Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Boy, do I have a proposition for you!

I learned a new piece of English grammar last week. This might astound you as I've taught English for more than a third of my life, and am revered as "a grammar guru" and nicknamed "Professor" in two different centres. But yes, I learned something new, something lurking right under my nose, and yet something that apparently most Chinese students learn at University. It hadn't come up as a question, not in normal materials and textbooks. So it remained unlearned and unexamined until now. It's called a noun complement.

It all came about when my other half presented me with a student sentence and asked me to explain why it was wrong. Here, you have a go: "There is a phenomenon that children are doing too many exams and not learning enough real knowledge." It clearly is wrong to the ear by a small margin but why exactly is it wrong? Both of us could quickly fix the problem using "where" instead of "that", and in fact that's exactly what she'd said to the student, but the student, as some student tend to do, said that he wanted to use a noun complement. What is this thing that the student was bent on using (wrongly)? Well here are some examples of noun complements: "It's a fact that he is corrupt.(1)" "There is a possibility that New Zealand will also win the cricket series against India.(2)" All of these are logical sentences and they look very similar to the wrong sentence. The noun complement (in italics), however, is not all it seems. The key idea is that a noun complement is a proposition and the noun in front of it (e.g. fact, possibility) shows the author/speaker's attitude towards proposition. Got it? So in sentence 1 and 2 the author is commenting on an idea by stating it's a fact or a possibility. And going back to the student's sentence, stating that something is a phenomenon is not an attitude, it's an observation or a description. It doesn't fit the mould, no matter how much our student would like to use some fancy pants grammar. "The student won't follow that explanation." Well, that's there own fault: if you can't understand my explanation don't use grammar that you're using just for ego. Don't play with fireworks; you might get burnt!

But the idea of a proposition is a fascinating one. Suddenly I wondered whether I should read a book about logic to find what it means in philosophy (it is a philosophical term), but my eyes dried at the thought. Yet here embedded in language is a device which sucks the substance out of a statement to reduce to a proposition and hoists it by a ropey noun of the author's choice. I like it. And I like that I know it.

Neither an attitude or a proposition, I became an uncle for the second time with the birth of my brother-in-law's first child. I actually became an uncle when I got married (I gained a 12 year old niece-in-law) and now I have a nephew, my wife's younger brother's son. Her younger brother is the only son of the family so the only bearer of the family surname that continues patrilineally back to the ancestor who came to Qingyuan so many generations ago. Now with that procreation all done and diapered, my mother-in-law is looking at us to further the family... Suddenly I start to look at it as some kind of proposition.


A millisecond

New Zealand this week won a test series in cricket. It's something I still managed to celebrate from a distance in Guangzhou, discreetly watching on the screen at work. It was a comprehensive series win that could have, should luck been better in the first game, have been a 3-0 whitewash against a team ranked higher than us. Cricket is a game of milliseconds and reactions. If a bowler can get the ball to you a millisecond faster than you can get your bat down, you're out. If they deprive you of an extra millisecond to react to a spinning ball as it rears off the pitch, you might nick it into your pad and have it float into a murder of vulture fielders. But if you can react that millisecond earlier as a batsman, then even if class bowlers place the ball in the right place, you can react in a way that can accommodate the movement, the pace and the direction.

My Cantonese listening has made a similar breakthrough: I've gained a crucial millisecond in processing speed in the last two months. Don't know where it came from. But again it is a small amount that makes a huge difference. As mentioned in previous blogs, Cantonese has rather extensive connected speech (especially the Qingyuan dialect although probably all of the more rural dialects of any language). This extra millisecond means I don't need just observe the phenomenon but catch the meaning in stream. I can even sometimes process and guess words I haven't heard before in the flow of speech. Of course, I'm still far from an acceptable level (in my eyes) but it is nice to have achieved perceptible progress. Perception is everything when it comes to motivation and confidence!

It's a millisecond but it is the gap that I need in conversations I'm not a part of in order to take part. Previously it wasn't the case: When it's just a conversation with me and another, I can get what they're saying, and they can generally get where I'm coming from. However with another speaker, suddenly the conversation would course out of my grasp as language is clattered out and burbled back with just some key words popping out to keep me in the game. Now it's different: I can follow many of the turns and topics that pop up in a conversation and respond and even, when the mood and language co-occurs, interject a thought of my own. It's that ability to interject that this millisecond has bought me. And I'm so glad.

Time of any sort is an interesting concept. I read a few days ago that a University friend of mine passed away. Her death is a bit of a mystery from what little I've got from the Herald online and other items. Perhaps, the case is not being followed. She's probably the third person who has had association with me growing up that I've heard the passing of. Sadness and loss mixes with an awareness of life and that of death. The first friend I knew who'd died was a primary school friend Robert. He lived just opposite school. I hadn't seen him for many years when I heard that he'd died in a car crash, he driving, before he got to 20. Board 2 (soon to be board 3 with my arrival) of the Massey High's chess team was Michael. I hadn't seen him for a few years after graduation when I heard he'd tried to drive a van around a railway barrier and got taken out by a train. Now Ying's passed. I'm trying to remember something clearly more than the multitude of vague memories where lots of people were around and a lot of people were talking. Two memories last clear as bell: She arranged a weekend away on a marae, which I was to present some sessions (probably culture shock or Maori language, which I somehow decided to teach). I remember the passion and the energy (which is what most remember so clearly). She was in China when I arrived too, in Shanghai doing something interesting. We chatted often by skype, and then she had her identity stolen bar her skype number so I tried to help ensure all her friends knew that she requests via gmail and facebook were from an evil source. That's all left in my head of a life. 

I guess this will only become more common as I age, and it's quite astonishing that with all the people that I have known since primary school I only can recollect three dying.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Contest

"You must be Daniel," a young voice squeaked from behind me. I replied in the affirmative as I turned to face a dark skinned  pixie-esque child and answered a few more questions. "I was born in Tennessee," she said out of the blue.
"Really? When did you come to China?" I enquired with a solitary raised eyebrow.
"When I was four."
"You've had an interesting life. Good luck for today."
She thanked me and perhaps even at her young age knew it was the time to take her leave and leave me to my solitude at the judges desk.

It was the Guangdong University and High School English Speaking contest semi-final and I was one of the five judges. The other four judges eventually arrived confirming what I'd already worked out from the name plaques: I was the only native speaking judge. I got on quite well with the judge next me an editor at Guangdong TV. Reading the instructions and materials I realised why I may have been a choice for this role. Most of the materials, names, event choreography were all in Chinese. And the instructions themselves already gave me a fair indication of the kind of speech competition it was. To get through to the grand-final a contestant might only need to speak at total of 1 minutes and 5 seconds of English spread over 3 "events". But I won't get ahead of myself! Let's listen to the contestants.

The first round, self-introduction, was about to begin at break-neck speed. After the cheerleader dancers had dispersed the contestants marched on stage to express themselves in 20 seconds and be scored out of 20 marks (judges can't score beneath 80% so the bottom score was 16). With barely seconds between each introduction judging was intense. "Performances" were a mixture of an American style "Oh my god, let's get this party started, I'm gonna, like, blow you away with my talent. See y'all soon!" to more strait-laced restrained self-introductions. Naturally being the creme-de-la-creme of the English speakers in schools and unis, there were some extraordinary kids with extraordinary backgrounds that can come through the contest criteria. Young Tennessee, for example. Other kids claimed in their multilingualism with pride: "I'm Jason and I can speak four languages: Chinese, Russian, Spanish and English. I'm a master of tongue twisters. Listen to this: Binbinblamblambinblambalmbirnbin. Yeah!"

Then we tumbled into the talent contest section where candidates could sing a song, dance, dub a movie or do a fashion show. This was allocated 30 marks of the 100 total score. While some contestants did use English in their performance (there was an outstanding male performance of Rolling in the Deep, and even Shakespearean sonnets read), most were not. You might wonder why they have a talent section in a speech contest, but it's for TV and most of the viewers wouldn't understand the speaking side if it were just English, right? We had a human beatbox, magic, latin dance, tradition Uighur and Thai dance (from non-ethnic Chinese competitors), even a rendition of that famous 70s band A-bee-bee-A and a 12 year old belted out .

Then we went onto the next course, the meat of the competition, the 50 point Travelling in English section. In this 45 second performance, participants would look at a screen to be shown a place name and picture from which they need to start a story for fifteen second, before another image comes up on the screen of an everyday object which they have to merge seamlessly into the story for another 15 seconds of speaking, before another image comes up, that of a movie star who also needs to be part of this continuously created improvised story which then should end on the 45th second. Don't try this at home. Most in the contest struggled, whether it is just a ridiculously difficult challenge or they didn't really understand what was being asked of them. Most performances were descriptions: "This is Great Barrier reef in Austria. It's a famous place. I like it and I want to g- Oh, and this is a time bomb. This is very dangerous and I hope there isn't a time bomb here toda- And Jackie Chan is a great man from our China..." "Time up!"

And then the smoke cleared briefly. Of the 20 students in each of the two sections, 6 students were advanced to the final (on a later date) and another 6 were knocked out of the competition based on their scores from the whirlwind first three rounds. The final 8 had to PK down to four contestants to advance. How do they do that? Well, the higher scoring of the eight can select an opponent from the rest and then act as the Affirmative side of a debate topic that would come up on the screen. They'd have 30 seconds to state their case; the other would have the same to match their argument; then their would be an unmoderated "free debate" section, in which one person could dominate if they liked. After that further 1 minute of spontaneous language generation, each judge would need to raise "Win!" signs to signal that they believe the affirmative side was stronger; no sign raised would signal that the negative side was stronger. If three or more judges support one side, they progress and the other person is knocked out. Simple enough?

Topics were often out of the worlds of the High School students. "Golden Weeks be cancelled" (Golden Weeks are the government defined periods of time that almost everyone has off work; it includes compelling companies to move the office weekends to form long holidays for the workers. It causes travel chaos and for that reasons people think that it should be abolished; but many people, with some basis reject it because without the government making it uniform, evil companies will exploit the lack of simplicity to deny their workers of holidays. It's an interesting topic.) The students talked about playing basketball and study. And of course they have barely seconds to think and then elaborate. The classic one was for the university students was: "We shouldn't keep our national identity in the age of globalisation." Try elaborating your thoughts on that in 30 seconds.

And then it was all over. Girls in air hostess uniforms with really short dresses marched on stage to give the certificates and two boxes of crackers to all participants, and then oversized flight tickets were given to those going to the final. They don't need to fly though: the final is in Guangzhou as well. I got given a whole gift set of crackers to take home. The advantage of being so mean with time was that 40 students in total competed in four hours. I was exhausted afterwards. I may be up for the final, but as an English teacher, god, I hope finally actually get to speak.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Alcohol

The student government meeting wasn't a success in the beginning. The other D had estimated 20 attendees, whereas we hardly broke 10. And that was even with this D (me) as a special attendee to encourage attendance. (We obviously overestimated my star appeal.) We even had the meeting at a restaurant to increase the comfort and decrease the formality. Then Wing, a student, started pouring me baijiu (Chinese wine), and then after a sequence that I mostly remember I vomited into the dish collection tray outside our room. I wasn't that ashamed from such a thing: It is the third time in my life that alcohol has gotten the better of me, but then all of those times were since I came to China. The important thing for me was to be in the classroom the next day at top form to show that such an event was not in the least detrimental to my work performance. (A teacher called in sick so I had to handle 6 classes that day, as well as train our new teacher – I had my work cut out for me.)
 
I often consider the role alcohol has in my life. I have a compulsive personality and the addition of alcohol has had on me is something worth my contemplation. Having read a lot of kungfu novels of late, I get the feeling of the ceremonial element that alcohol has fulfilled in the past. I've never really thought the "social lubricant" aspect of alcohol which dominates these days has much to be appreciated – it seems a step down from what alcohol could be. It cannot be denied that it is a powerful substance worthy of more respect than being used merely as a stimulant to be what you're not. So what do I want from alcohol? And since I use the more highly geared of spirits, how do I want to show my respect with their powers?
 
I remember conversations with a bipolar Rastafarian pot smoker, who after a psychotic episode that put him in hospital would launch into the defence of hallucinogenic mushrooms on the account of them getting one more in touch with reality at the drop of a hat. From these rather pitiful discussions, what I picked up was that, regardless of substance, the crucial difference was between a textured world layered with awareness and a world textured through an increasingly incapacitated brain. I guess I want to have the feeling of a different perception; to relax and be at ease with things that come to mind, not just the things that bully me; and to experience something sensory with people I want to be close with (food does this too). Most of my wine is drunk in the hours before I sleep at home after work and not in the company of anyone other than my wife.
 
In other news, I'm reading my first Haruki Murakami book, Kafka on the Shore. Coincidentally, it is the second book in a row that's title is a piece of music in the novel's fictional space. (The Smiling Proud Wanderer also had a flute and harp composition by the same title.) I've only read half of Kafka but am enjoying the world that Murakami has created and appreciate some of the art in how he writes. It is especially well enjoyed with a few shots of baijiu.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fear

I'm not the kind to worry much. I'm reasonably carefree. But I do have a fear that something is eating away at my powers of thinking; that my mind itself is losing its edge, and doing so much faster than it would be expected via ageing alone. This might be a kind of mental hypochondria but such conditions do exist and with dementia in the family it makes good sense to be self-aware. The evidence? Well, a fear needs scant evidence to feed it, especially late at night, but I feel my bogeyman makes a good case even in the light of day.
Exhibit one is the communication problems I never thought I had before. It seems I struggle a lot more now to formulate an idea, even a simple one, in a clear way. As a manager, it is something I have to do on a regular basis to my superiors, to my team and to my peers managing other centres. The general pattern: I open my mouth instinctively starting from somewhere midway into the topic, reversing back to where I should have started, losing control and inadvertently getting my references backwards (like calling Bob Julie, and Julie Bob). I start to panic a little when my listener frowns to indicate the effort at which they are expending in order to follow me; this in turn sends me into a panic of mixed metaphors and the incorrect use of key vocabulary; and then sometimes I seem to stutter in a way I cannot recall. I relate a little to George Bush, I guess.
As a teacher, my powers of expression are my livelihood, too, and oddly at first they seemed unaffected by this "decline". I always understood this as because in classes I could focus for short periods of communication, while communication in life is not so easily segmented and is never ending and often pops up on you unexpectedly. But now I'm finding the pattern recurring in my teaching, where students might not follow me on a more a frequent basis.
This problem affects all three of my languages. Sometimes I think that perhaps my surplus of language might be the cause of the problem, that my brain is overwhelmed with holding together three separate languages (big hefty things, they are). But that is not very scientific and I've never heard of that before, except in the unfounded fear of parents who think their children will get confused if raised in a multilingual environment.

So instead I occasionally fret or worry and my managers and colleagues frown. Is this going to get worse?



Connected Speech

To teach is to learn. And to be a good teacher you must learn to be a good learner. And that's what again was the rod that struck me again today in my life as an English teacher in China. In fact the lesson could only really happen today when I had several instances of connected speech arise in my work and then the same phenomenon knocked me around a little in my casual study of the Cantonese dialect.
 
What is connected speech? It's the natural changes that occur to pronunciation of words when in a natural speech. You see, every word has a proper way of saying the word individually, for example "can". When you say it by itself it has a sharp vowel. But put it in a sentence and it degrades: "Can I help you?" for most speakers becomes "k'nai HELL pyoo". The once proud "can" no longer being the centre of attention breaks down to mere consonants. "Can" is most often pronounced in its weak form. Of course, in that rather mundane example there are even more  of connected speech. There is also concatenation which is simply when the sound from the end of one word is pronounced with the sounds of the next. In the example, "nai" and "pyoo" are more attached to the following word than the word we attach it to. In a wander in the computer lab a student asked me about another phemonenon, intrusion. She got me to say "You and me" naturally. Try it. To the untrained ear, you might think you are just saying those three words, but closer inspection leads you to notice that you're in fact saying: "YOO wum MEE". The "w" is an intruding sound. Incidentally this example also has elision with the "d" being hacked off "and" and another effect compounding it, assimilation, where the stump "n" in "and" is influenced by the "me" and becomes an "M". As a result, by the end of the spontaneous transformations, a student will wonder how such an easy word like "and" which they say correctly by itself, could mutate into "wum". Fortunately my student was quite accepting of the interloping "w" and just wanted me to say it naturally.

As a teacher, it took me a long time to realise that though we teach connected speech as something students can say, the first step in learning it is awareness. You need to notice it, or be told it exists and then notice it before you can learn it.Then you can notice the common patterns so when you hear an utterance that somehow has become unintelligible, you have a few cues to help decode it. Even if students can't say it, and believe me they struggle to unlearn the "proper" forms of words when they speak, they do need to be able to listen and recognise it.

But there I was yabbering about something I k'n confidently deal with, my forte, English. When you're the teacher and master of your language you can smugly say how it is with a smile and if there is resistance, you k'n just say that that is what English is and that it has to be accepted. But after I knock off work, I remove my English right shoe and put on my Cantonese left shoe and suddenly begin yabbering in a less consistent, less assured way. In earlier blogs, I've mentioned that Qingyuan Cantonese has routine connected speech with particular words. I'd adjusted to this because they were particular high frequency words. They were set contractions just like English has "won't" "aren't/ain't" "can't" etc.

I knew that there were some mild features in Guangzhou Cantonese too, but not to the same creation of set contractions. Now, watching a HK crime drama I've scratched deeper by noticing the more garden variety connected speech which is more subtle, quick and insidious. And so the left foot has started kicking. The contractions I've only just gaining an ear for a quick. The Cantonese word for but is "daan6 hai6" (numbers denote tone) only now have I realised in the TV shows that it's mostly said as "Daa'ai6" unless said deliberately. Another 3-4 changes I noticed in about 20 minutes of watching all because my mind was switched on to inconsistencies and unintelligible sequences that the mandarin subtitles hinted as being intelligible phrases.

There are inherent difficulties in understanding connected speech: the phenomenon happens more with faster speech. That means that fast speech is not just more difficult because of the pace but comprehension is also obscured by these transformations of sound. And couple that with the tendencies of speakers to go from fast to slower in a turn at speaking (often this happens in language where the key information is later in the sentence so the first part which frames it is hastily rushed through). That means for a learner watching a TV series, when another person starts speaking they'll throw high speed sentence starters before saying their key information. That helps for understanding gist if you ignore the first few words they say, but often the initial burst hits me like a drawer of flying knives, causing me to duck the rush of meaning that quickly ceases by the time I get the composure to listen onward.

Learning language you don't just need patience but a degree of foolhardiness to stand strong in the rush of meaning and take it in. 

Saturday, October 05, 2013

The Housewarming

"Burn the golden money first" my mother-in-law instructed, as my sister-in-law, Hiuming, and her fiance, Winston, set up the mini-furnace near the mahjong table-cum-sacrificial altar that they'd placed on the balcony of their new home. It was their house-warming, but one that entailed far more customs than you'd usually associate with a western housewarming party with beer and pizza. They had money to burn, literally. Fortunately the money was fake.
 
When I arrived they were just arranging the table on the balcony: two apples, three cups of tea, four bowls of noodles and five cups of rice wine, and of course a chicken. This was in accordance with Maoming tradition (which my Qingyuan in-laws had a lot of trouble adapting to). These foods were for the ancestors, the chopsticks were oriented for floating visitors, and so was the "money" that was about to be burnt. The mini-furnace wasn't really designed for the winds that were on the 14th floor. And as would be expected, shortly after flaming ashes blew through the living room in mini-whirlwinds, igniting and extinguishing their way past the coffee table, where tea happened to be being served. I scrambled to the kitchen to grab a broom. "You can't use brooms!" I was instructed by the cooks. Apparently you can't clean the house at all until the first three days are up. It's bad luck. So we stamped the flames and collected a few ashes with tissues instead.
 
Even for a seasoned China expat like myself the proceedings still had a lot to notice and learn. Maoming tradition is quite strict. The family of the people moving in have to leave the lights on for three days, and all meals in those three days must be spent at the house. There were the little things, too: Mattresses were all raised on the first day; All new furniture had red paper stuck to them; and lanterns were placed in every room alight; even the time when you can first enter the house is regulated, and you need to wait for a particular time to enter.
 
After talking to my other half, I realise that I just haven't seen the Qingyuan ritual yet. The ritual for the family home was apparently even more elaborate and, being in the countryside rather than the city, had all the bells and whistles. This part of life, though, is dying. Very few people under the age of forty would do them without the insistence of the elders in the family. I remember back to my first Chinese New Year at my former student's place and I was astonished that they would put a furnace in the stairwell of an apartment building (but it's commonsense in China).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Demi-Gods and Semi-Demons

Learning a language as an adult includes many challenges, doubts, landmarks, humiliations, transcendences, confusions, enlightenments and depressions. It is important to treat it as the longest goal you'll ever have because even when you've got it, you don't. Mastery is always further around the corner. 
 
I had another great chat with Sea the other evening (a student). She hasn't been an overwhelmingly successful student, yet she's made a sincere effort, probably the sincerest effort, to get better. Our first chat was about four months ago. She'd gone to my Current Events class, a class that I intentionally make a bit harder for strong students, and unsurprisingly struggled. She with knitted brows and a friend waited in the lounge area for me afterward and we talked for about thirty minutes after the last class of the day (until about 10pm). She'd hit her ceiling of what she could learn in the way she was doing it. I can't recall everything that we talked about but it covered how she was studying and how she could study, particularly to get a better feeling of grammar and to use and remember new words.
 
It is odd to think that that was only four months ago. It felt like a year ago (in my earliest draft of this blog I wrote "a year ago", until I remembered the Current Events class was on the Boston Bombing). She's since taken challenges in her English learning life, leading Lounge Chats and then from her own desire to make variety, created a Debate Club. In a fairly short time she's increased her fluency and use of vocabulary.
 
Yet still I found her with knitted brow and a friend in the lounge. This time she wasn't waiting for me but I like crashing conversations in the lounge so I plopped myself down where she and two others were talking about another problem: motivation. They'd all observed the initial exhilaration of learning, depression when faced with the scale of task and the speed at which they learn, the excitement of overcoming and then the malaise when they settle into a groove. She said she wasn't finding learning interesting anymore. I talked about the need to find challenge, that she had found it daunting to lead the Lounge Chats at first but now it was easy, so now she needed a new challenge. Writing, I suggested. I'm not good at writing, she warily replied. That is the point, I pointed out. I gave her a possible place the writing would go, the school magazine; suggested a possible topic. And she may possibly do it. I hope she does and I hope she feels the burn, overcomes it and then feels great about the outcome. One nice ending to the chat was when she noticed that I was using two similar words, "fluently" and "fluency"; she knew the meaning but not the difference in use. I made a model sentence for each after which she correctly stated one's an adverb, the other is a noun. This was precisely one of her difficulties in the first chat, noting parts of speech. A nice thing to praise her on to leave.
 
Reading novels in Chinese has been my constant challenge. I don't say "challenge" as something that frustrates me but rather something that will always be difficult but will always engage me. I read my first book, a translated version of the Solitaire Mystery, just after I finished my Taiwan scholarship. In fact I can remember doing the hard yards reading the first few pages on the plane back to New Zealand, way back in 2000. The first few pages of any book are the hardest. Every character, every place and situation has to be imagined from scratch. And the writer's style has to be grappled with too. By my count I've read seven whole novels in Chinese, and this is something I'd like to keep going perhaps with one or two books a year, finishing the seventh just this week. It was called Demi-Gods and Semi-Demons. The name doesn't reflect the happenings in the book well; it is not like a greek myth with gods fighting. But it does describe the theme well: the different kinds of people in the world, the benevolent, the flawed, the possessed and the fallen.
 
And just last night I was trying to help one of the flawed talk to one of the possessed. A popular, active teacher slighted a student accidentally in the centre several months ago then on social networking a few weeks later. He is the kind of person who is loved by 98% of people and finds a way to make the other 2% vehemently hate him, and this one student has gone quite toxic in her distaste for him. He hasn't done anything "wrong", and would like to rationally defend himself. My guess is that she'd been fixated on him without his knowing; he rejected her indirectly without realising it (by suggesting she shouldn't join the student council because she was too busy); then did a small thing or two that annoyed her. Now everything he does is "wrong". And he still tries to rationally defend each action, as he did on a horridly intense public "he said; she said" conversation last night on QQ. I was coaching him in a personal conversation at the same time, where with each of his attempts to cool the situation down, he dug the hole deeper. He wasn't really listening to me because he had his own "way". But he was still digging himself deeper. And there may be a line and time where I may have to move from being a friend and colleague to being a manager and make a solution. But it's important for him to learn his way out of this situation. He has to be more selective and tactful in his language, directly yet softly deal with the original "hurt" she suffered, be polite yet responsive and perhaps even withdraw slightly from some of the social networking before moving forward. 
 
I often say to my team of teachers that teaching exposes you to a greater range of people on a more engaged level than other careers. We get to see the full range of personalities people have. And we have to learn to deal with them.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The storm before the calm

It hadn't been a good night of sleep. There were far too many things preceding the sleep to complicate my thinking, restlessness in my legs, and before I was really aware of it I was out of bed, down the road looking for the centre where I'd have my examination. My head felt as if it were in a fishbowl and having developed a strong coffee habit in the lead-up, I was glad to find the centre and a cafe beneath it still with an hour to spare before the start of the test.
 
I shuffled to the end of the queue that led to the counter and put my brain in stand-by mode to gain back my wits. My daze continued until one word pierced it: "communicative" emerged from the drone in an American accent. I focussed. Then I heard more key language but this time : "activating schemata" "methods and approaches" this time in a British accent. I turned around to see an odd couple: a short slightly greying woman and a thin, modern man with an angular young face. I knew they could only be people from my course who were in that cafe for presumably the same reason. I asked them directly: "You wouldn't happen to be...?" and of course they were.
 
It is a peculiar thing of course to know people for so long from their written words and thoughts alone (in this case via an old-fashioned online discussion board) and then suddenly know them as three dimensional coffee-drinking people a long time after. The imagination sometimes is right and sometimes is completely wrong. Cue: coffee related note and study sharing. The exam was what everyone feared. Most of us had been out of university for years and hadn't had the requirement to take a three hour written exam until now. The practicum classes could be easily negotiated because we are experienced teachers reacting with humans; the exam, though, is just cold, white paper. And despite having been a consummate test taker in my past, that past usually revolved around dodging courses that required essays. I'd never scored heavily in tests requiring prose and opinion.
 
So the storm began. Three hours. Three sections. Weighted 40%, 30% and 30% respectively. I spend an hour fifty on the first and started doubting myself and my strategy that I could satisfactorily answer the two other questions in the remaining time. But I did. And it's done. Pens down and please tie your answers together with the string provided. We were swamped by an infinite calm.
 
And in that calm there has been a day and a half of cutting loose. A great afternoon and night out. Yesterday I hiked around the city till my legs and feet ached. The practical lessons await. Now it is time to teach. 
 
 

Friday, May 03, 2013

Some conversations are better than others

In the bustle and hustles of life it's easy to forget what you want to say about a great deal of things that appeal to your mind and intellect. At the end of the day it sometimes just depends whether you've got a pen and pad at hand, or a willing party to converse with on your topics whether your ideas are consolidated or lost. I don't lack those to have discussions on teaching, but for the greater questions that I chew the edges of, I really do lack that person who can give back as good as they get on meatier issues.
 
So when they do come it is sometimes quite astonishing. We had a visitor last weekend, someone I'd met before, and had lunch with him. Perhaps it was just because I could talk to him one-on-one that the topics could flow as they could. I asked him the topic of his thesis: Lexical cohesion in Jane Austen translations, not that it was interesting; lexical cohesion, now that is something I can talk about - it's a Diploma topic - thus we talked for quite some time about the in's and out's of lexical cohesion; that was a leaping point for our discussion of writers: Peter Hessler, Han Han and Nobel Prize winners; our mutual appreciation of commentator Liang Wendao (who has a show after midnight called Open the scroll for 8 minutes, reviewing a book in exactly 8 minutes); and then we broached the wider scheme of social networking in China. It had been a while since I could bounce ideas and impressions of someone. It was good.
 
He's still very young. Just entering the workforce. Possibly gay. Curious and eager about the world beyond. It'll be interesting to see how he develops as a person. And maybe we can talk again.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

We won't call you.

"The machine ate our money!"
"What? Did it give you a receipt?" I asked.
"Yes, but it said 'deposited money 0 yuan'."
Cripes! Can machines lie? "OK, well don't panic, we'll take it to the teller."
 
ATM machines in China can do deposits as well as withdrawals in China. Which might seem strange but it takes an age to get to a teller window so it is often the best way to go. The ATM machine in question had just eaten 9000 yuan of our hard-earned cash (almost NZD2000).
We waited in a queue where she told me about other well known cases where banks denied responsibility for the missing money. In one instance a machine regurgitated money shortly after the person went into the bank and a passer-by took it. Since the bank didn't have the money, they didn't compensate the person for a loss. In another case, probably apocryphal, someone called the bank after having a large deposit eaten without a trace; the bank said that there was no-one available. The customer, doubtful about the response, called a policeman over and used another phone to call the bank saying that an ATM disgorged the same amount suddenly. A technician was there straight away.
 
"OK, what seems to be the problem?" we were asked.
"The ATM ate our money."
"Why did it do that? Did you ask it?"
Surpressing outrage as much as humanly possible, we went through the required procedure of forms until everything was about right.
"You'll have to wait until Monday." It was Friday.
"Couldn't you just check the machine now?"
"No, we can't do that. You'll have to wait for Monday."
"Then what?"
"If there is problem, we'll call you."
"And if not?"
"We'll deposit the money back into your account. But we won't call you."
 
This interesting protocol took a little while to sink in but our man at the bank insisted that it'd be the way things would play. The effect is that on Monday you'd be left helpless waiting by phone for a non-ring. And come 5pm, you'd creep slowly to the bank, put your card in the machine to check the balance with bated breath. This isn't American Idol - you don't need to make us wait until after the commercial break!
 
So Monday came. No call. We went to the bank together and checked our balance. The money had been restored. We celebrated with cheese and wine. Nice ending but does it really need to be this way?
 
This was the Bank of China. "Wei renmin fuwu", literally "for+people (do) service", is the slogan and guiding principle for the Communist party and any state-owned organisation, including the whole local banking sector. It is meant to guide civil servants to see their job as servants to the masses... Yeah, it was never going to happen. It's often made fun of by adding -bi to renmin, to make "wei renminbi fuwu", for+ the people's money (RMB), do service" as often they won't do anything unless there is something in it for them. Or the system extorts maximum cost to the individual to achieve whatever small ends you wished to achieve.
 
In my fourth year in China, I still cannot help but make snide comments about how unexcited government workers act, how half-open buddha-eyed they appear, how disrespectfully some hurl your change on a counter, and how they may speak and ignore. There are exceptions fortunately and usually it is in particular organisations. And it isn't fair to say that the problem is just state-owned companies. The culture of reluctant, lethargic and rude service is in the private sector as well where you'd have optimistically thought that people would be more encouraged to smile, jump up and offer you something different.
 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Spring back

It is not such an idle thought to wonder about talent. Surely as a set of three siblings we weren't exactly missed by the gods of wisdom, intelligence and wit: yet we aren't exactly leaders, gamebreakers or makers of tomorrow. Not that we are uniquely or extraordinarily talented, deserving of more. From my aerie in central Guangzhou, I wonder sometimes whether my humble allocation of intellect has been fully activated in the pursuit of higher ideals. I often wonder whether this was because despite sharpness in some areas, I'm startling obtuse in others.
 
In my field of work, lately, I've felt frustrated to say the least. I'm not in favour with new management that look for a kind of person, which I'm not, and they would be happy to let the others who weren't that kind of people hang in the horrible limbo of "potential". "Potential" being the feedback they give you when you aren't progressed forward. You have "potential" qualities that may be developed and realised in the future. It could be hard to wait, if you think about waiting, for a time that may never come. I was in a holding pattern until just recently, despite a huge diploma workload, I produced several initiatives. The one that has actually attracted attention is merely an intellectual doodle.
 
The doodle? I called it the cruelty quotient (CQ). I checked how often teachers gave the lowest score (1) in at least one aspect of student assessment. Outstandingly, I found myself the cruelest of them all. I gave close to 30% of my students the lowest possible score. To put this in perspective, only one other teacher was close. Three had given 0% of their students a 1. Thus I shared. I went regional. Now the idea is national. I like the idea of measuring as a way to isolate "training needs" (another way of saying that someone either doesn't know what they are doing or isn't doing their job).
 
I've got more to give than that. I hope that I'm not producing all this to show what a loss I'll be when I leave.
 
 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Making the front page

Chinese New Year brought a sharp drop in the temperature from what had been a very warm winter. Being my fourth Guangdong New Year, it was still the second warmest. Temperatures were always between 10-20 degrees which made it great for walking around the villages and paddy fields, kicking shuttlecocks and sometimes even hittting them with the badminton racket. It also suited the production of the featured photograph in the newspaper - we look cold don't we! The text reads:
 
"Western son-in-law spending new years at the in-laws
 
Daniel, who works in Guangzhou as an English teacher, married Qingyuan girl Little Zhong in May last year. 'This is the first year I've had a new year dinner as a son-in-law so it is something very significant (for me)," he said as spoke to this reporter holding Little Zhong's hand. In the picture he is with Little Zhong, the grandfather, his parents-in-law and his brother after they finished a large new year meal. Little Zhong and Daniel have been together for three years and have spent their new years together at her family's place in Waangho street, Qingyuan. He said that he didn't have any family in Guangzhou and there wasn't a feeling of new year (for him) so he would certainly spend his new years in Qingyuan. Having lived in China many years, he understands the special significance of Chinese new year and when in China would definitely spend new year with his parents-in-law. He is preparing to take the family to have dimsum on the first day of the new year and visit relatives and friends."
 
It is rather hastily written, factually incorrect (it was a phone interview and her brother isn't in the picture) and repetitive but it is still pretty good, even if it is just the Qingyuan Daily.
 
Chinese new year also brought some breakthroughs in my language learning. My exposure to Qingyuan dialect must have reached a critical point where I've heard set phrases enough to understand a good portion of them without much thought; I can catch the general rhythm of speech - my brain can even parse the sentences of some of the faster speakers; I catch Qingyuan contractions which I knew existed but never heard them nor understood in speech; I can solve problems (like my missing pants this morning) and hold basic conversations. This doesn't mean that I'm fluent by any stretch of the imagination, but this level provides much more access into dinner conversations (notoriously difficult to follow), which means a presence and contribution to the discussion and, even more importantly, the ability to really start to build relationships and rapport. Everyone in my Chinese family has made an effort to include me but there are members who've really tried to sustain a connection despite my limitations of language. One of them is my Coffee Uncle. I'll call him that because there are so many uncles and he does have the distinction in our conversations as the uncle who, out of the blue, admitted a preference for coffee. Since the first time we met, he has always had the biggest smile and genuine yearning to communicate. It was only a few days ago that I managed to sustain a conversation of a few minutes with him. This is the purpose of language and I'm really glad to connect more.
 
I also tend to be not just the linguist but language analyst, I'm piecing together some interesting regionalisms too. Despite the fact that my Qingyuan extended family mostly grew up within 15 kilometres of each other, there are still interesting differences in language. A case in point is a word as simple as the number two, which sounds like "yee" (the same as in Hong Kong Cantonese) in my new home village of Waangho, but sounds like "zzzz" in my cousin's hometown of Dayou down the road. Apart from the cute closeness in the English alphabet (y->z) there isn't much apparent to indicate why this might be the case, and it is still rather gobsmacking that a word as fundamental as a number can have such different pronunciation. (I should add, in case you are that way inclined that it is of the same origin; these two forms come from the same ancestor that gives Mandarin "er", Japanese "Ni" etc. By coincidence we have our future brother-in-law staying in our apartment with us, who comes from Maoming in western Guangdong (300 kilometres away). It isn't much of a surprise that their Cantonese has some significant differences to what is spoken in Guangzhou and Qingyuan but it is a mutually understandable variant. (I have trouble understanding but that goes without saying.) But what makes this a coincidence is that they have two consonants that are different, and one of them affects the number two, which they say as "ngee". I only raise this because it is the way of the amateur language analyst. It offers a door of exploration. It is quite possible that one of the reasons I can't understand some people is because some fundamental words are fundamentally different in sound. Sometimes catching these small differences is your way in.
 
We went on an often misguided voyage to Maoming (the hometown of my future brother in law). I finally swam at a Chinese beach, and it wasn't bad and ate a different kind of completely authentic country cuisine. Qingyuan people are crazy about chickens and geese. Maoming people love their seafood, ducks and chickens. Since I've loosened up a little about the food that I eat I could at least try these things without confusing people too much. One of the most important parts of life is exploration and experiencing.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Remember boy you're a superstar!

"It's taken a while to get back to the blog." Perhaps, in a world increasingly dominated by microblogs these are the most common words in the blogosphere. As one who benefits from mentally editorialising, it's a shame not to be able to elaborate and structure my thoughts in the ether of a blog on a more regular basis but microblogs do have their powers: The photos attached are from occasional emergences in that sphere.
 
I'm enjoying my work. As someone who is also plotting to move company this is an important admission - but that's where considered decisions can form. Today I gave a warning letter ending, thankfully, in a smile; I informed a teacher she'd had complaints and she eagerly soaked up advice; I gave another relatively unmotivated teacher her performance review. And beyond that I did a training session to 20 service specialists in the morning; oh, and I finalised a chess event in March; gave a grammar study group; finalised our Successful Students project; brainstormed openly with another. And another one, a real powerhouse who produced this I barely spoke to. Such is a day of so many focusses. There is drama and tension in a lot of those summary sentences. But satisfaction too.
 
Books consumed my pre-diploma time last year. They were an outstanding feature - another year I'm literally thankful for. I'm not sure if I mentioned that I finished The Water Margin weeks ahead of schedule. With the diploma, time seems so much less. At present I'm having my rare moment enjoying music on China's version of youtube. Listening to music that once transported me, playing with the music videos I'd never seen. Tricky, a performer I like, made two straight albums of mostly short songs. There is a beauty in short songs. At first you get the feeling of something over far too soon, but that's life. They pass far too quickly. You go back and you can cherish every beat of it more.