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:

http://china.globaltimes.cn/society/2010-07/555743.html (English)

http://www.oushinet.net/172-2795-80944.xhtml (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.