Sunday, July 31, 2011

Perfect Language

"Where are you from?"


"But your English is too good. You can't be from America."

What the fuck does that mean?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"Let's Be Happy with What We Have"

Recently I haven't been able to stand much of this place. The Chinese government claimed there were only forty people killed in the recent train crash, according to the Bear, yet the total is over two hundred. The other day a Chinese woman said she was disappointed in China. Upon hearing this, her coworker said she loved China because unlike in the West, here you don't have to follow the rules. "You can do anything you want." As long as you know people, some of us reminded her. "Well, yeah. That's a social skill." But farmers don't have that skill, and so it's not fair to them; they have to follow the rules, the first woman reminded her. "That's why they're farmers," her coworker said. It's always paying off people and being nice to people in power and putting up with shit and acting happy. Better not show anger.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Three Horsemen

The Three Horsemen are out again. We're taking our blood pressure with Preston's machine. The lowest pulse takes a shot. I either won or didn't, depending on how you look at it. The other M. won or didn't. "No, but really, guys, we need to take better care of ourselves." Laughs.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


It's been a rainy summer and especially hot. Much of Kaifaqu has been covered in a fog. Tonight I walked up the huge hill to the UFO, the lights of which from the ground were covered in the fog. Suddenly its blue appeared, lending a blue tint to the surrounding white. I stood at the top of the hill, able to see nothing but a yellow glow from the lights below but not the lights themselves. It was like I was standing on the edge of the world, the UFO behind me some transport I had just arrived in or was waiting to take off with. I listened to the chapters in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle about Lieutenant Mamiya and wondered about the calm I felt, as though I had no right to it. Calm. Lately I've felt as though I were losing time. A profession in words doesn't leave you much chance of escaping them in one's nonprofessional hours. Maybe the idea of escape isn't the best way of thinking about it. I see little difference, for example, between teaching a language and writing a poem, say, and reading seems to slow time down and take my mind off the worst parts of whatever work I don't want to think about in my free time. Given the option, I would rather spend the night, or as much of it as possible, reading next to the open window of my balcony, listening to the rain that's likely to come tonight, but my body and tomorrow's obligations are pulling me under already. I'm not entirely sure what I want to be doing right now, to be honest. But I know I don't want to sleep for days.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Bear Complains about China

The Bear says, not for the first time, "I hate China. There are so many bad things you don't know." She shows me a picture of a train falling off its track, one of its cars dangling. This happened last week. The government, she says, claimed only about thirty people died, but the actual number was a lot higher than that. "And they buried the train, but there were still people on the train who were alive." I don't know what her sources are. The picture on her Android looks genuine enough but could have been photoshopped.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sophia Li

Congratulations, Sophia Li, for passing your high school entrance exams and being recruited by No. 1 High School!

Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism excuses too much. From pushing on the trains to the bribes associated with guanxi—when you ask people whether they like this stuff, they say no, of course not. But what can they do? they ask. There's no use complaining. A Chinese saying warns, "The nail that sticks out gets nailed down." Besides, goes the argument, if I don't push, I'm not going to get a seat on the train. A lot of Westerners like to brag about how well-adjusted they are because they no longer mind the pushing, but I mind. I don't like to be pushed, so I don't do it to others. I'll accept that the idea of personal space is small, but I reject that it is absent or, worse, not important. "That's just their culture." There's a difference between culture and habit, preference and acquiescence. All day I hear culture used as an excuse for why someone will or won't do something, as though culture were the easiest thing to explain, as though one constantly had culture on one's mind and could wield it knowingly.

Friday, July 22, 2011

George Orwell in China

I'm excited to report that some of the Eastern teachers are reading Animal Farm and 1984. More on this later.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


The Bear tells me everybody else calls nipples 奶头, /nǎitóu/, "milkheads."

The Bear tells me she calls them 小头头, /xiǎotóutóu/, "little head heads."

As I write this, she tells me she's never said the first thing. She says she has no idea what everyone else calls nipples.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On Speaking Chinese While Out Doing Research for Articles

I've noticed that while playing journalist, my Chinese falls apart. For example, on Monday, I went downtown to interview the doctor who'd performed the microsurgery. The patient and I got into a taxi, and though I knew I knew how to say all the words for where we were going, I couldn't get the driver to understand me at all. "二号医院," /Èr Hào Yīyuàn/, I kept saying, "Number 2 Hospital." But he just stared at me. The patient just spoke English, indicating 2 with her fingers. Finally he understood. He said I'd said "{hospital}" wrong, but I was staring at my dictionary as he told us, and I swore it was right. Far be it from me to tell others how their language ought to go. Still, the school downtown is across from a hospital, and every time I go down there (I'm there now, in fact), I say, "医院," /yīyuàn/. It's written on the hospital itself. But maybe I was getting the tones wrong. I did keep ending my questions with "吗," /ma/, the question particle, even for non–yes-no questions, which you don't do. When we got to the hospital itself, the doctor asked, "Do you speak Chinese." I indicated that I did but only a little, not enough to do an interview in, especially one about heart and arteries and new procedures for getting inside people. Usually I have someone along with me when I'm out journaling (or whatever the verb may be), and it's usually someone who's been here longer and who speaks better, an editor or a photographer. The patient had been here seven or eight years, but I spoke better Chinese than her. Perhaps, though, I was nervous. I always picture journalists as the intrepid sort of people, asking question after question. Here I find myself more the bumbling kind of outsider who doesn't really know what to ask. Maybe I shouldn't write that, but it's true. And to come up with questions in Chinese—that would be even harder.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All Day I Want to Write

In class, I'm the Cat in the Hat. At home, I'm the fish.

Tonight I finished listening to Speak, Memory on the walk home. In the audio version, the foreword's at the end. In it, Nabokov talks about all the versions of the work: an Englishing of a Russian rewriting of an English composition of Russian memories. Why do different versions of the same thing so enthrall me?

Because you can describe the disorder. All day I want to write.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

June 28, 2012

Skype call today during which my parents announced they had a date set for their wedding. "Not everybody can say that," my Mom said. "'My parents are getting married.'"

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I've just arrived back in Kaifaqu from a few days downtown. First I played journalist, writing quickly while a nice lunch was provided for me. I won't say that I hate being a journalist exactly or even dislike it, but opportunities for a story always come at a bad time, it seems—in the middle of busy weeks, for example, as now. Then I trained a new teacher and played substitute at our downtown school today. I forget how much more I like being in the classroom.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


With the window open in my apartment yesterday, I could hear the English lesson going on at the nearby school. The method of delivery—that is, what passes for teaching—was listen, repeat. The class was doing colors. "Purple." "Purple." "Pinka." "Pinka." After five or six times of this repetition, frustrated, I yelled out my window, "Pink! Pink!"

There are certain things that almost all my students get wrong all the time: /th/, many words with final consonants (as above), /v/, etc. As I've learned Chinese, I've come to understand that many errors come from directly translating from Chinese to English. A good example of this is the sentence He asked a long day off, which of course should be He asked for several days off. In Chinese, there's no word for "for" before the word for "day off." I don't know enough yet as to why there exists in Chinese "a long day."

So there are large-scale errors being taught and reinforced. Worse, students come to my class and don't believe me when I point out their errors. I am, after all, not their main teacher but only their once-a-week teacher, their in-addition-to-regular-school teacher. "But our teacher said it was this," they invariably say. I don't know how to say this, but your teacher was wrong. "Maybe you don't know. My teacher studied English for many years." That may be, but he also studied the same thing you've been studying, and it's wrong.

It's not just the words that are wrong but also the ideas behind them. In some classes, for example, I constantly have to battle with the Eastern teachers about the use of Chinese. Once the students are at a certain level, they don't need any Chinese in the classroom. I myself wasn't convinced of this for a long time, but this semester I've been teaching three classes—one a group of ten-year-olds, the other two groups of eight-year-olds—entirely without Chinese. Of course, Sunny, the best teacher in our school, is my coteacher in those classes, and she has incredible ways of seeing what the students don't understand and addressing those things, all without the use of their first language. She and I have taught the simple past without using any Chinese. Sure, the lesson takes longer, and you have to find things that are familiar to the students so that you can guide them through the use of this new tense, but it can be done. In a higher-level class, with a different Eastern teacher, I explain the new vocabulary; ask the students a question to test whether they understand; they respond with a satisfactory answer; and then, without prompt, the Eastern teacher tells them the Chinese. "I wanted to make sure they know the exact meaning." This pervasive idea that languages have a one-to-one correlation, that you can understand something only if you can understand it in both languages. As I've written before, if you can point to a concrete object and say what it is in your second language, you don't have to say what it is in your first.

Last night a fellow teacher and I talked about our job here. He came to the conclusion that you can teach our students the truth, and you can teach them how to learn, but he questioned how much that would actually help our students. You can teach them how the English works, but if the test is looking for the wrong answer, how much are you helping them? So you have to be extra aware of the mistakes they make and why they make them, and you have to be careful to tell them how to answer a test, even if it's complete bullshit. I still make it a point to call out bullshit. I'm not sure whether it bothers me when students think I don't know what I'm talking about. That's a whole different thing. However, it bothers me whenever their teachers' information is taken as sacrosanct. You have a large body of people making the same mistakes but stubbornly refusing to see that there's anything wrong. That's unacceptable.

Monday, July 11, 2011


Kaifaqu, we joke, has only three places: home, the school, and Five Colour City. Kaifaqu Station is on the edge of FCC, and from where I sat this morning, at Deli Harbor, where the Japanese owner has memorized my and my friends' sandwich preferences, I can see passengers arriving and departing. I listened to the chapter in Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory on butterflies and had the urge to ride the train back and forth between here and downtown just to be alone.

I want to write sketches. Every time I sit down to write now, whatever comes out is surely something that would need several contextual notes, and even then it wouldn't be as funny as it is to me. If my life were a movie, I'm not sure what the content would be or what style it'd be in, but I know it'd have to have subtitles, perhaps undecipherable at first until the character learned the language, but still, what would the audience be doing all this time? The audience would have to be right there with him, learning the language too. What would the twenty-and-some-old version of Chelsea say were she to be interviewed?

All of this to say I don't know what to write anymore. Grammar is often easier to write about than people or the city, but grammar is all work, leads back to work, so that every word I write is work, is the obsession in bed, on my edge of sleep, of trying to work something out on how to teach a complication. You can't overexplain—that is, you shouldn't overexplain. What's with explanation? The point is to get the students to talk like you, seemingly without thinking, though we of course know how much thought it takes to generate language, especially one that isn't your first. How do you do something that doesn't involve language? I want to know. Because I cannot disconnect.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

All Day I Hear, "快点儿!"

"Never, never say 'hurry up' to a child."
—Vladimir Nabokov, from Speak, Memory

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Interview with a Patient

Focus has asked me to write a story "about a woman who recently had emergency heart surgery in Dalian and the doctor who performed it using some amazing new techniques and technology." The woman, it turns out, is one with whom I ate dinner the other night in celebration of a friend's birthday. She showed us the smallest dot of a scar on the inside of her right wrist. The doctor, she said, had used a probe with the thickness of a hair to, instead of cutting her open, shuttle four stents, one the longest in the world, up her right arm, through her chest, and into her heart. "In any Western country, they would have cut me up. They would have said, 'No way; it can't be done.'" The cost was about as much as my monthly salary—that is, bupkis. "If you need surgery, do it in China. There's no reason to go into debt just to have a surgery."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Walt Whitman, from "Song of Myself"

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab
and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow'd wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

Monday, July 4, 2011


ST1B is a coda. Eight six-year-olds, it's the last class, of thirteen, of the week. Although this is their first English class, according to their parents, they seem comfortable in the language and use more words and sentence patterns than they've learned here—in other words, it's an easy class to teach.

Yesterday Adam leaned back to find something taped to the back of his chair, leaned too far and followed his weight down, smacking his head against the table as he fell to the floor. Before he stood, there was already a dark bruise in the corner of his right eye. He didn't cry. Instead, he said, "Eat the cake," one of the commands he was being asked to respond to. The other students said nothing, waiting to see what was going to happen. Nothing, except the next command, "Give a present," and here were the students finding the next slip of paper representing an idea and the language to go along with it, gesturing outward as though giving an invisible person a gift. A birthday party was the class's theme, and the class sang the birthday song, though sang, "Happy birthday to you," for all parts, even the part where you're supposed to sing, for example, "Happy birthday, dear Chip." Yes, yes, we understand the context, the students seemed to be saying, which was a comfort. I must admit I expected them to burst into a new song next, spontaneously. By that time, in this class, the finality before my being allowed to let go of the job for a couple days, all the English seemed a weird machine, a machine that had to be accompanied by my face and hands and all parts of the day in which I could remain awake. "他没哭," I told Adam's mother. He didn't cry.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


Mac's singing Rubblebucket's "Came out of a Lady." She says, "I wish I had been here last year, when all the cool stuff happened."

Later we're listening to a man from Germany saying he likes America, especially Ben Franklin, who said, he says, "'In wine, there is wisdom. In beer, there is freedom. In water, there is bacteria.'"

Then three men from Korea are trying to persuade us they're not Korean, but when I ask them questions in Korean, they respond with appropriate answers, only in English or Chinese. They're dancing with Mac to Abba's "Dancing Queen," kicking their legs in moves from martial arts.

"This is the best time to be here," I tell her. She has to talk me into leaving so we're not tired for our classes in the morning.