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.