Sunday, January 31, 2010

Miss me?

Stone marking the border between China and Vietnam.

Back from Guangxi; stories from The Edge coming soon.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

F That Noise, I'm Leaving

For all those of you who thought I cried myself to sleep after my last blog post, here's a video of what I actually did last night.

Executive summary for all the business executives in the room: This is a video of Serena juggling. Gristle appears in the background eating crackers. You should watch this video if: you want to see a cute Chinese girl juggle while singing an English song, or you want to hear what Gristle's voice sounds like. He is very impressed by the juggling, but not so impressed that he stops eating crackers. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear Gristle ask me if I can teach him German next semester. He asks this not realizing that mein Deutsch ist so katastrophal that I had to look up how to spell katastophal just now. So the joke's auf ihm.

Yesterday was the last day of class for the Fall Semester, and today Gus and I are starting winter break (centered, obviously, around Lunar New Year rather than Capitalist New Year) by heading off to Guilin for a week. I'll then be traveling out of the country for a little bit and return in time for Chinese New Year. All of this is to say that the general silence around here will continue on and off for the next month.

Sometime next week, though, I'll definitely be posting about a trip I took with Gus, David, and our friend Stephanie to the 雕楼 (diaolou, fortresses) around Kaiping. Diaolou are tall mansions which were built in the early 20th century by wealthy Chinese expats who wanted to protect their wealth from bandits. They are now abandoned. Seeing large Western-looking towers jutting out of villages in the Chinese countryside is exactly as weird as you'd expect.

I'll also be posting about Chinese New Year at some point. We are about to start the year of the tiger, which is bad news for people who were also born in a tiger year -- generally, your own year is not auspicious. I realized today that many of my friends from college were born in the year of tiger. So, sorry guys: if you are turning 24 between Feb. 2010 and Feb. 2011 then the next 12 months may not be great. What goes around comes around, though: when I turn 24 in 7 years I'll have bad luck too.

Enjoy your vacations, everyone! If you don't live in China and don't go to Princeton, never mind. You can feel free to continue enjoying your normal life.

Feelings at the End of the Semester

Written quickly, minimal editing, excuse the maudlin sentiments and complete lack of jokes.

There is nothing worse than the feeling a teacher gets when he sees that a student has written at the bottom of her (ok, not very good) math exam Sorry, Jon, I guess I'm just not good at math. There is nothing worse than this. There is nothing worse than wanting to tell her that she is wrong, that she is not a failure, and that the fault lies not with her but with the teacher, wanting to encourage her but knowing that the damage is already done. There is nothing worse than giving final oral exams and seeing a student rocking back and forth in fear, nearly crying as he tries to remember how to say 灵感 in English, and you want to help him but you know you can't. There is nothing worse than looking for excuses not to give a failing grade to a student and finding none.

It is terrible to see students mock each other. Worse: it is terrible to see students methodically dismantle each other, attack and attack until the insults dull and what's left is pale communal hatred, loneliness, tepid disgust. And you want to stop it, but don't: it's been going on for so long, and you can't think of anything to say except excuses. And you see students at English corner, and you say you're going to Thailand and they warn you about the ladyboys -- they're disgusting, you know, unnatural -- and a girl next to you says quietly that it's not so weird. She says she feels like a boy sometime, too. And then she asks you to take pictures of elephants when you go to Thailand, because elephants are her favorite animal. And you're moved, surprisingly, by a request so pure. What you say is yes, I will do my best to find your elephants but what you want to say is there are people like you, you are not unnatural, and you are not alone.

I have nothing to say about any of this, except sometimes teaching isn't great. It's great in the big things, but there are small moments, still, where you can see that your students are sad, lonely, or scared. And you look back at the semester and you see there were times when you could have helped, but you didn't, because you were sad, lonely, or scared, too.

Fun posts return tomorrow! Promise! (Seriously.)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I Can Kiss Away the Pain

I apologize for leaving you on the hook regarding my plane ticket. I would like to clarify that I did, eventually, manage to buy a plane ticket. The Part 1 in the title was not a History-of-the-World-esque joke but rather a Millennium-Approaches-esque promise that there will be a second part, and it will be even gayer and somewhat preachier than the first.

This week, we taught our students about superheroes. This was mostly a chance for them to have some fun before our final exam next week, but it also involved their creating their own superheroes and arguing about who would win in a fight, i.e. actual English skills. To introduce that part of the lesson, I told my students that Americans like arguing about which superhero is the most powerful. I do not think that this is actually true, but I don't teach Oral Truth, I teach Oral English. I wouldn't want to deprive them of the opportunity to write a bestseller entitled "Lies My English Teacher Told Me", full of gems like "It's important to use the subjunctive mood properly" and "Americans don't really have strong opinions about Chairman Mao."

I introduced the lesson by having my students name all the superheroes that the could think of. Most classes did a pretty good job, though there was one class where the first three superheroes that the students shouted out were "the transformers", "vampires", and "Zorro". I will concede that Zorro is a proto-superhero of some kind, and that the transformers do have special powers and work together to save the world. About vampires I will concede nothing.

There was another class where a (male) student excitedly yelled, "The Hunk!" Close, close.

In the second half of class, the students created their own superheroes. Most of the guys had some version of the muscular swordsman-type, and most of the girls were either witches or normal-looking students who happened to have telepathy and laser eyes. My favorite was one student who wanted to be a skeleton. According to his worksheet, his weaknesses are "sunlight, emotion".

I think you all know what's coming: some of my students chose me as their superhero. Well, that sort of happened. One of my students wrote "Just like Jon" in the space where he was supposed to draw a picture of his superhero, except then he crossed out "Just like Jon" and drew a picture of a flower instead. I lost to a fucking flower. And it was the least menacing flower you've ever seen. It was, like, a daisy. And he didn't even change the superpowers. According to this kid, if I were a superhero I'd have exactly the same abilities as a magic flower, and, in the end, he'd rather be the flower.

Another student drew what looked like a picture of me on their sheet, but then in the weaknesses section said that the hero was "somewhat dull-witted." So I'm going to give myself the benefit of the doubt and say that his was not supposed to be me, since if it was supposed to be me, then she should have listed my real weaknesses (sunlight, emotion). Come to think of it, maybe that skeleton picture was actually a drawing of me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Buy a Chinese Plane Ticket, in 50 Simple Steps, Part I

1. Decide when you want to go on your trip. Say you select "Spring Festival Vacation", the three-week break at the end of the first semester.

2. First you should figure out when Spring Festival actually is, because it's based on the lunar calendar. Look it up on the lunar calendar application which comes included with your cell phone, and then return to Step 1.

3. Though actually knowing when Spring Festival is doesn't help much, because you don't know when you school vacation is. It's no use trying to check the school calendar, because there is no school calendar: vacation dates are decided on an ad hoc basis during the school year. Text your boss to see if he has info, and then return to Step 1.

4. Go to Orbitz to look for plane tickets. Realize that the prices are in American Dollars, abandon this plan immediately. OK, China, it's on.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The oral presentations, they just keep coming

From one of today's skits:
Teacher, after coming upon two boys hugging in the men's bathroom: "What the hell are you doing?"
Student: "Homosexual!"

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Allow me to Present...

Before my first class this morning, one of my students came up to me and said, "Can I fire a gun during my presentation? It doesn't have bullets." My students are sometimes not very good at conveying nuance, however, so the second sentence sounded apologetic rather than comforting, and I initially thought that he was asking if he would be allowed to use his gun despite the fact that it didn't have bullets in it.

Even after I figured out what he was asking, I was surprised that he felt the need to add the second half. It seems like it should be implied that if you're firing a gun during an oral presentation in English class, it shouldn't be loaded. (Teach for America employees: your mileage may vary.) Anyway, this marks the third group of the week that has asked to use a firearm in the performance of their 3 - 5 minute skit. I feel like I'm missing an opportunity to teach a life lesson about nonviolence somewhere in there. Never mind, the feeling has passed.

Several groups have been performing skits based on the following scenario: "Two students are involved in a romantic relationship. A teacher is suspicious." Today one of my groups made the risky choice of portraying a homosexual relationship. When the teacher character discovered the two students embracing, he pointed his finger and said, "You're in a homosexual relationship! That's not allowed."

"It is too!" said a student. "It's our right in America! Read the Constitution!"

And then the teacher pulled out a sheet of paper and read, "Number one: Homosexual is legal. Number two: it is illegal to laugh at homosexual lovers."

And then all of the characters agreed that, yes, the student was right, the homosexuals should be allowed to remain in a relationship because it says so in the Constitution. I didn't have the heart to tell them that the "Homosexual is legal" clause of Article 3 was killed in committee before ratification.

Later, another group did a skit based on the same romantic relationship scenario. Before they started, they wrote the difficult vocabulary words that they were going to be using on the board, along with Chinese translations. One of the words they wrote up was "Sukra prameha -- 肾亏", which one student later explained to me was a disease where you have to go the bathroom a lot. Actually, according to Google, Sukra Prameha is a "culture-bound syndrome" from Sri Lanka which is also known as "semen-loss anxiety" and is defined as
A form of sexual neurosis associated with excessive semen loss due to frequent intercourse, masturbation, nocturnal emission or passing of white turbid urine which is believed to contain semen. Young people who think they might be suffering from it become anxious and panicky, and complain of somatic symptoms (with no organic cause) such as dizziness, backache, fatigue, weakness, insomnia, frequent dreams and physical thinness.

So, if you had sat in my classes today, you would have seen students shooting each other with super realistic but empty guns, engaging in Consitutionally-sanctioned homosexual relations, and joking about a disease characterized by turbid, semen-filled urine.

Also, you don't just get thin, you get physically thin. Literally. Physically. Thin. That's what happens when you leave your semen all over the place. Just thins you right out. Best diet plan there is. Worked for Oprah.

School's In

I was really excited to start teaching again after being on vacation. Spending time with my family and friends in Hong Kong was great and really rejuvenating, but I like teaching and I like my students, and spending a week away from them is always a little weird. Plus, I was looking forward to this week's lesson. Two weeks ago we told them that they would be writing skits while Gus and I were on vacation, and that they would perform them for us when we returned. So coming back to Guangzhou didn't only mean coming back to the classes I enjoy so much, it also meant coming back to those classes and not having to do any talking. And, most importantly, it meant getting to see my students again, the students I've worked with all semester and grown very fond of, with whom I've built relationships based on mutual trust and respect, and who really do, sometimes, teach me more than I teach them.

And then I walked into my very first class on Tuesday morning, and one of my students, who has been in my class every single week for the past 4 months, turned to me and said, "How was your vacation, Gus?"

You win some, you lose some. In his case it seems I've been losing him every week for the past 4 months.

Anyway, the presentations have been great. So far only two groups have used toy machine guns to kill each other at the end of their skit, and only one group has had a girl pretending to make herself throw up in the bathroom, and no groups have used any racial slurs! One group did use the word "fuck", as part of the difficult-to-parse phrase "Why do you fuck to me?" Oh, and on group had a girl wear a fake moustache made out of post-it notes. That was pretty cute.

One of the presentations in Gus's class taught me a new Chinese internet meme, based on this picture which turned up on a Chinese message board earlier this year:

The caption says, "What brother is eating isn't noodles, it's loneliness."

Variations on the caption became super popular a few months ago. As you can guess, it's pretty versatile. I think this meme is sort of funny, and it's doubtless something that I would joke about with my English-speaking friends here, if I had more than one English speaking friend. What brother is living isn't loneliness, it's...nope, still loneliness.

Just kidding, Gus. We can joke about it together. And we'll laugh and laugh.

In other news, after class today one of the other teachers came in and told Gus and me that we had won prizes for our performance in the Teachers' Sports Meet. A prize? Are you fuck to me? Gus and I lost or almost lost every event we entered. There is no way we deserve a prize, unless the prize is a consolation prize for losing/not being chinese.

But I won a prize! The prize was a plastic bag, inside which was a blue hand towel, a pink hand towel, a black hand towel, and a white hand towel embroidered with the picture of a running dog. This brings the total number of hand towels recieved in exchange for participation in the sports meet to: 5.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ok, party's over, let's get back to work

Did you guys do anything special while I was away? I spent most of my time watching Filipino ladies dance to "Poker Face" in public parks:

Gristle came over tonight to give me a pear. From this brief interaction I learned that Gristle knows a lot about panda bears including how they have sex and that they sometimes eat iron (can this possibly be true?) and that he is not impressed by the quality of Chinese nature TV shows.

Also, he just saw The Sound of Music for the first time and loved it. He says he never knew that English could be so beautiful. There you go, English majors. Now you know what it's all about.

Regular posting resumes tomorrow. I hope you all enjoyed your time away from me, because I'm back with a vengeance.