which we were hired by this man is still a mystery to me. Summary: Gus met a guy on a bridge, guy was selling medicinal posters, gave Gus two posters for free but took his business card, one year later calls Gus and says he wants Gus to look at some of his products, Gus and I meet the man and his associate at a KFC, man hands Gus and me glossy brochures filled with seal pictures, man puts oil on our necks to show us how the medicine works, man assures us that if we promote this info to our friends in Guangzhou then "we can all make money together". (yes, seriously: "我们都能赚钱.") Joke's on him, because our only close Chinese friends in Guangzhou are Gristle, who already has traditional Chinese medicine, and Superman, who seems not to need sexual aids of any kind.

I wasn't sure how to say "pyramid scheme" in Chinese (best attempt: "business method with levels that look like a triangle!"), so here we are, owners of glossy seal brochures, necks covered in oil which was probably extracted from a kitten.

On the plus side, he gave us a gift: a book on what foods to eat to avoid constipation. So not a total loss.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"A Friend of the Asians"

That is what I am.

That is also what I thought one of my students said when I asked him what computer games he enjoyed playing. He told me all about this game that supposedly runs on the Warcraft III engine and is really, really popular among the students here. I really could not understand how you could make a fantasy real-time strategy game called "A Friend of the Asians", but there are a lot of Asians here, so it sort of made sense.

At the end of class I asked him to write down the name for me so that I could check this game out, and he handed me a sheet of paper with "Defense of the Ancients" written on it. Naturally.

Another way I'm a friend of the Asians: a student took a picture of me during class today. I asked him what he was doing, and he said that it was for a school project, but then he handed the camera back to a group of giggling girls who were sitting nearby. So the school project might just be called "girls take pictures of male teachers in class."

Look at me, making friends. An Asia FriendFinder, if you will.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A Love Story in the City of Dreams

The people at the copy shop call me "teacher." They perform mini-bows when they hand my photocopies. They do this because they are under the impression that I am professional educator rather than a deadbeat man-child with an undergraduate degree of dubious utility and no clear career goals.

But I love it when they call me "teacher." (Throw your hands in the air if you's a true playa!) Teachers are afforded a great deal of respect in China, mostly, I assume, because teachers fall into the great Confucian respect-hierarchy which defines most Chinese social interactions. I work at the best high school in Guangdong province, and, for most of my colleagues, this is The Show. This is what they've been working all their lives towards. They come from all over China to work here because they studied hard for 6 years of high school, and then did extremely well on the 高考 college entrance exam, and then studied hard for 4 years of college, and then worked hard through graduate school and other additional training programs, and then were talented and lucky enough to, finally, come here. It's fantastic to work at this school, with these people, but it's also humbling because I know that if I had been born in China and weren't a native English speaker, I would never, ever have this job.

Anyway, every day on the way to class we pass this small gazebo-type structure labeled "敬师亭" (Respecting Teachers Pavilion). One of these days I'm going to go in there and give myself an old-fashioned respecting. I think you know what I mean. (Do I know what I mean?)

Speaking of how I'm a teacher and changing kids' lives: I'm a teacher and I'm ruining kids' lives. I taught my first History of American Cinema class on Saturday and happened to mention that one of my favorite movies of the past decade was Mulholland Dr. Mulholland Dr. is rated "R" for violence, language, and some strong sexuality.In the words of the original New York Times review, Mulholland Dr. "pierces a void from which you can hear the screams of a ravenous demon whose appetites can never be slaked." Mulholland Dr. is terrifying.

So, naturally, one of my cute little 15-year old students ran out that night and watched Mulholland Dr. and then sent me an email saying that it was like a "confusing nightmare" to her. She said that I should maybe warn people before recommending Mulholland Dr. She said that she will not soon forget this experience.

On the other hand, a lot of her sentences were punctuated by the emoticon "xP", so I'm not sure how seriously I should be taking all of this.


A lizard just dropped from the ceiling RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FACE.

The lizard could have fallen onto my face. Or in my hair, from which, as we all know, it would certainly not have been able to escape. A lizard could be living in my hair right now. I have no idea.

More information to come as the situation develops.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

This Ugly City, This Trap

Ran errands today, since it's my day off and nothing says "weekend" like getting on a subway car so crowded that you can examine your hair in your reflection on the gold teeth of the guy standing next to you. On the plus side, guess who I saw on that same subway car?? A Chinese albino!

Penis-faced albino turtle

Not a Chinese albino turtle, silly! A Chinese albino person! I love albinism, and this guy seemed awesome. Or at least he looked awesome, and he had a cool hairstyle, and I want to be his friend. Also, in case I didn't mention it, he was albino. (!)

Also, on the subway, I saw a guy with a great t-shirt.

(Actually, before I get to that, there was another good one a week or so ago: a woman had a t-shirt that said "The Horse Nuzzled Her Shoulder." I would have asked her where she got it, but it wasn't printed in Helvetica, so it's not really my style.)

But today's shirt said, "It's A Deal: You Practice Your English, I'll Practice My Sex." This was confusing to me, because it was being worn by an older Chinese man, who, by the looks of it, hasn't really been practicing his English or his sex for a while now. I found the shirt on Google, and it looks like it was made by racist Americans who live in Japan but hate it there. I will definitely buy that shirt if I see it somewhere, but obviously I would never wear it in China because that would be offensive. But obviously I would wear it next time I'm in an English-speaking country, because then it would not be offensive, only confusing.

My errands went pretty smoothly, though, except for the fact that everywhere was deliriously crowded. As soon as you leave the school grounds, it's -- WHAM! -- city (shout out to my B'more crew!), and everything's all jammed up. Subways are crowded, as I said, but the streets in some places are even worse. Lots of people selling and buying things, lots of beggars, lots of policemen.

One sort of annoying thing about being white on the streets of Guangzhou is that you're constantly being bombarded by vendors using the "hello" trick to try to get you to buy their stuff. The trick works like this: Step 1. Say "hello!" over and over again.

This trick doesn't work, but it must have worked once, because people keep doing it.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Another way my life in China is exactly the same as my life in America is that no one wants to hand me stuff on the streets. In America, people from Greenpeace never ask me for money, I guess because they think I'm young and poor. So in America I just have started yelling "No!" (or "Arctic Sunrise!") in their face so I can still have the satisfaction of refusing them, even though I don't get the satisfaction of being asked. All I want are free return address labels with pandas and manatees on them. Surely I'm not being unreasonable here.

Anyway, they don't give me flyers or anything when I walk on the street here, either. Last week, Gus reached out to take a restaurant advertisement that someone was passing out on the corner, and the woman pulled it away before he could grab it. They actively do not want Gus and me to read their ad and attend their restaurant.

So, short story long, I was walking around today and a man held a flyer for English lessons in my face while saying, "Miss! Miss!" The front of the flyer says, "English Perfects Your Life!"

And you know what, my life is perfected. And if he learned English (specifically, the difference between miss and mister), his life would be perfected too.

(Hey, you know what's not perfected? That time when a woman in Hong Kong invited a pregnant woman over to her apartment, strangled her with a cord, and then cut the baby out of her womb. Not a great day for babies. Or women.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Black, White, and Red all over (GET IT???)

One of the many perks of being a teacher here (in addition to school on Saturdays, free firewall-ed internet, and health insurance which Lisa has emphasized pays out only in the case of "serious injury or death") is that we get a copy of the China Daily ("The National English Language Newspaper") delivered to our mailbox every morning. I make a point of picking it up every day because it is definitely the worst paper I've ever read that's not called "The USA Today".

I guess it's not actually that bad. The English is pretty good most of the time, and it does (sort of) cover international affairs in some detail. But you can still tell sometimes that it's written by people whose English is not quite perfect (though still slightly better than the English possessed by staff writers for "The USA Today"). It's hard for me to tell, though, because I feel like I'm an increasingly poor judge of what normal English sounds like. Several times, I've ended explanations to my class by saying, "It's that way." The only reason I say that is because I have an urge to say (the very natural Chinese phrase) "是这样", but then I remember that I am teaching English and have to switch to the English translation at the last minute. Sorry, school, that's what you get for hiring a math major right out of college for RMB 4000 a month.

I think China Daily's biggest problem is with the headlines, which often don't sound quite right to me. "Economic crisis' crunch on art sales yet to ease": do crunches ease? "Thief sleeps in car he was about to steal, held": my instinct is to parse "held" in parallel with "steal" somehow rather than as a modifier for thief. "Spunky little Kia Forte is as fun as you like": just kidding, this one's from "The USA Today".

Sometimes there are headlines which don't make much sense at all until you read the story, which seems like the opposite of what should happen in the newspaper. E.g. on Tuesday's front page: "Cleaner fighting to clear name also battles tumor". It turns out that this a story about an airport worker who found an unattended box full of jewelry (later discovered to have belonged to a man named Wang) and then took it home, and then got a uterine tumor. After being detained for nine months without trial. A super fun story.

Anyway, this whole thing seems a little fishy. Like who is this Wang and why was he leaving gold jewelry at airports? Or as commenter "LovingChina 0909D" on the China Daily website puts it,

Could be like a strange animal, wang, said he/she left a box full of goodies in the airport while it seems hours went past without this wang calling for Airport Help or police, or did he do so?

Did he do so? Did he? DID HE??? I'd want to get in there and find some answers.

Also, China Daily stories about Taiwan are really fantastic because they are Very Focused on making sure that you do not forget that Taiwan is a part of China, which is why they're forced to use an amusingly large number of scare quotes in any story about Taiwanese politics:

"I have completed my duties at this phase," said Liu, who had held the post of "premier" since Ma took office in May 2008. Liu's move sets the stage for the rest of the "Cabinet" to resign....Wu, 61, is the KMT secretary-general and a "legislator"....Taiwan's low-profile "vice-premier" Paul Chiu also resigned Monday. (article)

As far as the China Daily people are concerned, they might as well be writing fanfics about a fantasy government which awards real-sounding titles like "premier" and "vice-premier" to the unicorns with the silkiest manes.

Finally, finally, there's a section of the paper which has little English lessons. Today it was offering colloquial translations of the Chinese "天气热死了" (lit. "the weather is so hot it kills"; compare to English "I'm starving" to express hunger).

One of the proposed translations was "It's not just hot, it's Africa hot!" I was about to make fun of this ridiculous American slang, but then I searched online and it looks like people actually do say this. It's even on urban dictionary:
Africa Hot: When the temperature is so unbearably hot that is turn you black. [sic]
So I guess China Daily knows America better than I do. Great.

(By the way, for anyone looking to get Callie a birthday present, urban dictionary will let you have this printed on a mug.)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Race: it's a Riot!

Today during the fiancé(e) exercise, one of my students said that her mother didn't want her to marry a black man.

(That's not the point of this story. I didn't come to China to mock peoples' beliefs. I will say that I find that prejudice reprehensible but understandable, given longstanding Chinese views on race and lack of real-world exposure to black people. And there are a lot of mothers in White America who probably think the same thing.)

Anyway, the Point is that my student was embarrassed that she said "black man" in front of the class because, she said, she'd "heard that in America that's not a very polite thing to say."

"Well," I said, "it's a complicated issue, and different people prefer different terms."

"Like ebonies?"

"Excuse me?"

"Ebonies. Ebony people."

"No," I said. "Absolutely not."


Something else from the same class:

A boy was describing the worst possible fiancée, and he said he wouldn't want her to be like [Chinese name].

"Who's that?" I asked

"She's someone who seems like a girl, and actually looks like a girl in some ways, but underneath is a boy," he said.

"Is it just that they wear the clothes of girls?" I asked.

"No," he said. "It's more than that. She's unnatural."

Yes! A chance for me to make a difference! To give these students mature, sensitive language to discuss members of the queer community! And maybe just heal this country a little bit.

"Well," I said, "in America, we would say 'transgender'. And even though she might not be the ideal fiancée for you, she's not unnatural just because her body isn't like yours or like mine."

I was really proud of myself, until one of my students raised his hand and said, (literally, he said exactly these words) "I think there is a horrible mistake."

So, it turns out that what they were trying to describe was the word tomboy. My b!

Really, though, other than those two things, the class was very successful.

[My favorite descriptions of ideal fiancé(e)s from class this week, in no particular order: "chaste virgin", "no sexy but pretty", "be a recanteur", "must be literate".]

Banner Day

Some of you (all of you) may have noticed that I overuse the phrase "it's a banner day." This is because banners (just like ticker-tape parades!) seem like fun, wholesome ways to celebrate outdated accomplishments like moonwalks and ceasefires.

In China, every day is a banner day. For China. Because, no matter where you go, you see signs that look like this:

(I can't really see the first half, but the second half means "promote the construction of a new socialist village". Catchy! Watch out, Don Draper.)

A student at my school was sent home with a possible H1N1 diagnosis (don't worry, mom! I'll be fine), and even though we don't actually have a swine flue banner yet, we do have a large scrolling LCD propaganda machine which was broadcasting swine flu information: "Swine flu is treatable! Swine flu is not to be feared! Discover it early, Report it early, Quarantine it early!". I watch the information scroll and eventually I felt happy and safe.

(Vapid sociolinguistic observation of the day: the Chinese word for propaganda, 宣传, does not have negative connotations. Discuss.)

My favorite slogan I've seen at the school (which isn't actually on a banner, but rather painted onto a building near the track) is “每天锻炼一小时” which means "Exercise for One Hour Daily!", which strikes me less as a slogan and more as a sentence which happens to be fairly good advice. I assume that they decided on this slogan after rejecting "Drinking Water is Useful", "It Might Be a Good Idea to Eat Some Vegetables", and "I'd Put Down Those Potato Chips, If I Were You."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

iTunes Genius mixes are actually pretty good

Now that I've got that little bit of search-engine optimization out of the way, to China!:

When you first start teaching English as a foreign language, international foreign language teacher laws require that you comment on the English names that students choose for themselves. So far I have avoided making such comments, but THAT ENDS NOW.

Some quick stats:
Number of students with the same name as someone I'm friends with in America: 5 (Jason, Jackie, Martin, Rachel, and, bizarrely, Corinne)
Number of students who named themselves after me after I announced my name on the first day of class: 2 (John, Daniel)
Number of students with the name Rain: 2 (Rain, Rain)
Number of students with names that mean "cancer" in the Indonesian language Basa Sunda: 1 (Kangker)

Also, and I am totally serious about this, do not, DO NOT, do a Google search for "Kangker", as I did when I tried to figure out where it came from. The first image result is disgusting and terrifying. I have no idea what it is, except that it comes from an Indonesian blog titled "Magic Woman Pantiliner" and is labeled "Kangker [Cancer]". So you do the math.
For future use, in case I ever have to describe the meaning of the word "glum" to my students, this photo from the New York Times of Joe Wilson and Glum Wife.

After class today, a student came up to me and asked me to "introduce some village singers."

Imagine my surprise when this meant not "Can you act as an emcee at a school arts festival which showcases traditional local music?" but "Who's your favorite American country music star?"

I thought for a minute and said that I didn't listen to much of what could be considered mainstream modern country but that I like Johnny Cash.

Is he like Taylor Swift? he responded.

Yes and no, I said. Yes and no.

[iTunes Genius mixes are actually pretty good. I'm listening to one right now based on "Comfy in Nautica", and it gave me some Animal Collective (duh), TV on the Radio, Dodos, NMH, Deerhunter, and Grizzly Bear. WELL PLAYED, ITUNES.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I'm ill, not sick

Young money!

Before everyone decides to move to China and make a milli' dollars, remember that Mao-money isn't real money. It's like Monopoly money, except 1.3 billion people are playing, and no one ever gets to be the top hat or the battleship. (Too bourgeois.)

We got paid in cash this month because there was a problem with the bank account that I (painstakingly!) opened at a Chinese bank last week. The problem was with our names: the school direct deposit system only has room for 4 characters in the name field (because no Chinese name is longer than 4 characters), but our bank accounts are under our English names, because that's what's on our passport. So the school tried to make a deposit into an account under the name "Jona". Which is no one's name.

(Our names continually cause problems for the school; recall Gus's photo of our banquet placard, which identifies me as "Daniel", which, with my name, is essentially the only wrong choice.)
Apropos of the post title, I am ill. Or sick. Or I was, at least. I had a cold. (Is it acceptable to make a Gay Talese reference at this point? Anyone?) Anyway, then I drank something in our kitchen called 感冒茶 (confusingly, "catch cold tea"), and now it's gone. So, yeah, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM, as we call it in the biz) is officially better than science, because, compared to this stuff, those zinc lozenges are bull. shit. The drink was delicious, by the way, but I looked at the ingredients list, and, seeing nothing I could recognize, I assume it's made of chicken testes, agent orange, and lead. Not entirely implausible.

As one of my students said about 9 times in class last week, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. Do you see how that had no relation to what came before it? Well then you're ahead of her.
When the loudspeakers in the school aren't broadcasting announcements and soma advertisements, they generally play music after school hours. Lots of it is American/Western music. Songs heard in the past week (seriously): "Just Dance", "1234", Selections from "The Nutcracker", Selections from "The Super Mario Brothers 8-Bit Theme Song".

Speaking of music, I should clarify that I wasn't being strictly truthful when I said Gus and I already had tickets to the Twelve Terrors concert. We did talk about it. And they are RMB 50. (At that price, now that I got paid, I could buy out the theater and grab some alone time with the boys.) But it is right at the beginning of the national holiday break, so we might both be out of town. But I think that poster will haunt my dreams for a long, long time.
This week we're playing a game where we talk about our ideal fiancé(e)s in front of the class. (It's a chance for the students to describe other people with positive and negative characteristics, for those of you who pretend to care about pedagogical goals.) I need to model the sentence for the class, so I write
"My ideal fiancée would be intelligent, attractive, and funny."
on the blackboard. I have engineered this sentence to be as boring as possible while still being true, because I don't want to step on the students' creativity-toes.

Every time I write it up, though, I describe how fiancé(e) has a different number of e's depending on whether you're marrying a man or a woman. And every time, when I write my sentence, I say, "now, you can see that I've written it with two e's, because obviously I'm not marrying a man." And then my students laugh and laugh.

Monday, September 14, 2009

World's Least Attractive Concert Extravaganza

Work with me for a second: imagine there's a show featuring twelve tenors.

Before you start doing too much imagining, I'll add that the twelve tenors are, like, the least attractive tenors you've ever seen.*

Imagine that there's a poster of these ugly tenors, making singing faces which somehow make them even uglier. Imagine that the poster has blue curtains, mist, and lens flares. Imagine that the tagline for this tenor concert is "We Will Rock You", or, in Chinese, “我们浆震撼你” (closer to "we will shock you")

I promise that whatever you imagined, it could not be more repulsive than this poster:

I still haven't decided which one's my favorite. Probably the guy at the top right, who I think was one of my math professors.

The program for this concert promises "a selection of classic vocal, pop, rock, and folk music from all over the world", but goes on to say that the set will include "You raise me up (a best hit by Westlife, No. 1 song in the US for weeks)","Bohemian Rhapsody (a famous American Jazz song)", and "Good Vibrations (a Spanish folk song)". So it's difficult to believe any of their promises.

Gus and I already bought our tickets, obviously. Student tickets are only RMB 50, which is a steal (pinch! pilfer! purloin!).

When Gus and I went to the copy shop today we saw the guy who asked me to have a cigarette with him and then asked me out to dinner. (I didn't mention that he asked me out to dinner in that post, but it did actually happen.) This time, as we came up the stairs, he said “啊,两个靓仔!”, which in English means, "Eh! Two good-looking boys!" Normally this would be sort of flattering (I guess?), but he looks approximately like this

except not as hip. This man in the photo could be on the Chinese Sartorialist. Bold patterns, guy!

*Edited after publication to remove what I suppose was a needlessly mean reference to the Wildcats. (Zing!)

G-U-A-N-G-Z-H-O-U, baby, G-D

Before I begin, I'd like everyone to know that at the pool today I met a 12-year-old boy who was impressed by how tall, skinny, and strong Gus and I were. He called me "厉害", which means ferocious/awesome. We had a 50 meter race and I kicked his sorry 12-year-old ass. How's that for 厉害, my little Chinese friend? Man, I totally jammed him. Or maybe jammered him. Whatever. It was a jammer-boree.

Today Gus and I went to the Guangdong Museum of Art. It is on this strange island in the middle of Guangzhou called Ersha, which has the most wide-open spaces I've seen in Guangzhou so far. I walked on grass. If any of you out there are also living in industrial wastelands, you should check this stuff out. It's great.

Anyway, we went to the GMOA to see some (pretty good) contemporary Chinese painting, (passable) modern Chinese photography, and (not-so-passable) entries in a contest in celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China. Chairman Mao! You love him! We get it!

No, but seriously, they love him a lot. We saw a wall covered in copies of the Chinese equivalent of Time magazine (人民画报) and he was on the cover every month for 12 months in a row in 1957.

But that wasn't the real reason we went to the GMOA. We went to find romantic encounters with chic, fascinating, dynamic ladies, at the suggestion the non-parody website Where to Meet Fair Ladies in Guangzhou? (thx, Gus)

How do you meet these fair ladies? Well, the first idea is to go to C-Union bar, which caters to "charming, artistic" types. Obviously my crowd. The best way to prove to your friends that you've met this fair lady is to take a picture of her by pretending to take a picture of the band.
Sometimes you can be more obvious, but only when you're at Brightly Lit Popcorn Bar, seen here:

The problem with these local places is that "local Cantonese females..are well known for their plain appearance but good temper, cooking, housekeeping and family sense." And I'll tell you what, that does not sound like a fair lady to me, because here in Guangzhou I'm looking for only one thing: beautiful women. Beautiful, womanly women.

So let me give you some real fair lady juice. You should go to the business districts, where "many graceful beauties swarm out and greet your feasting eyes" or to restaurants, because (still quotes, all direct quotes) "Women like eating." (Women reading this: can you confirm/deny?)

The page also includes tips on finding love at universities. It says, "The best places for romantic encounters are dining halls, libraries and the dormitory blocks." This is really good info, because we live right next to a university, the women of which the page describes as "traditional and pure," which I guess is OK, even though I'd prefer the girls from Zhong Da: "elegant and scholastic." (I like my women like I like my publishing houses? What does that even mean?) Incidentally, I'm sad I didn't read this 4 years ago, because then I might have been able to find more love in Princeton's picturesque Dormitory Block C.

I'm pretty optimistic about my prospects with all this. Guangzhou is where my baby lives, that's all.

(Thanks to Jason for pointing out that it's the 10th anniversary of 69 Love Songs, which is surely the World's Worst thing to listen to on Valentine's day, which is exactly what I have done for 3 years in a row.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Real Good, We Dance in the Studio

Papa, paparazzi: Jason found a picture of me in my jammers. (One reason I feel uncomfortable in them is that they make my head look approximately as big as my torso.) But that doesn't really capture what it looks like when I swim, if only because after every lap I climb out and make a face like this.

On a hot Guangzhou day, even swimming just 50 meters is so invigorating that your alien-pod biceps involuntarily clench in spasmodic excitement.

Also, speaking of tiny men hugging me from behind, Gus and I went to a nightclub last night with a gay Chinese guy named Superman. I knew he was gay because Gus told me so, and also because he was wearing a tight black tank top, and also because his name is Superman. And also because straight men rarely touch other men they've just met in the small of their back or on their upper thigh.

Even though the club (which, despite being called "Bound", was not bondage themed) was filled with more white people than I had seen in a while, and even though they did play "Poker Face" and other certifiably American dance hits, it was absolutely the weirdest place I've been to in Guangzhou so far. One of the guys we were with worked at a modeling agency, and he said that most of the white women there were models from his agency who were hired by the club to make it seem less Chinese. So the bar was filled with attractive, bored-looking white women, middle-aged white businessmen out for a night on the town, and rich locals speaking English with each other because they're trying to party like Americans. Plus Superman's crew, which included us.

People say that eating clubs aren't like real life (which is bogus, by the way, because there's no apter metaphor for life on the outside than a "Shit That Glows" party where all they do is hand out twenty glowsticks and turn off the lights), but, when you live in China, real life isn't like real life, and all the hip bars are bizarre simulacra of an America which Everyone Knows is loads of fun. Welcome to my life, Jean Baudrillard.

At the bar last night, a guy next to me leaned over, smiled, and said, "this is pretty great, huh?" And I didn't know what to say, because it wasn't. On the other hand, he might have said, "this is pretty gay, huh?", which, let me tell you, the presence of Superman more or less single-handedly guaranteed.

Anyway, China. That's where I live now. This shit's still glowing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Guangzhou sweater weather!

By which I mean not mid 60s with a slight breeze but instead weather that makes me sweaty. At this point, you should just assume that I'm sweaty all the time, unless I explicitly say otherwise.

So yesterday, in addition to being Teachers' Ultimate Fantasy Day, was supposed to be pay day. We're usually paid on the 10th of the month, but that was yesterday and we still don't have our money. Just when you thought September 11th couldn't get any worse, you know?

Just a quick post before we run out to dinner to say that it was so sweaty today that I finally bit the bullet and went to the pool with my new suimtrunks, which Jason says are called "jammers" on the circuit. I did a google image search for "jammers" and found this man,

His name is Jammer, and he is the mascot for the Joliet Jackhammers (a non-MLB pro baseball team), and he looks more dignified than I did. The Jackhammers' website says that you can get One (1) hour of Jammer's wacky blue antics for 100 American dollars, which I would be able to (barely) afford, if I had gotten paid. But I didn't get paid, so I can't enjoy his antics, and the terrorists have won.

Also, for the first time, I saw my students at the pool today. Four of them. And they saw me. Jamming out in mah jammers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Emotional Roller Coaster

How to get high self-esteem:

Move to China, become a teacher, and wait for September 10, Teachers' Day, day smiles, day of a million unwarranted compliments.

Yes, we already had a Teachers' Day banquet, at which, yes, I already won a stair-stepper machine, which, yes, seems less like an exercise machine and more like a clever parody of one designed by an alien who has seen pictures of humans but has no idea how they move.

But today was the actual Teachers' Day, and what a day it was. I loved my students before this, but now I love them, like, a lot. A lot a lot. Gus and I got 5 cards today from 5 different classes. Most of them included personal notes from everyone in the class. Example:
"John: Well, the first time I saw you, I'm aware that you're the new oral teacher. Handsome and mmm... in fact, I thought you're from Turkey until the second time I met you at class."
Clearly, she has confused me with the famous Turkish musician Tarkan, a singer "best known for the use of sexual and romantic themes in his work" (thanks, wikipedia), who is the only Turkish person I can think of right now other than Orhan Pamuk.

Lots of the notes are super cute and breathlessly flattering in the way that only young Chinese girls can be (also some Chinese boys, e.g. "Although I am a boy, I still want to say, You guys are gorgeous!"), but some of them are touching, this-is-why-I-love-teaching notes:
"Thank you for your tremendous patience and kindness in class."
 "You two are just like two sun, light up our life!"
"You guys are the greatest foreign teachers I've ever met."
"Never do I enjoy English before you appear! Happy Teachers' Day." 
If any of my students ever find my blog, I want you to know that I'm not joking when I say I get up every morning excited to teach you, and I admire you all very much. You make teaching worthwhile, so Happy Teachers' Day to you, too.

How to get low self esteem:
Be forced to wear this racing-style suimsuit in a Chinese pool.

I actually used to have a swimsuit about this size. When I was four.
Speaking of Tarkan and suimsuits, my favorite sentence from the Tarkan wikipedia article:
In 2001, when Tarkan was moving houses in New York, a worker stole what the domestic media tried to portray as compromising photos which suggested his homosexuality, but were simply photos with other men in swimwear in public places.
Ah, the ol' "straight men wearing swimwear with each other in public places" gambit. I know it well. Except the opposite.


My swell roommate Gus has a swell blog Cantonstinople that I encourage you all to check out. Our blogs will complement each other like what the Chinese call yin and yang.

He is also a better and more prolific photographer than I am, so if you want to see proof that any of this actually happened, I'd check out his blog. Current post has banquet pictures, including one of an alligator which has been basically just cut into four big alligator chunks and one of me winning my stair stepper.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


So because of time travel (slash the international date line), today was already 09-09-09 in China. Let me tell you, everyone in the United States: it's going to be a great day.

Also I hear this is an auspicious day for Chinese people (, thx callie) because 9/9 (九九) sounds like 久久 ("long lasting"). The article says that lots people are getting married today, presumably because they want to love each other long time.

[I can verify that this is true, by the way, (about the words sounding the same, no idea about the marriages) and not another liberal media lie.]

The article also points out that 08/08/08 produced a lot of marriages and speculates that 10/10/10 will also be a popular date. And they say that journalists aren't willing to make bold claims in the post-Watergate era.

Also, speaking of 999, last week Gus and I were at lunch with Gristle (we don't have tons of Chinese friends, and by "not tons", I mean, like, two), and we were talking about emergencies. He asked us what we dial on telephones to get an ambulance, and we said 911, which is what the Chinese call the September 11th attacks. He responded, "Oh, 911." Then, in English, looking down at his food, "I'm sorry." We're sorry, too, Gristle.*

* I think these stories about Gristle would make more sense if you realized that, as far as I can tell, the only English phrases he knows are "I'm sorry" and, yes, "It's a joke!"**

** Though last week he did once say "You are making a joke!" Conjugations! ***

*** So how about that David Foster Wallace? I hear he's a real up-and-comer.


Got another text from Lao Yang tonight, around the same time as the one last night.


[How do you have He Yinghong's telephone number? Do you know him? Are you together right now?
Do you have a relationship?]

First off, Yang -- can I call you Yang? -- I like your moves: this must be the Chinese version of "we have ways of making you talk", where you bombard me with questions before shoving my head in a toilet Sydney Bristow-style until I find some answers.

But, Yang, I won't answer these questions because I asked you a question first, and that's how it works. (I know, so. playground.) When I texted back last night, "I'm sorry, who are you?", it wasn't like a oh-Yang-you-old-dog-you-know-how-we-joke sort of a text, it was a I'm-sorry-who-are-you sort of text.
So, this time I texted back, "sorry, you have the wrong number." Your move Yang, you old dog.

Gus and I were invited to audition for an Amazing Race-type show in Guangzhou called "Discover Guangzhou Reality Show." (Title is vital.)

We can't actually do it because we have work and can't take off to run around the city. But they did send me info about the show, with gems like
Hightlight of the Show:
1)  Action
2)  Elimination

Requirement of contestants:
Energetic, challenging, from other countries

Key words of the 3rd Season:
Vitality, Creativity, Sunshine 
But I would seriously audition for this if I could, because nothing goes together better than competition and sunshine.

When participle games turn sour

Student today, showing her understanding of the word "disappointed":

"My parents have very high hopes for me, and I try very hard, but my grades are not that good, and my dreams are full of despair. I get disappointed."

I told her that her English was excellent -- which it was -- and then I moved on.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

We don't want any trouble with you, Governor!

In which I begin to go off the deep end:

I just got a text message which said “我是老杨” ["I am Old Yang"] and nothing else. I don't know anyone in China with the last name Yang, no one in China has my cell phone number except Gus and my boss, and now I am worried that this is the beginning of some sort of obscure gangster move used to entrap and then rob and/or murder foreigners. China plays tricks with your miiiiind, man.

This is like that movie "One Missed Call", except actually this still makes more sense than that movie.


Today, we talked about using participles to express emotion in class. Students had to model sentences of the form "when [something], I was/became/got [participle]" and "I am [participle] by [something]." One of the students tried "I am amused by the Great Wall." My sense is that she wasn't trying to slyly criticize Chinese nationalism by trivializing its most visible symbol, so I told her that usage of "amused" was incorrect.

Two other students turned their participles into a short story, which they happily shared with the class:
Student 1: I have a new girlfriend. She is very beautiful, and I like her very much, so I am very pumped.
Student 2: But last week, she was my girlfriend, so when I heard she had a new boyfriend I got drunk on beer.
I was very proud after they shared this story, because it is clear that I have taught them valuable lessons about the uses of both participles and alcohol. I am having a deep impact on the lives of children.

By the by, I have to look at my gmail spam folder much more carefully now than I used to, because emails with the subject lines "where we will meet?", "looking 4 a MASTER", and "do you want to love me" could all plausibly be from my students. I also got a spam email today with the subject "Send your satellite inside her." This is by far the least sexy thing I've heard all day, which is surprising if you consider that I've spent my whole day teaching non-native English speakers about participles.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A matter of l and d

The air conditioning unit mounted outside my window is humming very loudly. It is a D-sharp and somehow resonates with my entire desk and it is driving me insane.

Let me tell you a story

A story called, "My 900 coworkers and I went to a Teachers' Day Banquet and all I got was this mini stair-stepper machine."

But yeah, I won a stair-stepper machine! For all of you thinking of buying one, some thoughts:
  1. It may be difficult to find on the shelf of your local fitness shop, because the box it came in looks like this:
  2. The piece of blue carpet is included, so you don't need to worry about damaging your floors.
  3. It is literally the worst exercise product I have ever used.
But now we have one in our apartment. Gus and I are also looking to get a chin-up bar, so the next time you see us we will have toned thighs, huge biceps, and distended stomachs from the lack of nutrients in our Chinese diet.

(btdubs, the Wikipedia article on abdominal distension [yes, I fact check all my posts on wikipedia] says that distension "may be a sign of many other conditions" and two of the conditions it lists are "weight gain" and "pregnancy".)

So yeah, in another sign that being a teacher in China is much more glamorous than being a teacher in the U.S., we had a huge teachers' day banquet last night. As is the case with all Chinese formal events, it opened with a Synchronized Pseudo-Militaristic Spectacle, viz., in our case, 80+ waitresses wearing Qing dynasty costumes, bearing trays of whole roast pig, processing briskly through the banquet hall as orchestral music roared in the background. We were sitting at the edge of the room, so we could see that there was literally a guy with a walkee-talkee in the back yelling "Go! Go! Go!' when it was time for the banquet to begin.

As for the dinner, it was mostly delicious, but also confusing.

If it were just that people in China spoke a different language, dayenu.

If it were just that Chinese banquets were also governed by baroque rules of politeness, dayenu.

If it were just that we had to navigate those rules with people who were much older than us and whose statuses were consequently much higher, dayenu.

But in China, it's never enough! For one, the baroque ruleset includes rules for alcohol. Everyone had wine, but you're not allowed to drink it unless you're toasting someone or being toasted yourself. So people grab their wine glass and go around from table to table, toasting the other guests so they can drink their wine themselves. Our boss was sitting at our table (naturally), and he (naturally) felt like it was his bossly duty to have the Americans drink as much as possible, so he had us play a game which I assume is called "let's see how many times we can fill up our glasses with wine and toast each other and then finish the glasses in a single gulp before we have to call the waiter and ask him to bring us another carafe." Unlike the drinking games that I absolutely didn't play in college, Mom, the winner of this game is No One.

Lisa also took us to toast the head principal of the school, and when we came to his table, he said to us, in English, "Hello! OK! Thank you!" and then drank his wine and sat down.
Before the banquet, we also got to look at the food emporium in the lobby. We did the standard "gawk at strange foreign food" thing. We saw a plate of these things
which were labeled 鸡子 (chicken offspring/children/-lets). When we asked what they were, the guy said that they were rooster eggs, and when Gus noted that roosters didn't have eggs, the guy smiled and said that they had 2. And then all the people behind the counter laughed and laughed.

Gus and I wore collared shirts and slacks, which I thought at first would be too informal, but we met a guy there in jean cutoffs. So the dress code was fairly loose. Gus joked with him that we were going to cut our pants, and then I said, "yeah, 我们应该试一下" (yeah, we should try that), and then the guy laughed and laughed. This is how I knew I said something incorrectly, because otherwise I never make Chinese people laugh.

[I think that the problem is the use of "一下", which is colloquially used to complement actions which are quick and informal, which might not apply to cutting off the legs of one's pants. Chinese speakers?]

Also, yesterday I told Gristle that I was born in April, and he said that I didn't seem like a Aries because they're usually talkative and I'm so shy. I should have said, "well, I'm just focusing on getting listening practice at this point, and whenever I speak in Chinese you interrupt me because you get impatient, which is why I don't speak that often, plus you'd seem shy in America too, because you don't speak English", but actually I looked at my plate and said nothing.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Also, an apology

To the three people who, according to my referrer logs, came to this website after googling "Michael Phelps" and then spent an average of three minutes and forty seconds here, I'm sorry to have wasted your time.

(Chicken) Miscellany

Last night we ordered a dish approximately called "鸡杂 with vegetables". 鸡杂 literally means "chicken miscellany", which we expected to mean "chopped up chicken pieces" rather than "parts of the chicken we just had lying around", which, as it turned out, was what we got. Vegetables, plus chicken heart, brain, lung, whatever. Gus also ate something long and thin, which could be intestines, or part of the esophagus, or Something Else Chickeny. These are my strugglez.


Dear Mom,

It turns out that those swim trunks that you bought me a few years ago, which I didn't wear very often because I didn't really swim much -- those aren't really swim trunks. Now I know what you are thinking. You're thinking, those clearly are swim trunks because they came from a place that sells swim trunks, and they look and fit like swim trunks, and they clearly aren't shorts, so what else could they be?

Let me tell you, I'd be thinking the same thing.

But now I know better, because when Gus and I went to the pool on Thursday, just as I was about to get in to limply swim some laps of breaststroke (yeaaahhh) and then get winded and call it a day, a shrill Chinese woman ran out of her office next to the pool, screaming, YOU CAN'T GO IN THE POOL WEARING THAT.

Pardon? I said.

IT'S NOT ALLOWED, she said.

Why? I said.

They're not swim trunks! she said. My shift-key finger has gotten tired.

Actually, they are, I said.

You obviously don't speak Chinese, she said, let me call over someone who speaks English.

No, I said. Because, Mom, even though I talked in previous posts about how my Chinese was awful, I was partially exaggerating for humorous effect. I mean, I know how to say "those aren't swim trunks," which is the level we're at at this point.

But she called over a man who spoke English anyway. That woman explained to the man that I wasn't wearing swim trunks, and if she let me in the pool, then anyone off the street could just wear those sort of clothes and come swim. (Which doesn't sound like a problem, since "those sort of clothes" are swim trunks.)

The man looked at Gus and me and said, You may be able to wear those sort of clothes in America, but you're in China now. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

And then he walked away, and now I have to buy "racing style" swim trunks, which, as anyone who has seen me naked (hi, Dr. Stein!) will tell you, will make me look ridiculous.

Also, I have to wear a swim cap. Humiliating.

Love, Jon


We went to an opium war museum yesterday. Let me tell you, the Chinese are still a little angry about that whole thing. This is an actual picture and caption from the museum.

"British Queen Victoria fond of eternal colonial expansion."
One whole hall in the opium war museum was labeled "National Anti-Drug Abuse Campaign Base." Lots of great anti-drug propaganda, including malformed drug fetuses in jars. I got to see a Real Container of Real Marijuana, and what were supposedly chunks of opium, but were probably paper mache balls painted black. Drugs: just say 我不要.
Gus and I went to a Thai restaurant a few days ago. Jason and Gus had made me expect to see some serious ladyboys, but I did not expect to see ladyboys serve us food while they sang "Mickey" and danced with gay men in policeman's uniforms. Basically what I'm saying is that I didn't expect Thailand to be an Atlantis Cruise (yes, their tagline actually is, "The Way We Play").
We did have delicious curry, though, and our vegetables were totally Chicken Esophagus Free! (how's that for a tagline? thai restaurant, you can use that one gratis)
Lots more to say about the first week, but I will stop now because we have a teachers' banquet tonight that I need to start primping for. Last year Gus won an iron at the raffle so I'm puuummmpped.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Where's Zach when you need him?

This one's all you, buddy.
I have lots of things to write about, but for now I am tired and will take my rest. Tomorrow's topics will include swim trunks and Thai ladyboys, in stories which, unfortunately, are not related.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Texts from Last Night, China style

To Gus, from one of his students: "The new teacher, Joan [sic], is he one of the relative of Phelps, the great swimmer?"

You may be getting tired of hearing about how many people say I look like Michael Phelps, but I promise you're not as tired of it as I am.

Yesterday we offered our first weekly English corner, where students can come to speak English outside of class in a low-pressure environment. Yesterday's topics: Route 66, Lady Gaga, the Tennessee Titans (my students claim that this is a football team; I am dubious). Some students have much better English than others, and one in particular likes to use his good English to cause trouble. We'll call him "Dark." One student was telling me about the American card game "Peanut Butter and Jelly." (Obviously peanut butter has become what Gabe Hudson would call a "trope.") This is evidently what some American children call the bluffing game "B.S.", but, as my student explained, they don't say "B.S." because it's a bad American word. Then:

Student 1: What does B.S. mean?
Me: You can ask a friend. It's not very polite.
Dark: Which is worse, B.S. or a B.J.?
Me: Dark!

Later, I asked Dark what sort of music he liked, and he said that he liked Gothic Metal, but also Guns N' Roses. He told me that he especially liked their last album, [making intense eye contact, making sure I understood] Chinese Democracy. You know, he said, Chinese. Democracy. Wink.

I told him I also especially liked Chinese Democracy because I really like blues riffs and power chords. [Wink.] [That's not true, by the way. I changed the subject, because you don't talk about Chinese Democracy unless you have an Appetite for Destruction. Ka-ching!]

[Hey, by the way: now that Chinese Democracy came out, dozens of hack op-ed writers will have to throw away the shitty lede they've been using for the past decade which compares the interminable production of Chinese Democracy to the actual political situation in China. I can't be bothered to look up an example now, but you know and I know that no one ever found that comparison illuminating.]

Someone also asked me to explain irony, which was sort of difficult, but I Used an Allusion To [ka-ching ka-ching!] Romeo & Juliet to illustrate dramatic irony, which I guess helped.

This afternoon we have office hours for the first time. I'm sure that lots of people will come, partially because I accidently said something about glottal stops during first period today before remembering that I was in China and not only do they not have glottal stops in Chinese but also no one cares.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Things I learned today

Now, everyone knows that teachers learn more from their students than their students learn from them. Students learn actual skills like math and reading and teachers learn "life lessons" like compassion, humility, and the wisdom of children. This must be considered a reward unto itself, because my school is paying me basically nothing. I don't think China has minimum wage laws.

(We met another foreign teacher coming into the school the other day who teaches at an affiliated institute for students seeking admission to foreign universities, and as soon as we introduced ourselves, he said, "Are you the guys making 4000 RMB a month? I am so sorry.")

(Also, did anyone see the rubber room article in last weeks New Yorker? I would like to say that we have an ultra powerful teacher's union here, but actually we just have Lisa, who took the TV from our apartment and never makes eye contact so when you talk to her you always feel like she's trying to discreetly examine a small but fascinating tumor growing on your neck.)

So, anyway, stuff from the first day and a half of class:

- On the first day, I had 6 students tell me I looked like Michael Phelps. But the new wrinkle is that my students say I look even more like Kaká, a Brazilian football player who I knew nothing about because I  do not follow Contests of Sport. At first, I thought they were telling me that I looked like shit, but then I realized that they are non-native English speakers and have probably never heard the Romance language slang word "caca."

I don't think I look like him, but I would buy that t-shirt if I saw it at urban outfitters for $24.99.

- My students don't realize that I speak Chinese, but I did share my Chinese name as part of a name game we played on the first day. The first two characters of my Chinese name (魏德忠) are sort of complicated, so every single class has broken into applause when I write it on the board. One girl breathlessly asked me after class how long I had practiced writing my name, as though I learned to write these three characters by drilling them over and over again without any idea of what they mean. Incidentally, this is true if you replace "these three characters" with "approximately 3,000 characters."

- After almost every class, girls will come up to my desk and just stare at me. When I ask if they have a question, they just sigh and walk away. They giggle when I smile at them. By this time next week I will have a Chinese bride, or several.

In summary, though: my kids are super cute, generally very well mannered, and, so far, a pleasure to teach. Also very smart. I've met 3 kids who speak German so far, and one of them wants to set up a German club with me, which would be great practice for while I'm here. I think I probably have time for that, because in China we have 3 hour lunches. Teach for America teachers: I am so sorry.