Thursday, June 30, 2011


The smoke sneaks in from the balcony, where the Bear enjoys a cigarette. She complains I'm sticky. The humidity's high, though the temperature's low for June. We're trying to get me to understand Chinese grammar—we are fun kids, after all. The advice I keep giving to get over the nervousness of not being able to speak—have a few beers and then try—I don't want to follow.

Those who have been here for a while ought to know better than to begin any sentence with "In China…" You either get it right and piss somebody off, or you get it wrong and piss somebody off. There's no telling anybody about their own country. Right? I mean, what is your America? An absolute for you. Don't you talk about my home, you which country person.

After just shy of three years, I finally run out of shampoo. The brand I request from a visiting-home friend is gone, she reports. No one's surprised.

Everybody in our business has their favorite words, no? Which often become confused for correct usage. Oh my Lady Gaga. I'm more jazzed about being able to understand anybody than I ever have been before. It's hard to know which language to use when people use your own but you're in their country. Like, what's polite? What's appropriate? You first. No, you.

Am I getting through to you? Hello?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


By the time the bank teller came back from wherever she'd gone, somewhere behind the wall that divided us, I'd already been waiting more than an hour. First an anxiety had gone through me over the thought of having to come up with the Chinese to defend my place in line, a joke, really, the thought that there could be a line: people almost always come into the room, see that there are others waiting, see even that a customer's already being served at the window, and approach the teller anyway. A foreigner, I imagined defending my place—"不,不,不,轮到我了"—to be an impossibility. Then the anxiety that because the person I usually deal with wasn't here, I was going to have a hard time. And, lo, nor was I wrong, because the teller came back and told me something about five hundred USD, and I thought she was saying I couldn't send money. A quick call to Hillary confirmed I couldn't send more than five hundred a year, which I'd never heard before. Some time later I was back with Linda, who, I didn't know, had a relationship with the manager, and it was all being smoothed out. Nobody's surprised at Linda's connections; she's the domestic coordinator, after all, and the school's employed her as a grease giver (see guanxi). She seems to know everybody and to have helped everybody at one time or another, and I feel good to have her on my side, though I also feel annoyed that by myself, because I'm a foreigner, I can't do a simple thing like transfer money back to the States.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


A newcomer is so often the way to begin a story.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Manager Meeting

A couple days ago I was told there'd be a manager meeting and I was to attend. This was the big boss saying this. I said simply, "Great." When he'd left, I told Joyce, "But I'm not a manager." She said they just wanted my input.

Now, there have been rumors going around for a while that I'd become the next leader (the word the Eastern teachers keep using). I always tell Miles, "I just wanna teach"—it should be my stamp, really, ready to be deployed on the original form and the three accompanying carbon copies any time someone asks me to do something unrelated to my classes. But the thing is, usually Western teachers stay only a year, and so much of that year is spent orienting yourself. People willing to stay longer are a rarity.

So I entered today's meeting trying not to be excited for fear I'd be let down. However, at the end of the meeting, I was told I'd been promoted. I'm now the Director of Education. I love being here and had already planned to stay at least two more years. Now I'm considering making a career with this company.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fuckin', 了 (le) can be a source of confusion for those learning Chinese. Depending on the context, it can mean either the completion of an action or the beginning of one. Take the sentence
which can mean either "Mom came" or "Mom's coming." In the first case, you'd know Mom had come because there'd be a knock on the door. In the latter, you'd finally convince her, over the phone, to come see you, and then hang up and announce to the room, well, that Mom was on her way. The first use of 了 can be thought of as a marker of completion. The second can be thought of as a marker of a change in condition. Do that mental dance in real time—I dare you.

Monday, June 20, 2011


If I'm honest, I don't think I can get the project finished by September. I've been devoting a lot of time to Mandarin, and though I write every day, I don't want to force just anything out by the end of summer. "Exeunt Omnes" feels like something I need to spend some serious research time on, and here I might not be able to do that. I'm not really sure what I want to write about these days. I like the effect of not understanding much of what's going on around me while simultaneously feeling the routine of the days—the everydayness of being here.

How You Talk to Students

You speak to the the kids too slowly, they end up sounding like a goddamn Speak and Spell. And besides, what kind of measure is it if you can run at them with the language at only like quarter speed? I mean, I'm not advocating speaking as fast as you can, but. Also, give them time to respond. Jesus, don't ask a question and then ask again right away using different words. Make them feel comfortable with taking their time to get through the words.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Via Matthew Roberson

A: Knock, knock.
B: Who's there?
A: To.
B: To who?
A: To whom.

Saturday, June 18, 2011




Friday, June 17, 2011


This morning I finished the last line of my translation of Green Zone New Orleans. Now just to go back and make sure all the word choices and grammar are all right. Feels like I'm looking for a fuse box in a swimming pool.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Concrete Nouns

If you have a picture of a dog and you tell the students, "This is a dog," you don't need to translate. There's this fear that the students won't learn the one-to-one correlation one language is supposed to have with another. Baby, they don't work that way. If you're really worried about whether the students know dog, bark.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What Are You Doing / What's Happening

Not helpful in attempting to teach English-speaking students Chinese are the terms progressive and continuous, since these words often indicate, in English, the same thing—namely, to be _____ing, whether past, present, or future.

The progressive, according to the horribly named 外国人实用汉语语法 (A Practical Chinese Grammar for Foreigners), looks like
正在 + predicate (verb) + 呢
with any part of the aspect marker being optional. This pattern describes an ongoing action.

Which is different from the continuous, which indicates an ongoing state of affairs, having the appearance of
predicate (verb) +  着
which, in English, can look adjectival.

Two examples:
1. 我正在开窗户。 I'm (in the middle of) opening the window. [progressive]
2. 窗户开着。 The window is (now) open (after already having been opened). [continuous]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Not a Prescriptive Grammar but a Consistent One

My head goes in three different directions as I listen to the Germans in Happy Hour. They've been here for three days. Trying to talk with them, I find it all but impossible to construct in their language, coming out with Chinese instead. Later, in a different part of Five Colour City, I meet someone from the South. She speaks Cantonese, runs some of it by me as a contrast to Mandarin. For some reason, though it's gotta be—what?—way past 2 a.m. by now, two customers are sitting at the bar with water and an open book in front of them. They're studying Korean, and it's easier to talk to them in that language than it was to talk to the Germans in theirs. As the sun comes up—at 4, can you believe?—I'm one of the few still awake, and I'm giggling like a mad person. I really don't understand much.

Monday, June 13, 2011

A Couple Quotes from Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate

"Human nature provides a yardstick to identify suffering in any member of our species" (172).

"You cannot step outside [decision making] or let it go on without you because it is you" (175).


I'm almost finished with my German translation of Mark Yakich's Green Zone New Orleans. I'm on my third draft. As I look over the second draft, I realize that I'm getting looser with it. I feel like learning Mandarin has helped me let go. My goal is to get this thing done by August 18, three years after leaving the States.


progress on the project: an appended section for my teachers and students—don't know whether poems or essays or

Will this thing actually be done before September 9?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Though I Still Have a Long Way to Go

What's it like to understand both languages in the room? Man, it's weird that I'm beginning to.


Internet issues: at home, the router's cashed, and we didn't know the settings for connection; at work, we can connect in only half the building, the half I don't occupy all too often. But I've gotten more work done in the meantime.

The other day, I came home to find the whole building at half power, the lights humming as though somewhere people were fucking and sucking the juice half out of the place. Something was buzzing. The next day, the water heater was found dead. Tonight it was replaced.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

On Wanting to Be Productively a Little Nuts

Last Thursday my left knee felt as though it were being stabbed by one of the three-year-olds I so often teach: lingering and spreading, as though I were falling down onto one of these students as he tried to run off. I couldn't sleep that night nor the night after, and in my staying-up mind, I dreamed grammar wakefulness. And Saturday night and Sunday. This wasn't the first time my knee hurt. A month ago or maybe two I had the same kind of pain.

So Hanna took me to the hospital on Monday morning. I could either get VIP treatment for two hundred and some or get regular treatment starting at four yuan. I opted for the latter, and Hanna pushed her way to the counter and wrote my name in the limited-to-three-characters space. When we found the room, though, a nurse told us about fifty people were ahead of us. I opted for the VIP treatment, advertised for foreigners "because they think you have the money," according to Hanna, which meant, I should have known, that I got to cut in front of everybody. Old people, bleeding people—it didn't matter. The doctor pressed the sore-to-the-touch knee of mine. "痛风," he said, a perhaps indicated by a messy question mark he wrote in my file.

"Tòngfēng?" I said. "Something 'wind'?" Hanna didn't know the English. A quick looking up: "gout." Did I want to take a blood test? Well, let's take an X-ray first, huh?

So I cut another line. The man before me held his finger, blood leaking through the bandage and his holding-his-other-fingers fingers. He came out of the room still bleeding, and when I went in, there was blood all over the machine and floor. The doctor, ungloved, wiped some blood off the machine with a thin tissue and then threw the tissue in the corner of the room. He left and came back with a dingy towel, wet, and wiped the machine down. Where he wiped was where I lay.

Now, I don't know whether I was being a baby or what, 'cause all this time, it felt like knives in the ol' bendy part of my leg. Sitting or lying down was the worst. Only when I stood did the pain stop. The X-ray guy, in addition to having me lie down, made me get on all fours, forcefully, without asking me, likely assuming I couldn't understand his Chinese, and then, also without asking, bent my leg as far as it would go. I screamed out in pain and called him a fucker, hoping he'd understand. Of course I felt guilty—I'd just cut a huge line and was walking along gingerly while all these people were waiting their turn—but it didn't make any sense why you'd bend the fuck out of a body part that might be damaged.

VIP; therefore, my X-ray was available even before I left the room. Nothing abnormal. Blood test. The results would come the next day. Meanwhile, I'm thinking, There's no way it can be gout. I just hit my leg stupid hard while teaching or something. I do that all the time. I'm constantly modeling getting hurt.

So I skipped town. Just didn't want to be in Kaifaqu for the two days I had off. As I write this, I know I had, at that time, something I wanted to make sure I wrote in this space about the feeling I had then, but now I can't remember. I know I was in a bad mood, a bad mood that had preceded my knee's pain, but I can't remember anything specific. Sometimes you get like that. Just being far from familiar shit. It's nothing to worry about. Everything goes away.

I skipped out, to Shenyang. Visited a palace and a marshal's former mansion. Didn't think about school at all, amazingly. Read a good deal of Then We Came to the End.

The doctor called while I was away: yep, gout. I am at least a little disappointed: did I do this to myself with the way I've lived?