Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year



I say now that I'll stop posting here every day. I mean, look at how many posts I had to write this month just to make up for the rest of the year. I feel a little ridiculous and exposed. More than that, I want to do something else with my time. I say that now, of course, knowing full well I made a similar statement last year. Now that I'm doing more writing elsewhere, however, I expect to be more fully engaged.



Then You Wouldn't Ask These Questions

while "yes" = "I'm listening" or "I hear you"

If You Knew

"no" usually = "I don't know"

Friday, December 30, 2011

This Needs a New Title

Gotta change the title of this blog. Never start a sentence with "In China." You're not going to tell people who live here anything new about their home.

The expats here use the abbreviation TIC, "this is China," to signal to each other, in front of Chinese people, a kind of verbal eye roll. I advise against this. You ain't that clever.

From Yesterday's Newspaper

New Mistakes to Enjoy

After today's morning class, I got cornered by an usual request: a high school student had come off the street and wanted help with her writing. Um, OK. She was right there, and I couldn't bloody well say no—could I?—when she was standing right there. It was a short story, a great break from the usual monotony of five identical sentences ("I like cheese. I like pizza. I like blah, blah, blah.") Even with all the mistakes, they weren't the usual mistakes. This girl, in twelfth grade, was from Maple Leaf, and she could understand everything, more or less. On her paper, her teacher had crossed out her mistakes and written the corrections. I went through the story with her. It was one of a grandmother recounting the time she'd gone to help earthquake victims, including a scene in which she jumped in a river after a girl. Not bad. The student's teacher gave her a low score. Maybe I've been over here a long time. If one of my students had written that story, my head would've exploded. By no means a brilliant piece, it was at least interesting. On the last page was written, "Show don't tell." The teacher's suggestions were valid if a little curt: her characters were flat, the story needed big-time work, etc.

"What specifically do you want me to help you with?" I asked.

"I want you to rewrite it for me," she said, looking right into my eyes through the lensless frames resting on her face.

I said I wouldn't do that. Instead, I walked her through ways she could make the changes, giving her questions to ask so she could do this kind of work on her own. You know, the things teachers do. It felt great to be talking with a student about writing. Of course, at the end of our meeting, she admitted she hated writing. Well.


An American company wanted to charge 10,000 yuan for the round-trip tickets to San Francisco. A Chinese company said the cheapest they would be was 27,000. Through the school's relationships, the principal got them for me for 8,900.

Student's Projected Biography

Physics had been an extension of his English learning. All those letters used to stand for unknowns. The teacher used only English, all those unknowns until finally he understood.

Four Days

New Year's break!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Conversation Has Happened about Three Times in the Last Few Months

"Happy birthday!"

"Thanks, but it's not my real birthday. That's just the birthday on my ID card."

"Then when…? Uh…"

High Context

Most of the time, if you're talking to me, I assume you know all the answers to the questions you're asking me, and so often I feel you're asking me not because you want to know but because you want to see how I feel, to watch my face as I say these things, to get an idea of whether I agree with you, to get an idea of whether other people are right about what they say about me.

From within the Same Building


Then at least
Press your lips
To this

The only way
I have left

Of touching
You from
drück deine Lippen
an diese

was der einzige Weg ist,
den ich übrig habe,

von hier
zu ergreifen.
—Mark Yakich, from part 8 of "Green Zone New Orleans"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Present

tense turns out to be correct. The simple
stands for a whole life
while you're living: I am.


I cannot tell whether this blog is a good idea or a bad idea, to be honest.

Confounded First Person

Letting myself forget the schedule this morning, I wandered Kaifaqu. A lot of people complain that there's nothing to do in this part of the city, but that's exactly why I like it: low expectations. You're not far from home. What's the appropriate level of going out? People say you need to be sociable, but what if you really just want to stay home? Then you go out out of obligation. What are you doing? Out of your mind, you worry. Oh, here I am.


Kinzie, who's leaving China for good, and I are flying out at the same time on January 17, to Seoul. One last meal together before we part ways and she goes back to Arizona. I haven't written much about her. She was perhaps the first Western teacher in Kaifaqu I felt comfortable being friends with, and she didn't get here till a year and some after I did. The staff now's really good, actually, but I've never met somebody who was just so relaxed and ready to let you do your own thing. Just fly your goddamn freak flag if you're gonna fly it—that's cool.

In the Middle of Kaifaqu

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Since September 9, I've been writing two things a week: one poem and one nonpoem. Writing out here is really tough for me for some reason. Well, poetry is, anyway. Ideas for stories and essays come at me all the time. So I've divided the work: mornings for poetry, when I'm at my best but when writing's the hardest, and afternoons for not poetry, when I'm my most tired but when the writing's not so tough. I don't expect writing to be fun all the time, but it seems like it was a lot more fun when I didn't think about it so much. Then again, I chase everybody else's words around all day for a living.


Note: No spoilers here. I wouldn't do that to you.

On something like chapter 7 of 1Q84. My friend's on chapter 3. Allison Hiroto, Marc Vietor, and Mark Boyett read the audio version quite impressively (at least the first two do; I haven't heard Boyett yet). I especially like Hiroto's middle ts, which sound like /t/ instead of the usual /d/ you say and hear (say "little" aloud, as you normally would). Her words have a slight separation between them, not the usual carrying over of a final consonant into the initial sound of the next, vowel-sound-staring word. Her speech sounds like the tapping of fingernails on glass, one of my favorite sounds, it turns out, as long as it varies in its regularity. The end of Marc Vietor's sentences feel like warm sand, getting into your crevices, in a good way. Listening to this story while walking around Kaifaqu is a great way to spend an afternoon.


I got my tickets to California today!


The last couple weeks my Chinese teacher has been having me read "哪个数字最吉利" ("Which Number Is the Luckiest"). The story starts off with a man shopping for a phone. For an extra fifty yuan, he can pick the last digit of his phone number. The man says he has to run it by his wife first. He returns home and suggests each number, 0 through 9, one by one, but the wife dismisses each because each number sounds like a bad word: 8, 伤疤, "scar"; 6, 流氓, "hoodlum"; 9, 九泉, "the nether world"; 5, 污染, "pollution"; 7, 凄惨, "wretched"; 3 散, "break up"; 2, 二流子, "loafer"; 1, 一团糟, "a complete mess"; and 0, 灵堂, "mourning hall." Of course 4 is right out: it sounds too much like the word for "death," 死. In the end, the couple resolve to pull the number out of a hat.

I enjoyed the story, thinking it a gentle ribbing of the reoccurring sounds in Mandarin as well as a lampoon of superstition. But my teacher had meant it as a culture lesson. I realized this when she said, "All Chinese people think this way." To make this overgeneralization worse, she added, "For you, symbols don't matter, but for us, everything is symbols."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Tristrams, 4

"Groucho Marx once said that the trouble with writing a book about yourself is, you can't fool around. Why not? People fool around with themselves all the time."
—Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy

Grandma Gower

My ninety-three-year-old great-grandmother lives by herself. She still cooks and is active in church. Many neighbors and friends help her throughout the day, but she says she loves her independence. She decides when she wants to go to bed, and if she doesn't want to, she stays up late. I wish I could show her this place.


[I've been asked to remove the content that was here. Since the people I wrote about have too much to lose and I very little, I do so.

March 31, 2012]


On its way downtown today, the train filled and filled. At one point, there was nowhere else for people to go, but still they pushed in. The doors kept trying to close but, being stopped by people, reopened again and again. Some passengers pushed through the aisles, possibly trying to find a space less occupied, but everywhere was full, jammed. Might as well just stand still. A woman tried to get out at her stop but was prevented by everybody coming in. There was nowhere for them to go, and despite her screaming, she just kept getting pushed back in. She barely made it out in time, before the doors shut. "You can't be polite here," Sharon told me last week. She was talking about the train and my reluctance to get on right away. But it's not a question of being polite; it's a matter of physics: the people on the train can't get off when the people trying to get on are pushing.


Sophia Li, novelist

Lily and Jenny




Linda, Jackie, and their mom

Sunday, December 25, 2011


Today, among other things, we taught the three-year-olds the commands "Light fireworks" and "Run!" The culture lesson was on Spring Festival, when the students see fireworks every day for about two weeks. As I was demonstrating, using fireworks I'd made out of paper, one of the students asked my coteacher, "{Why does he keep jumping over the table?}"

Drivers' Holiday

Tonight two of our Western teachers, a Canadian and an American, hailed a cab. It stopped, and the driver told them it'd be ten yuan. No, it was supposed to be eight, the teachers said. They told him to beat it. A second driver pulled up. Again the driver said it was ten. At this time, an Eastern teacher and I came up and asked what the problem was. The Eastern teacher talked with the driver.

"{It's Christmas,}" he said, "{so tonight it's ten yuan."} I couldn't believe it.

"It's not even your holiday!" I yelled at him.

We told him to get out of there. He lingered a bit, his door open. Get lost, we said.

Kinzie Gets a Visit from Tom Santa

From Last Night's Party

Saturday, December 24, 2011


Kinzie was just asking what would happen if all the Western teachers skipped work tomorrow. Like, what could they do? An unlikely scenario. Do we have contingency plans for that kind of thing? We do. It won't happen.

Friday, December 23, 2011


Damn, how many posts is this thing gonna let me do before it cuts me off?

From an Essay Considering My Brother As He Played Video Games

As kids, Ben and I often ignored the instruction booklets that came the games, not because we already knew how to play but because we didn't want to ruin the plot. It never felt like we were flouting the rules, flinging the directions in rebellion. We just wanted the figuring out how to play to be part of the playing. That's what the early stages were for. And if the instructions talked about Link, we didn't want to hear it. These were the adventures of Ben or Tim or Buck Futter or whoever we decided our avatar was.

Just Listen

It's very interesting that most my reading these days is actually listening. Every month I download a new audiobook and spend my time walking around Kaifaqu, hitting the go-back-thirty-seconds button every now and again. It's hard to walk and listen closely when cars and motorcycles race by on the sidewalks—you've got to be on your guard, but listening to books is one of my favorite things to do out here. I'm a serious notetaker. While I don't actually write in the books I'm reading—I can never get myself even to bend the cover too much—I always have a notebook close by. While listening to The Better Angels of Our Nature, I wanted to sit and write down stats and just stare at them in amazement, but for the most part, I didn't. Will I remember these books the same way I remember those I take copious notes on?


It's time. Put everything else away. Don't start any other projects. It's time, finally, for 1Q84. I mean, I can call in sick tomorrow, right? I don't have class.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Style Guides

You can always pull out your copy of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers and/or The Chicago Manual of Style if things get too unfamiliar. You brought those with you, right? You never knew how comforting a list of the rules for commas could be.


Mom: "What do you do with your free time?"

me: "Study, write, read, panic about how little I know."


"This is the first poem I remembered."

"Has it helped you in life?"

"Of course not."

"Why did you have to memorize it then?"

"I don't know. We only remembered it. We didn't talk about the meaning."

Iteration of Christmas

Ah, a day off tomorrow. Christmas vacation, as it were. And next week we have an extra two days off for (Western) New Year's. Weird thing this year is, we don't have to make up the two days. Usually any days off you have in this country you have to make up during the weekend. So not a true holiday then.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This Is Probably the Wrong Place to Post This Question, But

Does anybody know a good German poetry journal that takes translations of English poems?

Shit Education

I looked up from my work last week to see three serious people, two women and a man, talking with one of my coworkers. I at first thought they were spies, especially because while one was talking to my coworker, the other two would wonder around, looking at things closely. Spying happens all the time: people come in pretending to be parents just to see how much classes are, what our curriculum is like, how much teachers get paid (which we don't tell anyone), etc. I left the office and pretended to read a sign. I thought the three people were Chinese, but they were speaking English. Were they speaking English so others wouldn't understand them? "I'm sorry," my coworker said. "I don't understand. Do any of you happen to speak Chinese?" Then I heard the familiar (and quite lovely) sound of Korean as they decided who would talk next. They wanted to give all of our teachers a presentation. Who was the boss, they wanted to know. They'd called ahead yesterday. Had we set everything up for them? We had not. But they had called ahead. Sure, but without leaving any details other than they wanted to give us a presentation.

So L., J., and I went into the basement. I set up the projector and the sound system as a man probably a little younger than me, speaking great English, with hardly an accent, talked about how he'd just set all this up at the last moment and wouldn't be a good speaker and wouldn't speak English well. Why are you telling me this? "A lot of this is going to be in Korean because we didn't have enough time to translate it into English," he said. He was going to give the presentation while his boss and two other men stood too close to the three of us.

The presentation started, the first ten minutes of which, sure enough, was a video in Korean. We understood not a word. It showed six students playing games, with a Korean teacher speaking Korean to them. Every once in a while, you'd hear a single English word, not used in a sentence, not connected to other things, except in very forced short dialogs.

When the movie was over, the boss clapped. The first slide of the PowerPoint bragged that this company's (whose name we still hadn't been told) system of teaching was the first of its kind in the world. During the movie, I'd been willing to hold my judgment, although the lack of using English to teach English had already been a big slam against whatever it was they were trying to show us—we still didn't know at this point—but now I was annoyed at the pretension. All right, what do you have then?

The next slide informed us, with the presenter reading right along, that students are never to blame for not wanting to study, that it's always the teacher's fault. Oh, so you've come here to blame us then, huh? Following quickly on the heels of that accusation was "You don't know that, but it's true." So now you're calling us stupid?

The secret, we were told, was, "Teach them easy," whatever that meant. "Kids do not like to study." This new program didn't use books, because "Books are bad." Instead, teachers should use games and something called G-learning, which was never explained, only put out there as though everybody had heard of it. No research decorated any of this group's findings. "Students can't understand you. They're bored by your speech." This method of teaching used cooperative learning, a term the presenter treated as though it were being coined right there in front of us. "And we don't teach the whole alphabets. We teach only the alphabets students are going to use." I was simultaneously wondering which of the twenty-six letters were expendable and who had taught this guy that letters and alphabets were synonyms. He used the example of balloon. Before teaching this word, the teacher would teach only b, a, l, o, and n, in that order, and no other letter. Those were the first letters and the first word the students were to learn. Do you know how long it takes just to get students to be able to write words? Not teaching them the whole alphabet further limits how many words they can spell or sound out. I wanted to yell out how irresponsible these fuckers were, but I just kept writing notes. And the presenter kept telling us how we couldn't understand the concepts we were hearing now, that we'd never heard of them before. The nerve of this guy and his corporation.

When the presentation was over, the presenter apologized for how bad his English was. The boss clapped again. "I thought that was pretty good, didn't you?" he asked us. "I was surprised at how good it was." Worst of all, L., J., and I still had no idea why the group was there. Was this their idea of a pitch?

"We want your feedback," the boss demanded.

"Do you even know what we do here?" L. asked.

"Of course not." Jesus Christ, this guy had balls. "We just want your feedback."

"For what?" J. asked. It was around this time that I could tell my colleagues were as annoyed as I was, which I took as a good thing; if they'd been brought in by these guys, I would've had serious concerns. "Do you want us to buy your product, or what?"

"No. we need a Chinese distributor," the boss said.

At the same time, the presenter said, "Yes."

They looked at each other and conferred in Korean. "Yes, you can buy our product, but we want your feedback."

It took about half an hour more before we could get them out of the building. It fell out that they'd organized everything the night before. The boss said, without any sign of worrying about it, that they hadn't researched us at all. Their program had so many holes in it, so many guessed-at conclusions. The boss said it was hard to speak in English, that they almost never spoke in English. Well, good thing they're English teachers then.

Jesus. If you want to make a quick buck, man, come out here and trick everybody who doesn't already speak the language. It's not hard. People shell out so much dough to learn the language as quickly as possible. There are no tricks, we try to say. It's all slow work. But it's on to the next gadget, the next fast track to better test scores—never mind that people study this language for years and still can't form a simple sentence in it.

Reflections on Culture Shock

When I'm properly caffeinated, I dig writing. Poems, essays, stories, blog posts—you name it. I've finished this week's work in one day, and all I want to do is sit and write. Maybe ——— was right about my being depressed. I certainly recognize several manifestations in my behavior—obsessiveness (see number of posts lately, trying to make up for the not wanting to earlier this year), mild reclusiveness, feelings of persecution (which are easy to wave away in the reclusiveness, thus creating a bit of release, one manifestation against another), feelings of lost time (I'm not entirely sure I've ever read about this feeling in my research, but I'm adding it anyway since I've never felt so at a loss for time), even (and I'm ashamed to admit this, but as long as we're being [overly?] honest) idealization of the home country—of culture shock. Then again, I have to ask myself how I behaved back home. It's hard to remember (see "idealization of the home country" and its subroutine of former-self idealization).

They say when you go back home, the first two weeks are weird and then everything turns back to how it was before.

Is it the caffeine that lifts me up? I hate routine, but if I can get myself to follow it, I feel great after about thirty minutes in. I know this, but getting myself to this doesn't get any easier.

It's part of my job to research culture shock and present on it. It's one of those things people like to deny. The worst is the guilt over feeling bad. Don't feel bad for feeling bad. Who am I talking to?

Get Down, North Korea

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Repeatedly Told to Me

"It's too bad you're only a teacher."

What are you talking about?


With this next paycheck, I'll have enough money to go to California for two weeks. It's weird, thinking about home, well, because I haven't been to the village I grew up in, Mesick, Michigan, since 2003. My family moved away a long time ago. Whenever I return to the States, it's to an area I've never called home, so the only people I know there are my family. My folks live in Mariposa, a village outside Yosemite National Park, a great place to hang out but also a place unfamiliar to me.


"If you want to know real Chinese life, it's in the Northeast. The South is too developed."

"What about the West?"

"We rarely talk about those places."

Pretend they're talking about your own country and see if it makes sense in that context either. Nope.


I'm writing an essay about my brother and video games. As usually happens when considering how much I love video games, not playing them but watching them be played, I've gotten sucked into the Zelda games in particular, especially their chronology, which is difficult to navigate and contested by all the Zelda nerds. It's fun to think of a Link that appears in several different ages. I'm pretty sure The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past marked my fascination with watching others as they explored games.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fourth Christmas Out

I don't want to celebrate Christmas. Don't worry: I won't shit on it. But the department stores here are playing "Jingle Bells" loudly, and employees are wearing Santa hats, and there are large Christmas trees outside and inside all the malls. No mad rushes to the stores, though. That'll come during Chinese New Year.


I learned the word for "trotter" in Chinese class last week. "{Chinese people often eat the front feet but not the back feet. It's better to eat the front feet,}" Sophia told me. "{Do you know why?}"

"{I have no idea,"} I said.

"{Think about it. Guess.}"

I thought a few seconds, then said, "{Because the hind feet are below the ass.}"

She broke into English: "Only you would say that."

But it's really because the front feet bring food toward the pig, so if you eat front feet, goes the thinking, you'll get more money. But the back feet kick things away from the pig, etc.

Apropos Of?

"Do you find yourself becoming more of a pacifist?" my friend asked at dinner suddenly, almost in the same breath as a laugh in reply to something unrelated, a comment on genetics. Pacifist? Or did he mean passive, confusing the two, as war wasn't the topic of conversation. I'd said something earlier in the meal about the possibility of my becoming a vegetarian upon my return to the States. Maybe that was the connection.

"I find myself picking my battles," I said. "More and more frequently it's not worth my time to argue." Earlier he'd said I often appeased another friend. I'm never sure whether appease is meant as a compliment or what.

What I really wanted to say was, I just didn't feel like talking. I've been accused a couple times recently of not speaking my mind, but how can I speak when I haven't made up my mind? It's really easy to be negative here, to forget that even after several years out, you can be affected by culture shock and have your days when you think everybody is a fuck or you're crazy, not good options. So when I'm pissed off, I wait for it to pass because I know I'm more than likely not coming to the conversation with a good point of view already. That's not to say that I'm always on the side of self-control but that my being quiet has nothing to do with passivity, which, yes, is what I think my friend meant.

Kim Jong Il

is reportedly dead.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

This Happens Every Time / Have I Ever Spoken Chinese with You? / Speak to Them Always Like They Understand

Three-year-old student, in Chinese, pointing to the ceiling: "{Teacher, is that a water pipe?}"

Me, in English: "I don't think so. It just has water on it because of condensation."

Student: "{Teacher, I don't understand English.}"

Me: "Of course you don't. If you did, you wouldn't be here."

Student: "{Teacher, I don't understand you.}"

Every Day

Happens all the time.

"I Don't Think You Said No… 然后呢?"

Dajie asked me what I was doing Tuesday. I knew what she was up to. She's been trying to hook me up with her daughter for a while now. I'm not even sure that her daughter speaks English, not that that would be a deal breaker, but it would definitely be hard since my Chinese is still pretty much crap—not to mention so many other things.

I still haven't gotten over that the Chinese verb for the equivalent of "hang out," 玩儿, literally means "play." So Dajie's literal question to me today was "{Do you want to play with my daughter, my husband, and me?}"

The problem is, she and I are close. Maybe problem's the wrong word for it. We spend a lot of time together, me giving her quick English lessons when I can, her having started from nothing, and then there's me, who stumbles through Chinese, also having started from nothing and just now being able to join in conversations, more than two years later. So we have some common ground. We're always trying to get the other one to join in on two-language meals. Every so often is "{Do you have a girlfriend?}" which is a weird question considering that everybody knows everything pretty much.


"{Here's a picture of my daughter getting kissed by a walrus. Isn't she beautiful?}"

"{Yes, very beautiful.}"

"{When you have time, we can go play at the zoo together.}"

"War Really Is Going out of Style"

an op-ed by Joshua S. Goldstein and Steven Pinker

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Lots of My Academic Buddies Are Posting Videos Like This

Best Books of 2011

Since my buddy J. Warren has posted about his favorite books from this year, I will too (two of mine are actually from 2011):
  1. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
  2. David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
  3. Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles (I haven't started 1Q84 yet)

Writes Her Own Novels

Sophia Li just texted to say she was writing a novel about Odin and Tyr. How rad is that? I love these out-of-nowhere updates from former students, especially when they write to say they're doing something creative.

The Downtown School

Today I worked at the downtown school. Because it's closing on the thirtieth, I wanted one more chance to see the building. There's just so much competition downtown, with another English school right next door, and the rent's so high. Kaifaqu has neither of these problems since it's in an area of town with few competing schools and the boss boss owns the building outright.

I think I wanted something more final, but I never occupied the downtown space long enough to have built up an attachment to it. If anything, it's the bizarro school, with two separate upstairs areas, one a foot too high, so that any person about 5 10 is likely to hit their head on parts of the ceiling; the tucked-away office; a different room that's insanely big, like the size of three, about which I've always felt I'd lose a student or a fellow teacher in if I weren't careful. My usual obsession with space and room and emptiness and people never stuck in this space. I never craved any small part of it.


One of my coworkers said that the Chinese for "English," 英语, applied only to the language spoken by British people—"It's only for British people"—something he wielded like an accusation, really, toward a native English speaker, like meaning to not include her as a real English speaker, like her language wasn't hers, wasn't what she thought it was. True enough, there's a word for "American English," 美语, which is cool, on the one hand, but it's always frustrating when this accusation, often slipped into a conversation that has nothing to do with the differences between these two Englishes (as though there were only these two)—as in this one, which was just a conversation about the right way to pronounce 英语—like we North Americans (yes, because one of us is Canadian, and unfortunately, for her, she gets lumped in with us, as American) don't speak the official language. And so we don't know the language as well as other English speakers? And so we're cheating our students?

Friday, December 16, 2011


Yesterday fellow journalist Katya Lesky died of cancer. I worked with her on a couple stories. She was a great photographer and, with her kindness, really knew how to get people to open up and talk. She spoke Russian, English, and Chinese well. I'll miss her.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Want for Christmas

space & time


盲文, literally "blind language": "Braille"

文盲, literally "language blind": "illiterate"

Now as Story

This feeling again of living in memories. Of no way am I still here. This is a story I'm telling. No, still here. Have said nothing. Am making up how to frame this later. You wouldn't believe the time I had there. Except the old buildings I pass every day. The dog outside the liquor-and-cigarette shop nobody ever pets. Or if they do, it's only the people waiting for the bus. The repetition. The summing up already of the past few years into how to talk about them later. Now. I can't believe I'm still here.


"Do we have to love all of our literary output? Is it better to labor long over our words and only release them when we're sure they're for the ages? What if we're wrong?"
—Ander Monson, "In Vacationland"

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Where You Going? Nowhere

Yesterday this chicken was hanging out outside a second-story window.

Nobody was surprised.

Because These Grammar Lessons Are, Well, Jeez

"Actually, you need a new Chinese teacher. She doesn't have to be Chinese. She just has to understand Chinese."


This not speaking the language is exhausting, to be honest. You want to go grocery shopping, but then you have to remember at least a few words, right?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Well, I'll be: The folks at Ilstu cataloged my thesis. More than three years later.

Plugged In and Waiting

So my feelings about which way, outbound or in, is home gets complicated, my languages prioritized: OK, what's going to be my greeting? Don't forget these words for when you come home. I'm returning to the States, but I have a return ticket. It's enough to make me start laughing aloud and write out tenses, drawing diagrams to pin down time.

At the Movies

Today I finally go to do one of the things I miss most from the States, go to the movies. I saw Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It came out in 2009, I'd seen it before, and I even own the DVD, but it was the only movie that was in English. The first time I saw it, I was disappointed. I can't remember why exactly. But this time I enjoyed it tremendously, especially Tom Waits's performance as the Devil. However, there were at least three places where the film suddenly jumped. I don't think anything major was edited out, but it was enough to cause some confusion, even for somebody who'd seen it before. And editing movies is the director and editor's job, not the theater's or, more likely, the government's.


"Nobody's ever bought me a book before."

Legos as Story

For the first time ever, I saw Legos in a Chinese toy store today. The genuine deal, not the ubiquitous shitty copies. The guy with the trophy (from Minifigures, series 4) was twenty-two yuan, and the clown (series 5) was twenty-nine, expensive as hell for toys, but I couldn't resist. I was geeking out, remembering all the stories I'd told myself when alone with these toys. I couldn't shut up while looking at all the new Legos that had come out since the last time I'd seen them, and afterward, while carrying around the two I'd gotten, I remembered taking one of my guys, just one, to school in sixth grade. Not to play with but to remind myself that I'd get to return to playing at the end of the day, after getting the contents of my desk dumped onto the floor and generally being fucked with. All the while thinking of what the person in my pocket would think if he had to occupy the inside of my desk, a space covered in darkness when everybody was gone.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I could use a good book on Chinese grammar. Too much trash. You wanna make money? Write a piss-poor book on grammar and label it A Basic [your language here] Grammar for Dummies/Foreigners. It's hard for readers to catch a grammar fucker until they know too much.


[I've been asked to remove the content that was here. Since the people I wrote about have too much to lose and I very little, I do so.

March 31, 2012]

The Chinese 1Q84

Today I found the Chinese translation of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. I bought the first book (the Chinese takes up three books) for my friend so that we could experience it at the same time. I'm interested in the differences between the English and Chinese translations.


"I want to show how human beings confront their failures even though in the eyes of others they appear to have made a success. You don't need violence for that, and certainly not a plot."
—Raymond Federman, To Whom It May Concern:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

But Awesome

It's hard to teach with The White Stripes stuck in your head.

Saturday, December 10, 2011


Now, normally, I'm so against using a first language to teach a second. For our usual students, they have enough grammar instruction in their everyday schooling. All they have really is explanation, explanation, explanation but little, or more likely no, chance to practice. Students still can't form sentences after years of studying the language, so it's not explanation they lack but the opportunity to speak. Let 'em run around in the language. I'm not advocating no explanation—that'd be stupid. Just more time to practice.

Taught English in Chinese

Our new accountant, Fred, learned English in elementary school but has since forgotten it all, turns out. Like, I sat him down today and said, "OK, Fred, I'm just going to speak English and see how much you understand. Are you ready?"


"How are you?"


"你知道 How are you? 吗?"

"对, 对, 对."

"OK. Great. How are you?"


"Then you don't know, Fred."

"对, 对, 对."


Soon Dajie joined us.

So I started using Chinese to teach them English, which was really weird and fun for me. Have you ever used a second language to describe your own? I recommend it. Today I taught them six words for things in the room and in my pockets and the questions What's this/that? and What are these/those? and their answers, which if you've taught ESL before, you know is a whole lot to process, especially for people who barely know any words. My favorite part of the whole class was when Fred asked about the difference between is and are and I told them English had eight different forms of to be (Chinese has exactly one, 是, no matter past, present, future, or subject) and their mouths dropped down a second. We have a ways to go.

"Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground"

Friday, December 9, 2011

Wait to Talk

I notice that all the characters in my stories lately don't want to talk much. World they have to deal with is so fucking loud.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Trying to speak or write German after studying Chinese and Korean is like trying to run in a straight line after spinning around with your forehead pressed to a bat. Which is great and one reason I have things in that order in the morning. Well, and the obsessiveness of, you know, worrying about losing words. The do-I-count-this-as-something-I-know-or-notness of the everyday. The synonyms in your brain you can't beat out: oh, but that's the wrong… Where was I?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Use of Language One to Explain Language Two / Language One Confuses the Native Speaker of Language One

Using English to explain grammar just makes Chinese class harder. I've written before about the use of the words progressive and continuous in Chinese grammar. I can't keep the terms straight, especially when they're used to describe elements in the same sentence—e.g., 我正在坐着写故事呢 ("I'm sitting down, writing a story"). Really, who gives a shit what the elements are called as long as I can understand how they're working, at least at this level of language use? I try demonstrating, as a student, that I understand how the sentence is working, making other statements and questions with the same grammar. I have it straight, and then I'm asked, in English, to label which is which. Then it's all twisted around again—um, this one's progressive, no, continuous—and off my brain goes, feeling flung off a bridge. I'm trying to think in Chinese, and going back and form between that and English gets in the way and takes up time that could better be used actually constructing further sentences. An English explanation of Chinese grammar gives me, in the end, an English explanation of Chinese grammar. I can tell you a lot more about the language than I can actually use. I can't think about it in terms of English, because it ain't, obviously. 在 and 着 clauses are actually really easy to understand. Don't sweat their names, at least not yet.

Video Game as Story

As I read through Ander Monson's wonderful website, I miss watching my brother play video games, one of my favorite things back when we were kids. Even now, were I home, I wouldn't be able to pull myself away, and I'd be asking a million questions and requesting demonstrations of his characters' powers.


This morning I finished the final draft of "Grüne Zone New Orleans." I wanted to have the thing done back in August, but a whole bunch of other stuff came up etc. etc. I've been working on the thing since the summer of 2008, having started from scratch a couple of times and then compared the results of several drafts. Yakich has a lot of great word play throughout, as in the last lines of the final part: "As is is, take refuse." It was fun to navigate through the poem, especially as I usually did so first after studying Mandarin and Korean for a few hours. To enter into German after two high-context languages is to invite a looseness that I found refreshing. Often my head would cross out its thoughts—nope, that's not the right language. Its editing out was usually in Mandarin—不对—though I always try to think in the language I'm currently writing and talking in. But so how will this translation read to German speakers?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Seven Nation Army"


Is this space doing what I want it to—that is, to be some sort of interaction with the story as it's being written? But then, what's the story? And I'm not trying to be all pomo about it. I'd like my time over here to be the B-side to some kind of project, though obviously it's not all going to be a one-to-one correlation. Not all skittles and beer. While in Korea, I was sure I wouldn't be able to write about it till I left, but since I've left, I haven't really thought about it, except to add it to the total number of years away from home. Home ought to be weird, a collection of ideas I've defended.

Story as Participation

Ander Monson's 2011 advent calendar is here.

Monday, December 5, 2011


[I've been asked to remove the content that was here. Since the people I wrote about have too much to lose and I very little, I do so.

March 31, 2012]

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Carry, Lucy, Hattie, Mia, and Linda, some good kids

Saturday, December 3, 2011

"These Feelings Can Be So Misleading"





It's Shark Week.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Tristrams, 3

1 2

Writing a story set in the present or near future with Tristram Shandy as the main character. Perhaps in China. With Jenny as a resident of Dalian.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Years and Some

If I didn't love it here, don't you think I would have left for good years ago?

Why I Did and Didn't Come Here

"It's too bad you're only a teacher."


"It's hard for you to start a family over here."


Over a Year

It's time for a trip home soon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Winter in Kaifaqu

The wind's blowing through the building, but the few people out, almost all of them without hats, don't seem cold, though even without the wind, it's only 25ºF. It's not the cold that's so bad, with the face the only thing uncovered and stinging but not too unlovely, but the fear of being about to be cold, the anticipation of it. How is it that anyone's out without a coat on? But again you're wondering, lips chapping just enough, always at this time, enough to warrant Chap Stick in the right pants pocket. Dissatisfied with the warmth of an apartment, which dissatisfaction you can't imagine out in the cold, but in the apartment, you bundle against a cold you suspect you don't yet feel, but you never really feel it. Your hands chap in their restlessness.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Not You Two Bozos

This week, because of Thanksgiving, we've been having the students write down who or what they're thankful for. Today, during a class of eight-year-olds, Sophia and I introduced the short writing assignment by saying, "You can be thankful for anyone, your mother or your father, your friends, your teachers." All like, hint, hint, you know.

One student raised her hand and asked, "How do you spell Sharon and Erika?" the names of the two teachers she had before us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Table Etiquette

I was having a conversation with the restaurant owner about her English, which wasn't bad. I've heard her speak Korean and Japanese, and she might be able to speak German too. She'd been sitting with her two-year-old daughter at a table, both singing a song in English. Just as my meal came out, she placed the girl's head on the table and started digging out the wax from her ear. I tried to look at anything but, accidentally catching their reflection in the window several times. I finished my pizza just as she finished digging.

"{Is it my turn?}" I asked in Chinese.

She must not have understood me. "Yeah, there's a lot," she said in English. Or she was ignoring my joke.

"{Thank you guys,}" her daughter said in Chinese.

"{Me and who?}" I asked.


Although Dalian bookstores have a few Chinese-English dictionaries with Pinyin (like A New Century Chinese-English Dictionary, put out by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press), I haven't been able to find any English-Chinese dictionaries with Pinyin. If you already know all the characters, well, OK, but if you're an English speaker wanting to go from English to Mandarin, then it's hard to communicate in speech without Pinyin. Of course, the dictionaries are designed for Chinese people, but there's a growing population of expats in the city, and it'd be nice if they could look things up. It's enough to make you wanna give up on paper.

So I'm geeking out tonight about MDBG's great offline dictionary, available for Windows and Mac. I especially like that the Mac version integrates into the OS's dictionary:

I've also been using KTdict for a while now on my iPod touch. It's the best app I have and the one I use most often.

Friday, November 25, 2011

把: The Answer to a Grammar Question I've Been Wondering about for More than a Year

"In Chinese, if we want to express the changes of something in position, relation or form through an act, we have to use a '把' sentence. The predicate of a '把' sentence (the verb) is usually followed by '在', '到', '成', '给', etc., which functions as the compliment of result…"

Ah, now that makes sense. Thinking about it requires a paradigm shift, but, shit, thanks, useful book whose name I don't know.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

DFW's syllabi

Slate has posted an article, "The Extraordinary Syllabi of David Foster Wallace," that has links to some of Wallace's syllabi.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Symptoms of Culture Shock

Reading over the symptoms of culture shock
  • depression
  • idealization of the home country
  • irritation
  • confusion
again, you remember that it can be with you for a long time. Even if part of your contract is to help people through it. The big one for a lot of people isbut it's not on your list. If anything, it's hard to get away from others, yet that is also one of the symptoms
  • an unwillingness to socialize
so, like, you gotta watch yourself. Oh, and
  • obsessive behavior
like blogging every day or getting over it and then trying to make up for all those missed days by posting much more. In Normal, you felt just as out of place, you think: there was a gas station where you bought frozen pizzas and garlic bread and felt weird about not going to an actual grocery store. You hope that's how it actually was because if your memory's not wrong, then you can relax: you've always been this way. But, Jesus, if you were like this back home, there's no escape.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011


During yesterday morning's class, I stuck out my belly in a review of tummy. A three-year-old told me, "{Teacher, you need to lose weight.}"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Dajie's English

For more than a year, I've been wondering whether I should offer to teach Dajie English. She's in her late forties or early fifties, and I wasn't sure what her reaction might be. I was worried that she'd be offended, like that because the rest of us have to speak English at work all day, we expect her to too. Or, like, she would think I thought something bad about the Chinese language. Blah, blah, blah. But she asked me last week how to say, "You're welcome," in English. She already knew how to say, "Thank you," "Good morning," and "Hello."

Yesterday I finally asked her whether she wanted to learn English, and she emphatically said, in Chinese, yes. So she's going to learn three new words at every meal and have an hour class with me every Saturday. Today she learned I, she, he, you, we, and they. It's going to be a long process, but I'm really excited.

My Favorite Class

I still think it's so cool that we teach the alphabet. Here they're writing "T" for the first time.

Next on the lesson plan: "Teach the dialogue about eating body parts. Model eating the body parts by pretending to eat the children."

"Practice the dialogue again, this time with cookies."

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Rules for Chinglish

Warning: Contains Spoilers

I'm having one of my classes read The Catcher in the Rye. The book I'm using (ISBN 978-7-5447-0175-4) is a bilingual edition, with the Chinese translation as the first half of book and the English as the second. I was disappointed to learn that the Chinese title, 麦田里的守望者, translates to something like "The Protector in the Rye."

And then, even worse, on the back cover, which someone in the class pointed out to me, was, in English and Chinese,
And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all.
"Don't read it!" I yelled.

I mean, Christ, way to give away the most meaningful and beautiful part of the book.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Tonight was the first of several weekly meetings with Jordan, one of the newer Western teachers, to discuss writing. Man, it's so good to have somebody looking at these things again and to see what somebody else is working on and is excited about.


I've been spending so much time writing and not speaking Chinese lately that in today's class, I could barely form a sentence. How embarrassing. Felt like one of those spaced-out kids. Huh?


Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Working on a story about Richard Nixon. What would you do if you could wear a mask of your own face? Because certainly nobody would think it were you underneath.

Some of Wallace's Stories

David Foster Wallace's New Yorker stories are here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011



You can say what you want. You're forgiven. Happy fucking congratulations.

current notes
supplied by Kinzie, aka :




"That is the dirty little secret of lexicography. There's no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum."
Steven Pinker

Monday, November 14, 2011

Expat Rule

Always use only one language when ordering food, or you'll confuse the wait staff.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


While reviewing the dialogue
A: I'm sorry.
B: That's OK.
in tonight's class of three-year-olds, I acted out having flour dumped on me by accident. One of the students said, in Chinese, "{You really have the worst luck, Teacher.}"


"The limits of my language are the limits of my universe."
—Ludwig Wittgenstein

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The International System of Units

language geekering out over this brochure on the SI

run-on teachering

play-on sentencing

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and drinking PBR on the other side of the world in celebration of Ben Lantz's birthday.

Go, Kid

Who says you have to feel good while writing?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tristrams, 2


Martin Rowson's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman's Tristram is in no mood for bullshit.

Active Classes

My thoughts usually go not like How can I get these students to sit down? but like How can I get these students to learn something while they're crawling on my co-teacher?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Tristrams, 1

In the opening scene of Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, Rob Brydon argues that the movie is a co-lead. In the next scene, Steve Coogan, as Tristram Shandy, argues that he is "the main character in this story, the leading role." The rivalry continues throughout the film. We don't get to see it, but Rob Brydon, as Uncle Toby, will ultimately have the larger role since both his battle scene and his time with Wadman are to be included.

Although Tristram is a constant narrator in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, his presence as a character is almost nil. Uncle Toby is the larger.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

RHPS in the Basement of the School

I just watched The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time, first with the prompter ("When do I squirt my water pistol and when do I scream?" the cover copy reads) and then with the theatrical experience turned on, a recorded audience yelling lines and calling the characters names. Gotta say I liked it, especially because the people who put the DVD together were brilliant for including the alternate audio track.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Learn This Because / "No Why"

On page 124 of Chinese Express, a book for beginner students of Chinese: "The sentence with 'bǎ 把' is very popular and important in Chinese. Its structure is: Subject + bǎ 把 + Object + Verb + Other parts…"

And that's all the explanation we get for this bit of grammar. Examples using this sentence pattern follow, but they don't show us why it's used or in what context. Sadly, many of the books I've picked up so far are like this.

Friday, November 4, 2011


"we would love anyone you loved and any kids they have....boy, girl, or martian"
—Mom and Dad

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Slow Work

Last Thursday Sophia Huan took over as my Chinese teacher. Learning new words is no problem. Even the characters aren't too bad. Well, recognizing them, anyway, which is a good thing because when you type, all you gotta do is recognize the characters and select them. Handwriting's a whole nother skill, which requires serious time. Now that I've learned to talk, at least enough to embarrass myself at most occasions, which is just fine with me, it's back to the beginning again to learn all the writing that goes with the speaking. Not that I'm at the beginning, no, since I've been learning characters now for over a year, but there are certainly a lot of 'em. But, yes, it's still the grammar that kicks my ass. And the punctuation, but don't get me started on that. It would be nice to have class every day and to have tests that really pushed me to learn certain things. I get to practice all the time, and I can see improvements, but everything still feels slow, which I have to convince myself is OK.


Found Chinayouren this afternoon. Dig it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What Do You Call These Kinds of Stories?

What about stories intentionally not published? If the writer is to enjoy writing, why not have stories stored out of public view? He can work just as hard on those, even if they're just for him. Not to show but just to enjoy the process and product of.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Wonka et Al.

For Halloween this year, the Western staff is dressing up as the characters from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (I'm Mike Teavee). The Eastern staff had never seen the movie before, so some of us stayed after school today to watch it. Never before had I realized how completely crazy Wonka is. He has some really great lines, my favorite of which is a quote from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest: "The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

On Culture

Don't sweat it too much. It's overwhelming, and there's no way you're going to get it right all the time. Keep it in mind and try to make adjustments for it, but mostly, just be yourself.

Unless you're a prick, in which case be a better person.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Culture Training

Today was culture training, the time when we managers, after a month of letting the new Western staff wonder at the place they've agreed to live in for at least a year, talk about low and high context, individuality and collectivism, definitions of self, perspective of leadership, harmony, guanxi, face, and the new generation of Chinese people. Even after two years, which really is such a short time here, it's good to go over this information again. Even after studying and presenting on all this, it's easy to forget in practice. You can have a good explicit knowledge and still mess up horribly implicitely.

One thing that really troubled me was the new teachers' concern that they always felt like they were at work here. This is a feeling I've had myself for at least a year. Depressing. When you deal with language all day and your connections to back home are books and movies and you gotta actually pay attention to the words, well. So how can they get away?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

1Q84 in English

The English translation of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 comes out today. I first saw this book more than a year ago, when Kelly was reading the Korean translation of it. The audio version, which I'll be downloading as soon as my credit from Audible arrives, is forty-six hours and fifty minutes long. I've been in a Murakami mode lately, having read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and Norwegian Wood and listened to The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and What I Talk about When I Talk about Running.

In honor of the new translation:
"The Fierce Imagination of Haruki Murakami," an article by Sam Anderson (warning: contains spoilers)


the trailer for Stephen Earnhart's multimedia stage production of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles

Monday, October 24, 2011

Another Way Over

Ha, ha. I'm writing this on my Kindle, which, it turns out, can hop China's wall.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Pinker on Colbert

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Steven Pinker
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

The Beginning of a Poetics

I find myself this week writing a new poetics. What I want to write about is the movement past irony in my own work. I got the idea for a poetics while listening to Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, which deals with the decrease in human violence. In the particular section I'm talking about, Pinker uses the term third nature. If first nature is our instincts and second nature is our learned behavior, then third nature is our reflection on what norms are still useful to us. We can be all ironic because civilization's so civil that we don't have to worry about anybody taking us so serious as to pose a threat. How great for poetry and other art. However, Wallace is onto something—that is, that irony is good as a way to tear things apart but is shit for building. Besides all that, I now find it really easy to gag on the whole idea of saying one thing while trying to mean another, all the while laughing at the cleverness while trying not to laugh because then you'd be seen as liking your own joke and thus at risk for taking yourself seriously. So there we go. Those are some of my thoughts—nothing too concrete so far, but it's a place to start. Course, being removed from an English-book-havin' library, it's going to be hard to do some of the research for this mother, but maybe I can find what I need anyway.

Since my thirtieth, I've been writing a poem and one other thing from some other genre every week. I miss grad school, when I could kick around all day and read and write, and while being over here allows me to wonder at how to comprehend the language, if for no other reason than to be able to explain it to somebody whose first language isn't English, it's hard to swim all day in words and then try to make them into something at night. Still, it's worth it, I feel, this ongoing

Saturday, October 22, 2011


It was hard to concentrate this afternoon. I didn't have any classes today, but I had to prepare for culture training, which two of us are presenting on Wednesday. However, my friend, who returned from the States yesterday, brought me the Kindle Keyboard 3G, which I'd asked him to pick up for me. Seeing one for the first time, Hanna thought there was a cover over the screen and went to pull off a plastic layer. "{It looks like a fake,}" she said in Chinese. I'm excited about having this device at last because it's so hard to get English books out here. There's one bookstore with English texts, but it's all the way downtown, and its selection is rather limited. I walk everywhere I go, so I'm pretty jazzed about the text-to-speech feature, which reads books to me. First up is Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, of course—nobody's surprised.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ectopistes migratorius

My father's a painter. When I was a little boy, he was commissioned to paint murals in a bowling alley. He took my brother and me to the empty alley during the several days it took him to finish the job. The empty space enthralled me. I felt like I didn't exist.

There have been several more instances in my life since in which I've been in a space that's supposed to be crowded but isn't, but these times have felt sinister, not like the happy time I spent in the bowling alley with my father and brother. In many ways, I feel like I've been trying to get back to that bowling alley, at least emotionally, since.

Passenger pigeons are perhaps the negative to the bowling alley's positive space (or are the pigeons the positive to the alley's negative?). Having once filled the skies of North American, with their breeding zones in Michigan, the last of them died in 1914. They don't exist.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


via Kass Fleisher



Hanna invited me to her hometown, Shuangyashan (双鸭山, literally "Twin Duck Mountain"). Knowing that I hadn't had a vacation since Spring Festival, back in February, and that all I wanted to do was read and write, she said I needed to get away from Kaifaqu. She just went ahead and bought the tickets even though she was worried I'd be uncomfortable on the long train ride there.

"Well, how long's the ride?" I asked.

"Around twenty hours," she said.

No problem, but my words did nothing to lessen her worry, especially after she couldn't get any tickets for the cars with beds. I said I'd be fine.

"One other thing," I told her. "I don't want to speak English at all during this trip."

"OK, no problem."

Travel Times

(times approximate)

light rail from Kaifaqu to downtown Dalian: half an hour
train from downtown to Jiamusi: twenty hours
bus from Jiamusi to Shuangyashan: two hours

bus from Shuangyashan to Harbin: six hours
train from Harbin to downtown Dalian: ten hours (it was supposed to be nine)
bus from downtown to Kaifaqu: forty minutes

The First Couple Days: Speaking Only Chinese and Sitting on the Train

On the first, Hanna—who I had to call by her Chinese name, 陈茜 (Chén Qiàn)—and I met early and had breakfast before stocking up for the long train ride. This first day without English was really bizarre. I'd never been so aware of words taking form in my mind as I was that day. Forcing myself to speak only Mandarin, my thoughts became extremely loud in English. I could hardly keep up with all the ideas for stories and poems coming at me. I had the thought I'm not in my mouth, at which I laughed aloud and couldn't explain to a questioning Hanna.

When we finally got on the train, the people seated nearby kept staring as we talked. They'd ask Hanna a question about me, and she'd tell them, "{Ask him.}" Everybody on the train thought I was Russian.

We talked for hours, slowly because of my busted Chinese, and the train filled. Some passengers had bought standing-only tickets, and they had to occupy the aisles. Their presence made it difficult but certainly not impossible for the hourly cart that would come through, pushed by an employee selling junk food and beer. No, difficult isn't the right word, because if the passengers didn't get out of the way, he just pushed his cart into them. Harder's probably a better word, yeah. And this sight became worse once night came and the non-seat-having passengers, tired, finally sat on the floor, their heads resting against the sides of others' seats. The man with the cart shouted, "{I'm coming! I'm coming!}" waking them harshly. Also, every so often a man with a broom came to sweep up all the crap people were throwing on the floor. A third man would push a trash can down the aisle every once in a while, but most of the trash went on the floor. As uncomfortable as we were having to sleep sitting up, we both agreed it was better than not having a seat.

When we finally arrived at Hanna's parents' house, we were greeted by many family members, among them her three-year-old daughter, Eileen, who, over the next week, would be the person I'd be talking to the most. We ate, and of course the baijiu was brought out, that most disgusting of alcoholic drinks (perhaps second only to Korean's makgeolli). Though this baijiu was in fact red, the first time I've seen it anything but clear, and was hailed by Hanna's brother-in-law, who claimed it had grapes in it, it was still disgusting.

Possible tangent but important: Invariably, whenever I drink baijiu, which is, believe me, as rare as I can get away with, an English-speaking Chinese person will translate it as "white wine." While the first character, 白 (bái), certainly means "white," the second character, 酒 (jiǔ), means "alcohol," not "wine"—little tip for you. Baijiu is not, and this bears repeating, is not made from grapes and doesn't taste anything like wine. If you have to drink it—and if you live in northeast China, you probably will have to—drink it slowly, not to stave off drunkenness (because you'll probably be getting drunk if you have to drink in this region) but to avoid the awful taste.

Worn out (and me now a little buzzed), Hanna and I were shown to her former grandparents' apartment, where she, her father, and her daughter crashed in one room and I crashed in another.

Speaking Another Language Is Better Than Whispering

Over the next week, we ate, drank, and played with Eileen. I barely spent any money because Hanna's family kept taking us out to eat or cooking us dinner. At many of the meals, the men drank alcohol. As I alluded to above, northeast China, Dongbei, has a big drinking culture. It's not that you have to drink, I hear, but if you don't drink, people don't think you're honest. Now, I don't know how reliable that information is. It's something a lot of people say. I don't know if you'll actually be thought of as dishonest. I do know, however, that you're pretty much expected to drink if others are and that if you can drink a lot, people will generally tell you how impressed they are with you. The meaning of a lot, though, is pretty low. In my experience, people have said I had drunk a lot after only three bottles. Granted, the bottles are bigger than the twenty-ouncers back in the States, but still, these ain't the biggest containers of alcohol in the world. It's hard to know, then, whether people actually think you've drunk a lot, or are just saying that. What's clear is that drinking's important, and you'll see folks drinking at 9 in the morning, say, which isn't weird, and they serve beer on the trains when the breakfast cart, which is the same as the dinner cart, is being pushed around.

One night Hanna's father, a quiet man, and I got drunk and talked over dinner. Hanna was in another room. She'd been kind of translating for us. It wasn't that I was speaking English, but they had a little bit of a hard time understanding my Chinese, and I had a hard time understanding their dialect. Their /sh/s came out a /s/, and there was a lot more retroflexion than I was used to. And, hell, let's be honest: as this trip proved, I simply don't know as many Chinese words as I'd like. But so Hanna was in another room, and her dad asked me a question. When I didn't understand, his wife jumped in, speaking a lot faster. "{Slow down,}" he told her. "{He'll understand if we speak slowly.}" She got closer and louder, as though I couldn't hear, but was still too fast. It took us ten minutes for me to understand that he was asking me whether America had coal mines. I knew all the words he was saying, but because there was no introduction to the topic, I didn't know the context. This problem occurred a lot.

Right before another dinner, Hanna said loudly, in front of her family, "If I want to say something and don't want them to understand, I can speak English." When we sat down, she was across the table from me, with four family members on each side separating us. I almost used the English-as-a-secret-language trick when her brother-in-law, out of nowhere, pointed to a drawing on the wall of our private room.

"{Do you know who that is?}" he asked me.

"{Yeah. It's Mao,}" I said, purposely leaving off the title though I knew it to be at least a little impolite. "{He's in our books.}"

"{Chairman Mao,}" he corrected me. He said something I didn't understand about George Washington.

I had seen the drawing when I first entered the room. My first thought was Sit down, Mao, and shut up, you dead fuck. I don't like dictators at the dinner table.


Because she had trouble remembering my name, she just called me her 干爸爸 (gānbàba, literally "dry father"). When we picked her up from kindergarten and a teacher wondered who the foreigner was, Eileen said, "{My dry father.}" Before we arrived in Shuangyashan, Hanna had told Eileen I'd take her to KFC, her favorite restaurant (yes, yes, Kentucky Fried Chicken—I know). All week she asked me when we'd go. She was the only person I understood just about completely, and we spent a lot of time playing together.

Mother Tongue

I was going to speak only Chinese for nine days, but Hanna wanted me to speak English on the eighth day, once we got on the bus to Harbin. "I like your mother tongue," she said.

On the way back, we had beds on the train and slept through the overnight ride much more comfortably.

Read on the Way to, in, and on the Way Back from Shuangyashan

the last hundredish pages of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
the first two hundredish pages of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood

Saturday, October 1, 2011


For the next nine days, no speaking English. Only Chinese.

Friday, September 30, 2011


I can't begin to tell you how happy I am that September is over.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Even as I'm playing Duck Hunt on my phone—one of the signs that we're living in the future, I imagine somebody other than myself telling myself, though it is me—I want this game to be a part of some narrative I'm putting together. Who would be the main character wanting to blast the dog to pieces at my misses? What if the phone rings? What is pause? How much overlap should there be? I want everything to have a reference to everything else; I want everything to be totally separate from everything else.


It's been a long time since I wrote about what I do here exactly. I've talked about teachers and students but not exactly about what I do in the school.

For the first year and some, up until this summer, I was a teacher (or "educational specialist," as the government-issued certification of expertise asserts). My students ranged from three years old to adult. I was also the director of English Program, an hour-a-week class for the Eastern teachers: grammar, Chinglish, culture, etc. During this time, I wasn't a manager, but in this kind of work, the turnover is ridiculous. Even if people finish their contracts—which, Jesus, you might be amazed by the number who don't (then again, if you were here and saw how difficult it is for some people to adapt, maybe you wouldn't)—they're usually here for only a year. I've seen threeish different Western staffs blow through, and of course I helped the newer staff after I myself bungled through my first months (I told my friend yesterday, "If I can't do something on my own now, I'm an idiot," although there's still a lot I can't do, natch). So if you've been here for any length of time—like two years and some to others' not even two weeks, say—you fill an advisory role almost in spite of your best efforts. I found myself doing managerial things without really having any title. It was just a small company, and the staff was constantly new. My mantra was "I just want to teach."

But this past summer I got promoted. I'm the director of education, which means I write curriculum and schedules, serve as a cultural advisor, train the staff, sit in on people's classes, and advise the teachers on classroom management and techniques. There are other duties too, but those are the main ones. And of course, I still have classes—right now as many as everybody else, but after the holiday, I'll have fewer so I can focus on my other work (though I must say that I'd rather be in class than do the other things that go into running a school).

As I've said before, I haven't had much time lately to do much outside of school. Personal time is at a premium now, but I'm hoping that all changes with this new schedule. Since September 9, I've been outlining new stories and working on some poems. It'd be nice to get something sent out in the next couple months.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Adult Class

Me: "I ran home."

Student, in Chinese, to the Eastern teacher: "{What does that mean?}"

Me, acting it out: "'I ran home.'"

Eastern teacher: "'I ran to home.'"

Me, acting it out again, giving the ET a what-the-fuck look: "No, there's no to. 'I ran home.'"

Student: "Then your home should be very big."

Me: "Huh?"

Student, in Chinese, to the Eastern teacher: "{What does that mean?}"


"A sentence with an adjective as the main element of its predicate is known as the sentence with an adjectival predicate…."
Conversational Chinese 301 (Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press, 2007), a book riddled with pointless explanations like this

Monday, September 26, 2011


An overserious three-year-old: "{My father said, 'Playing's playing. Learning's learning.'}"

Friday, September 23, 2011

Last Days, One Hopes, of Being So Busy

Recently everybody's been incredibly busy at work (I myself am on day ten of a twelve-day workweek). We're making class sizes smaller, reducing the number of students per class from twelve to six, so that we can tighten an already-good curriculum. Planning and scheduling have taken up a lot of time, and everybody's ready for the October holiday, nine whole days off (my first vacation since February).

Last Saturday two new Western teachers arrived. Their arrival has been a refresher. Having majored in education, they help round out a solid Western staff. Their professional manner has already been commented on and praised by the Eastern staff.

And I'm excited about the new schedule, which should allow me not only more personal free time but also more time to observe classes and help the other teachers, which I haven't been able to do because of my own full load. I've had trouble lately switching between bigger decisions involving the school and smaller decisions about, for example, which game to play during a Tots class. Lots of dreams about teaching, the recurring nightmare about teaching the past unreal conditional to three- and four-year-olds, in particular.

But, as I said, the October holiday, National Day, is coming up, and I'm heading up north, where I plan to speak no English for nine days. Really, I could use the break.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Three-year-old student, in Chinese, upon reviewing monkey: "{My dad says that monkeys' favorite thing to do is eat dick.}"

Friday, September 9, 2011


I've now written every day for seventeen years.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

But It Was Over Quickly

More than ten taxis blocked the road. People obstructed traffic further with their bodies, forcing honking buses to take another route. After ten or so minutes, a solitary policeman made his way into the crowd, which squeezed around him. "{Whose car is this?}" he asked. Several men put up their arms and said, "{Mine.}" Any move the policeman made, the crowd followed him closely, pressed against him, all courage, everybody together. Where was his backup? What was the point of blocking the road? And why were we so glad that what looked like a protest was going on?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

If You're Honest

There is in class, which feels realer than the planning for it does, and then there's the strange game of not in class. You come to, and it's like, Jesus Christ, I'm teaching the alphabet.


Last night Hanna said that the police wanted the information for every student in our school. What for? They wouldn't say.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Finally someone let me out of my cage
Now time for me is nothing cos I'm counting no age
Now I couldn't be there
Now you shouldn't be scared
I'm good at repairs
And I'm under each snare
Bet you didn't think so I command you to
Panoramic view
Look I'll make it all manageable
—Gorillaz, "Clint Eastwood"

Friday, September 2, 2011

I Was Going to Take Next Week Off

Extra busy because of assholes.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Don't Want to Be Anywhere / September

Mandatory fun time is mandatory only.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Small Sample of Talking to Students on the Phone

"What does a translator do?"



"I am go to swimming."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Alphabet behind the Alphabet

Yesterday I saw a toy marketed to help really young Chinese students learn the alphabet. It was some plastic thing, designed to look both like a computer with no monitor and a book simultaneously, decorated with the Happy Sheep found all over everything else (giving way only to Mickey and his pals). On its "verso page," the vowels and consonants of English were separated out, with each letter given a sample word. Some of the diphthongs were also included. Fine, fine, good. But then I noticed that each letter and diphthong included its representation in the phonetic alphabet. "It's very helpful for Chinese," Hanna said. "Students can learn the sounds." What I'm wondering is, shouldn't one alphabet be enough? If we assign a representation to a representation of a sound, how many layers of understanding do students have to go through before they can read? Often I see in students' books select English words written out phonetically, usually in a hand not their own. I want to shake their parents and teachers. Don't add any more abstraction!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Two Years

Two years later I'm sitting in my apartment, having a conversation entirely in Chinese over Skype. Nothing complicated, but, man, it's pretty damn cool.

This morning I started listening to David Foster Wallace's The Pale King. With Wallace's complex structures, I'd rather read the book than listen to it, but it's hard to get books in English. I've been wandering around, plugged into my iPod, having to hit the button to go back to thirty seconds ago. You can't just walk safely down the sidewalk; you might be hit by a car. Plus, I run into more and more students and their I-can't-believe-you-exist-outside-of-school faces. The author's forward makes me want to take a week off work and just write and study. I wonder about free time. If I'm not at the school, I feel I ought to be writing or reading. What you don't think about before you go off and become an expat is the amount of downtime you'll have, the potential for boredom. I dismissed my friends' suggestions for taking DVDs to Korea, thinking it'd be a shame if I were inside watching movies instead of walking around, but when finally the culture or the language or the whatever becomes too much, it's exactly those things from home you want. Everything attached / in front of / near your head so you're not in your head.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On Teaching Teenagers

Pointing to book but looking at my face: "Teacher, how to say this?"

"Try it."

Blank look.

Because often the students memorize English words the same way they memorize Chinese characters—that is, you'd better know how to pronounce this the next time you see it. But when they get to a new word, they have no idea how to sound it out. Why have an alphabet if you're not going to use it?

On a related note, several parents complain whenever I try to teach the alphabet to their three-to-five-year-olds. It's not important, they say.