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.