Tuesday, August 31, 2010


For months, I waited for August 29, the marker of a year here. I'd stop writing in this space, I had decided. At least, I'd stop writing every day. For a year, except for the few times when I missed because I was out and couldn't reach a connection or because I fell asleep with the computer in front of me, I was here. Perhaps obsessively, one could argue. I was going to rest, I reasoned with myself, finally, removing the obligation I felt to this process.

But last night I missed it, and as I worked on Confederacy of Dunces with Miles this afternoon and then, tonight, walked through Kaifaqu with Sunny, I knew I wanted to come back here. Another year of writing then? Nobody should be surprised.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

One Year

A year later I'm sitting at an outside table in Five Colour City with the café staff and Preston. The place is a Korean joint, and I'm ordering in Korean while everybody else orders in Chinese. Because I keep switching between languages, I keep getting 1 and 2 mixed up ("一" and "이"). The waitress double-checks, looks at my fingers, doesn't believe my mouth. The staff is saying goodbye to Bob, a college student who worked in the basement this summer. Bad karaoke is coming down from a window above. Many of us want sleep.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

It Is Not Loneliness but Its Opposite

The desk faces east, a wall separating it from the living room. The bedroom door is to the north of the desk. Beside the door are two black suitcases belonging to someone else. They have not been emptied since the move. They sit there, waiting to be evacuated and returned to their owners. Next to the suitcases, to the west, is a big wardrobe, which holds all nonworn clothes. The clothes frequently worn are scattered on either side of the bed, which has its head against the west wall in more or less the center of the room. A nightstand is to the south of the bed, and beside the nightstand is a hamper with a broken leg. A white shirt hangs out of it.

Outside the room, a garden runs along the back of the apartment complex. Hardly anyone's out there this summer. It's more of a spring activity, tending the garden. Across the street are more apartments. Mixed in are a few stores.

Back in the apartment, in the living room, to the east of the bedroom, are a couch, a love seat, a chair, and a futon. This room is highly uncomfortable and is avoided at almost all times. The kitchen and dining room, both to the north of the living room, are also uncomfortable-feeling rooms and are almost always avoided, though the books are kept in the dining room.

On the staircase, the motion-censored lights may not light up as tenants walk by. It seems that noise more than motion sets them off. There are four flights of stairs to the bottom, each forgettable, marked with the floor number. The doors, two on each floor, have their Spring Festival decorations up, most of them. The door at the bottom of this set of stairs is usually unlocked. Sometimes a turn of a dial to the east of the door is necessary. Outside is dirt and garbage cans placed at irregular intervals. The dirt is covered with bricks, which ride the dirt when there's been a lot of rain, which there has been recently. The bricks are loose, were simply laid down but not cemented together. When cars drive on them, the water and mud from below squirts out.

At the gate to the complex, which gate is never closed, is a guard building, with one or two people doing who knows what inside. Manning, guarding. Children often squat in one of the doorways, playing Pog, which is big here (and in Korea). Sometimes children play with the mud that rises up between the bricks. Cats—whether owned or feral, it's hard to tell—run everywhere, many of them limping or missing hair or both. They raid the trash cans, are incredibly timid around people, do not accept "Here, kitty, kitty," but don't hiss either.

Across from the apartments is a corner store. The couple who own and run it have been in a bad mood for something like a month now. In the store is mostly junk food. There are a few household items: TP, tissue, that kind of thing. Just outside the store, against its front facade, are two Coke coolers. The one to the south houses soda; the one to the north, beer. The summer, it seems, is the only time cold soda or beer is drunk. Soda is three yuan (forty-five cents) a bottle. Beer ranges from three to six. To the south of the cooler housing soda is a freezer full of ice cream, which freezer is inside the store in colder months. There is no cash register; the couple simply take money and put it in a drawer that seems to have no lock. The couple largely sit outside, with friends. On warm nights, it's not uncommon to see men huddled around men playing Chinese chess, a confusing game for those uninitiated and not able to read characters.

To the south of the store, a ways down the street, is a hill, at the top of which is a UFO-shaped observation deck, usually closed. At night, it's lit up, shining blue over the park. From the top of the hill, much of Kaifaqu can be seen. There's a wooden path leading up. Below is the park, groomed constantly by men and women.

There are street cleaners, notably mostly women, whose uniforms, green and yellow, cover the whole body and most of the face, even in the hot months. It is not uncommon for these women to get hit and every so often killed by passing cars, according to the rumor. The streets and sidewalks are filthy. Many people simply throw trash on the ground even though there are garbage and even recycling cans throughout Kaifaqu. There are claims that the street cleaners clean everything by evening or morning, but these claims aren't true. In some corners of this part of town, the trash accumulates, and where there's already trash, trash goes. Sometimes high school students are assigned a day of service and must go out to pick up after everyone.

In the middle of the sidewalks, a series of small bumps protrudes into the air. This is for the blind to follow, although where are the blind? There are also many holes, many places where the bricks that make up the sidewalk have simply given way, the dirt under them moved somehow. The holes remain largely unmarked. Sometimes a head can be seen and then a shovel. It is not a lovely job, digging, and a place where a former hole was always seems dangerous, even after rebricked.

On the streets are these languages, in descending-by-use order: Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian, English, German.

It's raining. Several birds cry out. The Chinese think the magpie is lucky. Many parts of the walk to school are flooded today. When it rains, it's hard to get a cab. On the way to school are several empty buildings.

Just outside the park is a building that obviously used to serve as a bar. Now drinks and ice cream are served from it. Customers can go only a meter or two into the dark building. The drinks are not fountain drinks. The ice cream is individually wrapped. Outside the building sits a pathetic box with a display of mostly drunk drinks, their labels sun bleached and peeling or peeled off. It's hard to tell whether anybody's watching.

Across from the former bar is a series of bushes. In the summer months, dragonflies appear in large numbers. It is tempting to try to swat them with an umbrella on days when it looks like it's going to rain but doesn't, but don't.

Around the corner are four traces of metal circles where a bus stop used to be a covered bus stop. The cover was taken down during the spring for some reason. The bus stop is in front of a hospital. A lot of people have head wounds. Cabs tun into and pull away from the hospital quickly, pedestrians or no, and must be watched for. There's no light at this intersection. There is, however, a tree in the road, about a meter away from the sidewalk, blocking cars from taking an easy right into the hospital; cars have to make a ninety-degree turn almost rather than just rounding the curb.

Further west is an intersection that usually has power. Usually. Even when pedestrians have the right of way, cars are still allowed to turn, so the people can be hit if they're not paying attention. The lights usually count about fifty seconds before changing colors. People jaywalk. Cars do not slow down.

On the road to the south and parallel to the road just described are many massage parlors, these being the kind where patrons can get a bit of the tug, supposedly, and more. A lot of the signs for these places are in three or four languages: Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean. Inside, women lounge, usually very thin and bored looking. They sit with the door open. The lights around many of these places are hot red or blue, snake lights. Outside the last parlor on the block, a limo is always parked, white, stretched. It doesn't ever seem to move.

Friday, August 27, 2010


Hillary and Sunny, my teachers, had to learn Mandarin before college—that is, when they were already in their late teens. They both originally spoke separate dialects. While the written form of Chinese is the same everywhere, different areas have completely different versions of spoken Chinese. Chinese TV shows have Chinese subtitles.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


"Everyone has to speak of what they know, and what they do not know they should ask."
—José Saramago

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


"Everybody who tells you how to act has whisky on their breath."
—John Updike

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It Always Feels Like I'm Writing When I Can Understand Only So Little

I spent much of the day with Hanna. We went to one of the shopping centers where you can haggle. Holding up a pair of earrings, I asked a saleswoman, "{Do these look good?}" She replied that they looked nice on me indeed and indicated a necklace to go with it. As Hanna and I walked down the rows, people yelled out their English hellos in an effort to attract our attention. Sometimes "Please come in" was added. One shirt read, "Telling you is only." I turned it over, but there wasn't anything more printed. "{What does this mean?}" I asked. The saleswoman here responded by asking me, in Chinese, whether it was raining. Even though I was carrying an umbrella, I didn't realize she was talking to me. "{Is it raining?}" she asked again. She switched to English: "You know: rain, r-a-i-n." In Chinese, I told her no but maybe it would later. On a table in the middle of a stall a little ways down, two fish swam in their tiny tank. While Hanna looked at shirts, I regarded the fish, wanting them to jump out of their home. "{I'll sell them to you for two yuan,}" one two saleswomen said. They both laughed. "{He understands you,}" Hanna told them. Further along, we came upon a girl as she did several cartwheels. "{Very nice,}" I told her. She ran and clutched her mother, who tried to get her to speak English with me. Instead, the girl did three more cartwheels and then returned to her mother. Outside, people were burning paper money for their dead ancestors. Today was July 15, according to the lunar calendar: Ghost Day.

Monday, August 23, 2010

High Context

It's not as though the classroom persona is any less real than the nonclassroom persona; they're just different. Of course. But so it's frustrating when somebody expects you to act like you act when you're with your young students.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

August 22, 2010

The summer semester, with its seventeen classes a week, ended today. Next week, though each Eastern teacher will stay with their classes, the Western teachers will switch. That their child will have a new teacher is sometimes a little difficult for some of the parents to understand. In China, students stay not only with the same group of classmates but also with the same teacher for many years. I have no idea how the students feel about the change. Some of them are too young, of course, to realize what's going on, even when we explain, first in English and then in Chinese. Others, perhaps, don't give a shit. They go to school five or sometimes six days a week and then have to come to our school in addition.

I said goodbye to one of my favorite classes this morning, SK3B. I'll still see them around, of course, as they'll only be down the hall, in a room called Los Angeles. Next semester—that is, next week—I'll even get two of my former classes back.

Also, Stephanie, a Western teacher who's become a good friend, is heading downtown next week. It'll be weird not having her around.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

All Levels

I love teaching all levels of EFL, from the tiniest of the tinies to the adults. The older students show you what you really need to reinforce with the younger students. Here it's mostly phonics. A lot of students treat English words the same way they treat Chinese characters. Thus, they don't know how to read a new word without first being told how it sounds. A few students see a word that starts with m and read it as "mother" almost every time. The youngest ones teach you patience. After a couple hours with folks sneezing on you, crying loudly in a language you don't understand, and pulling their dicks out through the bottom of their shorts, you can handle the rest of the day pretty easily. These folks also teach you that you can be silly, and silliness helps you teach better.

Friday, August 20, 2010

It's Easier to Write for Somebody than about Somebody

This Sunday is supposed to be the last day I have with one of my Conversational English classes, but unfortunately, most of them have military training and so won't attend. They're like fourteen and fifteen years old. Such training improves character, an Eastern teacher told me during lunch, her mouth full of eggplant. It keeps the mind sharp.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

SK1C, Laiboman

For the past semester, I've had class in another school. The students were amazing, funny folk.

They're playing a game, but you know goddamn well they know they're learning. In the background is a lobster mislabeled in two languages—"shrimp" and "虾"—or maybe it's the picture, not the words, that's wrong. Behind the photographer is a window that opens onto a beautiful view of the hallway, where the light switch for the room is located, which light switch is, unfortunately, fucked with by unsupervised students. Notice the iPod, used as a clock. What you can't see is an actual chalkboard with its chalk lined up, dustying up clothes. Fairy and Peter will tie, two games each. Shawn will win four games, but Steven won't seem to care.

Steven asked today, "Do you have a girlfriend?" Sometimes he arrived late to class just to practice the dialogue
A: Sorry I'm late.

B: That's OK.
Everybody looks more serious than they are.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Course Description


创新写作课是主要针对于SBS4和 CE级别的课程。这门课程主要介绍一些作家们通常创作富有想象力的作品时的写作方法以及他们的写作风格。对于创新写作课程,我们将着重介绍的体裁有:非小说类写诗文学,小说和诗歌。在课堂上我们会阅读以上体裁的作品,探讨作者的选材,课堂的讨论将不仅仅局限于怎样抓住读者的兴趣,还将探讨如何使读者觉得阅读过程是一个挑战。在课堂上,学生们将创作属于自己的具有独创性和细节性的作品。与此同时,老师也会教给学生如何培养写作中给读者创造惊喜的能力,由此一来学生也会在日常生活中发现有趣的话题。每节课开始的时候,我们都会给学生布置作业,每个星期学生都必须创作一篇原创的故事或者诗歌,以供在课堂上讨论。在课程的结尾,同学们将会将一篇自己最喜欢某个作家的故事或者诗歌翻译成英文。为了使学生进行更有效的翻译,我们在课堂上会教给学生怎样用文字向读者们呈现我们丰富生动的文化。这门课程最终将会为每位学生制作一个原创作品的选集,学生可以将其珍藏留作纪念。

Two Years Out

Q. Can I use the first person?

A. Evidently.
Chicago Style Q&A

It's hard to sit in the office. Almost as soon as the last class lets out, the lights are turned off upstairs, and the second floor goes to a dark I find incongruent to the amount of activity that has just ceased. I'm not sure which is more obligating, a full school or one in which all the lights are off.

People stare at me. One of my favorite things is to make faces at children—I mean, really get the tongue way out there. There's a fair number of them who stick their tongues out back. At school, the students' sticking tongues out is pretty much a sign of friendship between them and me. Not all of them are my students even.

The threat level was orange the day I left. A woman next to me on the plane got up to use the lavatory as we were taking off. A flight attendant ran back to stop her, and the plane had to touch back down. "Really!" the woman said. "I've never been treated so rudely in my life." The captain came on to tell us we'd be grounded for a while while we waited to get back in line for takeoff. I worried I wouldn't be able to recognize the Japanese for "Seoul" in the Tokyo airport.

I keep getting up. There are many days when I feel uncomfortable in this online space. Overexposed.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


When I'm with my coworkers, I can understand most of the Chinese I hear. Last night I went out and was the only Westerner in the joint. A friend danced. She took me to another bar, this one called 98 (Jiǔbā—get it?), where everybody spoke Chinese. I understood almost nothing. Maybe three words. My Chinese is habitual, like the asking for ketchup, like the asking for a cold drink instead of a hot one. Contextual. Cigarette after cigarette passed my way. A Korean tried to explain to me, in Korean, why he regretted the tattoo of a dragon engulfing his left shoulder and pec, but I didn't understand that either, so he translated himself in Chinese, which my dancer friend further translated. People were afraid of him, she said he'd said. "Cheers" was said many times. What was I waiting around for?

Today I was asked to write an article on Five Colour City.

So much of talking seems to have to be stolen from others. I say almost nothing.

Monday, August 16, 2010


The really young students don't understand yet that I don't speak Chinese. I must seem like an idiot to them sometimes.

Yesterday a class of five-year-olds was speaking Chinese. Sharon, the Eastern teacher, stopped them and, in Chinese, said, "{When you speak Chinese, Tim Teacher doesn't understand you.}"

In English, not thinking about what I was saying, I said, "Yeah, Sharon's right: I don't understand you."

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Today was Dawn's last day at Jayland. As soon as I got here from Korea, she started calling me 오빠, "big brother." Goodbye, 妹妹.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Year

The new contract expires a year from today. My promotion, to director of the English Program, was announced at the morning meeting. I have to do research for the cultural training of Eastern and Western teachers and to create a curriculum to improve the Eastern staff's English—stuff I was basically doing already. It's a weird thing to monitor others' language all day.

After class tonight, as the lights were being shut off, one of the Eastern teachers said, "What if we had only one person stay here all alone at midnight? It would be very scary."

No. The school with its lights off and its people gone is finally relaxing.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Englishes between Friends

The fact that my new friend just skyped me an essay she wrote in preparation for the TOEFL bums me out. It means she probably wants to be friends just to improve her English. I dunno. It's always hard to judge these things. People are always asking how to say something. And it's not like I don't get anything out of it. I mean, on some level, I'm trying to improve my Chinese too, no? But I don't want to work on friends' language right now. What's interesting is the putting together of conversations that can't be entirely in one language, that switch, questioned, mispronounced, and misgrammared through.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Maria, my boss, after my saying that it's hard to get good books out here, tried to inspire me to stay another, oh, couple of years: "What if we get you a Kindle?"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Agnes just asked me to teach her German. I'm curious how hard it would be for her to learn. Of the four languages, German seems to make the most sense. Chinese to German by way of English? Why not?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


At work, I track down the Englishes. Outside, it's the Englishes that are the most interesting. You can learn a lot about Chinese sentence structure from all the Englishes between it and the American English you speak. You begin to anticipate other structures. Some say it's impossible to resist the temptation to use Chenglish: you can talk faster, goes the reasoning. Makes my job harder, though. Reinforces bad habits in others. A teacher ought to understand the context of a tense.

Monday, August 9, 2010


The sparrow may be small, but all its vital organs are there.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I've let Jayland have a strong gravity lately. I walk around inside when the lights are off and hardly anyone else is there. I feel obligated by empty halls, by rooms students have absented.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I just signed the new contract. I'll be with Jayland, in Dalian, China, for at least one more year and a week.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Social Reading

I want an e-reader with a system set up where readers can upload their notes, as Craig Mod proposes here. And a personal cut of a book? That would be amazing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Focus on Dalian Article

My article, "Shama Luxe Grand Central: Luxe for One Night," which I wrote back in May, was published in this month's Focus on Dalian, just out today. During one of the interviews, I was asked if the apartment's management would be allowed to read the piece before it was printed. "It was part of the deal when we agreed to the article," the interviewee said. After that, much of the fun was gone. I didn't want to write something that would be checked. I mean, I hadn't planned to bash the place, but. The magazine's operations manager assured me that even though the apartment folk would be allowed to read my stuff, they wouldn't be allowed to change it at all. "I intend to keep some integrity." And but the thought that the article would be read before it was read bothered me during the writing. I've looked at it only a little in its static form in the glossy pages. It is at least one sentence longer than the version I wrote, ending with something I would never write. At least it's not one of my poems.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

One More Year

Tomorrow's the last day of my contract. If I hadn't agreed to re-sign, I'd be going home. One more year. Happily.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


The tickets, which have been given to us gratis through school connections, are in the middle of booklets of advertisements. The men rip the stubs out. Though there are trash cans just inside, most people just throw their stub and booklet onto the ground. We walk around the square. Everybody wants to take in everything. Miles and I are eager to get to the actual beer. Vendors are selling scorpions and tarantulas on sticks, snacks for the beer drinkers. We finally choose Paulener's tent. Inside this German-beer tent, a Filipino band sings American country songs. I cringe at "Achy Breaky Heart." "好不好?C'mon! I can't hear you! 好不好?" the singer's shouting. The crowd finally gives her a "好." Miles and I order a five-liter keg and stay put as the others leave. I'm not drunk, but after only one beer, I feel increasingly silly, and I'm laughing because the combined German and Chinese is like fucking with my ability to speak English. I want to be able to understand everything. The troughs of piss aren't overflowing. "That's because it's early," Miles says. Later, when tables of people stand and try to follow the German band's German—that's when you know shit's started. A very little girl is touching the stage, where women hardly dressed dance, try their best to be seductive. I'm trying to write all this on my hands. "The Chicken Dance." A conga line. The cups are so flimsy I squeeze through two of them within thirty minutes, sending beer all over both times. "Goddammit," Miles says. Everybody we've come with or we're supposed to have met up with—they're all trying to find each other, but it feels good not to move.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Hours before Beerfest

Beerfest later today. Supposed to be rivers of piss. No real bathrooms, only troughs that overflow inside tents. Maria and Preston have told stories about people left face down in the road after only a few beers. Some of the Eastern teachers are going today too. They don't really drink. They don't handle it well. It's currently eighty-four degrees out, too hot, some say, to be out with beer. Disagree.

Being in China is hard lately. Seems like a long time since a conversation made sense. What feeling now? Not loneliness. The opposite of that. Strange feeling.

Thing currently most missed: writing for hours at a diner during winter, refills on their way.

Sunday, August 1, 2010


You don't really turn down someone who's invited you to do something. What you do is say, "I'll do my best," and then not show up. Last week almost everyone in the company went to an island where no expats had been before, but I declined to go: I still had lesson plans to write, and I was simply exhausted. Because we had to sign up before the trip, I couldn't pull the whole "I'll do my best" trick. A lot of the staff got butt hurt I didn't go: they took it as a sign that I wanted to be far away from them. In this high context, it's hard to be alone.