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.