Friday, December 24, 2010

The Mountain ahead

(I believed I'd sent this three weeks ago but apparently sent it to a non-functioning address. Sorry for the delay!)
I came back to New Zealand as a visitor for the first time. Loose plans became firm. The food I had been denied for so long was now in huge supply at Countdown. As with my previous return from a long stay in 2000, the same things dawned on me: New Zealand is a great place; the air truly is sweeter; and …. Another thing that struck me is that I still don't really have a best friend in China , someone to chat about the nitty-gritty of life with. The absences of my life in China were more apparent in New Zealand .


And New Zealand blessed me with a rather brilliant run of weather, sending areas into drought. I could tramp in ideal conditions, swim at the beach twice and drive without any meteorological oddities. Going back, there was a seamless transition between the weather in Auckland last Friday, Hong Kong on Saturday and Guangzhou , as if the weather gods had decided to smooth the way.


New Zealand had barely changed. As I walked up Mt Eden road the sight almost merged with the memory of walking there before I left. A few restaurants had changed hands; cafes renamed; but it would be a fairly difficult game to "Find ten differences". The biggest and most pleasant change was the roading. The Taupo bypass has been completed; the Hobsonville bypass is half-done; the work on the airport motorway seems nearly finished; and the diabolical Manukau on/off ramps are now in fiendish form, sending me off in wrong directions twice.


Guangzhou, likewise, had changed about the same amount in the month I had been away. My return to the People's Republic featured one of the more extraordinary aspects of China 's information control system and one of my more inadvertently stupid acts. On the way to New Zealand , I wanted to buy a certain book which is banned in the People's Republic but available in Hong Kong . I couldn't find it then but on the way back into China I spotted it in an airport bookstore, Page One, and seized it (for the not cheap price of HK$150, NZ$30). I read the first chapter in Hong Kong while waiting for the train and then put it in one of my three items of baggage. On the train I didn't touch it, reading other books. Once I had disembarked I went through customs and then had my bags scanned by one of those big machines I assumed could only pick up knives, guns, bombs and organic matter. They came out the other end but as I picked up my bags, an official gestured at me from behind a desk.. I went over and he grabbed the exact bag carrying the book and without hesitation grabbed the Page One bag which contained it. He pulled the book out and flicked through the pages. "Can you speak Chinese?" he asked. I answered in the affirmative. (In retrospect, this could be either a curious question for a foreigner carrying a Chinese book, or a more probing question intended to find who I was bringing it for.) He asked and looked at my passport. He just looked at me with an almost-grin and said: "You can't bring this book into China ." I clarified with him innocently and he shook his head. He gave back my passport to me before taking the book away to the side. I stood there for a moment and I waited for a moment thinking that he hadn't told me to go, but moments later with a slightly humored wave he sent me along to the next step.


I was quite unsettled and astonished but then technology must be serving the surveillance society well. There may have been something in the book (perhaps a requirement for China to the Hong Kong publishers) to make the book detectable; or perhaps it is even more high-tech and can sense the book cover; or perhaps every book has a detectable set of dimensions and any book matching any of several banned books would be pulled up. Either way, I was happy to just have the book confiscated and nothing more (I think). It boggles the mind and is a salutary warning: I'd carried a certain banned book around China on my first trip. It is not something that will be possible again.


And so I'm full circle, back to where I was a year ago, seizing an apartment in November for the year ahead. My objectives are so much more clearer and potential outcomes all the more tangible and in reach. It is certainly an interesting time to be me.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Watershed 盛筵必散

The day passed, but I was only tired. The banquet finished, and all the people departed. I am no longer a teacher at my old centre, but from today a senior teacher in a new school. Emotionally, there is little feeling of loss yet. I was smiling whenever I told my students, often upset, about my imminent departure. Platitudes flowed and downcast faces were the gauntlet I walked, out the door and onto sidewalk. Will I miss them when I'm greeted without that adoration nor the same veneration in my new school?

The teacher-student bond is a special one; but only when you realise that a teacher is not a mere instructor. A teacher packages learning into every interaction: both academic and beyond. An instructor follows a plan and delivers "lessons". And I think I'm increasingly more able to be a teacher, but only perhaps because I can teach and model how one should be a student. Being a student is not a passive or receptive role, and to see it as any other is a mistake. To see being a teacher as being a solid agent of change is a mistake too: every case is unique and requires you to adapt to the new condition; the human condition is not one that can be taught with any one approach. And that the most important teaching often doesn't happen in the classroom, but rather when sitting down with the student to go deeper into their specific needs and issues.

As I exited I had a few slips of paper to give my contact to a few, a very few. Vic didn't, though he wanted to keep touch – I might contact him indirectly and I know that I can. Oscar wanted it, but I thought I'd give it to her later. Emil got it; he was a Filipino, a very serious student of high level and though sullen, possibly recently divorced, was most emotional when learning English. Rainbow would have given a kidney for it, seriously, and even said that I was the best teacher she'd ever had, seriously apparently ; but didn't get it. Tea got it but you could get more sincere than Tea. I found numerous ways to avoid giving any contact details to the highly emotional Ling; she'd be too much. Question Kevin got it despite being a nuisance at the best of times; he got it on virtue of his sheer desire to learn. And so for some it may be the last time they see me while others, virtue of my reasons or my whim, may keep contact.

And if I go back just over ten days, I can remember the question: "Would you like to end here on the 24th?" I answered in the affirmative, and realised later that would mean about 10 days before I leave, only 8 days of which were in the office, three of which were dominated by mentoring three teachers, one of which was swallowed by meetings; another was taken up with a referral event, and what was left were a load of lessons and a lot of garden-variety tiredness. At least my desk is clear.

Tomorrow though I will enter the door at my new centre, make myself a cup of coffee as a senior teacher, shake some hands and get down to preparing a Travel Club lesson.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

The sound and sight of silence 此地无银三百两

"The Japanese foreign minister begins to outline how they'd be negotiating with China over the sovereignty of a disputed island when-"
A stock standard Hong Kong advertisement appears suddenly on Chinese TV: It's a cantonese advertisement educating the populus about the Hong Kong education system, which is a silly choice since it is not a part of the life of virtually any of the mainland citizenry.
The normal service of the morning news program resumes: "And the bullet fired into the Chinese embassy in Japan is being investigated. It is believed to be a threat relating to the incident which inflamed the whole situation when the Japanese navy arrested a Chinese captain for sailing near the isla-"
Another stock standard advertisement appears. This one is a nicer one: A rather pretty, exuberant lady charges around picturesque Hong Kong scenes swearing her love upon the mountains and the sea, "We'll be together for a life, for an era!" Who is she declaring to? Her teeth! Great concept. The ad also ends prematurely as the ad is cut before we learn how to preserve the relationship with our teeth till death you shan't part when again normal service resumes again:
(A map showing the position of the island): "And on this map the island still carries its original Chinese name."
Such is the quality of a news broadcast on a channel broadcast from Hong Kong into Mainland China. It is one of my favourite channels with the best presenters and the best content. It is permitted freedom to broadcast what it likes but the feed into China is censored as above. The picture of the farewelling pine (on a finer day than the picture above) could be symbolic of the freedoms long since farewelled (actually in mainland China if I think of a longer time frame of history, I'm wondering if there were ever an era that had any absolute freedom of information and media preceding the current powers). I remember first hearing about this pine when I arrived in post-SARS China in 2003/2004 and bumped into some ex-pat teachers who were travelling. They recounted the stories of the pine when they were trying to find out anything about the worrying spread of the disease.
I'm not sure what that does to a local viewer psychologically. In my current events class the topic of the island does come up and most (as usual) will say what the powers that be would expect them to say. I watch it and think that if I were a chinese person I would suspect that "what isn't shown" on a channel unbound by ideology must be something rather devastating to that perspective, and probably doubt it.
Students here are fairly free with their views. You'll hear views against the government quite freely and complaints about certain policies. But on some issues, often points of patriotism or national pride, most people will toe the line. And perhaps there is no voices of skepticism heard.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

How to Navigate Chinese Streets

After my 11 months of Chinese life, I have learnt many of the basic skills of moving from place to place in China and wish to share them with my treasured readers.
1. Don't look where you're going.
Consideration will drive you mad here. In New Zealand, people have a luxury in considering giving space to others, yielding the footpath to others. But increase the number of people and the calculations of consideration suddenly become complicated. Chinese pedestrians generally don't pay attention into whom they're about to be walking. They'll have an absorbing conversation with their friends as they stroll not looking forward at all. It is like that sure-fire way of winning that classic car game, Chicken: unscrew your steering wheel and throw it out the window. If you show that you are not changing course (and can't), whoever is the most aware will be the one to change course. If you are not going to change course you won't need to. Both people and traffic moves like a river here, with swirling eddies, white water, torrents and all. Of course people will bump into others which brings us to the next guideline.
2. Don't worry, be apathetic now!
Zen parable: You're in a boat in a lake relaxing when suddenly you notice a person cruising a boat towards you causing you to jump up and take evasive action. How would you react to them? Now imagine the same situation except an unmanned boat. How would you react? The point of the parable is that often we react to unintentional and incidental accidents differently. It is true in NZ. If someone were walking down the footpath with an umbrella (though under shelter) moving it side to side, spiking people with the prongs, others would curse them. But if a tree moved side to side and spiked them with its branches they'd be less upset and get over it quickly. In China though, regardless if it is the most inconsiderate pedestrian behaviour or reckless driving, most others will treat it as completely incidental, an unmanned boat, and most certainly nothing to get upset about.
I wish it were about Zen enlightenment. It is actually about a very low expectation of how other people will consider others. Road rage is left for actual accidents and not near misses. There isn't enough energy for the latter.
3. Cars give way to people; people give way to bicycles; and bicycles give way to cars
Nuff said. People don't mind potentially ending their lives walking in front of cars but be careful of the bicycles. They move like lightning and they know they have the right of way. Get out! I've almost been nailed by bicycles twice. I was walking straight. It was them who gave me the dirty look.
4. There's always room...
Subways and buses actually can fit a million people, if they are willing. Elevators are the same. Don't worry if the elevator just beeped overweight and the doors aren't shutting and haven't shut for a minute: the people waiting will wait and at some stage the elevator will descend.
5. ...and once you're on, you shall stop.
You were at the front of the queue of about fifty and proudly got onto the subway carriage with only two people sneaking in front of you. Stop in the doorway. This is important as if you go too deeply into the carriage, you'll have some pushing to do to get off. I know what you're going to say: What about the forty-eight people behind you? Well, if they want on they'll either push you further in or move around you. Either way, that is their choice.
6. Speed and urgency is all about scarcity.
Give a random set of Guangzhou citizens the simple task of going from A to B on a footpath, they'd take all the time in the world in far from straight lines.  Give the same set a subway station to get from A to B and the whole thing becomes about competition. Get onto the train! Don't queue. Push! Get a seat! Suddenly old ladies put their heads down. Parents send their children ahead ducking and weaving to get ahead of people so they can follow.  According to a friend, this is drilled in by parents and grandparents from a young age. In the most populous country if you yield to one you yield to all. And then you come last.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I've got a feeling 秋意

Mid-Autumn Festival appropriately fell on the first real cool sway of the year. A passing typhoon (killing scores, villages inundated etc.) brought a refreshing breeze and a delightful temperature drop: people started to wear pants instead of shorts; men refrained from flaunting their uncovered paunches. The fringe clouds of the storm blotted out the moon for most of Guangdong for the festival evening - it is an evening when we are meant to enjoy viewing the moon with our friends and family. I enjoyed it with the thought that the summer, which I had feared before coming to China, had now mostly passed. And it is possible to miss the heat - it is 29 degrees now; will I freeze in the New Zealand spring? I'll soon finish my eleventh month in China.
Birthday season also passed and it was the first time I haven't done it with some form of party in many a blue moon. I'd have to go back to my birthday just after returning from Taiwan in 2000 to remember another year without a party. There is a sense of decadeness about it all. I went to mainland China for the first time in August/September 2000. As I may have retold on this blog, Guangzhou was the least impressive of all the places I visited then. I feel the changes both in me, the city and the country.
What can I remember? I can remember talking our way (my classmate and I) into many rather shady hotels; some were wonderfully priced decent places. I still remember the one in Yangshuo fondly. Shanghai was shabby. Xi'an felt lavish, though we were both with iffy bellies by then. Despite the niceness of the room, I remember there was a communal unwalled shower for the whole floor. I remember chatting to a fellow traveller there. Nice conversationalist. I remember the room on the top of Mount Tai and the wake-up to see the sun-rise. I remember the toilet and restaurant there too. (Toilets were quite memorable back then - not so much now.) Even though it was an unintended destination, I remember dusk at Liuzhou and the street where I ate sparrow rice porridge. I remember that it was my first sight of a still current phenomenon: men, often disabled in some way, writing long poems in chalk on the footpaths and streets recounting their lonely predicament, with a can for a coin or two. I remember men sitting on the side of the road selling peanuts (a scene still today) in Guangzhou. I feel rather privileged to have a degree of scale in the development of China. Of course, I have had association with others who were here even before the 80s, but they still provide a perspective and an understanding.
What of me? My ideals have changed somewhat, and my zeal for contrarianism has ebbed. At 20 I thought my views were extraordinary. Of course those views have been balanced by the conservatism of middling age. It may have taken ten years to cool off the heat of my feeling of being different and relax into being what I am, an ordinary person with a belief of commonality with everyone despite being quite different in some respects. Everyone is different: does it take this long to realise that one's own distance from others is a rather mundane fact of life? In the face of China the first time round, I wasn't shaken, but marginally stirred. I felt in my element even though, and this is a fact that hasn't changed.
So the wind has changed and I must plot a course for myself from this age to the next. I have to find whether this is the season for me to progress or hold. It should be interesting.


Wednesday, September 08, 2010

English Principles

The old joke goes: Those that can, do. Those that can't, teach. It is quite unfair as a blanket statement but of course there is an element of truth to it, and moreso in ESOL teaching: Those that can't, teach English in Asia! (It is your birthright! Shitloads of money!) Many of those over here are a form of economic refugee; their original profession was hit by the recession and so moved to a place where they could economically "winter". But they aren't necessarily teacher material either by temperament or ability. Thus a new truism forms: Those that teach, do; those that can't, entertain; those that can't entertain, draw complaints; those that draw complaints, leave at the end of their one-year contracts; and if they happen to be male and single, prey you may on the nubile female "student body".
My school chain, one that is seen as a premium product, treats all staff like dedicated teachers. This is, of course, is a good policy. If you treat someone as a professional, they'll tend to lift to that level. But all schools face the uncomfortable end of the labour supply sword, and it is even worse when you try to be a premium product. The more you screen out undesirables or the unqualified, the fewer your teachers, the smaller your capacity to offer your service, and the smaller your profit. In this market, you can't be too picky.
I've had two colleagues go recently. Both were not necessarily teachers of nature or ability: both entertained, both were irked by the willingness of management to extend "ideas" upon what in many schools is a simple job. These ideas, some good, some suspect, were often the whims of new managers or a product of an ideology. So our school, stretched as we are, lost both entertainers. The former was expected to leave (he wanted to study and he was at the end of his contract) but the latter was a new recruit who had a fluttery mind - he saw another job with more money and spread his wings. We're still contemplating whether he is a loss to the school. In the last month of his short stay he was already dating one student (some of it during the time he was living with his previous girlfriend) and by the end of his contract had moved onto another.
All this is the background to my extended stay in my first centre. I can't leave until I have a replacement and they've been very picky when recruiting local teachers, and they accept any international teacher who fulfils formal criteria, but who are increasingly difficult to lure over.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Never trust a eunuch

The Dowager Empress thus sent an imperial order for her son, He Jin, the de facto ruler of the Empire. Receiving it, he prepared to leave for the palace when the Imperial Clerk warned him: "The eunuchs are surely behind this order from the Empress, so you can't possibly follow it. If you do, there'll certainly be disaster."  He Jin calmly replied that there couldn't possibly be any danger in responding to a request by his mother, the Dowager Empress.
Cao Cao advised: "Only go into the palace once the eunuchs have come out."
He Jin laughed and said, "This is the advice of a child. I hold the power over the whole world, what could the eunuchs possibly dare do?" Yuan Shao advised that if He Jin had to go, then they'd go with armoured troops and thus Yuan Shao and Cao Cao chose five hundred troops to accompany He Jin and nominated Yuan Shao's son, Yuan Shu to lead them.
Yuan Shu suited himself head to toe in armour and arranged the troops before the outer green gates of the Forbidden City. Yuan Shao and Cao Cao personally then lead He Jin before the Palace of Lasting Happiness.  There the officials of the Inner Bureau said that the Empress had particularly specified to allow only the Grand General, He Jin. Therefore Cao Cao and Yuan Shao were held back at the palace door, while He Jin confidentally strode into the palace.
At the Gate of Great Virtue he was met by the eunuchs Zhang Rang and Duan Gui, and then others quickly surrounded He Jin. They blamed him in angry voices: "What crime had Empress Dong done for you to posion her? And then at the time of her funeral for you to feign sickness so not to attend. You are just the spawn of a butcher, yet it was us who raised your family to the palace and gave you honour and wealth. And in response you want to kill us.  You say we are debased, but who is the cleaner?" He Jin panicked and looked for a way out but the palace gate had closed. Just then fifty soldiers came out from their hiding place and sliced He Jin into two pieces...
Thus went another character to the grave in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a classic Chinese novel written in the 14th century, creating a semihistorical narrative around the turbulent Three Kingdom period (250CE -  300CE). I'm rather enamoured by it, although I must proudly state in advance that I'm relieved that I can actually read it at all. I've always had a fascination with classical chinese with several of the philosophy books I love (written over 2000 years ago) written in it. But writing and language develops. The language of 2000 years ago is harder to read than that of 700 years ago and most parts of this classic are readable without assistance; only in some small parts do I need character by character reference to retain my grasp. I bought a copy while I was sick hoping just experience it. I opened to the first page and found I had just enough knowledge to deal with the first page, and with a little bit of study of the common words I found that I could read quite swifty.
And it has to be said that it is rip-roaring yarn. I'm benefitted a lot though by the fact that I don't know much about it. Every page brings its own surprises. I don't know what will happen next. There are computer games and table-top card game based on it. The youth are still fascinated by it, although it must be said that more have seen the cartoons and games of it than those that have read the original. The theme for the week at school two weeks ago was Literature so I thought I'd stealthily measure how much an average class had read. I talked about famous literature and brought up the English names of the four great Chinese classic novels, then got the class to act out a scene in them.
There is a culture gap too when reading these - the culture of the past is far different from that of the present. I couldn't understand one part of the book where there was a sorcerer was holding a whole army off by conjuring a black qi from the sky. One General strategy is spelt out here: 
"He's using magic! Tomorrow I can slaughter some pigs, goats and dogs for their blood. Then I'll order some soldiers to hide on the cliff top. When the rebels come we can spray it upon them from above, and then it will counteract their magic."
Apparently pouring blood from a high place counteracts that sort of black magic - not surprisingly this method worked a treat. And here is a section for the feminists:
 Zhang Fei had raised his sword to cut his own throat when Xuande ran forward to stop him, grabbing his sword and throwing it to floor: "The Ancients said: One's brothers were like limbs and one's wives and children were like clothes. If the clothes break, they can be mended. If your limbs are cut off, how could you go on?' We made a pledge of honour in the Peach Garden, that though we don't seek to be born together, we'd want to die together. Though I've lost my castle and family, how can we end here only halfway though our adventure? Why would you, my dearest brother, seek to end his life over a momentary lapse?"
This band of blood brothers so far are almost comic relief especially the character that tried to kill himself, who seems to have temper/alcohol/personality issues. His momentary lapse was not listening to his blood brothers suggestions of staying off the booze while he was the one responsible for looking after their walled city; naturally on the very first night with this heavy duty he got plastered and forced other officers to get similarly wasted, threatened violence on those who didn't drink, and then in his drunkenness whipped the father-in-law of a rather aggressive neighbouring General fifty times. This neighbouring General upon hearing of this disgrace launched an assault on their city taking control of it. Very momentary, indeed, this lapse. The gentleman dispensing the advice in the quote, Liu Xuande also known as Liu Bei, is one of the three famous characters from the Three Kingdoms and frankly seems rather simple-minded though very diligent in his application of duty and honour.
With vivid battles raging on in the pages, my quagmiraculous promotion seems rather fictional. Having been told that this was the week for the move, I was told two weeks ago that alas my replacement has been diverted to a centre in more immediate need. That was before one of our newly arrived international teachers was lured by more money in Korea and resigned last week, not to mention the other internal promotion in our office that is waiting to move. Effectively there is only one international teacher who isn't moving anywhere and it will be those over whom the HR eunuchs have control (i.e. internal promotions) that will have to stay put till they find three teachers to fill the short fall. At this point it seems like September when I'll be moving but it's really not best to say. This is strangely reminiscent of a certain visa I waited for last year.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010


On Sunday 25 July, in excess of a thousand people gathered in front of the Ocean Oil building in the prosperous Jiangnan Xi shopping area, Guangzhou. They were there to protest the proposal to increase the use of Mandarin being used on Guangzhou TV during prime-time. The outrage by locals at the proposal had been widely felt, especially in Haizhu district where the Cantonese population is a vast majority. The fear is that it will be the thin edge of the wedge that will eventually take Cantonese from television and radio.
The demonstration continued from 4:30pm well into the evening, with police observing and occasionally moving to free passage for pedestrians. On one occasion the crowd chanted: "Let him go! Let him go!" indicating that perhaps there was an arrest. On the whole there were no signs of violence. At about 7pm when this reporter went down stairs, he saw with his own eyes the riot police kitted up in their gear and assembling in front of the building. From a distance, the crowd appeared to be peaceful, with a few people inspired to say provocative comments, which would create roar in the crowd, which sent all the students in the language school to the windows to see "what happened".
The Cantonese dialect, leveraging off the cultural engine of Hong Kong, has had a privileged status among dialects. It is not common that TV channels and radio statoins have dialect as their main language, but in Guangzhou it is. For many people, there is a palpable pride in the Cantonese dialect. Often shop assistants will use Cantonese with you even if you speak to them in Mandarin. Some people neglect their ability in Mandarin to that extent too. It is true that there are more and more migrants from other provinces in Guangzhou and Mandarin is now easily heard in all areas of Guangzhou; the riposte of course is that they have come into a Cantonese city and should learn the language of the land. 
I went home that night and turned on Guangzhou TV and didn't hear a peep about the demonstration. I scanned the papers the following morning and the morning after to find not a mention. After the people scattered, the ripples in the media were negligible. Apparently CCTV reported that there was a gathering to celebrate 110 days till the Asian Games. Again China has shown that there is a latitude in Freedom of Expresson, but the lack of media freedom makes it a relatively meaningless act. On the internet it took a long time to find any sites that could be read from China about the event. Eventually I found the following: (English) (Chinese)

That being said, this blog too, isn't accessible from China...


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The drip

Time has been rather uneven over the last month, with the hi(gh)s and byes of my whirlwind trip to the Philippines and then being brought down my a throat infection whose stay has already exceeded ten days.
At its worse, the infection, which started out as a cluster of nasty ulcers, stopped me from speaking altogether, but fortunately my colleagues ably covered for me. Yesterday, after days of thinking it was getting better, I slipped into a fever. I only realised it was a fever for the unexplainable nausea that slowly enveloped me while I was calling home. My third trip to the doctor gave me another experience with a doctor scoffing at the previous medical advice I'd received: "What? They gave you solely Chinese medicine to deal with that?" But that is going to the expected course of the public health over here: I went to one hospital on the second night of it got a diagnosis (tonsilitis) and a pile of medicine (including a powerful antibiotic); got worse and went to a different hospital and got a different diagnosis (ulcers, the previous doctor didn't look far enough) and got a pile of pills, all of Chinese medicine. Almost a week passed with my ability to speak returning and I could go back to work. But yesterday all pretensions of a return to health were blown away. My throat wound had started suppurating (a word I wish not to define in layman's terms, click on the link), obviously infected so badly it triggered a fever. I had a IV drip attached to my hand last night and the fever vanished; I had another drip today for good measure; and still with a disgusting throat I at least am starting to feel a bit more with it, and under the right conditions can talk at ease.
Fortunately, my days haven't all been bad: The Philippines was a wonderful break to get to see my little sisters in all their chubby, chundering (they got me once) and crawling glory. They were worlds apart from the tiny, premature babies I knew before I left. My little brother was still a handful but it was good to play with him again. I also got to know some of my "Philippines whanau". I got to swim: something that is so distant or difficult in China. I regret only that a lack of knowledge about how close the airport was causing me to hastily leave without being able to say goodbye to everyone properly.
The week prior to my departure was also a curious thing. I'd applied for a higher position in early June and heard nothing right up the week before my flight. Then on the Monday I receive an e-mail, which I didn't have to acknowledge the receipt of, saying when the interview was (the Thursday) and then I was to fly the next day. The e-mail interview offer surprised me: if they'd sent that on the Friday saying the interview was on Monday or Tuesday I wouldn't have been any the wiser that I'd completely missed an interview! (I shan't make any comments about my thoughts on any communication issues that my bosses may or may not have.) I was pretty relaxed about the interview. I had the favourable wind of being the National Academic Star the previous month and very positive support from the boss. When the list of the other applicants came out there was more reason to be confident, I was one of only three. The school I was applying to already had a "local" senior teacher (local meaning Chinese), and one of the applicants similarly was "local" (there was reason in managing a large staff to have a balance of local and international). The other applicant is an interesting chap. He is seemingly able but anyone who I mentioned him to told me there was nothing to worry about, scratching more deeply, apparently he had a history of making female staff members feel awkward around him. This being all said, the interview wasn't a walk in the park and I was put over the coals on a theoretical question. I walked away pretty confident and fortunately on the bus to the airport, my boss texted me: "Congratulations daniel on ur position ill be sorry to lose you." Of course, that was the first I heard of it but apparently it was in motion and there was an offer waiting for me in my inbox on my return.
There has been time for theorising and learning too in this time, but I might have to leave it to another time.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Words and letters (1)

Language is an odd beast. Learning them to a decent level and teaching them to a high level grants you something on an insight into the soul of each tongue, not to mention the mechanics. Sometimes students will get exasperated about the idiosyncrasies of English, not noticing the tics of their own. When one is only wrapped up in one language it is easy to overlook some of the obvious lessons of language:
"The North Koreans call Jin Zhengri the General," a student explained on one day.
"Kim Jong-il," I correct saying the name of the dictator in anglicised Korean, which is quite close the original.
The student looks at me strangely so I elaborated: "You need to call him: Kim Jong-il, that's his Korean name."
The student is perplexed: "Who?"
"The name of the leader of North Korea is Kim Jong-il. What you said was his Chinese name. He has a Korean name. He is Korean," I say, almost regretting immediately being impatient.
"Jin Zhongri is the General of North Korea."
"He might be in Chinese but no-one else will understand you saying that."
That particular lesson of course might seem particular to Chinese - Japanese and Korean names can be pronounced in Chinese with reference to the characters that all three languages share (although the sound may differ). But this affects English too in a way. We have ways for describing foreign names and things. Placenames like Florence, Serville and Vienna differ a lot in pronunciation from how they actually are pronounced.
It works in reverse too. "Do you know what tofu is?" I ask, a shake of the head is the only response. I explain in English the appearance and characteristics of this obiquitous Chinese product. Often, but not always, they will gasp: "Ohhhhh, doufu."
"In English we call it tofu; that is the Japanese pronunciation." Students are often perplexed why English would take the Japanese pronunciation for a Chinese thing. We also say Zen (Japanese) and not Chan (the Chinese pronunciation of the same term). I assume this is because they've historically been more open and developed than China. When you trade, your terms are taken on board. And English has always traded not just goods but words. We generally take the foreign word and not find the need to make our own. We call pasta pasta; Chinese call it all "Yidali Mian" (Italian "noodles"). But then occasionally English will use a very general term for a lot of specific foreign terms or things, dumpling being the obvious example (I will argue with speaker here saying regarding many different Chinese foods saying: "We call them all dumplings," only to be told by the student that dumplings are jiaozi (a small parcel of stuffing wrapped in a skin of pasta) - look up dumpling on Wikipedia if you're not sure).
Chinese generally will make its own terms for things, leaving transliteration for foreign names and (some) places. But that means that foreign words that are transliterated are often overlooked. A student didn't believe me that Luoji (the Chinese term for logic) had come from English. Not even when I asked him to tell me the meaning of Luo and Ji did he concede. The local staff are often driven nuts by students who discovering an English word has a transliteration in Chinese use only the transliteration. Sample situation:
"Teacher, what is 'store'?" (this is usually asked in Chinese)
"A store is a shop." Even though they know what a shop is, many students don't accept this explanation.
"A store is a place that sells things."
"A store is like seven-eleven. It sells things."
Then the student, should they be Cantonese, will often gleefully realised: "Oh: See-door." (the meaning for see-door, the cantonese transliteration of store, is a little different, implying a small grocery store). The teacher nods but says: "Store". But then the student feeling that the word is the same, uses it rather than listening to the actual English pronunciation. This sets in motion a chain reaction leading to the explosive breakdown of the teacher in question.
It is easy to pick on students and think they're not that sharp. But everyone has these moments. I still have some "sticky" misunderstandings of grammar and expression in my Chinese. Often I say them again and again. And I remember that no matter how many times I corrected my Chinese-learning friends that Beijing is pronounced with a hard J, they still went back to the anglicised Beijjjjing.


Thursday, July 01, 2010

"You're indispensible to this school, Daniel." So spoke Hanson, an elementary student with a penchant for learning a word and then using it on everyone. The sentiment was strangely timed: I was about to head back to the office to print off a few more documents to prepare for my interview at another school.

"Thank you, Hanson. You're so kind." The interview, early tomorrow morning, has hardly rippled me yet. But it may lurk in my dreams tonight. I'll be sitting before three interviewers, all whom I expect to give me a testing time. And so they should if I were an interviewer, I'd insist on troubling applicants so much that they'd all thought they'd failed, just so that we can know that there was some questions that pushed them to the exact lines of what they think they are and what they might in fact be. I'm sometimes scared about the discrepancy between what I think I am and what I really am.

If it comes to be that I leave my school, I'll be sad and I might not be the only one. Perhaps one of the keys to my motivation to teaching is that I believe that I subconsciously buy into the progress of all of my students. It makes it easy to spend time with them when you are sometimes just as dedicated to their progress as they are. But at the same time, I have this connection with between fifty to one hundred students; to leave them feels like leaving the job undone and letting them down at the same time. I'm taking some solace in the fact that several of the longer term students with whom I've established a great teaching rapport are nearing the ends of their contracts too.

The summer rains descended on Southern China, drowning many and cleansing the land. In the cities though, it was just a damp period of weeks: washing doesn't dry; you can enjoy days without sweating yourself silly before one even goes through the front door in the morning and; mosquitoes feed. Of course, there is still the daily maximum near 30 degrees but at least the temperature can drop to 25. Needless to say, that relief has ended and we're back in the sauna again.

I'm also two days away from being in the Philippines. This is after a lightning whip around Zhuhai and Macau two weeks ago. Life is not going to let up anytime soon.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The hot unbothered

Watching Phoenix Satellite TV, I got to hear the mangled English of John Key, the bouncing jumps of a haka powhiri and the sight of the Chinese Vice-President, Xi Jinping, speaking about New Zealand and China's relationship in Auckland, it is easy to see that NZ as small as it is does register well here. News from home does register here. My students knew that New Zealand drew with Slovakia in the World Cup. Even the sad tale of a slain Chinese high school registered. Though the occasional student couldn't say where the archipelago of NZ is, most know that it is a very beautiful place.
Kiwidom is in fact flowing through my school at present. We may have the only three kiwis in all of the Guangzhou schools in my chain, the latest arrival, a teacher from Christchurch, also continues the tradition of us snaring all the proficient Chinese speaking international teachers. In addition to him, one of our local teachers also went to Victoria University and identifies strongly with New Zealand so we're probably more New Zealand than American.
That being said, I'm leaning myself away from this centre that has been home for the last seven months. I'm a strong candidate for a senior teacher position at another school in the chaim. I've been fortunate to have received a national award to strengthen my bid for the job and it may be up to me not to make a mess of an interview to secure my next position. Going to another centre, as uprooting as it may be, is essential for my growth as a teacher, to see how others operate, and give me the experience to possibly in this time abroad take the reins as a Director of Studies in my own right. Also, my school, though comfortable, is not necessarily the best place to develop. I want some professional pressure to improve myself and the possible position will ensure that is the case. I won't be top dog there, and I'll have a Director of Studies who is legendary for his punctiliousness.
But it is best not to get wrapped up in work, and with a fortunately timed national holiday I set off to Zhuhai and Macau to let off some steam for three humid days. These are two cities on either side of a historical border. Macau was once a Portuguese colony that was only returned back in 1998; Zhuhai was its "Mainland" neighbour who benefited heavily from its proximity to a formerly western trading port. Unlike Hong Kong which has many million people, Macau barely registers as a city bar its historical significance. It is now famous for casinoes but has more going for it than just that - it is quite a pretty little peninsula. I drank lots of port and ate egg tarts by the half-dozen. One night I had a great dinner almost alone except for my travel companion in a restaurant. The awesome service staff climbed out from behind the bar and bearing guitars gave us a rather impressive exhibition of song and music. Occasionally they fused a Chinese song with latin guitar. They merged their voices in a resonant harmony. They sang from classic to recent, and never seemed to miss a beat for their appreciative yet small audience. Food, or at least the atmosphere in which food came, was the greatest feature. Again I could have a cafe-feel. Again I could appreciate food in a room designed for ambient austerity, not hustle and clatter, where service helps but never crowds and often genuinely smiles: A western service concept.
And the whole time the mercury crawls ever upwards. It is not yet the "hot months"; it is merely rather hot. It was 29 degrees at midnight last night and now at 9:30am it has again crossed that on the way back up, probably to peak at 34 sometime in the afternoon. I may be beginning to be physically affected by the constant swelter - my stomach is not itself and I'm occasionally dehydrated; but overall I no longer feel annoyed by it. Many of the local men seem to have the whole day shirtless. I wish I could. On my trip I saw people in the water at a beach. I wish I could be there too. I can only shut my eyes and imagine being tumbled by a wave of cold salt water at Port Waikato.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Be scene, be herd

Let one day be a microcosm of Chinese tourism. That day will be the 22nd of May, 2010:
We arrived at the airport to find my name was misspelt on the booking system. We called the agent, who in turn called their man at the airport to deal with the matter. He consequently disappeared with my passport and my friend's ID for twenty nervy minutes, before reappearing with corrected tickets. We made it to our gate on the final call, and were directed onto a packed terminal bus. We squeezed on and waited, and waited. Apparently someone else was late. After ten minutes suddenly a wave of annoyance arose within the group: "It's freakin' hot," "Let's go!" erupted. Just then a young women strode calmly over, sat in the seat next to the driver and we left. "She must have been doing her make-up!" someone quipped. The flight gave us only biscuits and bottled water for the one hour flight, which no-one on the flight consumed because they knew that the food on tour groups would be poor, and so they were all keeping it for later. Once on the ground, we jumped on the bus and headed on our way to the parks. On the way, we were given a spiel for traditional Tibetan medicine to adjust to the altitude. My friend and I always wary of a sales pitch declined. We arrived at Huanglong park, the first sight of our three day trip. Though starting at a height of 3150 metres and going to a height of 3500 metres (almost as high as Mt Cook), we still insisted on not taking the cable car to the top, preferring to do it traditionally, on foot. Within half an hour my friend was hit by the altitude, first by tiredness, then dizziness and finally nausea. She shooed me onwards, saying she could rest while I could make the trip worthwhile, so I steadily strode toward the main beauty point at the top. Having just had a dry winter, the water wonderland was less than wonderous for most of the walk. The blue sky was suddenly darkened an hour up, and the chatter of the climbing masses silenced by a thunderclap: it began to snow on a warm day. That passed, and I got to the top, admired the beauty for two breaths, before heading back down to see my friend. Down, we climbed back on the bus. Another sell began: "On this trip, you'll have 12 hours of enjoyment, for what was a very cheap price..." Apparently there was a performance on the evening of the second day which we had to see for the price of NZ$64. We fluttered the tour contract in front of the tour guides forehead: There are to be no additional costs on top of the original cost of the tour. He said that it was strongly recommended we went and that money would go to charity. We didn't bend. He said at least one of us should go. We said we weren't going. He told us that we were the only ones not going (we weren't) and that our intransigence stood between the event making money to give to the needy. We just blinked but didn't give. And thus we would "miss out". The bus had to stop for technical issues twice on the way causing us to have dinner at 10pm. That night I shared a room with another member of the tour, who smoked in our room while I was in the shower.
But it was a great trip. Chongqing, the so-called western capital, and Jiuzhaigou were wonderful. Both were set in the southern spice belt of China, where dishes run red with chilli. I didn't meet a single dish that was too hot, enjoying every bite. My friend's family really took me in in Chongqing and really took to the region. The dialect was interesting, sounding like a Korean speaking French but with words strangely similar to Mandarin. If I knew the topic, I could almost understand everything; but soon as the subject drifted and the thread slipped through my fingers it became inpenetrable again. After learning a few key words, my general comprehension lifted to about the same level as the Cantonese I've been working on for months.
The star destination was a place called Jiuzhaigou, a place is regarded as one of the foremost natural treasures of China. We got there the day after the one I mentioned above. The park started at a height of 2500 metres and stretched to 3000 metres in places, higher than Ruapehu's summit. "Once you have been to Jiuzhaigou, you can't enjoy waters," they say and I can say that it is not an overstatement. This place certainly has beauty up to the level of the best sights of the Southern Alps with water colour only slightly paler than the Emerald Lakes of the Tongariro Crossing. A place drowning in beauty that exhausts the eye. But this is China, a place that democratises tourist spots. In New Zealand, many of our natural jewels are the preserve of the a-bit-more-than-able-bodied and the super-rich in their copters. In China, everything is boardwalked, gondolaed and staired. Jiuzhaigou had a bus fleet ferrying people from one visual splendour to the next. In this relatively remote place, these buses were more packed than any city buses I'd taken in Guangzhou. This allows the elderly and the young to enjoy the beautfy in a way that New Zealand could never do; but also opens natural scenes to the emotional pollution that an incorrigible human mass and their idiosyncrasies can bring to one's experience of beauty.
As mentioned we declined a performance on our last night, preferring to walk slowly around the township that supplies the park its accommodation. I ate some very authentic food (from sites that looked like refugee shelters), chatted with Tibetans and bought cheap. What in English we call Tibet, in Chinese is called Western Tibet; we were in an area thought of as Eastern Tibet. It was good to escape the group. Back at the hotel we heard that we would be getting up at 5:30am. We were doing this so that we could go to expensive stores before we flew back. One shouldn't complain: the reason the tour was cheap is because the tour receives a commission of sorts to bring tourists in. And it is rather slick, if not sickening. The selling actually starts on the first day when the tour guide tells us "expected prices" and that to buy outside of authorised dealers is dangerous. Then arriving at these shops we are hustled into theatres to be told: "Gold hair crystal: the beloved of the successful and rich. Bringing wealth to those who wear it." "Green crystal, the favourite of women," etc. in an attempt to mesmerise or guide the tired, weak travellers.


Friday, May 07, 2010

Mercury creeps

I've come back into my home with the moisture content in my clothes weighing more than that of cotton of which they were made. It was a day where I spent most of my time in an air conditioned office but the small time in between air conditioned places makes a big difference. The maximum temperature is now consistently scrapping past thirty degrees and the humidity sustains itself despite the heat. So far I haven't had any trouble with it - it's just the comfort factor of wearing pants and long sleeve shirts to and from work. Rumbled tumbled thunder intones from the murk. Now thunderstorms are sweeping the city so I've opened the curtains and turned off the lights to appreciate it. It is 2am with 23 degrees, and 100% humidity now.
My cantonese is very much on the up-curve. I could just hear words before, especially the Mandarin analogues (originating from a common ancient language there are words that are directly related but sound rather different). But now my mind is stringing words together and thus meaning is gelling together. I've overheard two phone calls understanding more than just the gist recently, and I've started ordering food and buying in Cantonese, even unwittingly to unfortunate service staff from other provinces who don't speak Cantonese natively - they understand, nonetheless. Poor Mandarin will linger in the margins of my mind. Lightning camera flashes explode from my hind. Internet cantonese radio chatters in the midst.
I don't know if I've mentioned the back alleys but now they're my highways. Chinese neighbourhoods, especially the older ones, have little lanes dicing communities providing the populace with ways to race to the main arteries of the city. The alleys themselves are a picture, a microcosm, of life, dotted with random shops, with the mandatory street seller plying their trade of fruit or pirated DVDs in front. It feels exceptional to have them mapped down to the very guy harking on the corner. I feel safe scurrying through there, occasionally seized by the moment to buy random stuff like loquats and mangosteens. Part of the way is along a stinky river which I no longer appreciate the stench of. It is just a pleasure. To walk past the meandering stream, wander through the muddling denizens is something I really might actually miss. In this increasingly steamy environment, a portion of the local men choose to do go without shirts, or at least do what can only be called a paunch-show, perhaps one can tell the temperature by the percentage who choose to do so.
I've been rejected for a second time for a credit card which is rather annoying, and now will go to the travel agency to buy a ticket for my next adventure: Chongqing and Sichuan in central China. It will work out as a time to cool down with temperatures merely in the low to mid 20s.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I'm amidst an obsession. I can't stop listening to Cantonese, wanting to hear Cantonese or learning every scrap of Cantonese vocabulary. My ears seize passing words and suck their vital essences, for future reference of course. Bizarrely, or not so bizarrely, my ears are quite intuitively seizing the language. It is quite possible that my Mandarin brain has finally connected the dots and has united the language engine of Mandarin with the Cantonese vocabulary and knowledge that I've been diligently gathering for 14 years. I'll immediately recognise unknown words as cognates in Mandarin and understand the gist of what is being said. Natural phrases spoken rapid and naturally are hooked in by my senses and sensed by my brain: I know what is being said without knowing why I'm understanding it. It may be that I'm learning the language as a Mandarin speaker rather than as an English one. Or maybe I'm enjoying the best of both worlds. A friend noted: I don't have the same inaccuracies as a person not from the province, I can pronounce and "hear" the sounds that don't exist in Mandarin with the tones that don't exist in English.
One odd side-effect is that when I switch back to Mandarin, at first it is completely alien, and the a complete relief and flowing into my intellect without any problem with understanding. The problem with switching between languages has always been a problem for me, and to be honest it probably helps that I stay in one language. Chinese students have always integrated English with Chinese, so it is not hard to understand how they have no issue switching; or, for that matter, have such trouble dis-integrating their English from the pernicious influence of their mother tongue.
Cantonese is a dialect of Chinese relatively uninfluenced by the races that took the Imperial throne in the north. According to one of my early lecturers Mandarin was simplified because the Mongols, who took Beijing as their capital for less than 100 years, couldn't get their tongues around end-sounds. Perhaps the Manchus, who ruled the last dynasty of Imperial China before it became a Republic, also aided in the reduction of tones down to the mere four (or five if you count the neutral tone) that exist in modern Mandarin. Cantonese has six tones, or nine if you count the three represented by end-sound words. End-sound words are those where you almost aspirate a sound, but don't. Say "sick" aloud for example: we say SIK-kuh. The kuh sound is the air released from our throats. In Cantonese, and many other Chinese dialects, the air is not released. It is held. In this, it is similar to ancient Chinese: ancient poetry sounds better in dialects such as Hokkien and Cantonese simply because they are less adulterated, the similarity is greater, than Mandarin.
But that history is not an issue. The only issue for me is that I'm in Canton, the beat of this land is Cantonese and I'm finally starting to dance to its beat.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

In defence and attack

It is a line that I've heard many times since I came here but it really does hit a nerve: "Your Chinese is fine; why would you need to learn more Chinese?" It isn't the inquiry itself that is grating but the tone: bewilderment. I struggle not to shriek when I hear such, isn't it a good thing that one seeks to improve one's self as a natural desire? Shouldn't only the opposite, the desire not to learn, be the really bewildering thing?
Interestingly, the query has been asked of me twice in the last week, both in different ways: the first, inappropriately, by a language teacher, and secondly by a colleague. The colleague actually went about it the best by enriching the initial question with follow up questions and statements that validated it: "But surely you come to a point when you should be happy with what you've learnt." Perhaps, we all do reach a point when we, for any field, cease inquiry, cease to ensure that progress has been made. It is a point; however, I'm lusting after Chinese language. And being in China makes this all the more irresistable.
On Monday, I went to karaoke with some of the office staff and a couple of teachers. The some of the office staff were knocked back by the fact that I can actually speak Chinese well; they hardly knew this because in the office I refuse to speak Chinese except when inquiring about Chinese words I hear or see. This adherence to a professional principle, to never speak Chinese to students or usual staff, has probably hindered my progress. But I refuse to bend. Most of the students I teach on a regular basis have intuited that I have an unknown level of Chinese, but the staff were mostly in the dark. I sang a complete song in Cantonese for the first time. It'd caught my ear while listening to a collection and then I could only channel my past frustrations through full throated renditions of its plantive lyrics. One of the desk girls came over and proposed singing along with me for a few other Cantonese songs to which I agreed: I struggled immensely, not having practiced to the same extent as my chosen song.
Today, I have class with my new teacher and I've overprepared myself in all honesty. I met her through a colleague and then after thinking through how I'd best learn, presented on paper what I thought would be a good system of study. She approved of it so thus I'm facing another phase for my learning: having a teacher. This might be cruel wording: my school does, in fact, offer us a teacher; but she is untrained and of the wrong temperament to be a teacher of any strong impact. We do learn words and have a Chinese environment for an hour before she disappears again for another week.
Outside of class, I'm finally using more Chinese too with a regular dinner companion, a local, who not only doesn't mind me using Mandarin but occasionally fires a few Cantonese phrases at me to keep my awake. It all gives me hope that I might actually have some hope of tidying up my Chinese.
It is hard not to think about language when you are an English teacher. Even when I conduct our placement tests I am absorbing language from the pure beginners, who ask me whether I can speak Chinese in Chinese in an interview to determine their English proficiency. There are also the echoes of questions I ask: I ask English and a perfect translation of it is emitted in Mandarin or Cantonese as the interviewee considers how best to answer. Sometimes it is a bizarre mixture of both:
"What movies do you like?"
"Gongfu movies," the reply comes.
"What kind of movies are they?" I ask even knowing Gongfu is the Chinese word from which we get Kungfu.
"Do you know Chinese Gongfu?" they ask.
"No, what is that?" I deny and ask.
The student looks to the ceiling considering how to explain for a moment; after that moment passes and still no explanation comes I thought I'd better help.
"Do you mean Kungfu?"
"No." Oh dear, are you sure?
"Do you mean fighting movies?"
The student pauses: "Maybe,"  looking not sure where I was coming from.
"Do you mean kungfu movies?" I ask again, with a kungfu pose.
"Yes. Maybe."
And maybe many rascally shtudents can't help but speak Chinese on school grounds, which to me is galling: Don't you want to learn English?  Wouldn't you rather keep this as a haven of English than pollute it with the ease of your mother tongue? The answer is yes, since for most people, English is an obligation to be accepted, and hopefully avoided. Probably since I have such a strong discipline about not using Chinese myself on school grounds it generates a rather blinding impulse to eliminate all those who dare enjoy the luxury of speaking in Chinese. In Taiwan, I barely spoke English in the language building and was better for it, after all. One student, though speaking "English", adds Cantonese sentence endings to everything: "Really aaaarr?" and thus drives me nuts. I'd be concentrating on an explanation for another student when the "laaaaaar" from afar hits my tympanum with such a thud that all thought and speech comes to a crashing halt forcing me to stride up to the student and beg her to show some restraint.
Language is a nourishing liquid that surrounds this school of fish; it is what we oblivously swim in regardless of where we are. Let's all enjoy the crashing waves or the smooth waters of lakes.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Spring rolls

"Does it often get this hot in winter?" I sweatily asked a student in mid-February, which is often considered part of winter in the northern hemisphere.
"We don't have winter," was the response. The not-winter period featured rather cold, damp periods punctuating by warm summer stretches. Now deep in March, the humidity has been low at times and high at times with temperatures in the 20s. In such conditions with a breeze, it feels like a sheet, fresh from the drier, is caught on your body, flapping around, but without the air resistance. I guess this must be Spring. Many of us in the office have simultaneously developed sore throats. My theory is that the far-flung sandstorm shredded our throat linings, ever so subtly. My body has been playing tricks on me as it grapples with the demands of living in this warm, dirty, pressurized metropolis.
"This is a subtitle. This is a subtitle. This is a subtitle. This..." ran continuously across top of the big LCD screen in English on the biggest shopping mall as I waited across the street. Postmodern, perhaps. Time hasn't generated much traction lately: it runs through my fingers like dry sand and street dust. The milestone of the fourth month in China past two weeks ago, but I didn't had the accompanying unease as at the end of the third month. This time has featured the whirlwind arrival and departure of my sister; increased responsibility at work; plans for travel forming for both June and July and some clarity appearing for what I may do at the end of my contractual year. In terms of the latter, I'm placing myself well to be promoted to a senior teacher before the end of contract, whether it be in my own centre or another. In my own centre, I'm arguably the academic head (although with the imminent arrival of a new director of studies, that may change).
With my Chinese learning coming back into focus once again, I'm enjoying the prospects of the next month...


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tiger Tiger Water Water

The water crept in some time on Monday night. I thought they had taken a hose to the hallway and the water had somehow seeped under my front door; but the bathroom hadn't dried from my shower; the kitchen seemed far from dry too. My passport on the coffee table had its corners curling throughout Tuesday; before I realised that moisture had swamped this city. Today we stood around the staffroom telling each other of our various aquatic home disasters.
The weather in this topsy-turvy month has been the biggest feature of life. The day before my Chinese New Year break was bathed in brilliant sunshine; the dust smog had vanished; if one were to photograph Guangzhou for a tourist guide, this was the day. Then I went on holiday and the temperature crashed from the mid-twenties to below ten degrees. It remained that low for the whole holiday period and then the first week back. The classrooms cold, the teachers wearing beanies and coats, students remaining at home, and mice were even heard stirring. And now we're swimming and warm, the mid-to-late twenties. My energy has surged like the temperature. My last class I was absolutely wired.
The second biggest feature was the coming of the Year of the Tiger. It roared into action in the cold. In the day before New Year's Eve, I was at a loss with how I was going to spend the festival. In a supermarket queue, which was miles longer than it had ever been, I texted a friend, to ask, to be presumptious and beg, for a chance to share his family's new year. It was a big request but after consulting his family, he said yes. It was a great day. I'm eternally grateful. We had lunch at his grandmother's place where they accommodated my eating preferences well; his father is a keen drinker and seemed rather glad at my arrival. He'd raise his glass ready to clink at every opportunity. Thankfully that was lunch and he had to drive. Dinner, however, there was no restraint. We went to a restaurant and he brought cognac. Needless to say, his glass was often raised; and I was obliged to do what I needed to do for his arm to rest again.
The Flower Market is a Guangzhou tradition at New Year. In the lead-up, there are several streets that sell flowers, kumquat trees (tiny grape-sized oranges), peach flower trees and dahlias. The sign outside my apartment says they should eliminate superstitions, but the fact that the "quat" part of "kumquat" sounding similar to the cantonese sound for "auspicious" all means that they sell like hot cakes. Oddly though at an occasion called a Flower Market, the number one thing to buy on the night of new year's eve is a toy windmill. That is because the spinning of the windmill turns and pulls the luck in. My friend's cousin wanted bought one for me, which I gaily and drunkly ran down the street with.
The year turned but the weather didn't. I rested a day and then I walked the city exploring two mid-river islands. One thing that is useful to know about Guangzhou is that it sits amid the Pearl River Delta. The whole area is riven with many rivers and islands. My district is a large island although you'd never know it until you looked at a map. Another island was completely taken by the colonial powers after one of the Opium wars and has a large number of colonial buildings. Another was covered with mansions and tree lines roads. Walking them was wonderful.
But now in sweeps the work and the wonders of a busy life. My sister arrives in Guangdong shortly and more exploration awaits me at every week.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

The walk home

There are some regular parts of life that are pretty much identical day-to-day. Your gnattering thoughts might differ; the weather might be different; but essentially the action is the same. Until, of course, some unexpected incident knocks you off your regular orbit.
I exited my school building for the second to last time of the lunar year and headed to the intersection to wait with the chattering pedestrians chomping at the bit to cross. One of the heads in front turned randomly, and then took a second take on spotting the tired white guy, me, standing jaded behind her.
"Welcome to Guangzhou," she said in correct but heavily accented English.
"谢谢" I thanked nonchalently in Mandarin. Her ears pricked up and immediately turned and launched into Cantonese, saying that my Mandarin was very good. I said in Cantonese that my Cantonese was not. She took a few misfiring sentences to switch her thought processes into Mandarin and then talked rapidly and clearly in Mandarin with the usual personal questions that traditional Chinese ask. I said I didn't have a wife or children to one question causing her to assume I'd left them in New Zealand, or Australia as she liked to refer to it despite my stating that they were two different countries.
"The milk in Australia is good and the air too."
"Yes," I said not bothering to halt her. She asked a lot about my educational background.
"I didn't complete my school; I gave up half way. Out of my group of students only I didn't finish school," she informed me.
"Oh," I said.
"Yes, I had a problem with my brain."
"No way ba," I said taking what she said as the usual phrase Chinese use to say they weren't predisposed to study.
"But then I saw a doctor and I was better again."
"Oh... that's good."
"I'm studying now again. I'm half-way through."
"Oh, that is good."
"After my husband died, I knew I wasn't going to marry again."
"Uhuh," I said not knowing how that fits in.
"He was a bit like you, open and happy."
"Is that so?"
Then she talked about cars and the Nobel Peace prize. I'm not sure how it was that she brought up the Nobel prize, but we arrived at a corner near my place. We'd walked in the same direction I was starting to worry that she would follow me as far as I was going to walk, to my apartment if necessary.  I was loaded with thoughts that this was some sort of trick to ask for money. Or some elaborate prostitution solicitation. Or a marriage offer. I stopped at the corner and she completed her thoughts about Obama and the Nobel Peace prize. She asked if I was going to the right; she said she was going straight. I said it was a pleasure to have met her and bid her farewell and she did the same. We parted and then after I had walked 10 metres, she released a loud "Bai bai!" I reciprocated with just a little less enthusiasm and kept walking.
So she was just kind-hearted. Or still marginally mental. Anyway, I can thank her for an interesting walk home.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Xiaogang Park at 6:30am

Twisting and turning, bothered thoughts at the dawning, I rolled out of bed and put on the rain-pants I had mysteriously brought to China and onto the streets I went, searching for the apparent East Entrance to Xiaogang. The pavement renovation on Changgang East had been completed: I was free to break into a jog at will. Oncoming eyes were no less starey-starry at this time of the morning. I passed through the park gate: Khuuurrrk phut!
In a city of over ten million, the early risers number in the hundreds of thousands. The welcoming cheerleaders were the old and not-so frail, moving in synchronicity. I broke back into a jog and passed a back/front clapwalker. It was the second time I'd been to Xiaogang Park: the first was completely accidental even though the map I always use clearly shows there to be an extensive park barely 200 metres from my school. It is large enough to lose one's self: Khuuuuurk phut!
I walked a bit as I approached a bridge. My hope that that the torrential rain had cleansed, temporarily, the river of its stench was in vain. Above a bird was making a rough morning call. Or was it coughing? Have you ever heard a bird cough? If there should ever be a bird coughing, it'll be in Guangzhou with the air as it is. I charged back into a run and tailed a backward walker. His steady pace backwards meant that he could spend some time scrutinising me as I eventually pulled passed him: Khuuuuurk phut!
I passed the barbeque area and approached the badminton courts when my ears snared the familiar hollow tap-tap-tap of a ping-pong ball. I've been hoping for a ping-pong table for a long time and shot up the stairs for a peek. Passing the tables, there was a man sternly standing straight, sword in hand, ready to swing; Cantonese opera screeched from a 80s tape deck somewhere yonder as his onslaught failed to eventuate. A bare-chested runner bounds past: Khuuuuurk phut!
Those buildings are on my left again. Full circle I must have come! It was not the last time I would see those buildings on my left either that morning: Khuuuuurk. I stopped for a moment. Something wasn't right. I turned around slowly to spot a hunchbacked woman on a park bench. Phut! she spat into the bush. I turned back on my course and ran towards where I hoped the way out would be. The sun had risen and my twilight muddle had nicely brought me to the day.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Down is the new Up

I should have known last Tuesday: the clapping girl outside the fashion shop had lost her mojo, and I was half-way to losing mine. She had been paid to clap all day long to create an atmosphere conducive to sales, but her listless, arrhythmic beat would only be able to scare away the pigeons, if there had been pigeons. Me? I'd sustained a packed working week before launching myself headlong to Fuzhou and back in a busy three days off to see a friend, and then I was back at work, bleary-eyed staring at the clapping girl staring at me. I marched on to get a hot chocolate at a rather neat cafe, but the writing was on the wall: My immune system had sustained a hit; I had a cold, sniffle; and I was going to be out of order for a wee while. I struggled through Tuesday, slept through Wednesday on my first sick leave; and the was launched down to Shenzhen for training, heavily drugged, for Thursday and Friday. That all didn't mean that I didn't ace the test at the end of the training but by the end of it all I was as sick as when I had started and back at work, without a semblance of working order. In such situations, the body is great; it secretes adrenalin; I act nuts; the students smile; class dismissed; let me collapse on my desk.
Now, I'm back on the verge of health and ahead of me is a nice period: Despite the sickness and the medication, the bootcamp in Shenzhen was rather inspiring: I've been given a boot (in the arse) forward. I think my teaching is already exhibiting a sharpness it didn't have before the training. Ahead of me is Chinese New Year, where not only will I have a chance to taste the sweet nectar of travel, but also do what I want to do: study! Since finishing my first novel in Chinese since arriving, I have got a third of the way through another. I have a colleague who is rather dedicated to teaching me Cantonese. (She plopped herself down to be last week and declared we were going to speak Cantonese and used the same methods she'd use to teacher her super-beginner students; for the first two students it was painful listening and then sudddenly I could understand, intuitively everything she said. Cantonese is fun.) Ah, sickness sucks, but life can be nice too.
All this should not miss what happened before the cold struck: I landed in the city of Fuzhou, home to a high school friend of mine. The nature of China, Chinese culture and the vicissitudes of life abroad came floating to the surface. It is interesting where your thoughts lead you. I'm yet to understand what I think of all that I heard and felt.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Not a way to die

You know when someone abroad is busy: silence prevails in most of their correspondence; blogs are not updated; e-mails cease. With the ray of sunshine that temporary Facebook access has given, a general busyness has consumed me. I've been rather in my stride at work. I've been on top of things, rollicking in my task but it is tiring me too. I've been slowly developing cold symptoms.
It has been wet and cold for a while now, but it is about the same as mild coldness we have in NZ in late Autumn. I'm thankful for my big umbrella. Christmas did go better after the last blog was sent. I had a nice Christmas Eve party (where a lot of institutional gossip was spilt) and the Christmas party wasn't bad either. I spent most of Christmas day at home calling home and when I bought myself some shoes as a gift.
New Year was quite well spent too with a rough and ready New Year party that doubled as a farewell for the fellow I'm replacing. I reverted back to my role as a teacher for a moment there when some "students" (from another school) started asking me questions that I couldn't refuse. They rewarded me with the Chinese phrase: "To receive a day of teaching, you must treat the person as your father for life." When I heard the phrase come up (I hadn't heard it before) I cringed. I was desperately thinking what the "fu" at the end could mean, other than father, but nothing came and then they clumsily translated it in its glory, with innocent smiles. Apparently as part of treating me as a father, I'm going to be treated to the divine korean cooking of one of them. That can't be all that bad.
Not everything has gone smoothly though, and last night's happening really took the (expensive) cake. Many of my friends have suggested I'm paying too much for my apartment; and though I find it comfortable, it has to be conceded that it is not the best. Late last night, for example, it tried to kill me. I entered my bathroom in the all together after midnight and shut the door, only to have the whole metal handle disintegrate in my hand. I was incredulous for a moment until it dawned on me that I'd arrived in a peculiar situation: apart from a narrow window, the door is the only way in; the remains of the handle provided no way to open the door; I was thus effectively locked, naked, in my own bathroom. The bathroom window only lead to my laundry and then out into the outside air, eleven floors above the ground. I tried to see if I could fit through the window, and without a reorientation of my skeleton it wasn't going to happen. I had few implements to work on screws and joints with and while evaluating and testing a few options, I was starting to consider the rather horrid situation I'd be in if I couldn't get myself out. It was cold. The only heat would be the shower and then as soon as the shower ended I'd be freezing without a towel; no-one was coming; no-one at work knew my landlord so without getting the attention of anyone in the building; I could yell out the window, but I'd never heard voices, ever, in my apartment. The sound pollution is pretty bad outside I could be yelling out the window for ever; but vibrations travel well within the building: I could bash the ceiling until someone who happens to be taking a midnight pee is motivated enough to notify the front desk staff of the noisy neighbour below, who'd have to figure out who it is, contact my landlord sometime to get into my apartment with a key sometime and set me free. Or, perhaps with a few tools I could bore my way through the door with a pair of nail scissors - at least the action would keep me warm. The remaining stub of the door handle had a square rut that if turned could set me free: I plugged a pen into the hole and turned it, only to have the unfortunate pen dismantle itself under the pressure. My next victim were the nail scissors: I put them into the rut, opened them as wide as I could and turned; the blades twisted inside, and though the inner axel turned a little it wasn't enough. I sat back down and thought through it again. There really wasn't anything else I could do; I was cold, tired and had been stuck in the bathroom for between ten and twenty minutes. I returned to nail scissors, the only technique that had shown any promise, and after a few more moments of twisting at different angles, I pulled and the door popped open. This strangely mirrors another bathroom experience I had about twelve years agoin Japan.
I've been in this kind of queer dilemma situation before. It is weird: you aren't in imminent danger; there is no charging bull; but you are required to somehow "do something" to resolve it, because there is no going forward and no going back.
I'm on the verge of my second escapade outside of Guangzhou, heading up to see my high school friend in Fuzhou. My first trip out, to Shenzhen before Christmas, went like clockwork and I hope this one likewise is a piece of (quite expensive) cake. I'm looking forward to stepping into another world again; a place devoid of the Cantonese tongue.