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.

Friday, August 26, 2011

On Teaching Six-Year-Olds

"'Put in the disk.'"

"'Put in the dick.'"


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Light Pollution in South Korea

"In Seoul, where several churches crowd onto a single block, illuminating their crosses until midnight or later, the beacons combine to color the urban night like a carnival come to town."
"South Korea Churches' Beacons an Eyesore to Some," from the Los Angeles Times

Monday, August 22, 2011

Picard and Riker

via Matthew Roberson

On Digital Publishing

Craig Mod, "Post-Artifact Books and Publishing"


I've been less patient lately. No, that's putting it wrong. Every day I work with students taking a long time to process responses to what's been said, and I must wait while others try to understand my broken-ass Chinese. In these instances, I'm in no rush. At worst, somebody won't understand me, but I won't be lost, only delayed. Here I have enough money and know the layout well enough—how strange to have grown so accustomed to a life in a different language.

What I really mean to say is, I've been calling shenanigans more and more often. A good example of this is in dealing with cab drivers. Before 10 p.m., the fare's supposed to be eight yuan up to a certain distance (because Kaifqu's so small, you rarely have to pay more than eight, and so I forget what the distance is before it changes). However, if it's raining, the drivers charge ten yuan. There's no rule that says they can do this, but that doesn't stop them. And the range of the definition of rain includes "like, well, even though it's not raining now, it rained this morning"—that kind of "rain."

Last week the Bear and I took a cab on a day heavy with clouds but without any rain. We had trouble getting a cab at first. Every one of them passed with their signs illuminated, but every one of them had people in them. "Shit," I said to the Bear, "they're not running their meters." When the meter's running, the sign's dark. We hopped in a cab, and I asked how much.


"{But it's not raining.}"


We hopped out. After asking a few more drivers how much a ride would cost, I checked my wallet and said, "Let's get in the next one."

When we pulled up to the hotel with the Indian restaurant in it, I passed eight yuan up to the driver. "{It's ten.}"

"{No, it's not}," I said.

"{Ten!}" he yelled.

"{Thanks.}" And we got out.

The Bear was kind of shocked at this. "{Can you do that?}"

"I do it all the time. Why should I pay extra?"

And it's not like it has anything to do with my being a foreigner. Being charged more for "rain" happens to Chinese folks too. "Do you pay it?" I ask.

The answer I always get is "Of course. What choice do we have?" which is the refrain for so many things: pushing in the streets, change thrown rather than placed in the hand, shoddy work, etc. Life becomes a process of putting up with bullshit. As my buddy put it, it's no longer bribery when everybody knows about it; it's just the fee.

I used to feel split about sticking up for myself, if I'm honest. You're in their country, so you've gotta follow their rules, goes the argument. Except the rules are so often broken. I am following the rules.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

You Curse Yourself with an Answer

A: 你是东西吗?

B: 我是东西。/我不是东西。

Thursday, August 18, 2011

On Being Gone for Three Years

I left the States three years ago today.

The hardest thing for me to get used to was having to wait for others. Probably why I was so eager to learn to speak. I realized the other day suddenly that I wasn't the slight bit nervous about doing anything here. Kinda weird when you get used to not understanding much.

Different people re-create the rooms I'm constantly in. With this class, I fill up the room, laughing with them, but when they're gone, with the lights shut off, it's once again a dead city.

Another two years in me. When I get back home, I want it to be weird. I want the constant use of English to be just knock-me-down weird.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What the Fuck?

After working downtown today, I wanted nothing more than to get back to Kaifaqu as quickly as possible. While waiting for a cab, I practiced how to say where I was going (this is a nervous habit left over from the days when to get anywhere, I had to first look up how to say it and then repeat it, usually screwing it up once I actually got in the taxi). It was taking a little longer than usual for a cab to show up, so when one finally pulled up, I was happy, thinking, I'm going to practice my Chinese with this guy.

Looking into his rearview, he asked, "{Where to?}"

"{To the light-rail station.}"

In English, he said, "No," and waved his hand.

"{Why?}" I asked. But he wouldn't tell me. He just kept waving his hand. It's supposed to be illegal to refuse a ride in this city to anyone, so I wanted to know. The more he waved his hand and refused to look at me, the angrier I got, till I found myself screaming, "{Why?}" as loudly as I could.

"{Get out}," he said.

"{Tell me why!"} I screamed again. I started to speak, but so frustrated was I that I couldn't think anymore in Chinese. I got out of the cab, furious that I couldn't yell at him anymore. "{Fuck your mother,}" I said in Chinese, not loud enough for anyone to hear.

I went to the other side of the block to wait there, and with no luck there either, I returned to where I'd been refused. I stood there about ten minutes. Then a couple twenty-somethings stood near me. One, laughing, said to his friends, "{Come here,}" and they stood right in front of me, putting their arms out to hail the cab heading our way.

"{Really?}" I said to them. "{I'm standing here, and you…}" But again, pissed off, I couldn't get my words together.

Ten more minutes later I finally got a cab. I told the driver, "{The light-rail station}," but he didn't understand me. "{The train station,"} I said, thinking he needed more context. My tones must be shit, I thought. "{The light-rail station behind the train station.}"

"{Behind the train station… Ah, the light-rail station.}" And he started on down the road.

However, he wasn't headed toward the light-rail station across from the train station; he was headed toward the light-rail station near IKEA. Even better, I thought. It's closer to home.

But we just kept going past the station. "{The light-rail station, the light-rail station,}" I said, pointing over my shoulder.

"{Yeah, there's one.}" He nodded and grinned.

It wasn't too late to turn left and drop me off right there. "{Take me to that one.}"

"{But you said you wanted to go to the one behind the train station.}"

"{I said that because you didn't understand me, but we're here now. I want to go to this one.}"

"{But you said the one behind the train station.}"

"{Because you didn't understand me. This one is closer to Kaifaqu. We're right here.}"

He repeated my original directions once again, now too late to turn. We were headed back into the city. We'd made a huge U. OK, fine. He looked back. "{They all go to the same place,}" he said. "{Isn't that right?"} He asked this last question the way the Eastern teachers ask a three-year-old student who's scared of class on the first day: "对不对?" I didn't answer.

Finally we got to the station. It was the end of the day, so the line for the ticket was long, but that didn't bother me. However, a man cut in front of the woman ahead of me. She didn't look pleased, but she said nothing, and the ticket agent didn't say, "{Look: there's a line here, sir.}" Nobody was surprised. "{It's not your turn,}" I told him. He didn't even look at me.

The ride home went smoothly, and when I got off, I decided to get some coffee before heading home. As I came out of the coffee place, two women stopped me. These same two women stop me often. They're always asking for money, especially in Hong Mei, the area I live in. I ignored their questions, asked in English. Then another woman tried to stop me, again asking in English. I ignored her too. Then another woman and another. What was going on?

The sixth time two women approached me, I was walking faster. Again in English: "Excuse me. Sir?" I didn't slow down. And then the woman slapped me hard in the arm. I stopped.

"What the fuck?" I screamed at her in English. I wanted to show her how angry I was, and this time the Chinese came quickly to mind. "{Don't hit me! Who are you?} What the fuck are you thinking?"

Her friend pushed her hands together in front of her mouth. "Sorry," she said in English.

"No 'sorry!'" I screamed at her. "{Don't hit me! Who are you?} What the fuck? Fuck you!"

She switched to Chinese: "{Sorry. Sorry. My friend. Sorry.}"

And they ran off. I walked on, huffing. At one point, enraged, I turned around to find them and scream at them more, but I couldn't find them. A young couple watched me (which, now that I've cooled down, I'm thinking, hell, I hope they don't see foreigners as lunatics; I hope they saw my reason for my reaction), their faces unreadable.

Monday, August 15, 2011

To Get around Censorship

Since Chinese people cannot use the word 抗议, /kàngyì/, "protest," when they write online about yesterday's events in Dalian, they use the word 散步, /sànbù/, "take a walk," according to the Bear.

PX Project Questioned


The protest downtown actually took place yesterday. A friend said that despite the SWAT team's arrival, only a few people were hurt and not very seriously. A student catching a cab said the driver had offered her a free ride if she was going to the protest.

When writing on the Internet is likely to be blocked for political reasons, some authors use characters that are written differently from but pronounced the same as those to be filtered. As an example, for a long time, the Bear tells me, the character for "to fuck" existed only in handwriting and wasn't available on any computer. People had to use 操 instead, which is pronounced the same, /cào/.

Unfair Question of the Year

Yesterday Joyce asked me which of the three countries—the US, Korea, or China—was my favorite. "I'm not answering that," I told her, "but it should be obvious."

"Then China is a close second," she said. OK.

Even though I admittedly wasn't thrilled with the States when I left them, nearly three years ago, that's not why I left. I just couldn't find any jobs. Teaching English to nonnative speakers seemed too good a job for a writer to pass up, and so I left.

I once called Korea the lite app you download to see whether you'll like the full app (China being the full app, natch). Perhaps that's unfair, but Korea was a much easier country to live in. At the same time, however, I wasn't very involved with the lives of Koreans (possibly because I had a girlfriend and, if I'm honest, I wasn't much interested in anything else). In China, I try to talk with as many people as I can, and if I'm not at school, I try to speak Chinese. In Seoul, I could walk around the city and keep to myself, following the English signs through the subway stations, and Korean's really easy to read. China, at least the way I live it, requires a lot of talking.

Of course, the expat life can be one of sticking to yourself. It's just like so many other things.

But home is home. And if you ask somebody else to think of your own home as theirs, what's the answer supposed to be?

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Almost Two Years Later

My second contract officially expired today.

If you're any good at your job, they'll promote you out of it.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

It's 2011, for Fuck's Sake

The Bear says there's going to be a protest down in Renmin Square at 9 tomorrow morning against a polluting factory that should be at least a hundred miles from the city but is dangerously close. She wants to go, but she's scared. She's not even sure it'll really happen. Many people are talking about it on the Internet, but she thinks there's too much fear. "Maybe the police will get there before. Because it happened already. Once, they wanted to do it in Xinghai Square, but the police were already there." When I ask her whether she wants to leave China, I already know the answer. I've asked her many times. I just can't believe her answer. Before, everybody I talked to was so pro-China, like it was a gut reaction, but now so many people are willing to call shenanigans. If, for example, you were to yell in a crowded place, "Fuck Hu Jintao," you'd disappear, the Bear says. Nobody would know what happened to you. "This is not only one person's fault. The whole system isn't right, because we have only one party."

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Nobody I've asked can tell me when to use a period or a comma in Chinese. My teacher, Sharon, said that when she was young, her teacher taught that the use of either was to be found in the beauty of the sentence. If the sentence was short and therefore ugly (necessarily?—seems so), it required a comma, regardless of the next subject or any intervening conjunction. If the sentence was long, however, and therefore beautiful, it required a period. Nonsense, I'm sure. People guess it has something to do with the subject: if the subject of adjacent sentences are the same, they can be joined with a comma. Another explanation is, if you feel the sentence is finished, you use a period. "Feel"? Since when do feelings enter into punctuation?

Chinese sentences do not have to contain a verb to be "complete." An adjective or even a noun may serve as the predicate without any verb attached. As I write this, I have all the early English teachers in my head saying, "A complete sentence has a subject and verb." I wish they'd used the word predicate instead of verb. When learning these other languages, Chinese and Korean, I perhaps would have been more satisfied to look for the predicate instead of the verb, saving me some time and frustration. In fact, Korean adjectives are conjugated the same way that verbs are. In Chinese, a speaker cannot use a form of {to be} before an adjective.

As I write this, the Bear looks over my shoulder and says, in Chinese, "{That's so boring}," but I want to spend hours in books looking for the answers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Output Kaput

in my dreams, deleting this whole blog

Tuesday, August 9, 2011


Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity's Rainbow. 1973. New York: Penguin, 2006. 410–50.

in these pages, anti-paranoia—that is, "where nothing is connected to anything"

There is a lack, for a large part, of paratextual clues as to when somebody is speaking a language not English—the German without italics, the language of the Zone a mixture. Perhaps because of Slothrop's being American, much of the conversation is in English, but there is no need to mark the switch.

no obsessive mark here
because you're going to go as long as you can in one language
whatever to get you together

Monday, August 8, 2011


台风, /táifēng/, literally "table wind"

One was supposed to hit Dalian today, but all there's been is wimp rain. Still, all schools were closed today and many businesses.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Beginning of Another Translation



Friday, August 5, 2011


Was told during an education meeting yesterday that when parents send their children to learn with a Western teacher, it's for listening and speaking, not for grammar. Westerners don't know how to teach grammar.

Was told at the bank the other week not only that I was a foreigner but also that the letters I had used to write my own name were not written correctly.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


It's tempting to think nobody around can understand your English and so to say whatever you want. Just like sometimes you get annoyed that those same people don't think you can understand their Chinese.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Three Horsemen

As Though Chinglish Weren't Also an English

From the school near my apartment a couple weeks ago came a continual "What's this?" Or at least, it was supposed to be "What's this?" Really, it was "Whaddis?" the ts becoming one sharp /d/, the h totally dropped so that the /th/ was entirely absent. It was the teacher asking this to a class who yelled so loudly in response that the answer was blurred in sound. How easy it is to get frustrated at mispronunciation, especially when it comes from someone who ought to know better or at least be more careful. But as I listen to many Westerners try to speak Mandarin, I hear the same kinds of mistakes. Indeed, my Chinese sounds so silly to me that I feel awkward using it in front of another Westerner, never mind a Chinese person.

Learning sounds out of context is clumsy, teaching sounds is difficult, and defending one pronunciation against another (vase: /vās/, /vāz/, or /väz/?) is sometimes pointless. This is not to excuse the, for example, /w/ that is often substituted for /v/. You model shitty language, you get shitty language.

It's amazing the number of self-professed experts out here. Language is so personal that to point out something as absolutely not true, or not always true, is to insult someone. It's amazing the rules I hear, the explanations made up to defend personal use or the dismissal of the things in the books. "Nobody talks like that." In my amazement—which I cannot escape, except when it's a constant, how much of a surprise is it?—I look everything up, have dictionaries on every conceivable piece of electronic equipment I can add a dictionary to. Things are said with such absolute certainty.

Cold Night

Someone pointed out that my Chinese name—韩烨, /Hán Yè/—has the same pronunciation as the words for "cold night," 寒夜.