Friday, April 30, 2010

Grammar God

so far

I love different versions of the same thing. Maybe that's why I'm so interested in language.

Thursday, April 29, 2010


During English Program this week, I gave out props to some of the Eastern teachers. I thought it'd be a good way to encourage them. Tonight I was called into an office and told to stop. Because I gave only some of them compliments, the others got upset and asked amongst themselves, "What about me? Aren't I doing a good job too?" They saw the compliments not so much as compliments as just ways to tell everybody else they weren't doing a very good job. It's hard for me not to be frustrated, especially because I should have known better.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Grammar God (Simple Past versus Present Perfect)

read the first part, without the parentheses, because nobody knew this'd be a series (OK, I knew)

the nerve of some people showing up and expecting you to make them laugh

have done

the implication that the past is somehow related to the present: repetition
I'm summing up
I'm distancing myself from myself

don't get too hung up on either present or perfect

Maybe around 2003 I became less anxious. Have reconvened on what obsession means.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cab Drivers Always Tell Me They Think I'm French

Last night I stopped by a minimart in Koreatown. As I walked in, the man behind the counter said {goodbye} in Korean to some customers leaving, but then he switched to Chinese to tell me {hello}. In Korean, I said {hello} back and asked whether the store had soda. He continued to use Chinese to indicate where the soda was. We got talking a little bit, but because I didn't know enough in either language, I had to piece the two together in order to hold up my end of the conversation. When I went to check out, the clerk switched to English: "Chinese, Korean—which one are you?"

Monday, April 26, 2010

Grammar God

Miles and I have been called grammar gods. This is never meant as a compliment.

For my own part, my knowledge of grammar is mostly informed by an early anxiety around, and therefore obsession with, getting the language right. Everything needed my looking up. So while my classmates hated English class, seventh-grade repetitions of underlining the subject and double underlining the predicate relaxed me, informed me that I could control what I already knew.

When I started to learn German, I categorized words and grammar as either official and unofficial. The more that existed in the latter category—the limbo that is recognition of but not complete knowledge of—the worse I felt. Wann hast du Geburtstag? ("When do you have birthday?") was one of the first sentences my German teacher taught us. I wanted to know where the missing article was. "Don't worry about that," he told me. "We'll get to that later." He didn't want the introduction to sentences to be mixed with a lesson on the accusative case. I knew as I spoke I was wrong.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Expats _____: I Keep Expecting a Punch Line

Korean Kelly and American me are sitting in a Japanese restaurant in China when my Russian student Irene walks by the table.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Share Taxi

coworker: "{If you don't hurry, our teacher will be late for class.}"

taxi driver: "{It's the weekend. What class could he possibly have?}"

Friday, April 23, 2010

韩怡 (Hillary)

韩怡 (Hillary Han) and me

Hillary was my first teacher and is therefore responsible for a good portion of the Chinese I know. Because of this, I call her {big sister} even though she's younger than I am. She gave me my Chinese name and translated "Antarctica." I introduced her to David Foster Wallace and Monty Python.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Download This

A great app for the iPod touch and iPhone is KTdict C-E, a free Chinese dictionary with over seventy thousand entries, all of which are accessible without an Internet connection.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why Have an Alphabet If You Don't Use It?

A lot of my students treat English as though it were just like Chinese—that is, as though words were characters themselves instead of made of characters—and for this reason, they have a difficult time with new words. Not surprising, since there's no way to sound out a Chinese word except by writing it in Pinyin. My students sometimes seem to forget there are sounds that match up to letters. I have one class full of students who don't even try to sound out new words; instead, they just spell the word out and go on reading.

Last week I suggested that my nine-year-olds do a listening exercise on short vowels. "But those letters aren't pronounced the same in Pinyin," I was told. "Don't you think the students will get confused?" But we're not talking about Pinyin.

The students in my adult class did the same listening exercise. I told them to write down the letter that corresponded to the sound they heard, but they kept writing out the sounds in the phonetic alphabet instead. They said they didn't understand the point of writing out letters. The Eastern teacher told them, "This is how Americans learn the sounds. They don't learn the phonetic alphabet." And then one student pointed out that she'd been taught the phonetic alphabet in middle school, like most others. Well.

Monday, April 19, 2010

"I'mfinethankyouandyooooo?" or "I'mfinethankyouandyou."

Both of which I've outlawed in class. I teach other ways to respond, and I get "I'm happy" issued out of a face that indicates otherwise. So I'm demonstrating emotions. No. Demonstrating the indication of emotions. And parents, whenever I say hi to a little kid who doesn't want to respond to me, are shaking their child—"{Tell Teacher,} 'I'm fine.' [Shake.] 'I'm fine.' [Shake.] 'I'm fine.'"—until the kid says, "I'm fine," and I'm hanging on to a conversation I would gladly withdraw from except for the obligation I myself have begun. Perfunctory. You don't have to talk to me; I don't want you to feel you have to.

I'm good. Thanks.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

And You Thought You Knew

the American version:
A-B-C-D-E-F-G—H-I-J-K-LMNOP—Q-R-S—T-U-V—W-X—Y and Z.
Now I know my ABCs.
Next time won't you sing with me?
the Chinese version:
X-Y-Z. Now you see
I can sing my ABCs.
The latter of which fucks me up on a constant basis. The kids look at me like What the shit, Teacher? Shouldn't you know this?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Can Mean "He" or "She"

If you're in an accident here, you're not supposed to move the car or indeed anything until the insurance company arrives on the scene and takes pictures.

On the way to the downtown school today, I saw a leg sticking out from under black plastic trash bags in the middle of the road, a car stopped not far away.

"{Is she dead?}" I asked the cab driver.


Friday, April 16, 2010

Sentence of the Day

"Does anybody know where Where the Wild Things Are is?"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Two Events

First, I moved back to Shān Shuǐ Huā Yuán (literally "Mountain Water Flower Garden"), the complex I lived in when I first moved to Kaifaqu. Apparently, you can rent the truck to move your shit for cheap, but the laborers are extra. The driver watched from the cab of the truck as two of my friends and I loaded up the back. The building I until today lived in was a residential-business mix, so moving stuff from the thirteenth floor wasn't the fastest event; the elevators were constantly being used.

When we finally arrived here, the driver told us, "{I have other stuff to do. Take your stuff off the truck and put it in the grass. I have to go.}"

"You're not getting a tip," I told him, a joke because, well, you don't tip here, even for good service.


Today was also Ellie's last day at Jayland. We taught Conversational English together. I'll miss her a lot.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Monday was coworker and friend Marianna's birthday party, so a bunch of our crew took the light rail to her family's place in Jinshitan, a small section of Dalian where many expat families live. As Marianna opened the door, I got the distinct felling of being in an apartment in America. Miles and I came to the conclusion that the apartment was one you'd find in a Southern state, maybe Mississippi. He said, "It's like reverse culture shock." When we started eating Costa Rican food (Marianna's mom is Costa Rican), some jokingly argued about whether they ought to use chopsticks or forks and knives. Strangely, as my Chinese coworkers left, I felt more and more like I was back in China, in the midst of some set that threatened to fall down. The place felt like a pastiche of America—that is, in our talk, sometimes we expats compare everything, perhaps unfairly, to what we know back home, and so this nice place, with everything working, seemed too perfectly to conform to our imperfect memories. Marianna's family's driver came in to see if it was time to give us a ride back to Kaifaqu.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


My Chinese is now better than my Korean, though my Korean is better now than it was when I actually lived in Korea. I'd hate to lose all this.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Grüne Zone New Orleans"

Just about finished with a draft of my German translation of Mark Yakich's "Green Zone New Orleans." Looking for some German-language journals.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Can't Figure Out Whether Their Requests Are Too Intrusive

This week three people have each separately asked me to be her or his private teacher.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Yesterday I started coding an English-German-Korean-Chinese dictionary. I'm not sure I'll continue working on it, though; it might take too much work.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Would You Get Rid of Punctuation?

If you could create your own language, what would be its features? Would verbs conjugate? Would there be genders? Subject and object markers? Letters?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sometimes Things Makes So Much Sense They

shàngxiàwén, "context"
literally "up-down language"

Freelance? No

In the elevator yesterday morning, a man turned to me and said in Chinese, "{Where are you from?}" Because nobody usually talks to me outside work, it took me a second to realize he was talking to me, even though I was the only other person there. He must have thought I didn't understand. "Where are you from?" he asked again, in English.

"Michigan, United States."

"{I don't understand.}"

I gave him the Chinese.

"I want to learn English," he said.

Pulling a Preston, I said, "I hear Jayland's a great school. Do you know Jayland?"

"No. I want to be friends with you."

We reached the thirteenth floor, and I got out. He got out too, letting the elevator ride away from us, saying he worked on the twenty-eighth floor. "I want to learn English," he said, "and you can learn Chinese." He presented his business card, which indicated he was a general manager of an international trading company. Having just come from running, I didn't have my card. Plus, I didn't want him to know I was a teacher. He indicated that I should type my number into his phone, but I wouldn't. I said I'd call him, and he underlined the address on his card with his thumbnail. He's somewhere above my head now.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

{Receipt,} Motherfucker!

Whenever she hears me yell out, "Fāpiào!"—usually while making a hitting motion with my hands or perhaps doing a kick off the step outside the teachers' office or even doing both at once—Hanna always corrects me: "It's b, not p. Fābiāo," which means "to flip out; to act out violently." She looks at me like Why do you keep yelling out, "{Receipt}"?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Public Displays

Sharon, a Chinese coworker, hugged me on the street the other day. She got more stares than I usually do. "Maybe they think I am open," she said.

You Are Who?

In the elevator, a man looked over my shoulder as I scrolled through the music on my iPod. I tilted the machine in his direction so he could see it more easily. {Have a look,} I thought in Chinese, the English occurring to my brain slowly and secondly. The man seemed put off by the results of his curiosity—that is, that I didn't mind being watched. He turned his head the other way with a groan, and then, when the elevator reached the ground floor, he rushed out and kept looking back at me as we headed to the revolving front door together.

New Fiction from Matthew Roberson

"Midwestament," which makes me want to sit in a Michigan diner for hours. In Dalian, you're never given enough ketchup.

Monday, April 5, 2010


The government turned the heat off last month, but our apartments are still cold.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Saturday, April 3, 2010


bǎole, "to be full (from food)"

bàole, "to have exploded"

As I'm Being Told All This, I Realize I Haven't Seen Any Cemeteries Since I Left the States

It's Tomb Sweeping weekend. Monday's the official ("legal") holiday. Online research shows that it was suppressed by the Communist Party in 1949 and reinstated in mainland China only as recently as 2008. Families show their respect to their ancestors by, well, sweeping their tombs and offering up food. High school students are often assigned the task of sweeping the tombs of heroes, and the next Young Pioneers are announced at this time.

In China, the dead are cremated, so?

Linda told me all this as she drove me downtown this morning, mistaking all my general yous for specific yous—that is, for herself.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Different Characters

The words for "busy" and "blind" are both pronounced /máng/. I've been reading José Saramago's Blindness and heading into work early.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fool's Day and Shit-Talking Easterners

(1) Janice texted me in the middle of the workday: "Happy birthday! Because every fool was born in the same day."

(2) Hillary's banter has become especially good as of late. I told her so: "I can tell you've been hanging out with Preston a lot."

"And what if I stay with you?" she asked, walking out the door. A couple seconds later she ran back in. "I'll become retarded."

Practical English

At dinner last night, Ellie, one of the Eastern teachers, asked, "Tim, what are friends with benefits?"

I nearly choked on my tofu. "Have you been watching Desperate Housewives again?" I asked.

"Yeah. Why?"