Sunday, June 24, 2012

Dragons and boats

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

Zhu Wenyu

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


Using a symbolic language,it is only natural that Chinese have mastered the most compressed language in English: the acronym.
Product names are the most common ones you hear. LV is an expensive brand famous for hand bags. CK is famous for underwear. XO, far from being a kiss and a hug, is a by-word for cognac. Since they're commonplace for Chinese speakers to use them, students will use them all without hesitation in their own English thinking that the alphabet indicated that they were English.  
Oddities abound. WC is one of the longest existing Chinglish acronyms. Can you guess what it stands for? It is not a global sporting event but a humble latrine. The letter originate from the archaic name of water closet. OT, which I associate with occupational therapy, means overtime. BMW is a put down: big mouth woman. TMD is a Chinese curse phrase which doesn't bear elaboration. From my first weeks in China I learnt a new one, PK, which comes to mind more frequently now.
PK is even more obscure than WC in that no-one is entirely sure whence it originated. When I asked, no-one could tell me its provenance, and some even really struggled to explain the meaning. After exposure to this phrase I can kindly define for your enlightenment that a PK is a head-to-head match: one person will win, the other will lose. It is a verb too, You can PK someone, to challenge them for a position, for a title etc. According to Baidu, the Chinese dominant Googlesque website, it originates from Player Kill, a common phrase in old computer games, apparently. 
As reported in The Snag, after climbing the mountain and achieving my goal, I've found an ogre at the top swinging to knock me off. Or rather, in a more realistic sense, two of us have just climbed up, and two rather pleasant people are at the top and the space at the top only accommodates two. They're nice. They aren't exactly stamping on our fingers. We're all pretty good friends. But while we are up here, we're going to be PK the odds-on winners for our own piece of the crumbling crag.
Your Chinglish word of the day. My reality. When I wrote earlier, I wasn't rating my chances. But now I'm getting myself organised. I can see my strengths and my achievements more clearly. I have a strong supporter who is quite determined to push me onto the top, too. So I shall surge up and PK with all my might.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book ends

We went cross-town last weekend to a Chinese doctor, a old, sagely, genuinely traditional earnest Chinese doctor, who operated out of a non-descript room in an old housing complex. He was a great guy, had said my blood was toxic and that's why I still have pimples on my shoulders. Fair enough, but on this particular day, he wasn't in. We were greeted with his door closed and a simple paper sign suggesting he wouldn't be in for the next few days. It wasn't a trip in vain as we got to see one of the most extraordinary sights of my two and a half years in China: from a narrow path in the complex came a topless teen riding an old bicycle in the process of putting on a t-shirt. Think a moment. You're on a bike, following twisting and turning paths, one hand on the handles and the other hand trying to pull a t-shirt over your head. How does that work? He actually couldn't get the t-shirt past his head. Don't try this at home, and definitely not in the narrow corner-ridden alleys of an old housing area. He struggled with the shirt. Didn't peddle. Missed us. Came close to a wall, somehow knew it. Turned at a right angle. Still couldn't get the shirt off his head and out of the way of his eyes. Turned another right angle and into the clear, where he managed to shake shirt down to his shoulders and, removing both hands from the handle bars to pull it over the rest of him. Genius!
Now I only raise this because I was profoundly disappointed by the doctor's absence. Not because of the lack of a diagnosis and prescription, but because I brought a book for this visit to the doctor. Which I wouldn't be reading this time. Queueing is an inevitability in China, and I had prepared my book for the long wait and I really wanted to read the book. Instead we'd be going somewhere else, where books were harder to read. So apart from seeing a miracle of instinctive blind control of a bike, I couldn't continue my book, and this was annoying. For once more my mind was obsessed with literature. Perhaps you don't know what it's like.
When I study Chinese, language takes up all my non-essential time outside work. I love language to bits. Witness the blogs dissecting Qingyuan dialect! But in a sea of hanzi, dialect, four character phrases and xiehouyu, one's brain does yearn for the familiar. Twice in these two years my brain has gone through a stretch of just wanting English literature. It desires it like water to a thirsty desert dweller. I'd see a book and I want to just ingest every word and paragraph. And then sated, I can go back to Chinese study with diligence and application. I haven't got to that point yet though. On our honeymoon I ripped through Mildred Pierce a great Depression era novel by an American author (James M. Cain) who no-one seems to know much about, but his work made The Postman Always Rings Twice (a movie I'd heard of but not seen). He wrote it in 1941, but we only bought it in Hong Kong because it had Kate Winslett on the cover. Apparently she'd starred in the mini-series, which I have since bought on DVD but also haven't seen. (500 minutes of Kate Winslett isn't a hard sell for me, but with other competing things to watch it'd knock out a fair few nights of entertainment.)
But that hardly stopped my hunger. Next I cracked into Crime and Punishment, an even older book written in 1866 by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It was a struggle for 80 pages and after that it compelled me at every free moment of the day. Except in the bathroom where I read the much more contemporary About a Boy, by Nick Hornby, which was made into a movie with Hugh Grant. An adorable, cringe movie but likeable nonethe less. I like the idea of always having a book in the bathroom, or a newspaper or magazine at the least. I've always had short Chinese stories to read there, now I munch through a cutely written book fiction book in English.
While I had those two going, I decided to start my third book simultaneously: Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, a gentleman who'd been in China since the early nineties. This non-fiction book, though in English, I was still surprised to be able to buy and read this in China. It has some outstandingly sharp observations about China and politics, and one of his widely quoted acquaintances was a Uighur (a "Chinese" minority, pronounced wee-ger) with a hatred for Han Chinese (the majority) and quick with incendiary comments. Probably the reason for my dabbling with a third book is that one of my basest literary desires is non-fiction.
Crime and Punishment ended yesterday, the punishment had to come, and I've begun to rattle through Oracle Bones. Hopefully my yen for reading will last to the end of the other two books. And then? Mandarin, Cantonese and Qingyuan dialect will no doubt greet me with open arms and added zeal, especially before Dragon Boat festival, when I'll go back to Qingyuan and my diet will be set. There's nothing like urgency to switch one's priorities.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Silence of Time

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.