Saturday, January 27, 2018

Fortnight in, fortnight out, four weeks away

Many parts of the New Zealand is in the grip of a heatwave, which is apparently defined as when you have 5 consecutive days over the average maximum temperature. This morning had a touch of Guangzhou to it. Waking up in sweat. The outside temperature was already 20 degrees at 6am, which wasn't so bad when you're outside with a breeze but isn't so nice inside. Fortunately I got out early, to walk not to run.

Running has been off the agenda as my left knee isn't keen on running. It's disappointing but I have had plenty to pre-occupy myself with. Would I have been able to survive this busy period while also getting up at 5am to run? Probably not. In this "inter-fitness" period I've also launched myself into books. After finishing The Deer and the Cauldron, I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, which was an interesting little tale. I head back to Chinese literature with a short Louis Cha story, The White Horse Neighs in the West Wind. Now I'm reading Wild Swans, which is probably the pick of all that I've read recently. It chronicles the life of a woman's grandmother's life, mother's life and eventually her own life in China throughout the 20th century. To say that China's twentieth century was rather topsy-turvy is an understatement and to read a personal perspective of it is extraordinary.

After a busy first two weeks of the school year, the third was a bit of a relief. I only had one big day of work, yesterday, 13 hours... but it was a good cause. I fixed a lot of things. My senior teachers are both on board; we're looking at the projects ahead and they're soon going to be ready for my absence, which is just two weeks away now. Thank goodness there are only 8 more work days to go before our flight. And then it's almost a month in China. And then it's eating, drinking and sweating some more.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Back to the future

It might have been exceedingly optimistic to move our school over new year to a new, though slightly rundown, location. On the Monday, the first day of classes, we had computers in each classroom that couldn't access neither the shared network nor the internet. They were essentially glorified CD players. In my office I had a laptop but no way to print documents. We had a dodgy copier that was left by the last company. We stuck room-names on with bluetac; we didn't have cleaner contracted till this weekend. The air-conditioning was even more marginal than it had been in the past and we had about ten fans humming throughout the centre to keep things as cool as possible. All in all, teachers and staff were very much back to how we started in teaching, with just a whiteboard and markers. Pen and paper. Most of the support staff were kept in connected places so most of the work of running a large school fell on me and it quickly became the longest week ever. But the hours of the week were not my biggest problem, it was just the sheer range of different issues to hold in my mind at the same time. I was not the best sleeper. But I survived, leaving on Friday night a tick before 9pm. And by Friday, though, we had the internet and the ability to print and copy, induction ready for the new senior teacher and a plan for the future.  

This weekend is something of a pivoting point I hope. The good news is that in a mere three weeks I'll be flying to China. Next week the new senior teacher begins and it is he who will pick up most of the "slack" when I go. His arrival, as well as the nomination of another senior teacher, will finally mark the moment when we truly have a school leadership team and have the time and resource to do far more. Our school is in a state that could be a launchpad for much greater things. Despite the huge number of year-end graduations before the move, we covered that loss of students completely with our intake in this week alone. Next week will take us back to the record books. 

It has to be a good thing. This first week back has also blessed the school with a cohesive, positive team. The two teachers who left I'm so glad were not here to cast shade. For all the struggle of the last two years, and the last six days, I look forward to stepping onward. And unlike 2016, I don't think I'll have the same trepidation stepping onto an international flight and leaving the school in the hands of others.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Secret Ingredient(s)

We often speak about the magic of childhood, of having an unlimited imagination and unrestricted ability to believe in what is and could be, to be able to play and enjoy a world well beyond the mundane reality. Later, whether it is the development of the brain or the evils of the education system, this magic is slowly dispelled until we become cynical adults. But there is a much different mundane magic that seems to start in childhood that often lingers far into one's adult years.

Take mealtimes, for example. When I was young, evening meals turned up on the table and family banter naturally blossomed. Of course, I knew my mother usually made it, but that was just a function of her being a mother. Take a book: they were there by the hundred in the bookstore or library ready to read. How did they get there? Take any institution, object, person or concept that has been with us for some time and you have something overlooked in its beginning, its development, its refinement and its possible end. These can all be put into a common box of phenomena, "taking things for granted", "ignoring in plain sight" or "the effortlessness of others to do what is a strain to oneself". It's as if there is a secret ingredient or ingredients in almost everything - that proportion of something's being or doing that is not seen or understood.

I thought about this several times recently. Once was when our school moved premises and we got the teachers over to help with creating the new arrangement. The teachers however thought the school would be mostly "prepared" for them. But there are a thousand decisions to make for a school, not all made for by some "moving people". What makes a school feel like a school? When they arrived, the conclusion was "it's a dump" and there was surprise at the need to move around tables. Even to try different tables in different rooms requiring us to set and reset. Perhaps they always had been to schools that were already set up, the "magic" was already there. Or they thought all the decisions and effort would be done by "someone" like it always had been. In this case, I'm not sure by whom or when they expected it to happen. To sustain the magic in something else, just don't ask questions and believe and hope for the best. 

One of the difficult decisions sometimes is deciding if and when "the magician" wants people to know what the secret ingredient is, or how much they are throwing in. During childhood, parents generally keep children from most of that mundane magic of maintaining a happy marriage, keeping the gutter clear as part of a showering routine and keeping your inventory of food in the fridge and pantry just right, just as only in certain circumstances do we talk about sex, birth and death with children.

As a manager I sometimes don't know how much of the magic I should dispel from my position. Magic is a good thing and people don't need to know all the nuts and bolts. But by the same token, a lot of the decisions can appear arbitrary or efforts unappreciated. 

Thursday, January 04, 2018


When it comes to brave new worlds, China is a cut ahead of the rest right now. Now that cash is almost a thing of the past and the complete integration of life to a mobile device is almost complete, it is definitely a world newer than most modern western societies. The bravery, however, is as ironic as ever. The decision to enter this new world would seem to be driven simply by the desire to combine and simplify. And when you look at how complicated life has been in this modern age and how the technology of today could make it sweep away so many of the hassles, who wouldn't? Think about the following hassles:
- remembering passwords
- different loyalty programs
- payments for all the different utilities
- deposits
- security checks at airports
- entering competitions
- investing 
- visas
- queuing at checkouts and for medical care
- paying at petrol stations
- filling in applications
- changing currency
- paying tolls
- splitting restaurant bills
- renewing subscriptions or memberships
- different apps for services such as uber, expedia, etc.

And you take them all and make them simple decisions in one place. Wouldn't that be lovely! In China this has been done or is being done with WeChat and, to a degree, Alipay. I had a taste of this in China before I left but it has leaped ahead even further. Before I left, it was easy to find restaurants in the area with a promotion, buy a voucher ("Pay 80 yuan for a 100 yuan voucher") go there with friends and split the bill without much effort at all. We'd just flick our money with WeChat wallet. No awkward breaking of dollar bills at the counter. No exchanging of account numbers. We were pretty "slow adopters" and there were already things we were missing out on. Now apparently you can navigate most days without cash or cards. If only it could do the washing up.

In the west, we have too many quite justified scruples around this kind of integration. Even with the current range of apps, we are unnerved by the sharing of information and the accumulation of Big Data. What happens if the credit card company knows about my personal life? What about the insurance company? Governments have a problem with it regarding antitrust and competition. In the article I linked at the top, it shows that in China even further integration into life to cover almost all of the things above and more. People have chosen to take the lazy leap of faith to surrendering their entirety to be relieved in part of the hassle of everyday complicated life. As for antitrust and competition, the Chinese state has always been happy with being the only "party" in town.  

WeChat has been since 2011 but where I publish has been around since 1999, with my use of it as my primary place for posting thoughts starting in 2004. So last year made the end of my fourteenth year describing my life and thoughts. I'm quite proud of this because I was a terribly inconsistent diary user. During a clean-up of old possessions I probably found about 20 different books which I'd used like diaries, where notes were written if only I could decipher them or relate them back to a context. Blogs are good because unlike twitter and texts, they have body and lure you into elaboration. The nature of my blogs has changed markedly. I Last year I published 34 posts which was my highest since 2009. Although being in China and being cut off from the website probably lowered my rate of publishing ( is blocked by the Great Firewall but I could still post via e-mail) I generally published as things came to me. 2017 was big because of running and also because of more work-related issues and thoughts.

I may as well double purpose this blog to record in the beginning of 2018 how I use technology on a daily basis for future reference. As for most people, I use on my mobile device:
- Text-based and audio-based messaging (WeChat/Messenger/WhatsApp/Line)
- Maps to calculate best routes based on traffic conditions (Maps)
- A running app to work out how far and fast I run (Strava)
- Currency checking (
- Sports results and text commentary (
- Audio and video entertainment (Youtube, iHeartRadio and Podcasts)
- Weather forecasts (MetService)
- Health (HeartRateFree, Pacer)
- Banking (ASB)
- Petrol price checking (Gaspy)
- Dictionary (Pleco)
- Hotels and flights (Expedia)
- Paying for gas (BPMe)

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A touchy subject

As mentioned in my last blog, I'm reading the book The Deer and the Cauldron, which is famous for its protagonist's way with words, his seven wives and, unique for a Louis Cha kungfu novel, his complete inadequacy in kungfu. (Kungfu panda would squash him.) I don't know how much of a stir it created when it was first published in serial form in a Hong Kong newspaper between 1969 and 1972, but reading it now does make one fee a little uncomfortable. The "now" being a world where women rightly have the protection of their bodies from molestation and invasion, not just in law but also increasingly in fact. Last year will be remembered as the year where sexual harassment cases involving prominent men hit something of a critical mass in what has been called the Harvey Weinstein effect. That was in October, but I blogged a similar situation in my own world in June, which is almost certainly under the same umbrella. Reading this book makes me think about these cases as well as a more recent event in Gisborne.

The discomfort in reading it comes from the antics/crimes of Wei Xiaobao, the protagonist, which I'll list below. (I'll write these from memory; anyone disputing them, please make a comment and I'll double-check; definitely not an exhaustive list.) He:
- Threatened a girl (Mu Jianping) in order to touch her inappropriately
- Touched and kissed her and her older sect-sister, Fang Yi, without consent
- Touched another girl's breasts in combat (Chen Ke)
- Groped a girl in a haysack and claimed it was another man.
- Used terror to force a girl to submit to marriage.
- Stripped a girl naked and whipped her (Princess Jianning)
- Had sexual relations with the girl who had been engaged to another man.
- Temporarily paralysed seven women, stripped them naked, and raped them under a duvet in the dark, resulting in at least two pregnancies.
- Used threats in an attempt to get women to spend the night with him, only relenting when shamed.
And in the book, all though who were assaulted, felt compelled to marry him.

Pretty damning, eh, even if just fictional. Context doesn't help much but let's be fair: He was born in brothel; he was a minor by our standards when doing most of the acts above, and he was even young by the standards of China; it was the Qing Dynasty, which though having a high degree of etiquette and typically conservative attitudes towards intimacy and the relationships of the two sexes, had very few rights for women, except through their relation to other men, such as a father, husband or parentage.

Yet Wei is a hero to many Chinese (men). When the novel was given to me, my brother-in-law said that he is the model of how he'd like to be, although he was probably emphasising Wei's gift of the gab. Of course, Wei Xiaobao is a fictional character. There may be characters in the western canon who incidentally did similar. Of course, there are thousands of scenes in even recent movies, which in the light of things reportedly done to the women in the #metoo. Over my wife's shoulder, I saw in The Princess Diaries, a male character who'd secretly fancied a workmate for a long time, inspired by the female protagonist's words, went over and attempt a french kiss on this girl. Film and literature, by their fictional nature, are good to explore these things, and are reflections of the values at the time in their unexplained conventions. One of those conventions in many movies is the shy antihero grabbing the girl and forcing himself on her in what could be called "romantic", but most often these actions are in fact longed for by the other party so consent was assumed perhaps subtly given, which in the movies is usually the case. The same actions would be quite clearly upsetting if the feelings were not quite reciprocated - but that isn't usually the case in most mainstream movies.

Taking it back to real life, I believe a lot of men would have the idea that the "romantic expression" of chancing their arm and kissing or hugging a girl who they like is fine. Equally, doing something lewd while drunk for a bit of fun wouldn't be unexpected, which was the case in a recent "big NZ news" item, of the girl at the Rhythm n' Vines festival in Gisborne over the new year. Summing up: A girl covers her chest with glitter and walks bra-less and top-less through the festival. She generally receives a degree of verbal harassment (and support) and during her time there has her breast momentarily grabbed by another festival-goer, who runs away quickly. She goes over and hits him. In a later interview she says the obvious fact that can't be repeated more that she has every right to not be subjected to that physical harassment, and should have legal recourse. (And it might be said that so should he have protection against physical violence.)

To be completely honest I think everyone should have the right to wear as much or as little as they want in public, without threat of state interference, and with the right not to be subjected to physical interference from others, as the saying goes: "Your liberty ends where my nose begins." But that is my ideal and not this world. Glory to she who feels so comfortable to do so. I also believe in the free speech of those who might say horrendous things to her as she walks confidently in the East Coast heat.

But, I equally think there is a social realpolitik in this world of ideals and "rights" and I say this with more than an ounce of dread: she should have expected some response, even possible a possible violation of her person, walking around like that. If she were an activist for these freedoms, good on her and I encourage her to steel herself. If she were naive, I pity her but am glad it hasn't done her apparent damage. I wrote about something similar at the start of 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo massacre. Namely, laws and rights are what the Leviathan of the state will ensure on its part and uphold for you legally. But society, the wild, wild world, will always have its own rules that evolve and develop, in different microcosms and macrocosms. Even if the rights are given by the state, you may still need to take on a tough activist mindset to make sure you can truly enjoy those rights. A similar example might be that the Homosexual Law Reform act was passed over 30 years ago, but in New Zealand, you'll rarely see open intimacy between homosexual male or female to the same extent that heterosexual couples may exhibit in this day and age. I'd say that is because still the social norms have not changed along with the laws to allow for that equality between sexual orientations. Those brave enough to do so are rare and almost need to don an "activist mindset" being ready to cop "flak" and potentially have the risk of physical violence in some spaces.

The action of our glitter-girl could be said to be provocative but most of those who are part of the #metoo movement were merely trying to be themselves. But I'd say the norms that lead to both the "boob-grabbing" at Gisborne and the workplace harassment were pretty much the same. It's the one where no-one felt a cheeky smart-talker in Qing dynasty essentially raping girls who later became his wives can be a hero, where drunkenness excuses excesses towards women (whether it is he or she that has drunk too much), or where workplace power differences can be instrumental in getting sexual favours. Social  norms change in their own time, whether through time or through that constant evolution of minds. The conservative minds will still growl and whine that political correctness means that no-one can take a joke and the good old days have ended. But that's the groan of progress towards a better way of being for all, and not just a historically privileged subset.