Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Second string cities

Nothing in China is born equal. Cities weren't born equal and when they grow up, they definitely aren't equal. You have your famous big cities of course, your Beijing and Shanghai (municipalities, hierarchically speaking). They don't even have a province! And almost shoulder-to-shoulder you have a lot of provincial capitals that match them in size, such as Guangzhou. These cities boggle the mind - Guangzhou's urban population is over 11 million with a GDP 50% bigger than the whole of New Zealand, a first world country. Huge in every respect. Development blowing the mind at every turn.

But further down we have another group of urban agglomerations: second tier cities. I'm writing this from Shantou, a Guangdong city up the coast, population 5.3 million. Three days ago I was in Zhongshan, population 3.1 million people. They have their own feeling and style unique from the big city ways. Naturally Qingyuan also fits this category but is now almost too familiar to me.

Zhongshan is conveniently connected to Guangzhou via the newly constructed intercity light rail (200km rail with regular stops, took 40 mins to cover 66km). We were there for a wedding but it made a good chance for looking around too. In the district of Guzhen it was clear that it was lighting that powered the city's economy. Streets and streets of lighting warehouses. The light reading at our hotel was all about lighting. Many small towns tend towards an industry or a clear economic function.

The second most obvious thing was cars. Subways are first tier luxuries (and even some of them don't have them). With the economy booming, transportation lagging everyone has a car. But these are old towns with streets that go back decades: in Zhongshan traffic jams are nasty. It's a very old city too - it was called Xiangshan, fragrant mountain. It only became Zhongshan due to the first leader of the Republic of China hailing from there. (Sun Yatsen was his most commonly known name in English, but he studied in Japan where he had the nickname, Nakayama, which pronounced in Chinese is Zhongshan.)

Of course me being me, the dialect caught my ear too. The dialect had some similarities to Qingyuan accent despite them being on opposite sides of Guangzhou but with a new diphthong, a different tone and a few reductions. Second tier cities tend to keep their accents.

Shantou is one of the two famous Chaoshanese cities. Guangdong has three main Han Chinese cultures: the Cantonese, the Hakka and the Chaoshanese. The Chaoshanese languages (along with other Southern Min dialects) diverged at a very early time. It is almost unintelligible to speakers of other dialects such as Mandarin and Cantonese. It also retains many ancient features lost in other dialects. This may be true for the culture too.

Mention Shantou to someone from Guangdong and the first thing they think is food. The place is home to a distinct and delicious culinary tradition. That is a prime reason we came. Beef balls, seafood, stewed goose, special rice noodle rolls (changfen) and a lot of other unique snacks are available here. Of course they're in Guangzhou too, for the most part, but nothing beats getting the most authentic version down any of the backstreets.

Tea is big here, too. Apparently they drink more tea here than anywhere in China, and anecdotally, kungfu tea drinking originated in Chaoshan. This is a kind of tea set preparation and serving style that is akin to a ceremony. They have a tea set in our hotel room, which is a nice touch, and with the locally brewed Dancong Oolong tea I bought in a big bag I now enjoy tea the kungfu way.

Just like Zhongshan the traffic is a feature again. Quick development, an ancient city, a ton of cars, motorbikes, jams and crazy driving. A second tier quirk is either the absence or unavailability of taxis, or their penchant for refusing to use a meter. Meters provide proof of transaction, thus require tax to be paid. And meters are objective and don't respond to the time of day. Both our rides yesterday were straight out quoted as 20 yuan. Our second ride had another interesting theme: We waved and the taxi rode up next to us. There was clearly a lady sitting in the front already but the driver while not completely stopping the car wanted to ask us where we wanted to go. We told him, agreed on 20 yuan, and got in. We assumed the lady was his wife or friend but a few minutes up the road she paid and got out. This is reasonably common practice the smaller the town is. Taxi drivers fishing for extra custom while serving another.

We have another day and a half here and we'll look for more sights, sounds and food sensations.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Year end

"It's gettin' cold out," a member of my mostly American crew said as she puffed her way into the office. She'd arrived in July - the middle of the long summer, and now was getting a taste of the cooler end of the year. The coolness really does become obvious in December with just a couple of burps of warmth. January and February get the brunt of the damp coldness but late February and early March often have quite summery weather. Two of the five Chinese New Year periods have been t-shirt weather.

Things have changed a lot in the twelve months since last Christmas. Back then I was just managing the one centre with seven mostly happy staff (including three Brits and one American). I was quite content with what I was doing - but with a slight malaise from work. I'd started to become very comfortable and my trusted regional manager had resigned, and someone I didn't particularly think was up to the job had taken over. My health wasn't anything to write home about - I had this habit of only getting weighed in Qingyuan on a very standard set of scales and it only showed a steady increase even when I thought I'd been more active. My Chinese ability was ever increasing, not as quickly as I'd have wanted but with enough progress never to be too disappointed. I was reading novels without difficulty and slowly getting better at handling functional Cantonese.

Now I manage (at least temporarily) two centres with a total of seventeen teachers. Once one centre closes in the first part of the year, I'll be down to about eleven or twelve. My regional manager has resigned suddenly yesterday  and with immediate effect, leaving a vacuum. After the initial setback of breaking my knee, rehabilitation has got me to a state of health even better than what preceded the break: I'm the leanest I've been in about four years (which doesn't say much) and can run fifteen kilometres, pending the happiness of my joints and ligaments. As for Chinese, my Cantonese is now more than just functional but is conversational, too. I can sit down and talk about all sorts of things for a badly accented hour, at will. If it weren't for the craziness of a immigration case manager, this year has been rather successful.

Next year will be an interesting one. Depending how our last ditch attempt to get a residence visa goes, it'll either be a rush to New Zealand or an increasingly appealing Plan B. That plan B might revolve around settling in for another year, buying an investment house and travelling more. I'm feeling confident in my management ability and depending how the whole management situation goes, I might be ready for another step up the chain of command. It could be a good year to aggregate a little capital. Travelling will finally become easier with a big change in the leave policy: I'll have another 5 days of leave to bring me to a total of 20 days. It'll be possible to go back to New Zealand AND travel for leisure in the same year, while also having some domestic family time (Chinese New Year). Either way, it should be fun regardless of what that heartless case manager decides.

In Chinese terms next year is the year of the goat, my benmingnian (本命年), the same animal year as that which I was born. It is sometimes said that there is a higher chance of bad luck. We'll see.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014


"They're saying 'cha' with the wrong tone," I commented.
She listened and affirmed that I was right. It isn't that remarkable in Chinese dialects to have regional variance in tones, but it was pleasing to notice it with the naked ear that there was a difference.

That was Hangzhou, listening to Mandarin spoken by Wu accented speakers. They have their own dialect, and they have their own accented mandarin traits. As a learner of Chinese and a teacher of phonology, my senses have become accustomed to noticing differences. I was travelling with my in-laws at the time and heard more of their dialect than the locals' speech, and suddenly I noticed a new consonant. And then another. Two consonant sounds that presumably they've been using for all four years I've known them, and only in September this year did I notice.

In actual fact they're allophones in Cantonese. If you say the two different sounds to a native they don't see them as different. It's similar to The two ways you can say "tree": you could say t'ree or ch'ree and to most it's the same. What I heard in their accent was a variation of two sounds, the w in "Wu" and y in "Yi". The w sounded more like a v. In English, we make a v by touching our top teeth to our bottom lip, say "very" and you'd feel it. But their w was like an English w, but with tightened lips. It became a voiced sound akin to a v, a sound I hadn't 'heard' before. 

Then I heard the Qingyuan Waangho "yi" sound. Again it was similar but different. Try saying "yee" but as the y is produced bring your tongue as close as you can to the roof of your mouth. It loses its y sound for a buzzy  hum. 

I have to say Qingyuan Waangho, because some sounds aren't present in other towns. My in-laws are from Waangho; Incredibly 5km down the road in Daaiyau, they have the English z standing in for yi. No other dialect of Chinese as far as I know has the English z sound, yet it does. Oddly yi is pronounced there without a noticeable vowel. It's just zzzz. This non-vowel is quite similar to Mandarin, rather than Cantonese.

There are so many little consonant and vowel differences between cities and villages. Where do these sounds come from? I explain them as one of ancient distinctions, shifts or idiosyncrasies. As mentioned in previous blogs, some differences may go back to Middle Chinese, but others maybe just a shift of sounds. English had had this too: look up Grimms' Law. This is when all sounds spontaneously evolve in a particular direction. When I first heard the Daaiyau z I thought it might be an ancient distinction and created lots of language tests, choosing one yi which should be z and another that should stay y... And it didn't work: they said z in both cases regardless. It was part of a general spontaneous phonological shift without much connection to any previous form.

I enjoy these investigations even though admittedly they distract from the more important quest: to actually understand what they're saying.

In some ways, the new year village hopping tradition breeds the environment for lingual comparisons. I hope I can learn more this coming year.

Monday, December 08, 2014


Am I a difficult subordinate? As a manager myself, it's an interesting matter to consider. We are the managed and those that manage. We can, at times, see ourselves perhaps in those that we manage. Getting down to specifics, I played the hardest line I've ever played last appraisal, either rightly or wrongly.

Appraisals should be six monthly but during my mid-contract appraisal period I changed manager twice and I only noticed at the 10 month mark I'd missed one. It's not really for a subordinate to ask for one. As a manager I'd be appalled to miss one. I let them know but didn't mind waiting for my year-end appraisal. But then my current manager didn't act when I reminded him at year end. And it really did come down to me pushing very hard to make sure I was appraised. I should point out that without appraisal I don't have a new contract and that is necessary for a visa renewal.

My company works with a matrix management system, where technically I have two line managers. One manager is the regional academic manager - a westerner -supervising the education managers in two cities, about 8 people; the other is my centre manager - a Chinese manager - who due to resignations and closures was handling three centres, and constantly short of time. Both were not competent communicators whose weaknesses are exacerbated by workload stress.

Prior to my appraisal I was scathing of the regional manager in his annual review. Even with only eight people to manage, I'd only dealt with him in a one on one basis three times in a year. He had a good heart though - he'd helped a lot when I broke my knee. The national manager on receiving my heated words in the regional manager's appraisal said he'd be down to speak to me personally (and perhaps others with similar concerns). To be honest, I don't rate him either. But he did come down and I spoke to him - and one of the issues I spoke about became policy afterwards. Perhaps I should regard him higher.

And so the year end appraisal came. I'd self-appraised myself highly, as "outstanding". (I myself didn't necessary regard the quality of my work that way, but I was annoyed and wanted to see if they'd challenge it; they did.) They talked through each grading. Every time they knocked me down from my own scoring, they didn't raise any specific example. Even at times the regional manager would fluff around with some case but couldn't say when or what the example was. It'd be like:
"There was that time that information came late from the other centre,"
"Sorry, when was that?"
"Some time ago."
"What information exactly?"
"I can't remember but it was clear you hadn't delegated well."
My centre manager fluffed around similarly, he's barely present so whether praising or criticizing he'd hardly have an example to state convincingly. At the end of it I was rated a strong performer, which I don't necessarily disagree with. But I was supremely annoyed. I recalled I was "Outstanding" in my last appraisal and said so.
"No, you weren't; I checked," I was told, and perhaps I knew that somewhere. I quickly remembered my bonus on the payroll wasn't an Outstanding one. But then I recalled at my last appraisal I remembered seeing "outstanding" on the screen. My wife remembers me coming home and saying I was outstanding. But then I checked my email back 12 months: it said Strong Performer, but with just one grading short of Outstanding. Suddenly I thought I might have been tricked a year ago, albeit by a different two managers.
Either way, at that moment I sat and stared the kind of stare that erodes calcium from bones. They sat there uncomfortably. They said that they'd discuss my package and speak to me shortly.

I went back to the office angry, and tried to distract myself till I was called into a room. The regional manager took me into a room and showed me the package and let me know he had discretionarily given me a double raise of my base salary on top of my performance bonus (the money which is based on the "strong performer" rating). I'm not sure if this discretion was based in that icy stare, or whether it was always coming to me. I, rightly or wrongly, gave him a piece if my mind regarding the seemingly basisless grading and how demotivating it was to hear my manager arbitrarily rating me without a clearly stated basis.

Oddly, the centre manager also wanted to speak to me one on one, too. I respected him a bit more for it. I'd do it if I were him. If someone were affronted by an appraisal, it'd be brave to speak to the person again. He told me that he is a demanding manager and sets high goals for himself and those he manages. I reiterated that he needs to be specific in appraisals, or else they're counter-productive.

That was a month or so ago, interestingly I met with my regional manager, one on one, just last week. He had good news: I was going to be paid for managing two centres. This goes back to my chat with the national manager. I'd complained about a lot of things but two things were that (1) another manager and I were managing two centres but were told by our managers we were managing one and supporting another (affecting our workload but not our pay); and (2) we hardly met with the regional manager. My squeaky-wheelness "paid off" monetarily and in terms of face time. I'm happy.

Appraisals are thorny and are thornier the more you think they're thorny. I'm appraising three of my subordinates now and will appraise another five in the next month. One out the three could potentially be combative. The more combative, the more I trawl my inbox for situations related concretely to that person.

Since my last blog, I've moved to a bigger centre while managing my previous centre as it winds down to closure. I effectively managed 17 teachers for about a month, but this will go down as my previous centre's teachers are transferred out approaching the centre's closure. It's been quite invigorating to be at a new centre; ironically, it is actually my first centre, where I began as an entry level teacher. I've been able to be managerially creative and done things I couldn't have contemplated at my smaller centre.

I blog as China approaches winter. The days are gloomier and the weather for a short time is cooler and wetter. I look forward to a fertile time of development.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Sizzle and fade

On the Chinese calendar today is known as "the big heat" and as if human designations meant something to Mother Nature, today duly hit 36 degrees, easily the hottest day of the summer thus far. I did my longest run, 36 minutes, in 30 degree heat at 8:30am this morning. It's hot. Psychologically I have no trouble with being hot but my body is another story. I have rashes coming up itchily on all parts of my body; I sweat even in the cool; and I can't sleep at times. Air conditioned life is not easy either, yoyo-ing between hot and cold might be half the problem.

The news that another distant friend died reached me today. He is and was Tetsuya Umehara, a student I met possibly in Chinese class although may have also been some management class at university before I went to Taiwan. He was from a rich Japanese family, lived in a big expensive apartment on Nelson Street in the CBD. He was extremely intelligent but not given to much in the way of moral introspection. One frequent topic of discussion behind his back was how he treated his two off-and-on-again girlfriends, Yuki and Jessica. They were both good natured girls, both beautiful and both woefully treated. Please excuse me speaking ill of the dead. I remember having some distaste for his treatment of a mutual Japanese friend who he socially ostracised in a kind of Japanese group action against an individual, something I didn't understand.

But he was a good friend. He was easy with other people. I remember how a friend and I noticed his penchant for having tissue boxes in his car and called him Tissue-ah. After he quickly learned Chinese curse words, Chinese friends asked him to swear in Japanese, upon which they said it sounded like a dog barking. We all laughed. He didn't care. He would keep talking regardless. In Taiwan I got an e-mail from him. He was coming! He called me out and we ate; we went to a hot spring in Wulai, probably the best spa experience of my life. I was floating after it. And it became the hot spring experience I cruelly measure all others to.

He died almost a week ago. His Facebook profile (albeit edited) says: "Good night everyone!" in Japanese on the day that he is said to have died. People don't tend to focus on the causes of deaths. This was either a sudden health condition or his own hand. It doesn't matter.

Death was nice as a theoretical construct to think philosophically about, but as we age it's something that we need to adjust to emotionally and spiritually. I finished a novel, Norwegian Wood, just last week. It's written by Haruki Murakami, probably the most well known Japanese writer. There's plenty of death in it. In the heat, I can only ponder momentarily about the juxtaposition of real and fictional extinction.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Chinese-style gym

In the last blog I attempted to re-imagine the ideal Chinese style beach holiday, taking what was a generally western concept and re-orienting it more to the East. There are lots of aspects of current Chinese culture that are more or less borrowed wholesale from the West without much adulteration. Clothing is one aspect – traditional clothing is only for very special occasions and many wouldn't go near it if they didn't have to. As a result, clothing habits are pretty much in line with what the rest of the world wears.
Gyms are also something more European than Asian. Traditionally health was maintained by martial arts and medical theory. These days martial arts and qigong are neglected by all except that aged; plaza dancing is hugely popular right now among middle-aged women; and a small portion of the youth rely on sports such as badminton, table tennis and football to remain fit and active. As for the others, some are chronically unfit. For the youth, the demands of the education system make it difficult to maintain fitness.
Gyms have come to China since the reforms and there is the same kind of muscle-obsessed people supporting them, just like in western countries. I used to go to a well-equipped modern gym a couple of years ago. The customers were almost all young or international; the atmosphere was the same as in a gym back home. But after breaking my knee though, I decided to go to a smaller nearer local gym and was really surprised at what I found: a Chinese style gym. Unfortunately the things that make it more Chinese are the things that make it less desireable.
Let me describe it before I get to the people: Firstly, it is not in a sealed room. It is open to the outside air. This could actually work in New Zealand – it's cooler – but in Guangzhou at 10am, when I usually go, it's already 30 degrees. (It was a quite a shock having just returned from Bali where I'd just managed to run 20 continuous minutes in an air conditioned gym to not even make 8 minutes before feeling my heart was about to explode.) It also has its own overpopulated 20 metre pool. The equipment is time-worn and regularly out of order.
The staff have the normal low paid service attitude; that is, they sometimes don't notice you standing in front of them waiting for their attention. They sometimes get caught in their own topics of conversation and miss opportunities to serve. There are regular loud verbal altercations between patrons and the staff which they make no effort to hide, especially at the front desk that often becomes akin to a fort.
But let's focus a little on the people because modern gyms and small gyms split people culturally. Modern gyms get the people who adopted the culture of the west. Small gyms capture older people who will make the gym in their own image. Retired people here are naturally gregarious and treat the gym as a social thing, not completely focussed on health. So around the pool you'll find a table of guys, all in black togs, smoking after their morning swims and work-outs. There are no "no smoking" signs.
The gym does have some signs, though. One of them says: "Work out in a civilised way; Keep your body covered". This is ignored by about half the male patrons who go to the gym for the purpose of showing off their upper body. (This echoes another interesting summer habit that I call the "paunch show", where guys in the older districts will roll up the bottoms of their t-shirts to reveal their bellies, ostensibly to keep cooler.)
Another interesting thing is the occupation of machines. People will take machines not for use but as their own place which incidentally also denies other people's use of them. Someone might do some exercise on a machine, then sit on the machine for five to ten minutes to rest, before continuing a little more, then resting for a few minutes. I've seen people eating while sitting on some of the most popular machines. My favourite machine is the treadmill and sometimes people half-way through a run will leave all their possessions on a machine, with the machine running, and go to the bathroom for a few minutes and then come back to use it, while people are still waiting to use one.
Despite the above, I'll continue to use it. Having one so close has meant that I've been to the gym three to four times a week for the last month or so. And my body has adjusted to working out under heat. I've completed 30 minute runs on two occasions in near 30 degree heat. I'll look to keep this up for another month or two and then maybe do proper running in the park or around Guangzhou on a quiet morning or evening.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Chinese style beach holiday

We left Bali just before a surge: Chinese summer holidays were just beginning and Chinese tourists are one of the biggest sources of visitors to Bali second only to those ever present Australians. Bali generally hasn't adjusted to this situation. Nothing in our hotel had Chinese explanations or Chinese support. (I had to help a Chinese woman asking for one fried egg instead of two conjoined fried eggs at the breakfast buffet.) Neither does the airport have much support either for Chinese, even in lucrative places like duty-free shops. (Christy helped a Chinese man explain that he didn't just want a bottle of expensive cognac, but a crate of the same cognac.) There may be changes with time on the Balinese side but one does wonder why Chinese come to Bali at all.

Bali is a perfect beach resort country for western tourists. Western tourists generally love the sun, sand and surf. They drink cocktails at beach bars and they generally adapt well to trying local food. Chinese, especially women, generally don't like the sun. They don't like dirt (beaches and seawater often don't meet the images created through movies and media) and many can't swim. A portion of the population cannot drink alcohol without some ill-effect. On top of that, they're predominantly loyal to their local cuisine. And finally, English literacy as pointed out isn't high especially with many of the nouveau riche.

Generally this is not a problem, though. The ones that usually come for a beach holiday are the ones with some English at their disposal and they're coming to experience a beach holiday as if it were a different culture. Even Sanya, the most famous resort city in China uses the concept of a western beach holiday, which to me is a little puzzling. Could their not be a Chinese style beach holiday? If so, what would it look like?

Of course, it'd have all of the same facilities that Bali has currently. A good portion of tourists from any country, after all, are attracted to the things that are different. If I were designing one though, I'd make a covered promenade along the length of the beach. This would allow people to move along the beach in the shade to enjoy the sea view and air without fear of the sun. Pavilion areas, like in the photo, could be available at certain times for mahjong (that'd be picturesque!) or even chess for that matter at a small cost. Pool areas could have one half of the pool bar in the shade. Even though Chinese tourists took to water sports well, one particular water activity, popular with Chinese men, was never mentioned: fishing.

Anyway, that's my take and my idle thought. Of course you're welcome to say that no country has to change for tourists - I'm thankful in one breath that they all speak English in Bali to a very useful extent. In my heart of hearts I'd wish I had to master some of the phrases of bahasa Indonesia to get around...

Monday, June 30, 2014

Place and space

As we exited the arrival terminal, the calls of "taxi" intensified as did the steeliness in our eyes. We marched towards the clearly designated taxi area, just as we would in. At that area we were approached by a man with seemingly official taxi driver attire who asked which hotel we were off to; we told him and showed him the address; he told us 200; we told him that wasn't the price the hotel said; he asked and we agreed a price; to save face and relations he said how "airport taxis" charge less.

Sometimes, it isn't important where you find yourself but whether you know the local "rules" and the local "play book". The above could have been in Guangzhou but in this case it was Dempesar, Bali.

Bali is renown for its friendliness. And it is a friendly place not just for your custom. We've had great instinctive hospitality from almost everyone. The first glum uninterested Chinese-like service came at a superette... owned by a Chinese proprietor. Since the traffic is a little crazy, locals will help tourists cross the road. Vendors do actively approach you to sell things or offer services, but they do it politely and accept no for an answer.

It would seem that commercialism and integrity can live side by side. We did have a moment that could have proved this further:

As we returned from a meal, we were approached by a friendly guy on a motorcycle, Solomon. He explained about a resort, Royal Karma Bali, who had a special promotion at a hotel around the coast. We were given two prize envelopes that we ripped open to see what we'd won: first envelope was just two t-shirts and a choice of ou extra (we chose a 300,000 rupiah meal voucher, about NZD30); the second envelope however was the top prize, one prize that would be revealed after a gold sticker was removed. It had to be one of the following: 7 nights free in their hotel, or USD1000, or a camera or a shopping voucher for 2,000,000 rupiah (NZD190). We just had to take a ride to the hotel to collect the prizes.

Sounds dodgy doesn't it? I delayed a day saying that day wasn't convenient but commenced a little research: it appears to be a rather well-known timeshare scheme. They take you over, give you prizes but also a hard-sell that might take an hour or two. On the internet you can find a lot of different feelings about it; humorously, one post had almost the exact same story as I had above including the exact order of prizes. We weren't into this. So I met Solomon alone at the agreed meeting place. He was full of energy and happiness but I got to the point quickly. My wife was "sick" so we wouldn't go that day nor any other day. He was clearly disappointed but to his credit took our decision without argument and headed away.

Bali is pretty good for what we want of it, namely relaxation, good and exercise. It almost didn't happen for various reasons but I'm glad to be here!

Friday, June 13, 2014

In form

I've probably written about it before. It's highly likely that I've had many moments in China where I've composed blogs about it in my head that I've never gotten around to writing. That is: Chinese bureaucracy.

It's true that China has one of the earliest developed bureaucracies. A good 1300 years before William the Conqueror took England as part of Normandy and had the Domesday book written, the Qin dynasty set China on its way to big comprehensive governing, and it has never really looked back. But age has never not brought the fruits of efficiency. Pretty much any encounter with it leaves someone from a more western modern consumer-oriented bureaucracies with a lot of head-scratching.

Take proving that you don't have a criminal record as an example. I had to get two of these, one for my life in New Zealand and one for my life in China. The New Zealand one was pretty straightforward: I got the form online and did the list of requirements. I e-mailed it and within two weeks received the necessary letter, sent to China for free no less.

It's hard to know at what point I should start my story of getting it for my time in China. How much boredom can you take? Let me start at the real beginning. I asked the company visa officer and she said it should be able to be done at the local police station but when I went there they were completely mystified and told us to go to another organisation in another district. When we went there though they said that they couldn't do it for foreigners and pointed us to yet another organisation. Finally we found someone in that building and after she'd woken up, I gave her photocopies of my passport and registration form.
"Is this your only passport?" she asked. It wasn't; I'd travelled to China on my old passport. Apparently they don't link their information in any way. So I had to scan and send copies of my old passport to her. She told me it'll take four weeks to get the information from the police. We called her yesterday and she said it was ready. Ready, however, was solely from her point of view. When we went into it today, we picked up a document which she said we had to take to another floor; on that floor I signed different pieces of paper that I didn't read and was given an invoice to pay. I went to another floor to pay (130 yuan, roughly 26 dollars NZD) and then back to the original floor.
"Come back next Friday to pick it up."
"Sure, thanks." I said in a calm way, which was only calm because I hadn't yet started to puzzle how a mere piece of paper could take so long to produce.

I assume next Friday I'll get this piece of paper with the necessary chop (an authorising stamp). The irony of going to the police then being directed to an organisation that takes four weeks to get information from the police is not easily missed. The shock that apparently all I need to do is commit a crime and then come back with a different passport to evade them is not a difficult conclusion.

There are lots of forces at work that has produced this messiness of systems, the lack of clarity of process and seeming ineffectiveness. I spoke to my mother-in-law on the way back from the office and I asked her to be the mayor of the city because she said that she'd make a one-stop shop for citizens to go to to connect all these disparate invisible un-signposted departments and save the normal people the terrible hardship of dealing with bureaucracy. She'd have my vote, if it were up to a vote, and I were eligible for that vote.

In other news we can access Google again. In the lead up to the fourth of April Google begins to be inaccessible. For those who are unfamiliar with dates, on that day 25 years ago, tanks rolled through a certain square in Beijing where student protests had gotten a little out of hand. For more information about the power of dates in China, read the excellent book Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler. It's well worth a read.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Types of people

There are repeated motifs of all sorts in life. Some are common but repeat subtly; others might take years to recur, but could be near identical to the previous iteration. It is bizarre but strangely common sense that these thing happen again and again. History does repeat as human nature duly ensures.

About ten years ago a few months prior to a birthday, I had an idea that kept me awake: my party could be a scavenger hunt. Throughout the night I thought of several devious clues; I thought of the venue, tahaki reserve below Mt. Eden; and then I started to prepare. It was hard work! Each idea needed a lot of time and sweat to bring to reality, even a "simple idea", to take a photo from a particular angle and get participants to go to that location to take their next clue, needed an old school camera, photo development and putting photos in envelopes. Then the envelopes just had to be fastened to a site the morning of the event and a few prayers that neither the elements nor random curious people would take them away. It really was the realization of my kind of event. I'd enjoy participating, and my mind would have been perfect to solve each of the riddles. You can imagine the problems that arise from this though. Most people are not like me. And clues conceived in the wee hours of the morning are hardly like to be solvable.

And that's how it played. I'd got people into teams, had everyone do face painting and then sent them on Mission Impossible. I just sat around while others did it, a kind of a weird way to spend a birthday. The sitting was eventually interrupted by confused cellphone calls and after an hour or two I called off the hunt. My party guests were good natured about it but I always get a bit embarrassed thinking about it. My big unreasonable dream realized to mystify and tire my friends.

And so it too was another person's big dream in our company. She conceived of an awesome event before the company awards night, an amazing race event where all teachers, after a tiring days' work, would run around the city solving clues and becoming better teammates in 30 degree evening heat. Yeah, on paper it looks bad and it's truly a triumph of the human spirit that half of teams made it through, one team spent three hours out doing it before completing it and having dinner at 10pm... Most, I assume, will only look back on it happily with the distance of hindsight. I dodged this bullet by virtue of my dodgy knee. I'd helped out as a course marshall in a trial run (where the trial team amusingly went there own ways in frustration after a disagreement over a clue), then served as a phone-a-friend helpline.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Thunder, all through the night!

Morning grey, lunch showers, afternoon downpours and evening storms. The climate gears have turned and clouds churned into summer mode. Yesterday was in fact the "lixia" the period on the Chinese calender that indicates summer begins. That didn't stop Xi'an in central China from snowing a few weeks ago. It's hard to regulate the weather.

This wet period also marks my days back in my home centre, armed with just a solitary crutch that is only really called into use when ascending and descending the stairs. It's good to be back, but gosh it's hard work. There is a lot to do and I'm teaching almost as much as a my teachers are while managing. Either end of my day, I'm doing exercises and even started going to the gym to use the exercise (probably the most vigorous exercise I've been recommended to do, and even that with no resistance). But it's been good to be active again. Being able to bend my knee means that I can go in a car comfortably, go to the movies and take the bus. 

The weather has also impacted what was going to be some relaxing time to celebrate our second anniversary. It was 9 May 2012 that we registered our marriage and the main date that we'll observe our anniversary. We were planning a much delayed trip to a hot spring. (My leg had prevented it and a trip to Thailand earlier in the year.) Now with the persistent stormy weather we won't be going this year. It's a bit of a shame but does give us a nice long weekend just to relax.

My use of my new phone is going to all new extents: Language Exchange (HelloTalk, where have you been my whole life); podcasts of all natures; it is again hard to know whether this is a great benefit or a great distraction. But please let me get distracted enough to find out.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Thoughtful risings

Mornings can sometimes blend into each other in our memories. They are, after all, ritualised phases of our days with the habits that we've acquired to successfully clear the sleep from our eyes, much of a muchness. I'm a very regular waker - I usually boast that I never need an alarm clock because I'll get up about the same time every day. And my Chinese risings follow a fairly strict yet unoriginal schedule: coffee, e-mail and then some sort of reading and a late breakfast. 

The wake-ups I can remember specifically in my life are few but they are there. They aren't marked by things that happen usually but by things I'm thinking about that cause me to stir much before the body clock is otherwise set to ring, thoughtful risings. Today is one of those mornings. A previous blog about Xiaogang park is one of those too. (Probably more than one blo post.) I can remember a thoughtful rising like this in Taiwan.  

(Actually I can remember a lot of tramping mornings, too, but they are a class of their own with their own distinct quality, but at the same time with similarities to this kinds of wake-up, one of which I can hear right now: birds, even in Guangzhou, audible from the 26th floor.) 

This morning it was thoughts of a more logistical nature that caused me to stir, or at least render me incapable of returning to blessed sleep. The unknown of residence visa processing times, of human psychology and biology, of finance and fate were on my mind. Uncertainty is that demon that not only steals sleep from the front end of your rest but can deduct it from the end too.

I'd always regarded myself though as an early riser. Adult life, especially my life in Guangzhou, has changed that, but it has always been true that I have clearer thought in the early morning. A normal wake-up is good for reading. A thoughtful rising is good for writing. It's a good time for thinking about friends and writing to them. 

I pause between paragraphs and stare outside my half-open sliding doors to the overcast hazy morning and the buildings opposite. And I type to the sounds of birds. Once at our first apartment together, I remember going out on the balcony with a chair and table. A small birds landed on our kumquat tree, pondered for a few moments and then flew away. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


43 days ago I fell on some steps and from that day till yesterday I hadn't bent my left knee. But then yesterday I went to the physiotherapist for the first time and my knee was made to start bending, and even got to bend it myself for now. The tendons are still rather tight and the muscle much less than it was. Even with the physio's help, I could only bend it 85 degrees, and when measured my left thigh was 6 centimetres smaller in circumference than my right. Clearly I have all the work ahead of me.

But there is a bright side: yesterday, I also took my first steps without crutches and slept for the first night without a knee immobiliser off (a weird feeling indeed). I still need to keep the immobiliser on during the day, so I walk with one leg straight, but the fact that I can now hold hands or put an arm around my wife as we stroll makes it all OK.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Are you listening?

Listening as a skill is something we rarely think about. In a rudimentary sense, a native speaker of a language should have good listening skills. After all, they understand all or most of the words in use, the grammar is naturally comprehended, we have broad exposure to different accents, and this is so much so that even if a phone line isn't clear, we'd still be able to get the gist of what someone said on the end.

But does that mean all native speakers with normal mental development have complete learning skill? If you think "yes", it's worth posing a few questions to you the reader. For example: Do we understand someone speaking in legalese? What about financial news? Do we follow a story written from another culture when we hear it? (Imagine listening to, say, a religious myth from India explained in English.) Perhaps not as easily. Even in our own language, learning skills can be genre/register specific. This is even truer when learning another language. 

In my own learning situation, when involved in a conversation, I can understand 95% of Mandarin and about 65% of Cantonese; I can understand 85% of the news in Mandarin and about 15% of Cantonese; listening to a story, I can understand understand 90% of stories in Mandarin, but only about 10% in Cantonese;  listening to an opinion monologue, though, I can understand about 90% and 80% of Mandarin and Cantonese respectively. This can show that the Cantonese skill is not correlated much to the Mandarin ability. The range of situations that I've practiced Cantonese has been much more limited and their are many "holes". It is a common student misunderstanding that one form of practice, say, watching movies, will help them in another context. 

As mentioned in the last blog, I mentioned my entering of the smartphone era. Podcasts are now delivered to my phone on a daily basis (a Cantonese opinion monologue being one of them); as much as these are nourishing, they aren't always that complementary to other forms of listening. Listening to my novel in Cantonese as an audiobook is similarly problematic to other skills. Right now the news in Cantonese is playing. And none of this is helping me (much) with listening to people speaking to me. Last night I called my parents-in-law and handled the conversation quite well but with a couple of moments when I froze when I missed what they said. 

During my convalescence, I resumed my diploma project work and re-directed one of the three section on to how we teach listening comprehension in class. It is a great topic that also makes me think deeply about me, who learns Cantonese outside of the classroom, about the kind of experiences my students and I need to strengthen my understanding of what I hear.

Anyway, it's week five since my kneecap splitting fall. My leg is no longer in a cast... it's in a knee immobiliser that does the same job but can be removed and attached more easily. I'll need it on for another three weeks. Rehabilitation starts in one week. Fortunately I'm back at work and at least getting into the swing of things. It's been obvious that a lot of the communication has not been well handled with me at home. There was a lot of "I thought you knew", when it's obvious that there were no e-mails or phone calls that would have got the message to me. In a cross-cultural office, with people of different levels of professional habits, it was always going to be hard to keep in the loop being at home for so long. For now, it's good to be back!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Here I am, sitting on the window-sills in the sun. (Chinese bedrooms often have a wide window-sills that let one sit, put things or gather dust.) My leg is still fastened onto a plaster splint. I say I've got a cast on but the front of my leg is not covered in plaster. It makes sense to do it this way: you can still put pants on if you only have plaster on one side; and besides, is it necessary to cover the whole leg? Anyway, life has been rather laid-back in my weeks of home-ridden sick leave. 

I may have broken my knee but the most discomfort came from my back, my thighs and my shoulders. At one point I was waking up at 5:00am in the morning with muscle spasms in my quadriceps. Now with two days before the cast may come off and it comes as a little bit of a disappointment. I really want the cast off but the time with it on has been beneficial. I feel healthier, less stressed, better prepared and perhaps even smarter.

Smarter? Perhaps I'm just saying that because I'm at the beginning of my iPhone life. But it's worth mentioning: I now have a smartphone. Sick leave has been quite beneficial for mastering my apps. My favourites are: Podcasts; Radio NZ; Radiolive; New Zealand radio; wechat; Air quality; BBC; Night Sky 2; Chinese audiobooks and Cricinfo. It's been good to be able to listen to, say, bfm for background music. 

Chinese audiobooks might be the next step for me. In the last few weeks I've finished reading the first Chinese kungfu novel in a series of three books during this sick leave. I'm going to try and listen to the second book of the series with the written word in support. Actually I can listen to it in both Mandarin and Cantonese. These are both easily accessible via my phone. It might sounds weird but my proficiency in reading is way out of balance with my listening and speaking and most definitely my writing of Chinese. Reading is king. This is despite being in China where you'd expect me to be speaking and hearing lots of Chinese. My bent towards reading is so strong that it's twice as good. Hopefully this is a good step to level me out.

Podcasts are something I tried hard to get into at one stage but now have a lot of power to use. Probably the most valuable to me is historical podcasts that keep knowledge alive. My previous kungfu novel had a character who grew up in Genghis Khan's Mongolia. The author though tried to keep quite historical despite the non-existence of the key character. Listening to a podcast though shortly after I could listen and patch the historical background, before and after, of Genghis Khan's conquests, while eating my lunch. 

There is a good argument to say that smarter phones can make you dumber. But right now I think I've got myself well geared to use my smartphone smartly.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

My break

"Were you drunk?" No. I have been asked that a few times.
"Were you texting with your new phone?" No. Surprisingly I'm yet to be asked that. And to be honest, with the rate that people do use their cellphones and walk I'm surprised there aren't more falls.
I was walking on the footpath, which to be honest wasn't an outrageously potholed stretch, when somehow the rubber on one shoe caught; I lost my balance; I mainly landed on my hands; but one knee also connected with the point of a step and thus I broke my kneecap. I didn't realise it at the time: I've only had soft tissue injuries in my life till now and hadn't heard a crack. I thought at worst it was bruised So we kept walking for about 10 minutes more to "walk it out". Near a subway entrance I found that I couldn't even contemplate going down the stairs to give our clothes to the drycleaners. So I waited near the top. And as soon as I tried to move again, it'd become very stiff and hard to move. I thought it was at least soft tissue damage. 

I went home and performed R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation). At that stage I thought rest was the key. I didn't want to damage it any more by walking to the hospital. In the evening though, I realised that it was probably inevitable that I had to go to the doctors, and the earlier the better. We went out at about 8pm. Came back at 1am. The easy diagnosis, one that even a layman could see from an x-ray, was a broken patella. A cast was put on (although it's not the casts that I'd always seen; they just put the plaster at the back of the leg, and then bandaged it around the front of the leg; makes sense!) and I was sent on my way back home.

Life with a broken knee? It's not all that bad and I have enjoyed many of the advantages: Little stress, lots of mental energy, lots of time to dedicate to the pursuits of reading, writing, watching and thinking. Also with my new smartphone, I'm reconnecting with a lot of people that I hadn't contacted much. It is slightly badly timed though as two friends are visiting Guangzhou and there is a wedding, all within the month that the cast is definitely on.  

One problem that I'll have to deal with is muscle pain because of the bad posture I constantly have (a straight leg is hard to handle in most arrangements); the over-exertion of my compensating limbs; and the eventual rehabilitation of my steadily weakening broken limb. I've tried to make some time for exercise every day, specifically back stretching and abdominal strengthening a part of my day. Standing up is a little bit of a hassle and any exercise must take care not to move the muscles in my left leg. I often try to use the bed: bedcercises, perhaps.

Anyway, I've got good spirits and I'm glad for the change. For the rest of you, be careful out there! Keep your hands as free as possible when you walk, your eyes aware of the ground. I wish you all good health.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Tales of the Spring Festival

"In New Zealand, do they allow drink-driving?" I was drunkenly asked on the third day of the Year of the Horse. No, I answered but then it isn't allowed in China, either, which might make you wonder why I was asked. But we were drinking, with numerous drivers getting poured more and more red wine indiscriminate of their status as drivers.

"Don't worry, we have three policemen drinking with us tonight," the host winked with a cheery drunk grin. Of course the policemen were not going to stop our incapacitated drivers plowing their cars into walls, but at least no-one was going to get fined or embarrassed. I don't know how many vehicles I've sat in with a drunk driver at the wheel. Often it might be a tired drunk driver, too, because not many people have cars and those that do are the transport for the evening. 

The host of that evening (a high school reunion party) is a regular feature of my calendar of events. He is a school teacher by profession but now has a very profitable side trade in Chilean wine, which he'd brought at least two boxes of to the evening.
"I know you like baijiu, Daniel; I've got some in my car! It's China Railways Wine," he said after I was already very comfortable. I declined. 
"We haven't had your wedding wine. You have to drink with all of us!" Both I and one of the policemen had got married but without a banquet in Qingyuan. This has been a source of joking and maybe even sincere gripes whenever I've gone back. The wife of the policemen made a vigorous and rather loud defense of her husband, and I was protected from needing to drink a class of wine with every person at the table. Many of those at the table came to me to drink anyway. 

"In New Zealand we wouldn't knock this kind of wine back," I say as I down a full wine glass with a gentleman I have some acquaintance with (another policeman). One of the myths I've sought to dispel this trip was that "Cheers" does not mean "gan bei" (dry your glass/bottoms-up). It's not working.

It was nice to come out of that evening not too drunk at all. It gave me time to contemplate the cycle of celebrations. The most important day of course is Chinese New Years Eve, which is the most traditional part. There are meals with the close family. The matching couplets are stuck on the wall. Then fireworks are released in a seemingly non-stop period of pyromania that ends somewhere near two a.m. The first day of the new year is quiet. It should only be the nuclear family. No sweeping should be done (unless you want to sweep away your good luck). The second day of the new year is when you'd visit relatives, so we headed to a neighboring village where my mother-in-law grew up. Wine was had. (I learned a new word: tou paau. This is locally brewed firewater. I've had this kind of thing before but this was actually rather good. I was to learn that it is thought to be over 60% and I was going to be drinking it a lot more at fourth uncle's birthday on the sixth day of new year.) 

The second day really also shows how far China has come: there are traffic jams in all the little villages as cars, almost unheard of a few years ago, crowd out the roads an available parking space (virtually none). When I came to Qingyuan, the greater family had access to one car (a cousin could use a business car) and he was the only one who could drive; now there are three cars in the greater family and about six people who can drive them. That pattern has seemed to have occurred elsewhere. My first year in Qingyuan only witnessed a few cars. Now they're all through the little villages.

The third day is not a day for visiting relatives so a perfect day for the reunion. The fifth, sixth and seventh days were dinners and drinking that really made me rather queasy about the sight of any food or alcohol, but they were the completion of family events in each corner of "the Qingyuan triangle". The Triangle might exist in other places in China, but could be unique to our family, it goes something like this: In the Mao era of China some people were considered to have a bad background if their parents or grandparents had been landlords in the pre-Communist times (1949). This could affect your life in so many ways. A-gung, our name for grandfather, was the son of a landlord before their lands were stripped of them and the harassment that goes with old recriminations stretches a long way. His children struggled to find husbands and wives because of this baggage. And it was a problem all over China. Neighbouring villages had families of former landlords, too, in a similar predicament. In what must have been an elegant solution for the time a triangle was made by daughters from one corner marrying into another corner, thus the towns of Waangho, Daaiyau and Gwongtau are linked for me. From a foreign point of view it smells like the arranged marriages with the deal brokered over a dinner of chicken with firey alcohol to ease the awkwardness. But everyone is happy, now at least, and the families go on and prosper.

All of the dinners in the Triangle are great because they're the uncles and cousins I know best. There are usually jokes I can follow. Everyone is smiling. I guess it's what the season is meant to be about. We left on the afternoon of the seventh day of the Year of the Horse, the body yearning for some rest from the food and drink. It's got it now. Time to relax and have a great new year~!