Thursday, September 30, 2010

It Is Happening Again, Part 3, “Isn’t it almost October?” Edition

I really thought we were past this.

Today I met a whole bunch of Senior 1 students whom I hadn’t met before. I normally teach Senior 2 students (that’s high school Juniors, in case that is still not clear to you), but each semester there’s one set of poor little Senior 1 students who have to sit through a weekly hour and a half of my hemming and hawing and pacing and sweating — so much sweating — as I try to teach them some serious math. (I do not know anyone who actually enjoys it. Sample student comment from a teacher’s day card I received this year: “I can still remember how your Equation Class shocked me!” This same student wrote a note on Andy’s card saying: “You seem much more easygoing than Jon.”)

Nevertheless some of them were there at the elective fair today, excited to sign up for my newest class on “Math and the Rubik’s Cube.” A lot of them seemed interested; perhaps they were under the impression that this class would be in any way fun, which, I can assure, is a serious misapprehension.

One girl came up to me and said something which I haven’t heard all year: “Are you the brother of Phelps?” Not one of my Senior 2 students has approached me and told me I look like Michael Phelps. This is a big change from last year, when celebrity comparisons were everyone’s favorite game. (Except for Rubik’s cube: that is also everyone’s favorite game, or it will be until I ruin it with math this semester.) But last year Gus and I were Harry Potter/Michael Phelps all the gosh-darn time. This year? A couple of students said that Andy looks like Samwise Gamgee. This is a step down.

But the magic is back! And by magic I mean my passing resemblance to a butter (buthis?) faced swimming star. I changed the subject, of course, but later we got around to talking about her hobbies.

“What do you do in your spare time?”

“Oh, you know,” she said, “I study a lot. And I like to paint.”

“You paint!” I said. “What do you like to paint?”

She lowered her eyes and said, “I painted a picture of Phelps once.”

She paused.

“His face is in my heart.”

I am back baby. I am so back.

(Late addendum: You know who else is back? Gristle. He came over tonight, asked if he could stay here for a few nights, and promptly told me about how he was pretty sure women couldn’t get hemorrhoids, because, you know, they have periods.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What We Talk About When We Talk About Soup

  1. There’s a soup in China, and it looks like this.


    It’s a sweet soup made out of papaya. It is served in the stewed husk of the papaya it’s made from, like a Chinese chili in a bread bowl or the brains at the end of Hannibal.

    Since arriving in China I have wanted to eat this soup.

  2. There’s a restaurant in China, and it looks like this.

    Chinese restaurant

    No it doesn’t. But believe me that there’s a Chinese restaurant near my house. I don’t know its name because we call it “The Place Above McDonalds”, because it’s above the McDonalds. They serve Cantonese food, and they have my soup.

  3. When I first saw the soup on the menu at the place above McDonalds, I immediately wanted to try it. I almost ordered it too, until I saw the name: 木瓜炖雪蛤. Stewed Papaya with Snow Clams. One of my least favorite things about China is how they ruin shit with seafood. At the milk tea place you can get gelatin cubes in your tea made out of something called 龟苓膏, which means Tortise Jelly and, according to wikipedia, is “traditionally made with the powdered plastron (shell) from the critically endangered turtle Cuora trifasciata”. According to wikipedia you can buy it in a powder and make it at home, like jello. In case you also want to ruin shit with seafood.

  4. Maybe I should have made this clearer before, but I really like papaya. I have papaya in my oatmeal every morning before school. I am looking forward to going back to America, but I’m not looking forward to ditching papaya in my oatmeal in favor of, what, raisins? A raisin isn’t a fruit, it’s trash. It’s what’s left when you forget to put a fruit back in the fridge. Also raisins make me think of race-based housing discrimination in Chicago and, come on: that’s not what breakfast is about.

    Some Chinese people make fun of me for all the papayas I eat, because here it’s mostly women who eat papayas because they’re supposed to make your breasts get bigger. They say it’s because papayas look like breasts, which does not square with my papaya or breast experience. But ok.

  5. Last year, at our goodbye dinner with Serena (yes, this one), Serena ordered my papaya soup for desert. She asked if I wanted to taste some and I said no, because of the 雪蛤, the snow clams: I figured they would probably be gross, and I didn’t want to mess up the taste of the papaya with something fishy and slimy like snow clams. So I said I didn’t like 雪蛤, and she understood.

    She confirmed that the papaya soup was good for ladies (grow those boobies!), but she also said that they 雪蛤 was good for ladies’ skin. The snow clams are white, and I guess the idea is that they’ll make your skin white too, which is your goal, if you’re in China and a lady.

  6. This past week, while I was in Changsha, I ordered the papaya soup. Andy and I were at a restaurant with our new friend Diana and our waitress bustled up to us when we arrived and asked what type of soup we’d like to have as she opened a cart with a bunch of steaming bowls. We saw the papaya and I remember thinking, yes, you know, let’s do it. Let’s get the papaya soup. It has snow clams but so what, we’re on vacation. So I told her we’d like three bowls, and she returned with three big portions of Stewed Papaya with Snow Clams — finally, the soup.

  7. The soup was fantastic — not fishy at all, not slimy even; sure, you could see the snow clams in there but they were light, and the soup was sweet and fresh tasting, and the papaya was soft and ripe and delicious. After I finished the soup I scooped out the inside of the papaya with my spoon, completing the papaya-as-bread bowl metaphor, until only the thin papaya skin remained.

    Andy, Diana, and I agreed that the soup was definitely the best part of the meal. Everything else was fine, but the soup was really delicious. I can honestly say that this was one time when I was definitely wrong about China. I thought — we all thought — that a soup with papaya would be great, but a soup with papaya and 雪蛤 would be quite a bit less great and possibly just awful. So, here’s the lesson: you might worry about eating papaya and snow clam soup, but in fact 雪蛤, those frightful Snow Clams, really aren’t that bad.

  8. No, here’s the lesson: 雪蛤 doesn’t mean Snow Clam.

    I mean it does, in that 雪 means “snow” and 蛤 means “clam.” But 雪蛤 is not a type of clam.

    I should mention at this point that China is fond of euphemisms. Of course we all know about “re-education” but a much more dangerous euphemism is 凤爪, “phoenix talon”, which sounds like some awesome Chinese fusion specialty but is actually just a euphemism for “chicken feet”, which sounds gross when you put it on a menu even though — incredibly — no one seems to have any problem with eating them.

    Anyway this is one of those times. Something was a little weird about the English translation of 木瓜炖雪蛤 on the menu. I mean, obviously it was grammatically incorrect, but this translation was way too far off. Something was really wrong. When we got back, I decided to ask Gristle: what exactly is 雪蛤?

    He confirmed what I already guessed, or knew: 雪蛤 does not mean Snow Clams.

  9. 雪蛤 are the dried fallopian tubes of frogs.

  10. 雪蛤 are the dried fallopian tubes of frogs.


  12. This is what 雪蛤 looks like before it’s added to soup. It’s the dried fallopian tubes of frogs.

    Dried fallopian tubes of frogs

  13. Each bowl of soup cost 68 yuan, which is about $10. It was by far the most expensive thing on the menu.

  14. Last week, in Changsha, Andy, Diana, and I spent 30 American dollars to eat soup made from the dried fallopian tubes of frogs.

  15. So you want to talk to me about soup? Let’s talk about soup. Last week I ate a soup made from the dried fallopian tubes of frogs.

And how was your week?

Maybe I Should Just Refrain From Naming Students Altogether

Told a student that he would henceforth be named Simon. He liked the name. Wrote it down. Liked it so much that the next week his group decided to name their team “Simon’s Room.”

Of course when they announced that name to the class they didn’t say “Simon’s Room,” they said “Semen’s Room.” Which to a non-native English speaker is I guess how it looks.

You know what they say, best laid schemes of mice and men go oft a’ jaculate, but when I name a kid Simon, I don’t expect any trouble. Same with Felicia. Same with Aurora. I clearly have no ear for what is and is not an appropriate name for a Chinese high school student. But I will add Felicia, Aurora, and Simon to the list. The only things on the list so far are Gaye, Cochburn, and Bea. Gaye and Cochburn explain themselves. Bea sounds like the Chinese word for vagina.

You now know everything I know about teaching in China. Really, not as hard as it looks.

Back from vacation! Exciting stories await! Tomorrow: a post about soup. Sounds like a joke but it’s not!

Monday, September 20, 2010

In Which Innocent Class Discussions About Marriage Come Back To Bite Me In The Ass

My handsome, American ass.

Text message from a student, out of the blue: what’s your ideal fiancee like?
[I give my standard non-answer answer, about my ideal fiancé(e) being funny, intelligent, a good listener, etc.]
Student: haha.what about her face?

Great questions all around.

Andy and I are off on vacation tomorrow to Zhangjiajie, one of the most famous natural sites in China. We are going to hike and climb and possible spelunk. I plan on seeing enough large limestone pillars to make up for a lifetime of having seen very few limestone pillars of any appreciable size. Very excited for where life is taking me.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Self Evaluation

Here’s a list of some things I did wrong this week:

  1. I gave a student the English name Aurora. Her Chinese name means “morning” and she wanted something more unusual than Dawn, so: Aurora. Which is a great name. She loved it. I’m like a wizard of naming. Throw away your baby name books, pregnant ladies. Bring those fetuses to me. I mean, Aurora? Come on. That’s smart.

    Of course as Andy pointed out later, the only consonant in “Aurora” is “r”, which is impossible for the majority of my students to pronounce. Including, most likely, Aurora herself. So there goes that idea. Now I have a student named Alola.

  2. Yesterday I gave a student the English name Felicia. Another great name. Sounds a lot like her Chinese name, and it has an auspicious meaning, which is really important to my students. Then last night she emailed me to say she’d like to change it because one of her classmates told her that “Felicia sounds like another word which means very bad thing, is it?”

    Here’s what I guess happened:

    Felicia: I’m so excited! I finally have an English name, given to me by my handsome and talented American teacher. From now on I will be known as Felicia!
    Classmate: Wait, fellatio?
    Felicia: Felicia.
    Classmate: Well your name sounds like a blowjob.

    Destroying childhoods.

  3. I told a student that I would join her student embroidery club. This was an unforced error on my part. I was hoping she’d forget, but other people have mentioned it since the initial conversation, so I might be stuck. Might be spending most of my free time doing needlepoint with Chinese high school girls.

    This is not the way I thought my life would be.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What I am doing right now

In addition to Oral English class, I also teach elective courses each semester. The first meeting of my elective is this coming Saturday, and today was the enrollment day, where all the students decide which elective class they’d like to take.

It did not go 100% as planned.

The school computer system is out. The system. The entire data and communication network on which our school functions is not currently functioning. The email servers were down last week, for example, which meant that the teacher who works in the student administration office had to send me class rosters from her personal account. Her foxmail username is Chinese for “little fishie.” Professionalism has really taken a hit.

So our students had to sign up the old pencil-and-paper way, which meant that all the teachers had to sit at desks in the courtyard with a piece of paper so that students could come around to register. This would have worked great if, like other teachers, I had had 20 - 30 students interested in taking my class, since that would have given each of them a chance to come up, ask questions, and calmly write down their enrollment information. Unfortunately I did not have 20 or 30 students interested in taking my class. Over the course of 40 minutes in the courtyard, I had 132 students sign up to take my class. This is a somewhat larger number.

What am I doing right now? I’m using a random number generator to pick 50 students (the class limit), and then I’m typing up the list of those 50 students and sending it to little fishie so she can put it in the card catalog she is using in lieu of a functioning computer network.

Luckily I get paid in stacks of cash so if this Guangzhou/Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior techno-dystopia situation continues I will still be making my moneys. Until the RMB crashes and all debts start being reckoned in gallons of gasoline, at which point my decision not to learn how to drive a car will reveal itself to have been a fundamental strategic blunder.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Asian Gamers

Starting on November 12, 2010, Guangzhou will be hosting the 16th Asian Games.

You are forgiven for having no idea that this event will be taking place. I imagine if you don’t live in Guangzhou, China it’s not really on your radar. I imagine you haven’t been thinking about it much on a day to day basis. And now that you know about it my sense is that you’re probably not all that excited about these upcoming 16th Asian Games.


Why? Well, off the top: according to Wikipedia, the official name of the 16th Asian Games is the XVI Asiad. There is a squiggly red line underneath Asiad in my text editor because Asiad is a made up word. It’s a fake word and a Roman numeral and in this sense XVI Asiad is like the Balto films (Balto, Balto II: Wolf Quest, Balto III: Wings of Change), which are uplifting movies about a dog, and a wolf, and some other animal with wings I guess. So if you liked Balto III: Wings of Change, you will probably like Asiad XVI: Guangzhou, China. (And, according to, Lady & the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure.)

Another reason to be excited: my Cantonese tutor Serena is going to be a volunteer at the XVI Asiad. She has a job as a scorer.

For bowling.


From a Google image search for “asian bowling”.

So Serena, my Serena, is going to be a scorer for bowling event at the XVI Asiad. Will she be judging toe faults? Nope, there’s a referee for that. Will she herself be counting the pins? No, because pin counting is done by machine. Will she be writing these counts down on some official notepad or scorecard of some kind? By god you can bet she’ll be writing her little Cantonese heart out.

The real exciting part (I know: there’s more excitement??) is that even though tickets are extremely limited to the bowling competition (because for some reason it’s not being held in a venue that can accommodate thousands of bowling fans), Serena’s going to do her best to get tickets for us.

I am thrilled. Andy and I were already planning on getting tickets to an event that no one else cared about. I would have watched anything (including Go, official sport at the XVI Asiad), but bowling is really beyond my wildest dreams in this department.



I mean I guess I don’t have a ton to be excited about it my daily life but surely by any objective measure the 2010 Asian Bowling Championship at the XVI Asiad must be one of the best things ever.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Miracle Cures

Ever since last week’s sickness cleared itself up, I’ve been a changed man. When people have near death experiences, they start realizing what a joy it is to go through their daily lives. I did not have a near death experience, but I still have been spending the past few days enjoying the small, everyday moments when I can complete a simple action without vomiting.

Actually though my life is exactly the same.

For instance, since I am pretty sure that the illness was of the Something I Ate variety, you’d think that I’d be considering changing my food routine. Not so. I’m going to stick with the same rigorous dietary standards that got me this far. For instance, I have a strict “don’t eat maggots” policy which has been extremely successful. (I developed this policy one day last year when I was sitting at my desk and looked down into my mug and saw a maggot floating in my tea. At that moment I decided that I wanted to avoid eating maggots as much as possible, and now I check my teabags for maggots before putting them in hot water. If I eventually write a magazine for Guangzhou homeowners, tip number one is going to be don’t use a teabag if it is obviously covered in maggots. It’s simple, but you know what? It really works.)

I also have rules about not buying oysters from the man who opens and cleans them in the gutter of the street near my house. The rule here is “don’t eat anything that is opened and cleaned in a place where babies regularly poop.” This seems like a pretty good rule. It is also not likely to change.

Furthermore, I cured this illness exactly the same way I solve all of my other problems, i.e. by drinking Gatorade and making myself vomit. Usually that’s an iffy solution at best but it worked extremely well in this particular situation.

I don’t want to change any of this (my eating habits, my cure for the common stomach flu, my bad attitude) because I am afraid of what will happen if I do. The only Chinese person I could really ask about any of this is Gristle, and I find his commitment to Traditional Chinese Medicine troubling. Also because I walked into the grocery store the other day and sitting on the shelf near the checkout was a bottle of these guys:

New Zealand Sheep Placenta

and at that point I said, you know what, let’s make that a rule too: Absolutely No Placenta Softgels. I can promise that even if I contract the exact affliction these are supposed to treat, no matter what it is, I will not take the placenta softgels and will rely instead the solution I already trust: the blue Gatorade that tastes like sugar going down and feels like battery acid coming up as you vomit over and over and over.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

An Apology

Sorry for the lack of Guangzhou-themed updates. I have been violently ill for the past few days. In fact “explosive” would not be an inappropriate word in this case.

Thanks for waiting around, though — I should have some new stuff coming down the pipe soon. I mean other than the stuff that’s been coming up and down my pipes in the last 48 hours.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

An Announcement

I have some good news and I have some bad news.

The good news: I’ve been doing a little research on CouchSurfing. (This is not yet the good news. My life has not yet gotten to the point that accomplishing a single internet related task without getting distracted by pictures of penguins is “good news.”) For instance I read this LA Times article from 2004 which outlines the basics of the movement:

Couch surfing is not, as the name may suggest, loading the divan in the back of the woody and hanging 10 from it at Zuma Beach. CouchSurfing is actually a global online network of travelers who have offered or are seeking couches on which to sleep. For free.

James Gilden, Special to The Times? More like James Gilden, Special Comedian to The Times! James Gilden, Hip Jokester to The Times. James Gilden, Guy Who Clearly Knows A Lot About Surfing to The Times.

I do not know what the phrase “back of the woody” means, but wikipeda says that woody can be a nickname for someone named Woodrow or Woodard. It probably does not refer to either of those things, in the first case because I just don’t think James Gilden is talking about throwing a sofa at a man called Woodrow; and in the second case because I do not believe that Woodard is a real name. If I worked at a Jamba Juice and a customer said their name was Woodard, I would think that they were attempting to joke, and I would tell them to leave and never come back. By the way this is also how I feel about the name Rudyard, which I cannot say without it sounding like indigestion.

The last entry on the disambiguation page is “Woodie a 1930’s to early 1950’s vintage station wagon with exterior wood paneling and trim.” Despite the spelling difference and lack of punctuation expressing the relationship between Woodie and the noun phrase that follows it, this seems like the most plausible option. Having not been alive in any of the listed decades, this reference is still lost on me, though clearly not on James Gilden, who, as we’ve established, clearly knows a lot about surfing. Hang 10!

(But CouchSurfing, it’s not that. It’s this website where you can sign up to host world travelers in your home. If you think this sounds dangerous, do not worry: according to Wikipedia only one CouchSurfer has been raped.)

The good news is that there is a CouchSurfing couch right here in Guangzhou, China! Very close to our apartment actually. So if you ever come to Guangzhou, there’s a great place for you to stay.

The bad news is that that place belongs to Gristle.

Gristle, in other words, is very happy to load your divan in the bad of his woody. He already had a guy come stay with him, an American, who Gristle said was strange and elderly. He stayed with Gristle, in Gristle’s one room apartment, for a week.

Gristle says that he’s really excited about going to stay with people all over China and, eventually, the world. If someone from Guangzhou contacts you on CouchSurfing and asks if he can stay with you, you should absolutely say yes. What’s the worst that can happen?

That he takes your iron and ironing board, asks you to help him carry bottles of cooking oil across the city, tells you to buy him $70 worth of American ginseng, asks you to help him buy real estate in the Midwest, makes you take pictures of him in the shower, tries to get you to teach him how to juggle, play the ukulele, speak German, brings you presents for your birthday, invites you to his relatives’ houses for his birthday, the worst and best that can happen is that you become friends with Gristle — the man who started at all, that Guangzhou man about town, the man of my dreams, ah: Gristle. Gristle.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

It is Happening Again, Part 2

Student, after class: Jon, do you have any girlfriend?

Me: No, I don’t have a girlfriend.

Student: Well then I can I have your number phone?

If I create a Pickup Artist-like TV show in Guangzhou for Chinese women looking to attract foreign men, tip number one will be to avoid egregious errors of diction and usage.