Monday, January 31, 2011


I haven't drunk any alcohol in a month now. After I announced I'd given up alcohol, a few people asked me, "For how long?" The answer is, I wouldn't mind giving it up forever. More than needing to give it up, I want to give it up. What drinking does is speed up time, to make time lunge forward in stupid ways. Worse is the difficulty impossibility of writing or reading, two activities that are increasingly hard to find time for anyway, especially for a teacher. Somebody told me the other day that because I was a writer, and an expat writer at that, drinking booze was kinda supposed to be my thing, a forgivable and even encouraged vice habit. The romanticism of the foreign, the writer there to experience, and, shit, how else are you supposed to cope? I was told the same thing when I was merely a writer, in college but in my own country. All these stories of great writers drinking all the time and being able to function—I don't believe them. And even if these writers could create, the stories often come with shitty lives attached to them. Or even if they could function with alcohol, I can't. And it's not just the drinking I hate but also the atmosphere that goes with it. So much of the expat life revolves around heavy drinking. A small community both inside and outside the larger one—that is, though everything around us is in Chinese, we can function almost entirely without speaking a lick of it; there are several here who know no Chinese, which lack of knowledge isn't a bad thing necessarily, except that it can lead you back to your small community, make you feel like you can't do anything outside it. But what's comfortable? I've gotten some shit for not drinking. Three times I've been to the bar since giving up alcohol and drunk only sodas. The only one sober, I had nothing to say, and it was discouraging. It was too late for small talk. The community doesn't do what I do. What do I do with the community then? There is so much browbeating and guilt. "You don't want to celebrate?" Well, I do, but I don't want to miss tomorrow morning. I want to write and read. Usually I can't wait to get home and work on projects. Or to be out but not have to be anywhere specific. The thinking that we all need to be together all the time. The impossibility lately of being alone.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

News on Egypt

The word for "Egypt" is being blocked on China's Twitter-like site. More info here.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


A text just now from Bonnie, one of my Conversational English students: "Uh.Can u go on facebook?"

Me: "Yeah. Can you?"

Her: "Nope.I tried to get into the wall, but failed.Y isnt allowed in china? nd Twitter either.Not fair!"

Me: "That's a good question. Ask me that question the next time you see me."


No work till February 12!


Because they'd been practicing ordering food in an English-speaking context, I took Conversational English to a Korean pizza joint. It was the first time I'd ever seen people struggle with a knife and fork. They tore the pizza apart. "Do you want chopsticks?" I asked. No, no. "Just eat it with your hands," I offered. Oh, no way. Very bizarre, then, to find myself easily cutting apart a slice, as though I'd never considered the act one that took dexterity.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Because It Was Too Expensive to Go Somewhere Warm

In a couple days, a few of us are going to Harbin. I just checked the temperature there. It's -29º. That's Fahrenheit, not Celsius.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

In the Next Manifestation of a Dwelling

I want to fill up as much as the space as possible. I want to sleep on the couch and have whole days without work, but more than not working, I want to feel no guilt about staying still. I want not to have to be anywhere.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Class Description

Intensive Writing (IW)
Eastern Teacher: Jim
Western Teacher: Tim
Classroom: New Orleans

Intensive Writing is a class for SBS4 and CE students interested in improving their writing of formal English. We will learn simple and complex sentence structures, voice, formality, and pacing. Not only will writing styles be explained and explored, but the habits of professional writers will also be revealed so that students can prepare themselves for writing in a professional manner within an English context. We will also discuss résumés, cover letters, and other preparatory documents required for dealing with English-speaking businesses, schools, and other clients. Students will be given weekly compositions to write and are expected to present these in class.

(Unfortunately, this class has been canceled.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What's It like to Understand All the Languages in the Room?

For most of the afternoon, as we walked through a crowded mall, stall after stall selling cheap toys, clothing, animals made out of jade, and snacks, everybody getting ready for Spring Festival, Hanna spoke English, and I spoke Chinese. You can tell that Hanna's been spending a lot of time working on her English, that she pays attention when others are speaking. When she first started working with us, she could barely understand anything, but now we barely slow down for her. Chinese remains, however much I've learned, very difficult, and I still understand only an incredibly small amount. This afternoon I recycled what I could. So much switching back and forth sooner or later scrambles the grammar. In the downtown light-rail station, a woman asked whether we were at the beginning or the end of the line. "{This is both the beginning and the end,}" I told her. Which way was the train headed, left or right? she asked. Well, considering that the tracks ended to our right and beyond that was a building, one would assume that the train went left. I didn't have to understand the exact words in that conversation, only the context of the woman's confusion. Hanna laughed, continuing her English. Why were we speaking each other's language? the woman asked. "{Ask him,}" Hanna told her, pointing at me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Count It

slap dick around

verb (trans.)
to haphazardly throw various things together to form something with no discernible theme

Things were just slap dicked around and called a restaurant.

origin: said about Irish Magic Potato, a diner Irish in name only, its walls painted a gaudy blue and red, its chairs covered in cheap plastic, its menu bragging something like "We say we're Irish, but we're actually an American diner. Isn't that funny (you know who you are)?"

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Another Interview

Tomorrow I'm playing journalist for Focus, interviewing a company that hires only disabled college graduates. I know nothing else, not even the name of the company. Such is the way with assignments much of the time. Apparently, the man I'm supposed to talk to has been very eager about getting his story published. Though my articles haven't been changed much so far (some punctuation and the addition of a few sentences in a gee-golly voice I'd never use), I'm curious to see whether the magazine will edit the story because of government pressure. Can't just write about anything. And the government's not the only thing to think about; there's also advertisers to consider. The first article I wrote, about the apartments known as Shama, appeared in the same issue as a full-page ad for the same. Get this article out before the lunar new year.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


"{Is class over?}" a five-year-old asks again.

"No," three teachers answer.

Rule Number 2: speak English. There's a movement to go with the rule, your hand moving next to your mouth, you two-mouthed being. So much we do with our hands.

Sometimes you're trying to figure out characters in your sleep. You speak a little, people speak quickly. "{I'm sorry. I don't understand.}"

"Quickly. Follow directions quickly," Oren reminds me. Oh, yes, Rule Number 4: follow directions quickly. Yes, thank you.

Did I ever write about the time in Korea when, in the middle of giving directions, I suddenly realized I was teaching kindergarten?

"I'm sorry," another teacher says after our class together. "I was out of it."

"Last time, we asked you to come to class with questions."

Except fuck quickly. The quickly up the stairs. Sometimes the games of who's the fastest. Who can use the correct tense here? As long as we name the tense here. Here we're using the simple present, which means habitual action. Huh? Do/does.

"How many tenses are there?" It was a mistake to write every tense on the board. Teaching is contextualizing time. Later you come to, and you're talking to students who understand almost everything you say. Just as bad as talking too quickly is talking too slowly. "My. Name. Is."

Wake up. Pack up. Sack up.

A whole lobby of "告诉老师:'I'm fine. Thank you. And you?' 说。说。说。" Say it. Say it. Say it. Jesus, Mom. Fuck. "Hello, Teacher." Simple present. "Hello, Student." Teem. That's not my name either.

In one class: Oren, Owen, Sophie, Sophia, Sam 1, Sam 2, Jim, Tim, et al.

Except I'm fine. Thank you. And you? is textbook. The can't-be-read face saying something about being fine, and me? Outlaw it. Then folks smile while they say it. Getting away with being fine. As long as they're really fine. "Everybody's always fine."

WC. WC and computer games. Computer games and homework. Homework and have a rest. Have a rest. WC. WC as humor. Computer games as anything not school. What do you like to read? Maybe books. Generality as pushing you away from a conversation. Specificity as invitation. The revulsion but necessity of small talk. "I'm Chinese." Yes, we know. "I'm a boy." If you have to say so.

Don't be silly. One-minute dance party with K. in our windowed office. Don't be silly. Hello, students. How are you? Never mind.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tickets for Travel during Spring Festival

When I walked into work today, most of the Eastern teachers looked really upset. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"We're all worried about our tickets home," Sunny said.

The biggest holiday, Spring Festival, is coming up. The hype around and the anticipation of it are about equivalent to those of American Christmas. Long lines wait, snaking out of buildings, people standing in the almost-0ºF weather, for train tickets back to their hometowns. This year there has been a lot of talk of tickets' being sold out. Hillary managed to buy hers, but she'll be in standing room only for her thirty-hour trip back. Sunny had to call several friends to stand in line for her while she was at work.

Soon stores and restaurants will shut down for many days, and you won't be able to buy jack. Continual fireworks will start around 5 or 6 a.m. And lots of people you can rely on will be out of town.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Reliance On

Not that being a foreigner necessarily precludes your getting things done, except as per language, as though that were something easily overcome. No, but there are things like "{Oh, well, that's the price for Chinese people. You didn't tell me you were calling about a foreigner traveling}," which, in a recent case, meant a price of seven thousand yuan instead of six thousand (or more than my monthly paycheck). Your own accent gives you away too. I've heard that even if you speak perfectly, people won't expect to understand you and will therefore think you haven't said anything right, but this idea seems full of shit, something a constantly misunderstood Westerner would say. And so the help that we Westerners receive from the Eastern staff puts our lives on display, even if a little bit, and so the discomfort, as I began to write about yesterday, comes from obligating others into your life. Not so much in inviting others into your life but requiring them. Even if it is in the Eastern teachers' job description, which it is. Also, though, it's sometimes embarrassing to hear the needs wants of other Westerners, things that we don't have back home. Drivers and āyís are the major two. Not that I blame Westerners for wanting these people. None of the Western teachers has a driver—none of us can afford one—but the consensus seems to be that we'd have one, especially for in the cold months (right now it's 14ºF, up from the other day's 5º, and that's not counting windchill). No, I'd love a driver and an āyí. Hell, an āyí comes to my place once every other week or so to clean up my almost nonmess (I never cook [another marker of needing others, of money]). I've heard that many (executive) expats have a hard time readjusting to life back in the States, without their drivers or live-in āyís. If you can afford them while you're here, why not? Except, again, it's just so embarrassing talking about it. Or maybe it's more accurate to say it's so embarrassing to hear others talk about it as though it weren't embarrassing. Am I being accurate here? To talk about this here is to admit to the perception that my Eastern coworkers don't have much and also to the knowledge that they don't make much money. And they have to cater to expats who start sentences with "In China" after they've been here all of a couple weeks. Being here doesn't flatten the divisions between the classes, at least among expats, but you certainly feel richer. The lower cost of living. The networks you can go through to get discounts. The relationships and hidden restaurants. Etc. If you know people. If you can be seen to be rich. But the misperception also that you're going to have a lot of money. Automatic VIP status at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China just for being a foreigner. And so all these things you don't have at home become ridiculous in the size of their importance here, as though they made up for the fumbling you're sometimes forced into. Or not, if you can afford it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

On Solitude

In his essay "Imperial Bedroom," from How to Be Alone, Jonathan Franzen talks about not only the right but also the commodification of privacy in America. It's not that there's a threat to privacy, he argues, but that the private sphere is (has been) invading the public sphere. Course, this essay is now about a decade old but still resonates with me, especially in the American space created out of non-America. Or the working together of people from high and low contexts. When you want to be alone, people take notice. You're down to a small community again, and so wanting to be alone can come across as a rejection of others, even if you crave your own space. You work together, you live together, and you fuck up the language together. How do private and public spaces work here? I still haven't figured that one out. Except that I hardly hear, as much as I did in the States, the wish for privacy. Maybe it's not something spoken, this wish for solitude. Goes back to why Hanna is often upset during our dinners: for her, solitude is the rejection of connection. But with the Eastern staff handling the Western staff's lives, because the latter can't communicate their needs, there is quite a bit of flattening of boundaries between private and public, and discomfort, at least mine, comes not from others knowing my business but from anybody's business becoming part of the scope of work. It's a loss of independence, an enfeeblement. So perhaps that's where the drive to learn Chinese comes from. Look: I can conduct business at the bank alone. And but so there is a constant redefining of what is private and what is public. Even the things you know how to say—you might not be allowed to do the accompanying actions, for various reasons: 1. you're a foreigner, 2. you don't know how to conduct yourself in this culture, or 3. both of the above.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Please Understand

It's interesting to watch new Western teachers in the classroom. The tension after they explain something in great detail and then get blankness from the students. The wanting to be understood and then the use of more and more words to get to some understanding. You can see, hear so much anxiety. Never ask, "Do you understand?" Often students will say nothing or, worse, yes, even if what you said made no sense at all. Test them to see what they understand. Get to know them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Want to Stay Up for Days

I want to write more about the people around me, but it's a weird thing to do.

"In China" is a horrible way to start a sentence. It only shows how much you don't know, have already decided on. You're here for a week, and you can write a book. You're here five years, you can write a sentence. Which is something I remind the Eastern teachers of, that "In China" is a way to cope, try to understand.

Sunny waits patiently while I try to learn the characters. I am writing a story in Chinese for her. Not that I know enough Chinese.

The people who say they'll learn Chinese later—a lot of the time, you get into English-only habits and therefore English-only areas of town, closing down the loop of travel. You know only four words and two buildings, a few restaurants, the ones with pictures. You shut your hole and drink a lot.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Motto for Translation/Art/Language

We lose things. We add things. We change things. We have to.

Friday, January 14, 2011


There's kind of an unspoken rule about speaking Chinese if you're not Chinese. Like, well, it just sounds inappropriate unless you're speaking to a Chinese person. So much time speaking English. You wanna learn, you have to go out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


on the project: no parts, just thirty poems—the first, penultimate, and last in place (perhaps, always perhaps)

side project: a Chinese translation of "Exeunt Omnes," "全体退场" (Quántǐ Tuìchǎng), as soon as, you know, I learn all the characters and can figure out the grammar and how to line break and run on sentence and

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Tonight my adult students told me that it's illegal in China to have a baby outside of marriage. If an unmarried woman has a baby, she has to pay a huge fine, and the baby is a 黑人 (hēirén), "black person," a noncitizen, ineligible to go to school, receive any benefits from the government, obtain a bank card, or hold an ID. Such a person isn't even counted in the census. "It's to protect the woman," the only man in the class said.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Other Media

Is there any way that rooms can be a sort of autobiography? Not their contents but their arrangement. Their occupation. Or not.

Monday, January 10, 2011

All Day and Was

Last night I downloaded Girl Talk's All Day. By track 2, I was thinking of Michael Joyce's Was (which—what the shit—there's no Wikipedia article?) and despite being exhausted, at the end of the week, trying to stay up to kind of have a private dance in my room, perhaps take out the notebook and work, but instead waking up wrapped up in my earphone cord at noon, six hours past normality. Spent much of the day thinking about what I'm trying to do in my work, specifically in this online space—like, I started these posts because I wanted my stay here to be part of a work, not necessarily the commentary but maybe the bonus material, and because posting here was a way to give myself deadlines, and now it seems to be a compulsion, something I do even when it's the end of the day and I'd much rather just forget the whole thing and drop off, because I've been scratching out the language all day and this is just more, but whenever I go to stop, I don't—and then watching

And so at dinner, I'm talking a lot of nonsense (none of which is random, however—let's get that fucking straight from the start—random being a word I've come to loathe because of its continually being misused to describe fucking everything, especially here, where it occurs in such stupid ways, including "I love how random everything is here, but then that's China for you"—no, it's not) because the small talk I make doesn't have to add up to anything when the people already think they know everything.

Year later I've changed my mind about Joyce's Was. Before, I thought everything was together in that text for an instant and then, smash, it's all gone. Well. How sad, I thought then, or perhaps I'm misremembering. I loved the book. I imagined everything on the edge of snow. But, no, now the camera is in and out of windows of different apartments in the same building. It's a summer night, and the noise from the streets attracts everybody to the window, or even in the inmost rooms, the breeze makes people not feel lonely. I love the memory of reading the book, all the white space of the pages.

I want to go out. I want to stay in.

Sunday, January 9, 2011


If there's a comic book of all these posts, they should be rewritten in the third person, from the point of view of Elmo Chelsea twenty years from now.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

Another Person to Talk Books With

The new Western teacher told me tonight that she'd just downloaded The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, by José Saramago, on her e-reader. I told her to check out Fernando Pessoa.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Perhaps Food Poisoning

There's a good chance I'm going to puke if I type much more.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Through having-hamburger hands, Jim says that Sunny, from Inner Mongolia, didn't have the problems other Chinese students did when learning characters as very young children, like differentiating between

She spoke a different language, Mongolian, not a dialect of Chinese, and so she was older by the time she finally got around to characters. For some reason I can't figure out, this information makes me like Sunny even more.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Look It Up

At a certain point, and I don't know why, I usually decide we can understand our way through this conversation. Somehow. Which is perhaps total shit, of course; my Chinese is nowhere near the level I almost always try to use it at. And too, none of the cab drivers seem to know the name of the apartment complex I've been hiding out in. "{Green Bamboo Small Area,}" I say again. Either that, or my Chinese is indeed shit. I'm banking on the latter, though I keep trying, each time with different tones, though I know they go fourth, second, third, first. What I'm trying to say is something like "{green,}" but there are at least twenty-eight words with that sound, I'm seeing now, as I roll through the app on my iPod, the e-dictionaries something I tell the students to avoid, if only because then the temptation to translate word for word is even stronger. The character 啊 can be
to register all kinds of grunts, which, let's face it, I use regularly, hoping I give the right indication as to feeling while simultaneously not, say, ordering chicken brains (well, no, I know enough not to do that), Sunny having, yes, spent time actually teaching all the tones and the character. And as I walk out the door, they're telling me, "{Walk slowly,}" but maybe they don't mean it; it's just a goodbye, much like my goodbye doesn't actually mean "God be with you," certainly not, Christ no.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"Don't Disturb Us, Fuckwad!"

Zoey, a four-year-old and no longer my student, crying because after
雪人 snowman
手套 glove
围巾 scarf
汗衫 vest
帽子 hat
is shown to her for only an hour—first time in her life—her father has yelled at her for not remembering the words

even though she doesn't know the Chinese in the first place when I ask her
never mind the English

how does all this come together in her head

her father now reading a newspaper, Zoey standing by the front desk, Hanna comforting her

Zoey and I go through the words
fuck this, Zoey, I'm thinking
let's dance
and we do through the lobby

if only classes were more like this

Sunday, January 2, 2011

书树 (shū shù)

book tree


Student: "Tim, has your family a— Teacher, how to say 枪支 [qiāngzhī]?"

Betty, an Eastern teacher: "'Gun.'"

Me: "Oh. Do you think all Americans have guns?"

Student: "Yes. I think all."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Well Worn and Wearing Well

progress on the project: two poems finished, eight more roughed out (seven of these ten have been published, but I want to change them)