Tuesday, November 06, 2012
It's been a month since my last blog and that reflects two new uses for my leisure time. One has been that natural consequence of my power reading earlier this year: I hit gravel to slow myself down reading a Chinese classic, The Water Margin. I'd read the first of the four Chinese classic novels in my first year, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and, being the project that it was, was quite daunted by the prospect of another. But in August I missed the boat on a distance diploma course I'd intended to do and with only travel planning and sweating to do in my late summer free time, it was easy to get into. Since it is my second classic, I'm fortunately able to read much faster than I was before. I average about 15 pages a day. My day has a nice start, a coffee on the balcony or sofa to peel of a few pages; if I catch the bus, I read some; if I nick out to lunch, I bring it and read half a page before my food arrives; the bus back too, needless to say; and then maybe a bit more while Christy watches Hong Kong soaps. And then there are good weekends and average weekends.
The Water Margin is known by all and read my comparatively few, it seems. I don't enjoy it as much as The Romance but it does have its good points. It has more sex and violence than you'd expect in a 700 year old book. It also seems to have the recurring theme of evil women - I can only guess the writer was a misogynist. There are some brave female warriors too, but they barely get a line. There are 108 heroes in this book. All up a mountain for a good portion of it, apparently killing the corrupt and not hurting the innocent. I'm not sure how many I could name for you now, but I think I'd get to thirty before I started scratching my head. I'm up to page 820 of 965 and I really want it finished because...
I had my stroke of luck. In the middle of the year I was professionally down on my luck having been effectively demoted and missed the course that would have made the time worthwhile. Mid-October, I go an e-mail re-offering me a place in the course I wanted to do. Starting the next day, more or less. It was an easy decision. The one olive leaf of shame I have is being well underqualified (credential-wise). It is pretty much the gold standard of ESL qualifications and one that I don't mind some short term pain to get.
But of course there is still the matter of 145 pages of blood, women and loyalty to slash through so that I have the time... You might wonder why I don't just put the book on hold and let my academic reading reign for the time being. And though I should consider than option more, it's (a) a book and I don't put down books easily without quiting altogether; (b) 108 heroes and their various backgrounds are hard enough to remember with only night breaking the flow of reading; (c) I like it.
Fortunately for you, if you wanted to know all the above, I haven't done my reading yet this morning so I could write this blog. Now I think it's sat next to me long enough. It's time for coffee and battle.
Sunday, October 07, 2012
"Please sit in the seat number shown on your ticket," the PA boomed at every stop from Qingyuan to Wuhan. And Wuhan and back. It was a simple rule but one that we couldn't follow. It is the rule that it is imperative to break in China. This rule, though elegantly simple and common sense, doesn't fit with the ticketing system that operates in China: Ticketing for train trips during the national holiday period can only be bought 5 days before the day of departure. Since 100 million people want to buy those multiple tickets and the best way is to use the internet to buy the tickets, thereby avoiding the pandemonium of the ticketing office. The computer system chooses the seating and your travel party / family is left scattered in three different carriages.
Fortunately, everyone knows the drill. You ask someone else to move to another cabin so that you can sit next to your wife and they'll get up straight away. It is one of the few acts of public kindness that people know is not a trick, that I help you, someone else will definitely help me. Or perhaps everyone wants to do the fingers to the System embodied by the PA.
But of course, the Good Samaritan whose seat you're in may get off the train before you, and so another passenger might get on with your new seat number. That's fine: You just tell them the situation and they head to the other carriage to sit in your ticketed seat. Of course, if they themselves are in a group, they may just evict you.
Either way, on our slow train to Wuhan and our fast train back, it gave us something to do, besides play cards, read books and eat. Wuhan itself had more: Cheap taxis, sweet rice wine for breakfast, and hordes of people looking for some holiday diversions. All the places we went to, bar one, was overcrowded to the point of obliterating almost any redeeming tourist value. But so long as you are there for a collective experience that'll bring you closer together, you'll enjoy! We lined for Huanghe Lou in a massive queue that snake around the base of the building, slowly crawling into the building, but once there, it was a queue up the stairs, and then a queue around past the gift shop, which led to another queue up another set of stairs. We pulled out at this point. Whatever was at the top would not be able to be appreciated.
And that's what this autumn's enlightenment might rest upon, if I were to go by the Wuhan newspapers: what is the enjoyment of travel and how can a system give the most enjoyment to the people. It might sound a bit patronising but Chinese people are still learning how to be travellers and appreciate special places and events properly. They know its special and thus go there just to indicate that they've been there. They "got the t-shirt".
The system for public holidays is peculiar. The government will change the weekends for most workers around public holidays so that everyone has continuous long holiday stretches (with continuous long stretches of work before or after. If there were a three day public holiday from Wednesday to Friday, they may move one weekend to Monday and Tuesday, thus giving a seven day break, for example. This is very benevolent of the authorities to ensure that people have maximum togetherness on special days. But holidays aren't necessarily just for family togetherness: this system is the bane of the traveller. Because there is no flexibility for most workers, everyone is off on those exact same seven days, using transport on the first and last, going to various sites on the third, fourth and fifth days. Most people choose to have their "family togetherness" from their home because of an aversion to the throngs of people choking anything worth being at.
At almost every site, I found myself repeating the idea of giving companies, or people, the power to stagger their own holidays around national holidays. And was met with an article suggesting the same thing in the paper. At least someone is listening.
Thursday, September 27, 2012
An eroded moon. An orange grim thing. That is the night sky that welcomed me as a newborn child, in the sky. My lunar birthday falls four days before Autumn festival, which has a full moon. Four days before Mid-Autumn festival it is less than full. It doesn't bother me that my moon isn't full. My solar birthday, the first of October, marks a particular angle of the sun at its highest point in the day in a season. No-one but a calendar can see it. My lunar birthday, 11th of the 8th month, I know can expect the same incomplete moon, maybe orange, maybe white, maybe yellow, maybe blue, hanging on less than full in the sky year in and year out of my life. That is my moon. The moon of my birth.
After 3am I know that moon would have set. All that would remain is Orion, a visitor to my sky. I've only seen it this once in the three years in Guangzhou. I can only savour in this. The grim moon gone; the hunter rises; this early in the morning; after the guests have left; after the party; on the day; of the same moon; on the day I was born; I type and live here; in the distant city of Guangzhou,
Monday, September 17, 2012
Guangzhou had its first tumble into autumn. Temperatures dropped finally to the comfortable range of 20 to 30 degrees. Guangzhou also tumbled into protest for the second time since I came to China. The Senkaku / Diaoyu Island dispute flared up. The roads around my office became choked with people, police and barricades. Japanese made cars in Tianhe district, as in other cities recently, were vandalised. At least one was set alight. A plume of smoke reached to the sky. Sound like a war-zone? Well, barring all out street battles tomorrow, naturally it is but an image produced is a mere spark in an otherwise dry, normal day. Let's hope the spark burns out.
I've almost always had an apocalyptic streak. Maybe it was a result of watching and reading (well, half of) The Stand in my youth. I sometimes consider what would happen, so far from home, should a real pandemic engulf the world. Or with a economic crisis, China lurches back into revolutionary mode and relive unpleasantness of the Cultural revolution as the foreign influences are blamed. I'm psychologically ready for anything.
Why is damp Guangzhou so dry? Well, the country is a historical tinderbox. Some dates are flashpoints 9.18 (September 18th). With still another day to get to that mark, things could be interesting. Though I'd rather them not be.
Friday, August 31, 2012
Saturday, August 18, 2012
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Mao, our fourth protagonist, probably didn't specifically demand the persecution of Chen Mengjia. He didn't need to. (Society also doesn't need to, either, to snuff out undesireable voices.) But he pre-empted some of the Hicks irony with his own form: After being strongly of the mind that Chinese Characters should be done away with in order to increase literacy, he did an about-turn and decided they just needed to be simplified. At the time it wasn't explained why. But Mao had said it and thus it was done. Literacy didn't improve but in death, perhaps, Chen might feel better though not if he knew the whole story: According to Hessler, Mao wasn't swayed by the martyr-like words of people like Chen; he had a chat with Stalin who advised against it.
We can pipe up and pipe down but change often happens in its own way.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
Friday, July 27, 2012
The first typhoon of the
Every time has its words. Storms have "fallen trees". When learning a language, to anticipate a few of these words is to grasp a lot. Once you know the context you are in you can apply the knowledge of these key words, signs and signals and understand more about where you are and where you're going.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Friday, July 13, 2012
When Hu Chunhua sees me coming she's working on the teeth of an old Cantonese fellow and tells me to leave my medical history on the table and wait outside. I barely read a paragraph before she calls me back in and tel;s me to sit in the dentist's chair. The old fellow isn't out of the seat so I hover. They talk as he takes the two inch steps of the elderly. "Come over and sit down!" she says again. He is still making his way through the narrow entrance so I wait patiently for him to be completely clear before I nip in and fulfill Dentist Hu's exhortation to sit.
She's an interesting one. She knows me from my numerous visits to treat ulcers but rarely remembers exactly where I'm from or what I do despite asking. She's always chirpy. She is practical too. Sometimes she does me the benefit of my treatment before payment at the counter. This is one of the most annoying process in the hospital. The doctor establishes your treatment but you'd have to go to another floor to queue and settle the bill before treatment can begin. She also has discreetly done small treatment for me without cost. Don't tell her boss.
She works on the second floor of the community clinic five minutes walk away from our apartment complex. It took us about half a year to be brave and go into the clinic. Chinese healthcare mainly uses horrendously big hospitals to administer the masses. Good doctors go to big hospitals. So there was some scepticism about the quality of care we'd get at this small, often shut, establishment. But it's use became quickly clear. In China, a doctor's note is required for paid sick leave. When you're sick, the thought of the large hospitals and the tribulation of going upstairs downstairs to the doctor, wheezing in queues and whatnot, would only get you sicker. At the clinic though, if you have a common cold, you could get a note within about ten minutes and the cost of about eighty New Zealand cents.
Hua Ming, a doctor, usually takes me for those visits. My susceptibility to colds and tropical flus has taken me out at least once every three months. She remembers me, too, but not my nationality, job or how long I've been in China, despite asking me some aspects of my identity on every visit. She shatters the idea that doctors overprescribe, sometimes giving me nothing, sometimes inquiring what is already in the medicine cabinet, usually she'll give me a blood test and that requires going upstairs to the phlebotomist.
I don't know his name - and he too asks me the same questions, especially where I'm from and what I do. He sometimes isn't even at his station. His station has no bell. His station is an office with a sliding window with a seat outside it. When I have a blood test I sit on that seat put my arm through the window so he can prick my finger and pipette the blood up for computer analysis. But if he isn't there, so I just sit on that seat. My diagnosis can't go any further without it. Someone else might spot me sitting on the seat and hear downstairs for him. I hear his footsteps and the pause in footsteps when he yells gossip back to the conversationalist he has just been dragged away from to attend to me. He looks at me as he disinfects my finger: "You're Russian, aren't you?"
I saw Dentist Hu today. She cleaned my teeth and dabbed an ulcer. She was fabulous. Out of all the places that I frequent, it is kind of sad that it is the hospital where I've maintained the longest Mandarin-based relationships. Reading another's experiences of life in a small town, I realise I'm missing a big part of the Chinese experience. With work worries, a surge to get fit and literature drawing me back, it is hard to find the time and energy for Chinese. At least I can get sick from time to time to rely on my Chinese for things that really matter.
Wednesday, July 04, 2012
It has been only a week since my interview for survival. My mood has fluctuated in the aftermath to what I thought was a pretty average interview by myself. Within the coming week, I'll be served some sort of reality - maybe good maybe bad.
One of my friends/erstwhile competitors was philosophical about my criticism that our managers have higher managerial expectations of us than they have of themselves when it comes to change management. He said that we are all managers and need to be able to cope with more able subordinates. True - I'm out qualified by two of my subordinates. Well said, I guess, but it is hard to discern any technique or strategy that has been used to deal news that will demote directly three of your most talented managers, and the ripple effect down the chain. But it can be the worse, right? One has to ask, how would Chairman Mao manage? (HWCMM?)
You might wonder why I'd even raise the fellow apart from this whole being-in-China thing. I've just finished Peter Hessler's two books River Town and Oracle Bones, lovely books that enrich the whole experience of being in China - to hear a voice that is insightful into the, dare I say it, Chinese mind. Mao is always there in the background. Mao is the baggage for a heck of a lot of Chinese people. Mao could manage a revolution! (Though perhaps not a country nor an economy.) And in some ways the new managers are handling a revolution.
Chairman Mao, according to Deng Xiaoping (his successor), was 70% right and 30% wrong, which is a nice way to cover for rather efficient mismanagement. He could run a good revolution - he declared the People's Republic on October 1st 1949 after all. But from that point on made management decisions that led to tens of millions of deaths. He would surely run the company into the ground. But management, especially of a large overpopulated poor nation, is hardly an easy thing. It's a modern fascination to wonder how people of the past would do in the present. We'd all want to know if Aristotle would handle the credit crisis with aplomb, or whether Napoleon would have been a great stock market trader. But my job is important to me so I want to imagine what Mao would do in the hot seat of my company.
So HWCMM? Well, the biggest thing is his dedication to a dogma: Mao hated even the notion of a class structure, of anything beyond the enforced egalitarian of the masses, those who were not class enemies or the communist upper tier. Perhaps Mao would flatten out the structure all together. We are a school and a school should just have teachers, plowing fields and fields of fertile minds. Make it simple: just have your farmers tilling - reduce the "upper class" of management (well, perhaps just the middle level) and occupy them with labour so that there is no chance of revolt. Er, well maybe he's still holding his own with this crowd. It is the way we're going...
Probably the aspect of the interview for my position that annoyed me the most is the difference between expectations and reality. It had happened before. We have been told that we have moved to a Competency Model. This is where every job should have its strengths which candidates are measured by. Sounded good. I entered my first interview with the faulty impression it applied to interviews. It wasn't the case. It wasn't surprising that it was a case for the most recent interview. I still prepared to show my worth under each of the competencies - but it wasn't required. They ask you questions from oblique angles to test out your reasoning - they did that even though they didn't have a thorough understanding of your past or present. I reflected with another friend/erstwhile competitor afterward that we both didn't say our biggest achievements because we were driven away from answering meaningfully by a style of questioning that rarely went near covering the stated competencies. It often was looking for our basic philosophies - which is good but the philosophy they were looking for wasn't stated. Do you conform with the thinking that we haven't told you about. My philosophical friend/erstwhile competitor took it as testing our ability to think, and if we were creative we could pull in our particular achievements.
But this all is speculation, what is more important is HWCMM? Well, the chairman was big on basic philosophy, too. Philosophy was the root of the problem. (But is it a problem?) Even your background may lead you astray. Ability can be misled by philosophy after all so we should evaluate whether people abide by the dogma of the Party. It makes it simpler after all. So, er, well comparing how he managed and the way the interview was run, I can see some similarities... I think he'd like the whole "tell them one thing and then attack them contrary to their expectations" strategy. Reminiscent of the Hundred Flowers campaign.
Maybe Mao wouldn't do a bad job after all... It might be hasty to say that he'd run a company into the ground any faster or slower.
I should really drop this negativity. It isn't doing me any good than amusing me and driving me onto the recruitment websites? I just want the final decision out in the open so I can properly adjust and think what I really want. If I'm demoted, can I deal with a year without solid aspiration? It'd give me time to get qualified to diploma level. I can manage a school now in my sleep. (I'm not prone to boasting but I'm doing terrificly well right now with my school.) It's true that I'm still learning but I can stay in this school forever and my learning is only getting less and less.
I'm an innate optimist though. The thing that breaks me out of my negativity is currently the prospect of being one of the two left standing. It'd be mighty interesting. I do want it. It might be twice the work for the same money. But it'd be well earned money. Growth money. I would love the challenge. Just let me have the challenge. Please. All is forgiven. Mao. Whatever your name would be. I shall serve thee, the party and the company, and shan't make splashy wave-making arm movements apropos your leadership.
I should just work this out at the gym. Warm up. Work out. Cool down. Then and only then is it real.
Sunday, June 24, 2012
In New Zealand, Christmas is the only festival that really pulls people together. But in China, almost every festival is a time of family and rituals; and with government designation as a national celebration, there are always days off to get back to the hometown and celebrate with a meal, let off fireworks, play mahjong and sit around getting eaten by mosquitoes.
Dragon Boat festival was on Saturday and again we returned for two days, one night to Qingyuan. The government designation is all the difference here: Dragon Boat festival was only designated a holiday in 2008. In the south of China, Winter Solstice is traditionally a bigger festival than Spring Festival but without the support of national holidays, it is a struggle to celebrate it. Short holidays have their own perils because the government does more than just designate holidays: it instructs all companies how to rearrange weekends to make sure that employees have consecutive days off. And they make sure the majority of people in the cities are having off the same days, and will be piling into intercity transportation at the same time etc.
But the traffic struggles are all fine because soon you'll be home eating, drinking and playing mahjong. There is one problem in my adopted home: only one person knows how to play mahjong (and like bridge, mahjong is a four person game). Fortunately, card game genes are strong in the blood of all Chinese people, but the first game that has been played at the last couple of festivals has been Chinese chess. I'd brought my chess set during Chinese New Year, and got the challenge I'd wanted. I won some, lost some and in long protraced struggles even drew some. I hadn't had much of a challenge over the board prior.
This time it wasn't I who brought a chess set but Ah-Wing. He's an interesting fellow. Being my sister-in-law's fiance, he is my future loukam (men who marry sisters - Chinese is great for being specific with relationship names). He has George Clooney's jaw and one of the few Chinese people to have hairier legs than me. It is a testament to the man to have brought the set because he was the only person I was undefeated against - and he challenged me directly. In the past he'd come close but could never get more than a draw. This time was to be his time to enjoy - three straight long wins in the afternoon - I'd missed chances to win in two games. Brother Hou is my only current loukam, and he is the strongest player among us; he came over later in the evening and played for most of his stay. Ah-Wing and I had been winless against him so we combined forces and surprisingly won two straight times. (I say surprisingly because you'd think that based on the past record he'd superior technique than both of us put together: we were winless against him.) It was late and Ah-Wing went for a shower and, perhaps unnerved by being destroyed twice, Brother Hou yielded easily to me in the next game. My first win against him.
Earlier, once my three game series in the afternoon with Ah-Wing, the girls got us onto cards, the main one being Cho Daai D. It is a card game similar to President/Asshole. We'd started and noticed her mother on the fringe. Her mother's hands get itchy when others play cards, and with a hand in hand, she squints at her cards for quite some time before winning one devastating trick after another.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Was he a good teacher? It is a decent question to ask. As I think back I replay memories from 12 years ago - a full cycle of the Chinese zodiac - to remember as clearly as possible what set him apart.
Zhu Laoshi (Teacher Zhu) was my first Chinese teacher when I arrived in Taiwan, and it must be said that before he taught me, I didn't have much desire to teach English; when I returned to New Zealand I accelerated my graduation and was chomping at the bit to teach it. Had I just had an affinity on my own or was he really the catalyst that I claim him to be?
When I think back to him, I'd often think how most good teachers begin: talented but without the refinement of time and skill. He had his methods - interesting (but often inefficient) methods. His passion and compassion were easy to spot. He knew how to engage but not to teach skill. That might be harsh. Even the best teachers, without guidance, don't necessarily know how to do the basic function expected of them: to impart both skill and knowledge. And how long was I in a mode of teaching that, though entertaining, though knowledgeable, though confident, was not meeting that basic expectation either.
My first class in Taiwan was difficult. I'd arrived a week previously and had stayed in a club mate's family home but had struggled to understand them and be understood. In other words I was not a high level student. But come the placement test, I proved what a great test taker I was, and placed myself one level short of the top. While doing the test I knew what was going to happen and in the first ten minutes of the class, I showed the massive gap between me and my classmates. Deep-ends do help with the ol' swimming skills though, and it's that which gave me enough to survive. What allowed me to splash was his handling and my classmates' grace. The compassion and patience was immediate from the first day.
And he loved language. I didn't know if he was a literature buff, not that it's necessary, but he "got" language too. And that is something I got eventually. He may not have taught me the skill of using Chinese in the most efficent way, but the concept of language and the relation of words, idioms and grammar came clearly through his lessons, even without teaching them explicitly. Once I got it with Chinese, when I came back I cracked the back of English grammar on a piece of refill. The mystery of language became better than a mystery: It became a puzzle.
I liked puzzles. I don't know if he did. I approached teaching in the same way he did. With compassion, patience, energy and openness. It is the foundation of all good teaching.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Monday, June 11, 2012
Saturday, June 09, 2012
Cocktail parties are de rigeur in our school chain these days. It started back when my second creative, but barely tolerable, centre manager had it as an idea: it took; it sold and other centres just had to follow the same line.
Our centre is the fourth to give it a shot and though it feels a little disorganised, it should be fun and taking place tonight. (I'm sending this after midnight.) You can't just make cocktails though: you need activities. And we have activities. And of course I need to do an activity, too.
Our most versatile local teacher didn't know what he was going to do. He wasn't familiar with cocktail parties enough, so I threw an idea out there: The Double D Variety Show. (Our names both start with D, if you should be thinking the wrong thing.) We had hoped that students would queue up to perform in some way. We were disappointed. We only had a few takers and that left a lot of time for the hosts to construct "games" and activities.
I decided on an activity one morning: I'd ask the crowd if they know what hypnotism was. And then explain it, and elaborate that the other D had been hypnotising me over the week to get me to do something special at this party. He'd then ask me: Do you know how to speak Chinese? Do you know any Chinese songs? Both of these I'd deny and pretend to be on his idea. He'd clap his hands and my head would sink limply and he'd speak to the audience about his plan, saying that when I heard certain music I'd believe I was a Chinese rock star and even prepare a student with a yellow card, the punishment for staff who speak Chinese in our centre. He'd clap me back awake and then play the music. My face would tense. I'd grab a marker and then sing my favourite Cantonese rock song, well the first verse until he'd put an end to it. And clap me back to consciousness, and the denial and the punishment.
A great gag. I hope it works. I hope I don't laugh. And I hope I don't pull a blank in front of a crowd. Singing a song in front of people would be a new thing. Karaoke is different. Everyone is doing it and not many would look at you, and you can stare at a screen for support. Fingers crossed.
Singing a song in another language without support is a little bit like driving around a curly racetrack. Once you start a verse it is fairly easy to go on, but get to a corner and you either make it or spin. There are several hairpin turns in this song - once I say one tricky sequence, it'll follow it up with a sucker punch line. Well, that's how it seems.
It is important to know that 98% of my students don't know I can speak any Chinese; and the other 2% just have suspicions that they can't quite confirm. At my last school I was spotted reading The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the subway; at my first school, I was overheard telling a cleaner where to put something. But I've been largely free of suspicion: Probably, most will be suspicious after this performance. They will either have to believe that the second D can hypnotise or at the very least I can remember whole tracts of Cantonese and produce largely with correct pronunciation... Is it worth the gag?
The song I'll sing is called the Silence of Time, and starts outrageously: I've down a thousand cups yet aren't drunk. An appropriate line to start the partying, you'd think.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
I've recently had what the Chinese term "twin happiness arriving at my door", which is not twins as you might suppose, but two blessings; in my case, marriage and a promotion. Married life has been good. Especially now that the excitement and bustle is over. Promoted life has been good! I've enjoyed and thrived on the new sense of responsibility and my team respond to me well.
But so soon, 55 days into this brand new world of management it seems that one of those happiness might soon come to an end. It will be my first direct experience of restructuring, and one of many experiences of when they get a cold in Shanghai, the whole company starts coughing. Inefficiencies there meant local restructuring that now will apply to every region, regardless of how efficient they may have been. Now the five directors in my city are competing for two positions. The other three will need to find places to go to within or without, and if none of those fit we'll be a shoe in if we choose to demote. And even if one were to become one of the two it is more work for the same money. (Which is not to say the idea of the position is not an interesting one.)
Going from the newest kid on the block to the first "on the block" didn't take long! I'd rate my odds as lowest due to time served alone, although I'll still go through the process of applying for one of the two berths. I do have my advantages and it depends on the intentions and options considered by others. We're all pretty philosophical about it and we're all good friends to boot.
The timeline is not long. So I'll be really putting my best foot forward in the next few weeks to show that I'm doing my job best.
Monday, May 21, 2012
Fast-forward to the plane descending above Malaysia, the captain spoke first in Mandarin: "....It's raining in Penang, with a temperature of 19 degrees." We took a double-take and waited for the English to confirm the inclement forecast. As it did, we shivered: we had only summer clothes. On the ground, we found a taxi and told the Indian driver to take us to Hydro Hotel, and prodded him about the weather. He said it had been like this for a week. It was raining everyday and was this cool. He weaved through the traffic on a "1 hour" taxi ride to the hotel. When we pulled in, it took a moment to figure out why we were at Hardrock Cafe Hotel. I said our hotel name again. He sighed, pulled back onto the road and criticised my accent.
We backtracked 10 minutes around the coast to our hotel - and despite the omens - everything from then went off like a dream. The weather was as we had imagined prior - hot with occasional thunderstorms bustling and bristling by. Malaysia is reliable for a good range of food and warm water beaches. Three whole days in Penang was never going to be enough but it was a nice time to refresh.
Thursday, May 03, 2012
Summer gave us a healthy, sloppy kiss over the May Day holiday. The comfortable spring temperatures gave way to the sapping, sweaty, saunaesque summery weather that occupies Guangzhou for half a year. The difference of a month and a half since I was in Qingyuan for New Year is so clear: the depth of winter matching close to a heatwave that matches most in the middle of summer. Or is it a omen for a steamer unlike no other.
Either way, it was a reminder that my body is ill-equipped for this climate. My body presented a mystery in the first year, hypothesized itself in the second year and confirmed itself in the third: my body takes time to adjust. Psychologically I'm fine with heat but my digestive system, my nervous system and circulatory system beg to differ. After eating my first mouthfuls of dinner at QIngyuan, I asked to leave upstairs for the comfort of a fan and the chance to lie horizontally. My stomach didn't want food, my appetite disappeared. My brain was cloudy; I could barely understand Chinese; my chess ability had been cowed. My heart felt a-flutter and my body just felt so hot. Recent days in similar weather I've coped better and started to adjust. It's just par for the course.
I'm not sure if I'm doing any better but I'm not doing any worse. In a few days this will be a memory, yet I'll still be sweating. Summer is here. Barefoot days. Shirtless days. Days on the balcony drinking tea. Swimming in the mornings. Sudden downpours. Air conditioners puffing bursts as you walk by. Girls in less than usual. Guys doing their paunch-shows. Slip-ons, jandals, and mosquitoes biting the flesh in between.
Sunday, April 22, 2012
The last post about the predictive power of Japanese to guess the differences between Japanese and Qingyuan Cantonese might give one the wrong idea. The Japanese sound of the words might still be less similar than the sounds of Mandarin or any other Chinese dialect to the sounds that were being predicted. Guangzhou Cantonese (QC) sounds are most similar to GC but when there is a difference between the two one wonders where it comes from. Perhaps to understand why I would spend time poring over other Asian languages it might be helpful to explain my previous discarded assumptions.
Despite some familiarity with GC, when I arrived in Qingyuan I was not comprehensible to them nor they to me. It was like a student who'd only learnt basic NZ English arriving in Glasgow. Qingyuan was one of the Guangdong cities with large Hakka populations; in fact, the family I've been with are descendants of Hakka. The grandfather's mother tongue is Hakka yet raised his family in QC (which he also speaks natively). My first thought was that Hakka might have influenced the Cantonese of the city. There are some word choices that were similar (they have the same non-GC non-Mandarin way of saying peanuts, di-daau, for example). But further checking of some of the GC/QC differences came up short: Hakka could not explain some of the sounds or variance.
QC has several word choices that differ from GC. Take off (shoes/clothes) in GC is cheui, whereas in QC it is tyut; this is the same character as tuo in Mandarin. Yesterday in GC is kamyat but zoyat in QC; this is same characters as Mandarin again, zuori. So I wondered whether it might have been moderated by Mandarin in some way. But even more strongly, Mandarin if anything is the least predictive of any dialect or language to explain some of the pronunciation differences, less so than Hakka.
Why shouldn't neighboring or influential languages predict these? Perhaps, word choices can travel between dialects but actual pronunciation is like the genes of a language. If the languages are different breeds, they don't often mix. (I can think of only one circumstance where they would feasibly do so but it isn't the case for GC/QY so I'll keep it to myself.) Just like German wouldn't absorb French or English vowels, so wouldn't QC accept the sounds of Hakka or Mandarin, even if word choices were transferrable.
Which of course brings me onto Korean and Japanese, which both predict many features of Qingyuan effectively. I've got enough basic fluency and awareness of both to be able to crank out the analysis easily. Korean nailed (100% predictivity) a frustrating difference between GC/QC. QC speakers say sounds ending -i in GC as either -i or -yu; for example, zi (to know) is the same in the two dialects; yet zi (self) in GC is zyu in QC. At first, Mandarin seem to predict some but not all (about 70%). Then I recalled a strange difference when learning Korean.
I learnt Korean after Mandarin had became a strong second language for me. When learning Korean (a phonetic alphabet) I'd often notice the words that came from Chinese and guess the characters that they came from. Like Japanese, it had "Cantonese features": end sounds that Mandarin no longer has. But there were some sounds in Korean that didn't make sense to my Mandarin-mind. In Mandarin two words might be said "shi" but in Korean it would be either "si" or "sa". So I'd have to make sure I learnt the different ones well so not to overgeneralise from Mandarin (letting my L2 affect my L3, a common problem for many students with other languages). Recalling this, suddenly I realised that all the Korean "-i" were "-i" in QC, and all the "-a" sounds that corresponded to "-i" words in GC were "-yu" in QC. I'll be doing the final check when I go back for May Day holidays. Another mystery solved!
Having the same thoughts solved another anomaly, this time Japanese predicts when QC would use an ng- initial versus no initial. There are only a couple of other particular distinctions that aren't explained (yet) by going back, or is that across, to Japanese and Korean. Which really makes you wonder why these two languages predict so well.
Both Korean and Japanese have phonetic alphabets. Phonetic alphabets are like film in a camera when exposed to a foreign language. Both Japanese and Korean were exposed to a form of Ancient Chinese, absorbed many of the words and found a way to write down those sounds with the alphabets they had. 60% of Korean vocabulary originates from Ancient Chinese. Japanese may have a similar quantity mostly borrowed in the 5th - 9th centuries CE. This ancient sound interpretation process noted differences and attempted to reflect that. That these sound differences don't exist in Mandarin or GC, yet do in QC is an interesting surprise.
Though most of the energy of discovery has gone from my rampant comparative phonology, this field trip into the depths of this language and these languages has yielded some interesting common sense that are useful as a lens to understand any language, its evolution and the curiosities within. It has been a trip worthwhile.
Thursday, April 05, 2012
It started with a curious discovery. Some time ago I noticed Qingyuan cantonese (QC) using a non-Guangzhou cantonese sound "kyu" for the word district (usually keui in Guangzhou cantonese, GC) and marked it down. Then, slowly, I noticed more examples: hyu for empty (heui in GC) and gyu for geui (raise) and others. It presented a difficulty at first because the terminal -eui usually was pronounced -ui for most words (heui-hui, go; seui-sui, water; etc.); since my base knowledge of Cantonese was GC, if I wanted to say an -eui ending word I couldn't be sure if it were pronounced -ui or -yu.
I decided to do a background check on the sounds with an online dictionary and noticed that in most cases the words which become -yu in QC were pronounced -i in Hakka Chinese. To be clear, I don't know any Hakka, but it had been my theory that QC might have been influenced and inflected by Hakka (it is in a Hakka region). After checking all the examples, it was clear Hakka only helped distinguish them 75% of the time.
I decided on another tack, one that may sound a little odd: I decided to use Japanese kanji pronunciation to distinguish them. One of the unexpected benefits of having studied Japanese is that I understood the rhyme schemes of Chinese poetry better than the students who only knew Mandarin. Japanese preserves a lot of the sound and characteristics of Chinese from a particular time in Chinese dialectual development (usually said to be the Tang or Song dynasties). For poetry, Japanese kanji pronunciations show ending sounds well that Mandarin has lost, but Cantonese has preserved.
So I cross-checked it through Japanese and found that Japanese predicts the sounds that are different -eui/yu to a success rate 95% of the time. (The three sounds hyu/kyu/gyu are pronounced kyo, ku and ku in Japanese onyomi.) There was only one failed test: heui (go) is pronounced hui in QC* yet kyo in Japanese on yomi. This is just one aspect but quite an eye-opening one to test out on other GC/QC distinctions.
I found this article during my search: "In the 1990s, Akitani Hiroyuki, a linguistics professor at Ehime University (Japan), come to Qingyuan and found medieval and even ancient sound were well-preserved in Qingyuan dialect. After years of in-depth researches, Wu Qiushi holds that Qingyuan is the only one place where Mandarin Chinese of Tang and Song Dynasties are so well preserved."
I don't know what the good professor saw, but I've found one too!
*Apparently there are people/dialects who say this word "hyu" but I've never met them.
For what has been a frenetic start to the year, it is a relief that the reward does in fact come in the end. Since April Fools Day, I have been Director of Studies (DoS) of my school. Also since April Fools Day, I've been either on my weekend, on leave, or not in the office due to the national holiday of Tomb Sweeping Day. So my first day in the office as the captain is today. I'd taken over most of the duties of DoS during the last month, but still had my previous boss on hand to guide, model some of the more advanced job tasks and support. Now it's just me. And for now, it's great!
I'm now a list maker. When I get into work, or even before I get to work on the bus, or even before I get on the bus at home, or even before I should be getting up from bed, or even before I go to bed, I make lists of tasks that need to be done, things that need to be said, e-mails that need to be replied to, problems that need to be solved. Each task starts with a box that will need to be ticked. That complements other systems to make sure that the things I forget to do are a few as possible. For sleep, lists are important too. They are the place to deposit thoughts and ideas so they don't harass you in the wee hours.
DoS was of course my stated goal of coming to China. But getting the job needless to say isn't the completion of the goal. It is to learn all the functions, to learn the skills and gather the experience so I can be a capable academic manager. So I guess it begins now.
Monday, February 13, 2012
Dragon roars and dragon hugs! Well, that has been my greeting to people in the new year. The new year holidays were spent well in the coldest phase of this (comparatively warm) winter, in Qingyuan of course, bouncing from one relative's uninsulated place to another, drinking one alcoholic beverage (or another) and dining within my narrow gustatory limitations. We might be on the verge of the first real break in the back of this mild winter, and then it'll be a month of spring before the radiator of summer starts to crank out the steam.
Dragon roars, indeed! This year has started with more than just a hiss. Just prior to the new year's break, I received a flash of what was ahead: an email explained that the new management in my company changed the process for becoming a Director of Studies (DoS), the position that I basically came to China to occupy, and I was on the list of people due to be interviewed to evaluate my competencies. The interview, odd in its own way, was more of a conversation; the feedback was simple: I am deemed ready to be a DoS and may be one as early as April.
The new system is on the surface a logical one. Rather than latent applicants waiting for an opening within the company to spring into interview mode, the company now interviews pro-actively without an opening to mark those ready to take the reins, or to provide an action plan to those who aren't. It seems a simple concept (there have been later developments that show perhaps it isn't as idealistic, and more of a very pragmatic step, but I've got a promotion, I shan't speak ill of it further). As my current boss mused, despite the gloss it is still the same game with a few different rules: make those above like you and you win. Stand by your principles and prepare to wait.
Dragon hugs, indeed! My steps toward matrimony have been progressing smoothly even if my ideal of a Chinese wedding were thwarted. The Chinese concept of marriage is an odd one, not based on a moment or ceremony, but of an evolution of steps - and in these modern steps, no step in itself is necessarily essential. Legally, you need to have a formal marriage certificate, for which you need to go to (queue) in an official government bureau to say your vows and sign. That part barely needs two New Zealand dollars to do. Marriage is cheap. (That being said, the documents for marriage and organising yourself for marriage if you are a foreigner or out-of-household Chinese person can be expensive.) But some people don't do this because for most families a wedding banquet is what really makes you married in the eyes of people. It must be accompanied on the day by deistic ceremonies to separate the bride from her ancestral line and free her up to be reconnected onto that of the groom. Offerings have to be made to the ancestors (they are to attend after all). The banquet is open to everyone - you don't leave anyone off the guest list unless they're very distantly related. It is a witnessing process and there is no small reception option. It's either big or not at all. There aren't any vows at the banquet. The bride and groom offer tea to the groom's parents on the day, as they are becoming the bride's new family. But a couple doesn't have to do both the banquet and the registration; we could live with just one, and we have decided that our Chinese marriage status will rest only on the former, which is merely a legal recognition. Our marriage ceremony will have to wait till we can conveniently do it in New Zealand.
One modern ceremony for weddings is the "bridal veil photos". Of course, photos may be taken at the banquet or the registration, but they are not what are considered wedding photos in China. Hunsha zhao ("bridal veil photos") are almost essential. This involves, in its modern manifestation, a trip to a scenic spot with lots of different costumes, with a photographer in tow to take beautifully posed/staged photos of the couple. It is tiring, expensive, photoshopped and in my eyes, tacky, an opinion I shared quite early on. And fortunately it was one met with some sense of understanding. Cameras will be waiting till we get to New Zealand.
Marriage as an evolution is of course much more realistic to how it really is, although the western idea of a moment that seals the commitment is not only tradition but focusses the change down to a very sacred moment. I remember asking her younger brother whether he was nervous about the banquet, he said that he wasn't; he was just not looking forward to the ordeal of guest upon guest upon guest, hour upon hour upon hour. Very much like a duty. Like work.
The promotion has been like an evolution; the interview was not as a moment of reckoning but a green light at an intersection. Marriage will be the same in China - a signature on a piece of paper recognising what has been and will be. Onwards and upwards. Upane Kupane, as I haka'ed with an old colleague last Monday.