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.