Sunday, January 31, 2010


I got a new student in my favorite class. Her mom's first question to me, in great English, in front of her daughter, was "What are my daughter's weak points?"

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Today a little girl in front of and facing away from me started to jump. She didn't know I was behind her, so when I caught her midair, she looked around in surprise. When I set her down a few feet away, she looked back at me and laughed.

Friday, January 29, 2010


"I'd like to believe god is a strict grammarian, but that he's inclusive of tight slang…

"Dear god, keep me confused."
Blake Butler

January 27, 2010

Zinn and Salinger

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Expats, 2

Last night I had dinner with twelve South Korean business people in a Japanese restaurant. We spoke mostly Chinese.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Expats, 1

Last night I watched a Filipino band sing a South Korean song with an English refrain to a club full of Chinese patrons.

Monday, January 25, 2010


The dictionary is post hoc.

Tones: 有关三文鱼的散文诗

sān wén yú, "salmon"

sǎn wén shī, "prose poem"

thus yǒu guān sān wén yú de sǎn wén shī, "a prose poem about salmon"

Sunday, January 24, 2010


"China Rebuffs Clinton on Internet Warning"

Ma Zhaoxu, a Chinese spokesman, says, "The Chinese Internet is open." That's a damn lie. You have to spend something like sixty bucks a year to get a VPN in order to bypass China's block on a lot of sites.

A Chinese coworker of mine defends the government's censorship, claiming that the Chinese people are like little kids. You can't just give them all their freedoms right away, she says. They wouldn't know what to do.

Who's This Intended For? Code Switch

The sign to Koreatown says "코리아타운," which is just a phonetic spelling of the English word Koreatown.

Yeah, but as a Foreigner, Would I Use These Words?

Mandarin Chinese profanity

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Illiterate I

In the 1950s, Mao advocated the use of romanization to replace characters, but such use never caught on, according to Elizabeth Scurfield and Song Lianyi's Teach Yourself Beginner's Chinese Script (2003).

Friday, January 22, 2010

Love This Guy

"When you don't understand the rules to unreal conditional sentence structure, the terrorists win.

"I'm thinking of putting that on a poster with a picture of Bush and hanging it in my classroom."
—Miles, coworker

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Two Things I'd Love to Teach Here: Cursing and Poetry

I've tried to teach the latter, even to the staff, but it's always frustrating.

I'm not allowed to teach the former.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There's Some Students Who May Not Trust My Usage

"You can either sound smart, or you can sound friendly."
—Dr. Peter H. Fries, grammarian

The other day all four students in my Conversational English class told me I was wrong. We were talking about There is and There are at the beginning of sentences. The student with perhaps the best understanding of English told me the sentence ought to be There is a pencil and six pens. Her Chinese English teacher had said that the verb had to be conjugated according to the closest subject. I'd read the arguments for using is, but I still didn't agree with them, I told the class. I argued that a pencil and six pens was a compound and therefore plural subject that required are. An inverted sentence doesn't dictate conjugation; the subject does.

"But it doesn't matter much anyway," I said, "because most people I know would use the contraction There's regardless of whether the subject were singular or plural. There's is so common that you just use it without thinking much about it most times." Which usage is fine. That's my usage.

The student with perhaps the best understanding looked upset. It must be ridiculously frustrating to think about a language and want to be right about/with it, especially when you're going to be tested and have to know the official version of something. The Chinese school system teaches British English. Students go to school five days a week and listen to their teachers tell them how English is, and then they come to me on Saturday or Sunday for an extra English class, where I tell them, well, yeah, that's one possibility, and here's another one, one I hear/read/say/write more often.

I was happy the students felt they could tell me I was wrong, though. That's rare here. You don't question the teacher. Well, fuck that, I try to tell them. And it wasn't that I was wrong or right, really. Neither were they, and truth be told, I liked their version better.

Monday, January 18, 2010


I became a writer because I figured it was the only way I'd be able to figure English out.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Depends on Who You Ask

"Do you realize you're speaking English?"

"Yes. I had to. I ran out of Chinese."

All the Eastern teachers who were at Jayland when I started keep saying, "Your Chinese is great."

All the new ETs say, "Your Chinese sucks."

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Yesterday two new Western teachers arrived. They got in late, and we ate at a Japanese restaurant in Five Colour till 1 a.m.

At English Program the other day, I was teaching the Eastern teachers how to pronounce the Westerners' names. One of the ETs was late. She came in, sat down, and said, "Excuse me, Tim. What's a Molly?"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Chinese Beer

The most popular beer around here is Tsingtao. A bartender familiar with Westerners' tastes told me last night that Tsingtao was actually an acronym for "This shit is not good. Take another one."

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Next semester Preston wants the students to start calling us Mr. or Ms. So-and-So. I asked if I could have the students continue calling me Tim. I said I hated the use of titles. I said adults should have to earn respect. Preston said that titles weren't necessarily markers of respect for the person but rather for the job. Another teacher said that they marked respect for the adult. And I said, "Yeah, adult doesn't mean anything to me, though. I've always found Mr. and Ms. condescending." The other teachers argued that they hated being called Teacher, which I agreed with, but I didn't see titles as the way to avoid that. They also argued that if students ever went abroad, they'd have to know how to address people. All of which made me wonder again which kind of teacher I'm supposed to be, ESL or EFL. Several of the ETs have argued that there are plenty of great jobs in China for people who speak English. Several have said that they have no desire to leave China even though they've spent much of their education studying a foreign language. Are our student the same? If so—if, then, they're EFL students—what do we need to teach them about titles? Certainly, I'm not talking about not teaching titles; as much as I hate them, hate their distancing effects, it would be impractical not to teach them. Still, although we teach at an American school that teaches American English, I don't think we need to teach students to follow every custom. Too often titles mark entitlement. Age becomes entitlement. I hate when adults carry too much importance about themselves. As a student, I hated especially the stupid loftiness of some teachers I had, who I saw too often treat education as though students had to earn their right to it. I don't imagine myself to be the so-called cool teacher who wants his students to call him by his first name because he imagines that he's their friend. That's a different kind of stupidness, one of loneliness and condescension. I want to be called Tim because that's my name and because that's how I think of myself. Too often I find the argument for title usage a cover for something else, a restored balance for what we feel we gave away as children to adults who demanded so much of us, as though now it were our turn.

Internet Censorship in China

from The New York Times: "Google, Citing Attack, Threatens to Exit China"

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


at Dawn's wedding celebration, where I was invited to pound beers with a table of old men because I looked like I enjoyed life

red beans and ice

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Name Usage

As I was moving into my new apartment today, I took a look at my copy of Louis Sachar's Holes. Shortly after I arrived in Seoul, Mrs. Kim, the principal of my school, asked me to write an essay on Holes. Kids Times, the newspaper the older classes read, was having a contest.

"Is this contest for Korean students?" I asked.

"No," she said. "It's open to anyone." She said I'd be doing her a favor and that, for this favor, she'd pay me 500,000 won. She'd even already bought me a copy of the book.

Suspecting that my name wouldn't actually appear on the essay—of course not—but also not knowing who I was supposed to be writing the damn thing as, I wrote the essay during one of my breaks and turned it in to her the next day. Shortly thereafter, she called me into her office, something she rarely did with any of the Western teachers. She tried her best to tell me politely that the English I'd used was too simple. I wrote another draft that night, throwing in a good deal of college- and perhaps graduate-level usage. This version she loved. She gave me the money, in cash, and said, in a whisper, though we were the only two in her office, "Don't tell anyone."

I never heard anything else about the contest. I assume I didn't win. I'd like to think that the judges realized the supposed author and the words didn't match, not that my English was worse than that of a Korean student in elementary.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I've successfully taken a taxi alone in all the countries I've lived in except for the one I was born in.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


This weekend is my last in the current apartment. Ted's moving to Shanghai, and the three new Western teachers are going to room together. I'm getting my own apartment, on the thirteenth floor in a building near Five Colour City. I'll be the one howling.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Correct Pronunciation but Miscontextualized and Perhaps Misappropriated

If I'm ever in a fight here, I'll probably yell out, "Fāpiào!" It sounds like a fighting word if said loud enough. It means "receipt," though.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Correct Pronunciation but Miscontextualized

Last night some of us Westerners went to dinner at a restaurant we call Cannons. We were given a private room on the second floor, and then Preston and I went downstairs to look at the menu on the wall. After we ordered, we went back upstairs, passing the waitress on the way.

"{Nine o'clock?}" she asked.

We looked at each other. It was only 7 something.

Waving her away, we entered our room. At the table, we were still confused. A few minutes later she tried again: "{Would you like to order alcohol?}"

Oh, the wrong jiǔ, not 九, "nine," but 酒, "alcohol."

Thursday, January 7, 2010


During English Program yesterday, I taught the Eastern teachers peace and to peace out. Immediately after class, one of them went up to our boss and said, "I'm going to piss out."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Early Examples

just received:

me readin' to my brother, Ben

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Monday, January 4, 2010


Last night only one of my adult students came to class. He hadn't been there for a while. L., a forty- or fifty-something physics professor who was the head of the chapter of the Communist party at his university. And he kept saying, to Sophia, in Chinese, how happy he was to have two teachers all to himself so that he could do every conversation in the book and ask the definition of every word. Sophia and I have been getting out of the book quite a lot since I got back from Korea, but someone as old-school a learner as L. seems to relish the book. Why is he learning English? I wondered last night. His son lives in San Francisco, sure, but I can't see L. using his English for anything other than having conversations with Sophia and me. And I've heard that many Chinese people learn English, that learning English used to be the mark of someone special but now is a mandatory subject in junior high and high schools. One needs to learn English in order to get a good job, I've been told. Most of my students say they want to travel.

Sunday, January 3, 2010


I find it much easier to teach and to translate now that I've given up ideas about getting language right.

Saturday, January 2, 2010


In Kaifaqu, a few beggars lie on the ground near the openings to stores and the underground walkway. The wind is particularly bad in this area of town, and lying on the ground has to be terrible. One beggar carries her infant on her back. He's bundled up, but his cheeks are still badly wind burned. Two or three times one of the other children has grabbed onto my left leg and refused to let go for several seconds. He still wears split-crotch pants, which means he hasn't been potty-trained.

Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's

Last night, as midnight approached, there were shouts throughout the bar. Suddenly everybody realized there wasn't any clock counting down. "What's the exact time?" the GM of ——— yelled. People looked worried.

"Seventeen." I yelled out. "Sixteen. Fifteen." And then everybody else joined in.

A woman I didn't know hugged me and did the two-cheek-kiss thing. "I can tell you're American. You don't like to be touched."

"Are Languages Synonyms of Each Other?"

Jack Clemmits interviewed me about the translations of "Antarctica."