Thursday, December 31, 2009


None of my students have shown up for class, my iPod's playing Michael Jackson through the school's sound system, and I'm growing a beard.

(More) Practice

I was speaking Chinese—"{When I was little, my mom—}"—when one of the teachers leaned over and told me, "I give you permission to speak English." She laughed. "Now I know how you feel when I'm speaking English and you can't understand me."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow-and-Ice-Covered Kaifaqu

The sidewalk of much of Kaifaqu is made of either polished marble or slate—I'm not sure which. When the sun shines on it, it sparkles nicely, which adds a charm to this area of town, I'm sure. Yesterday, however, snow fell and quickly accumulated on the ground. As you can imagine, this made the sidewalk incredibly slippery. I saw people almost bite it several times. In addition to that mess, the stairs of many places were not shoveled or sprinkled with salt. One set of stairs I went down was almost entirely covered in ice.

"What if you fall and hurt yourself?"

"You have to take care of yourself."

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Snow White

In the Kaifaqu library today, I found a Chinese translation of Donald Barthelme's Snow White, one of my favorite books.

  • The Chinese title has two possible translations, I've been told:

    (1) Princess Snow White's Next Story*
    which translation is disappointing, as it allows the events in the more familiar (read "Disney") tale to have happened


    (2) Another Edition of Princess Snow White*
    which I prefer, as it suggests a replacement for that more insipid version

    I wonder how the rest of the book is translated.

    * loosely

    High-Context(-)Language Learning

    "[B]oth classroom teaching and the teaching material itself have their limitations. A teaching material usually arranges its contents with a systematic design, and therefore is unlikely to exhaust the usages of a certain grammatical form in one unit. Generally, the teacher is supposed to explain any language point involved in the lesson and exemplify its usages in different contexts. However, owing to the limited time and language environment in class, the teacher may not be able to provide students with all relevant information. Even if possible, this requirement will largely increase the teacher's workload. Moreover, this will increase students' pressure and language anxiety as well, which may lead to unsuccessful teaching in the end."
    A Handbook of Chinese Basic Forms Focused on Communication, page 2

    Monday, December 28, 2009


    Found out tonight that the Chinese slang for "penis" is xiǎodìdi, "little brother."

    Sunday, December 27, 2009

    A Few from Christmas

    my three dads: Uncle Miles, Uncle Tim, and Uncle Preston with Baby Jasmine

    a slow dance or a cried-on shoulder?

    what ya got?

    lit up

    Saturday, December 26, 2009


    Every other Saturday a woman comes to clean our entire apartment. The total cost is 50 RMB, only 7.32 US.

    Friday, December 25, 2009

    From Wednesday's Christmas Party

    me teachin' students how to make paper stand-up trees

    Oren, the youngest of the young

    Thursday, December 24, 2009

    Christmas Eve in China

    Time to invite some coworkers over, get drunk, and watch the first Harry Potter movie with Brad Neely's audio.

    Wednesday, December 23, 2009


    No more Korean lessons with Snow, I learned from Dawn yesterday. Snow's finishing up college and spending the next year preparing to get a job. It's too bad because I used to get a lot of ideas during Korean lessons—namely, on how to slow down and check students' understanding. Either because Snow could speak only a little English or because she refused to speak what she did know, which reasons both worked out to the same limitation, she asked only, "{Do you understand?}"

    "{No, I don't.}"

    Tuesday, December 22, 2009

    A Couple Useful Phrases

    When you startle somebody, you can ask, "{Did I step on/catch your tail?}"

    To call someone {two hundred fifty} is to call them crazy.

    Monday, December 21, 2009


    My favorite class to teach is SBS4. This is the one composed, now, of seven Chinese students, one Korean student, three Russian students, and one student born in China who lived most of his life in Canada before moving back here. It's not that their English is the best of those I teach—it is—but that they actually tell me when they don't understand something. This is unusual here, at least from what I've been told and from what I've seen in my own classes.

    You spend an hour writing the lesson plan and later ten minutes explaining in superb but also simple English the subject, and then you make the mistake of asking, "Do you understand?" at which the students nod their heads. Of course they do. You've done such a beautiful job, and you're such a wonderful teacher, right?

    No. To tell the teacher you don't understand after he's made all this effort is to take away his face or to point out your own stupidity (I should ask my students which is worse).

    But I don't want my classrooms that way. I tell all my students that it's OK if they don't understand. It took a long time, but now the SBS4 students will stop me in the middle of a lesson and explain to me not only that they don't understand but also how they don't understand.

    I purposefully switched the referent of you above.

    Sunday, December 20, 2009

    The Last Few Days Have Been Fever Dreams and Don Quixote


    "Have you taken medicine?"


    "You don't trust Chinese medicine?"

    "It's not that. I just never take medicine."


    "Drink hot water."

    Saturday, December 19, 2009


    The same Eastern teacher came in the office two minutes later holding a Bible. "Is this very common in America?" she asked me.


    "[Mumbled] said if I read this, I'll be less confused and a lot happier."

    "Who told you that?"

    "Somebody." She said she didn't believe in god. "Do people really believe the god is there?" She pointed up.


    "Most Chinese don't believe."

    "I know."

    Wrote a Story

    One of the new Eastern teachers came into the office today to ask how something should be translated. The phrase was wrote a story, and she wondered whether story meant a short story or a novel. I said that story could denote any length.

    She considered the age group she was to teach, around ten years old, and said, "We'd better not translate it to 'novel.'"

    "OK," I said, thinking that had resolved the issue.

    "But you can't say 'write a story' in Chinese," she said.

    I looked up in surprise. "Why not?"

    Hillary was working nearby. "You can tell a story, but we never say 'write a story,'" she said. "It sounds too weird in Chinese."

    "What if you want to talk about writing a short story?"

    "There's a problem."

    Friday, December 18, 2009


    Dawn, my younger sister and coteacher, is getting married this month. Today was her last day of work for a while. I'll miss her.

    Thursday, December 17, 2009

    High versus Low Context

    Today there was a two-hour meeting to go over every single detail of the upcoming Christmas party at school. Each teacher was handed a six-sheet packet of spreadsheets listing everybody's duties. Earlier in the day, I'd asked to be sent a summary of the meeting so that I could contribute. I was told, however, that it would be easier just to send me the entire list. Summarizing the meeting into a couple sentences would be too hard. And so at the meeting, Ted and I sat there for an hour while the vice principal discussed everybody's duties. I looked around the crowded room, expecting to catch somebody's eyes, but everybody was looking at their paper. Even when something didn't pertain to them, they followed right along. Everybody corrected minor errors. For example, one of my classes was listed as being taught by somebody else—no big deal, but everybody crossed out the other teacher's name and wrote in mine. Hell, I didn't even do that. We even discussed duties of people who weren't at the meeting, and the teachers took notes. The headers of the spreadsheets were named and discussed. Who would take out the trash and when, who to go to for every problem and when, why and when and of what to take pictures, what the theme of each floor would be and why, when and why to clean up the floor—these were things that had to be explained away. Everybody looked so serious, as though they would miss something if they didn't know why the temperature of the sitting-out food had to be checked every so often, even if they would be in charge of games and nowhere near the food.

    After an hour, with still an hour to go, Preston, who hadn't realized we'd been pulled into the meeting, yanked Ted and me out. "Do you have any questions?"


    You Are Who?

    One of my adult students is going to Britain in a few weeks to teach PE. Since starting, he's constantly asked how things are said in British English. It was strange, then, that he acted so surprised when tonight I said, "They don't talk like I do."

    I haven't had a Korean lesson in a long time. I want to learn South Korean Korean, and J., who I've begun calling Snow, speaks a different variant.

    Hillary grew up speaking her hometown dialect. She had to learn the Beijing version of Mandarin when she got to college. Now she teaches me.

    Wednesday, December 16, 2009

    English Phone

    Every week we call our students to check on their English. This week we asked our Conversational English class to give us directions on some process. One of them gave me instructions for kicking a baby down the stairs.

    Tuesday, December 15, 2009

    A Dinner

    me 'n' Sophia, who teaches three classes with me

    pork, corn-flour dumplings, etc.

    delicious doves

    Monday, December 14, 2009


    The school has seven new Eastern teachers. They've been watching classes for the past two weeks. After this week's Conversational English, the observing teacher said something like "This was a good class. I learned a lot. You're a good teacher," which made me feel great, of course. However, I've been told repeatedly, by non-Chinese, that you can't trust a compliment here, that a compliment is in actuality a way of calling attention to a problem. The experienced staff has dealt with Westerners long enough, though, that even if the compliment–cum–vague-critical-piece-of-advice stuff is true, they should feel free to be straightforward. But do they? When is a compliment just a compliment?

    Sunday, December 13, 2009


    I can see how many bites make up my meal. I take my time.

    Article on the ajumma Resistance to Kim Jong Il


    Saturday, December 12, 2009

    More Praise for the Tiny Tots

    Tiny Tots, aka the youngest of the young, had a full review this morning, with everything they'd learned from September up to today, and the only word they had trouble with, out of the nearly fifty or so, was brown. I admit: this class has quickly become one of my favorites.

    Friday, December 11, 2009

    An Alphabet behind a Nonalphabet

    When I learn a language, I split words into official and unofficial. For a word to be official, not only do I have to know what it means and how to say it, but I also have to be able to write it. This division is silly, I realize, and only points to how I've learned to value the written over the spoken. In China, I can't read, of course. There's no alphabet to learn, and even if I work hard at Chinese for the next twentyish months, I'll probably still be illiterate, but at least maybe I'll be a functioning illiterate. Chinese children use Pinyin to help them learn the pronunciation of characters. I'm not at that level yet; characters are a long way off. I thought about making my own phonetic transcription of what I learned, but I realized how obsessive I'd get about perfecting it. Learning to read Pinyin saves me from all that. Perhaps I'll have few official words here. Maybe I'll just have to learn to value the spoken after all.

    Thursday, December 10, 2009

    Words Are Starting to Come out of Sounds

    Tonight Sophia and I had our adult students give commands to each other to get them into certain weird poses. Nothing like watching grown-ass adults do silly things in order to learn a language.

    Wednesday, December 9, 2009

    Highlights from the Lesson Plan for One of My Classes This Week

  • review simple-past forms of irregular verbs
  • have students write about their week
  • go over responses to How are you?
  • teach moonwalking
  • Tuesday, December 8, 2009


    韩怡, aka Hillary, finished her Chinese translation of "Antarctica." More on this to come.

    Monday, December 7, 2009


    There's a boy in one of my higher-level classes who's always chatting me up during break instead of talking to the other students. I suspect this is because he's the only Russian in a class otherwise filled with Chinese. It must be hard for him to make friends. He's a pretty aggressive questioner, actually, grilling me on where I've been, how much I know about math, physics, and geography. He stands too close. If I go downstairs to (I say) grab a cup of hot water, this student begins talking, in Chinese, to Dawn, who's my co for this class, or to the new teacher shadowing her. He's obviously practicing his Chinese, although we teachers aren't supposed to respond in anything but English. Every week it's another conversation I have a hard time figuring him out through.


    "Why you come to China?"

    "To teach."


    "I like China. It's a lot different from anywhere I've ever been."

    "There no money in China. You have other job?"

    "No. I don't care about the money."

    "You go to college?"


    "What you learn?"

    "I studied English."

    "You study business?"


    "Why no business? Business is money."

    "I don't like business. I like teaching."

    "There no jobs in America?"

    "There are jobs, but I want to be here."

    "You go to America. You get job and money."

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    "The Heart Has Cleverness"

    the translation the software on my computer came up with for the Chinese meaning "two people simultaneously doing something exactly the same without consulting each other"

    Saturday, December 5, 2009

    Developing Country

    Last night a couple of us smoked cigars and drank beers in the maternity ward to celebrate the birth of a Western teacher's daughter. More on this to come later, maybe in a published-elsewhere essay.

    Friday, December 4, 2009

    The Tones of shi (Frequently Used Words)

    An example of how tone affects meaning in Chinese:

    in first tone, shi means "poetry"

    in second, "ten"

    in third, "shit"

    in fourth, "to be"

    Thursday, December 3, 2009

    Holiday Lesson Plan

    This week we're supposed to do a culture lesson on American fall/winter holidays. I wanna do one on Black Friday: "OK, there's the door. Now everybody try to get through at the same time!" For at least one of my classes, though, that would be just like every other day.

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009


    shīrén, "poet," literally "poem person"

    Tuesday, December 1, 2009


    Some of the best nights I had in Korea were spent watching Banco play, especially when they played at Rocky Mountain Tavern in Itaewon back on November 28, 2008.

    Been listening a lot to my brother's AM:PM, especially "Pink Pink Makeup Makeup," which I can't get out of my head.

    Downloaded "The W.A.N.D." by The Flaming Lips today (the video of which you can watch here [fuck the disabled embedding]).