Sunday, December 20, 2009


I descended the fire stairs with critical thoughts spiralling down with me. We had our school and work Christmas parties today and the latter, held after a long day, I was always going to be easily annoyed. I was rather exhausted, hungry and the backroom staff were too busy to start the staff party on time; so we waited a bit longer and then eventually they informed us they were ready. We proceeded into the party room and were greeted by a pile of food. The only foods I could eat were plum tomatoes and cake, neither of which were giving me any feeling for the dinner my stomach needed to keep me even slightly content. Then we did a secret Santa. We'd been told about this just days ago and I hadn't had time to get a gift so I grabbed the authentic DVD I bought a while ago (which was the same value as the maximum budget for the secret Santa). I got my gift, which was the equivalent of a $2 shop gift, little photo frame. The other foreign teacher left - it was his second to last day and he couldn't be bothered hanging around. The backroom staff made their own circle and were raucously laughing in Cantonese and Mandarin, and I decided to get out. I spoke to my "pick-me-up" students and then headed off to get something nourishing in my stomach.
It wasn't a bad day though, but needless to say, it was never going to have a spirit of any kind, let alone something lofty like the Christmas spirit. I worked from 9:30am with three classes and then switched to Christmas party mode. The organisation was less than optimal: the principal thought the opening would be in one place; I was directed to another, and I had to do the speech to open the event. Then once I'd finished the speech I marched to my room to teach two hours of continuous lessons for writing letters to Santa and New Year resolutions. It was revolving doors of groups: a group came in and once they were finished, they headed out and another lot came in.
And then finally that stage was over. I chatted to a few students but then suddenly got caught in a swirl of cameras: For a brief moment in the early evening, I became one of the most photographed figures on the planet. (I was lucky that Obama had already left Copenhagen.) In student crowds, photo fever is a fast-moving contagion; it just takes one teacher to surrender his likeness easily for the whole staff body to be open game; and once you pose one time, other meeker students raise the courage, and their cellphones, to yank you around with one arm and raise their peace sign fingers with the other; and besides, I'm a soft touch. Since the assembled mass included a lot of "friends of students" it was important to stay present with the attendees, talk to the unfamiliar faces and also do what management here would include as "customer service". (I don't want to criticise this cold way of talking about students because members of the teaching staff do neglect this side of things.)
Regarding the situation at the end of the party, being the noisy person I am, I'll probably mention, politely, a few of my concerns to the school manager. Politely because she is probably part of the problem. The real Christmas day is still six days away and I'm about to venture out of my city for the first time. I'm hoping to be refreshed!

Monday, December 14, 2009

One moon

If one week took a long time to pass, the last three weeks must have shot past because it doesn't feel like that long since I arrived. Time milestones often don't really amount to anything significant other than a number and the end of a first month is hardly any reason to crack open a bottle of Chinese whisky; so let this just be a title to a blog, and let it at least trigger some appropriate, although premature, circumspection.
One of my original goals was to get my Chinese on the tracks and, although it is not great as I would have wanted it, it is definitely on its way - I'm reading The Reader, in Chinese. My plan to establish myself a mandarin life external to my English school loop hasn't even set itself up in the starting blocks, which is rather disappointing, but I haven't even really tried. I'm far too comfortable and routine now. I've completely revived my classroom teaching and am leaving my own stamp on the school, slowly but surely. Teaching in itself is a joy, anyway.
Some of the students are truly energising. There are two young men who do nightshift at their jobs and come in bright-eyed and busy tailed at the surreal hour of 7pm to start their days with English lessons. One was a complete beginner when I arrived - I was there for his introductory interview - who has probably the best smile of any student. He chats in a basic way quite happily with me now (I haven't been teaching him - just talking to him from time to time); I've tried to buy his briefcase bag off him for the last few nights but he is only just figuring that out. The other exudes the greatest exuberance for learning of anyone in the school; he doesn't stop smiling, even when he told me he was assaulted on the way to the school! Both have only just made their first steps toward learning the language yet look forward without fear. Talking to each is a great way to end a day,  a shot of human delightfulness that, at the end of the day, is the best way to head home on.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Discovery 100

My discovery for the day was that a 100 yuan bill can survive a washing machine wash. This is good to know since I'd already spent  100 yuan having it fixed by two repairmen. I called one; he came; I put money in my chest pocket in preparation for payment; he pulled the machine apart; said it needed a controlling unit replaced; said that would cost 370 yuan plus; I called my landlord; was told to get a second opinion; the second one come; he turned the knob and it immediately worked. I believe the first one's dismantling incidentally fixed whatever problem it had. I had to pay both a 50 yuan door-service fee, something the landlord thought was high. So after a huge delay I washed my clothes, impulsively throwing in the shirt off my back, and today, ironing, I found my 100 yuan wrinkled but intact. They have paper money here so I'll take it as miracle.
But more significant a discovery was that my stamina is up to classroom teaching again. I did have a good day at the school with three near perfectly executed lessons in a four hour period. I enjoyed two of them immensely: one was a complete creation of my own and it fell into place perfectly on "the opening night". (I'll perform the same lesson two more times later this week.) Taking a lesson for the first time is a little scary and I did all three lessons for the first time today. The rest of the week will be easier now that I have a feel for those three which make up 50% of the rest of my lessons for the week. Every week should follow this rough pattern: Intense preparation on Sunday and Monday before teaching the first lessons for the first time on Monday and then having time to breath throughout the week.
The shrill whistle of the human traffic conductors is my alarm clock in the morning. The traffic, as chaotic as it is, can organise itself more or less with the subtle direction of the traffic lights. Pedestrians at major intersections, however, cannot manage themselves. (And I say this without any hint of irony.) Hwwwwweeeeeeeeeer! the whistle sonically torpedoes wayward walkers should they drift across the road without the green man as they usually do. They generally halt their steps in the face of the uniformed challenge. Four sunglassed conductors are required to hold the people-mass from seeping across the road. Of course, soon as they signal the non-cars to proceed across, the cyclists are unleashed rocketing like missiles through the churning intermesh of flesh and feet, often carrying twenty full water cooler bottles on the back of their bikes. At some time the conductors retire, the river banks are breached and chaos floods the streets once more until the evening falls and the conductors return to shoulder the burden of Sisyphus again.
People mountain; people sea. The population here, of course, can only boggle the mind of a Kiwi. The population density is double that of the densest part of Auckland, except maintained over an urban area three times greater. In my eleventh story room there is a telling view. Though I have great views from two of my windows, from two other windows I can get a scale of this large apartment building where I live: it is mostly occupied, a huge number of rooms; and it looks over a mass of old crowded buildings, all packed to the literal rafters; and in the not-so-distant distance, there are more apartment buildings, most of them labyrinthine, floor upon jaded floor, of identical floor plans, and doorways leading to rooms of the same or thereabout dimensions, accommodating a family with two parents and one point one rather overgrown children, who are usually in their mid-twenties. On an early Sunday morning I woke up and headed to the markets. Within my walk of barely five hundred metres, I passed close to five hundred people, all going somewhere on this beautiful Sunday morning. There is nowhere I can go apart from my apart-ment that I can part from the hustle-bustle of the neverending fanfare of life here.

Saturday, December 05, 2009


It was after the scalp massage, hairwash and the shoulder rub that I thought that I might genuinely be late for work. It was hairdressing, you see, but not as I had known it. I'd spent about 20 minutes in there without the blades of a barber's scissors even getting close to my scalp. I was sitting there having a shoulder rub, chatting to the masked gentleman rubbing my shoulders about all manner of things. Of course the relaxation momentarily disappeared when I spotted the hugest cockroach started climbing the wall, but soon the rub again released the anxiety and the world, I and the cockroach became one again.
The hairdresser emerged from his grotto later and chatted with me while he removed my laterally surging hair. According to my friend, barbers never used to chat to customers; so perhaps, it's a pleasant cultural appropriation from western barber culture; perhaps, the barbers in NZ could learn from the nimble fingers of my masked friend too. Either way, the barber was a good chat, and he enjoyed testing out my cantonese.
I did in fact get to work on time. And that day built to be a stressful one: observed by the boss on a class I'd never taught, but it went well enough; I'll credit student enthusiasm as the element that made it a good lesson. To be honest, after rushing the planning on a hectic day, I -thought it'd be a disaster. I'm par excellence one-on-one but classroom teaching will take some getting used to again. "Why are you shaking?" my students often ask. They have always asked that and the answer is simple: that's the kind of person I am. I've always had what the doctor calls a benign tremor, and the tremor is more severe in moments of anxiety, and I feed on my own nerves.
I have around me two very good, professional teachers, who don't have a heart for the job. They are efficient, knowledgeable and in some respects, good models to follow the example of. They control themselves with ease in front of the class and generally deliver good lessons. But they carry an element of annoyance at students. Whether it be style or personality, they sometimes release a sneer which is quite astonishing. The only other teacher loves students and loves teaching. He has vowed to know the names of all 400 students of the school. His lack of pedagogical polish is made up for in his sheer gusto for people. He and I are the only people who circulate in the student iLab (the area where the students take online courses) to aid and to chat with students. He and I are the only people who'd linger after class to aid students. It is technically the responsibility of all the teachers to go to the iLab but it doesn't happen for the first two teachers. That responsibility was given by the boss for whom many staff have already expressed their dissatisfaction with the management of. I have no objections with ideas of the boss: most of the points that the staff have issue with are things I'd generally think are appropriate things; it is seems apparent though that it is a matter of how changes and policies were delivered; there was no buy-in at all; perhaps, no buy-in even sought; they were just stated and that was that. A simple policy of no Chinese in the classroom and in the staff room was delivered; but the Chinese-literate teachers still use Chinese in the classrooms (this is against my religion); and when the wolf's away, the sheep do indeed come out and chat in Maaaandarin in the staffroom. And Cantonese. Which is fine by me. Incidentally.
On Thursday, I finally got out and about to a scenic area: White Cloud Mountain. As all decent mountains in China, it was staired; but it was still a good walk. It was good to head up and up. Looking back at the city revealed that Guangzhou was just White Smog City. Interpretations of some photos suggest that there is in fact no Guangzhou at all.
My flat-warming is approaching on Tuesday and I'm already thinking about how to amuse all my colleagues. They're a good bunch but we've always got the problem that on every day of the week, there are people working. Tuesday, I and two others have day off but we're all on the next day. They are good people and I'm hoping that release from the mental shackles of the workplace is enough to allow us a chance to be just people.
An interesting phase.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Where it's at

Ah, time. In the scheme of things, this should have been the hardest week of all but it was pretty smooth. I agreed on and moved into an apartment; did my first lessons; had broadband installed; sat through endless bureaucracy and have settled into a nice routine.
Moving in was a little bit of a crisis in itself. Working late into the evening and then settling into my home without bedclothes nor crockery, I was a little bit panicked to get some of the necessities of life. Fortunately I have a massive supermarket close to my place that has everything.
Just 100 metres from my apartment is a daily food market with the freshest most wonderful vegetables. The long eggplant I had yesterday was as close to perfection as you can really get in life, art or the sciences; there were mushrooms galore; the choi-sam came with a gift: when I put it on the chopping board, in the corner of my eyes saw something dark moved under a leaf; lifting it found a creature that moved like a little like a worm, one end of it stretched into a pointy tentacle that reached out into the direction it wished to go, placing it and peristaltically creeped ahead. It was leech. The first I'd ever seen. The only drawback is what a colleague referred to as WAT (white-added tax); some of the prices sound dubiously high (by chinese standards) and usually I just refuse - they may expect bargaining but I'm hardly in the mood.
Tomorrow morning will be my first real chance to explore my unpolished gem of a neighbourhood. Tomorrow will also entail having a lesson observed by the boss. Since she grilled a senior teacher just yesterday, I'm hoping (a) that everything goes dreamily; (b) that if it doesn't she shows some leniency for someone finding their feet in our system.
It's nice to have proper home.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


353: This number is one of the first things I see when I descend into the subway each morning; It is the number of days before the start of the Asian Games in Guangzhou. I arrived at 363 and thus it gives a me an in-your-face reminder every morning of the time as it passes. Ten days it has been and ten days that have been crawling by regardless of happiness and frustration.
Yesterday, I would have begged for euthanasia to escape from the bureaucratic hoops to be leaped through to become a resident worker. It all seems so needless really but then I'm obviously oblivious to the benefits of the system of forms, of going from one small office to another, of photocopying and of Chinese triplicate (not real triplicate, because you have to do the same form more than three times).
But now with most of the process done, I'm on the verge of moving into my new apartment and settling down properly. Once there I can buy a pantry worth of food and spices; I can invite people over (my current room is no good for guests); and I can walk to work in 10 minutes. I can't wait to get over that line. My landlord seems a good man (that being said, I thought my last landlord in NZ would be decent when I first met her) and has been very patient and helpful as we went through the steps.
I've got a Cantonese teacher now and after one lesson, boy does my head hurt. I think I'll have a ferocious learning curve ahead of me but will hopefully get the hang of it soon. By the end of it, a reasonably spoken sentence would half stick and half go astray. The most peculiar thing is that after chatting in Cantonese, Mandarin seems so, so easy. It is as if the brain turbo-charges to cope with the Cantonese so that when the Mandarin comes it is even easier than usual.
Real work is about to begin! My flurry of blogs may be about to cease. While I was dropping some documents into my school's head office in the north, one of the teacher liaisons came up to me and suggested I be head of the social committee for my school and around for Guangzhou. I suddenly thought of the shock of a full schedule, my obsession with language, my move and suddenly I felt I was rather not feeling like it. But we'll see...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Red, white and green
As someone with a rather experimental tendency when it comes to food, it is a delight to have such an excellent variety here in Guangzhou. I live near a very average small-scale supermarket, and yet I can get the most delicious things: mangosteens, dragon fruit and chinese mountain yams. They have plentiful beans and mushrooms; nuts and grains. Cooking dinner (and leaving some for lunch) is never a problem.
And you need to keep healthy in the city. Pressures push us everywhere, and sometimes it surges us places faster than we could ever imagine. Well, that is the case on the subway at rush hour. My lord! When everyone needs to catch the train at the same time, you'll catch it whether you like it or not, and if you don't catch it, you won't be catching anything for half an hour. There is a logic there that can be understood after close study of the physics of sunspots, solar flares and the solar wind. Fortunately, on Tuesday when we did go at rush hour the surge was strong enough for both me and my orientation friend to squash onto the train.
And even when you're not at peak the pressure remains: Beep; beep; beep; SHRIEK! That was the sounds transcribed in Jiangnanxi station on Tuesday night as a girl did a feet-first long-jump style leap to make the train before the fourth beep announcing the rapid shutting of the doors. She and her trailing shoulder bag made it by millimetres before the jaws of the doors drew shut. Fortunately the door on the other side was shut for she would have passed right through at that speed.
The general foreigners here are a strange bunch. I noticed this in the past too. As a person who makes eye contact with pretty much anyone with their eyes up coming the other way, I reckon that foreigners avoid my eyes much more than the locals. I think only one pedestrian foreigner has done anymore than dash their eyes away. I gave him a polynesian chin-raise with a polite smile; he smiled back.
But then, apart from my colleagues (who seem like a good bunch), I think I'll try and give foreigners a polite distance anyway. I went to meet a relation of a friend last night and fell right into a pocket of westernism, swedes, germans and a British-born chinese playing a game of Risk with beer; it was strangely uninteresting.
A week has passed since I arrived and it feels like at least a month. I'm on the verge of agreeing on an apartment; my work is falling into place (I'm chomping at the bit to begin, in all honesty); the weather is still rather agreeable; and I'm watching a horror movie on public TV: Awesome.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

After the early faze
Last night I got home and struggled to sleep for the first time. It was nothing to do with jet-lag or unfamiliarity; it was excitement and anxiety after my first day on site at my school. And I should have slept because I was knackered. I haven't worked in so many weeks that to sustain concentration, to constantly deal with people and absorb copious acronyms and institutional knowledge was rather taxing. On the subway last night I felt too tired to do anything. I could have fallen asleep so heavy were my eyelids. This morning, though, I woke after the sun for the first time since arriving, meaning that I'm not far from running on Chinese time.
My workplace has been an enjoyable discovery. My workmates, both foreign and local, have been very easy to get along with. The school already had one Canadian, one Brit and one American so I add another flavour of English. In the two branches I've visited this week, I'm the only antipodean. The majority of foreign teachers are Americans. The students are cute. I'm still about two weeks away from my actual teaching but it has been good to be amongst it all. I do feel part of the team.
I'd like to officially retract that dreadful title that I bestowed upon Guangzhou: Guangzhou is not the arsehole of China. On Tuesday I went to a similar place to that which I visited in 2000 (can't be sure it was the same) and what a change has occurred: The people are probably less foreigner-struck than when I was in Shanghai two years ago; It is a great deal cleaner; Beggars are not on every corner; The people, aside from the service, have been great to chat with. Last night while I was waiting for my food at a local eatery, a young man (Lin Huangjie) sat down on the neighbouring table also waiting, we started a nice conversation and though he had some interesting thoughts about the difficulties of learning English, he refused to speak with me using English.
Yesterday may also mark the time that my Chinese study was reignited. Ever since my birthday the heat and fire of my study have been weak; even being here I didn't feel interested in pushing myself to learn. Two colleagues and I enjoyed a lesson with the visiting teacher. It was better than I had imagined although my demands of a lesson will probably see me seeking another teacher to supplement my studey. There seems to be a slight issue inherent in the class. When it was just my two colleagues in the lesson, the less proficient of the two was quite inhibited by his more fluent classmate (the Canadian is a very unrestrained speaker). And now there is a newer, more fluent fish in the pond; apparently he was even more affected. The teacher took me aside at the end of the lesson to let me know about this and we discussed teaching methods to deal with it.
I managed to make my first vendetta though as part of my quest to bring a good service culture to China. A colleague that I went apartment hunting with and I went to a "korean" restaurant. We ordered and within ten minutes my dish came - I didn't start waiting for the other order to come through. Ten more minutes passed and I grabbed a waiter and he grunted that he'd check. We chatted and after another ten minutes I grabbed the same waiter and asked him again where the dish was; he grunted again and headed to the kitchen. Then suddenly all the waiters swarmed over to our order sheet and then to the table next to ours where a lady was eating a certain Chicken Curry Rice that we'd also ordered. The orders were somehow confused and became the one. After about ten minutes the dish arrived. I told my companion that I'd like to raise hell / a complaint on payment, but mainly for the purposes of language practice and making a not-to-subtle point. But it didn't end there: after finally starting our meal, I asked for some tissues; they came but when the same waiter delivered them he added a charge that was even more of a red rag to a bull. When we went up to pay, I camped us at the till and explained how dissatisfied we were and how it was completely unacceptable. The staff scurried around; signals came back and forth from the kitchen; and even when they refused to recognise any obligation on their part to show any goodwill, I stayed camped at the till. The boss came out and said: "We're very busy here and these things happen, sir." I continued telling him that this was not good enough. He appeared to be starting to crack. But we decided just to pay the bill and tell him that we'd mention the service here to our friends in our language school. After leaving the restaurant, I felt myself rather untactful and suddenly much better ways to reason them into the ground appeared to me. God save the next restaurateur who crosses me.
Cantonese has been on the menu too this week and it has been good to be in the environment to hear it and learn it. When I walked with an agent to help me find an apartment, he'd always talk to the landlords in cantonese and I caught quite a bit of it. And the basics comments are all immediately understood. But, boy, I've got a long way to go (and a year to do it).
I've got a well-timed day off today. Whoever designed the schedule for new teachers had it pretty much right. I'll have another two days of "work" and then another day off on Sunday.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Settle down now!
I've had a day here now: I've been approached by hawkers; eaten my first street food; smelt that funny "Please let that be anything other than sewage?" odour that wafts out of drains in the city; and been pushed in front of by little old ladies. Yes, if the sign after customs hadn't said it already, I'm indeed in China.
The hotel was almost a joke the moment I arrived. The internet didn't work; the TV was misconnected; the clock is perpetually 11:40; the bathroom light blew within minutes; and though the room had a kitchen, it was short of almost everything. An intercom call brought a worker up to attend to all of the problems. Before I left New Zealand, I had been pleased to see that I had a breakfast provided with the room, and had a picture in my mind of a small scale buffet with some nice warm Chinese breakfast food, rice porridge, perhaps. In the morning, I descended to the lobby, hungry since about 4am and was faced with an unattended reception, so I asked the doorman who dialed a staff member. A sleepy-eyed receptionist came down and informed me that breakfast would come with the room cleaning people at around this time. So I headed back to the room to find two processed, packaged cakes and a bottle of orange juice: A let down of sorts. But it is a room and now that I've done some shopping, figured out how things work, slept well and had a wander around, I'm at least comfortable.
My neighbourhood is reasonably uninspiring, but it has a good supermarket nearby (with some organic products!) and it looks like it has a reasonable cafe opposite (stocks wine too, NZ labels only, buy them by the bottle at ridiculous prices!). The trees are pleasingly verdant; a big difference from the limp, grey "greenery" of Shanghai and Beijing when I visited. I haven't yet had to take any evasive action while crossing roads. My new shoes have now really met Chinese pavements, too, which really is the fastest way to depreciate an asset ever.
I headed out at noon on my first tentative journey into the subway network, emerging at the famous Guangxiao temple and then heading over to the shopping strip of Beijing Road.
"May I ask you a question?" I was asked in English by a young woman as I waited at an intersection.
I thought that there was no harm in allowing her the pleasure of a single question with me: "Hăo!" I assented. Her face collapsed: "Oh. You speak Chinese. Nevermind. I was going to ask you if wanted a guide," she replied in Chinese, disappointed and walked away.
Oh and the most unbelieveable sight of the day? Definitely the men selling tiger paws on the footpath. Actually, that might be the most extraordinary thing ever. I'll have to think back to all the wackiest things I've ever seen in this country. I also found a rather outstanding spelling mistake on a sign ("STSRBUCKA").
From tomorrow onward my world will become a bit more routine with work beginning. But not real work, just starting the settling in process and visa requirements etc. It should be fun!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Final daze

And so I'm amid the slow process of airport transits – definitely away from where I started from, but still a seeming eternity from Guangzhou and my welcoming party there. It is only eight in the morning and I have four hours to kill till my connecting flight. And I'm in Starbucks, which of all places will be home for this time, drinking an Americano. And though they claim to have free wireless broadband, it seems not to be accessible anywhere in the terminal space I'm confined to; this'll probably be sent once I'm in Guanzhou.

It was a long day on Friday, day of the flight, which could have gone smoother, but I can thank my lucky stars that, so far, I don't seem to have forgotten anything. Both Thursday and Friday proved that even with plentiful time to prepare, my brain still managed to leave many tricky tasks till the last moment; but still leave just enough time to complete everything before a rush to the airport. It is always the way.

The pre-big trip anxiety only hit me on the drive to the airport in fact, showing that this drawn out lead-in really did rob me of the nervous energy it would have otherwise provided for at least a week preceding departure. This meant that I slept well the night before I left. But now, it has dawned on me properly: I'm starting a long adventure from which the relaxation of home is as further away as it will ever be; my feet will always feel in the air till they're back on home soil; I'll have curious eyes on me every day; and I'll have a long time to adapt to my new city and to connect myself in with the Chinese world.

Airports always play on my nerves as I subconsciously think about all the things that can go wrong, wrong entrances I could go through, forms that could be filled out incorrectly and wrong places to go and fruit and pocket knives I could accidentally stow in the wrong bag. I may have done something wrong already: I'd packed a bottle of Ginger Liquour in my check-in luggage to act as a gift or, if no recipient becomes obvious, for my own consumption in Guangzhou. Last night I went to duty-free where I took forever to make the decision of buying a NZ-made gin (gin being another spirit I seem to enjoy). However, the man at the desk told me I could only bring a litre of alcohol into Hong Kong. I didn't even think of the combined volume of the gin and the liquour in my bag; that puts me up to 1450mls of drink, and a bottle of the size in my check-in does show up on the scan of luggage meaning that I should declare or face a potential fine. Fortunately it wasn't the most expensive bottle, should it be taken off me later.

The flight to Hong Kong, from whence I write this, was very smooth. (500) Days of Summer was the best movie in the entertainment book and it was worth the watch (I do like everything Gordon Joseph-Levitt, if that is his name, is in though).  The Last King of Scotland was probably good except for being constantly obscured by my ever lowering eyelids; Forest Whitaker makes you forget that he really isn't Idi Amin; I didn't see the end though – the curtains came down. I had a few short patches of sleep but otherwise cruised through the flight peacefully half-awake/half-asleep. The Other Man was my movie of the dozy morning, clunking its plot along but getting at peace with itself by the end.

If the delays and my fall at Cathedral Cove were some sort of karmic stop-signs telling me I had made the wrong decision to come to China, there have been plenty of other interesting personal coincidences telling me that this enterprise is right. As I boarded the plane, walking through Business class, I looked over at a passenger at the same time as he looked over at me. We both recognised each other immediately. He had been one of my students six years ago. Although he was a native of Qingdao (on the northern coast) and had been staying in New Zealand for most of the time since, he had started a company near Guangzhou in the last two years with a family friend. He visited me later in Economy with his business card and said we should meet later.  It is always nice to have these lucky meetings.

And of coincidences and decisions, back in Auckland Airport waiting an hour to leave, I bought a hot chocolate and read in my freshly delivered Forest & Bird magazine about the degradation of waterways due to dairy farming. I pondered an interesting resolution: to be dairy-free for this whole Chinese endeavour, where realistically possible. My flight meal was already vegan (the airlines smartly give a vegan meal to all who have moral qualms about food), which brings me back to the huge Americano to my right (a really, really long black). I've been popping Raw Cacao beans as if they were candy. Such a principle would gladly avoid the generally horrid milk in China and keep me away from foreign temptations. But we'll see. I'll probably be offered a slice of cheesecake somewhere and scoff it without any moral restraint at all, and probably have my expectations let down with a tremendous clatter (in terms of western food here, things that look like a duck, don't necessarily quack or taste like a duck).

And so as I sit in the bastion of capitalism and epitome of a soulless café, I sit and ponder whether I'll find a cheap voltage adaptor soon before my cyber enjoyment runs out. And wonder how softly I'll land into Guangzhou, the erstwhile "Arsehole of China", and my home for the next year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In the lead up to my departure, I've been enjoying food and drink. I doubt whether this is the best strategy: indulging in all the things I enjoy could lead to the feeling of deprivation once on Chinese shores. But not mind that, I've had fun.

Avocados so plentiful and creamy; yoghurt so smooth and rich; cheeses: gouda, blue and brie; chocolate from mid-dark to the darkest night; coffee brewed and prepared to its astringent best; breads light and pure; raw cacao beans; macadamia crunch; dainty ports drunk at the wrong part of the meal; manuka honey spread on beautiful toast bread; gin and tonic, hitting the spot; crepes thin and well filled with the sweetest filling; falafels and tabbouleh so morish and satisfying; milk so white and full; pure organic juice from any fruit; sandwiches with gherkins, beetroot and egg; hummus with garlic and golden kiwifruit scooped with a yellow plastic spoon.

Blogger is one of the websites that are not necessarily accessible in China. This blog was sent via e-mail, the only way I'll be able to continue on this site. And perhaps with such wonderful foods mentioned, I'm best if I don't see the foods listed once I'm in a place where they are no longer obtainable.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

The long and winding road

In June I got the news that triggered thoughts of flying away, and now, five months later, here I am with less than a week left before departure. It has been a rather trying time. I'd thought I be gone long before this time - I've been unemployed for six weeks - but there can always be reasons for such things.

Though I've been denied time with my sister in the UK and travel in Europe with my friends, I've gained in terms of time spent with my mother and friends here and the new connections I've made with my extended family. I've had time to contemplate, as well as explore my country and prepare for my trip.

This being a rather large endeavour for me, it has been nice to have time to adjust to the idea too and think about what goals I have and how I'll carry them out.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

To the root

With my new life postponed temporarily, there was plenty of time for distraction. My zeal for Chinese study ebbed once the immediacy of my departure faded, so where was I to go?

I happened to accompany my mother to a family get-together and was immediately struck by the need to have my lineage down on paper. This may not be an issue for many people but my immediate family, excluding my father's recent lateral extension, is rather tiny - I have no living cousins; but beyond that there are thickets of relatives most of whom were vague to me. I've also not been diligent in the past to follow the exact in's and out's of our family; and for whatever reason, our family has always seemed to do its own thing.

Despite us already being a long way into the information age, I believe I might be the first person to put the full power of the world wide web into the search for ancestors and relatives. And there have been more than a few surprising discoveries: the Auckland museum had a photocopy of my great-great-great grandfather's diary; his grave was a mere fifteen minute drive from home, but he was born on Jersey of the Channel Islands c.1823, coming over on a boat, the Merchantman in 1855. And our family history on that island goes back almost to the Norman Conquest!

I visited my only uncle last week on a trip to Waihi. I'd only met him once before in my memory (due to distance and a family disagreement I never really got to know him). It was a fascinating meeting. He naturally looks quite similar to my father but in terms of interests and attitudes, he is very different; we talked widely on all manner of topics. I'm tempted to go on a Coromandel genealogical jaunt to meet people and visit the dead. In fact, a Dunedin visit may well be due too.

Due to our patrilineal system of surnames, there is a strange tendency toward of fascination. I'm as much a Willstead, Holt, Brown, Harris or Hipkins as I am Goudie, but the search for the origin of Goudie, Denize and McNarey seizes me as more interesting.
Oral history presents its own difficulties. Speaking to my father or uncle about their relatives brings up a plethora of nicknames, and that side of the family has a large number of people who use their middle-name as their main name.

Other than banal facts (like that I'm 1/16 "german" and I'm not as "scottish" as I thought I was), it does give one a feeling a fitting in the world; My sisters and I are the last descendents of the McNarey family in New Zealand. It seems two brothers came over in 1910, got married but all their genes now rest in our hands. Location, location, location was crucial for many of the meetings of ancestors, like a cosmic dance which only can only be appreciated in retrospect. And I now know the Goudie name may not have originated as I first thought, and have always said.

One of the problems with delving into the past though is the relegation of once living, breathing people to mere names. And in the mist of time, people are reduced to names and numbers. They are only proved by their source documents, not by the memory of them. The Goudie name is indeed an issue where my line becomes fuzzy after the last definite ancestor, a William Goudie in the town of Maybole in Ayrshire, Scotland. The only way forth another generation back is through his record of birth, but there is no record of a William Goudie born 54-56 years before the 1841. Are all the records there? There was a well-documented William Goudie (he obviously had a dedicated genealogist - it goes back far!), but his birthdate would make him a very young father if he were the father of my great grandfather! Then I was struck by the ages on the census: the older people have ages of a multiple of five. They were only estimates! I found a likely William Goudie, born at approximately the right time, but is it really him? And that is as far as the internet could take me. But in all honesty, William Goudies were a dime a dozen in Ayrshire in the late 1700s, early 1800s, without distinguishing middle names, and apart from going to Maybole and having a chat over a tea with my distant relatives and non-relatives, there isn't much to do. But the William Goudies are all people who presumably lived lives, had children and died to become a mere number.

But when the number is fleshed, a picture emerges: In the 1841 census, William Goudie was "55" years old, a widower for the second time and looking after two sons to two different wives, with the help of two female servants. His first four children had all died young. His youngest surviving son, Thomas Cuthbert Goudie, at the age of 22, came to New Zealand with his wife, Sarah Ann, on a boat, War Spirit in 1863. (I don't know why.) After the death of Sarah Ann on the North Shore, he went over to the Coromandel, remarried and up to the age of 68, he had 6 more children. The youngest, Andrew Joseph Goudie, had two children; and the youngest of those two children, had three kids, the youngest which is I.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The end of the end - 寿终正寝

At 6:05pm today I ushered my last student out the classroom door and ended my teaching enterprise that began 2:30pm Friday 22 July 2005.

I still remember that first day rather well: A week after my successful marketing meeting, I went to the client's office and then received each of my seven new corporate students for a fifteen minute Needs Analysis. The true scale of what I had gotten myself into became apparent: there were a wide variety of accents, issues and backgrounds and I had claimed that I could help them all effectively. Looking back, I can't say that I would have had the ability at that time to justify those claims; and still with the experience and knowledge that you can only get through teaching over three thousand hours of one-on-one teaching, it is hard to sustain. The lesson early is that you cannot fix; you instruct, support, motivate and facilitate the changing of habits, the learning of knowledge and the understanding and application of skills. And at first, some were quite happy with their English, but appreciated the amusement of a company-supplied teacher. Such encounters taught me the need to actively find out the motivations of the students and even be confident enough to confront students or get their managers involved. Another student had significant "fossilised" pronunciation issues (this means that the influence of his mother tongue is almost impossible to be removed). I learnt a lot about such conditions and recent students from Malaysia benefited greatly from the lessons learnt there.

At the end of that year, I was already positioning myself to jump back into the common pot of "employment" but missed out on my dream job with the Government security agency. That was a blow but the reason for me even looking was the conditions of my self-employment: I was struggling with the scale of the task; I'd failed to lure any other company into a contract; and I was only supporting myself financially with two full days of work a week. That finally changed in my second year almost a year to the day after I began: I found a new client. This was just incredible. After my second or third round of intensive cold-calling, I followed a name I had snared in a research call, and after my spiel I heard the most musical words for a cold caller: "You're exactly what we are looking for!" Apparently some Swiss employee was making noises about that company's responsibilities to seconded employees and that English support should be provided. And I came knocking at that time. With him came more.

This was the beginning of a rather magical period when I'd not only created myself a fulfilling full-time enterprise, but also had a juggernaut that threatened to drive me to my own expiration. My trip to China at the end of 2007 carried with it the dream and nightmare of weekly trips to Wellington, an excess of 30 hours of weekly tuition and no-one with me to handle that teaching burden. The Wellington lessons were a possibility that came from nowhere. My second client was just the Auckland office of an international company with offices throughout New Zealand. Two seconded Croatian workers in Wellington heard from their compatriot up in Auckland that English lessons were provided to them and they made some noise to have access to the same. And after a six month struggle to find a comparable tutor in the capital, they turned to their tutor up in Auckland. The suggestion sent me to cloud nine.

I was light with delight, but heavy with dread. As it turned out the dread was unwarranted: 2008 was a magical year, if only from a professional point of view. It was also the year that I finally felt fully in control of my powers, shaking off one of my perpetual self-doubts that I was not up to the job.

I would send one student out with a handshake and heartily welcome another one into the student's seat like a doctor would to patients. My mind would grasp a sentence and isolate the fascinating issue with it, scrawling it on paper for a graphical explanation. I had students explain the reason things are so with a perfect rendition of what I had taught. Naturally, a teacher's ego can easily go to far and take ownership of their student's learning when, in fact, it is the fruit of the student's talent and work that they have learnt. But I felt immense pride in these things I saw. And the friendships I made doing it were extraordinary: What other jobs can you help and chat with friends and get paid for it?

The decline when it came was not a surprise. Over the last New Year, I made plans in its anticipation. My industry, workplace training, is the kind that prospers in the good time and struggles in the bad. My income halved between 20 February and the 10 March this year. The dying phase has been an enjoyable time in that I've been able to travel, write and learn. While it was alive, this enterprise of mine, I hoped to breathe it back into life; and now, partly on a whim, I've set it aside, asleep, perhaps forever.

Naturally, this is just the ending of one phase of life. Another one is forming for me. But it is a time to look back on the passing of this entity. It was sad to leave both rooms that for quite some time have been mine. I could literally walk in and kick out those inside irrespective of title because I had it booked! I had my own cupboard with tea-cups, tea and books. They are now forbidden ground. I'll have the chance to see some of my students again first in my farewell and some in their home countries.

This has been a special four years and I will cherish it greatly.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Forum rules

These are the rules to a Chinese newsite's tennis forum I look at to read about the US Open:

Please note:
Consciously follow the principles of patriotism, lawfulness, self-control, truth and civilisation.
Observe online morality and follow the government's decision regarding internet safety and other relevant laws and regulations of the Peoples Republic of China.
It is strictly forbidden to jeopardise national safety, harm racial unity, national religious policies and social stability, including content with abuse, slander, ___ and ____ etc.
You accept all the direct and indirect responsibility for civil and criminal acts caused by any of your behaviour.
New Wave Net has the right to retain, republish, quote or delete the opinions you express here on New Wave News .
Participating in this discussion indicates that you have read and accepted the above conditions.

Considering the recent crackdown on Internet in China, especially Facebook and Twitter, some of these are clearly not window dressing. Some are humorous such as patriotism given as the first principle to adhere to. Civilised behaviour should really be more strictly enforced considering that on this particular site comments calling Selena Williams an orangutan (or gorilla) have been abounding for this whole tournament and probably every other tournament, without moderation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Intermediate Tramping 101

On a crest of stress, I strode into two consecutive weekends out of town to play. To be honest, the preparation for both was an element in my anxiety, but the passing of both wound my mind down and relaxed my shoulders. The heart of the first weekend was the desire to do hard-out tramping; something that is not safe alone, but the number of potential companions are few; fortunately, longstanding leave was taken by one, and off we went.

The plan to trot through the Whanganui National Park was dashed by the immense impracticality of such an endeavour: it just is not a feasible tramp without a chauffeur. Plan B was to hop from forest park to forest park and that was what we did.

Completely incidentally the tramps went from easy to hard. The first walk was the summitting of Mt Pureora in Pureora Forest Park, which almost doesn't merit a mention apart from it marking the start. Oddly, I've been staring at this mountain for a while in my DOC brochure thinking it would be nice but it was a mere stroll. The biggest challenge of it was getting enough sleep the night after, as our cute cabin was also occupied by mid-age critical hunters and their leader, (General) John. John had trouble distinguishing between the hunters and the trampers in our hut and wanted to rouse us for the hunt by turning on the light and opening the curtains in the morning. He did, however, emphasise the need to make distinctions between trampers and deer when he had a gun in hand.

The next day was Colenso trig in the Ruahine Forest Park. I had once intended to stay there on the way back to Auckland from Wellington. The walk had a bodyslam of a start: straight up an insistent gradient. Trees frequently obstructed the path. Climbing through these became easier as we went, perhaps due to the familiarity of the task. Colenso trig was one of the first peaks on a range in the north-western section of the park. As we came through the tree-line and saw the grandeur of the whole set of mountains: their ravines, their snow-caps and their scale. We passed a tarn (a mountain lake) on the way up, before rising to the trig for a proper rest and appreciation of our view. It felt like a good challenge surmounted overall and we descending feeling proud in our ability.

We were the only ones in our huge cabin (more a batch, than a "hut"). There was a log burner there, on which I decided to test my skills. I've never started a fire by myself as I've never really been in houses with fireplaces or burners, but of course, the gist is well known: get paper, assemble kindling on it, and some dry thin sticks on them and should everything go according to plan, once there is ignition of these sticks, add bigger sticks. Easy? Well, it took me an embarrassingly long time but once done, we had our very own hot room. Coal sustained the heat long into the night. This experience served me well.

Our next target was the Kaweka Forest Park, just off the Taihape-Napier highway (Gentle Annie). We had planned our day from a DOC brochure, noting a high point Mt Kuripapango up which to ascend, then a track down to the Kiwi Saddle Hut to stay overnight deep in the park before looping around and back to our car on the second day. We aimed to leave early for this early but were completely foiled by a massive landslide onto the only road out from our hut. Lucky for us, trucks were already on their way to clear it but we were still delayed an hour and went on our way.

We found a carpark along Gentle Annie which had a sign indicating the mountain we wished to climb. We kitted up and set off. Compared to the previous day, the track did allow us a flat period to warm up, but the gradient was even steeper and harder than the previous day. I was genuinely running out of steam at one point. But patience rewarded us with the top of the ridge, but it was accompanied by a kicker: we had started from the wrong carpark. We had mistaken a carpark unmarked on our map as ours. Suddenly our original route didn't work so we decided on an alternative route, rested and prepared for a walk down to the hut. We were to be disappointed.

Though on our map, only Mt Kuripapango was marked as a highpoint, the track to the hut went much higher, one point being over a hundred metres higher. As soon as we marched onwards from our rest, we were greeted with curious patches of snow and fallen trees. The pines had been hammered here; at first I thought that someone had taken to them; then I thought wind must have dealt to them; but there was always an element of disbelief: How could wind have felled these huge trees as well as pulled so many branches down. The tree-traverses were more difficult than the previous day. Pine trees are not the most friendly trees for such; the mountain beech trees were far easier; but even they were cruel when, in what would be a delightful grove, the sheer quantity of little branches took away any scent of the path. The usual markers were scarce either due to tree-falls or a general lack. We employed all sorts of methods to determine the path, which time after time solved our navigation issues. Then we broke through the snow-line. Neither of us had experienced a backcountry track in the snow, and this added to our navigational problems. How do you know where to put your feet when everything is covered in snow? One foot is on a concealed shrub; the other falls down to the track. Time ticked onwards and how dearly we would have liked that hour lost to the landslide.

I should say that there were outstanding views. The Bay of Plenty was visible, huge mountains and valleys surrounded us. Earlier in the day I spotted my first New Zealand Falcon (Karearea), and now we were treated to a snowscape with mammal trails. We'd both done Kepler Track in Fiordland in low cloud denying us of views: here we had them.

But those were Heaven so it's appropriate that I tell you about Hell. Late in the day, tired from trudging and falling deep into snow, struggling to navigate with very few clues to use, we approached a mostly smothered cairn that marked an entrance into a patch of pine. We rested, looking up into the pine: the track terminated barely metres ahead with the carnage of pine completely blocking the way. I sighed and queried whether it really was the cairn to mark the trail. And it was responded that it really was. So we struggled forth. Each series of trees presented a near insoluble challenge: we were ascending uphill through a never-ending labyrinth of fallen trees without any markers to assure us that we were on "the right track". I was sapped. I'd already said on three earlier parts that I was a hair's breadth short of knackered, and as I hit the front to survey two possible ways through a wall of trees I sighed in resignation: This is impossible. I dropped my backpack down and took a deep breath before saying that I would quest forward without my pack. I broke a few pine branches and crawled into a little pocket and then scaled a narrow passage up to a little clearing, scrambled up to the next blockage, rolled over over it, fell waist-deep into snow and then crawled up to... another cairn marking the exit from the pine grove. Hell hadn't yet frozen over completely. We emerged from it with speed. There were suddenly constant stream of markers but were also treated to the inevitable setting of the sun. The darkness would come within an hour. I had a head-torch but it would mean nothing without markers should we still be in the snow. But then the snow relented and we were back to a rocky descending path. Markers lead us down and down: And through a gap in the trees at the bottom of the hill was a flash of white: Kiwi Saddle Hut awaited us. Simple elation!

We quickly set up in this basic hut, the centre of which was a tiny log burner. We may have been able to get by without heat, but it would have been nice to warm up with a fire. With my recent experience, I thought I'd give it a try, sacrificing my chinese magazine to attempt to get it burning. Page after page was reduced to cinders. It could have been the damp environment or I could have just been lucky the night before. We both gave it our best attempt: this fire was not lighting. I had just a page and a cover left when I decided to give it just one last try to assemble the perfect set up. I ignited the paper and it burnt well but slowly it started to fade again. I picked a leafy twig in a last move. We had been stripping the leaves off the mountain beech branches (on the assumption that they contained water and that would not be conducive to burning); this was proven to be a mistake when the leaves exploded into flames. I yelped and through more leafy twigs into the minature inferno, and then yelped for more wood. Suddenly the branches were igniting and then it was time to get the ax out to start getting some decent blocks of wood. And thus we had a warm, warm hut.

Really that the end of the trip, we slept, descended, drove back to the normalness of life. But there is a special mental space occupied when you are tramping in the mountains. It is so otherworldly that when you leave, suddenly a flavour is lost from one's palate.

  1. Our approach to staying on the track was accurate. Even though the track was concealed for long portions of the ridge by snow and pine material, often without any observable markers, we determined the route without fail.

  2. The clothing we had was tested by a strong alpine wind and passed.

  3. I started a fire despite limited means and slightly damp wood.

  4. My fitness, though pushed to the limit, came through.
That all being said, I think our approach was rather lackadaisical: we both lacked equipment that would have made it easier and safer; we were planning a difficult walk off a crude map; and then there is the lingering question of whether we could have made an adequate bivouac in the snow?

This was something of a wake-up call. Though it will (likely) be my last rigorous tramp for quite some time, it might trigger me to make a few purchases to prepare for getting back into tramping when I get back. I'll also want to take a mountain safety course at some stage (they are run and they should be a necessity if we are doing that sort of thing). So what I intend to bring from now on to back-country huts:

  1. Fire-lighting material/coal in a moisture-tight container. Take something that can act as kindling as well as a fire source. A lighter or matches is, of course, a necessity.

  2. Candles, both to use and to leave in the candle holders.

  3. Gaiters. These aren't just creature comforts: Hikurangi should have taught me that without protection some areas are close to impassable. On this trip, a lot of snow came into my shoes, melting to water but remaining at a low temperature due to the outside temperature. This is not comfortable.

  4. Off the main walks, all overnight tramps should be navigated with a topographical map. A compass is a nice accompaniment to this.

So, in summary, this has been a lesson in safe walking, a reminder that might save my life one day.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Pincer Movement

The map has been drawn: The mist has mostly cleared from the next few months, just a few valleys and gullies yet to reveal their true contents. Around this scene, two fronts, a cold and a hot, have squeezed me terribly from both sides; with them, I'd fallen back, until recently, into an awful anxiety: My sleep, poor; tummy, contorted; shoulders, shrugged; my concentration, wayward; and this for almost three weeks. I'm glad to have reached the end of this track.

And busying myself as I had, somehow no great crises arose; well, until Thursday morning when I left on the bus leaving my car in the drive blocking my mother's morning commute. But that day was the day when finally I started to ease...

Friday, August 07, 2009


Sometimes motivation is just like a switch: without it you might think you can achieve something, but several months later it becomes a mere memory; with it, action flows like breathing. And such is my ceaseless study of the Chinese language. In China, over a year and a half ago, and in the weeks after, again I found my stride and lifted my general level. And then the power dissipated in the competing demands of life.

Now, again, on the scent of an imminent trip, I've swung my mind into a complete state of lingual urgency: absorb everything, spare nothing: not even a single character. My listening has almost reawakened; I still occasionally am overcome by streams of language, but generally it all goes in. My vocabulary will be the hardest to reactivate but some promising signs have emerged already; I've been hearing four-character phrases that I haven't seen for ages and recognising them. Feeling I was being misunderstood by one of the many agents in China, I launched a comprehensive Chinese e-mail to clarify what is a major city and what is not, and why a position in a major city is of high importance to me. And reading, apart from a few rogue sentences, has been fine.

All in all, nothing will stop me till my direction changes, and that could be quite some time!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Where my heart is

Today I left my city-centre life and fell back to the suburbs. I'm the kind to get easily attached to a home. And my apartment was a fond place for me to live. It was the place that became mine so easily when I really needed a home; it was the place I emotionally convalesced from the worst trauma of my life; it was my base for the busiest part of my working life; and the launch-pad for my most prolific travelling. A home is so important to me that it was only when I found that I was leaving my apartment that I realised I'd also be preparing to leave New Zealand.

Last year winter had passed in the background despite the heavy rain. This year's winter has fizzled since June. It is so comforting that we have such mild winters. The prospect of a Chinese winter does leave me rather cold. I spent two holidays in the Chinese winter and felt dreadful each time. My only Taiwanese winter was blighted by some homesickness making the mild grey a darker shade of blue. In actual fact they'd only have the equivalent of a very mild New Zealand winter.

Perhaps, it is part of maturing that thoughts of seasons and of homes is what I'm thinking about most.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Warping to reality and back again

My drive to watch ten movies waned after my sixth film and life got so much more exciting and busy. How can life be so crowded? But with the end approaching, I saw a slot of time and a movie marked tentatively as: maybe, and launched myself into motion once more and made it up to nine.

We Live in Public

This is the first true documentary of my festival and it was well-worth it. The reality of the individual in the film, Josh Harris, is odd; but the film swallows you up so that half-way through the film, some of the unquestioned assumptions seemed not worth challenging at all. Only once the curtain came down did I marvel at how amazing such a person could create such enterprises and pull so many people into his life-vortex of creation.

Like many of the biopics I see, I had no clue about Josh Harris before seeing it, and but this time that would go for most of the audience who crowded into watching this movie. He is "the greatest internet pioneer that you've never heard of" after all! Before the bubble burst he was consistently two or three years ahead of technology. He is a definite odd-ball, beyond the normal sense of the word. He probably is the one we can blame for the Big Brother tv series through his extraordinary concept of Quiet: We Live in Public, which for him was "a study of Cultural History", for others it was the ultimate Orwellian / Anarchic experiment. His quirkly life is what is intriguing, where a man with a bent becomes a millionaire, loses it all and becomes just a man with a very odd bent.

This was the third film where the creator made an appearance. I give full kudos to the director for not trying to be an element in the film despite the chance to. I usually dislike the 'documentaries' at festivals often have their creators having significant screentime and roles. The drama behind the scenes was fascinating; while answering the questions a lot of this came out. Her filming process is fascinating as she starts filming without really knowing what will happen and then finds the purpose of the film, and years will often pass while she films more and finds how the story 'fits'. For her, the advent of Facebook was highly analogous to Quiet, and for that it perhaps is a salutory film to watch. This film won the Sundance festival and she is the only director to win that twice!

The screening though was plagued with technical issues. Firstly, the sizing was wrong meaning captions were half off screen; the film ceased at one point; then another time, the screen went dark while the audio intriguingly kept going (and what's more the audio at that point had started to refer to the nudity and sex at one particular 'world' he created, teasing the voyeuristic part of the mind with hidden fancies); at that point, they stopped the film all together. The director of the festival was there in person at the end to express his apologies to the audience and the director in person, and there might be an opportunity to re-watch the film with my ticket stub if anyone is interested due to the botched screening. Another of my picks, the Limits of Control was not screened at all at my preferred time due to technical issues in a previous screening. I hope that the only problems.

All Tomorrow's Parties

Music "documentaries" come in many flavours, and this is simply chocolate! With virtually no narration, it launches into performances at the All Tomorrow's Parties music festival, interspliced with fly-on-the-wall scenes of attendees getting up to mischief, performing, mixing and living. It is a 90-minute sonic experience.

The principle for ATP music festival is that it is a festival curated by a particular band, done without sponsorship, usually in a sea-side town with many attending bands and artists from the obscure to the well-known. The well-known were some of my favourites: Nick Cave, Grizzly Bear and Portishead; whereas there were also a few bands I want to know more about (Animal Collective and Battles). But all of the performances dazzled. The opening by Battles transcended music completely. Nick Cave performed Snoop Dogg's favourite song (of a few years ago), The No-Pussy Blues. Portishead, characteristically, outdid their studio recording in a blasting rendition of We Carry On. But some of the odd things was how so unlike any concert it really was. The bands and the audience were mixing closely, staying in the same accommodation. Performances were often done in the immediate lawn of the holiday inn. A character who I've never heard of The Lightning Bolt, in a courtyard, dressed in a gimp-suit with extra masking tape, at a drum-set, was surrounded by fans demanding him to perform a particular song: "Thirteen Monsters!"; "Mrrrmrrr Mrrrmrrr?" he clarified. The fans yelled again; he still seemed unclear; One fan put up tried to put display thirteen fingers yelling the title, before he suddenly showed comprehension and launched into the fastest drum-sequence, sending them into ecstacy. Grizzly Bear took a group at sunset to the water's edge with instruments to perform Deep Blue Sea to close the movie. All footage was taken not as some deliberate recording but as incidental, by fans and others. All told: Wow!


Oh, Christ! was perhaps what many people uttered, instinctively and without any irony, during this film. I committed myself to watching it, too, solely on the director, Lars von Triers. I've seen many of his movies and have huge appreciation for his range. Only with Dogville and Mandalay did he repeat a technique. Dancer in the Dark, the first movie of his that I saw, remains one of my favourite movies and may well be the reason I have so much patience with his movies, just as Mulholland Drive gave Lynch a mile of leeway to exploit.

Once committing though, any reading into this piece could only give one the heebie-jeebies. Just with the synopsis and an accidental spoiler listed with the movie's rating (as they need to state the objectionable things in the rating, it did allude to some of the undescribables that would arise), I went into the cinema and was immediately absorbed into this story of grief, evil and madness. The acting was magnificently good: Charlotte Gainsbourg won the best actress award at Cannes for her role (she was Stephanie in The Science of Sleep); Willem Dafoe must've been a good contender in his category. (And interestingly, they are two thirds of the whole cast!) For the first half of the movie they were the relationship; I could even relate to some aspects of it from life experiences; it breathed reality. As the movie progresses into physical and psychological isolation, the sounds and sights become more distorted. At one point I noticed that in amongst the bird-song and tree-cry of the forest, there was a background beat to quicken your heart. The screen image seem to bend occasionally; images flashed from nowhere. The pace was deliberately slow, but only to give you a sense of balance before it pummels you to the ground in a lightning attack, psychological or physical.

The movie made attempts at a greater meaning that I'm still trying to make sense of. And it also almost fell into the ridiculous with the intrusion of a fawn, a fox and frenetic crow as an allegory straight into the plot of the movie. Both Dogville and Mandalay had attempts at greater meaning too, and both strained to do so. Mandalay helped itself in this regard by having archival photos of Blacks in poverty and oppression backed to David Bowie's song The Young Americans just to make its point clear. My feeling is that it is meant as an some sort of an artistic redress for misogyny: the burning of witches, the oppression of women, and for the deeming of feminine nature as evil or corrupting. The film reaches into the guts of this idea and the turns the creature inside out, creating the embodiment of feminine evil as almost a mockery, as a woman Christ to be crucified, to be what the men had said the witches were - evil for the sex, and to be burnt for it. And then take this embodiment and inflict it on a pure man of reason, knowledge and chivalry tempting him into sin. And as I try to hold the movie in my head to write this, it is perhaps only then I can take the significance of the title: Antichrist.

Despite the trauma, I'm glad I saw this movie. I might be wrong with my interpretation and might have rolled my eyes at the intrusion of the symbolic fauna, but it was a true cinematic experience (surpassing Birdsong in its uniqueness), and a great way to cap off the festival. It was, for me, the best film of the nine I saw. (Regardless of my praise here, only go to see this if you are truly broadminded about film, truly tolerant of gratuitously inflicted cinematic pain and patient to let a film open itself slowly to you.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Only two things are infinite

A week ago when shooting through a health shop I got some LSA, which, to those unacquainted with health food, is not some trendy drug but a blended mix of linseed, sunflower seeds and almonds. It can be thrown into smoothies or baking. I only got it because it was on special, but the reason most vegetarians would buy it is that it has lots of the oils that are in fish, but not in a great deal of plant foods, namely, Omega fatty acids, which, incidentally are good for the brain and focus. I had some in a smoothie yesterday morning but it either cursed me or was expired and had the opposite effect.

It all started after a good samaritan morning when I was being shouted lunch for my good deed. As I came back from the restroom and I was about to sit down, I attempted to remove my wallet from the back pocket (I hate sitting on my wallet) and found it wasn't there. A brief search of the cafe revealed it had been standing crease-up near the counter, completely unmolested by evil-doers. What a pleasant surprise!

Then later in the day, I left my home to go vege shopping, drove about 1o minutes, perused the odd vegetables at Mt Eden vege, bought some and headed back to the car, when the car demanded the keys and I was found wanting. I turned to find the cashier charging down the footpath after me, keys glinting in the sunlight. Service and dedication supreme!

Lady luck had insulated me from the worst aspects of my stupidity twice. But the third time she was utterly charmless. I got back to my car and drove a hundred metres down the road when something hit me: fortunately it was just a thought; unfortunately it was a disturbing thought. You see, I'm fond of saving time and also home cookery, which I must say is a bad combination. Before I had left home I thought that I could prepare for a dinner guest that evening by putting a small amount of lentils in a pot, covering them with water, turning up the heat to boiling, and then turning off the heat before leaving. This was the lentils can absorb water and cut cooking times in the evening. I had done this before. And regrettably I had nonchalently done it again: sans the very last step. I had left the lentils in less than a centimetre of water on the stove and full heat... for at least 25 minutes... and I was about 10 minutes from my apartment. I jolted myself out of shock and U-turned my way back homeward. I called both my landlord and flatmate to see if they were close enough to scream home and do whatever could be done, but I was the closest one.

A few months ago, there had been a fire alarm at our apartment complex. A smouldering in an underground carpark had set off the alarms for all the apartments (most of which would not have been in any conceivable threat), so I had visions of burly firefighters using a big ramrod to burst through the door and attend to my overcooked cooking. I pulled up opposite my apartment grounds, dashed across the road and while traversing the parking areas, detected in the air a whiff of one of those dreaded burnt odours, while still 30 metres from the door. I was pleased by the lack of alarm bells and a munted doorway as I shot up the stairs into my smoky lounge. I dashed to the stove-top, threw the smouldering pot into a full sink of water and opened all the doors, windows and extractor fans. But the main crisis was averted, and a jittery Daniel could collapse into a chair with a strong cup of tea.

I can tell you my lessons: lentils exposed to direct heat are reduced to a tar-like substance that will certainly doom any pot the process is carried out in; apparently white vinegar absorbs the burnt smell; my flatmate is completely unflappable; and the universe is certainly boundless.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Playing it straight

The next three movies I saw have been of a totally different flavour: all historically recreated films. There is a lot of merit to such films: they're educational, thought-provoking and, at times, challenging.


As a historical moment, the partition of India has always interested me. Gandhi really did interest me in this respect to show the sheer power of politics, allying themselves with religion, to wrench a whole intact civilisation apart. Firaaq documents another piece of the aftermath to the division, the 2002 Gujarat Massacre. The plot follows several ficitional families and individuals, based on real accounts, as they wrestle with the collective trauma after the incident. Only the first scene and the occasional background TV reports make any direct illustration of the true carnage of the days of violence; the viewer can only feel the residual fear and anger the permeates the whole film. The film was well done, although I'd say that some of the less savoury characters in it do seem more caricature than character. There seem to be clear distinctions the virtuous and evil, the perpetrators and victims, the saints and the sinners, that one feels that it might not necessarily be a fair depiction. One can only pursue the information for themselves.


Che was, in fact, two movies in one: a whole 260 minutes of film for the price of a ticket! That in itself was a tempting proposition. The director (Soderbergh) is acclaimed, the subject of the film a significant personage and icon, it was an opportunity too good to skip. And so the first movie began on how Che was involved in the Cuban revolution. History dictates the flow, so all we can see is the nuances of his personality and life, a man of resolute principles, of humanism above all. The second film starts after he returned from nuturing revolution into the Congo and in complete secrecy slipped into Bolivia. History dictates his demise here and so we see how circumstance brought his life to an end. I remember a review after watching The Motorcycle Diaries saying that it was more a hagiography than a biography. This may apply to these films too in that without personal research it is hard to know whether Che is as virtuous as he is presented; indeed in the film his only shortcoming seems to be asthma. This may or may not be the case. The two films put flesh on the bones of knowledge that I had; the story was presented well with style and technique. It was a wholly worthwhile movie to watch.


"Before the first screening I told the audience that my movie was the most unique movie of the festival. But I hadn't read the festival programme. So since then I've read the programme and I can say with certainty that this is the most unique movie in the festival. It may also be the best movie in the festival. Well, we can discuss that after you've seen it. Regardless, it'll be a true cinematic experience." So said the director of Birdsong, Albert Serra.

Of all the movies so far Birdsong was the first arthouse movie. And as such, it needs to be approached with an open mind, infinite patience and a sense of beauty. This is the "historical" story of the three wise men coming from afar to visit the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. They are devoted a mere three lines in the Bible, which Albert decided to inflate to just over 90 minutes. What it seeks to do is provide real humans and humanity to an arduous journey that has become something sanctified, holy and totally devoid of humanness. We follow the through valleys and deserts as the bicker and navigate, go silent and quest forward, never mentioning their goal (the plot is known to all, there is no need to use their speech to indicate where they're going). Joseph and Mary are recuperating after the birth, Mary with baby, and Mary with her goat. And that is the simplicity of it. I did enjoy it, although even I would have wanted him to use time less as a tool.

"That is the most terrible film I've ever seen." So said the ill-tempered hypocritical woman I sat next to after enduring it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Passing and fading

The news of the two trampers perishing was delivered by my last student for the day. It is sad to hear, as all deaths are. Death in the mountains is always a salutary warning to those with alpine proclivities.

Meanwhile, closer to sea level, I’m yet again proving the Daniel Paradox to be true; namely, the less busy I get the more careless I become. Yesterday I had assumed a student had moved his lesson rather than swapping with another student setting off a flurry of student-bothering texts; then I went to an evening lesson that wasn’t even scheduled. Today I arrived at work to find all my lesson plans were still on the printer at home. Am I even functioning?

Perhaps I am, maybe not, but my broadband certainly isn’t: it seems many separate factors are against me. Fingers-crossed tomorrow resolves the last issues. It has hampered my job search, while the Film Festival has siphoned off time I’d be using to redo my CV. I’ve informed one client about the possibility of my departure, which they were very sad about. They also said that there was very little chance of any more students for me.

Recently, I’ve chewed through many books in my low-gear way, Lolita being the current gristle. Two books before that I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Konrad. How can two classic English novels be written by people without English as their mother tongue? Genius does truly transcend language, and once it seeks the tools in any tongue, it glistens like a gem. My gosh! I would love to write like either.

With the impending arrival of my new flatmate, I detonated upon household duties: spring cleaning the fridge, reordering the pantry, discarding all my previous housemate’s leftover food, and putting all the rubbish and recycling out. It gave me a whole look at all whole range of foodstuffs I possess; and when I go, what shall I do with it all? So, henceforth I shall consume, empty, share and produce in a grand stock clearance. But my flatmate didn’t come yesterday or today as first thought: his car broke down in Wellington and will be delayed till Friday. Well, he’ll have to wait to receive my generosity!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Scream and Shout

The Film Festival has arrived and I am happy. After the disappointment at my lean pickings last year, I have now the opportunity and the desire to indulge in the movies I want to see. And with time in my hands, I've set the goal of watching ten! Here are reviews for the first few. (Don't worry, no spoilers!)


Despite my disgust at most modern branding, I seem to strongly, and perhap hypocritically, follow particular bands, writers and certain products to extreme levels. Whether it be my complete collections of some musicians whom I consider genius, to buying 4-packs of Phoenix Ginger Beer to drink at home (and in cinemas!), there are some names that sparkle to me as if I were a magpie in a tree. When I saw Park Chan-Wook had a movie in the film festival guide, it was the only movie to earn an emphatic Yes! without consideration for content. Considering Almodovar, a well-regarded director didn't earn more than a cursory look, it should show my dedication. Park Chan-Wook earnt my adulation with Old Boy. He always brings a creatively violent, humorously gory take on what he does. Thirst is a vampire-priest tale - but one creatively and warmly done. How he came to be a vampire might have been a little unbelieveable, but how he deals with his problem, trying to avoid sinning in the process is amusing. Love enters, and love corrupts, and then there is no end of evil that can unfold. Moral: Being a vampire is not as fun as it first appears to be, and you'll be waiting for the other shoe to drop. A lot of blood is ceremoniously spilt. I love his characters too, the old matriarch of the family in particular.

Drag me to hell!

Horror is a genre that I rarely dip into. I was exposed to a good deal of horror movies in my childhood: my eldest sister indulging her fascination with it and, in doing so, filling my nightmares. Well, that is probably overstating it, but the truth is that I've always been of a jumpy, nervy disposition, and despite enjoying the thrill, I tend to spasm in shock at even a ruffle of paper on screen, and sometimes will seek leave of the room when there is an impending shock. The director cues me up with a soundtrack and a sense of foreboding, and I dance.

It was probably over 5 years since I last saw a horror in the cinema - and within the first five minutes of Drag me to hell, I was reminded of the usual way that I experience horror: in contortions. It was a proper horror movie, with all the traditional bells and whistles of horror. It was a sustained burst of adrenalin to the heart, enlivening, even though at times predictable.


As mentioned, I'm a name-dropping viewer. Sam Rockwell's name was my sole reason for watching this. He has dynamism on screen, and I've enjoyed him in other movies. Moon is about one man, Sam Bell, operating a Helium mining operation on the moon. And apart from the robot, Gerty, he is alone, bleakly isolated from Earth, his wife and daughter with two weeks remaining till he goes home, a long two weeks. He hallucinates; he talks to himself and his plants; yet messages from home drive him on. However, while on a routine trip in a moon buggy to a rock harvester, he has an accident and makes a rather astonishing discovery.

I enjoyed this movie. It never seemed to slow despite it essentially being the same actor on screen all the time. It also touches on many ethical issues about what technology could bring to us.

There is an odd background in the movie too: the director is David Bowie's son, christened Zowie Bowie (although apparently he changed his name since). David Bowie, of course, was made famous by the hit Space Oddity ("Ground Control to Major Tonk") and has other songs about life in space. An influence, perhaps?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Of camels, backs and the real cost of $20

My apartment life has been interesting. It was the bed on which I rested in emotional convalescence; it has been my base for travel; it has been the first place that felt really like my own. It always had another side to it though: the landlord.

When I first met her, I remember she just kept on talking; she seemed fine and that was a factor in my immediate choice in living here. But things panned out differently: from acceptable to bad and from bad to worse. It has all seemed so needless. She is very houseproud and seems to have found it hard to leave this place in the hands of lesser creatures. I'd say that she is naturally that way and feels an obligation to her parents to keep the flat in mint condition, and this obligation means using any means at all to achieve it. She is duplicitous; she lies: both black and white. Without going into the details, we confronted her about her excessive interference with the flat; she relented. For about six months there has only been a few moments of irritation. She still hasn't fitted a blind for one of my windows (I've been using cardboard to block out a street-light for almost a year!). She said she would but it never happened. Apparently she is planning a wedding, which makes it perhaps understandable, even if she has long been putting expectations of us without fulfilling her own responsibilities.

Thus we come to yesterday afternoon: I was informed that my rent would increase by $20 from August 10 due to "an increase in the market rent" (I was sceptical but, yes, apparently rents have increased, year-on-year, by between 5-10% on average apparently). I knew then that my time here was up. My falling income was already making the existing rent excessively taxing. Upon informing my flatmate of the rise, astonishingly I discovered that the market rise seems to have only applied to the street-facing room: mine. More astonishing was my flatmate's response: she gave her two-week notice to the landlord today. She had had an offer of a room at a friend's place and the certainty of my departure (we are good flatmate buddies) and the landlord's general conduct meant that she shouldn't turn down that offer. It is rather depressing that my landlord stooped to this weird tactic. I have spoken rather abruptly to her in the past (in immense frustration) and it has probably led to this, I'm thinking. Strangely ironic, though, was that it led to the good flatmate to give notice (The landlord doesn't have much of a problem with her). And I am a good tenant, and in terms of the common area, I'm a clean-freak (most of the time): If she wanted to keep the place tidy, she is shooting herself in the foot. It most of all is annoying.

Over the New Year I had thought through three likely paths for the year: (1) My business prospers in the face of adversity; (2) My business is somewhat affected, so I put effort into finding new clients, develop my writing skills and travel; (3) My business is heavily affected and I go on an ambitious trip to the United Kingdom and Europe, head back through Asia to work for between six months and two years before returning home. I've had my head on the second route without any ardent desire to cross the threshold into the third. My heart was not moved by the prospect of travel. When I received that e-mail though, I was moved: I could picture myself off. I'm not sure yet, but this weekend has been a great push. It can be a launch pad for a brand new course. All for the want of $20 a week.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Hidden highs

There are very few aspects of teaching that I don't enjoy. One of the ones I do enjoy immensely is just pronouncing words, preferrably multistress words, to model them for students: anXIety, eVENT, COMF'table. In my line of work, you can say them once, repeat them with exaggeration and drama. A single bugbear word can be several minutes of a lesson, first of all modelling the pronunciation with specific directions for tongue, tooth and lip locations; once mastering it, the student should next practice it in the context of a sentence, because producing a sentence takes some attention away from pronunciation - and pronunciation in real life has to be done with a lot of competing thoughts; and then they need to be monitoring themselves in speech to be aware if their accuracy has slipped. All of this entails a lot of repetition.

One of the recurring mysteries is how certain words can be so hard to say for some. ACcess, for one, is bothering one of my highly able students. He can say each syllable well, but together he either says: AXis or exCESS. When he stresses the first syllable, the vowel on the second automatically reduces; when he makes sure he says the correct vowel on the second, he instinctively stresses the second syllable, reducing the first. It does his mind in while I just get my kick from saying: ACcess, ACcess, ACcess.

There is also the mystery, constantly posed by another student, of how he is pronouncing what he is pronouncing. A common word like "that", he somehow mixes the "th" with "l" producing both sounds simultaneously. Usually mispronounced phonemes (sound units) are somewhere on a continuum of sound, like ten and -tain (from "maintain"). But there is virtually no continuum of sound between "th" and "l". I cannot replicate the sound (I may have once, but have no idea how I did it), yet he does it naturally when not monitoring the exact position of his tongue.

Of course, it's not always my students' pronunciation that can cause wonder; my own baffles me and others too. As stated in a blog sometime ago, my exuberant reading of difficult books in my youth caused me to create my own pronunciations for words I rarely heard. While teaching a few weeks back in the home of a friend, I defined a word my student, his wife, found: "AWry, that's when things don't go according to plan." The friend emerged from the kitchen cocking his head to one side to see this unfamilar word, before saying: aWRY. So much for the clouds of wonder that make an "infallible" teacher. "whilst" has also been mispronounced in a lesson by me.

Yesterday I borrowed a book I thought I must read: 100 words that everyone mispronounces. Here are the ones I have discovered that I fail at: niche, gnocchi, concupiscence, desultory, cadre, cache, lingerie, harass. (Of course, many of these have several "accepted" pronunciations which have to be considered correct.) While reading it though, I found one of my youthful pronunciations was in fact correct: BANal can have a first syllable stress!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Music reviews

Prior to this famine, my economic boom funded a lot of uncharacteristically expansive spending. One particular area for my extravagance was music. And though the party is indeed over, I’m still merrily continuing this indulgence. Listening to music has always been enjoyable, usually with a taste for the esoteric, dark or extreme. Here, I’ll review a few of my recent purchases:

Portishead, Third

Until this purchase, I only possessed one single, burnt, live album. Paradoxically, it is one of my favourites. My penchant for dark music is deep and the lead singer, Beth Gibson, must have had extraordinary pain in her life, for what else could she be channelling when she sings? If it is all a pretence, then she is simply extraordinary. And if it be from a truly dark vein of her being, then we should all buy the records for her psychotherapy.

Though Portishead, admittedly, doesn’t have that much variety in tone (only one song is any from the respite of intense blues, purples and greys: a ukulele song in the middle!), they innovate constantly and texture each song further and further; deeper and deeper. The sound is rich and you can feel yourself easily getting lost in it.

Bristol is their hometown; and should I go to the United Kingdom, I’d have to do a pilgrimage there. Massive Attack and Tricky, whom I adore, both originate there. A lot of the music of all three has an underlying bleakness and austerity. Opening the Third CD case, the tone is minimal with an electric dark blue tinting an urban scene with powerlines draping across. The picture on the back shows Beth, seemingly overwrought with sadness, microphone in hand, while her bandmates are at their instruments at their stations completely unaffected.

Overall, it is a darkly beautiful album. For me, it is one song too long; even I have my limits and the last song was probably the song that was most similar to their previous work, and broke from direly true to drearily despairing. I might just have to get their other two albums, though.

The Eels, Hombre Lobo

The Eels are a favourite of mine, and one of the musicians that I boast almost every recording. Much of the music has an autobiographical tendency and as such comes through as some of the most genuine, touching music you’ll ever hear. I was a little disappointed for the record and happy for him: there seems to be no more demons for him to exorcise and the album seems to be just him having fun and making music. It disappoints me in that without the emotional depths of the other albums, it leaves the music to speak for itself; and the music isn’t that original. It sounds like his previous work or him imitating other singers. There are a couple of songs which have sustained themselves through repeated listens, but others urge me to skip them. And it is not that they’re anything bad, just that they don’t inspire the listen to listen any closer.

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear was one of the two bands that I heard on the terrifically good Australian radio station, Triple-R, that compelled me to buy. The song I heard was what I’d only call abstract folk, a folkish sound and instruments yet the vocalist set about being an instrument veering close to incoherence and sometimes singing in a fragile yet crisp clear words. The album I bought, at the brilliant Polyester Records on Brunswick no less, was Yellow House, thus named as it was recorded in a yellow house. My first listens were difficult, I recall; but then after returning home and properly listening to it unlocked a door to wonder. It had such a rich sound! The complete set of lyrics are written on the centre of the CD case, showing that the words are few, but repeated, rhythmically and with permutation. It was true listening music. The timing of their second release was perfect: I would buy anything from them.

Veckatimest, incidentally the name of the town they recorded in, on first listen disappointed me. They had discarded the folk sound of Yellow House completely in favour of more modern rock instrumentation. But the ethos remained the same: the voice is the richest instrument of all, winding its way through the sound and bursting through with sparks and, occasionally, ferocity. The lead singer is more audible but the songs are just as theatrical and non-standard. It is the perfect accompaniment to a winter’s day on the couch, in a sun beam.